How to escape the 'productivity trap'

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We have a finite amount of time, yet we still strive to accomplish infinite goals. Why do we put this pressure on ourselves – and how can we stop?

Here’s a simple question that might provoke a mild existential crisis. Without performing the calculation, guess how many weeks the average person will live? 

The answer, for an average lifespan of around 80 years old, is 4,000. Even centenarians will only live to 5,200. 

If you’re like me, this realisation may trigger a sense of dread, followed by a greater determination to make the most of this short time on Earth. Surely it makes sense to try to pack as many activities as possible into each day, to be sure we meet our goals before we shuffle off this mortal coil?

In reality, this may be the very worst thing we can do to live a happy and fulfilling life. In his new book, Four Thousand Weeks, psychology writer Oliver Burkeman argues that this only leads to disappointment and unhappiness – thanks to a phenomenon known as the “productivity trap”. In his view, we would do far better to slow down, rather than speed up, if we are to make the most of our short lifespans.

The tyranny of time

Anxieties about time’s passing are not exactly unique to modern life. In around 29 BC, the Roman poet Virgil, wrote “fugit inreparabile tempus” – “time flies irretrievably” – which expresses some anxiety at the passing of the days. Similar thoughts about time somehow escaping us can be found in Chaucer and Shakespeare.

Burkeman, however, believes that humankind’s peculiar preoccupation with time – and, in particular, whether we spend it “productively” – became much greater with the common usage of the clock and the emergence of the Industrial Revolution. Before then, the natural rhythms of the day guided people: “The cows needed milking when they needed milking, and you couldn't decide to sort of do all the milking for the month in a couple of days,” he says.

The rise of the industrial revolution made us acutely aware of productivity and output, which turned up the pressure to perform (Credit: Getty Images)

The rise of the industrial revolution made us acutely aware of productivity and output, which turned up the pressure to perform (Credit: Getty Images)

Once people started working in mills and factories, however, their activities had to be coordinated more precisely – often to optimise the use of the machines they were running. This led to a greater focus on scheduling and the creation of the timetable – along with the realisation that our productivity could be carefully monitored. And the resulting pressure, to get more done in less time, seems to have grown exponentially in the second half of the 20th Century. 

The self-help industry has catered to these anxieties, with many volumes over the last four decades offering tips for better time management. “The implication from these books is that, with the right technique, you might be able to deal with pretty much any obligation that comes your way. You could launch as many of the life ambitions that you wanted, with a perfectly optimised daily routine,” says Burkeman. 

The ‘productivity trap’

Unfortunately, it often doesn’t work that way. Burkeman describes the drive for efficiency and productivity as a kind of “trap”, since you never truly escape the feeling that you should be doing more.

Consider a basic goal, such as optimising your email correspondence. You might think that you could get to a kind of Zen state where you have nothing in your inbox at the end of each day, and reply to each message as it comes in. Unfortunately, each email you send is likely to trigger further replies and tasks to complete, which can lead the messages to pile up again.

The fact that work often begets work means that many efficient employees are soon stretched beyond capacity, as their manager keeps adding to their responsibilities. As Burkeman writes in Four Thousand Weeks: “Your boss isn’t stupid. Why would she give the work to someone slower?”

It’s really a recipe for stress – the idea that you can do something superhuman with your time – Oliver Burkeman

Productivity hacks may therefore help you to get more done, but that increased efficiency won’t relieve your stress and improve your wellbeing, or create more free time for the things that really matter to you.

Burkeman compares common time-management techniques to the addition of lanes on the motorway. “They’re meant to ease congestion, but they only attract more cars,” he said in our conversation.

The hedonic treadmill

There are also good psychological reasons why we may never be satisfied with our current activities – at work or in our personal life – that lead us to put ever increasing pressure on ourselves. 

Humans have an annoying habit of becoming habituated to positive changes in our life – a phenomenon known as the “hedonic adaptation”. You might expect that a job promotion would be a suitable reward for all your toil – but the research shows it often won’t leave you much happier than your current position. No matter how productive you are, and what you achieve, you’ll always want more for yourself

Burkeman’s notion of the productivity trap also reminds me of a study from Rutgers University, US, and the University of Toronto. Some participants were asked to list 10 activities that could make them feel better in their life – priming them to think of happiness as an active pursuit. Afterwards, they scored much lower on a questionnaire about their current wellbeing than participants who had instead been asked to count their blessings in the present moment.

Further probing found that the reduced happiness was linked to a sense that time was somehow slipping away: rather than leading the participants to feel positive and proactive, the thought of all those activities had made them even more acutely conscious of how little time they actually had to achieve it all.

If you try to do less with your time and focus on achieving one task, you’ll be able to make bigger strides (Credit: Getty Images)

If you try to do less with your time and focus on achieving one task, you’ll be able to make bigger strides (Credit: Getty Images)

Escaping the trap

Ultimately, Burkeman thinks that our relentless drive for productivity is a futile attempt to escape the harsh truth about our 4,000 weeks on Earth. “It’s alluring to try to spend your time improving your routines and rituals – but that’s simply helping you to avoid confronting the truth about how finite you are,” he says. “And it’s really a recipe for stress – the idea that you can do something superhuman with your time.”

In Burkeman’s view, we could all reduce our anxiety if we simply accepted our limited capacity to achieve all that we would like in life. He has a few pointers for practical action 

The first may seem obvious, but is all too easy to forget: we need to limit the number of goals we pursue at any one time. You might prioritise moving house and writing a book, for example – while realising that your piano lessons will have to wait. Although it may feel disheartening to neglect something that matters dearly to you, you’ll be able to make bigger strides towards the goals that you’ve actually chosen, than if you were pursuing too many things simultaneously.

You can switch between goals, of course, as your life progresses – once you’ve moved house, say, there will be room in your schedule for learning the piano. But in general, Burkeman thinks we’ll be much happier if make a conscious decision to put certain projects on hold, in place of the continuous realisation that we’re not living up to our unrealistic expectations. “You're just reconciling yourself with being a finite human,” he says.

When you face this reality, it’s actually really liberating – Oliver Burkeman

For our day-to-day work, Burkeman is also an advocate of the “have done list” – a kind of parallel to the “to do list” that starts out empty each morning, but fills up with each task that you have completed. Importantly, many of those tasks may have been distractions that would have never been on your actual to do list, but which were nevertheless important to achieve. In this way, the practice helps you to reframe your workload so that you feel a greater sense of accomplishment, rather than simply stressing about all the things that you have yet to finish. 

Burkeman readily admits that he has found it hard to shift his own mindset and accept the limits of what he can achieve in his 4,000 weeks – but it’s worth the perseverance. “When you face this reality, it’s actually really liberating,” he says. “You see that you have been fighting a futile battle. 

Oliver Burkeman’s book Four Thousand Weeks is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the US, and Bodley Head in the UK. He is @oliverburkeman on Twitter.

David Robson is the author of The Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Make Dumb Mistakes. His next book is The Expectation Effect: How Your Mindset Can Change Your World, to be published in early 2022. He is @d_a_robson on Twitter.