How do we measure and manage our lives? This week Paul Ford and Rich Ziade talk to Alan Burdick, a staff writer and former senior editor at The New Yorker whose perpetual lateness led to Why Time Flies: A Mostly Scientific Investigation, a far-reaching and comprehensive exploration of time. They discuss productivity apps, our internal clocks, children’s perception of time, bullet journaling, and more.
Paul Ford Hi, I’m Paul Ford and you’re listening to Track Changes, the podcast of Postlight, a digital products studio in New York City at 101 5th Avenue. We build apps for your phone, we build web apps, and we build big web platforms, and we design them and make them look beautiful. So, if you need that sort of thing: you know how to get in touch. And if you don’t know how to get in touch, just send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m joined, and I’m very glad to say that I am joined, by my co-founder, Rich Ziade.
Rich Ziade Hi, Paul.
PF Rich, have you ever thought a lot about productivity? How many to-do list managers have you used?
RZ I have churned through every single to-do list app there is and when the phone came out, like the iPhone comes out and then people start making them for the iPhone, and I churned through those as well. It’s a big deal.
PF I used to do a lot of it but I settled on one that’s really, really nerdy, just big text files, and I’ve probably stuck with it about five or six years.
RZ What is it called?
PF It’s called Org-mode, it runs inside of the Emacs text editor. It’s only for really nerdy people.
RZ That’s like, you know, you’re at the party and people are like, “What are you listening to these days?” And you go out of your way to drop the name of a band that no one’s gonna know.
PF Yeah, like, “I’m only into acid jazz.” That kinda thing.
RZ “Org-mode is my thing.”
PF Org-mode . . . I could talk about Org-mode a lot but I would lose every listeners we have so let’s move on.
RZ Let’s use our time wisely, Paul!
PF Exactly, that’s the theme of this show. We talk to a man named Alan Burdick who has been an editor and writer for many, many years and has written a very interesting book about time, about our perception of time. And it turns that he’s obsessed with productivity solutions.
RZ So let’s get into this.
PF Let’s talk about how to be more productive . . . We have a very broad topic today. Um the guest is not broad, he’s pretty well put together.
RZ Yeah, he seems to have it together.
2:13 PF But we’re lucky to have Alan Burdick who has written a book called . . . go ahead, Rich, tell me what it’s called.
RZ It’s called Why Time Flies: a Mostly Scientific Investigation.
PF Uh —
RZ I gotta ask Alan about the word ‘mostly’. I’ve been staring at the word ‘mostly’ —-
PF Well, let’s say ‘hi’ to Alan first.
RZ Let’s say ‘hi’ to Alan. Hi!
PF Hi Alan.
Alan Burdick Hi! Hi, gentlemen.
PF Thank you! Thank you for coming in.
AB Thank you!
RZ You know usually we prepare. We have like bullets and bullets of notes and things we wanna take but this, you just decided to cover 60 thousand square miles with this title. That it’s like, “Yeah, we don’t have to be ready. This’ll take care of itself,” is my thinking.
PF I bought the book. I’ve read much of the book.
AB I appreciate that.
AB I appreciate that.
PF But on Kindle.
RZ Oh did you?
PF Yeah, yeah, yeah. You gotta buy books. If anyone is listening to this and you’re thinking to yourself, “I could pirate a book,” that’s just evil at this point. You have to buy people’s books. So go to Amazon right now and buy this book before the show’s over . . .
3:18 RZ Dramatic pause! [Laughs.]
PF I’m just trying — I just wanna help.
RZ No, yeah, I understand.
PF Um ok so the subject here is time which — and really it feels like the subject is the difference between how we perceive and experience and what time actually is.
AB Yeah, I mean, I should probably clarify that this has nothing to with space-time.
AB So it’s like no physics in this book. I made a conscious choice upfront: no physics.
PF That’s a key selling point.
AB Yeah, this is all about the perception of time . . . and biology, up to a certain degree.
PF So this show seems to be dragging, why is that? [All chuckle.]
AB Cuz you keep looking at the clock —
RZ I have to ask this question before we get into the meat of it, so walk me into the moment where you said —
AB “Oh this is a great idea.”
RZ — “I’m gonna do it. I’m gonna write this book.”
AB Ten years ago.
RZ Ten years ago?
RZ Ok, the build up.
PF That should make every author feel better [laughter], right?
AB Uh well two things were going on: I had just finished my previous book which was about ecology and evolution and it got me thinking about these giant time scales, right? [RZ right] you know, tens of thousands of millions of years that are really hard to wrap your brain around because we inhabit, you know, 80 or 90 of them. It’s just like this tiny window. And so I got interested, number one, in that dissonance, you know? That this window that we live in is such a tiny fraction of the possible window of time that one could look at. And then it got me thinking about what is time in me. I had studied history of science in college long ago, and so I spent a fair amount of time thinking about Einstein and all that stuff that I couldn’t possibly explain to you now uh cuz that was a long time ago. But it never felt like that had a whole lot to do with the time in me. And, you know, and that feeling of time slowing down or time speeding up, and I just began to wonder what, you know, what is this stuff? Also I had a really bad relationship to time. I was always late and I had this crazy idea that I would write a book about time. Yeah yeah.
5:26 RZ Relationship with —
RZ With time? . . . No, I think he meant relationship as in like with someone.
AB Well with anybody, really, and I was late for any appointment to anybody.
RZ Oh ok, so it is the relationship with time.
RZ Which was affecting your relationships with people.
AB Yeah, yeah, my then girlfriend, now wife, I think nearly dumped me at some point because I was perpetually late to everything.
