Become a Writer Today

How Writers and Creatives Can Master Productivity with Oliver Burkeman

January 30, 2023 Bryan Collins Season 2
Become a Writer Today
How Writers and Creatives Can Master Productivity with Oliver Burkeman
Show Notes Transcript

One of the most impactful books I've read about productivity and time management is the best seller, Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman. The book proposes that the average human lifespan is just 4,000 weeks long, which is a blip in the grand scheme of things.

Oliver also writes about how we're just 35 lifetimes separated from the ancient Egyptians.

He uses these types of numbers to put in a framework what it means to try and get more things done and why this is a fool's errand.

I'm a former productivity nerd. I still like testing the latest productivity software and dipping in and out of the occasional book about productivity. I even wrote a column for Forbes several years ago, all about this exact topic.

These days, I think less about productivity and getting more done than I think about the right things or creative projects to work on.

In this book, Oliver proposes many different questions and ways that all types of people — including creatives and writers — can figure out what they want to work on and what they should just let slip.

It's a thought-provoking book if you've ever wondered how you're spending your time or if you've been obsessed with productivity, efficiency, and getting things done.

It's also a fantastically written non-fiction book that resonates with people from all industries.

In this episode, we discuss:

  • Whether you should commit to a writing or research system
  • The Zettelkasten method
  • Oliver's approach to research
  • Using a newsletter to interact with your audience
  • Working as a columnist for a busy newspaper
  • Olivers next project


Oliver's Website

What Is The Best Zettelkasten Software?

11 Creative Rules For Creator Economy Workers

Support the show

If you enjoyed the show please leave a review on Apple. And if you have any questions you can find me on Twitter @BryanJCollins

Thanks for listening!

Oliver: If you actually zoom out enough, everything is time management from one perspective. The idea that time management should just be this nerdy little field for a certain kind of person who's interested in it seems kind of wrong. Because we have this finite amount of time on the planet. Building the most meaningful and fulfilling and worthwhile life we can is, by definition, a question of time management.


Welcome to the Become a Writer Today Podcast with Bryan Collins. Here, you’ll find practical advice and interviews for all kinds of writers.

Bryan: Life is short. So, what does this mean for your writing and your creative career? Hi there. My name is Bryan Collins. Welcome to the Become a Writer Today Podcast. Perhaps one of the most impactful books that I've read about productivity and time management is the best seller Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman. The Book proposes the idea that the average human lifespan is just 4,000 weeks long, which is basically a blip in the grand scheme of things. He also writes about how we're just 35 lifetimes separated from the ancient Egyptians. He uses these types of numbers to put in framework what it means to try and get more things done, and why this is a fool's errand.

I'm a former productivity nerd. I still like testing the latest productivity software. I like to dip in and out of the occasional book about productivity. I even wrote a column for Forbes several years ago, all about this exact topic. These days, I don't think so much about productivity and getting more done, as I do think about what are the right things or creative projects to work on.

In this particular book, Oliver proposes lots of different questions and ways that all types of people — including creatives and writers — can figure out what they want to work on and what they should just let slip or forget about. It's a really thought-provoking book if you've ever wondered about how you're spending your time, or if you've ever obsessed about productivity and efficiency and getting things done. It's also just a fantastically written nonfiction book that is resonated with people from all types of industries, including creatives and writers. So, I was delighted when I got a chance to catch up with Oliver.

One of my key takeaways from this week's interview with Oliver is how he doesn't attach himself too rigidly to a specific book writing or research system. I did press him on it a little bit, and he reveals he uses the Zettelkasten method, but only a loose form of it. He talks about his approach to research and writing books like this one. Oliver also talks about how he uses his personal newsletter to interact with his audience. He explains what it's like to run a popular personal newsletter versus working as a columnist for a busy newspaper like The Guardian.

