How To Finally Stop Procrastinating: Oliver Burkeman | E125 | Transcription
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Are you doing a few things every day that your ancestors would have done what 250,000 years ago? Oliver Berkman. He's a journalist, a writer, and one of the greatest thinkers I've had the pleasure of sitting with here on this podcast. People talk a lot about the importance of learning to say no, right? There's a subtext there. They think what that means is if you just learn to say no to all the stuff you don't want to do, you can spend your time doing stuff you do want to do. Way harder than that. You have to say no to things that you do want to do. We are wired for racing through things. All of us who are sort of moving at this speed need to experiment a little bit with like what it feels like to just slow down to the speed that things take. Any action that actually brings things into the world involves a confrontation with your limitations. Getting through that discomfort to what lies on the other side is so empowering. Without further ado, I'm Stephen Bartlett and this is the Diaries CEO. I hope nobody's listening. But if you are, then please keep this to yourself. As a journalist, I was quite surprised to read some of the articles you'd written and that the subject matter wasn't necessarily like always about the news or what's going on or it wasn't gossipy.
Exploring Concepts Of Happiness
Why do you write about happiness? (01:01)
It was quite, I don't know, existential and deep and about regret and life and happiness and these kinds of things. What did the desire to talk about and to write and research those topics come from anew? That's a good question. I think early, early when I was a journalist I was doing whatever I needed to do and a lot of that was news more newsy. But I've always wanted to try to bring into that kind of daily context these big, serious ideas and I think it's just because I'm fascinated by them and I think I'm fascinated by them because I'm on some level struggle with them. I mean, I don't think anyone, if they're honest, writes about happiness who is just completely happy all the time because then that topic is boring to that person. I think I'm probably a pretty anxious person going back, less so now, having spent years kind of the revising myself in public in columns and books. But that sense that you need to find some secret to address your own issues and also when it comes to productivity and time management and all those topics, it's like maybe if I could find the system that would put me in total control of my time then maybe I wouldn't need to feel worried about the future and things like that. We're all just sort of revealing our deepest issues in the things we choose to focus on and write about. You alluded to it a little bit there but you said, you know, one of the books you wrote was called The Antidote Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking. Interesting title. What was the inspiration? I mean, you said struggling with unhappiness was a bit of a mess. I mean, when the time I wrote that, I was sort of, I'd given all these things a lot of thought. I'd written this column for The Guardian for quite a few years and I sort of noticed this pattern emerging in the approaches and the philosophies that really seemed to do something for me and to sort of lift my spirits, help me navigate the world a bit more calmly and effectively and they were not what I call in that book Positive Thinking, right? They were not fill your mind with upbeat thoughts and set incredibly ambitious goals and try to push yourself relentlessly towards achieving them. It was actually much more to do with being open to negative stuff and being willing to feel anxiety and security and certainty and potential for failure and all those things. It's actually a much more resilient way to be in the world, I think, plus, I guess it's kind of, it's the contribution that I can make to the world of self-help and things like that is to bring my kind of pessimistic, slightly sardonic, I don't know. British, Northern, I don't know where this comes from culturally really, but like of a field like the self-help industry, like just so much of this is rubbish and at the same time, the topic that this is ultimately about is really important and you can't just dismiss it completely.
Happiness and meaning (04:11)
What would you say are some of the big sort of central misconceptions about how to become happy or what is it that fundamentally makes us unhappy? I sat here with Mo Gouda who wrote a book about happiness, the happiness equation and he talks a lot about expectation management when your expectations are too high and if your expectations go and met them, we're unhappy. A lot of your writings you talk about being a bit more aware that any lack of productivity or hardship or struggle isn't a sign of inadequacy as humans, it's very much the nature of a full life, I guess. In terms of misconceptions, I think that the fundamental one that I was writing about in that earlier book is the idea that happiness is best achieved by aiming for happiness, setting out in your life to get happy is there's something amiss with this notion. Happiness is the kind of thing that seems to arise as a byproduct of certain kinds of meaningful activity but if you make it the goal of your life, you can sort of bear down on it too much and then it sort of goes away. The book on some level is about turning your attention away from happiness and finding happiness that way through sort of the pursuit of reality, right, through engaging in meaningful activities and we can talk about what meaningful means I suppose but not sort of what will make me feel better or best as the sort of navigation aid that you use in life and then happiness coming as a sort of a secondary effect of that. I think the sort of crassist kind of positive thinking fails just because the human mind does not work like that. If you decide that you're always going to fill your mind with positive upbeat optimistic thoughts, then every negative thought that creeps in is like a new failure and something to feel stressed about and something to try to stamp out. That's just sort of not true to the situation of who we are which is a big mixture of all sorts of feelings. So if we're not aiming for happiness then and we're aiming for kind of the meaningful activities in the process, what are those, what have you come to learn are the meaningful activities that end up creating the byproduct of happiness? I mean it's the question and I don't think I've come to the final answer in any of this but I think meaning, it's a really fascinating idea because I think people know in a sort of intuitive way whether what they're doing is meaningful. There's a question that I write about that comes from a psychotherapist called James Hollis whose work has been really had a really big impact on me which is to ask of a choice or of a life path that you might be on whether it's enlarging you or diminishing you. And I don't think this language works for everybody but for me it's like oh okay, you can tell that there are times when life is not enjoyable but it's about growth what you're doing. It's like it's good that you're doing it and it's meaningful that you're doing it and then there are times when life might be perfectly fun but if you really stop and think about it it's like it's missing the point somehow. I think one, the sort of an acute example of this that most people will have experience of is it's like a friend or a relation of yours is going through a crisis and you're helping them out in some way. You're there to just as some company or I recall one example when some friends of mine were going through a really awful thing and I was like literally like doing the dry cleaning for them right it was just like they just needed help in this kind of way. And you have that feeling of like I'm in the right place here this is there isn't something else I ought to be doing now doesn't mean it's fun because the whole situation is awful doesn't mean it's in great activity because doing someone's dry cleaning is not necessarily a great activity. But you know that you're in the right place and I think that we can hope to have that feeling about quite a lot of the sort of work and other things that we do in non crisis moments. So that's how I kind of think about that is a good use of this day of your very limited time on the planet. One of the things that I've used that seems to be pretty correct when I'm trying to figure out what is meaningful and makes me gives me that feeling of like fulfillment that I'm in the right places you describe it is when I look back at like the human struggle over thousands of years. And really what made us survive. It tends to be the case that I feel best when I'm doing the things that are kind of in line with how my ancestors lived. Right so I mean on one hand you could say eating certain things and drinking and sleeping but then as we kind of described it there which is like banding together and collaborating. Ultimately that's central to how why we're here. And so it's conceivable that our ancestors might have left that message in my genetic code to say Stephen not only are you going to struggle forward but you're going to do it together. Yeah. And so when you helped your friend with their dry cleaning that was a really human historically like human act of banding together in support. But I feel like we've kind of lost track of those fundamental human things if that makes sense and whenever we do them now which is like helping each other. Eating stuff that's grown from the ground the overstimulation of digital items and screens in our lives, loneliness. These are all callings to kind of get back to our tribe and in fact I'm coming to learn despite what the happiness industry sells you. It actually might be really really fundamentally simple in a way which is trying to be more human. Yeah, yeah I've heard, yeah that's such a good point. I've heard somebody express this as like you should ask are you doing a few things every day that your ancestors would have done what 250,000 years ago. Exercise. Right. Being together in our tribes. Right. Being outdoors. Outdoors but the studies are being outdoors are really startling. And I think the problem is so many of us now. I mean a writer is sort of an ultimate example but so many of us. You for short like we're doing what we're mainly doing with our days is manipulating symbols in one way or another. Right. Images, words, ideas all day long. Like and a lot of these things are so new. Like writing is incredibly modern invention on the evolutionary time scale, let alone podcasting. And this is a sort of very low grade productivity idea that I've written about and I think is really important is to try to think about anything you're doing in terms of physical actions and physical next actions. And so one thing I do when I'm writing for example is I sort of set goals that are to do with creating physical documents. Right. I'm going to do this. I'm going to write this. I'm going to print it out and it's going to have something on my desk. The hole in my hands that I did today. It's very easy to get lost in that world that doesn't have like hard edges, that doesn't have a physicality in it. And it's very alluring because it feels kind of you feel sort of God like in that world. If you spend all day sort of with your head mainly occupying cyberspace or the metaverse, but yeah, you miss out on that essentially human stuff that you're talking about.