PF It is pretty tough on — I, yeah, that can cause —
PF — I’ve learned to get much better at that.
RZ So instead of going and looking up like an airport book, “How To Get Their On Time” [chuckles].
AB Yeah “How To Stop Procrastinating.”
PF Or like buying a Franklin planner [RZ laughing].
PF Now this is the most writerly thing I’ve ever heard.
RZ [Laughing] right.
PF Like, “God I am having a lot of trouble, you know, I got there at 7:25, I shoulda been there at 7:15.”
6:17 RZ “It must be the nature of time!” [Laughs.]
PF “I should write a book about this!”
AB That’s exactly — I was gonna kinda tackle this in the most rational way possible: I would write a book about time and sort of explain what it was, but at the same time I would talk to all kinds of time coaches and productivity people who would help me write the book on time. So it would be a book about time written on time.
PF I swear to god, any successful writing career is structured procrastination.
AB Yeah, yeah —
PF The reason why I’m late on my book about the web is that I wrote a web content-management system to help me write the book —
AB I remember this.
PF Yeah you do. From a couple of years ago.
AB Yeah I tried it out, did it work?
PF No I’m still buried in the middle of that [laughter]. It’s terrible. It’s terrible. Ok so you have brain that’s like, “I need to solve this problem by going as meta as possible.”
AB So I’m gonna go way down the productivity rabbit hole. I’m gonna spend like months down there . . . trying to find the perfect tools to organize my time with, and I’m gonna really get nothing done while I do that but I’m gonna —
7:22 PF You’re gonna be so organized.
AB — come home everyday and say, “Oh yeah, honey, I did a ton of work today. I really was working. I was researching all about how to organize my time.”
PF So walk us through some of the things you dabbled with cuz look we’re a technology shop and if you go out into the office, and you ask people, “How do you organize your to-do list?” You’ll never leave. You’ll be here for the rest of your life.
AB Yeah yeah.
PF So . . . what did you try?
AB Well, oh my god. Uh I tried — do you remember Slife?
AB Slife was this thing — I’m sure it exists in some other form now.
RZ Spell this.
AB S-L-I-F-E. It was a browser thing that would basically track every single thing that you did on the brow— I mean, of course, they all do that anyway. But this made it all transparent so you that you could go back and count up how many hours of the day you actually spent on Netflix, or how many minutes you spent doing Google searches about productivity apps.
PF Ok so this was a journey of self-discovery —
AB This was like meta-meta.
PF What did Slife tell you?
AB That I should stop using Slife [laughter] and not just Slife because it really did become — well, for one thing, I love productivity apps. I mean I can’t use less than three to-do apps at once [PF mm hmm] because why settle for one and they’re always coming out with new, shiny things.
PF It’s pretty exciting.
AB Yeah, totally. But I did realize at some point — I mean it’s kind of like — you know, once upon a time I loved playing The Sims.
AB And then you realize that you are like the Sim there. You are a person with these like need bars and they go up and down and you start to feel like you are basically playing the game of yourself.
9:05 PF Sure, it’s like a cognitive version of Tetris where you dream the falling blocks.
PF Except you’ve become the Sim. You’re like, “Oh I need more of these points to be happy.”
AB Yes, exactly.
RZ And it’s just close enough to life so that it feels — I have need bars.
PF Mm hmm. What are your need bars?
RZ I mean . . . we all have need bars!
RZ There’s affection, there’s basic needs, there’s —
RZ Satisfaction, there’s —
PF I’d put Twitter in their too [AB laughs]. So you’re a SIM.
AB Yeah so I’m a Sim and I’m realizing that I am playing Sims and it’s just I feel like so inside the bubble, that I realize at some point that I’ve got to stop this. And the same thing kind of happened with productivity. That at a certain point it felt like I had learned enough to be able to stop going down the rabbit hole and actually sit down and do some actual work. Plus it was just so hard, I mean it’s hard enough writing about time [PF mm hmm] to then on top of that layer this narrative where I’m writing a book about writing about time. It just hurt my head too much.
PF Is there — did you feel a link between productivity and happiness? Like that sort of like, “If I just color code these folders, I’m gonna be where I need to be as a person.”
AB Yeah, yeah. I felt like a little dopamine hit if I got the colors right and I checked the boxes off.
PF I feel that’s how — the systems are structured that way but then for a certain kind of personality you just start to create new ways to get a dopamine hit.
10:40 AB Yeah. Well here — this is the app that I need somebody to invent for me.
PF Well, great, you’re in a product development studio.
RZ I might take this on.
AB This is it. This is the big money maker.
AB Every time I write a sentence and I get to the end of the sentence, there is a little sound, like a jingle, like a money jingle sound [PF mm hmm], you know what I mean? And it just goes and it’s like you’re making money when you write a sentence. And the more sentences you write, the jingly gets louder and it’s that same thing you feel like you’re amassing cash. I need that sonic —
RZ It’s a game. You’re winning!
AB Totally, yeah, and I need that sonic feedback every ten seconds.
RZ You know this is something that — We do sales. We chase prospects to close business and it’s not very satisfying because we could have 20 leads going simultaneously and, unlike laying bricks where you can, at the end of the day, look up and see how many bricks you laid, we see nothing . . . for long periods of time. And it’s a very empty feeling. For Paul and I, who are both people who like to build stuff, and we’ve built nothing, well we’ve built stuff, you could say, we built a business.
PF We built a company, we built a meta-thing that does make products, but we no longer make the things.
RZ Yeah, you’re asking for that feedback which I love to see that like, “Rich, you didn’t close anything today but you made excellent progress here. Here are some stars or some something that signals out that kind of progress.”
