On this week’s episode of Working, June Thomas spoke with author Oliver Burkeman about his new book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. They discussed the flaws in obsessive approaches to productivity, the Zettelkasten approach to notetaking, and his advice for embracing the finite nature of our lives. This partial transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
June Thomas: I think there’s often a tendency to idealize the pre-industrial lifestyle. In medieval times, people weren’t slaves to the clock—they didn’t even have a clock. They could really get deep work done. But that doesn’t mean that their lives were better than ours. I mean, they didn’t even have YouTube! So where do you stand on the idyllic, medieval times trope?
Oliver Burkeman: I try to be quite careful about this because I do go into some raptures about what was probably the common experience of time in the medieval period. But I do try to be very clear, I think there’s reason to believe that most people genuinely didn’t have time-related problems—and were not haunted by time, or felt attacked by time in the way that we do, or felt in a desperate struggle with time—but they had a lot of other worse problems. What I’m keen to try to do in my book is just to show or remind people that the way we think about time today, as this resource that has to be maximized, or that we are guilty of wasting, or that we have to find ways to save, that is a historically contingent way of thinking about time.
There is this other way, which is broadly what anthropologists call task orientation, where you’re just living in the flow of time. Your schedule is given by the tasks of your life. You’re not always trying to line your activities up against an abstract yard stick, or a timeline, or a calendar, or a clock, or something like that. You’re just fully in the time that you have. I think that was true in those times, and I think it is true for all of us at certain points in life. I think we all have certain experiences of being completely in the flow of our lives, because it tends to be in context where it would be completely futile to try to manage time, to try to arrange tasks according to a timetable.
One example I often think of is having a newborn baby. You have to do the feeding, and the diaper changing, and the waking up when that happens, and it’s ridiculous to think, at least for the first few months, that you can put that on a separate schedule. I think people have that experience quite often when they’re in a crisis, or they’re helping a friend going through a crisis. There’s often that feeling that you’re doing what you need to be doing right now, which is helping this person, and it just is what it is. It’s obviously the number one priority, and this idea that you might look at the various things on your plate and decide which one was most important and how many hours you’re going to give to this and to that, it just all seems to fall away in that moment. I think there’s something to be said for the idea that we could recover a bit of that total abandonment to time in more mundane settings.
You do, very often, call on the wisdom of monks. Monks are very concerned with the clock. Their timetable is tight, but they are also kind of cosplaying medieval peasant life, aren’t they? That’s a very radical choice, but it is a choice to surrender in a certain way to time, and also what you’re going to do with you time.
This is such a fascinating point because, on the one hand, they are probably the culprits in terms of inventing modern mechanical clocks and causing us all to be in this constant struggle with time, but the monastic hours, especially in the main Benedictine tradition, are this extraordinary container that leads to a very peaceful relationship with time. There’s an anecdote about Joan Chittister, who’s a quite widely published author as well as a nun, asking her incoming [novitiate] to answer the question, “Why do we pray?” and getting all these different answers to do with being overpowered by divine love and all the rest of it, and telling them, “No, we pray because the bell rings. You pray because the bell rings, and that’s time for praying.”