Embracing our limits (11:25)
And in your new book, you talk a lot about kind of stripping back a lot of this bullshit that has consumed our lives and the complexity and these narratives which have been kind of sold by the happiness and efficiency and procrastination industry. Let's call it your new book 4000 weeks, time and how to use it, which I found incredibly important. I think that's the best way to describe it. So I really want to go through a couple of the points in the book that I found compelling and that I wanted to ask you questions on. The first is chapter one, which is the limit of the limit embracing life. And you talk about this concept of embracing our limits. What did you mean by that? It seems to me, and it's certainly my experience, but I think it is more universal than just like my issues. It seems to me that a lot of what we do, the way we behave in the world and the way we try to manage our time, especially, it's all really based around trying to avoid confronting something about our situation. It's a kind of an emotional avoidance. It's to avoid feeling what it is like to be who we are, which is finite human beings, right? 4000 weeks, the title refers to the approximate length of average lifespan in the West. Which is terrifying, by the way. It is terrifying. Yeah, I thought I had to say that. It's a risky decision, I realized in hindsight, to give the book this title because it might just cause people to run away from the bookshop and not buy the book. Anyway, so we're very finite in our amount of time. We're obviously finite on the daily level of the amount of time we have, but also finite in how much control we can exert over it, right? Nobody knows what's happening in the very next moment. You can take actions to increase the likelihood that what you want is going to happen, but we're all totally vulnerable to events and to every moment. It's increasingly impossible to have complete knowledge about anything that you're doing or any sphere in which you're acting. And then relationships just inherently involve romantic relationships, but all relationships, it inherently involve this kind of vulnerability to other people and things they might do to hurt you or things bad things that might happen to them that would cause you to suffer. So we're in this very, very limited situation, and I guess the main argument to my book is that if we followed through the ramifications of that, we would use our time in a somewhat different way. And actually, I think a more relaxing way. I don't think it's a kind of recipe for stress, so the title is probably a recipe for stress. But in productivity, for example, the quest to try to do everything, to become like, limitlessly optimized so that you can handle all your incoming email. You can pursue all your ambitions and business ventures. You can meet all the obligations you feel from your family and friends or from society. You can do it all. That's trying to become unlimited. That's trying to become limitless. And there are lots of other examples of this. Where I think what we're really doing is just trying to avoid feeling our finitude. And some people want to say, "Well, isn't it great to believe that we're limitless?" Because then you can do astonishing things. And I want to say, "No, I think the kind of limitation I'm talking about confronting it and feeling it and living into it is actually the precondition of doing the most extraordinary things with a life." Because you get to kind of give up on this impossible quest to fit yourself to every expectation that the world might have. One in which you can only fail. Right. And just focus on doing that. Right. Inadequate. Yeah. And the sort of great inventors and the great entrepreneurs of today and the great sort of historical figures. They did things that people thought were previously thought were impossible. Yeah. But they didn't. They very, very deliberately understood that using their time the way they wanted to use it meant sacrifices. It meant neglecting things that would be completely good things to do. Right. I'm sure you know what I'm talking about here. Right. I mean, it's like there are 25 things you could do. It's not that only one of them is any good. Like 24 of them are good, but even so, most of them are going to have to be able to withstand the anxiety of just neglecting most of them in order to focus on. And fundamentally, you believe, which I also completely agree with, which is in fact why I have this sand time here, which I just picked off my desk before we started recording. You believe that people do go through life. Not almost, for me, it's like not realizing slash not believing that they will die. It's almost like humans aren't able to understand the concept of infinity and they're also not able to understand the concept of finality. Right. The fact that we will, I will come to an end so we don't live in such a way. We don't live with such a belief. And if you look at a lot of the decisions I make, you would assert that I'm living like I think I'm going to live forever. Right. And then my misprioritization of things that actually clearly matter more. And this kind of constant deference of happiness to the future. I will be happy when. Right. And then we live in, you know, because one of the things I say, and I say this in my live show is, I say to the audience that if you think about it, probably about 90% of this audience are currently living in a way in which a previous self of them told themselves, if they got here, they would be happy. Right. Yes. And then we're saying, not now, we'll be happy when. Right. So we're deferring it going to the future. Yeah. So people don't live like they know they're going to die essentially. Right. And I think, you know, something is important to say about that is like, I think that that mindset, I've, I've seen it called and I refer to it in the book as like, when I finally mindset, right? It's like, when something happens, then the moment of truth is going to come and after that life is going to be fulfilling and easy, but not yet. I mean, it's obviously, as you say, it's totally like drains the meaning out of life in the present. But it serves, again, it serves this purpose of avoidance, right? Because if you're always storing up fulfillment for the future, you don't have to acknowledge the fact that like, this is it. Life isn't a dress rehearsal. Like, you've got to do things now if you're ever going to do them. There's a great quote from John Maynard Keynes, the economist that I use in there about how people who live in this mindset and he's talking about pretty much everyone really, they're trying to secure for their actions. I won't get this exactly right. They're trying to secure for their actions a spurious and delusive immortality by always pushing them into the future, right? So the man who thinks like this Keynes writes doesn't, doesn't love his cat, but only his cat's kittens and not really their kittens, but the kittens kittens and so on forever, right? And so the downside is that you never get to enjoy and value and find fulfillment in life now, but the upside is it sort of helps you feel like you might be going to live forever. It's kind of useful to be putting things off because it helps this act of denial that we're all engaged in.