PF You know I’ll tell you the thing I have noticed, now that I’m essentially in management, is that there is no success in management like there used to be in other work that I used to do.
AB Yeah, well who’s the person who comes around and says, “Paul, you’re doing a great job”?
PF Literally nobody. Nobody, right? And it’s like — and that’s fine but also just that even internally I don’t know if the decisions we’re making will have a good impact. Almost definitely some of them will fail, and we’ll just continually move things back and forth, hoping that progress happens.
12:41 RZ Yeah, exactly. Exactly.
PF And I do — what I really miss — I think that’s why I really loved publishing on the web early days is that as opposed to sending stuff to somebody, waiting for awhile, it gets rejected, or maybe it gets in, you could just get that feedback.
RZ Yeah, exactly.
PF It’s good for writers. I think at a certain point it’s not great to be too beholden to your audience [AB yeah], you need some independence. But early days it’s actually ok. Like early days, you’d just need people to be like, “That was funny!” And then you’re like, “Ok well I can be funny.”
RZ But then you stare. You stare at the Likes, you stare at the Retweets, you stare at the Google Analytics because that smattering of applause that is just enough, like that, wow that’s —
PF Well they’ve structured the dopamine hits, and those are the successes that everybody uses. But it used to be just a person and their text editor. It didn’t used to be that way.
AB For me that was actually one of the challenges of working on this book for so many years. I mean social media grew up in the time that I worked on this.
RZ So ten years ago —
PF It’s a beautiful irony that your productivity-focused time philosophy book took ten years to write. That’s just so great. That’s very comforting.
RZ Did you start writing it ten years ago? Or did you decide, “I”m gonna do this someday,” and then three years later you started?
AB No, no, no, no I um . . . I just had this insight that this was like a brilliant idea. This is me saying this with irony, um, “You know, this is gonna be a great idea,” and it was gonna be done really quickly, it was gonna be a short book —
PF Open the folder, start and outline.
AB Totally! And I had like whipped out a proposal, like got signed up right away, this was weeks before my twin boys were born —
PF Oh you were on the path!
14:23 AB I had no idea what was coming down the pike. And this yeah this was gonna be my highly lucrative next move, my big career move.
RZ So, as a non-writer in the room, what was your commitment to deliver the book at the time they signed you up?
PF This is — this is traumatic . . .[laughter] what you just asked.
RZ Like when were they expecting final draft?
AB I think three years was my timeline.
PF And that was pretty generous.
PF Yeah, you were gonna take some real time and get this done.
AB Yeah, so of course so I had to spend a lot of time researching productivity so that I could do it on time.
RZ So you delivered . . .
AB Uhhhhh yeah . . .
RZ How many years after they signed you up?
AB Six and a half, seven.
RZ Which is I guess not, I’m learning, not insane.
PF All you need to have happen is for editor not to get fired.
AB Yeah, and I have to say, bless her heart, she has — she stayed there, she championed this for years despite all the many times that I avoided her phone calls.
PF Mm hmm. This is very real. As long as she’s there —
15:36 RZ Right . . . fascinating.
PF — it can stretch out. If she leaves, you’re in big trouble.
AB Yeah you’re in limbo.
RZ Got it.
PF Then they can do anything. They could ask for the money back!
RZ Well, “You are breach of contract, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.”
PF Every writer is in breach of contract. I don’t know a single writer who isn’t in breach of contract [RZ chuckles].
AB I think Jim Gleick hands his books on time.
PF Yeah and there’s a couple I’m sure who do but, in general, you just exist but you still feel like they could come to the house with jack boots . . . and get you.
PF Cuz writers my temperament also are not people who are comfortable around contracts [laughter].
AB Or confrontation, no.
PF Ok so who should read this book?
AB Well, so this is really meant as a general interest. I mean I sort of wrote with my parents in mind, or your parents. You know, it’s sort of two things: it’s a scientific investigation in the sense that I wanted to understand what time is, and it turns out that what we perceive as time is actually a whole handful of different perceptions that get layered on over the ages. I mean as we grow up, and there’s some real kind of biological stuff going on in us, but I didn’t want — I mean time is so abstract! And it can feel so abstract and so kind of, you know, non-tactile. That I really wanted to write a book that you could kind of feel. I mean there is this aspect of time like we live in it, it lives in us, every moment it’s like right there. You can kind of touch it cuz it’s in everything. And so I wanted the reading experience to be right there in front of you. So there’s me taking part in experiments, it’s me talking to people, it’s pretty tactile, but underneath it all is this kind of sub narrative of, you know, my kids are ten years old now. And I, in that time, in the ten years I became a parent and my relationship to time did change, and I have watched them grow into an understanding of time. And that’s sort of the container that holds all of this stuff. It is a very kind of slow boil story, ultimately.
17:48 PF Help me understand something: so you have, you’re the perfect to ask, you have ten-year-old twins —
PF I have five-year-old so I’m halfway to where you are. And I, every morning, I get my kids to school. And I have to get them to get dressed against the clock, I’m racing the clock. My perception of what it’s gonna take to get out the door, and there perception is so fundamentally different that almost every morning there’s yelling and upset.
AB Yeah, oh yeah. Yeah.
PF What’s happening in their brains? Can they simply not understand that we have to get out the door by 8 am?
AB Yeah, and they have no idea what ‘five minutes’ means.
PF They just don’t.
AB They don’t. That is a, you know, we have timers in our brain that can learn intervals of time but it does take time to learn them.
PF When do you learn time as a human being?