Years ago, it was my dream to work as a columnist for a national prominent newspaper like The Guardian. At first, I was disappointed when this didn't really work out. Even later, when I got an opportunity to work as a columnist for Forbes, I found that it didn't quite measure up to my idea of what it would mean, or what this type of writing career would look like. These days, I much prefer being in charge of my own writing through self-publishing, and also through running a newsletter. So, I was interested to hear Oliver's take on the merits of running a personal newsletter versus working as a columnist. Oliver also talks about how he's working on an idea for his next book.

I hope you enjoy this week's interview with him. If you do, please consider leaving a short review on the iTunes Store, or just simply hit the star button. Because your reviews and ratings do really help more people find the Become a Writer Today Podcast, which in turn helps me grow the show and invest in it. Also, consider sharing the show with another friend or somebody who enjoyed this week's interview with Oliver. You could share it on Overcast, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you're listening. Of course, if you have questions or suggestions, I'm on Twitter @bryanjcolllins.


Bryan: Welcome to the show, Oliver.

Oliver: Thanks very much for inviting me.

Bryan: I'm a former productivity geek. I still love testing software and trying out new systems. So, I guess I've been doing it all wrong. I actually used to write about productivity as well, years ago, which I believe you used to, as well.

Oliver: Yeah, I think maybe you agree with this. I don't know. Maybe you disagree. Something happens that's very useful if you get to write about productivity and explore all these systems, which is like you get disillusioned in a very useful way. Because you lose faith in the idea that next time, you're going to discover the method that's going to change your life forever. That's actually a very useful realization to go through. I think that there isn't one silver bullet productivity technique out there.

Bryan: I also discovered one of the ideas inside of the book, which is the better you get at getting things off your to-do list, the more things that will arrive.

Oliver: Right. I call this the efficiency trap. But it's an old point in lots of different domains of life, that if you just make a system more efficient — that could be your personal system for getting things done — all else being equal, what's going to happen is that more and more inputs are going to flood into the system. They're also going to be lower quality inputs for reasons we can talk about, if you like.

So, the upshot of that is, if all you do is optimize and get more and more efficient at processing tasks, you'll be busier and busier with less important stuff than if you had emails. The classic example, right? If you get really good at answering email very fast, you'll just get a lot more email.

Bryan: Yeah, inbox zero doesn't really work. So, you've written three books. Correct me if I'm wrong.

Oliver: The first one was a collection of columns. I did write it, but it was already there when it came time to put it out as a book.

Bryan: So, have you worked as a journalist and columnist throughout your career?

Oliver: Pretty much, I always wanted to be a journalist. So, as soon as I was out of college, I was trying to get work in journalism. Not all of it was writing. Some of it was sub-editing and research and do some other things. But then I wrote this column for The Guardian for 12, 14 years, I think, about self-help, happiness, productivity, philosophy, all that stuff. So, that was a real discipline, producing that on a weekly schedule.

Bryan: A good habit for writers. Do you still write columns after the success of your book?

Oliver: I stopped doing that column just a little bit before this book came out, but I do still do freelance journalism. I write twice monthly email newsletter, which in some ways is a column, I suppose.

Bryan: Yes, certainly it is. I enjoyed one of your articles, which I'm going to ask you about in a moment. Productivity — there's a lot of books about productivity. How did you decide to take on a topic that's been covered ad nauseam and on time management?

Oliver: Well, I have two answers to that. One is, I'm always just writing about the things that grabbed me. I think that topics grab us often because we struggle with them, not because we're really good at them. In a way, I had spent many years chasing this mirage of the perfect system that was going to make me feel completely in control of my life and able to cope with all the demands being made of me, and feel completely calm about it. So, I was deeply invested in this topic to begin with.

But then the other thing, I would say — and I tried to make this argument in the book — is if you actually zoom out enough, everything is time management from one perspective. The idea that time management should just be this nerdy little field for a certain kind of person who's interested in it seems kind of wrong. Because we have this finite amount of time on the planet. Building the most meaningful and fulfilling and worthwhile life we can is, by definition, a question of time management. So, I slightly wanted to explode the definition of that term as well.

