Laura Vanderkam and the cult of early

Posted November 23, 2016 by gryphon
Categories: Uncategorized

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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.

The turkeys who vote for Christmas

Posted November 16, 2016 by gryphon
Categories: Uncategorized


It is entirely possible to celebrate Christmas without killing any turkeys. I’m a vegetarian, so for me, Christmas has absolutely nothing to do with eating turkeys. My meat-eating relatives also tend to enjoy a turkey-free Christmas because turkey isn’t one of their top ten favourite meats. Most meat-eaters don’t seem to actually like turkey that much; they just eat it at Christmas because it’s traditional. (There’s a Royle Family scene where everybody says they don’t like turkey, then the whole family is shocked by Barbara’s suggestion that they have something else in future. It’s one of several moments where the sitcom resembles a documentary.)

So you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s not just theoretically possible, but practically achievable and generally desirable to have Christmas without killing turkeys. When you balance the really strong desire of the turkeys not to be killed against the only mildly pro-turkey-dinner feelings of the humans, it looks as if the overall feeling is anti-killing-turkeys. If you rationally calculate the benefits and harms involved, a Christmas free of turkey dinners is not just the best moral choice but also the choice that best represents the wishes of all stakeholders. So that’s probably what will happen, right? If you’re a turkey who keeps hearing about how wonderful Christmas will be for “everybody”, maybe it’s tempting to make this kind of calculation and then vote for Christmas.

Of course, if you are a turkey, perhaps you will not grasp that nobody gives a fuck what you think. The cost-benefit analysis doesn’t include you, because you count for nothing. You are not part of “everybody” and you never were. That’s why a mild human preference for turkey dinners overrides your extremely strong preference not to die.

Siderea’s writing on The Two Moral Modes is the best explanation I’ve ever read of Donald Trump’s mindset.


Posted September 14, 2016 by gryphon
Categories: Uncategorized


Why do people drop their ‘g’s on some words and not others? I’ve wondered this for a long time. Language Log has a (not completely satisfactory) answer:

Historically, g-dropping is actually a more conservative pattern. The English present participle suffix was originally pronounced with a coronal, not a velar nasal: in early middle English, this inflection was -inde or -ende. There was a derivational ending -ung for making nouns out of verbs, which produced words like present-day “building.” These eventually merged into the modern -ing suffix. In 19th- and early 20th-century England, the g-dropping pattern (which really was the “not g-adding pattern”) marked the rural aristocracy as well as the lower classes.

According to Language Log, some English speakers hear the distinction very clearly and would hear tryin’ as fine but weddin’ or buildin’ as completely wrong. Most people probably don’t, which is why you hear weddin’ and gatherin’ in the wild.

I think the distinction we make these days is whether the syllable is stressed or unstressed. That’s why you don’t hear rin’ for ring or sin’ for sing. (Although someone did once report to Verbal Tea that they’d attended a talk where the speaker kept saying thin’ for thing.)

Language Hat and Wikipedia back up my hunch that it’s about whether or not you stress the syllable.

All three sources say that the “dropped” g represents an older form of pronunciation, one that used to be standard, which is why John Gay rhymed “pursuing” and “ruin”.

They all also make the point that what we call g-dropping is not technically dropping a g; it’s replacing one sound with another. But to me, if that act of replacing one sound with another means you have to take away the g from the written version of the word, then “dropping the g” is an excellent description of what you’re doing.

What’s he been in?

Posted August 31, 2016 by gryphon
Categories: Uncategorized

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I’ve just discovered that the main actress in My Fair Lady is Audrey Hepburn! The same Audrey Hepburn who was in Breakfast at Tiffany’s! I’m assuming this is one of those things everybody else knew except me. I guess it doesn’t help that I’ve never seen Breakfast at Tiffany’s or knowingly seen any other Audrey Hepburn film, so I didn’t have much to go on.

I don’t think I’m too bad at recognising faces in real life, but I have an absolute blind spot about actors. I can recognise actors I’ve seen many times, and I can recognise very distinctive-looking actors, but that’s about it. When  I’m talking about a film with my friends and they use an actor’s name to refer to a character, I’ll often feel surprised because I’ve heard of the actor but had no idea they were in the film I’ve just seen.

