Is productivity actually a waste of time? Here’s how strategic underachievement could tackle burnout

Written by Alex Sims

Is our obsession with time management and productivity making us stressed and burnt out? Journalist and author Oliver Burkeman explains how reassessing our relationship with time can make us happier.  

Studying the year’s most googled phrases can reveal a lot about the collective state of humanity. Over the last year, in between searches for “how to make a face mask” and “how to get tested for coronavirus”, more and more of us have been using the search engine to find answers for how to manage our time better.

From people searching for “productivity tips” and “productivity planners” to queries about “time management tips” and “how to have a productive day”, questions seeking to get the most out of our time are surging in popularity. Yet, as we desperately strive to become more efficient, we are also facing an onslaught of burnout, which was recognised as an “occupational phenomenon” by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2019, and extreme stress. A recent survey from Mental Health UK found 46% of UK workers feel “more prone to extreme levels of stress” compared to a year ago.

Just like the thousands of people turning to Google for help, journalist and author Oliver Burkeman, who spent a decade penning The Guardian’s “pursuit of happiness” column, also described himself as a “productivity geek”. “For many years, I’d been trying to achieve a perfect efficiency and capability,” he tells Stylist.

After gradually feeling that many time management methods he was using weren’t working, Burkeman came across a terrifying fact: the current average human lifespan gives us 4,000 weeks on Earth. “There’s something about expressing it in weeks that really brings it home. Any human lifespan suddenly seems shocking in its brevity,” says Burkeman.

It’s this innate finitude that forms the basis of Burkeman’s book, Four Thousand Weeks: Time And How To Use It, which eschews the idea of being more productive by trying to cram more and more into the finite time we have. Instead, Burkeman implores us to shift our perspectives and start accepting our limitations to make the most of our time and, ultimately, feel better about it. 

“A lot of the problems we have with time have been around for many years, but it feels like they’ve now come to a head,” says Burkeman. “We’ve reached a threshold with the amount of stuff people have to deal with: the amount of information and emails and different demands on our time. You get all these complaints about burnout happening among people who, in previous generations, would be far too young to experience it. It might be time to admit defeat and move to a way of approaching time that’s more fruitful.”

From embracing strategic underachievement to incorporating ‘do nothing meditation’ into your day, Burkeman explores how accepting that we will not be able to accomplish everything can be enlightening and relaxing. Here are some of Burkeman’s practical methods for doing just that.

Embrace strategic underachievement  

“It’s tempting to hear a phrase like ‘strategic underachievement’ and think I’m saying there’s no point trying to be good at anything in life,” says Burkeman. “What I’m actually saying is that excellence in every domain in your life is literally impossible because time is finite.” 

For Burkeman, strategic underachievement means accepting that you cannot possibly give 100% effort to every area of your life because there simply is not enough time to do so. Instead, it’s better to pick and choose where to put your energy. 

“You can’t spend 10 hours a day being an incredibly present partner in your relationship and be an incredibly present parent and be a great worker. It’s mathematically incompatible,” says Burkeman. Instead, he suggests looking at a set time period, the next month, six months or year of life, for example, and deciding in advance what particular domain of your life you’ll concentrate on during that time. 

You may decide to be totally focused on your career for the next three months and not put as much pressure on yourself to socialise or keep the house tidy. In the three months after that, you might decide to focus on a different aspect of your life.

“Failure and success are connected parts of the same idea. Any decision to try and excel in one domain is the decision to fail in another for now,” says Burkeman. “Deciding in advance what you’re not going to excel at also means you won’t be miserable when you fail at something because you’ve already decided it’s not a priority. You’re just saying that’s off the table for now.” 

Serialise your tasks  

Something as simple as doing one project, whether personal or professional, and seeing it through to completion before moving on to something else can have a dramatic impact.

“Being more sequential and putting everything on hold until one thing is finished has been helpful in my own life,” says Burkeman. “Take a look at what’s on your plate; you might find there are five things you really need to be doing. Now, try very hard to completely give up hope of making progress on four of them while you take one to completion, and then move on to the next.”

“It evokes anxiety because it can be comforting to feel like you’ve got your fingers in every pie and you’re taking care of business, but actually it’s not a very good way to make progress. This is because every time one of your projects gets difficult, you can just bounce off to another one, so you never really face the music on any of them.”

Burkeman stresses that it’s important to do this in a gentle way. “This shouldn’t be misinterpreted as forcing yourself to do things that are actually not right for you, or that you just absolutely detest. But, it can be useful to understand that meaningful activity does sometimes trigger discomfort.”  

Practise ‘do nothing meditation’  

“Deliberately doing nothing is very, very hard,” says Burkeman. “But if you can develop this skill it’s useful for helping you focus on one work task at a time, but also for finding value and enjoyment in the present moment.”

To get used to doing nothing Burkeman advises practising “do nothing meditation”. This involves sitting down, setting a timer for 10 minutes and doing nothing at all for the duration. “Every time you catch yourself doing something, whether it’s daydreaming, fidgeting or making plans for later in the day, try and stop doing it,” he says.

The technique differs from ordinary meditation, which directs your focus to your breath. “Do nothing meditation is hardcore by comparison because the ideal is to do nothing and it’s essentially impossible. But the experience of failing at it over and over again is strangely powerful. It means that when you step back into your regular life you’ll strengthen the muscle that doesn’t need to hurry and try to accommodate everything.”

Avoid digital distractions 

For Burkeman, social media is a symptom of the uber-productive ideal we’ve created for ourselves. “On social media, thousands and thousands of other people’s accomplishments, lifestyles and daily routines get presented to us all the time, but in a way that reflects what people choose to share and what algorithms reward us with,” he says.  

He also explains that social media is a distraction that stops us from completing tasks we may find hard or uncomfortable. “It’s an always available form of distraction that can systematically divert us from things that matter but may be uncomfortable. It’s an instant source of comfort when a little bit of discomfort is actually sometimes what’s called for.”

To avoid digital distractions and live more presently in the moment, Burkeman suggests making your devices as boring as possible, by doing things like switching your screen from colour to greyscale. Or, choose devices with as few functions as possible.  

Images: Svet/Getty, Jeff Mikkelson

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