Why do we put our happiness on the future? (18:13)
It also means that we continue as humans to struggle forward, right? We continue to take on struggle, whether it's challenge or ambition. We continue to be ambitious. And then I go, well, maybe that's also what allowed our ancestors to give birth to us because if our ancestors weren't trying to build a better tomorrow and kind of deferring gratitude to the empire that they were trying to build, then maybe we wouldn't be here. Is it a human thing to also kind of defer our happiness to the future? I think it must be and really is. And I think we are sort of goal-seeking organisms. I think it's hugely compounded by the culture in which we live in the economic system in which we live. And I think it's sort of gone into warp speed in a way that we could step back from. But I also think that it's not about giving up goals, right? It's not about stopping trying to achieve things in the future. It's about not investing the whole value of what you're doing in those future outcomes. You can't build anything, a relationship, business, creative work. You can't do it unless you are partly focused on where you're going. But you don't have to be exclusively focused on where you're going. And I would say you probably shouldn't be exclusively focused on where you're going because it will damage the product that you're creating as well. You might fall into the efficiency trap as you call it, which is chapter two. Right. You get completely fixated on valuing the present only in terms of how it's going to help create the future thing. And then you find what happens is that actually you get further and further away from achieving that thing because in trying to make yourself more efficient, in trying to sort of process more and more tasks to get close to your goal, you make yourself more efficient and then more and more tasks like flood in to fill the excess capacity. This is Parkinson's Law and a whole lot of other kind of what goes by a whole lot of names. But it's this idea that if all you do is make yourself more efficient, then you'll just be dealing with a greater incoming volume of things. And in Box Zero, I felt was the perfect example of that in your book where the better you get it, sending emails and replying fast, in fact, the more replies you get.
Pursuit of efficiency (20:23)
And people come to know you as having a reputation of emails back quickly, which is going to be get even more emails. And then the challenge of getting to inbox zero becomes increasingly harder. And then you find yourself drowning. Yeah, absolutely. Right. And it's just when you spell it out like that, it's like, of course. And I remember when I was a young journalist sort of feeling overwhelmed by the number of articles I was being asked to write. So you get really, really better at writing them really fast and you get a reputation for being able to write quite a long, complicated article in a short amount of time. Like, who's the editor going to ask when the next one comes up? Right? I mean, you know, I got a lot of benefit from being the person that the editor asked, but it certainly didn't make me less busy. I think I have that a bit with my peer at the moment. I've got a reputation with her being able to do 50 meetings a day. Right. So my calendar is now 50 meetings a day. And we've actually forgotten about the concept of, like, I need to eat at some point. Right. So like, there's no, I looked at my calendar the other day and I'm, she's superb. And in fact, she does exactly what I've always asked her to do. So she's not at fault here I am. But I looked at my calendar the day and I was with her and I go, "Isn't it funny? It's like every minute of the next 14 hours is scheduled. But there's no space for lunch or just like sending a voice in it to my girlfriend." Right. So I've kind of like mis-prietised my life. But again, it's because I've, I've, I've not fought back against that. By being successful at being efficient, I've, you know, brought more efficiency into my life and taken away things that give me meaning, like connecting with my girlfriend or my mother or my family or, you know, those, or passions. And I think, yeah, I mean, I'd be interested to know if this resonates with you. For me, when I've got into that kind of groove, that place where you're sort of pursuing efficiency, at the expense of everything else, for me anyway, part of what's going on is, was always to do with self-worth, right? It's this idea that you've got to get to this point where you are this optimal and this efficient and productive, that you wouldn't really be justifying your existence on the planet somehow if you, if you, if you didn't do all these things. And so I think lots and lots of people who sort of accomplish stuff are driven to accomplish stuff because they feel like they need to accomplish stuff. Like it's not okay if they, if they don't accomplish stuff. And so that is a kind of never-ending treadmill as well because, like, why are you going to decide that any particular given level of output or accomplishment is the one where you can, where you can relax. And I think one of the things I'm always at pains to try to get across talking about this book is that this is meant to be a relaxing message, right? I think this is a liberating message that can be like a weight off your shoulders because if you, if you see that what you were doing was trying to do an impossible amount in order to feel like, okay, about yourself on some deep, buried level. Well, if you really begin to internalize that it's impossible, then it can't be what you need to do in order to feel okay about yourself. Maybe you're okay already. And then the things that you do in the world are kind of extra. And then I think, you know, that the message of our being finite, the message of our, of our being limited is not so now you've got to like squeeze value out of every moment and go base jumping every weekend or something otherwise have you really lived. Like, okay, great. The pressure's off. I can't do an impossible amount. I can only do a few of the things that seem like they matter. So all I need to do is choose for now, which one seemed the most important and focus on them and give my energy to them. And it's much more doable. I can completely relate to that attachment of efficiency to self worth. It felt so, it felt like you were calling me out. And the other thing I have, which I just realized as you were saying was because I've become successful in the eyes of society, quote unquote, I'm now also trying to live up to my own external reputation that people have with me.
Living up to your external reputation (24:11)
People say, "Oh, Steve, you're, you never sleep. You're so great. You work so hard. So when I have days where I don't work really hard and I clearly just achieved nothing that day." I'm like haunted by the, almost my reputation, which is largely false. My reputation that I don't sleep and that I'm working all the time and that I'm super productive and that I'm organized and I don't procrastinate. I'll tell you now, it is a load of bullshit. Some days I do like a lot of days I do way less than the people around me. But I have this, but I do have those moments now where if I have like an unproductive day or I've like slept until midday for whatever reason, which happens a lot, by the way, or I've procrastinated, which happens every day or I'm really in productive. I go, "You're not being Steve Bartlett. You're letting down your reputation. You're a fraud. You are a fraud." I get that a lot. That feeling of like, it doesn't like cripple me, but that feeling of, oh, if I look at today and I look up the reputation of Steve and Bartlett, I am a fraud. It's fascinating. I think it's a lot worse with a high public profile, but I do think it's kind of almost a universal trait that a lot of people have. A lot of people who are sort of, well, thinking back, we've talked before about being, I was just a sort of your garden variety high achiever at school, right? Like the kid getting the A grades or whatever. And a lot of people in that situation have what is called in psychology, you probably know, like they have a fixed mindset rather than a growth mindset, right? So one of the consequences of this is every time you do well, it's not something to be happy about because you did well. It's like something to feel pressure about because now that's the bar that you've got to reach next time. And it's like, you know, suddenly your success has become this standard that you've now got to meet every single time in the future. And that is like, it's an agonizing way to live. Usually that's people thinking that they're in a critic demands it or their parents demand it. Obviously, the bigger your audience, the more you can fall into thinking that like there are hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people who demand it. And of course, that also gives you the power to do something very helpful and liberating for those people when you break the fourth wall or whatever and point out that it isn't like that. Yeah. The other one that I always get is the morning routine. People will send me on Instagram. Like, what Steve, can you tell us your morning routine? Yeah. And I can almost imagine them at home, like sending the DM and being sat there with their notepad and running my response. And I'm like, honestly, I sometimes get out a bit at 11. Sometimes I don't sleep, so I end up getting a bit at 1. Sometimes, you know, I'll get out at 6. There's no green juice. For me, there's no yoga. There's no continual meditation or run or whatever. It's a sloppy mess, the whole process. The whole process of me waking up is a really sloppy mess. I'm trying to improve. I bring people here that talk about morning routines. It still doesn't seem to work. But despite of that, I'm happy. My businesses have gone well. I've managed to achieve my ambitions. Despite of my total imperfection in most key areas that the happiness industry would assert because they need to sell you. Complex things are else. Why would you buy? If the truth is that you're going to be imperfect and that's okay, maybe I'm okay, you said that. If that's the truth, it's hard to sell you it. But that's the truth as I know it. And that's why I enjoy these conversations. One thing I did talk about there was procrastination.