I’ve been wondering why this is, and I think it’s partly because I don’t watch much telly (I don’t have a telly) and I hardly ever watch films, so I don’t get to know actors. But it’s probably also because I’m pretty literal-minded, and my approach to a film or a telly programme is basically to accept that everybody is who they’re supposed to be, for the purposes of watching it. Whereas I think other people enjoy the extra layer of recognising actors and comparing this role to past roles.

When I was a kid, the appearance of an actor on the telly in our house would occasionally prompt the dreaded words: “What’s he been in?” Then the discussions would begin.

“Was he in that thing about the hospital?”
“No, you’re thinking of the other feller who looks a bit like him.”
“Well, who’s the feller who looks like him?”
“Well, I can’t remember what he’s called but he was in the thing about the hospital and that other thing, the really moving thing where he was a soldier and he died, remember?”
“Oh, him. Well, that’s not him.”

I remember longing for some magical device, something a bit like a book maybe, that would give you that info. Not because I cared about actors’ names or what they’d been in already, but because it might cut short the boring conversations on the subject and let us get on with actually watching things.

And then the world wide web was invented, and IMDB was invented, and tablets were invented, and now millions of people can just pause what they’re watching to look up “what he’s been in” on a device small enough to hold in your hand. And they do! And it’s wonderful. No more conversations about “you know, the one who was in the thing with that other woman who was in the police thing”. The person who is deputised to find out the Facts looks it up on their tablet or phone and then enlightens everybody else.

But I’m still happy not to care. I’m still happy to watch a film and then find out five years later who played the lead character. I’m happy that if a character starts being played by a different actor, I probably won’t even notice, so I won’t be troubled by the discontinuity. Maybe I’m missing out on an extra level of the viewing experience. But maybe I’m not.

Why do spammers spam?

Posted August 24, 2016 by gryphon
Categories: anti-time-stealer hacks, conversational tactics

I once wrote about handling confusing or open-ended requests with the “quick-question trick”: respond swiftly to ask for some clarification and watch the requester melt away.

It’s great to have a technique for making these people vanish, but I do wonder why a request for specifics works on this kind of person like garlic or sunlight on a vampire.

  • They ignore your response despite having contacted you in the first place.
  • They ignore your response despite the fact that you’d assume a response was their hoped-for outcome.

That was how I saw it for a while, and it seemed bafflingly contradictory. Then I realised it’s more consistent than it seems.

Someone who contacts multiple people asking for something is likely to be the kind of person who contacts multiple people asking for something. People who hate asking favours and sending mass messages still do those things when it’s necessary, sure, but they make up a tiny minority of the people who do those things. The kind of person who does this is mostly pretty comfortable with it. Why? Are they really comfortable with expecting each person to spend time trying to work out what they’re being asked? Are they really comfortable with expecting each person to do the work of saying no?

The answer is partly to do with the Askers versus Guessers divide. The kind of person who emails 70 people with a badly-written block of text doesn’t actually expect each person to labour over reading it, work out what’s required and respond. That’s why they emailed 70 people when they only need two or three to help. They’re playing a numbers game, assuming most people won’t take the message seriously. But the few who do? Great. When you think that way, it’s totally consistent for you to be flaky about your own inbox. Do as you would be done by. Send out emails you expect most people to ignore, then ignore most of the messages you get yourself. Don’t get me wrong, it seems like a sub-optimal way to handle your shit, but at least it’s internally consistent.

So “They ignore your response despite having contacted you in the first place” becomes “They feel comfortable about contacting you in the first place because they’re happy to ignore emails and they figure everybody else is too.”

Likewise “They ignore your response despite the fact that you’d assume a response was their hoped-for outcome.” Yes, you’d assume they had some kind of outcome in mind. You’d assume they had some kind of plan or system, starting with monitoring responses to the request for help, then following up on those responses, providing more information, allocating tasks… Nope. They ignore your response because they did not think about outcomes at all.

