Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Oliver Burkeman

Time Is Tight Part One

A shorter version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on September 3, 2021.

“Emerson says, “We are always getting ready to live, but never living.” Thoreau says, “As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.”

Burkeman Book

In my previous column, which was on the subject of attention, I quoted from a book by Oliver Burkeman called The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. On August 10, 2021, Burkeman published a new book called Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. I preordered the book and read it on the day it was published. As it says on the cover, it is about time management. I am reviewing it here so that you can manage your time better by not having to read it. I have done the heavy lifting for you.

Burkeman tries for a new approach to time management. “Yet the modern discipline known as time management – like its hipper cousin, productivity – is a depressingly narrow-minded affair, focused on how to crank through as many work tasks as possible, or on devising the perfect morning routine, or on cooking all your dinners for the week in one big batch on Sundays.” Or writing several months’ worth of weekly columns in one day.

He starts from the premise that life is short and we had better not waste it. “The outrageous brevity and shimmering possibilities of our four thousand weeks”. That is all the time we are likely to have on this earth. This is not about business efficiency but about living a less anxious life for the short spell we are here.

Are We Having Fun Yet?

Procrastination has been called “the thief of time”. Burkeman does not believe procrastination is necessarily a bad thing – some procrastination could be seen as positive time-management. “The point isn’t to eradicate procrastination, but to choose more wisely what you’re going to procrastinate on, in order to focus on what matters most. … One can waste years this way, systematically postponing precisely the things one cares about the most.”

These words of wisdom are often attributed to John Lennon: “Life is what happens when you’re making other plans”. Lennon does sing something like that in his song ‘Beautiful Boy’. The actual provenance of those words of wisdom is less hip. It comes from a 1957 edition of Reader’s Digest. The thought was expressed by  a cartoonist called Allen Saunders (April 24, 1899 – January 28, 1986).

Fake Busyness

I was never terribly career-minded and did not reach any dizzy heights in my “chosen” profession as a civil servant, although I had many valuable experiences and met many interesting people. Despite my lack of ambition (one boss told me I did not have the fire in my belly. I said, “you mean an ulcer? “He said, how did you know I had an ulcer?”. I didn’t know.) I still found myself working long hours to little purpose because that was the culture of the people at the top.

At some time in the 80s, round about the time that Yuppies were invented, busyness became an emblem of prestige, even if the activities undertaken were futile. A long time before that, Nietzsche wrote, “We labour at our daily work more ardently and thoughtlessly than is necessary to sustain our life, because to us it is even more necessary not to have leisure to stop and think. Haste is universal because everyone is in flight from himself.”

In those dread dark days when I had to work for a living, The Management was always trying to force gadgets on us; there were little hand-held computers called Organisers which one had to go on courses to learn how to operate. I never used mine at all and was chastised for creating this redundant e-waste. I found it much easier to jot things down in my diary – and I don’t mean Filofax.

Burkeman notes that the definition of what needs doing expands to fill the time available. “The technologies we use to try to get on top of everything always fail us, in the end, because they increase the size of the ‘everything’ of which we’re trying to get on top.”


In TS Eliot’s words, we are ‘distracted from distraction by distraction’. Since the time of the ancient Greeks, philosophers have seen distraction as more a question of character than a matter of external interruptions. To be seduced by distractions was a systematic personal character failure. What you pay attention to will define, for you, what reality is. Is reality endless games of Candy Crush? As Burkeman puts it, “your experience of being alive consists of nothing other than the sum of everything to which you pay attention … it hardly matters how committed you are to making the best use of your limited time if, day after day, your attention gets wrenched away by things on which you never wanted to focus.”

There is a huge, profit-driven machine dedicated to commandeering your attention. Your puny will is no match for it. “There are ‘a thousand people on the other side of the screen’ paid to keep you there – and so it’s unrealistic to expect users to resist the assault on their time and attention by means of willpower alone.” There are people making a fortune out of stopping you doing what makes you feel good by drawing you into “the feuds and fake news and public shamings on social media”. This is an essential part of the business model. “Once the attention economy has rendered you sufficiently distracted, or annoyed, or on edge, it becomes easy to assume that this is just what life these days inevitably feels like.” The philosopher Harry Frankfurt says they sabotage our capacity to “want what we want to want”.

It would take a heart of stone not to grieve at the current situation in Afghanistan. However, I also despair at the virtue signaling on social media. I do not lack compassion but I am not to blame for the situation and there is nothing I can do about it. I still have not solved Myanmar. Burkeman writes, “Worse than distraction, being constantly braced for confrontation or disaster, or harbouring a nebulous sense of foreboding” is not good for our mental health. “Each new scandal overwrites the last one in public awareness – and anyone who responds or retweets, even if their intention is to condemn the hatemongering, finds themselves rewarding it with attention, thereby helping it spread.”