AB One of the first things I did when I started this was I went out talking to psychologists and neuroscientists and asked them, “What is time?” And everybody, literally, everybody came back to me and said, “Well, what do you mean by time?”
AB And what we call time is actually kind of an umbrella term for a lot of different experiences. It’s our understanding of past and present and future and that, you know, one lies in one direction and the other is in another, it’s our sense of temporal order, you know, of sequence: before and after and then and then, and there’s our sense of duration.
PF Ok so our monkey brains have this very uh have these different perceptions of time but as adults we’ve learned to kind of wrap them all up in one clock on the wall.
19:23 AB Yeah, yeah. And as adult parsing them out seems like — these seem like banal distinctions but to kids they are a real revelation when they occur. So, you know, a two-year-old kid can speak perfectly well in the past tense and the present tense but doesn’t really understand the difference between before and after until age three or four. And you could say to five-year-old Jimmy, you know, “What comes next: your birthday in July,” if it’s January when ask this, “What comes next: your birthday in July or Christmas?” And likely he’ll say, “Christmas,” because that’s the nearest thing, even though that isn’t the next thing.
PF It’s in the past but it’s close.
AB It’s close.
PF Right, I mean we struggle a lot at home with issues of weekend, week day, things like that.
PF So really the human has to sort of take all the different perceptions of time . . . in their head and they get acculturated into the sort of world of clock time.
AB Exactly. And there are some cultural differences too. There was a really interesting study done with young kids where they had them basically walk back through the months. So, you know, “What comes three months before November?” And they would time how long it took American kids do it, and they would time Chinese kids and the Chinese kids could actually do it faster because in Mandarin the months don’t have names, the months are numbered.
PF Oh so they can just count backwards.
AB So it’s just a math problem.
RZ I have to say, you know, I have the same situation. I have a four-year-old and a two-year-old and we gotta wrestle with them to get their clothes on to get out of the house, to get to school, and I can’t help but sometimes look at myself and say, “You know, they’re just living life.”
RZ “You know there’s 8:30 and 9 o’clock and I gotta be in 9:15,” but they’re just — like they’ll do this. Walking home from school is even more telling. They just wanna walk, in a relaxed, Mediterranean sort of way, they just wanna take an hour and take in some sun. And I wanna get home.
21:21 PF Because children do not experience urgency.
RZ And do you think we sort of try to recapture that later on in life? There’s the mindfulness movement and all of that. Did we lose something? What happens?
AB Well I certainly feel like [RZ chuckles] we feel like we lose something. I certainly had those experiences too where I need to hurry my kid along and I feel terrible. I feel like I am — I’m introducing them to this kind of toxic, you know, temporal structure that’s just gonna destroy their lives forever. And, you know, could they just remain ignorant and innocent of it? [RZ laughs] But they would never get to school.
PF No, that’s right cuz they would stop and look at the rocks on the side of the road . . .
PF They’d smell the roses, literally, and —
AB And probably live in your house forever.
PF Yeah, no, you’d never get ‘em to school. Well this is the thing, right, as I’m listening to you talk what I’m hearing is there’s such a strong connection between labour and time, right? Like we live in this world. I come into this office at a certain time every morning and then at around five or six, somewhere in there, it starts to become time to wind down. And I’m really well trained on that and a lot of the training I had as a kid obviously prepared, right? Like being on that schedule is important for, sort of, surviving in this culture and, hopefully, thriving.
AB Yeah. But I think it’s fair to say that it’s not just labor. You know? That sense of time and needing to know the time is really integral to us socializing. I mean what we do all time with each other is some version of, you know, asking each other, like, “What time is it right now?” Right? There’s a reason why all of our clocks are synchronized [PF mm hmm] because that enables us, not just to do work, but to say, “Hey, you know, let’s talk at such and such a time.” To do that we need to agree on a clock that’s going to be our baseline. And we need to agree when now is so that we can agree that, you know, three hours from now is when you and I are gonna all be in the same room together, right?
PF Right, cuz we came to — there’s a consensus that was reached [RZ It’s like a pact.] where you were gonna come to this office.
23:38 PF And of course you don’t think about that process but it’s actually incredibly complex.
PF Lots of people involved, lots of systems, lots of abstract ideas.
AB Yeah and you certainly don’t think about it but the cells in your body are doing exactly the same thing. Every cell in your body, basically, has a 24-hour, slightly more than 24-hour clock, in it and in order to function together as a group of cells, they need to synchronize their clocks, and there is, in your brain, like a master clock that keeps them all synchronized, like the conductor of a symphony, and that’s absolutely essential to, you know, good physiology, good metabolism. It’s essential to cells being able to organize their interiors, it’s — time is, you know, it’s not just a thing that’s imposed on us, it’s a thing that bubbles out of us.
PF So we’re a kind of time-keeping organism in some very —
AB Yeah each of us is a clock, we’re walking around as a clock.
PF What were people like — I mean, how was time perceived before the clock? What were people like during the day?
AB Well, when was that? I mean uh I mean I gotta think that even back in caveman times, you know, you’re still organizing yourself around the clock in the sun.
PF Yeah, sun comes up.
AB “Yeah, let’s not go hunting in the middle of the night, let’s wait til the sun comes up.” Or, “You know, let’s wait until the end of the day when all the animals are out.” And there is some kind of agreement about when we’re gonna meet with our spears and go catch stuff, right?
PF Yeah, that’s true as a herd animal, meaning humans, right? We like to be together in groups.
AB Yeah and you wanna plant your crops not in the middle of winter but in the spring. And so you’ve got this other kind of calendar system going too.
