The Big Happiness Interview: How to make the most of your 4,000 weeks

Don’t tell anyone but this time last year, I had over 21 thousand unopened emails in my inbox. I was working in a busy job, but the daily onslaught of incoming emails meant I never did find the time to clear the backlog.

At the magazine I worked for, I hired journalist Oliver Burkeman, self-confessed ‘paid up productivity geek’ and best-selling author of The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking to write a monthly column for us in the hope he would find us the latest life hacks which would magically solve all my email problems and teach our readers and I how to be less busy and more calm.

I loved his columns, but I love his new best-selling book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals more. It’s profound, life-changing and offers a rather simple solution to the madness.

In his book, Oliver goes deep and gets us to focus on the ultimate time management problem: the question of how best use our ridiculously brief time on the planet.

‘Once you stop investing in the idea that you might one day achieve peace of mind by getting everything done, it becomes easier to find peace of mind in the present, in the midst of overwhelming demands, because you’re no longer making your peace of mind dependent on dealing with all the demands,’ he says.

Here Metro.co.uk talks to Oliver about how to make your 4,000 weeks on this planet count.

How can we stop feeling so busy?

The trick is to stop believing you’ll ever solve the challenge of busyness by cramming more in – because that just makes matters worse.

But then how do you deal with all the demands?

You don’t. There’s always going to be too much to do. The only route to psychological freedom is to let go of the limit-denying fantasy of getting it all done and instead to focus on doing a few things that count.

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But how do you decide what few things count?! There are so many!

Yes, to be alive on the planet today is to be haunted by the feeling of ‘too much to do’, whether or not you lead a busy life in any conventional sense.

It’s ‘existential overwhelm’ – the modern world provides an inexhaustible supply of things that seem worth doing and so there arises an inevitable and unbridgeable gap between what you’d ideally like to do and what you can actually do.

So, a bucket list is not a good idea?

Stuffing your life full of pleasurable activities so often proves less satisfying than you’d expect. It’s an attempt to devour the experiences the world has to offer, to feel like you’ve truly lived – but the world has an effectively infinite number of experiences to offer, so getting a handful of them under your belt brings you no closer to a sense of having feasted on life’s possibilities.

To be alive on the planet today is to be haunted by the feeling of ‘too much to do’.

Instead, you find yourself back into the efficiency trap. The more wonderful experiences you succeed in having, the more additional wonderful feelings you start to feel you could have or ought to have on top of all of those you’ve already had – with the result that the feeling of existential overwhelm gets worse.

The internet makes this all much more agonising because it promises to help you make better use of your time while simultaneously exposing you to vastly more potential uses of your time – so the very tool you’re using to get the most of life makes you feel as though you’re missing out on even more of it.

So how do we get more out of life?

In reality your time is finite and doing anything requires sacrifice – the sacrifice of all the other things you could have been doing with that stretch of time.

If you never stop to ask yourself if the sacrifice is worth it, your days will automatically begin to fill not just with more things but more trivial or tedious things, because they’ve never had to clear the hurdle of being judged more important than something else.

So, what’s the answer?

It’s creating what I call an anti-skill – not trying to make yourself more efficient but to learn to stay with the anxiety of feeling overwhelmed, of not being on top of everything, without automatically responding by trying to fit more in.

The same goes for existential overwhelm – resist the urge to consume more and more experiences.

Instead try to get your head around the fact that you’re guaranteed to miss out on almost every experience the world has to offer, and instead focus on fully enjoying the tiny slice of experiences you do actually have time for – and then you become freer to choose in each moment on what counts the most. And mostly that means not fitting more in but giving things up. It’s been called JOMO.

JOMO?

The Joy of Missing Out. It’s the positive commitment to spend a given portion of time doing this instead of that because this is what counts the most right now.

Ok, so let’s say you figure what’s important to you, but you still find yourself procrastinating. How do stop procrastinating?

Pay yourself first. Focus on the project that you want to do and do it every day. There is no moment in the future when you’ll magically be done with everything and have loads of free time.

Another principle is to limit your work in progress. Perhaps one way to resist the truth about your finite time is initiate a large number of projects at once; that way you get to feel as though you’re keeping plenty of irons in the fire and making progress on all fronts. Instead, you usually make no progress on all fronts. So, stick to just three projects at one time.

Finally, resist the allure of middling priorities. This is attributed to Warren Buffet – make a list of 25 things you want to do with your life and then arrange them in order but only organise your time around the top five and forget the rest. Because it’s the moderately appealing ones – the fairly interesting job, the semi-enjoyable friendship – on which a finite life can come to grief. Focus carefully on what gets your attention.

There is no moment in the future when you’ll magically be done with everything and have loads of free time.

But there is so much that tries to grab our attention…

That’s why it’s so important to become more conscious about what you choose to put your attention on because your attention IS your life. Your experience of being alive consists of nothing other than the sum of everything to which you pay attention.

So, when you pay attention to something you don’t especially value, it’s not an exaggeration to say that you’re paying with your life. The finest meal at a Michelin starred restaurant might as well be a plate of instant noodles if your mind is elsewhere; and a friendship to which you never actually give a moment’s thought is a friendship in name only. ‘Attention is the beginning of devotion’ writes Mary Oliver. So true.

You write that we can control our attention but not time or the future.

Yes. The assumption that time is something we can possess, or control is the unspoken premise of almost all our thinking about the future, our planning and goalsetting and worrying.

So, a surprisingly effective antidote to anxiety can be to simply realise that this demand for reassurance from the future will never be satisfied no matter how you plan or fret or how much extra time you leave for the airport.

You can’t know that things will turn out all right. The struggle for certainty is an intrinsically a hopeless one – which means you have permission to stop engaging in it. The future just isn’t the sort of thing you can order around like that.

Five questions to make the most of your time

Where in your life or your work are you currently pursuing comfort, when what’s called for is a little discomfort?

Pursuing life projects that matter to you will make you uncomfortable and procrastination, distraction, commitment-phobia, taking on too many projects at once are all ways of trying to maintain the illusion that you’re in charge of things.

Therapist and author James Hollis recommends asking of every significant decision in life: does this choice diminish me or enlarge me?

Choose uncomfortable enlargement over comfortable diminishment whenever you can.

Are you holding yourself to and judging yourself by standards of productivity and performance that are impossible to meet?

The truth is that it’s impossible to become so efficient and organised that you could respond to a limitless number of incoming demands.

In what ways have you got to accept the fact that you are who you are, not the person you think you ought to be?

A closely related way to postpone the confrontation with finitude – with the anxiety-inducing truth that this is it – is to treat your present-day life as part of a journey towards becoming the kind of person you ought to become in the eyes of society, a religion or your parents, whether or not they’re still alive.

Once you no longer feel the stifling pressure to become a particular kind of person, you can confront the personality, the strengths and weaknesses, the talents and enthusiasm you find yourself with, here and now and follow where they lead.

In which areas of life are you still holding back until you feel like you know what you’re doing?

It’s alarming to face the prospect that you might never truly feel as though you know what you’re doing, in work, marriage, parenting or anything else.

But it’s liberating too.

If the feeling of total authority is never going to arrive, you might as well not wait any longer to put bold plans into practice and stop erring on the side of caution.

How would you spend your days differently if you didn’t care so much about seeing your actions reach fruition?

What acts of generosity or care for the world, what ambitious schemes or investments in the distance future – might be meaningful to undertake today, if you could come to terms without never seeing the results?

Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals (Bodley Head (£16.99) is out now.

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