Posted tagged ‘the cult of early’

Laura Vanderkam and the cult of early

November 23, 2016

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.

A harsh challenge to the cult of early

December 27, 2015

I’ve just discovered that the website Vice runs a feature called Cry-Baby of the Week, and then there’s an annual round-up called Cry-Baby of the Year. In this context, “cry-baby” seems to mean a person or organisation who overreacted to a specific provocation. That’s not actually what “cry-baby” means, but anyway: this year’s round-up includes someone I’d kind of like to shake by the hand for challenging the cult of early so very very thoroughly.

Number 8 is Bill Riley, a prosecutor who sent a bin collector to jail for starting his shift early . Harsh? Yes. Fair? Well…

I recently moved house. In my previous house, I was routinely woken early by the bin-men outside. Yelling at each other. Running the lorry’s engine. Throwing glass as hard as they possibly could so it smashed as loudly as possible. Yelling at each other some more. In any other context, having a gang of young men outside your house during the hours of darkness, shouting and throwing glass, is a big fucking problem and possibly a reason to call the police. But in the context of the bin-men, they’re just hard-working lads doing their jobs and obviously they can’t hear each other over the noise of the engine so of course they have to yell.

The time they reached my house would start at a bearable 7am-ish, and then gradually creep earlier and earlier and earlier until it was more like 5:30am. Then someone (sometimes me) would complain to the council. The council line was: “We’re doing our best. We’ve got a contract that prevents them starting too early and they’re obviously breaking the terms of that contract; we’ll have a word.” The other council line was “But we can’t have them starting too late, because then they’ll be blocking the main roads during rush hour and we must make life as easy as possible for people in cars.” (I paraphrase.)  Once I said: “Well, why not have them do the main roads first, when it’s really early, and then do the residential areas closer to rush hour?” This idea was rejected because maximising your route for residents’ convenience means you can’t maximise it for efficiency. Good old efficiency.

Anyway, the council would “have a word” and then it would be OK for a while (“OK” meaning that they were yelling and smashing glass outside my house at 6:30am instead of 5:30am), and then the start time would start creeping earlier and earlier again. (Not long before I moved, they finally adopted a policy of switching the engine off while the bin lorry was stationary, which meant they didn’t have to yell over it. Yes, it was possible all along. Who knew?)

Listen. Nobody starts work at 5am rather than 7am by accident. The other way round? Yes. It’s called oversleeping. But nobody starts their engine-running, glass-smashing, screaming shift two hours early by accident. They do it because they think they can get away with it, and the reason they think they can get away with it (when someone turning up two hours late would be in deep trouble) is because of the cult of early. And, obviously, they do it because they’re a selfish cunt who figures that because they’re awake, everybody else should be awake too. That’s the kind of logic that’s only really acceptable in someone under two years old.

The main article about the case begins plaintively: “American society has long placed a special value on rising early for a hard day’s work. But this is apparently not always the case in the Atlanta suburb of Sandy Springs…

Pure cult-of-early bullshit. What about the nurses, factory workers and so on who work later shifts and get to bed at 2am? Does their work not have value? Is it OK that they get woken within hours of going to bed so that someone who’s already been told not to start work before 7am can start work at 5am and feel smug about it?

Yes, sending him to jail was an overreaction. And yes, this case has all the hallmarks of the terrible, terrible American justice system: surprise prosecutor when the bin-man thought he was just going to court to pay a fine, plea bargain, probably a big chunk of racism.

But just imagine a world where everybody who “accidentally” starts work two hours early and wakes up hundreds of sleeping people actually gets a punishment in line with their selfish, shitty behaviour, instead of being treated like a fucking hero for having a body-clock that’s more lark than owl. That’s what a world without the cult of early could look like. But I’d prefer it if we could get there without putting too many more early-birds in prison.