And this is a topic where, which I think honestly plagues people into feeling like they are inadequate. Yeah. If I make a video on my Instagram about procrastination, it will outperform everything. Relationships perform the best. Okay. Number two, is anything with the title of procrastination? Maybe I'll title this video about procrastination and it will do really well. Yeah. Why do people procrastinate? Well, they watch those videos presumably while they should be getting on with their working questions. That's probably why I can subscribe. The procrastination videos are really popular. One level, there's lots of different reasons. Fair of failure, fair of success, fair of all sorts of different things. But at the deep level, I make the argument anyway. You don't want to feel what it feels like to be limited and imperfect. And so if you hold on to a project, if you keep it in your mind in the world of fantasy, it can stay perfect. It can be later that you're going to do this great thing. Any action that actually brings things into the world involves a confrontation with your limitations. Maybe you're not going to have the talent for it. Maybe it's not going to be well received. Maybe it's going to be too complicated. If I'm trying to write a chapter of a book, like the stakes are high for me. Because I want it to go well, but I don't know that it is going to go well. I want it to be well received, but I don't know that it will be well received. So much nicer to just spend that time doing something kind of pointless and, you know, scrolling around or whatever. Because, yeah, because I don't have to have confront my limitations. And what I want to try to convey in that topic in this book anyway, I think, is to say, look, bringing anything into the world, studying for any qualification, doing any kind of creative work, like launching any kind of business, like the imperfection is guaranteed. Like you definitely aren't going to get to bring it into the world in exactly in tune with your fantasy. And everyone is in the same boat. And this is completely unavoidable and baked in. So you might as well do it, right? Because it's like people, I think people, they get caught up in themselves. They think, well, I'm going to make fool myself, or I'm going to let myself down, or I'm going to let my friends or my parents down. But it's like, no, the imperfection, the fact that it will stumble and not be everything you dreamed it could have been, that ship has sailed. Like that's just for everyone. So now can we just move forward and do our imperfect things, and lots of them will turn out to be, you know, fantastic things. But they will all be imperfect because that's what it is to bring things into the world as a human being. Knowing that, having written a chapter in your book called "Becoming a Better Procrastinator", do you still procrastinate? Yes. I always feel like my point about that I get asked this question and I'm always like, look, you've got to compare me with who I was before. Not with this perfect person, because I am not that perfect person. But I am a lot better at it than I was. Yeah, where I stumble on that is not so much anymore with the idea that it's got to be perfect standard. Because if you spend a few years as a journalist, you get that sort of beaten out of you, right? Because like deadlines come, deadlines come, you just got to send the thing in, and you stop thinking after a while that your glorious prose has got to be perfect. You can't let it out of your sight until it's perfect because it's just never how it works. Where I still run into trouble is that I do feel this urge to feel in control of all the things that are going on in my life and all the things going on in my work. So it's very tempting for me to say, you know, I've got to write that really important thing or I've got to think through this really important thing. But first, I'm going to make sure that all my inboxes are under control and then I'm going to do all that admin about finances that I'd left and I'd better sort of. And then you've, before you know it, it's like better like rearrange my desk so that all the pens are straightened up, whatever. Displacement activities, things that make me feel more in control of my world but actually don't move the things that I care about forward the most. I'm getting better on that too but that's the thing, that's where the struggle is for me. I will definitely spend like long periods of time getting my ducks in a row and clearing the decks and I write in the book about how you've really got to try and fight this urge to clear the decks because they will never be clear, right? So you've got to just get on with things but yeah, work in progress for sure. That's a very honest answer and I'm glad to hear that. You and me both. Quick one, for many years people have been asking for a coffee flavored heel and quite recently he'll release the ice coffee caramel flavor of their ready to drink heels and I've just become hooked on it over the last couple of weeks. I've been on a really interesting journey with heel which I've described and talked about a little bit on this podcast. I started with the Berry Ready to Drinks that I moved over to the protein salted caramel because it's a hundred calories and it gives you all of your essential vitamins and minerals but also gives you the 20 odd grams of protein you need. And now I'm balanced between them both. I drink mostly the banana flavor ready to drink. I've got really into the ice coffee caramel flavor of heels ready to drink and now I'm drinking that as well as the protein. Make sure you try the new ready to drink flavors. The caramel flavor is amazing. The new banana flavor as well is amazing and obviously as I said the iced coffee caramel flavor has been a real smash hit. So check it out. Let me know what you think on social media. I see all of your tags and Instagram posts and tweets about your back to the podcast. In that chapter about procrastination you talk a lot about focus as well in the idea of avoiding your middling priorities which I thought was really good advice. So could you talk a little bit about the importance of avoiding middling priorities? Certainly. The story that dramatizes this is this idea that some people may have heard about. It's attributed to Warren Buffett but I think probably it didn't come from Warren Buffett. People often just take wise sayings and say that Warren Buffett said that. I wish they did that with me. Guys. It's Warren Buffett, Buddha and Confucius.
How to prioritise (33:57)
Hopefully you as well. You as well. Yes, right. But he is supposed to have been asked like how do you decide what to prioritise in life and to have replied that you should make a list of your top 25 goals in life and order them numerically from 1 to 25. And then take the top five on that list and really focus on them in your life and take the next 20 and avoid them like the plague because they are the ones that you care about enough to let them distract you from the top five but not the ones that you're that are easy to let go of because you don't really care about them. They belong in this middle zone. Whether or not that exercise is a useful exercise, the principle here I think is that you have to sort of be especially wary of claims on your attention and your time that do matter a bit but just not as much as the things that you care about the most. It's very easy to people talk all the time about the importance of learning to say no, right? But people often I think in the there's a subtext there they think what that means is if you just learn to say no to all the stuff you don't want to do, you can spend your time doing stuff you do want to do. But I quote actually Elizabeth Gilbert the writer in the book saying like no it's way harder than that you have to say no to things that you do want to do because there are more things that matter than you have time for so middling priorities are you know that friendship that. Yeah, it's fine, you know it's nice when you meet up with that person but it's not neither of you getting that much out of it and it's taking another hour away from, I don't know, your partner your child your best friend you know definitely sort of. Work projects that sort of yeah you can do them you can handle that it might make you a little bit of money or you know whatever but it's just not it's not the number one thing takes quite a lot to resist those because they are. They're not unimportant they're just not important enough. And it feels like more is more but as the phrase goes in this context less is more. I've observed that in my life anyway if you if you want to be successful in business then focusing on one is opposed to having three startups is much more much better but put some people will brag about how many businesses they run or how many things they do as if they believe that that makes them more more valuable. They'll brag about how many friends they have as opposed to the quality of them and it tends to be the case that that phrase less is more is is true in the sense of focusing on less things gives you much more meaning and depth in life and that's ultimately what's what matters. Yeah and actually I think it's probably the way to accomplish more things as well right and so it's it's. One thing that I've found I can't talk on the level of businesses launched but only on the level of you know articles and books written is the degree to which I can do things sequentially and train myself to do one big thing at a time and wait till it's finished before you move to the next one takes a lot takes kind of guts to do it because it feels better to have a finger in every part once but to the extent that I can do that to that extent I get more of those things done. Because you make most of them wait you focus on one you do it and then it's finished and then you bring the next one in and you do that. It's so tempting to sort of dissipate your energies because I think it makes you feel back to the same idea right makes you feel limitless it makes you feel like you can wrap your arms around the whole world stops people in the case of my work it stops people pestering you because like where is that thing you said you do and it's very nice to live in that world of them of of sort of multitasking and multi projects but it's not the most effective way to get the things done. Yeah I I'm struggling with that I think for sure and I think I think as well when you've got. When you've got more opportunities like get a lot of a lot of people sending me a lot of things to do these days a lot of things that I could do it becomes an even greater and more important skill to master. So the amount of like we had one day last week where they're like every journalist across these multiple newspapers wants to speak to you about this I made this donation and there's part of me that goes oh yeah that's you know do all of these. TV things that day but then of course it comes at the cost of something else and we never really focus on the cost right it seems like yeah and that's kind of the case I have in my mind sometimes is I'm too focused on the