On Productivity & Parenting: A Discussion with Oliver Burkeman
And kicking off a regular Book Club for dads
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Getting Things Done was published in 2001. I was 18 years old.
It wasn’t the most adventurous of rabbit holes to fall down at the onset of adulthood. I’m thankful it wasn’t my only one. But the slippery slope of productivity promised so much. David Allen’s new world order kickstarted a 21 year obsession with getting things done: religiously following the gospel according to Merlin Mann and his 43 Folders; carrying a neon hipster PDA in an attempt to CAPTURE ALL THE INPUTS; devouring every “flavour of the month” book—eating the frogs, building my grit, checking the lists, pursuing the essential.
But, amongst the bluster, the irony was that I became engrossed by the how, and blind to the what—fixated on busywork to distract me from actually doing things. A new set of email filters that might help me get to Inbox Zero quicker. A pastel-coloured journal, with an all-new set of prompts, that would surely kickstart a daily writing habit, once and for all. The annual migration of my to-do list to yet another new app, foolishly hoping this might fix whatever wasn’t working.
A fellow wanderer on this path was Oliver Burkeman. A self-confessed “productivity geek”, his weekly excursions in the Guardian, promising that “this column will change your life”, uncovered on the same ephemera I encountered on my own journey. So it seemed right for him to return to this conversation with his latest work: “Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals.”
My fear—after so many books, blogs and podcasts on this topic—was that there was nowhere left for this conversation to go. Within a few pages, I was glad to be proven wrong:
“Productivity is a trap. Becoming more efficient just makes you more rushed, and trying to clear the decks simply makes them fill up again faster. Nobody in the history of humanity has ever achieved “work-life balance,” whatever that might be, and you certainly won’t get there by copying the “six things successful people do before 7:00 a.m.”
Getting Things Done? A fallacy. The more you did, the more you’d have to do. It’s no secret that “if you want anything done, ask someone busy to do it.”
“As the American anthropologist Edward T. Hall once pointed out, time feels like an unstoppable conveyor belt, bringing us new tasks as fast as we can dispatch the old ones; and becoming “more productive” just seems to cause the belt to speed up.”
I devoured the book in two sittings, a short circuit-breaker over Christmas. It’s wonderful. Those books that you think could have been a blogpost? You’ll be glad this one isn’t. And bring a highlighter. It’s tightly packed into 288 pages, delivered in digestible and actionable chunks. Any parent should be able get through it, even those who regularly tell me they “haven’t managed to finish a book for a while.”
My eBook is littered with annotations, and I’ve had insightful nuggets pop back into my head in the weeks since finishing it. Paired with a daily meditation habit, it has contributed towards what Burkeman calls a “second order change” in my own relationship with productivity: “Not an incremental improvement, but a change in perspective that reframes everything.”
The book weaves together thoughts on mindfulness, philosophy, the nature of distraction, and the inherent finitude of life:
“How would you spend your days differently if you didn’t care so much about seeing your actions reach fruition? [...] There is a sense in which all work—including the work of parenting—has this quality of not being completable within our own lifetimes.”
I got in touch with Burkeman last year to ask him if **productivity and parenthood can peacefully co-exist. Most writing in this space is tone-deaf to the problems we parents face as parents: useless advice to “wake up at 5am everyday, work out and drink a litre of water”, or belittling us for not “being more hustle” when we haven’t had a good nights sleep in months, and the only hustle we’re capable is hustling ourselves onto the couch with a glass of wine and something savoury.
He told me—as a fellow father—he’d be down to chat.
I wanted to know if fatherhood had uprooted any deeply held beliefs around productivity. Becoming a father had provided “such a good lens for understanding all sorts of things about time—things I knew intellectually, but didn't feel in an experiential way before becoming a parent.” Burkeman weaves reflections on becoming a parent throughout the book—his son was born in 2016, and he nods to the arrival in the acknowledgments:
“Our son, Rowan, arrived not long after work on [the book] began. It would be a mischaracterisation (let’s put it that way) to suggest that this development helped speed the book toward completion, but the transformative experience of getting to know him is certainly reflected in these pages.”
He told me how a new delivery date lead to the shifting of an older one:
“I sold the contract for this book when I was not a parent. And then suddenly there's no time to write it! So I had to sign a million extensions, and go begging to my editors and publishers. They were all very understanding, and what I found is people are incredibly understanding—for two years. Then it all runs out, and they're like “oh we need this book” and I tell them “he’s 3 now, things haven't gotten any easier!?”
We discussed thoughts on what “success” means as a parent, and Burkeman cautioned on ensuring you define it on your own terms:
“We tend to over-focus on instrumentalizing time, and trying to use time well can become so all-encompassing that we're judging the value of life exclusively by future accomplishments, future profits or future benefits. This is totally universal, but in the context of parenting—drawing partly on a piece Adam Gopnik wrote for The New Yorker—is the idea of how it's very easy as a parent to fall into this society-reinforced notion that the point of parenting is to like produce successful older kids and adults, and that the point of childhood is to become a successful adult. And that drains childhood, and the experience of being the parent, to a kind of intrinsic benefit.”
