*** DEBUG END ***

Interview: Oliver Burkeman, writer, journalist

02 June 2023

‘As so often, the path through a problem is to realise that it’s a lot worse than you think’

I’ve always wanted to be a writer, and specifically a writer for publication. I grew up with some of the first desktop-publishing software for home computers, and was spellbound by the possibility of combining text with headlines and pictures, and then printing it out to distribute it. Apparently, I like to tell people what I think. I write from time to time for The Guardian and The Observer, The New York Times, and other publications.

I’ve done a lot of journalism on deadline, which turns out to be a great antidote to perfectionism.

In an era of misinformation and algorithm-driven social-media nonsense, there’s much to be said for the British print media’s open partisanship. You broadly know where you stand when you’re reading a given newspaper, in a way you certainly don’t with a tweet or other social-media posting of unclear origin. We’ll miss that basic sense of stability in our information sources if we lose it.

I’m currently working on a page-per-day set of quotes and reflections, continuing that conversation about time and limitation I wrote about in Four Thousand Weeks: Time management for mortals. I’m turning a mass of stories, parables, and koans into something that might accompany someone over a year.

There are plenty of quotes from ancient Greece and Rome, the origins of Christianity and Buddhism, and a few from Judaism, whereas I’m more unfamiliar with other world religions. Plenty is from psychoanalysis and other not overtly spiritual traditions. Part of my motivation was getting the kind of feedback which asked: “Great insights, but how do I make them stick?” It’s my attempt to embed something of this wisdom in myself.

I’m also working on a more traditional book, with the working title Doing Things: Productivity for imperfect people, about crossing the gap from knowing what you want to do and should do and actually doing it. I look at various different understandings about action, and where theory meets reality, and why it seems a lot easier for people like me to know what I want to do than to actually do it.

I write an email newsletter called The Imperfectionist. It comes out roughly every two weeks. (It’s good if occasionally that goes a bit wrong, given the title.) The format is fairly similar to the column I wrote in The Guardian. It’s been interesting because of the direct contact you get with people, unlike when you write for a newspaper. I do read every response from readers, but can’t possibly respond to them all. Still, I very much enjoy interacting with my audience: they are generally at least as well-educated, psychologically mature, and well-read as me; so I get all sorts of new directions for reading and writing from them.

Email is still — for all the spam and annoyance of overfilled inboxes — a relatively personal medium. Everyone who reads my newsletter has invited it into their inbox. There are lots of downsides to the digital revolution, but one positive is that it’s so easy to connect to the few thousand people on the planet who want to plough the same furrow as you. Writing for them is very different from the high-wire act of writing in a paper, where you’re always conscious of having to try to stop readers turning to the next page. We can become tribal and cut off in our own silos, it’s true, but it’s kind of amazing that, if there are 100 people in New Zealand with the same interests as me, we can talk about them to each other.

I’m fascinated by the place at which the big ideas about work, time, and meaning meet the ground level of daily life in one’s to-do lists, schedules, life plans. That’s the interface I seem to write most naturally about. Of course, writing is also therapy, working through my issues of anxiety, self-worth, and being good enough.

Why would anyone not be obsessed with these topics of limitation, mortality, and acceptance? They’re urgently arising from the whole predicament of being a finite human, with the capacity to imagine our own death and things beyond our finite surroundings.

My life every day is in some sense an attempt to put this acceptance into practice — not because I’m all that diligent about practising what I preach, but because my book ideas come in the first place from the challenges of my daily life. Specifically, I think I’ve been getting gradually less control-freaky, more willing to listen to the leadings of intuition, and more willing to turn things down or neglect things when I must. It’s the only way to attend to what matters most.

I know of a few cases where Four Thousand Weeks has helped precipitate major life changes. More often, perhaps, it clarified things people had already understood, but hadn’t yet properly articulated to themselves. I love the feeling of helping with that last step.

The answer to the problem of the never-diminishing book pile is to increase your mental reading pile. Think of all the books in the British Library. Zoom out to all the other books you will never read. It’s so obviously futile to worry about them. As so often, the path through the problem is to realise that it’s a lot worse than you think.

I’m influenced by so many people, it’s silly to single any out. But the work of Carl Jung and the Zen scholar Dogen have been important. And Janet Malcolm, an American writer of non-fiction, whose precise, dry, astringent style I greatly admire.

I’m Jewish on my father’s side. My grandmother fled Nazi Germany as an adolescent girl. He became a Quaker, and my mother was raised as one; so I was raised as a Quaker, too. I value lots about the Quakers, but I don’t think most people would call it a religious upbringing. After a long stint in New York, I live today with my American wife and our dual-citizen six-year-old son in the North York Moors.

I like winter. I’m a cold-weather person. I love this particular landscape, and my wife is extremely happy to be somewhere green, working on her own writing. Our son is at a very small primary school down the road. It’s fantastic.

I’ve had several experiences of accessing, or merging with, the all-containing sense of what the spiritual teacher Joan Tollifson calls “Holy Reality”. One was while swimming at a campsite in France on a family holiday, aged about 11. Was that an experience of God? There’s nothing personal about these experiences, no sense of me plus some other being. In fact, that’s fairly close to a statement of exactly what they’re not.

I’ve attended meditation retreats and stabilised some of these sorts of experiences. I loiter in rural churches. I’ve met plenty of Christians I envy — that’s the wrong word — but it seems to me that to be a Christian would still entail believing things I can’t honestly say that I do believe. I know there are plenty who would disagree with that.

Inconsiderateness is the thread that connects most of the daily things that make me cross. Naturally, inconsiderateness towards me is an especially grave offence. . .

I’m happiest being made fun of by old friends, or by my son. Walking on the high moors near where we live in winter. I love the sound of heavy rain when I’m indoors.

The past gives me hope for the future. It’s useful, especially in an anxiety-reducing sense, to learn how often people thought the end of the world was nigh and that this time was going to be different to all the others.

I have a zazen meditation practice. I’m not sure I really understand what praying for something means. The kind of meditation I practise is done in the spirit of letting go of things like intending or asking or requesting. It feels like entering more fully into where I am actually am, fully showing up. The willingness to be present rather than intellectualising and cogitating.

Maybe I’d choose to be locked in a church with Søren Kierkegaard, because I’m convinced he has life-transformingly important things to say, but I’ve never been able to elicit them from reading his work. Perhaps a direct confrontation would help.

Oliver Burkeman was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Four Thousand Weeks is published by Vintage at £10.99 (Church Times Bookshop £9.89); 978-1-7847040-0-1.

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)