Burkeman does not solely blame the gadgets we willingly buy from Big Tech. The flaw is within us. “Something in us wants to be distracted, whether by our digital devices or anything else – to not spend our lives on what we thought we cared about the most. Why, exactly, are we rendered so uncomfortable by concentrating on things that matter – the things we thought we wanted to do with our lives – that we’d rather flee into distractions, which, by definition, are what we don’t want.”


A great deal of advice these days focuses on mindfulness and meditation, on living in the now. Trying to live in the moment can cause its own anxieties. One psychiatrist describes the hell of being stuck in a Groundhog Day of “a new kind of everlasting present”. This is an inferno of social media scrolling in which one is too stifled to make plans or picture any kind of future.  Jay Jennifer Matthews has written a short book called Radically Condensed Instructions for Being Just as You Are. “We cannot get anything out of life. There is no outside where we could take this thing to. There is no little pocket, situated outside of life.”

Burkeman recounts a few anecdotes from people who had narrow escapes and savoured their current lives because they could easily have missed the joys (and sufferings) of now by departing yesterday. I can relate to this. In October 1983, I was in the Peruvian city of Huancavelica, struggling with the altitude of 3,676 meters. Huancavelica is considered one of the poorest cities in Peru with a population of 49,570. The people are mainly indigenous and small and squat in appearance. We attended a festival at the local church and I was approached by a hulking man who resembled Herman Munster. He seemed to take a shine to me but I became anxious when he kept repeating the name “Margaret Thatcher”. The Falklands War was still fresh in everyone’s memory. We saw many people wearing T-shirts bearing the legend “Malvinas”. I was glad to leave Huancavelica. Soon afterwards, I read in a local newspaper that the police station at which we had registered had been blown up by the Sendero Luminoso just after we had left.

Another incident in Peru reminded me of my mortality. We were travelling in a clapped-out old boat on Lake Titicaca when the engine died. We drifted around for a long time and could have drifted forever. There was no sign of human life on the huge expanse of water except for a ship of the Bolivian navy in the very far distance. I was quite relaxed about the possibility of a watery doom. (Titicaca has an average depth of 107 m , and a maximum depth of 281 m.) I did not worry too much. I was a tourist. I had paid for this experience and had rights as a customer. This was ignoring the fact that the boss of the travel company in Lima had a villainous aspect and the two young men travelling with us were sniffing coke most of the time. Eventually, the engine coughed into life and I am here to tell the tale.

More recently, we had lunch in the Taprobane Room at the Colombo Cinnamon Grand Hotel on Sunday April 14, 2019. One week later, suicide bombers attacked the Taprobane Room. The waiter who had served us was killed. We probably would have perished too if we had chosen a different date for our rendezvous.

This links in with a major theme in Burkeman’s book – the importance for our mental health of accepting our finitude and embracing the miracle that we are here now. “Surely only somebody who’d failed to notice how remarkable it is that anything is, in the first place, would take their own being as such a given – as if it were something they had every right to have conferred upon them, and never to have taken away. So maybe it’s not that you’ve been cheated out of an unlimited supply of time; maybe it’s almost incomprehensibly miraculous to have been granted any time at all.”

I seem to have run out of time to discuss time management. More cheerful musings on death and finitude next week.


This article was published in Ceylon Today on August 27, 2021


Energy flows where attention goes.

From Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life by Winifred Gallagher

Empty Time Tank

I used to buy books at a much faster pace than I could read them. I have been engaged on a campaign of giving lots of stuff away but I still get rather overwhelmed by the thought of the number of years in my tank rapidly diminishing never to be replenished. I am likely to die before I can read all those books that still sit on my shelves, let all alone all the stuff on my Kindle, such as Winifred Gallagher’s survey of research on the subject of attention, and the complete works of William James.

Oliver Burkeman has rather disturbingly pointed out, in his book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, if you live to be 80 your total life-span is an insultingly short time. In an interview with Joe Pinkster, Burkeman said, “it’s about acknowledging that we are finite, limited creatures living in a world of constraints and stubborn reality…A life spent chasing the mythical state of being able to do everything is less meaningful than a life of focusing on a few things that count. “

My father used to say, “the man who made time, made plenty of it”. Unfortunately, in his case that did not prove to be true. He died of cancer at the cruelly young age of 56. His motto could be seen as an excuse for procrastination even though he himself was always punctual and hard-working. As Burkeman notes in his book, “a fairly modest six-figure number of weeks—310,000—is the approximate duration of all human civilization since the ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia.” What chance do I have faced with all those emails and all that fascinating stuff on Facebook and YouTube?

What To Do

There are so many things that we feel we ought to do in our brief span; there are so many things that we would probably enjoy doing. Why do we then fritter away our precious time on pursuits that make us feel bad? Why do we allow ourselves to be so easily distracted? Why is that I cannot sit down and write a thoughtful and profound philosophical essay about attention and distraction without breaking off every few minutes to look at pictures of cute kittens or to pick a fight with a stranger on Facebook? Why cannot I sit down absorb a complicated but worthwhile piece of music without breaking off to get a drink?