Some of it is probably a pseudo-pragmatic calculation of resources; mass-contacting people or organisations takes way less time per person/organisation than responding to questions. Some of it is about being a flake, some of this is about being the kind of person who wants lots of other people’ s attention and energy without having a plan for doing anything useful with it. And some of it is about having a cheerful “throw mud at the wall and see what sticks” attitude, or a “numbers game” attitude or a “well, they can only say no!” attitude. (We’re back to Askers versus Guessers again.)

Ultimately I think it’s just about having a fundamentally different atttitude to people’s time, attention and communication. If you only ask for help very occasionally, when it’s something that’s really important to you, you’re going to take other people’s requests for help more seriously because you “know” that asking for this kind of help is something that people only do when it’s important. And you’re going to be gutted when your own requests for help are met with indifference.

Likewise, if you ask for help all the time, and you don’t put too much emotional energy into it, to the point where you can’t really be bothered to explain what you’re actually asking for, you will not  be too upset when people ignore you. And when you get requests for help, you will feel free to ignore them because you “know” that people just throw this kind of thing out there. I think you get this type of thinking in jobs like sales and recruitment, because if you agonised over each time you didn’t get what you were pushing for in those kinds of jobs, it would be very bad for your mental health.

This reading of the situation makes it seem as if the person who reads emails properly and respects other people’s time and doesn’t make unreasonable requests…well, that person basically loses. And that the winning strategy is to be the arsehole who just makes badly formulated demands in a scattergun fashion and hopes to utilise other people’s niceness to get what you want without even asking properly for it.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably in the “respect people’s time and communicate clearly” camp and this post has made you think again about how the “throw it out there” camp is trying to waste your time and energy every day. My imperfect solution is to try to identify which camp people are in and then respond accordingly. The  quick-question trick is amazingly effective for filtering out the human spammers. But mostly, you can just carry on being respectful and thoughtful and articulate.

The thing is, you don’t actually win the “numbers game” by spamming a huge number of people and then being incapable of following up on the responses. You win by actually getting what you were looking for. The scattergun approach isn’t ultimately that effective if you’re not capable of building on what you get back. Because people are not, in fact, walls to throw mud at. Making things “stick” is about relationships and respect.

More on post-interrupting

Posted August 17, 2016 by gryphon
Categories: conversational tactics

I blogged recently-ish about the thing where people butt in at the exact moment a speaker has finished speaking. They’re not butting in with a reaction to what’s just been said (positive or negative) – they’re saying something completely irrelevant and thereby depriving the original speaker of any reaction from others who might have been listening.

I’ve been thinking about it some more, about the contexts where it’s happened to me or I’ve seen it happen to others. And I’ve come to the conclusion that there are several motivations behind it.

There’s the mistake eraser. They think you’ve just said something inappropriate, or something that might lead to an inappropriate response, but tackling the issue head-on  would make things even more awkward. So they’re going to smoothly come in with a complete change of subject before anyone can react to the original thing. (Sometimes this is an absolute godsend.)

There’s the status reinforcer. They have higher status in the group than you, and they’ve internalised the idea that conversation is a competition for attention, so they want to stop people reacting to what you say. They especially don’t want anyone laughing at your jokes, because you “shouldn’t” be funny. (The status reinforcer probably does a lot of regular interrupting as well, especially when there’s some plausible deniability.)

Obviously, there’s no clear boundary between the mistake eraser and the status reinforcer, because sometimes your “mistake” is to say something inappropriate to your status.

But I think the most common type is the distracted clunker. This person probably isn’t really following the conversation in the first place. They’re distracted, but unsuccessfully trying to hide it. They’re actually trying not to interrupt, because they realise that might seem rude, so they’re  listening out for what sounds like a pause or the end of a sentence before jumping in with whatever’s on their mind. A distracted clunker might be the man on a date who’s so focused on impressing the woman he’s with and getting the date “right” that he forgets to listen to a word she’s saying. Or the over-achieving host who’s obsessing over the food and getting the party “right”.