PF And it correlates to what’s in our body. Like, at some level we know, “Sun’s up, time to get up.”
AB Yeah yeah.
PF Interesting. Alright.
25:28 RZ Let’s . . . as I think about pre sundial times and all the way up to today: technology. I feel like technology has done a number on me when it comes to time, even in the last 15 years.
AB In what way?
RZ I feel like The New York Times app is lazy by the afternoon. It’s like, “What are they doing at The Times?”
AB More! I want more information!
RZ “Why haven’t they updated the damn app?”
PF It’s true cuz around eight in the morning you get this blast of news.
PF And then you wanna go back and you want that blast again but instead it’s like . . . a recipe.
RZ Yeah, I watched the news last night and they reported on the Academy Awards flub [AB Yeah] and that was 20 hours after it happened and it felt like the oldest news, it felt ancient. Even though —
AB Yeah no, I hate it when I get on The Times app and it’s the same story but with a new headline.
PF Ah that’s the worst.
RZ It’s cheating! It’s cheating.
PF Yeah yeah yeah [sighs] it’s true you just — and they could give you anything. They could give like, “No News on This,” and you’d be happy. But when you see that same story again —
RZ And then there’s personal planning and calendars and what they represent. Um I just feel like I can’t even stretch my arms out anymore in the way the tools — so many tools we use today, whether it be just consumption tools or productivity tools, are around time and around managing your life and navigating — I feel like I have tools to navigate the other tools . . . at this point.
PF What is your setup? How do you organize your life?
AB Ha ha! Um these days I mostly organize myself through my calendar.
PF Ok. Is it Google Calendar? Or is it . . .
27:20 AB Ultimately it’s Google Calendar but the front end is Fantastical.
AB Which I can, you know, use on my phone.
RZ That’s a cool app.
AB Yeah, I really like it. Just easy entry and reminders and all that stuff. I have a friend who tried to introduce me recently to bullet journaling. Do you know about that?
PF No, tell us about bullet journaling!
RZ Is this a process or is this a —
AB This is a process that goes on in a notebook.
AB Yeah [laughter] if you —
PF I’m so excited!
AB Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah you gotta go look at the YouTube videos all about bullet journaling.
PF That’s how you learn about bullet journaling?
PF Ok, so what is bullet journaling in a high level —
AB Alright, so you have a journal and you uh first you write out all the months of the year and on another page you write all your goals, and then you turn the page, and then you have the months. A month for each page. And you write down all the things you’re gonna do in that month. And then you turn another page — and you block out a week and all the things you’re gonna do in a week, and as you turn each page you kind of go back and you flip through the things you wrote down and did or didn’t do and you either check them off or you write them on a new page to do, you know, to remind yourself to do.
PF You could just do this all day.
28:30 AB Yeah yeah. And there are like little colored stickies and stamps and there is a whole rabbit hole to fall down there.
PF Have you bought the stamps yet?
AB I have not bought the stamps.
RZ Are you doing it?
AB Uh I did it for a half a week, I did it for about four days. And then I —
PF That’s a pretty good run for any productivity tool kit [RZ and PF laugh].
AB But I got a nice new notebook and couple of new pens.
PF I have a lot of notebooks with like three pages used up in them.
RZ Oh yeah.
PF You buy that new notebook with a lot of hope [AB laughs]. Alright so what is productivity here? Can you define productivity in the context? Is it about getting control over time? Is it about — what is it?
AB That’s a good question. I think it’s about feeling feeling satisfied with the time that you are spending.
PF Getting control, right? Like getting some like —
PF — a sense of, “I’m gonna put something in and get something back.”
AB Yeah and, “I’m gonna check off a box, and I’m gonna be able to say at the end of x period that I did such and such a thing.” And it’s not just this being able to say that you did it but you know the feeling that you did actually do it, and there’s some crumb trail for your own accomplishments.
PF It correlates to virtue, right?
AB You know there’s nobody walking around necessarily going patting you on the back, saying, you know, “Paul, Rich, you guys are doing a great job.” You gotta write it down, and then you’ve gotta check it off.
RZ There’s feedback, yeah.
29:55 AB Right, it’s self feedback. It’s self coaching.
PF So it externalizes that?
RZ It’s the – that satisfaction you get when you look up at that shed you actually built yourself. It’s there. You did it!
AB It’s a physical object.
RZ It’s a physical thing. And this goes back to, you know, what we struggle with because there’s not a lot of tangible to hold onto [AB mm hmm], nobody’s giving us stars [AB yup]. I have a to-do app that I use.
AB What do you use?
RZ I use Todoist.
AB Uh huh, uh huh.
RZ Which is very good and it does a lot of nice things and it’s animation for completing the task is I feel like I won something. It’s not even that fancy an animation, it’s just I’ve programmed it into my head to progress [AB yeah], as progress. And so it’s meaningful. I don’t even think I need to get that much done. I just need to know that somebody kept score and somebody told me the score at the end. I think that’s important.
AB I mean you know this is a fundamental way that our brains work. We form habits, and you know you do something and your brain gives you a dopamine reward for it. And you know either the thing you do is a positive thing and you build a feedback loop like that or it’s like maybe a not so positive things, like, you know, playing The Sims. Um nothing wrong with The Sims, unless you’re doing it for hours a day and but you —
PF And you have young twins.
AB Yeah yeah [laughter].
PF That’s the other thing. I miss video games sometimes.
RZ And that is gaming, right? I mean gaming —
31:28 AB It is, yeah.
RZ Rich with feedback, right? Yeah.
