An evening with Oliver Burkeman

It started with frustration. A self-induced, self-indulgent strop about where my life is going. These moments are usually fleeting, and my familiar blanket of delusion soon returns to remind me everything will work out okay. But in the rare cases it takes a while to return, I email Oliver Burkeman. 

This has happened twice. Last summer I emailed him for advice and his thoughtful, considered reply still sits in my inbox and is visited regularly. Some people have a bath with a glass of wine - I read a one year-old email from Oliver Burkeman when I need a pick-me-up. 

Last week, in the fog of my mini meltdown, I emailed him again (resisting referring to him as Ol, on the off-chance he'd forgotten our history). I told him I would be attending his Guardian masterclass, and asked if he'd have time for a chat at some point during the evening. He said to make myself known, and he was sure we'd have a chance to talk. 

I should have known, of course, that I wouldn't approach him. Too British, and too weighed down by the awkward feeling of going to an event where I knew no-one, I didn't dare talk to him. Nevertheless, the evening was still amazing.

The class, hosted at the Guardian, focused on creative work: finding the time and willpower to do it. Oliver started off with his key piece of advice: schedule time in advance for ‘deep work’, and ‘do it non-perfectionistically'. I’m not sure that’s a word – but if Oliver says it is, let's just go with it. 

On the topic of getting work done, he said, it’s amazing how much completely useless advice there is. There are two problems, Oliver said, that he encounters. First, there’s The Bullshit Problem, where things sound like advice but even the people who promote the advice don't follow it.

And The Cheesiness Effect: most of the methods that work are “extraordinarily excruciating and embarrassing, and you wouldn’t want to admit that you actually do them”.  He used the example of writing a gratitude journal, admitting that he does this himself. It turns out, to my sheer delight and relief, Oliver Burkeman is so Oliver Burkeman. Here are a few of the key things I picked up from the evening:

There will always be too much to do

Most advice assumes it’s possible to get everything done, but the idea you’ll have time once all of the little things are out of the way isn’t true.

Scheduling time in advance works

“I’ve asked a lot of people how they get the stuff they’re known for done, and they always say by scheduling time in advance. I know it’s mundane and dull, but this method embodies many psychological truths. Planned things are more likely to happen”.

Focus on one thing at once

“It’s good to get everything out of your head before you begin working. The human brain can’t concentrate on too many things at once. As soon as you have somewhere with everything written down, it clears up a lot of space”. Oliver advises keeping one long list of everything that needs doing. Just knowing it’s there helps, he said.

You don’t have to feel like it

Oliver said this is his ultimate insight into fighting procrastination. “You don't have to feel like doing work. You can feel those feelings, accept them, and do it anyway”.

Distraction isn't a disaster

“I recently started working in a co-working space where there’s lots of noise, and being annoyed by it is quite conducive. Putting my headphones on and blocking out the noise is part of the ritual”.

Talk to others

Never underestimate a second mind - there are things that come out of conversations that you can’t get elsewhere.

Halfway through the evening, Oliver was joined by fellow Guardian journalist Hadley Freeman. “Most Tuesdays, when I sit down to write my column, I’m always convinced I have no ideas or opinions, but it always happens,” she said. This was a relief to hear, because I go through the same thing every time I write anything.

On the topic of the internet, Hadley was especially ardent. She referred to it as “the curse of humanity”. Great writers of the past wouldn’t have done so much if they had the internet, she joked. Very. Good. Point. Another interesting piece of advice she offered was that we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves because we don’t see other people’s struggles or failures. We only see their successes.

She talked about the merits of getting outside and away. Oliver agreed, saying perspective is important: “the crucible of your creativity is over there, not here. I have insight when I’m on a plane into how I could reorganise my life… probably because I know I can’t do it at the time.”

I left the class thinking I'd picked up a few things that might pop into my mind when I'm struggling. But the effects have been immediate. Yesterday morning, I cut my getting-ready time in half and spent half an hour writing before leaving for work. This is unprecedented. But I don't think it was all down to the Masterclass per se. 

Not to knock Oliver's masterclassing skills, which were excellent, but going to a place where you'd love to work and listening to people whose careers you want was the most motivating part. Humans are simple creatures - having a visual helps. Even if being on the inside of the Guardian feels like only being allowed to lick a chocolate bar before it’s taken away from you.

It’s not easy for those of us who have a gap between where they are and where they want to be. But I learnt that it’s good for the soul to meet people you look up to and discover they’re exactly like you’d hoped. Oliver was amazingly articulate, effortlessly funny and completely unpretentious. 

Before moving to London 18 months ago, I didn't think the city would serve me such an unpalatable lesson in the virtues of patience and resolution. If I had imagined myself sitting in the Guardian one day, it would’ve been because I walked into a job.

Instead, I was to sit and listen someone I really admire advise me on how to keep going through failures and doubt. My head is definitely no longer in the clouds - it has well and truly fallen on its arse, thankfully. But that's okay. The Guardian office has amazing chairs. 


  1. "Those of us who have a gap between where they are and where they want to be" ... You do realise that's about 99.8% of the population, including, more than likely, Oliver Burkeman?

    Sounds like it was an interesting night, anyway. Oh, and next time, make yourself known, you big spoon.

    1. It was, and there was elderflower juice. You definitely missed out. Too busy writing on bananas, I assume.

  2. Sounds like quite the talk, and he's got a lot of great advice. Particularly doing deep work "non-perfectionistically" (which isn't a word but damn well should be).

    And what Andy said. Life is too short to not make yourself known.

    1. This is very true. And there was lots of advice - far too much advice to fit into one blog post!

    2. Great post, thank you. OB is running that clas again in October. You have convinced me to pay up and be there this time.