Bryan: When I read your article on your website on writing — excuse me if I'll mangle the metaphor. You were saying that the topics inside Four Thousand Weeks, you wrote them from the bottom up. You're looking for the right washing line to hang the ideas on, so to speak. So, I guess it sounds like you've tested your ideas for the book in advance or written about them previously.

Oliver: That's true. I wasn't really conscious of doing that. But of course, writing a column every week will give you a sense of what grabs people and what doesn't. Then sending out an email newsletter, I mean, goodness me. That's extraordinary in terms of the level of feedback and engagement you will get, and the degree to which you can tell from that — which ideas are landing with people, but also implications of ideas that you hadn't seen yet.

I think the main point about building from the bottom up is just that, for me, coming up with ideas for books, and even just ideas for individual columns, has always been a matter. Not of going hunting for some big idea that I hadn't thought of, and then unpacking it, but rather just looking at what it is that seems to be really obsessing me at the moment, what topics keep coming up in conversations that I keep having with people, and trying to find what is the umbrella that unifies those things. What's the washing line? Whatever metaphor you want to use.

For a book, that's especially true. It's a question of looking at all the stuff that I've written recently, that I've been reading that has been compelling my attention, and just trying to figure out, what are these all about? What gives them some coherence? So, I come up with, I guess, to my book ideas rather than from the top down.

Bryan: When you're reading a book about a particular topic, or you come across some interesting research, do you have a particular process for writing down your notes and thoughts on this? Do you have a system?

Oliver: I sort of do. It's in constant evolution. Now, on the one hand, I think that's an important point about systems and productivity. You should just resign yourself to the fact that it's always going to be a work in progress, and not be worried about it not being finished. But on the other hand, it means that answering a question like that is very much — also, it might be different a week from now.

I just highlight books as I read them when they're paper books, even though that's famously a bad way of retaining them. Then I go through those highlights on a sporadic basis. I work in Obsidian at the moment anyway, the note taking app, to make a note of my reactions to those chunks.

Then I do that also with articles. I'm always trying to make a note that puts that information to use in some way, even if it's just like, oh, it'd be really interesting to write an article on it, as opposed to just summarizing. I did at university, that sort of thing where you're trying to just capture the everything that's in a source. I've, long ago, given up trying to do that. I was really taken by the whole resurgence of the idea of the Zettelkasten, which I know you know what that is.

Bryan: I'm a huge fan of the Zettelkasten method. It's great for organizing ideas.

Oliver: So, I think what I would say — pushback on this, by all means — I'm a huge fan of it in principle. Then I have never found a way to implement that. That isn't too heavy on the overheads in terms of the time it takes to really follow the rules. So, I guess what I have ended up with is a very laid back, distant cousin of the Zettelkasten method, which is really just a question of putting a whole bunch of notes into a big heap and sometimes connecting them a bit. Probably not turning fleeting notes into permanent notes and all those stages of it, but just trying to come at other people's writing with a question of, okay, what does this connect to in my mind? What could this be useful for, rather than just trying to summarize people's books and articles, I suppose. I find that that disorder is maintained.

Bryan: That's similar to what I do, where I thought that works quite well.

Oliver: I find that that looseness and disorder in the system is actually very helpful. I think it's very good for creativity, to not fully categorize everything and to not try to pin it all down in too rigorous away. It makes it much more appealing to me to come back to a collection of notes if they're in a bit of a mess, and work through them and find something that would be good to use as a starting point for writing. Actually, part of my personality wants to categorize it all within an inch of its life. But it's not a good part of my personality.

Bryan: Did it take long for you to write Four Thousand Weeks? I get the sense it was written during the lockdown. So, I'm wondering how long the actual process took.

Oliver: Yeah, the last third was written in lockdown. It was hugely uneven. I sold the proposal for that book, I think, six years before it was published. Then almost immediately, it became apparent. Two years of my life were completely or extremely little work was done, except my basic day job for a period.