PF If Half Life 3 ever comes out, I’m gonna have to sit down with my children and just —
RZ Take a hiatus.
PF Yeah and just, “Guys, daddy still loves you. [Laughter] But something’s gonna happen.”
AB But the challenge, you know, I think Rich, as you pointed out is that one can be deluded into thinking that, you know, the finer you chop up your day into these little bits, the more you’re gonna get done. Right? And it’s almost like you could be infinitely productive by dividing your day up into smaller and smaller bites but at a certain point you become so stressed out about all the things that you’re trying to jam in there, that you aren’t actually using those little bites of time terribly productively because you’re a little distracted or your thinking about the next bite. Or . . . there is a limit.
PF You know I had a — I used to have, I caught myself in this little fantasy world because I’d read that like the president had a ten minutes schedule, like every ten minutes is sort of blocked out and spoken for. And I’m like, “Oh maybe that’s what you need to do, like really get to that level of granularity.” And then I thought about that for awhile and I started to think about how I was organize my day and then I had this huge insight which is: I am not the president of the United States.
AB Yeah and you don’t have 16 people writing your schedule for you, putting new stuff in front of you every ten minutes.
PF But I think there’s an element of fantasy there, right? Where you have, like, “I’m gonna get into this system because it is a way to feel kind of powerful.” Like it’s a way to feel control over time which I just — right now I feel like I don’t have a lot of control over. So I’m gonna block the day and then I’m gonna know what I’m supposed to be doing, and then usually within about six hours that entire system is completely useless and you’ve screwed it up [AB laughs] entirely, right? Cuz you went to lunch for an extra half hour or whatever and then you’re a bad person instead of a good person.
AB Right, right.
PF And this might sound like I’m speaking from personal experience [AB laughs]. I don’t mean it to. It’s all very abstract. This has nothing to do with me.
33:32 RZ Is there — now I have family that don’t live in cities, and their view of time is really, really different.
AB Mm hmm, mm hmm.
RZ It’s less intense. Do you think whether it be surroundings or density is a factor in terms of how we think about whether we’re racing or not? You know I’m Lebanese and there’s a thing they do where they have lunch and it goes on for three and a half hours.
AB Mm yeah.
RZ And —
PF It’s one of the reasons the economy is doing so well in Lebanon.
RZ [Laughs] And at first I would eat too fast. I would just wolf the food down cuz I gotta get back to work, in my mind, and they’re just lounging, they’re just, you know — nobody’s thinking about getting back anywhere. And then the advice you get is, “You gotta relax. Get out of New York and relax. And learn to enjoy yourself. And just take it in,” whatever that is.
PF It is not seen as a virtue here, to be able to relax.
AB I mean I did at some point have an insight which is — cuz I for really a long time assiduously avoided any kind of like time management stuff. And I realize that often what it does give me, if used properly, is the space to have that, right? If I just intentionally block out like, “Ok this is the three and a half of my day in which I am not going to think about my schedule, in which I’m not going to, you know, watch the clock. Um maybe I’m going to go to lunch for those three and a half hours or maybe, you know, it’s those hours in which I’m gonna go to my office and turn off everything and actually work.” Or do something, you know something’s gonna go on in that room in the course of those two or three hours and when I come out and I’ll call it work.
PF But this won’t be divided.
AB But it will not be divided.
AB So there’s some — it’s like built-in relaxation.
PF Right. Does that work? Are you relaxed?
AB I — yeah, I actually find that to be relaxing because otherwise — certainly as a journalist, as a writer, you know, you feel like you gotta be on all the time. And of course there’s this myth that you are, you know, you’re gonna be struck by creative lightning at any moment, and you gotta write an any moment. And I actually find that I work much better when I just block out a piece of my day and that’s the day in which I’m gonna write. I mean that’s the span of time in which I’m gonna write, and that’s my, you know — it’s gonna happen at the same time everyday. And, you know, maybe nothing will get done in there, maybe I won’t come out with words, but I’m not gonna check the internet, I”m not gonna check my email, I’m gonna actually —
36:23 RZ Focus.
AB — read or focus or write or whatever it is I need to do creatively is gonna happen in that space, in that time.
PF And you’re leaving yourself time to sort of figure that out in that block?
PF Ok. You just know you’re going to enter that block of time.
PF That’s all you need to know. That sounds very sane.
RZ Did you ever have a meeting invite for yourself that just said, “Subject: Play with kids”? [AB laughs] Or something akin to, “I have to spend time with my children, let’s box it out.”
AB Well, yeah I mean that happens all the time now. You know? Like, “Soccer game at 3:30“
RZ You put that in there?
AB Oh yeah. I have a calendar just for kids events cuz there are so many of them. And it’s — I think we don’t really realize as parents how stressful that is for kids, you know? I don’t know about — your kids might not be old enough now, but my kids are pretty scheduled out.
PF Right. At ten yeah it starts to get that way.
AB I was never that way as a ten-year-old.
RZ But is that their doing or is that parents doing?
PF I think it’s the culture.
AB It’s parents doing, it’s culture, it’s what their friends are doing, and so they wanna do stuff with their friends and that happens at certain times, you know, it’s not like when I was a kid I would just on my bike and go over to my friend’s house and see if he was home.
37:44 PF Right.
AB Now you gotta schedule the playdate because otherwise, you know, Joey next door might be at his tuba lesson.
PF Right no there’s tremendous coordination between children. I think also you and I might have it a little bit differently because twins function as a unit up until —
AB Yours do [laughs].
