This Post Will Change Your Life: Oliver Burkeman Interview


“This column will change your life”. That’s the solid gold promise writer Oliver Burkeman makes in his weekly column in the Guardian. There, and in his books, he writes brilliantly about (among other things) productivity, being more focused, and less terrible at managing information overload. That’s what gets our hearts racing at Anders Pink, so we thought we’d ask him a few filtered and focused questions of our own. His answers will change your life (if they don’t, contact him immediately to complain).

You’ve written a lot about productivity in the workplace. What do you think is the biggest obstacle to productivity facing the (dreaded term) knowledge worker?

I think the biggest obstacle is the (usually unconscious) delusion that you can do everything, or that you ought to be able to do everything. When you’re working with information – instead of bricks, or steel, or flour, or a flock of sheep, or whatever – it’s much harder to see that there are built-in limits to human capacity. This is because there’s no limit to the number of things you can think of doing,POo the number of projects you can hope to launch, the number of emails you can receive, the number of tasks your boss might demand of you. So we’ve created a situation in which the demands we place on ourselves are infinite, while our capacities are finite. So we flit from task to task anxiously, constantly distracted from what we’re doing by the other stuff we plan to do.

What are some of the habits people can form to improve their productivity? There’s no silver bullet, but any bronz-ish ones you’d recommend?

I find that incredibly simple rules are really helpful. So I’ll try not to check email in the morning, for example – I’m not saying I always manage it – rather than planning to check email at precisely scheduled times which take too much cognitive bandwidth to remember. I’m not saying the “no email in the mornings” plan will work for anyone else of course; the point is that the rule is very simple.

Social media is much maligned as a productivity and attention sapper. Do you agree? Do you go along with Cal Newport’s view that we should quit Facebook and the rest completely, or do you see any positives from it?

This is completely job-dependent; many people are required to engage with social media and many others do benefit from it – I love Cal’s work but I think his absolutist stance on social media is something that’s specifically appropriate to his line of work. It is certainly a lot harder to engage in a limited way than not to engage at all, though – so if you have an addictive approach to these things, and you know deep down you can manage without, total abstention might be worth a try!

You mentioned in one article the value of “narrowing the attentional filter” to focus on what’s important. What are your filters for staying focused?

I haven’t thought consciously about this in great detail; social networks have something of a filtering effect, and certain media (podcasts, say, which I love) have the effect of narrowing the stream. It’s important not to eliminate serendipity from your life entirely though.

You’ve written about the dangers of excessive news consumption. What are some ways of managing that information stream better? I’ve stopped reading a daily paper (please don’t tell your employer) and wait for the weekend analysis to get more perspective. What am I missing?

I think you should read a daily paper! (It should be the one I work for. Also, why not buy multiple copies?) But I think the point is to be aware of whatever streams (individual Twitter accounts, websites, etc) are most responsible for inducing that futile, depressed feeling that the world’s a terrible place and there’s nothing you can do about it. This is *not* the same as coverage that tells you about the bad stuff and also explores what can be done about them – I’m certainly not in favour of only consuming good news.

Softball final question. For anyone who wants to change their life, but has disgracefully failed to read all of your columns, what’s the one thing you think will make the biggest improvement for most people? If you could get the whole world to do one thing differently, what would it be? (other than read all your columns)

Buy my book, The Antidote. Oh, you want a less self-interested answer? Then it would probably be “stop looking for one single solution to anything”. Or if you want a single solution: start meditating.

Follow Oliver on Twitter @Oliverburkeman

If you want to apply better filters to your information, we think we can help you. Try our curation tool to see how. It will change your life. Or your money back (though since it’s free, that’s not much of a promise…)