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Interview with Oliver Burkeman: Why it could help you get the important things done when you accept that you will never finish your to-do list

In the winter of 2014, the British journalist Oliver Burkeman was on a bench in Prospect Park in Brooklyn and was in a minor crisis. A self-proclaimed “productivity freak”, he had spent “countless hours” using Inbox Zero and Pomodoro technology to accomplish everything on his to-do list, only to realize that morning that it was hopeless. He would never do anything.

But the moment of crisis was followed by an epiphany. Asking how to be most productive of his time was a means of avoiding tougher questions like, “Am I doing the right things at all?” Or “What do I want to do before I die?” Indeed, how Burkeman argues in his new book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, this is what many of us could do: use time management to ward off fear of mortality.

The good news, in his view, is that once you’ve accepted that this won’t happen, and all the fear that comes with it, you can take away the energy expended trying, not at any point Crossing off your to-do list Mastering time and investing in the tasks that are really important to you. “I don’t know of any other time management technique that’s half as effective as facing the things that really are,” he writes.

GQ spoke to Burkeman about life as a reformed productivity freak, the difference between good and bad procrastination and the freedom that comes with accepting our limits.

GQ: Tell me if this is a fair summary of your book: Time management is an attempt to cure an incurable disease. We’re all terminally ill from mortality, and instead of accepting that, time management is our way of saying, “Well, if I just do this treatment, maybe I’ll cure it.” But we have to let go of this feeling that there is a magic pill or some type of cure out there.

Oliver Burkeman: I think that’s exactly what it is. It reminds me of one of the quotations at the very beginning of Charlotte Joko Beck’s book: “What makes it unbearable is your misconception that it can be cured.” Then it is also said: “You think it is a problem, that you have problems in life.” They add to this insight that a great deal of what we believe to be the suffering or trouble caused by our situation is actually caused by the idea that we should find a way out of our situation – that it shouldn’t be as it is indeed universally applicable to all.

One of the things that [realization] You can see that a certain productivity technique or time management technique can be perfectly fine. I’m not saying you don’t use to-do lists. But on the contrary. The really important point here is if you are going to use any technique to escape reality or cure the human condition then it is going to run into big problems for you. But if you don’t do it that way, a number of even rather cheesy self-help and time management techniques can be perfectly useful.

So once you get that, what are some of the more effective techniques?

All the techniques that find ways to do one thing at a time. That can mean focusing on one big project in your life at a time, or even doing one specific task at a time. Obviously, you cannot say that you are going to write a book and do nothing else in your life until it is written. But you can have a big work goal to aim for, and you can deal with the fear that arises if you leave the others until this is complete.

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