I hereby announce the formation of an international campaign to eliminate all future uses of the phrase, "Work smarter, not harder." It's a mission I'm undertaking with some regret, since the idea behind that annoying slogan is fundamentally a decent one: in our overworked era, who wouldn't be in favour of finding ways to get the same amount done in fewer hours, freeing up time to relax, socialise or nurture the soul? Besides, this column has championed many such techniques in the past. But "Work smarter, not harder" has reached pandemic proportions. It's everywhere in business books and blog posts; it's been recommended as the solution to the problems facing everyone from doctors to police officers. And it's infected domains beyond work: there are books on studying smarter, not harder, on working out smarter, not harder, on cleaning, seducing women, grooming your pet, gardening, even reading the Bible smarter, not harder. Not all at once, obviously, though if you could figure out a way to do that, nobody could fault you for inefficiency.
The narrator of Joseph O'Neill's 2008 novel Netherland, a banker who has lived in both London and New York, seems permanently torn between the two – not merely as places to live, but because they embody different approaches to life itself. In London, he observes, people older than 40 considered themselves "over the hill and entitled to an essentially retrospective idea of [life]", as if all the exciting stuff were behind them, whereas in New York "selfhood's hill always seemed to lie ahead, and to promise a glimpse of further, higher peaks". That makes New York sound more fun, but on closer inspection both are depressing. Would you rather feel your life is over, or that the real you remains out of reach? Maybe O'Neill's globe-hopping banker would have been happier in some less self-regarding world city: Brussels, say, where they have good beer and shellfish, and probably – I'm guessing here – less existential angst.
Over the next couple of weeks I'll be talking about my book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking at events in Seattle, Berkeley, Sonoma, Corte Madera, Portland, Denver, Brookline and New York City. (And I do mean "talking about" rather than "reading from", because to my mind it makes for a far more entertaining experience for everyone involved that way.) Here's the full list. If you're in one of these areas, I really hope you'll come and say hello. I promise that you'll either have an incredibly fantastic, intellectually stimulating, laughter-filled time, or that it'll be a character-building Stoic exercise in learning to remain calm in the face of undesirable circumstances. One of the two.
When, if ever, is it best to "settle" – to opt for a relationship, or a career, or anything else, that’s less than you’d hoped for? The standard advice from dating experts is that you should never settle ("living with integrity [means] not settling for less than you know you deserve," writes one such pontificator, Barbara DeAngelis) except, you know, sometimes ("it sure ain’t romantic, but it is practical," says another, Evan Katz). So you’ll have to settle for being confused, at least if you listen to dating experts. Or you could listen to Robert Goodin. Goodin is a philosopher, not a dating expert: his previous publications have titles like Rationalising Discursive Anomalies, which won’t get him invited onto ITV’s This Morning in a hurry. But he has just published a book on settling. It’s called (wait for it) On Settling – and it may be of more use than most self-help works on the topic combined.
A piece I wrote for the Guardian on a strange problem that has some serious ramifications: really important things aren't necessarily interesting.
Rarely has a metaphor seemed more inappropriate: the US hurtled towards a cliff, then briefly hurtled over that cliff – and yet the whole experience was marginally less interesting than, say, regrouting the tiles in your bathroom.
The advice of etiquette experts on dealing with unwanted invitations, or overly demanding requests for favours, has always been the same: just say no. That may have been a useless mantra in the war on drugs, but in the war on relatives who want to stay for a fortnight, or colleagues trying to get you to do their work, the manners guru Emily Post's formulation – "I'm afraid that won't be possible" – remains the gold standard. Excuses merely invite negotiation. The comic retort has its place (Peter Cook: "Oh dear, I find I'm watching television that night"), and I'm fond of the tautological non-explanation ("I can't, because I'm unable to"). But these are variations on a theme: the best way to say no is to say no. Then shut up.
My book THE ANTIDOTE: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking is published in paperback in the UK today, with an amazing cover designed by the excellent people at Scriberia, who made the equally excellent short trailer that you can find, along with more details about the book, on my books page. It's also available for Kindle and in the iTunes Store, where you'll also find the newly published audiobook version, narrated (over the protestations of Morgan Freeman) by me. The audiobook is also at Audible.com and should be available via Audible.co.uk imminently. Here's what it says on the back cover:
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!
My Guardian column is taking a one-week seasonal break this week. (I hope it's having fun and getting drunk, wherever it is. Me, I'm working.) But I did write the introduction to Guardian Weekend's Worst Ideas of 2012 special edition, and contributed one of the "worst ideas": the predilection among politicians, and the rest of us, for ignoring reality.
Meanwhile, here's a short remembrance of Susan Jeffers (third item down), author of Embracing Uncertainty and Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway, which I was very pleased to be asked to contribute to the New York Times magazine's annual 'The Lives They Lived' edition. Jeffers's works are subversive, anti-positive-thinking texts masquerading as conventional self-help books – and they're all about not ignoring reality. They're well worth reading.
With only a few days to go until Christmas, which is everyone's favourite day of the year, some readers may be growing anxious. Sure, if you're reading this, you've escaped the destruction of the planet in a cataclysm of fire and molten rock, as allegedly predicted by the Mayans, which was scheduled for yesterday. So that's something. But there's still so much to worry about: the overcooked turkey, the children disappointed by their gifts, the family rituals that descend into bickering, the carol service disrupted by a dirty bomb, and so on. It's only right, then, that this week's column should distil the wisdom of countless self-help gurus and magazine tip lists into one handy guide to the Perfect Christmas: