Welcome to the fourth episode of The New Fatherhood podcast. Those who’ve been around here a while may remember an interview with author Oliver Burkeman back in 2021. (I told you some of these recordings are from the vaults.) Thanks to the wonders of modern technology (and Max’s phenomenal engineering skills) we’ve been able to take that old conversation and lovingly prepare it for your earholes. I’ve made significant updates to the essay to include reflections on the two years I’ve spent pondering the topics raised in Burkeman’s book.
David Allen’s Getting Things Done was published in 2001. I was 18 years old. A book on productivity wasn’t the most adventurous of rabbit holes to fall down as I transitioned into adulthood, and I’m thankful it wasn’t my only one. But these productivity frameworks promised so much—especially for someone who always struggled to keep tabs on everything that needed to be done, for reasons only becoming evident decades later.
Within these temples to productivity, the inevitable irony is that you’ll get engrossed with the how and blinded to the what—fixated on busywork that distracts you from doing the deep, meaningful work—and then you’re rearranging deck chairs on your personal Titanic. So you focus on meta-work: A new set of email filters that might help you get to Inbox Zero faster; a fresh notebook—one of the expensive ones that will finally kickstart a daily journalling habit; the all-to-regular migration of your to-do list to the hot new app, foolishly hoping it might fix whatever isn’t working.
In 2021, writer Oliver Burkeman released Four Thousand Weeks. Looking back on the last two years—and the number of people I’ve recommended to read it since—it shifted my perspective on productivity in the most significant way since Allen’s book two decades earlier. This book’s central premise—that we only have four thousand weeks on this earth, and that you’re never going to get it all done, no matter how hard you try—implored us to make the best use of our time here. It advocated not for doing more, but for doing better. To accept that every box on your list isn’t going to get ticked, and only by letting go of some can you grab hold of the ones that matter most.
The cult of Getting Things Done—a quasi-religion of which I am still a card-carrying member, even though I no longer attend the weekly sermons—is an ouroboros, the mythical serpent efficiently eating its own tail for eternity. We all know the saying: “If you want anything done, ask someone busy to do it.” The more boxes you tick, the more will pop up in their place, like a modern-day Whac-A-Mole. Or, as Burkeman offered in the book:
“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.”
My fear going into this work—after years spent consuming books, blogs and podcasts on the 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.”
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 blog post? 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 to 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 years 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 was eager to talk to him because I wanted to know if fatherhood had uprooted any deeply held beliefs around productivity. He told me 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 parenting throughout the book—his son was born in 2016, and he nods to the arrival in the acknowledgements:
“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 led 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 I found that 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 three now; things haven't gotten any easier!?”
We discussed what “success” means as a parent, and Burkeman cautioned on ensuring you define it on your own terms:
“We tend to over-focus on instrumentalising 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 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 an 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 potential joys:
“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 of self-worth is suddenly more at stake when other people are depending on it.”
Since starting this newsletter, I’ve become more adept at noticing my own emotions as a parent—seeing what arises during a testing moment with my kids before reflecting on it—like my need for 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. To find the necessary space to ask important questions. What is this negative feeling? Why is it here right now? Am I making bad decisions because of it? Can I “be” with it? And if not, what can I do about it?
When our programming—whether from our childhood, our careers, or whatever we spend our waking hours pondering—makes us uncomfortable, it’s essential to 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:
“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 taxing jobs you can undertake. It’s harder than being a parent, for my money. And—frustratingly—it is the biggest barrier between the parent you are today and the one you want to be 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 you and your family—takes time, effort, and a truckload of commitment. Burkeman has, like me, spent 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 was a book that came into my life at the right time. It had a meaningful impact on the way I see the world. Most writing in this space is tone-deaf to the problems we face as parents: impossible-to-heed advice like: “Wake up at 5 am every day, then work out for an hour,” or belittling us for not “being more hustle,” when we haven’t had a good nights sleep in months, and when the only hustle we’re capable of is hustling the kids to bed before hustling onto the couch with the remote and something savoury.
This book won’t single-handedly behead the twin-headed behemoths of capitalism and consumerism. That’s a tall order for any book: the Western world will never be able to silence the internal voice calling for more—seeing more, doing more, working more, earning more, getting every single item checked off the eternally growing list. But for those who may have spent the last few years tuned into a different monologue—one that’s been slowly intensifying, asking, “Could things be different?”
Burkeman’s book offers a tempting view into that new world. It has the power to change us, one person at a time—something I’ve witnessed first-hand.
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.”
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