'You are anal retentive," reads a possibly apocryphal T-shirt, "if you wonder whether there should be a hyphen in 'anal retentive'." As methods of psychiatric diagnosis go, this isn't great – but then again, "anal retentiveness" is itself a bogus notion. Few ideas of Freud's stand more discredited than his claim about the importance of bowel control in the formation of personality. It arose in an era when families were large and indoor plumbing was new, argues the psychoanalyst Robert Galatzer-Levy: bowel-related matters probably did figure centrally in the life of young Sigmund, as he waited for his siblings to finish in the bathroom. Critics of Freud have suggested that he often constructed his supposedly universal theories on similarly shaky ground, but I think we all know they're just suffering from repressed attraction to their mothers.
Like you, I assume, I possess a number of skills that I don't feel receive sufficient recognition. For example: I can read street signs from a greater distance than family or friends. I am good at untangling tangled wires, not that I get any praise for it. I can tell what time it is, accurately, without a watch. And I have a special talent for entering my pin at cashpoints in a way that is both nonchalant yet resistant to thieves' prying eyes. Until recently, I'd assumed I'd go to my grave with these strengths unremarked, reduced to hoping that future historians might notice what my contemporaries had missed. But then I encountered the work of the humorist Andy Selsberg.
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.
The American business guru Clayton Christensen often tells a story from his days as a student at Oxford. He played basketball for the university team, and they made it to the national finals – whereupon it emerged the big game would be on a Sunday. Christensen is a devout Mormon, and playing on the Sabbath offended his principles. The team coach asked him to break his rule, just this once; Christensen prayed to God for guidance, and concluded that he couldn't play. So he didn't. That's the end of the story.
Recently, as part of a personal experiment in the psychology of money, I spent almost a month trying to make every purchase I could in hard cash. So before I go further, I should apologise if you were one of the people who found themselves stuck behind me in supermarket queues while I fished through my rucksack for the little beige envelopes in which I'd stashed that week's notes and coins. (More on these shortly.) Some time ago, in the US, Visa ran a series of ads based on the premise that people who don't pay with plastic infuriate other customers; the slogan was, "because money shouldn't slow you down". I can report that this fury is real. Even checkout staff didn't seem grateful to receive the exact change, counted out in scores of tiny coins, even though this procedure almost always took me less than 15 minutes.
To see the future of the "happiness industry", head to California: if there's a way to charge money for a service that promises to make life better, some Californian will have figured it out. In certain jails there, nonviolent offenders can pay around $100 a day for an upgrade to a nicer cell, further from violent inmates, and sometimes with the right to use a laptop. Californian life-coaches abound, obviously, while new agers congregate at the world-famous Esalen centre, in Big Sur, to study craniosacral therapy and shamanism. And, as the (California-based) sociologist Arlie Hochschild discovered, in California you can consult a "wantologist" who, for a fee, will help discover what the Want-ology™ self-help system refers to as your "soul wants". Increasingly, Hochschild argues, we are "outsourcing intimate parts of our lives". If you want to – in the US, anyhow – you can now rent a friend, rent a grandma, or pay someone to visit a deceased relative's grave.
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.