Then getting back into it, it took a lot of upfront thinking. I spent a lot of days wandering around Prospect Park in Brooklyn, feeling like I probably wasn't doing anything. But on some level, I was. Then when it came to the actual writing of it, it was surprisingly fast.

It often goes that way with me. I wrote a book proposal. On some level, I knew what the book was about. But then, I had to really work out what it was about. I think it was more painful than it needed to be. I didn't have that notes approach or note taking in place back then, that I've just discussed here. So, I think I would have come to some of the conclusions that I needed to come to a bit faster than I ended up doing.

Bryan: One section in the book that resonated with me spoke about how you should accept that you won't do a great job at everything. It's okay to accept if something is undone, or unfinished, or not to the quality that you want it to be. How can a creator or how can a writer take that advice on board? If, for example, they're not happy with the quality of their blog posts, or articles, or book, how should I decide what to let go versus what to keep pushing?

Oliver: Well, I think it starts with understanding that this is just how things are. It's not a question of me saying, why don't you fail to excel in every single area of life? It's like, you are not going to do that. Because the standards that we are capable of internalizing, the ambitions that we are capable of having, the pressures that we are capable of feeling from the wider world, they are all infinite. And yet the time that we have is all very strictly finite. Sacrifices are being made. It's just a question of making the wisest ones that you can.

In the context of creating things, I think I'm a huge believer in the idea that creative work is never finished, only abandoned. If you're chasing the moment when it feels like the book, or the article, or the poster is perfectly completed, that's never going to happen. It's for quite a deep philosophical reason, in a sense, which is the standard in your mind of perfection there is not something that belongs to the material world. It's not something that you're ever going to reach. If you do reach it, what's going to happen is that your internal standard is just going to leap ahead to a new level of perfection that you have yet to reach.

One of the really interesting things for me, as a writer, about these kinds of topics has been that it's not even desirable anyway. That actually, a certain amount sort of roughness around the edges, a certain sense that you're just figuring this out for yourself that you haven't come up with an absolutely perfect, shiny version of it actually helps you connect to other people. They find that relatable. You can connect to other people's thinking and other people where they're at more effectively if you're just leaving a few loose ends.

So, I think it's partly to do with press publish even if you don't feel ready. Because you will probably never feel ready. It might also be things like whole domains of your life or your business that you're just going to do the minimum about for now. Because you're going to focus all your efforts on one or two others. When you have kids, and you're trying to do any job, certainly — I found this as a writer — it's really useful to accept in advance that your house is not going to be incredibly tidy, for example. Because then, you don't fail to keep it tidy. It's like you didn't try in the first place. You can pour your energy into the things that matter, like being with your kid and writing stuff.

Bryan: I accept that I'm never going to be great at DIY. There's always going to be something broken in the house.

Oliver: Yeah, it's a good example.

Bryan: Did you start your newsletter before or after the book?

Oliver: I started it before the book was published. I started writing it properly after the book was basically complete.

Bryan: Do you find readers are coming from knowing your work as a columnist, or because they've read the book?

Oliver: First of all, it was a lot of people transferring over from The Guardian, I think, from The Guardian column. Now I think it's primarily my most recent book, which has done much better than my previous two, just in terms of sales and things. But there's also plenty of people coming from web searches, podcasts, people forwarding the email.

I did a survey of my newsletter recipients just the other day. I actually have yet to really plum the data there. But one thing that was clear is it's certainly not only people who've read my book. There's plenty of people who've never read any of my book.

Bryan: It's always good to survey newsletter subscribers and pull a face behind the number. When you're writing a column versus writing a personal newsletter or a newsletter that you have no editor that's saying, "Oliver, you need to send us—" are there any differences that you noticed? Did you have free rein with your column as well?

Oliver: I had pretty free rein with my column in the sense that I do pride myself on writing clean copy. So, I wasn't sending things in that needed rebuilding from the ground up in order to make sense. I would get queries like, "Not quite sure what you're getting at here. Can you rephrase it?" But I have to say that, certainly, by the latter half of the long time I was writing that column, I was fairly left to get on with it, in a sense.