benefit of doing the thing as if. You know which is a basically the premise of your book that like as if my time was unlimited. Yeah but yeah you know it's like I was I remember reading about this thing which has weirdly stated my mind for many years this idea that they believe humans can only juggle a certain amount of balls because of the physics of a ball going up and then the speed in which one could possibly move so they think it's 14 and nobody's been able to break the world record ever. Is that the record the 14 balls no one's ever been able to juggle more than 14 balls and that record is held because of the physics of the ball going up and the way that they would collide if you made it 15 and that made me think there is a physical limitation to the amount of balls we can physically juggle as humans and the balls you pick up come at the expense of the ones you don't yeah and that's I've tried to remember that I have to pick my 14 balls in life hopefully not for 14 I can probably do too but I have to pick my balls in life and realize that everyone I pick is at the expense of another and even looking at. You know I write in my book I really love waffles but I also like when I have a six pack I can only pick one right really I can only you know it's a metaphor but like I have to choose which one's important and it's the same with cheating. Some people might like having sex but they also might like having a relationship and you have to realize that if you want to be in a faithful relationship it comes at the cost of something and. Right now and I think that you know we yes we spend so much effort trying to avoid thinking about costs or trying to avoid incurring them but again there's something freeing about seeing that you are always incurring costs that every decision to spend an hour doing anything is a decision to not spend it doing other things that. You know every path you choose your your declining to choose all these other paths. It's painful because it means that like loss is built in to to living a human life but it's also. Like it's so unavoidable like there's nothing that can be done about that that's just built into being finite so in a way like we can relax about that. I wasn't cost things wouldn't be special like right if I could have the best of both worlds then the one I choose wouldn't have it you know scarcity adds value they say so. Totally and I mean there's been there's like philosophical work going back on like would you actually want to be immortal. If you know it no I agree I don't think you would because I think as I write in the book like if you were a mortal the answer to the question should I do x with my day today would always just be who cares. Like because if you didn't do it today you could do it on any number of other days to the stretching off into infinity so I think absolutely it's not pleasant to confront off in a tube but life would have no meaning if it went if it didn't stop. You write about watermelons in your book.
The water melon problem (41:20)
Oh yeah. Chapter five is about the watermelon problem. The famous BuzzFeed watermelon this was like what five years ago now two journalists from BuzzFeed put rubber bands around the watermelon they just kept adding rubber bands. Things like six hundred and something rubber bands before the watermelon just exploded. That was the end of the Facebook live but the point that I'm using it to make is that you know millions of people watch that and I'm not like it I don't think there's anything terrible with spending an hour of your. Life watching people put rubber bands around the watermelon but but they didn't choose to watch it that's a very clear example of the way in which especially in the sort of attention economy that we live in now your attention is incredibly important because what you pay attention to. Just is your life right what over the course of a life whatever you paid attention to is just. What your life was and yet it's very easily. High jackable and. And you know nobody who ended up watching that that hour got up that morning thinking. What I'd really like to do today is spend an hour putting watching people put rubber bands around the watermelon so it's just really the question of distraction the question of how we steward our attention and again. You want to break in the middle of the day and someone's doing some stunt involving watermelon fine right but but just bringing consciousness to that fact that when we pay attention to things we are paying very literally with. Little chunks of our of our life. Have you found any practical ways to make yourself less distracted by such. Compelling videos. There's really two parts to this I think one is especially in the modern era right one is the source of the distraction so definitely like I don't have social media on my. Phone I do that on a. I do that on a laptop exclusively. I've sort of ever shifting and never never perfectly observed set of personal rules about like when I will turn to my email and when I will turn to the internet when I will be. Try to be sort of offline and focused on. Writing and thinking. But the other side of it I think is is the distractibility not just the sort of. Not the things that are reaching out to grab our attention but the fact that we kind of go along willingly with this stuff and again. You know it's just my one thesis but I think the reason that we're doing that is because it's much more comfortable than focusing on hard stuff focusing on hard stuff is. Is is unpleasant sometimes because it brings us into contact with our limitations and then. Distraction is much nicer thing to do with that time because it doesn't. So really a big part of this for me and it's been definitely a slow gradual thing it's not a sort of one clever trick or something is just to expect. A certain amount of discomfort in things that matter right just to sort of just to expect that. Writing I keep using this example because it's personal to me but like but it's. It feels difficult Cal Newport who wrote the book Deep Work and Digital Minimalism who is very good on this has this argument that like what people call writers block. That's just feeling of writing right because it's a hard thing to do and sometimes you might get into flow great but most of the time it's probably going to be a question of like. It's like a little bit hard and the analogy that people always use is with weightlifting right I mean you don't expect if it's you don't expect that to feel non. Uncomfortable not that I have great experience of it but like you don't. There are certain areas where things where sort of growth. Involves discomfort and we're okay with that and then there are other areas often involving cognitive activities and where we were somehow deeply offended that it feels a bit difficult to do it but no it does. The other thing that I was thinking is extraordinarily difficult is really listening to another person right it never really gets super easy that I think especially in relationships right to sort of. Really concentrate on what someone is saying and not just to be thinking oh but then when when they're finished this is what I'm going to say it's it takes effort and if you're. If you're if your response to that feeling of effort is like I can't feel effort it must be easy. Then it's going to be much more tempting to just be like checking your phone when you should be listening or something so just a bit of a willingness to experience mild discomfort I think it's kind of a superpower. Yeah and obviously there's a lot of social narratives that kind of pointed at us being a failure like you're right even the phrase writers block. The word block doesn't feel like very natural it feels like there's something that must be. You got a disorder right yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah. And a lot is so funny because you said at the start of this some of these new inventions are really holding us back like words and vocabulary like there's so many of them even I talk a lot about in my book the idea of finding your passion. There's so many like things hidden within that phrase first you have to go in search of it because of the word find. So people go they go off in search of this thing that they think they can find it alludes to the fact that it's singular because the word passion is singular. So I'm looking for a Easter egg somewhere which I need to go in search and find and if I don't find it then I'm a failure and much of the messages I get in my DMS as I've said before are kids that are feeling in their lives. Or feeling inadequate and like they are a failure because they haven't found their passion when you say well maybe it's not something that you have to go in search of necessarily maybe there's more than one. It can be a really liberating thing and I think words generally are really constrained and they cause people a ton of pain like are you in love. I might come to him I'm you know I'm dating someone she goes is it love. Immediately after my brain scrambles around trying to figure out what I feel is the same as the definition that she feels like said I love to peanut butter but this is different. And also it gets a binary response yes or no. Yeah makes yourself comfortable. You can't actually give yourself to the experience. That's reminding me of when I became a father like literally 95% of people who I interacted with who were parents themselves already would say oh you should really savor these early months with a newborn baby it's so special you should really savor it. And this is true it is incredibly special you should savor it. But all it did to me was have me thinking like oh my goodness am I savoring this in the right way am I and then of course you're certainly not savoring it in that time because you're just like lost in your head and it's like this. Yeah absolutely it's just another it's another example of it right yeah. And then I guess the antidote is to liberate yourself from the expectation of like words and phrases and expect social expectations that you should feel and act a certain way and be able to answer certain questions. Yeah or just to understand that like you know yeah things are complicated and you only stay all stay sort of congeal over time and you sometimes you only understand things in the rearview mirror and you just sort of have to navigate intuitively you probably do know when you're in a relationship you don't know if it's love you probably do know if it feels like it's got forward motion or if it feels terribly stagnant or if it feels you know you can sort of intuit these things even if you can't slot these them into these kind of rigid categories. I might get this quite wrong but when you're talking about sea cognitive behavioral therapy and in fact we can achieve a form of which may be better than cognitive behavioral therapy of that therapy with like self analysis in various ways and for me this podcast and the diary that I had to keep originally when I when it first started to do it and also this obligation I have to make content for the world has been one of the greatest forms of like therapy I've ever encountered.
