Laura Vanderkam and the cult of early

It won’t surprise regular readers to learn that I have some issues with Laura Vanderkam, the time-management guru who wrote 168 Hours and cult-of-early classic What The Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast.

What bugs me about the “before breakfast” advice is exactly what bugs me about Lean In: it’s advice aimed at individuals that doesn’t scale if everybody follows it. You’re supposed to jump-start your day by getting up before anybody else, so you can focus on your latest important work project without any interruptions. OK, but what if everybody else has the same idea? How can you enjoy a solitary coffee in your local coffee shop if it’s packed with other early birds? How can you clear your inbox before 7am if your colleagues all pick up their smartphones at 6am to ping replies right back at you?

I’m speaking from experience: I once tried the early-bird thing as a way of buying myself alone-time to focus on work when sharing an office with an extremely attention-seeking colleague. To reach the office before she arrived, I had to both beg her to come in later than usual and get up at 6am, which for me is nausea-inducingly early. I got a grand total of 15 minutes alone in the office before she walked through the door. I realised after trying it just once that I couldn’t win this way, couldn’t fight an early bird by trying to be even earlier. (Not when my commute was over two hours long and hers was a few minutes, not when she had a naturally “lark” body clock.)

What did work, magnificently, was coming in to the office on a Saturday when she wasn’t due in at all and nobody else knew I was there either. I only needed to do it once, because in those two or three blissful hours on my own I did more work than I’d normally manage in a week and got ahead on everything so I felt a lot calmer. After that, I secured permission from the directors of the organisation to do more work from home.

I have actually read What The Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast. And the most surprising bit is the intro, where Vanderkam casually admits that she’s naturally a night owl and wrote most of the book late at night. Suddenly it becomes obvious that she’s not really talking about getting up early; she’s talking about carving out time when nobody is demanding your attention. I’m assuming she put an early-bird spin on it because the cult of early is a powerful thing. But really, as her other writing makes clear, she’s just talking about being proactive in securing uninterrupted time for your important work.

Maybe you can do the same as Vanderkam and create time for yourself by staying up late. Or maybe you need to spend more time working from home, or maybe you need some time away from your home, or maybe you need a babysitter or an accountant or a PA or just permission to switch your phone off for a defined period. There are countless ways to get yourself interruption-free time even in the busiest life, it’s just that most of them involve a certain level of privilege. But if you’re reading this, maybe you have more privilege than you think.

If your life tends to involve a lot of demands on your attention but not your intellect, a lot of short-term memory stuff and busywork and emotional labour, you may well find that you can do amazing things with a few guaranteed hours away from all that.

But it’s worth remembering that the carving-out-time thing doesn’t scale on an individual level any more than the getting-up-early thing scales on a group level. What do I mean by that? Well, if you’re normally juggling orders in a restaurant or looking after a baby or answering several phones at once, you will probably find that you’re amazingly productive given a few hours of peace. In three hours you’ve probably have deep-cleaned the house, written a sonata and come up with a coherent strategy for fighting fascism. Given another three hours? Meh, you’ll probably check Facebook and maybe make a start on dinner. Because most humans can’t be amazingly productive and creative for very long, no matter how much time we carve out. That’s why novelists with full-time day jobs write almost as much as novelists whose day job is the novel-writing. It’s a lovely fantasy that  the demands of daily life are keeping us from being our true amazing selves, but the reality is that our brains need downtime.

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