Being obsessed with productivity is a recipe for sadness

Time management myths

A new year brings new possibilities.

It’s around this time of year that many people set big goals for themselves.

“This year is going to be different. I’m going to be more organised. Eat Healthier. Exercise more . . .”

Does this sound familiar?

Up until recently, this was me. I used to be obsessed with setting goals at the beginning of the new year.

In fact, I was part of an international goal setting community of productivity enthusiasts (yes, there’s such a thing). At the beginning of every year, we would meet up online and work in pomodoros (i.e. 25 minute sprints), setting goals and creating plans for the year.

I’ll admit, I loved it.

Here I was hanging out with people that were just as obsessed with effective work habits and productivity as I was! I felt like I had found my people.

But I recently stopped attending the goal setting sessions.

Quite frankly, I’d had enough.

Now I don’t want to give the impression that I’ve turned into an unmotivated sloth. It’s not like I went from being a hardcore goal setter to anti-goal setting.

These days I’m just less obsessed about being super productive. I’m still setting goals (just different ones and not as many as before). For instance, this year one of my goals is to do more fun activities, such as drawing, drumming and hiking.

Ironically, what I’ve found is in not trying so hard to power through my to-do list, I’m actually getting more meaningful stuff done. Plus, I’m a bit more relaxed about life, which is a good thing.

The downside of being too fixated on getting things done

Four Thousand Weeks

In his brilliant book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals Oliver Burkeman argues that being too focused on the future can suck the joy out of life.

I saw a lot of myself in Burkeman’s story. To give you a little background, Burkeman is a reformed productivity geek. He used to write a column for a newspaper on productivity hacks. So he has experimented with dozens of time management and productivity techniques.

But interestingly, he found very few of these time management techniques actually worked. And the more he used them, the more stressed out and unhappy he became. The book Four Thousand Weeks is Burkeman’s attempt to try and make sense of things.

Why the title Four Thousand Weeks?

Four thousand weeks is the number of weeks you get if you make it to the ripe old age of 80.

The idea behind this book is simple: life is short. So what are you going to do with your 4,000 precious weeks?

Burkeman argues many time management books perpetuate myths and false ideas about time. Here are some of the myths:

If you just work harder and more efficiently, you’ll be able to do it all.
If you manage your time well, you’ll eventually get to a perfect place in the future where you are in control of time.

Burkeman says these ideas set up a rigged game. A game in which you try to do more and more to create a better future for yourself.

In trying to create this golden future where your life runs smoothly, you never feel satisfied in the present and you always feel like you’re running behind schedule. As a result, this stops you from enjoying what you’re doing right now. And when you think about it, that’s all we really have (this present moment).

Four Thousand Weeks is packed full of great insights and practical advice. Here are seven ideas from the book that really resonated with me:

1. It’s okay to not be on top of things

It’s an illusion that you’ll be able to crank through all the things on your to-do list to finally clear the decks. Accept that there will always be more to do and your to-list will continue to grow. If you can be okay with that, life becomes a lot less overwhelming.

Burkeman suggests creating two to-do lists:

1) An open to-do list: containing everything you need to do but you’ll never get through.
2) A closed to-do list: containing a fixed number of entries (no more than 10 tasks).

When you complete a task on your closed list, only then can you add another item from your open list.

2. Limit the number of projects you work on

Burkeman suggests channelling your energy and attention on a handful of things that really matter to you. Don’t take on too many projects.

If you have lots of projects on the go, it’s too easy to not finish any of them. Why? Whenever one project gets a little uncomfortable or difficult, you switch over to another project.

All this bouncing around from one project to another means you end up with a lot of unfinished projects. Burkeman recommends focusing on one big work project at a time.

3. Get comfy with discomfort

Any project that is important to you will bring up some discomfort and/or fear. “What if I’m not able to do it?” is a thought I frequently have whenever I start a new project. Since we don’t like experiencing these uncomfortable feelings, there’s always this urge to distract ourselves with digital technologies.

Burkeman suggests we get familiar with this discomfort. If you are able to tolerate the discomfort and get started on an important piece of work, it’s like a superpower. What you’ll find is you’ll be able to complete more important and meaningful tasks, which will motivate you to keep going.

4. Stop fantasising about the future

It’s easy to fantasise about the future. I know I’m not the only person to have imagined running a marathon, publishing a best selling book and/or opening up a plant-based café.

In our minds, it’s so easy to see ourselves doing these things perfectly and with total ease and control. But what we usually find is when we attempt to do these things, reality is often out of sync with the fantasy in our heads.

You go for a run and your leg hurts. And by choosing to go for a run, you’re saying no to many other things you could potentially be doing.

Here’s my take on all of this: if given the choice between living in reality or fantasy land, choose reality every time. Sure, it’s messy. It’s imperfect. But it’s the real deal.

Since you only get one shot at this life, you might as well have a go at that thing you’ve always wanted to do (even if it makes you feel clumsy and awkward).

5. Get a hobby

Get a hobby

Not everything we do needs to bring us some financial, material or academic gain in the future. Some activities bring us pure enjoyment in the here and now.

Hiking is a perfect example of this. Burkeman says there’s no real purpose to hiking but you do it because it’s an inherently enjoyable experience.

6. Social media is ‘a machine for misusing your life’

Burkeman argues that an hour spent on social media is not just one hour wasted. That time bleeds into the rest of your day, impacting the way you feel, how you view the world and what you value.

To capture your attention, social media’s algorithms feed you the most sensational, outrageous and conspiratorial content. If you spend hours of your day on these platforms, there’s no question that this will distort your perception of reality.

What I took from this is if you want to think more clearly, get off social media.

Although Burkeman doesn’t go as far as saying this, he does suggest we make our devices as boring as possible. How do we do this?

By removing social media from them and changing the colour to grey scale. This way our devices appear more like tools than toys. It’s also makes it much harder for us to escape the discomfort (see point 3).

7. Find your JOMO

JOMO is the opposite of FOMO (Fear of missing out) – it’s the joy of missing out. Rather than feeling stressed out about not being able to go to every social event, celebrate the fact that you can’t possibly do it all nor would you want to!

The irony is the more social events you go to, the more you realise you’re missing out on. You’ll never win this game of trying to do it all, so don’t even bother trying to play. Burkeman continuously comes back to this powerful idea of choosing a few things you want to do from the menu of life.

Selecting from the menu of life

I love this idea of treating life like a menu. When you go to a restaurant you don’t feel the pressure to try every dish on offer. You just pick the dish that appeals to you in that moment and then you forget the rest.

I think this is a great approach to life. You can’t do everything but you can do a few things with your 4,000 weeks. So pick the things that interests you the most and then dive right in and enjoy!