There is a good deal of literature about the concept of attention. William James was more than Henry James’s brother. William was a pioneer of psychological studies and was more interesting than some other psychologists because he came to the discipline through philosophy. An analysis in Review of General Psychology, published in 2002, ranked James as the 14th most eminent psychologist of the 20th century. I think that is an underestimate, but what do I know?  In his monumental work The Principles of Psychology published in 1890 he defined attention thus: “taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalization, concentration, of consciousness is of its essence. It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.”

The Tragedy of Choice

There is a fundamental human tragedy at the core of the concept of attention. Isaiah Berlin recognised that humankind was blighted by the capacity for choice. Perhaps the Buddhist concept of Dukkha is related to this. Berlin saw that we are doomed to choose and that was not just debilitating because of the effort involved in opting for one thing rather than another. Choosing is not just positive; it is negative because we are rejecting some things rather than others. Every choice may entail an irreparable loss. You married one spouse and another was lost to you forever and may have plunged into a world of despair with a less worthy spouse than yourself.  Berlin’s world was one of constant unavoidable moral tragedy because of rejected possibilities, roads not taken. Robert Frost wrote a poem about this inspired by his friend Edward Thomas.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Negatives arise from positives. Choices are made and consequences occur. Effect follows cause.

Simone Weil

Simone Weil, in her work on attention, also looked at the negative aspects. According to Robert Paretsky, “for Weil, attention is a negative effort, one that requires that we stand still rather than lean in. The object of this kind of attention could be mathematical or textual, a matter of grasping a puzzle posed by Euclid or one posed by Racine.” Whether we do solve the problem, argues Weil, is secondary. The going is as important as the getting there, if not even more so. Every commitment we make to a person, place, or line of work rules out countless others that may fulfill us. Our 4,000 weeks are dribbling away as we may be committing our attention to entirely the wrong, mistaken thing.

Attention and Compassion

Weil’s take on attention leads to compassion. Pity is not to be recommended because “it consists in helping someone in misfortune so as not to be obliged to think about him anymore, or for the pleasure of feeling the distance between him and oneself.” Paying attention requires what Weil calls a “muscular effort”: we look into someone’s eyes, we arrange our facial expressions appropriately, our body language adjusts to the presence of the other person. Compassion comes from paying attention, identifying with a hungry person because I know what it feels like to be hungry. As Paretsky puts it “Paying attention to others means that I must acknowledge and respect their reality. As we belong to the same world and are equally vulnerable to the crushing reality of force, I reorient my attention to them and away from myself.” Focusing on altruism and forgiveness makes you feel better as well as helping others. Focusing on positive emotions expands your attentional range and your peace of mind.

The Rapt Dynamic

Winifred Gallagher: “Attention’s mechanics ensure that when you lock on your objective, you enhance that aspiration and suppress things that compete with it, which helps you to stay focused. That rapt dynamic works to your advantage if your goal is positive and productive but, as in addiction, can be deadly if it isn’t.”  Good luck if you can focus on writing a poem but bad luck if you become addicted to paying attention to Candy Crush or alcohol.

There seems to be a great deal of attention deficit in the modern world. It is particularly worrying that so many young people are afflicted with ADHD (Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) People with ADHD can seem restless, may have trouble concentrating and may act on impulse, which can lead to other psychological and behaviour problems. ADHD affects as many as five percent of American children and three times more boys than girls. As Winifred Gallagher puts it, “your life is run not by the highly structured, unified Cranial Central Command that you like to imagine but by a group of bickering agents with different motives. Depending on whose voice captures your attention, you may find yourself engaging in mysterious or seemingly contradictory behavior, from gross overindulgence to acts of surprising heroism. Where sticking to a goal is concerned, you can reduce the conflict by focusing on the most supportive voice and suppressing the distracting, counterproductive ones.”

Mark Manson wrote in the Guardian: “This is life now: one constant, never-ending stream of non sequiturs and self-referential garbage that passes in through our eyes and out of our brains at the speed of a touchscreen.” Some writers downplay the bad effects of modern technology but Gallagher writes: “Inordinate amounts of time spent fixated on various screens and keyboards pose particular risks for young people who should be focused on learning and exact a cost in terms of real-life experience, particularly with other living, breathing people.” Big Tech is determined to stop us using our attention wisely. As Burkeman puts it, “The attention economy is designed to prioritize what’s most compelling, not what’s accurate or helpful.” Burkeman tries to be optimistic. While scaring us with the thought that the average human lifespan is absurdly short, he tries to persuade us that it is not a reason for despair. It can be the incentive “to become the optimized, infinitely capable, emotionally invincible person you’re supposed to be”.


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