PF Well, no, but up until like age six or seven, like they played together pretty well. I can see right now, my kids are starting to kind of have their own lives [AB yeah] but up until — like on the weekend, we don’t do a ton of playdates because they’re pretty happy with each other. Go play in the hall with one of the neighbor kids. But as life gets bigger and broader for them, they get their own identities, and have their own things they wanna do. Yeah, that’s then — you have to move ‘em around in space.
AB Yeah, yeah. It reminds me actually there’s this sort of relic of their early childhood that we still live with and maybe you face this decision too, you know, when you have two kids uh and they’re twins and they’re the same age, you need to get them on a feeding schedule and a sleeping schedule you know really early or you go insane.
PF All the Parkslope logic about sort of how to let your child tell you things, and sort of attachment parenting, and stuff. Our pediatrician took us aside and was like, “You won’t survive any of that.”
AB No, no.
PF “Don’t listen to any of it. [RZ laughs] Sleep train your children! Use this electrical prod if you need to.”
AB Yeah and for parents of twins the issue is: are you gonna put them on the same sleep schedule and feeding schedule, which means, you know, for the 45 minutes they’re awake, you’re gonna try to feed them both. And then they’re going to sleep at the same time, and you’re gonna rest. Or are you gonna have them on alternating schedules where you’re always working but each kids get a little bit more individual attention? Um and we went for plan A which [PF Yeah, we did too] involves sanity for us. And it’s amazing, you know, my kids are still on the same schedule as each other. They go to bed at the same time, they wake up at the same time, at least for now.
PF No, we’ve got it too. You know there’s too much talking at bedtime but other than that they’re out. It’s like, “It’s time.” “Ok.” “Goodnight.”
39:59 RZ I wanna cover one last phenomena.
RZ The deadline.
PF [Chuckles] That’s enough. That’s the answer right there [RZ chuckles]. [PF makes low grunt.]
RZ Thanks for coming out! [Laughter] Um I’ve been in product management, leading teams for many years. I do it less now cuz I’m more running the business but I’ve always found that injecting that goal line into the swirl of activity is necessary.
AB Mm hmm.
RZ Uh even if it’s not really tied to anything. It’s artificial, sometimes. But it’s meaningful, especially in our world, where we’re really not asking people to just screw in parts, and bang out a handful of, you know, widgets. There’s a lot of art to it as well. And you can spin for hours on something or you could get the thing done as best you can because you know you need to get it done.
PF And there’s a reality too that a task that seems straightforward truly can extend five or ten times longer —
RZ Easily, especially in our industry.
PF — for completely legitimate reasons [RZ Absolutely]. Like it’s not spinning, it just turned out to be much harder than anyone expected.
AB I will tell you that I spent probably two or three months early on experimenting with Gantt charts, you know?
PF Mm hmm. Sure.
AB And trying to break my book down into like distinct steps and deliverables —
RZ For yourself?
41:30 AB For myself.
PF Mm hmm mm hmm.
RZ [Laughs] That’s a good time, man!
AB Yeah, it was a total disaster from any point of view but [RZ laughing] I learned a lot about Gantt charts.
RZ Are there diagrams in the book?
AB Uh —
RZ Of any of these Gantt charts?
AB No, I shoulda put those in. I’ll put those on my website.
PF You know what’s interesting is that there’s continual conflict between — like there’s a biological sense that you’ve talked about and then there’s this desire to kind of externalize the clock and have something so that you can see and perceive time because you just know that you’ll drift.
PF Like you — and I have the same struggle, and I know Rich does too, you know that left to your devices six to eight hours will disappear from your day as you go down specific rabbit holes [AB Yeah] and so the clock that you’re building which is colored blocks of time in the calendar, and Gantt charts, and bullet journals is just some way so that you can perceive this dimension.
PF Ok, so do you have a good sense of why we have such trouble perceiving time? Like why we go off the clock so easily.
RZ Why do I need that mechanism?
AB Well, uh, geez, I mean it’s funny, we externalize it and then we kind of hate it. It’s like you need something to rub up against, you need um yeah you need something to blame.
PF Yeah. It becomes the dad, right? Like [AB Totally, totally] the relationship we’re talking about with our kids like trying to get ‘em out the door, that’s what I’m doing to myself when I put blocks in on the calendar.
42:59 AB Yeah, there’s actually a moment in my book that I describe when one of my kids was maybe two years old or three years old and he was just kinda coming out of the nap in the afternoon phase, which up until then was the time when I would write.
AB And so now I’m putting him down, he’s not going to sleep. And it’s just infuriating, right? You go to —
PF Oh you take it so personally.
AB Yeah and you know for him it’s totally fun cuz he’s like stickin’ it to the man. And um but what he wanted to do. Number one: he was being kept awake by the clock on the wall —
PF So just the [clicks tongue].
AB Yeah, just that. And he’s totally fascinated by it, he wants me to get the clock down from the wall and look at it with him so he can figure out what’s going on. And that really was a point at which I was like, “Oh ok, the point here is not for me to like get stuff done in this time. The point of this time is for me to hang out with my kid.”
PF It’s a struggle though! We’ve talked about it before, I think even on the podcast, that I take ‘em to the park and they’re having a good time and I am sitting there, and I could kick a ball or I could check my phone.
PF Right? And then I enter that world again where I’m in a zone of pure distraction [AB Mm hmm] and the kids are self-sustaining. I think it’s probably a compromise. Like sometimes let them play and I can just play with my phone but other times I should just be kicking the ball. Alright so who should buy this book?
PF Everybody in the whole world.