Why self analysis is so important (48:55)
And I always I think it's like one of the unappreciated ways to arrive at self awareness overcome your own bullshit and yeah which is which is having to write. Yeah to think and having to try and find the truth in your own experience. Yeah can you relate to me no totally and I for me I mean there's lots of research about how writing down your personal problems for example is incredibly like journaling it works and it's proven to work. It's not necessarily because you come up with solutions, although that can happen it's because you end up you sort of have to take this third person stance on your own mental contents and you have to do that for sure if you're trying to package it in some form that other people can can benefit from or can understand so writing for an audience is is absolutely an example of that. There's something incredibly powerful in seeing your issues your interests whatever from the perspective of another person I think it's related to that thing about how so often in life. You know our friends can see what what we need to do or what's needed in our lives a bit more clearly than than we can because you sort of them. You can't see the wood from the for the trees inside your own head but but they can be like no very obviously you need to do this and then this. So it's a little bit of that of that effect as well. And how you can always give better advice than you live by. No absolutely tell me about it. The consequences of having this highly efficient productivity focused life you see it in people you were talking earlier about the great innovators of the world that managed to focus on a set of priorities but when you ask these people if they're happy like Elon Musk if he's happy.
Why do we purse ambition over happiness (50:53)
No I know but he thinks Elon Musk is happy. And I think he said in the Rogan interview that you wouldn't like to be me you wouldn't like to be ahead. But we still seem to pursue that over what we think will make us happy any well what what will clearly make us happy anyway. I think that all of us have something inside us that we're sort of here this doesn't sound too supernatural that we're sort of here to express and to put out into the world. I think the it gets complicated because some people I don't want to accuse Elon Musk of this but I think it's probably very often true of a certain kind of very driven people. It's not just that they're sort of trying to bring their gift into the world. It's an odd and not necessarily helpful way of trying to sort out certain like psychological issues they have so they feel that they have to achieve a certain amount because they were not you know given sufficient unconditional love by their parents so they need it from the world or they feel that yeah they need to justify their existence in some way. And then it gets hard to know when to stop it gets hard to tell the difference between success and things that are truly bringing you happiness. But at the same time right you don't want to it's important to not suggest I think that the ideal is to be for everyone is to be so completely chilled out that all you would want to do is lie on a hammock on a beach and sort of not create things in one way or another that might be appropriate for some people. But there is this fear when I talk about this stuff and write about this stuff of like oh wouldn't it lead you to just think well why do anything you know what wouldn't it all just lead us to be sort of nihilists in that way. And I don't think so for that reason but I also think like let's cross that bridge when we come to it we're already we're all so driven and so sort of trying to get more and more done. There's not a huge risk yet of us becoming so zen about all these things that we can have stopped achieving entirely. I pondered that a lot in my life and this idea that because one of the things you said earlier was maybe I'm okay this kind of realization that maybe I am already enough. Yeah maybe none of these goals are going to increase my value maybe even if I become a multi-millionaire Steve Bartlett is just going to be worth one Steve Bartlett still. I had I pondered that for when I became a millionaire right when I when my company listed on the stock market and I thought well this doesn't feel any different in fact the anti climax makes me feel pretty bad. The expectation that I was going to feel like you know like I was more worthy that the anti climax of that has made made me feel worse. And then asking myself the question well if I am already enough then what's the point in striving for more and I'm my conclusive my conclusion on all of this pondered was that realizing that I'm enough is actually the foundation for like real ambition. And when I was when I was insecure enough to believe that money or a Lamborghini might make me more I was striving for things that weren't my real ambitions they were social ambitions and the minute you realize you're enough in that Lamborghini isn't going to do it. Then you start re re planning your ambitions and go do you know what I actually love doing is piano right hanging out with my niece right so that that feeling that I am enough is the foundation for real ambition. Totally yeah no I think that's a great such a good way of putting it I mean I the way I've sometimes thought about this is like. It's sort of ambition and achievement and creation they don't have to be the thing you're doing the thing that you need to do in order to get somewhere they can be the thing you do just to express yes the fact that it's great to be here and you they're great to have these skills and these opportunities. I'm not religious but there is a this idea in Christianity that I keep running up against now because people contact me and say have you thought about this because it's clearly related this notion of this notion of grace that that like you don't you can't justify yourself by your works in the world right you can't sort of achieve salvation by what you do. But you also don't in this model anyway you don't need to achieve it either because you're already justified in the eyes of God if you're a religious person. And so the reason that you do things like this from the reason that you then do stuff in the world is is again it's just like yeah it's it's for the it's an act of like glorification or worship right offer as we would saying like just expressing the fact that it's great to be able to do these things and like. Hey you could never been born you know so it's not a reason to not do things it's that it's that you're not doing them to try to justify yourself in the eyes of the world or if you're religious you know be in the eyes of God whatever but. Doesn't mean you don't do things it just means you do them from a different motivation which is like hey I get to do these things that's great. You know I feel like these existential think is a some tortured. So yes yeah do you relate to that. Sure I mean I think you know there's a philosopher who died recently Brian McGee who talks about the distinction between people who sort of have philosophical problems and don't and what he means is that like from the age of like five he can remember lying on a in a field looking up at the sky thinking like. Well it can't be that the universe stops somewhere but it also can't be that it goes on forever like what and and yeah and saying that there are people who are sort of troubled by these things in some real personal way. And then there are people who are not troubled by those things and they have. I mean they may be very intelligent and deep people but they don't have these kind of like hold on like what what's it all about like was it and anyway I'm I'm one of the people who does and it sounds like you are too. But yeah there would be something nice to not to not be perhaps.