The cult of early is not the same as earliness

February 5, 2014

I’m concerned that some readers might have misunderstood my attitude to earliness in general, after reading all my posts on the cult of early. To make it clear: I do not have a problem with earliness in general. I have a problem with the cult of early.

In other words, I have a problem with the following assumptions:

  • that being early makes it OK to say you’re turning up at a certain time but then actually turn up at a different time
  • that your non-time-specific work is more valuable if you do it earlier rather than later
  • that workers on an earlier shift must be harder-working than the team on the late shift
  • that turning in excellent work just before the deadline is somehow “naughty” while handing in any work weeks before the deadline is somehow “good”
  • that it’s OK to laugh at people who struggle to meet their deadlines, even if you’ve done bugger-all yourself.

It might surprise readers to know that I’ve actually ended more than one friendship because of the other person’s lateness. Persistent lateness annoys me for the same reason persistent earliness annoys me: it shows that you’re not making an effort to stick to the agreed time, which means you weren’t being honest with me when we made the arrangement. I can handle failure and occasional mega-flakiness, which is lucky because otherwise I wouldn’t be able to look in the mirror. I just don’t like dishonesty or disrespect.

You see, one-off earliness or lateness doesn’t tell you much about that person’s attitude. It probably tells you more about the traffic on that day, or the reliability of the buses, or how worried they were about the meeting. (Most people will leave bags of spare time for travelling to a job interview, less for a casual coffee.) But over time you see patterns. The difference between deliberate and accidental lateness flattens out over a long time period. You stop caring what the reasons are; you just get tired of the fact that it always happens. You get tired of making allowances, of meeting them literally and metaphorically more than half-way. And it’s exactly the same with consistent earliness.

Either way, if someone has never kept to any arrangement, they probably don’t respect your arrangements very much. It doesn’t really matter if I’m sitting in a cafe wondering where the hell you are or feeling caught out because you’ve arrived on my doorstep an hour before I was expecting you. Whether you’re always 90 minutes late or always 90 minutes early, I know that you care more about your own issues than you care about meeting my expectations and being honest with me. You don’t really respect me. You might like me or even love me, but you don’t respect me. And it’s up to me to decide how I act on that knowledge.

The only reason the late person is ever more bearable than the early person is that they usually know they’re in the wrong. They’re more likely to text or ring to warn you that they’re running late. They’re more likely to say sorry for worrying you, or for keeping you waiting. Whereas the super-early person is just as likely to laugh at you or judge you for being unprepared or “late” as they are to apologise for their failure to stick to the agreed time. And the reason for that asymmetry is the cult of early.

Morality tale draws the wrong moral

May 23, 2013

A writing blog I follow recently shared a cautionary tale about lateness: the writer’s son left a payment too late and ended up having to pay a late payment fee. His parents refused to help him out – his fault that he “wasn’t smart enough to make his payment in time”, right?

My take on this episode is entirely different. Apparently the son was paying for a summer course at the University of British Columbia (UBC). He made the online bank transfer to pay the $600 fee the night before the money was due. Cutting it fine, yes, but nevertheless, he sorted out the transfer before the deadline.

What he didn’t know – and apparently should have known – is that his bank takes three days to process online payments.

I don’t know how the would-be student found out that the payment hadn’t reached UBC, but he did find out and tried to sort things out. But he didn’t have enough money left in his account to cover the fees because – well, let me think why that could be. Could it possibly be because $600 had ALREADY LEFT HIS ACCOUNT? Unfortunately, he didn’t happen to have another $600 just hanging around in his current account, which is why he contacted his mother for help paying the fees.

She refused. UBC then charged him a $100 late fee.

Daphne Gray-Grant, the writer and mother in question, turned this into a smug little morality tale about the importance of planning and not leaving things to the last minute. As you might have guessed, I don’t see it that way.