44:27 AB Yeah cuz this is something that we’re all thinking about. Even if we don’t know that we’re thinking about it, this is something that we all deal with in terms of how to — I don’t really talk about how to manage your calendar but um we’re thinking about how to divide up our days, we’re thinking about waking up in the middle of the night, and there’s these moments that kind of burst out at you one after the other. And you’re just kind of wondering where is it going? And what is this stuff? And why am I here? At the bottom of it you can’t really talk about time or talk about what now is or the present is without talking about consciousness. I tried to avoid it because it’s such a goopy subject.
PF Mm hmm, cuz time’s not goopy [RZ laughs].
AB Yeah yeah, but consciousness! But ultimately that is what we’re dealing with, and we’re dealing with, you know, who am I passing through this sea of time? Who am I with this sea of time passing through me? And so much of being a conscious self is understanding that you are a self through time, you know that your memories are yours, you had them yesterday, you’ll have them a month from now, that your self remains constant. And, again, you know that’s not something that kids come into this world having. It’s not really until like age four or so that they understand that your memories of going to the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty, if you tell them a story about that, they don’t necessarily understand that that didn’t happen to them. And you know at an early age everything a kid hears about or knows it’s as if they did it. And only once they parse out their own memories from yours do they start to claim a sense of self. Right? Their memories belong to them and at that point, you know, the lights start to go on. It’s like, “Oh yeah, I was me yesterday. I’m gonna me, you know, ten or 20 years from now.” That’s — developmental psychologists talk about the self as a self through time because that is the main insight is that you persist, you persist across time.
PF And so we’re kinda full of clocks as human beings? We have all sorts of little time keeping things that happen inside of us.
AB Inside of us and as a group these clocks add up to a bigger clock which are, you know, each of us and each of us sitting here together kind of form a clock cuz we’re having a conversation about, you know, when is our conversation gonna start and what time is gonna end and what are we gonna do next and it’s a collective — it’s a collective process.
PF And this is a formal system. But sometimes like it’s not formal. Sometimes you’re like talking to somebody at the supermarket [AB Yeah] and there’s a mutual understanding that this is gonna wind down in about a minute and a half cuz a kids gonna yell or I need to go get the cereal, and that’s ok. Now, if I went over to your house and after a minute and a half, I was like, “Gotta go!” It’d be incredibly rude.
47:27 AB So, you know, if these are things that you think about, then this is totally the book for you.
PF Interesting. Alright so it is, as we’re recording, 1:42 pm.
RZ The book is Why Time Flies.
PF It’s available everywhere that books are sold . . . and you should buy a copy, you shouldn’t pirate it, you shouldn’t wait cuz it’s about time. You should buy a copy of this book. I can’t tell people enough how important it is to buy copies of books. It’s the only thing that will save our republic. Alright, where are you going now?
AB I’m headed home cuz my kid is actually home sick today and uh there’s somebody looking after him but I’ve gotta go home and take him to the doctor.
PF How long does the train take?
AB I actually drove in. So it’s about an hour.
PF An hour, and then how long are you gonna be at the doctor?
AB Wait fifteen minutes there, it’ll take, you know, like five minutes, and then it’ll take 20 minutes to drive home. It’s an hour and a half of my day for a five minute meeting.
PF Sure, sure. How does the doctor perceive time?
AB [Guffaws] uh they perceive time as very — the time is entirely theirs. Right?
AB The doctor doesn’t wait for me.
PF Ok so you are now totally beholden to some doctors vision of how the day should —
RZ It is also their value.
RZ Can they see 80 patients today or 60 patients today?
48:56 PF Alright so —
RZ That’s our business: we sell time [laughs].
AB I gotta get on that.
PF Yeah, so you got two or three hours to their five minutes. Arlight, well you better go!
AB I will go.
RZ Thank you, Alan. This was a great. A really fun conservation.
PF Thanks for coming, this was fascinating.
AB Thanks so much. Thank you.
PF Well I think we better go make lists about things we’re gonna do.
RZ This was a good use of our time.
PF This was! This was a very, very productive set of minutes.
RZ Collection of minutes.
PF I love stuff like this. I love anything that takes a very well-known, well understood dimension and makes it weird. Like time feels weird now that I’ve talked to Alan [RZ laughs]. I used to think, you know, if you asked me what was going on, I’d say, “Uh it’s 3:30!” But it turns out it’s no, there’s much more going on than that.
RZ Right, exactly.
PF So people should go out and buy Alan’s book, it’s also available where digital books are sold, like Amazon, and you can have it on your phone. That’s what I did. And uh we wanna thank Alan Burdick for coming in.
RZ This has been Track Changes, a podcast brought to you by Postlight, a digital products studio based here in New York City. Paul, you love giving the address out.
PF 101 5th Avenue. I’m a little proud of that address.
RZ You are! Uh —
PF I’ve never lived anywhere fancy.
50:09 RZ [Laughs] Just to clarify for everyone: Paul does not live in the office.
PF Not anymore.
RZ He goes home.
PF HR talked to me.
PF So if you need to get in touch with us, you can send an email to email@example.com with any of your thoughts, cares, and concerns. We actually love big, difficult technology and design problems. We’d love to talk about them on the air. So any sort of ‘how do I do this’ problem, we would welcome.
PF So get in touch, firstname.lastname@example.org if you need your web apps or your mobile apps or your platform built and you need it to look beautiful and have great graphic design, you get in touch with us [music fades in]: email@example.com. If you wanna rank us on iTunes or anywhere that tunes are eyed [RZ chuckles], you can give us five stars and leave a review, that’d be great. If not, you know, we’re all living our lives. Let’s just get back to work.
RZ Have a great week!
PF Bye! [Music ramps up to end.]