When publishing a book in Britain or the US about eastern spiritual practices – meditation, yoga, reiki – there’s an unwritten rule as to the cover design: it must feature a lotus flower, pebble, clear sky, still lake or smiling statue. (You can generate titles by randomly combining those words, too: Smiling Pebble In A Clear Sky: The Art Of Meditation. Out now in all good bookshops!) These cliches reflect the widespread assumption that the traditions of south-east Asia are all about slowing down, looking inwards and cultivating calm: the things you do, in other words, when you’re desperate for a break from the pace of modern (implicitly, western) life. But for Gregg Krech, an expert on Japanese psychology, that’s only half the story. Look closely at such philosophies, he argues in a new book, The Art Of Taking Action, and you’ll find they’re full of practical advice for getting things done. True, his book’s cover shows some bamboo strips by a pond, but there’s nothing so placid about what’s inside.
If you're feeling overstretched, at work or at home, let me make a suggestion: you need more inboxes in your life. I'm aware that this may strike you as the delusional ramblings of (to use the neuroscientific term) a wrong 'un. Isn't your existing inbox already overstuffed with emails? Who needs more of that? But I mean it. I've felt this way ever since installing Evernote, an app that's been called an "everything bucket", into which I fling all manner of electronic clutter: articles to read later, thoughts jotted down in text files, photos I take on my phone. These all accumulate in my Evernote inbox. Then, once or twice a week, I spend half an hour clearing it out: filing things, reading others, deleting rubbish. If this sounds like pointless bother, let me blow your mind: your life's already full of inboxes. You just don't realise it yet. And it can be surprisingly liberating once you do.
The tactic goes by many names, but my favourite is the Theory Of The Hairy Arm. An American business consultant, Lawrence San, tells the following story about a colleague he calls Joe, who worked as a graphic designer in the days before computers. One of Joe's clients was forever ruining projects by insisting on stupid changes. Then something odd started happening: each time the client was presented with a newly photographed layout, he'd encounter the image of Joe's own arm at one edge of the frame, partly obscuring the ad. "The guy would look at it," Joe recalled, "and he'd say, 'What the hell is that hairy arm doing in there?'" Joe would apologise for the slip-up. And then, "as he was stalking self-righteously away", Joe said, "I'd call after him: 'When I remove the arm, can we go into production?' And he'd call over his shoulder, 'Yes, but get that arm out of there first!' Then I'd hear him muttering, 'These people! You've got to watch them like a hawk.'"
Nobody likes being too busy – that's why it's called "too busy" – but the human mind has all sorts of frustrating eccentricities that conspire to keep us that way, no matter what remedies we try. To begin with, there's Hofstadter's law, bemoaned in a previous column: "It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's law." Plan on completing a project in three days, and it'll take six; but reschedule to allow for five, and it'll take eight. There's Parkinson's law: work expands to fill the time available. Then there's the fact that being too busy is self-reinforcing: as the recent book Scarcity explains, lacking slack – whether of time or money – depletes cognitive bandwidth, prompting poor decisions, which dig us ever deeper. And let's not get started on the dubious psychological payoffs we derive from all this activity, which act as an incentive to stay overwhelmed. "Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness," as the essayist Tim Kreider puts it. "Obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day."
'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.
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.
It's entirely possible that you've never heard of strategic incompetence and yet that you are, at the same time, a lifelong expert at it. If you aren't, you know someone who is. Strategic incompetence is the art of avoiding undesirable tasks by pretending to be unable to do them, and though the phrase was apparently only recently coined in a Wall Street Journal article, the concept is surely as old as humanity. Modern-day exemplars include the office colleague who responds to the photocopier message "clear paper jam" by freezing in melodramatic pseudo-panic until someone else steps forward to help; you're equally guilty if you've ever evaded a household task or DIY project by claiming you might screw things up. ("I'd do the laundry - I'm just worried I'll damage your clothes.") The Journal interviewed one executive who'd managed to avoid organising the office picnic for several years running. "You'd be amazed," he noted, "at how much I don't know about picnics."
A quick post I wrote for the Guardian about how calls for new kinds of "digital etiquette" are really about something else…
it's a good general rule that when people get so heated about other people not following some alleged "best" way of doing things, there's something else going on – and it's worth asking what.
The whole post is here.
I've written fairly frequently in the past about managing email and the psychology of information overload, and I try not to be too strident or hectoring when I do; after all, different approaches work for different people. But from time to time, I run into people who point out, quite reasonably, that they're not tragic and pitiful productivity geeks like me; on the contrary, they actually have lives, and they just want to be told what steps to follow in order to triumph over their stress-inducing inboxes, so they can get on with more important matters. And so, despite being sceptical about New Year's resolutions in general, let me seize the calendrical opportunity to tell you – tell you, not suggest to you – how to head into 2013 feeling as odiously smug about your inbox as I do about mine, which, at time of writing, contains five emails. Here's what you need to do. And no back-talk!