There is absolutely no technical reason why a transfer from one bank to another should take three days. It would make sense if money transfers involved a man on a horse carrying the cash in sacks; but even then, a transfer between the student’s home in Vancouver and a university also in Vancouver would still take less than three days. In reality, bank transfers can happen in milliseconds. The fake delay is imposed by greedy banks who want to hang on to customers’ money for as long as they can get away with it. So Daphne’s son was entirely reasonable in his expectation that a bank transfer would take a few hours rather than a few days. (Many banks have already done away with the fake delay and process transfers instantly.)

You know who else is greedy? The University of British Columbia. They imposed a $100-dollar fine for late payment of $600 in course fees. Payment which, I assume, turned up after two days. Think of it in terms of a regular debt and you can see how unfair it is; a $100 charge to borrow $600 for TWO FUCKING DAYS represents an APR of about 3000%. Bear in mind that we’re talking here about an 18-year-old potential student who saved up for a summer course, did his best to pay on time and (presumably) tried to explain the situation. A student who had proof that the money had ALREADY LEFT HIS FUCKING ACCOUNT, which meant that from his point of view, it was paid.

Maybe I’m projecting here, but it seems to me that the would-be student genuinely (and reasonably) expected the money transfer to take a few hours. When the payment didn’t go through, he thought something had gone wrong and that the money had been somehow lost: “Did I just pay 600 [expletive] dollars into thin air?” His bank’s behaviour must have caused him a lot of unnecessary alarm. Then the university chooses to financially exploit him – exploitation which wouldn’t even have been possible if the bank hadn’t already been exploiting him financially with its bullshit three-day-transfer policy. Then his mother refuses to help him out because she thinks he needs to learn his lesson. If she’d lent him the $600 for just a few days while the mess got straightened out, he could have avoided the $100 late fee completely. But she didn’t.

Look, I accept that leaving things to the last minute is often a bad idea, because things go wrong and they take time to sort out, so often you haven’t got as long as you thought you had. But we’re talking here about a teenager who’s been badly screwed over by two institutions he trusted. Why are we talking about his “lateness” in paying a few hours before the deadline when we could be talking about what evil bastards his bank and the university are?

And if we are going to talk about lateness, why can’t we talk about the completely calculated, utterly unreasonable lateness involved in taking three days EVERY TIME to complete a fucking bank transfer?

If we’re talking about lessons learnt, let’s talk about how this teenager found out that respected institutions can conspire to screw you over even when you’re trying your best to do the right thing. How his local university sees him as a cash cow rather than as a potential learner. And, worst of all, how his own mother has no sympathy for him and instead decides he’ll make a great topic for her weekly blog post. (Incidentally, when she had her own hassles with a financial institution – American Express – she whined about how hard they were making things for her.)

The really poignant bit for me is when the lad tells his mother he’s afraid that his father will blame him for the mix-up, little realising that she will blame him too. They’ve obviously got some kind of “bad-cop, bad-cop” parenting dynamic going on there, combined with a bit of “victim-blaming cop” .

Do I need any more evidence that the cult of early is linked with unreasonable smugness and a total lack of empathy? I just hope that if Daphne ever needs her son’s help in an emergency, he charges her at least $100 for it.

A question of etiquette

March 27, 2013

I have an etiquette question.

I was recently in email contact with someone, trying to fix a time for him to come round and drop off some paperwork at my house. He said he was free all day and asked me what time would be convenient for me. So I said: “I’m popping out now […] but I should be back after 3pm, so any time after then is fine.”

I was unexpectedly delayed on the way home, but I still got through the door at 2:40pm…to find the paperwork had been pushed through the letterbox while I was out. He’d apparently interpreted “any time after 3pm” to mean “before 3pm”. I see this a lot with early birds of the older generation: a failure to cope with concepts like “any time after [stated time]”.

A lot of my dealings with early birds end with me asking myself: “Does this person really not grasp the difference between ‘before’ and ‘after’? Or is it just that they prefer to ignore arrangements in favour of doing things when they feel like it? And if it’s the latter, why did they go through the whole ritual of making those arrangements in the first place?”