Burkeman wrote in 2018 about “The diabolical genius of the baby advice industry” and continues to question the deluge of “advice” that is dumped onto parents, and how it can rob us of joy that’s there to be experienced:
“I remember when our son was born, a lot of the advice that you get from these experts is that it’s very bad to train your child to fall asleep on you, or to need you in the bed. But there's no consideration of whether the experience of falling asleep together—for you, and the child—has any value at all. That, in the moment, it could be a good way to spend some months of your life.”
But he isn’t immune to feelings of inadequacy brought on by online momfluencers:
“I am susceptible to finding YouTube videos made by terrifyingly accomplished American moms: with the best system of storage for their craft supplies, and an unlimited list of exciting ideas for a rainy Sunday afternoon. That’s when I do find myself prone to that “oh goodness we should have a setup like that... We should have a limitless number of supplies, including food colourings, and perfect labels, and apparently children who are willing to put things back in the right drawers.” And so that's been interesting to me, because it obviously shows that your sense self worth is suddenly more at stake when other people are depending on it.”
Since starting this newsletter I’ve spent more time noticing my own emotions as a parent—seeing what’s arising in a testing moment with my kids, and spending some time reflecting on it, like my own feelings around needing a tidy, toy-free space. It felt good to see Burkeman doing the same. It’s a conscious approach that can help in all aspects of life, but after becoming a father it’s your best tool to prevent passing on what was unwittingly passed on to you. What is this negative feeling? Why is it here, right now? Am I making bad decisions because of it? Is it welcome? And if not, what can I do about it?
When our programming—whether from our childhood, our careers, or whatever we’ve spent the last 20 years thinking about—makes us uncomfortable it’s important to ask the right questions, and rethink the guardrails we mistakenly believe are protecting us. As someone who “possess[es] the productivity geek’s natural inclination toward control-freakery”, Burkeman had thoughts for fellow parents who need to plan everything in advance:
“The problem is not planning. The problem is what you take plans to be. In the book I quote Joseph Goldstein: “we forget that a plan is just a thought.” It’s how you'd like the future to unfold. But the thing we try to do with planning is to reach out into the future from the present, and control it, and know that it's going to turn out a certain way. And that's where we get into trouble, because we don't have that control, and we're constantly experiencing this anxious gear crunching between reality and expectation.”
Rewiring your brain is one of the most difficult jobs you can undertake. It’s harder than being a parent, for my money. And it has the potential to make you a better one for your kids. Learning to let go of a trait you hold as a core tenet of your personality, after realising it no longer serves you, and might be actively harming your family? It takes time, effort, and a boatload of commitment. Burkeman has, like me, spent twenty years consuming (and occasionally serving) a media diet of productivity propaganda. But fatherhood has a unique way of enforcing a fresh perspective, especially when you see your own foibles surface in those you love the most:
“Those who've had moderately successful careers know this experience: you're good at coming up with a plan and implementing it, that's not a problem. The problem is letting go of that—to be more present, not to be interpreting every kind of adorable thing that your newborn baby does through the lens of meeting a developmental milestone. Anxiety in childhood is huge, and getting worse. And I look at my son, who's almost five, and has already adopted my vague tendencies towards compulsive planning—wanting to know what's happening in the next few hours, wanting to follow rules when it comes to time. He's not immune from it.”
“Four Thousand Weeks” is the right book, at the right time. It isn’t going to behead the twin-headed behemoths of capitalism and consumerism: for some, the internal voice calling for more—seeing more, doing more, working more, earning more, getting every single item checked off the list—is impossible to silence.
But for those who may have spent the last few years tuned into a different monologue, one that’s been slowly intensifying, asking if things could be different, or if doing less might be the answer?
This book offers a tempting view into that new world.
It’s ready for you. If you’re ready for it.
“None of us can single-handedly overthrow a society dedicated to limitless productivity, distraction, and speed. But right here, right now, you can stop buying into the delusion that any of that is ever going to bring satisfaction.”
Thanks to Oliver Burkeman for taking the time to talk to me last November. One topic we discussed was our shared love of OnBeing, and he told me it was a “career ambition of his” to be featured on the podcast. So I was delighted to see his name appear as the guest on the latest episode. I’ll be listening to it once I get this issue sent out, and enviously admiring wherever Krista Tippett takes their conversation.
If it’s not already clear from the above: you should read this book. It is absolutely worth your time. If you’re the type of person who’d be more inclined to do so if there were others to talk about it with, there’s a few of us in the community planning to get stuck in over the next few weeks. We’ll be sharing our thoughts in the app, I’ll be digging out some observations I didn’t have space to include here, and we’ll get together one morning (EST) / afternoon (GMT) in early February to talk about it.
If that’s the type of thing you’re into, join the inaugural TNF Book Club. We’ll also be getting together as a group to talk dad stuff on Thursday, if you’d like to say hello to some like-minded folks. Details can be found here.
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In the book Burkeman refers to his Guardian work as ”a weekly newspaper column on productivity, which gave me an excuse to experiment ... I was like an alcoholic conveniently employed as a wine expert.”