Book editing is a whole different situation. I have both the books that I've written from the ground up as it were, rather than as a collection of columns have been completely dependent on really good editing and a back and forth. A lot of that has not to do with the level of sentence construction. Again, I think I'm pretty good at that. But it's the structure. It's figuring out how something is big as a book works. It's incredibly useful to have one or two other people involved in that process.

The other thing that I noticed doing the newsletter is that it's all on me for it to come out on a regular basis. It hasn't actually been — I'm not one of these people who can say I've never missed a scheduled publication day, because I have, back in the saddle with that now. But it has sometimes dropped off. I have noticed how much difference it makes to have that external pressure of somebody going to get cross with you if you don't send it in.

Of course, subscribers to free newsletter are not going to get crossed. Some of them may miss it. Most of them, I think, probably wouldn't realize that it was due to come that day. That's a little bit dangerous. Because then, it makes you realize that, actually, it's not compulsory to be consistent. I think it probably is extremely beneficial in all different ways — to be consistent. But you're not going to get in trouble if you're not.

Bryan: Yeah, I've noticed when I was a journalist, an editor has to fill a space in the paper. So, they need the column. Whereas if you have a personal newsletter, you're trying to get someone's attention. They don't have a lot of time. They're busy. So, they're less likely to notice you missed the publication date. But obviously, you have more freedom on what you can write and what you can say.

Are you working on an idea for a future book, or are you more focused on your writing for the newsletter on interviews and book promotion at the moment?

Oliver: I am working on an idea for a future book. It's funny timing. I, literally, this morning sent a very long stream of consciousness email to my agent, which is really the first step in that process. So, I think it's just too early to talk about it at all. It's makes me sound coy to not want to say what's in that email. But this is how soon, how recently this part of the process came.

I'm very lucky to work with such a brilliant agent who's willing to do this back and forth over ideas. I don't think that's a given in book publishing. But I think it can be replicated to some extent with people who don't happen to be an agent. It's like having that back and forth where you can say, "Okay. This isn't elegantly phrased, but this is what all my ideas are focusing in on at the moment. I think there's something here. What do you think?" Obviously, if people have expertise, then their feedback counts for something in particular. But I think just that back and forth is really important.

I think it would be very scary. If I was working in, say, a self-publishing context and not reaching out to other people at this early stage, it will be extremely terrifying to think that you might be going deep, deep, deep off in a wildly bizarre direction. So, I definitely advise bringing other people — whoever they may be — in your situation, into the process early.

Bryan: Did you enjoy writing Four Thousand Weeks, or did you find it a difficult process?

Oliver: I mean, it was hard. I would not claim that it was all just skipping through a meadow. It wasn't all delightful. I do really enjoy, I think, the process of writing. Once you figured out what you want to say, especially when you're revising — I like revising things. I don't particularly enjoy the bit that feels hard thinking. It feels like you're trying to—

Especially with this book, I was trying to discover almost a philosophy of time and life. It felt like it was there, and I had to try to figure out what it was rather than that I was just creating it. There were days when that felt like banging my head against a brick wall. But the nuts and bolts writing of it, once I figured out what needs to be said in a given chapter, is pretty enjoyable and satisfying.

Bryan: I came across an author who is the anti-example to what you talked about in writing the book. You've definitely heard of her, Danielle Steel. She gave an interview with Vogue Magazine or Harper several years ago. She said that she wants to die face down in her typewriter. She wants to go on forever writing. The headline of the article was something like How has Danielle Steel Managed to Write—

Oliver: I know that article well, yeah.

Bryan: What do you make when you hear of somebody who is so focused on one area of their life like that?