We’re addicted to the speed of life (57:15)
In your book you say that we're addicted to the speed of life. Is that true and why is it an addiction. I'm talking there about the exploration of the culture the fact that everything you know moves so fast that we're able to do so many things so much more quickly travel communicate cook food you know then we then we once could and how and why that like it's a if you stop and think about it's really weird that all that technology and all that acceleration has not left us feeling more relaxed and chilled out right because it saves time. The world that has 747s in it and microwaves in it and the internet in it all by rights to feel much calmer because it's all time is say but of course it doesn't have that effect like that has that effect on nobody and it makes everybody feel more impatient and rushed. And I think that the reason that the frame of addiction makes sense I'm drawing on the work of a therapist called Stephanie Brown who's who was herself an alcoholic got sober with a a then started being a therapist to in Silicon Valley to various people in that sort of first dot combo and like two thousands and and seeing in them this trait in their addiction to urge what she called their addiction to urgency their addiction to speed that reminded her very much of her youthful experiences as an alcoholic, namely that your sort of life speeds up you feel overwhelmed you think that going faster it has got to be the solution right if you go even faster than you can cope with all this rush of incoming information incoming opportunities whatever it is. So you go faster but then you find that actually that's just increased the speed of everything and now you need to go faster still and it's a sort of it's a spiral and you crash. There's controversy about talking about addiction whether it should be kept as a sort of strictly kind of medical idea but I think that's really it resonates with me because I feel like it's very tempting in this in this world that feels like there's so much stuff to stay on top of. And it moves at such a tempo. There is this notion that like the only solution is for you to go even faster than it to be able to encompass all of that and this is this is not going to work because you are never going to be able to you know there's an infinite supply right there's an effectively infinite number of emails you could receive demands your boss could make opportunities you could pursue businesses you could start whatever to getting faster at going through an infinite supply. You don't get to the end of that because it's infinite so Stephanie Brown's advice to her clients and I think it's it's very useful is that all of us who are sort of moving at this speed need to experiment a little bit with like what it feels like to just slow down to the speed that things take and say you know what I'm if I'm going to read this novel and it takes my time and it takes. I need to read slowly and focus I'm just going to like it's not going to feel great at first right because we are wired for racing through things. And it doesn't feel great at first but but it is a path to a much deeper kind of engagement with the world one of the things I do in the book is a write about this exercise that I did that is recommended by an art historian at Harvard University who I went to interview who she has all her students choose a painting and go and look at it for three hours like set on set on a little bench whatever and just look at that painting for three hours take notes if you want but you're not allowed to get up. And she knows it's like it's in since it's completely insane for almost anybody today to envisage doing something like that for three hours. But that's why she that's why she suggests it and you know for the first hour it's incredibly uncomfortable because you're not in charge anymore you can't race through the day in the way that you were accustomed to doing but it is so useful because getting through that discomfort to what lies on the other side is so empowering I think patience is really a kind of a superpower in the modern in the modern world and in the context of a painting. What happens is you literally see things in the painting that you haven't seen in the first 45 minutes I mean it's bizarre in the context of work creative work business I think it's more just that like when everyone is racing as fast as they are today. There's actually real power in being able to resist that and let things take the time they take and think about something for a few more days if that's what it takes like you actually can have more success that way. As well as feel less like a headless chicken is there a role of impatience is there a role somewhere in life for impatience depends how you define it right so in the book I'm talking about impatience as wanting things to go faster than you can have them go so then I'd say like no there's never any. Even if you're sort of driving somebody to the hospital because they're going to labor or something right I mean it's like you should do that really fast you should be urgent you should you should prioritize that and you should go as you should drive as fast as is practical but even then it's probably not worth feeling frustrated that you're stuck in traffic or something right I mean it's so if impatience is that kind of frustration at the fact that you have limited control over how fast the world goes how fast something happens then no I mean it's just wild right we now are much more impatient like if a web page takes five seconds to load like you can feel it it's ridiculous but as if somebody says yeah I'll put that stuff in the mail and you'll get it in three days you're like that's fine right it's it's OK the mail I'm sure yeah with those of us who still you know right but like that the faster things get the more offensive it is when they still only take a few seconds like when there's a few seconds delay if we're using the word in another way to mean having a sort of hunger for things to change in your life or change in society you know you're not not willing to sort of sit around and be a be a doormat while things when you could change things then sure I think that's a different kind of impatience and I'm sure it has a role. Quick one as many of you know I've been trying to make my life a little bit more sustainable as it relates to energy ever since I sold my range over sport and bought an electric bicycle and my energy as a sponsor of this podcast one of the brands that make that transition much much easier they are at the forefront of British renewable eco smart technology and their products are really really changing the game if you're on YouTube you can see what I'm holding in my hand this is called the Eddy right it's the UK's number one solar power diverter so what is a solar diverter it's a device for people like you and me that means you can divert your excess energy back into your home rather than back into the grid which will save you power and money it's super user friendly and easy to install and you can control it using the my energy app on your phone to find out more about this product and more products like here that will help you make that sustainable transition head over to my energy calm and I highly recommend you check out the Eddy it's a real game changer for a product and one that I'm going to be installing in my home soon in your book you talk about embracing radical incrementalism what does that mean for you this is the idea that there are contexts where I'm really being willing to make progress on the basis of little and often right kind of gradual progress to do a tiny bit at a time and not kind of binging on the things you're trying to achieve can be really powerful again I'm sorry to keep coming back to writing as an example but the work that I'm drawing on there from a psychologist called Robert Boyce who studied academics who write and figure trying to figure out like who are the ones who actually get a ton of papers published and a ton of books written and who are the
Appreciating Small Changes And Relevance
Embracing small changes (01:04:50)
ones who get mired in like procrastination and paralysis and he found that the really productive people in that sphere were the ones who made writing a modest part of their daily life right it occupied like a couple of hours maybe as opposed to the ones who made it into this huge thing that then became very intimidating and they got all sorts of like psychodramas going on with it because it was something they were willing to sort of do for a little bit leave aside come back to and I think this applies to especially applies to anything that is like brain work but I think it applies to pretty much all kinds of endeavor right there's often a huge benefit in being willing to say well I'm going to work on this for a tiny amount of time today and I'm going to stop even if I'm on a roll right when my time is up I'm going to stop and then I'm going to come back it makes it something that you can sustain day after day after day if you do the opposite of incrementalism right if you give this if you give this sort of absolutely center stage in your life then if it goes well great but if it doesn't go well it becomes this kind of huge intimidating thing and I've found that you know if I'm working on a book say really sort of almost embarrassingly small work days on it regularly done day after day after day so much more productive like in terms of the actual output I think the deadline of having to send to the publisher just hung over me and was like forcing me to okay speak today you have to write three thousand words yeah deadlines have their role right and I you know I would have got nowhere without deadlines in newspapers because they sort of kept they sort of helped me sort of bust through perfectionism and stuff because it was just literally you know it's I did these things on it I would write these kind of features for the Guardian where I had to like that the idea came to me or was given to me at like 10 13 in the morning and 5 p.m. they needed a two and a half thousand word researched article he's just be like okay I've just got to do it but in a way I'm sort of training myself out of that now and I think that to make it isn't a it's perfectly okay and it's fine but but it but it isn't sustainable I think that you know that the to really over the long haul be able to do something like like writing I found requires that I have acquired the ability for sort of dogged persistence rather than you know cruising to the to the deadline another topic that people hate talking about or that at least it seems to make people really uncomfortable and I sometimes I just bring up the conversation because I like to see I find the I find the reaction to be really fascinating is this idea which you talk about which is that we need to embrace are like relative irrelevance oh yeah in the world
