Much hilarity greeted the revelation, back in May, that al-Qaida requires its operatives to submit expense reports. Our fear of terrorists leads us to imagine them as superhuman; it's a relief to learn that even they can't escape bureaucratic hassles. And those expense reports are no exception, judging by Jacob Shapiro's new book The Terrorist's Dilemma: Managing Violent Covert Organisations. (Shapiro's a political scientist; despite the subtitle, this isn't a how-to guide.) There's a long tradition of trying to draw lessons in business from criminals: see, for example, Mob Rules: What The Mafia Can Teach The Legitimate Businessman, by former Gambino mobster Louis Ferrante, or a recent Businessweek article entitled Breaking Bad's Management Lessons. Shapiro avoids that trap: terror groups, in his analysis, are so annoying you'd never want to work for one, even if you had no scruples about terrorism. To me and you, al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri may be the personification of evil. But to the militants he once scolded for buying a new fax machine when the old one still worked, he's the micromanager from hell.
'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.
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 reviewed George Packer's new book The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America for the Guardian:
The Unwinding is the right title for George Packer's epic, sad and unsettling history of the last four decades in the US. His topic is the coming apart of something in the national fabric: the unravelling of unspoken agreements about the limits to Wall Street's greed; about what a congressman would or wouldn't do for the right price; about what a company owes its workers, or what the wealthy should contribute in tax.
You can read the whole review here.
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.
The jury is out on the nutritional benefits of the enormously popular Fast Diet, which involves radically reducing your calorie consumption, but only for two non-consecutive days per week, then eating what you want the rest of the time. But could that basic principle – the 5:2 ratio – be an effective way of developing other habits, or ridding yourself of bad ones? Writers for the Guardian's Weekend magazine decided to find out. I wrote an introduction to the project here; links to the pieces are in the right-hand sidebar.
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.
Back in February, when Yahoo's chief executive, Marissa Mayer, announced a company-wide ban on working from home, the response from media commentators was vociferous. (If the outcry seemed disproportionate, perhaps that's because so many of them work from home and didn't want their editors getting ideas.) Mayer's detractors say the ban is anti-family and anti-feminist; her supporters argue that working face-to-face brings benefits that email and phone calls can't rival. Both sides have a point, but the real reason I suspect the policy will prove wrong-headed is more elemental. Deep down, people crave few things so desperately as a feeling of autonomy, and at Yahoo that just got squelched – not just among telecommuters but also among those employees who would never actually have chosen to work from home anyway.
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."