A friend of mine I'll call Nick (since that's his name) sporadically sends me postcards from his travels around the globe, on which the entire message, scrawled in large ballpoint letters, is "Best wishes, Nick." One interpretation of this is that Nick's a lazy bastard. Another is that he doesn't value our friendship sufficiently to spend five minutes telling me his news. But knowing how often I think about an absent friend, yet take no action to make contact, I'm inclined to conclude that his tactic's ingenious. The crucial thing about a postcard from afar, after all, is the fact of it, not some anecdote about haggling over souvenirs in a bazaar. By studiously ignoring the convention that postcards should contain news, he ensures they actually get sent. The difference between a detailed message and "Best wishes" is far smaller than between a postcard and no postcard at all.
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.
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.'"
Ethical philosophy isn't the most scintillating of subjects, but it has its moments. Take, for example, the work of the US philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel, who's spent a large chunk of his career confirming the entertaining finding that ethicists aren't very ethical. Ethics books, it turns out, are more likely to be stolen from libraries than other philosophy books. Ethics professors are more likely to believe that eating animals is wrong, but no less likely to eat meat. They're also more likely to say giving to charity is a moral obligation, but they were less likely than other philosophers to return a questionnaire when researchers promised to donate to charity if they did. Back when the American Philosophical Association charged for some meetings using an honesty system, ethicists were no less likely to freeload.
Impostor syndrome – the feeling that you're a fraud, and any day now you'll be exposed – is presumably even more common than surveys suggest: after all, it's not the kind of thing to which people like to admit. Indeed, it can be hard to tell when you've got it: those others might have a syndrome, your reasoning goes, but I'm genuinely out of my depth. It's a classic case of "comparing your insides with other people's outsides": you have access only to your own self-doubt, so you mistakenly conclude it's more justified than anyone else's. This is a strange kind of self-doubt, when you think about it, since it's premised on the idea that you're highly talented at something, namely deception. Still, it's no fun, and if new research is anything to go by, it might be harder to cure than anyone thought.
"Takes every self-help book you've ever read and turns it inside out… a deeply insightful and entertaining book" – Héctor Tobar, Los Angeles Times
I'm very pleased to announce that my book THE ANTIDOTE: HAPPINESS FOR PEOPLE WHO CAN'T STAND POSITIVE THINKING – about the upsides of failure, insecurity, uncertainty, pessimism, death, that sort of thing – is published in paperback in the United States today, by Faber & Faber.
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."
There's a jaded view of humanity according to which we're all manipulating each other, all the time: a planet of confidence tricksters, differing mainly in how good we are at it. After all, we can't know the inside of anyone else's mind. So when deciding whom to trust, date, buy things from or vote for, we're forced to rely on "proxies" – outward indicators of expertise or trustworthiness. But there's a loophole: to triumph at this game, you don't need to be well-qualified or trustable. You just need to master the gestures, the expressions, the lingo. You might not be doing this consciously. You might even really be all you claim to be. But until they release a mind-reading app for Google Glass, how could anyone tell?
Few topics have been more mangled and misunderstood in the world of popular psychology than that of "self-talk", the chuntering monologue most of us conduct through the day in our heads, or out loud when we're alone. (Don't pretend you don't.) Contrary to self-help lore, there's little evidence that positive self-talk works like magic. Telling yourself you're beautiful, a confident public speaker or a future billionaire won't make you any of those things; if anything, it's liable to have the reverse effect. The true impact of self-talk is more subtle. For example, it's been shown that if you want to accomplish a challenging task, you're better off phrasing it as a question ("Will I talk to my boss about that promotion?") than simply declaring it ("I will talk to my boss about that promotion!"). The declaration sounds better, but it's the question that generates more "intrinsic motivation", calling to mind your deeply held reasons for wanting to act. And a similarly tiny linguistic tweak, it emerged recently, could make the difference between resisting temptation and succumbing to it.