As we stumble again into the season of overindulgence – that sacred time of year when wine, carbs and sofas replace brisk walks for all but the most virtuous – a headline in the (excellent) new online science magazine Nautilus catches my eye: "What If Obesity Is Nobody's Fault?" The article describes new research on mice: a genetic alteration, it appears, can make them obese, despite eating no more than others. "Many of us unfortunately have had an attitude towards obese people [as] having a lack of willpower or self-control," one Harvard researcher is quoted as saying. "It's clearly something beyond that." No doubt. But that headline embodies an assumption that's rarely questioned. Suppose, hypothetically, obesity were solely a matter of willpower: laying off the crisps, exercising and generally bucking your ideas up. What makes us so certain that obesity would be the fault of the obese even then?
'Delightedly he seized hold of the bag containing the sugar and poured sugar into the coffee cup until it was piled above the rim," writes one biographer of Søren Kierkegaard. "Next came the incredibly strong black coffee, which slowly dissolved the white pyramid." The Danish philosopher was overdoing it: perhaps it's no coincidence that his books include Fear And Trembling and The Sickness Unto Death. But coffee addicts, myself included, relish anecdotes such as this because they reinforce our belief that coffee and creativity are linked. It's not merely that caffeine is the "acceptable addiction", as it's sometimes called; it's something actively to boast about: "Oh, you don't want to meet me before my morning coffee," we say, with something close to pride. Try replacing "coffee" in that sentence with "heroin". The effect isn't quite the same.
It's the season of "beach reads" and Best Summer Books lists – and thus, also, the season for the re-emergence of the perennial question of when, if ever, it's OK to give up on a book halfway through. "This is surely a strange advice," scoffed Dr Johnson in response to the notion that you should finish every book you start. "You may as well resolve that whatever men you happen to get acquainted with, you are to keep them for life." A good analogy, since many people treat abandoning a novel like a milder version of abandoning a lover or friend.
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.
A few months back, a friend – a freelance journalist I'll call Ethan – pitched some ideas to an editor at a magazine. When he got no response, he sent a polite email, which elicited an apology. Oh, God, I'm sorry, said the editor (I'm paraphrasing; not all editors are this polite), but things are just so busy here! Weeks passed; Ethan sent another reminder, and got another apology: I'll get to them soon! If this humdrum exchange had happened in 1992, Ethan would probably have let it pass, picturing the editor late at his desk, gobbling pizza, surrounded by stacks of letters and articles, calling his sad-faced children to say goodnight from the office for the fourth night running. But it was 2012, and there was a problem: the whole time he'd been pleading overwork, the editor had been visibly active, day after day, on Twitter. He didn't have time to respond to Ethan's ideas. But that video about the guy who turned his dead cat into a helicopter? That was another matter.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m a huge fan — to a problematic degree, some might argue — of productivity tips and tricks like the Pomodoro Technique, Mark Forster’s Autofocus system, and the geeky godfather of them all, David Allen’s Getting Things Done. I enjoy few things so much as spending a Sunday afternoon restructuring my to-do lists, because I am tragic like that. And I’m generally as distrustful as anyone of “quick fixes”. All that said, I ought to admit that one single-sentence piece of fridge-magnet advice has helped vastly more, when it comes to getting over roadblocks in work (and not just in work), than everything else combined:
Don’t wait until you feel like doing something.
Regular visitors know I’m pretty weird about my kitchen timer, crucial for everything from implementing the Pomodoro Technique to minimising time spent on housework. (Because when you time yourself, or at least when I time myself, it has the effect of gamifying the undertaking — sad but true.) But I keep discovering further applications. Favourite at the moment is to combat the time-sucking effects of too much time spent online without a specific goal. Like many people, I suspect, I’m not sufficiently strong-willed to resist checking email/Twitter/blogs repeatedly when working on, say, a book chapter. But it turns out that I am sufficiently strong-willed to remember, as I click on Firefox and get stuck in, to set the countdown timer for 10 or 20 minutes and set it going. Ten or 20 minutes later, I’m roused from my absorption and there’s at least a chance that I’ll seize the opportunity to return to what I planned to be doing. It’s the extended will in action! Now stop reading this and get back to work.