Oliver: Well, I certainly don't think there's anything wrong with being so focused on one area of your life. Intrinsically, it might be the case that that's bad for any given person. When I came across this, your talking about and wrote a bit about it, I think that what's so striking from the outside, looking at Danielle Steel's work habits is that if it was anything other than writing, I think, and you just got a neutral description of how somebody works in that way, you would think that there was something amiss. You would think that there was some sort of problem here that they were mainly trying to bury themselves in work to avoid something.

To her credit, firstly, Danielle Steel has put this workaholism to an amazing use and bringing pleasure to millions. Secondly, in that interview, as I recall, she was quite forthright about the idea that she uses writing to escape from difficulties in her personal life. So, I don't think I'm telling her anything she wouldn't know. But I think the deeper issue is, as a culture, we are a bit pathologically productive. We do have this feeling that we're not really justifying our existence on the planet, unless we are processing tasks, getting things done, creating word count, or whatever it might be.

Firstly, it's just no way to live and probably points to some other serious questions you might need to be asking yourself about your life. But also, I don't think it's necessarily that good for the work. I think those open spaces are where the ideas bubble up. It's obviously such a cliche. Writing about writing, that going on long walks is an important part of so many people's creative process. I know that there's a whole science of why walking should go along with creativity. I do do that.

For me, especially living out here in the country with no phone reception as we do now, it's just when I go on a walk, I've put myself in a position where I can't tick things off a task list. I can't check up on incoming messages or anything like that. It's just an enforced mental gap. I'm sure it's great that it's also physical movement and all the rest of it. But it is just that sense of like, I'm a mile from home now. There's just space. That is when things bubble up and come into that space, just because I put myself outside of that web of productivity for a short period.

Bryan: That reminds me of a book that you've undoubtedly read. I interviewed him a year ago — David Allen, author of Getting Things Done. He says that your mind is for ideas, not for holding them. Is that something you'd probably agree with?

Oliver: Yeah, absolutely. I've also spoken with David. He said very nice things about my first book, The Antidote. I was a huge GTD disciple. That doesn't represent my productivity approach now, I don't think. But that part of it, the capture part, the part that says, "Keep some kind of big list or record of everything that is on your plate or that pops up into your mind. Do not rely on your brain as a storage mechanism for any of this."

He could have said that, and then nothing more his entire life. That would have been the greatest contributions to creativity and humanity, I think. That bit, the part that, first of all, when it comes to tasks, but secondly, when it comes to ideas. Just making sure that there is always a notebook, or an index card, or an app within reach so that you're not relying on your brain to hold them — I find that incredibly useful. Of course, 50% of them, when I come back to them, can't understand why they seemed like such a good idea. But that's just the filtering process. That's great. That's a feature not to bug, I think.

Bryan: Yeah, it's getting into the habit of note taking. Often that's enough, the simple act of writing a note. Finally, when you think of the success of your book, did you ever consider that a book like this could work as a serialized newsletter? Salman Rushdie, for example, is serializing one of his novels on Substack.

Oliver: That's a fascinating thought. It seems to me it will make much more sense for novels than for nonfiction. Obviously, there's a long history of periodically published novels published in parts over time. I suppose, in some sense, that is what I'm doing anyway in the newsletter. It's all adding up to things that I hope will be represented in a new book.

I don't know. I think the way I work with nonfiction, it would be pretty difficult to get an overview to work in that sequential way. Because I'm not telling one story. I'm trying to map out a territory. I think it helps to have the map before you write the book. But what I'm doing in the newsletter is like the cartography. That is the mapping. I guess, in some sense, it amounts to the same thing.

I know Salman Rushdie is recuperating from this terrible attack right now. But I'll be fascinated to know, in that project, whether he started it with a complete outline or whether it's an act of seeing where the story goes from installment to installment.

Bryan: Yeah, perhaps he had the book written. I'm not sure. So, Oliver, where can people go apart from the bookstore if they want to read your work or read your newsletter?

Oliver: My website is You can sign up to the newsletter there. You can find out more about the books there and the books that are available. All the usual places, yeah.

Bryan: Thanks, Oliver.

Oliver: Thank you.


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