This person probably isn’t socially inept all the time; but social skills, like most skills, depend on context, and in this context the person is struggling because they’re tense and focused on other things.

Of course, it’s still hurtful and annoying, because of the realisation that you’re not connecting with this person at all. You thought the point of seeing them was to have fun, connect, get to know each other better, but then you realise they’re playing their own secret game with different rules.

But a word in defence of these people: they’re more likely to be trying too hard than not trying hard enough. Yeah, they probably don’t understand that social initiative is work, which is why they don’t seem to be bothering on that front. But they’re nervous and out of their depth, which is why they’re focusing on the stuff they think they can control.

I can’t make her attracted to me, but I can turn up on time and wear my good shirt and come up with a great idea for a place to go next. Hey, she’s talking. She’s smiling as well, so does that mean I’m doing OK? When she finishes I must buy another round.

I can’t make my guests have fun, but I can put a good playlist together and make sure everybody’s wine is topped up. I can’t follow the conversation because I’m too focused on watching my husband putting out the cheeseboard and waiting for him to fuck it up, but interrupting is rude, so I’ll wait for what seems like a gap before I say anything… For God’s sake, he’s putting out the wrong knives. Darling! Not those knives for the cheese. Oh, was that the doorbell again?

I’ve been on both sides of this behaviour. Yes, I’ve been on dates where I’m wondering why the other person asked me out in the first place if they have no interest in me. I’ve been the guest wondering why they don’t just replace me with a giant cuddly toy. But I’ve also been the over-anxious host, date, friend who’s more focused on getting it “right” than enjoying the time with the other person. I’ve been the one jumping in with something irrelevant because I’m trying too hard.

So yeah. We all do it. But if you like someone enough, maybe this behaviour won’t put you off, and you’ll decide you still want to see them again. And maybe next time, or the time after that, everybody will relax enough that real connections and real conversations can happen.

Cats and consent

Posted August 10, 2016 by gryphon
Categories: Uncategorized

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I’ve seen a few articles recently about how to teach your child concepts like consent, bodily autonomy and so on. When a friend and her 5-year-old recently visited my partner and me, I realised there’s an amazing teaching aid that people don’t seem to know about: cats.

Concepts we had to get across during one short visit:

  • You don’t get to pet the cat just because you want to pet the cat. Petting the cat only happens if the cat wants to be petted.
  • There are lots of ways you can tell whether a cat is interested in interacting with you or not. There are signals that you can learn to understand, even though cats are a different species and don’t speak your language. You don’t need to get a “no” in words to realise it’s time to back off.
  • There’s a correlation between how much a cat trusts you and how much it wants to play with you or cuddle you. But you still can’t expect that on any given occasion the cat will be interested. It’s up to the cat, and they are not machines where a specific input results in a specific output.
  • There’s plenty of stuff you can do to make the cat feel more relaxed around you. If you’re sharing a cat’s space, you should do this stuff.
  • But it won’t magically result in you getting to cuddle the cat, because cats are not machines where a specific input results in a specific output. You’re doing it for the cat’s benefit, not yours.
  • Maybe the cat let you pet it yesterday. That doesn’t mean that the cat “should” let you pet it today. The cat gets to want different things on different days, just like you do.
  • Maybe the cat is really not interested in interacting with you at all. That doesn’t mean you’re doing anything “wrong”. Because you can’t control the cat’s choices, remember? (Why not? Because cats are not machines where a specific input results in a specific output.)

Written down, that might look like a lot to take in. But it’s not as if we handed the 5-year-old a scroll with “Rules of Ye Catte” written at the top in olde-timey writing. This is all just stuff she picked up from things we said and things she observed herself, over the course of a couple of days. What made me very happy was that not only did she grasp all this, she didn’t seem to resent any of it. She just accepted that this is the way cats work, and enjoyed her interactions with our cat on that basis.

We need to keep challenging the idea that consent is somehow a tricky or unclear concept. If a 5-year-old child can so swiftly grasp the basics of consent in relation to another species, most adults can definitely grasp the basics of consent in their interactions with other humans.