Embracing our irrelevance (01:08:10)
and when I say this to people you can see it sometimes shattering something in them the idea that they don't matter in the grand scheme of the universe they really don't matter what like what is the upside of embracing my own irrelevance this idea and do I matter Oliver depends what you mean by matter do I matter in the in the grand scheme of the universe I don't really think any of us I think I mean I think I mean what I'm what I want to say about this is if you adopt a cosmic timescale right if you love the history of like the cosmos or even just the planet like no human life or even anything that is done in a human life you know almost nothing will outlive us and the things that do outlive slight you know people inventing great scientific breakthroughs or something even then the the period these have been relevant if you look at the cosmos is still like a tiny blink of an eye so I think there is a sort of inbuilt bias that most of us have not not just the ones who are megalomaniacs but almost all of us to to think sort of subliminally of history as having led up to like how a bit of history right and then to think of the decisions that we take in the things that we're doing as fundamentally the most important things that are going on in that bit of history and then on some level we probably have to right just to sort of short to be able to like get up in the morning it's not you can't think of yourself as this kind of tiny pimpric of light in the middle of eons of darkness of the cosmos from the big bang to the you know to when the universe ends or whatever but actually you can really get bogged down in that you can really be like well you can spend a long time mind and in decision about things because you've built the stakes up in your head to an enormous degree you can really get sort of depressed about whether you can really have an impact on things because it has to be something that lives for millennia after your gone or something when you realize how little most of it's going to matter quite soon some people do go down that into like despair and horror but I think that is a reason to be like why not take the risk like why not do the bold things it's like the stakes are a lot lower than you thought the universe doesn't really care and you don't need to worry about whether you're fulfilling your purpose that the universe had laid down for you because the kind of isn't one and that's actually it's liberating as I keep saying it's a reason to it's a reason to sort of experimentally do the things that seem to you like the coolest things to do then what you can do is you can use a definition of mattering according to which so much that we do matters because I think it's difficult for people to remember that like I don't want to use a definition of a meaningful life that rules out some very mundane things like caring for a sick relative cooking nutritious meals for your kids making your neighborhood a slightly more beautiful place to live in like we don't want to definition of the meaning of a lot of meaningful lives that says none of those things are meaningful surely and so yeah I can imagine that it's an interesting issue for sort of people who people who look up to you specifically for example thinking that thinking that it's actually like they've got to emulate you in order to be doing something meaningful rather than be inspired by you which is different which is a different point right because actually very very Every day mundane things can be meaningful, and it's quite possible that the most fulfilled people on the planet are precisely the ones you never hear from, because they're doing low profile things. And then, you know, I have this theory. Maybe it's insulting to you this theory. I have this theory that the more of a public profile someone has, and I have a modest one, so it supplies to me too, but to that degree, they're screwed up in some way because they have some problem with not being ordinary. And then you know, the Hollywood A-list. Those people are probably the most sexist arts. No, it is. I mean, it definitely begets more problems. I noticed that this week I had a journalist email me saying that five years ago, one of your ex and police says your dog did a poop in the office and you didn't pick it up. And I thought, "Fucking hell. This is what my life has become." And genuinely, and I've been pondering it ever since I received that email that now that my life is of somewhat public interest, it means every full time I might have made or didn't make is now I'm now going to be like scrutinized for, and I'm now going to have to justify, because if I don't, then my life could be cancelled, which is a tough bar to live by, and one I wish I didn't have to live by, to be honest, but it is fascinating because if I had said that, you know, our own death and irrelevance could be a motivating force, it doesn't appear on the surface that that makes sense, but I completely agree that my own life and my own irrelevance are two things that liberate me from getting caught up in the idea that a comment on Instagram matters or how my hair is matters, and that hopefully liberates me enough to go in the pursuit of things that do provide me with my own subjective meaning in life.
A question from your book (01:14:20)
Yeah, and that help other people and lift other people up, right? It's not that when I talk, I talk in the book about cosmic insignificance, and I sort of mean that, right? It's like from the perspective of the cosmos? No, it doesn't matter, but that doesn't mean that it doesn't matter. It can matter to people here today, you know. One of the things we do in this podcast, a long-standing tradition is we ask people who have just come in to leave a question for the next guest, so the last guest leaves a question for the next guest. Before I do that, in the back of your book, you leave the reader five questions for them to ponder. I'm going to ask you one of your own questions from the five that you left. So I'm going to go for question four. In which areas of your life are you still holding back until you feel like you know what you're doing? This is definitely one that speaks to me. Obviously I put the questions in because they speak to me, but this is this difficulty that I think we all have, but I really have had with realizing that on some level everyone is winging it. So it sort of speaks to imposter syndrome and things like that and not feeling, not launching into things until you feel that you're ready. Recently, since the book was out, I've been giving more sort of talks and speeches than I ever have done in my life before, and I've sort of been forced into not holding back on that because the invitations come in and I say yes to them and it's like, "Oh my God, I got to do this." That is something where I feel perpetually unready and if it was up to me, I would probably have left it, you know, some more, I mean, it was up to me, but if I'd felt that it was up to me, I would have left it some more years to sort of get really good at doing that. And I'm not ready, but it seems to be going okay. I kind of evaded that question by giving an example of something where I'm not holding back because I'm actually doing them.
Former Guest Question
The last guest question (01:16:04)
I think that answer was really good. Does it count? No, it does count. And it really speaks to, because I also believe that had been of your own choice to get really good before you do it, you probably never would have done it, which is what most people, it's like the trap of the mind that I will launch my business when I have some time, or I will launch it when I have learned something, but there's never a perfect time. So unfortunately, we're forced into picking it in perfect time. Yeah. And now is always an imperfect time. So I always try and implore people on that basis to do the thing that they think the perfect day will enable. Now to ask you the question that our previous guest did leave. Oh, okay. So I never read it until I open the book. They have good handwriting, so I can read this one. Do you do enough to keep learning? That's a very good question. No, there are definitely, I definitely aspire to make more space in my days for, especially for reading. Why? Because it gets squeezed out by doing things related to writing and books. It actually gets hard to keep that section of time for the exploration of ideas in that way. On the other hand, I want to say that things like becoming a parent, even things like moving back from New York to the UK, like there are certain ways in which you learn that are not like book-based learning and you just sort of are dragged forwards in your education, whether you like it or not. And I think in those ways, it's more a question of seeing what you're being taught and that you are learning than needing to make more time for learning. That's an interesting question. But also in your being pulled into speaking more and all that? Yeah, absolutely. New skills that you have to sort of... You're doing that. Exactly. But it is just the honest answer is it is something that I don't feel sort of satisfied about in terms of the apportionment of my time. What about stuff like this and coming in today? I love this kind of conversation. And I think in it, obviously you learn from it completely. But I think what I'm talking about is sort of... I guess it is exposing myself to new avenues of thinking that are not sort of jumping off from things that I've already thought of. Yeah, I don't know. This kind of conversation is great. Well, thank you. And thank you for writing such a brilliant book, one that I feel like is going to liberate people from a lot of bullshit that's holding them back in many, many ways, from stress to anxiety to feelings of inadequacy because we're trying to live up to a social expectation that is unachievable. And I think I know for a fact that based on the questions I get asked a lot in my DMs that my audience should read this book. So I implore them to do so because also the way that you write is from such a nuanced human perspective, which is avoiding the cheap answers or the binary answers to some of the big questions about life productivity efficiency. And everything that plagues us in the modern world. So thank you for writing such a great book. Thank you for your time as well. And yeah, it's been an absolute pleasure chatting to you. Thank you so much. That's so kind of you to say. I've really enjoyed it. Thank you.