My favourite bit of "meta-advice" – advice on how to deal with the advice that rains down on us from friends, books, columns like this – comes from the novelist Rick Moody. He happened to be talking about writing routines, a topic with which I'm dangerously obsessed, but his wisdom applies to any work, and to relationships and life in general. "The insight I offer you is this," he told the Writeliving blog. "There's no one process, and as soon as I imagine some approach to generating work is foolproof, it becomes suddenly worthless to me, and I have to start over." If, like me, you're always fiddling with your work systems, reorganising your stuff, testing new tricks for cultivating habits… take comfort. One tactic works for a while, then the self-sabotaging part of your brain gets wise to what you're doing, and the cycle begins again. The problem isn't that you've failed to find the One True Secret of productivity, happiness or love. The problem is believing you ever might.
I interviewed Malcolm Gladwell for the Guardian on the occasion of the publication of his new book, David & Goliath:
Malcolm Gladwell is in his natural habitat – a cafe in New York's West Village, down the street from his apartment – engaged in a very Gladwellian task: defending Lance Armstrong. The bestselling author of The Tipping Point and Outliers, who despite all appearances just turned 50, has a tendency to hoist both arms aloft like a preacher when a topic inflames him. And the topic of doping in sports does. Why, he wants to know, is it OK to be born with an abnormality that gives you surplus red blood cells, like the Finnish Olympic skiing star Eero Mäntyranta, but not OK to reinfuse your own blood prior to competing, as Armstrong apparently did? Why are baseball players allowed performance-enhancing eye surgery, but not performance-enhancing drugs? "Imagine," Gladwell says, "if all the schools in England had a rule that you can't do homework, because homework is a way in which less able kids can close the gap that Nature said ought to exist. Basically, Armstrong did his homework and lied about it! Underneath the covers, with his flashlight on, he did his calculus! And I'm supposed to get upset about that?"
You can read the whole thing here.
According to research published this spring, people make healthier menu choices when calories are listed beside each item – but they make even better choices when they're told how far they'd have to walk to burn off the calories consumed. This makes sense: for most of us, a calorie is a nebulous, hard-to-visualise thing, while a listing such as "burger: 2.6 miles" brings things sharply into focus. Somebody, it occurs to me, ought to design an app along these lines, for eating out: it would ask me what kind of food I'd like, then direct me only to those restaurants sufficiently far away that I'd neutralise the effect of the meal by walking there. In the mood for salad? There's a place on the corner. Hungry for sausages, cheesy chips and a large slice of cake? Time to dig out the hiking boots.
I'm writing this at 7.45am on a chilly Tuesday, because that's the slot I designated for it in my schedule – and because I have become, it would appear, one of those slightly suspect people who tries to organise their workdays, and to some extent their whole life, by making and following a schedule. This wasn't always the case. No piece of time-management advice is more ubiquitous, yet none seems more calculated to trigger panicky, hostile reactions, and I'd been through versions of them all: "My life is just too unpredictable to follow a schedule!", "The constant interruptions from my boss/kids/dog would make it impossible!" And the most tormented cry of all: "It would feel too constraining: I want to live spontaneously!" But all of that, I've come to realise, is cobblers. I've seen the light on schedules, and now, with the obnoxious zeal of the convert, I want to make you see it, too.
First, let me clarify something: yes, I do appreciate the awful irony in scouring a new biography of Karl Marx for productivity tips, as I found myself doing the other day. That's how entrenched my false consciousness is. Looking to Marx for advice on becoming a more efficient worker is roughly as absurd as seeking advice on running a profitable business from Jesus (radical socialist) or on people skills from Genghis Khan (genocidal warlord). Which is to say that someone will probably write a self-help treatise along those lines soon, since they've already done so with Jesus and Genghis Khan. In the meantime, we have Jonathan Sperber's Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, just published by Norton – which, as part of its attempt to portray Marx as a real human, lets us peer round the study door to watch him work. So do you want to know How To Be Productive And Creative, The Karl Marx Way? Are you sure? Because it's not pretty.
Recently, on my first trip to Australia, I finally tasted Vegemite. At the time, I didn't realise I was having a philosophically significant experience, but according to the American academic LA Paul, I was. She uses the example of Vegemite to illustrate something that seems obvious, but that's actually rather intriguing, about "phenomenal knowledge" – the knowledge of what it feels like to experience something. The intriguing point is this: you can obtain such knowledge only from experience. No matter how much information I might be given by others about what Vegemite tastes like, that information can never amount to experiencing the taste itself. By the way, Vegemite tastes a lot like Marmite. I know: major anticlimax.
Anyone born in the 70s to parents of an even slightly knit-your-own-muesli disposition must have encountered the horror of "non-competitive games". The intention was excellent – to show that vanquishing other people needn't be life's guiding value – but non-competitive games fall short in one crucial respect: they're no fun. (Sorry, Woodcraft Folk, but you know it's true.) Recently, by contrast, I played Gears Of War: Judgment on a friend's Xbox, performed atrociously and had a brilliant time.
You almost certainly know at least one infuriating person who is what I'll call, for want of a better term, a life-choice evangelist. As the label suggests, LCEs are driven by the anxious insistence that whatever major decisions they've made – to get married, to have or not have kids, to sacrifice fulfilling work for a higher salary, or vice versa – are best for everyone. If he's married, an LCE will seem unable to comprehend why anyone wouldn't choose to be; if she's single and you're not, she'll drop hints that you should envy her freedom. Contradict an LCE, by suggesting an alternative life path, and you'll witness a face flicker of confusion, as if you might not be speaking English. If you really know nobody like this, then I'm afraid it's probably you. One simple test: at a wedding reception, have you ever, with aggressive joviality, asked an unmarried couple when they're going to tie the knot? Thought so.
I've never visited Finland. Actually, I probably never should, since it's a place I love so much on paper – dazzling, snow-blanketed landscapes, best education in the world, first country to give full suffrage to women, home of the Moomins – that reality could only disappoint. Even the staunchest Finnophile, though, might be sceptical on encountering the Helsinki Bus Station Theory. First outlined in a 2004 graduation speech by Finnish-American photographer Arno Minkkinen, the theory claims, in short, that the secret to a creatively fulfilling career lies in understanding the operations of Helsinki's main bus station. It has circulated among photographers for years, but it deserves (pardon the pun) greater exposure. So I invite you to imagine the scene. It's a bus station like any big bus station – except, presumably, cleaner, and with environmentally-friendly buses driven by strikingly attractive blond(e)s.
Until recently, I owned a mobile phone so chunky and ridiculous that people had started to laugh at it – including, memorably, the staff at the shop where I'd originally bought it. (In their defence, I'd had it since 2007, which is the Mesolithic period in phone years.) But if there's one thing psychology has taught us, it's that buying shiny gadgets is a guaranteed path to fulfilment, so I'm now the proud owner of a Nexus 4, a sleek, blemish-free slab of glass, 9mm thick. Well, I say "proud owner". "Proud but with a background hum of anxiety" is more like it. Because it is, after all, a blemish-free slab of glass – which means I can never quite forget the risk of dropping or scratching it.