Or maybe the open-endedness of the time window makes them feel insecure, and of course early birds always reach for extra earliness to make them feel more secure. So they hear “any time after 3pm” and think “3pm! That’s the fixed point here! Got to do it by 3pm! Pedal to the metal!”

Anyway, my etiquette question is: do I have to give the body a proper burial, or is it OK if I just throw it to the neighbourhood wolves?

JOKING. (Probably.)

Lying is OK if you’re early

March 6, 2013

Last week I was getting a lift to a funeral with some colleagues. I stayed with them the night before. We’d agreed a departure time of 8:30am a few days beforehand. The night before, there was some discussion about whether 8:30am was early enough, but we decided that it was.

The next morning, there was a bang on my bedroom door. We were leaving early. Everybody rushed for the shower at once. By 7:30am the person who’d changed the plan was sitting in the car, visibly fuming at the delay. We finally left at 7:45am with dire warnings of how we were going to miss the funeral.

We arrived in town nearly an hour early for the funeral, but at least we got to go to a cafe and have breakfast. The person who’d moved the times forward wouldn’t eat anything. He was still cross about our “lateness” in leaving and kept saying “We were lucky with the traffic, that’s all.”

The following day I’d arranged for a friend to drop something off at my house. We agreed 6pm. She arrived just after 5pm when I was buried in work and the house looked like a tip.

This morning I had a work phone call scheduled for 11am. At 10am I started making notes for the call, but he rang less than five minutes later. I think I would have made a better contribution if I’d been better prepared, but I felt embarrassed about admitting I wasn’t ready for the call.

Why does being early make it OK to be unreliable? In my worldview, if you set a time you should do your best to stick to it. If you manage to be earlier than that time, you’re not “winning” in any way; you’re just inconveniencing other people and being rude and dishonest into the bargain.

I’m not talking about “early” in the sense of getting your essay handed in early, or finishing your day’s work early. If you achieve something ahead of schedule, good for you (although don’t fall into the trap of thinking it increases the work’s intrinsic value). I’m talking about when you agree a time for a departure, a meeting, a phone call or whatever with someone else, then ignore the agreed time in favour of your own, earlier time. It happens to me so often that I’ve nicknamed it the “early-bird bait-and-switch” but I’ve only been moved to blog about it now because it’s happened to me three times in less than a week.

Maybe I should have prepared for today’s phone call sooner. But where do you draw the line? If I “should” be prepared for an 11am call by 10am just in case the other person rings an hour early, should I also be prepared at 9am? 8am? 7am? 11pm the previous night?

It all gets to me because I try so damn hard to be reliable, to stick to arrangements, to not fuck up too much. I use productivity systems and automated reminders, because I’m so terrified of dropping a ball. So of course it winds me up when I’m finishing a phone call and then hear the alarm I set to remind me that the call is about to start. Or when the alarm I set to wake me up goes off several miles into a journey. If you suddenly change our plan by being super-early, my ability to stick to that plan has been stolen from me by your inconsiderate behaviour. You are transforming me from a calm, reliable person into a flustered flake with wet hair, a messy house and no notes. And of course I’m going to hate you for that.

We have this wonderful thing called consensus reality, where (almost) everybody can agree what time it’s supposed to be on different parts of the planet. It’s an amazing tool for planning things that involve more than one person. But when we have a cultural assumption that it’s OK to start things earlier than agreed, the point of agreeing a time is lost and we lose the value of one of the most basic achievements of human civilisation.

(Don’t get me wrong – late is rude and annoying too. And vaguely ethno-cultural excuses like “Indian timings” drive me crackers.)

I asked just now where we should draw the line. Why not just have a consensus to take agreed times literally? So 2pm means 2pm and not 1:30pm or 2:30pm and not 1pm or 3pm either.  God knows, sticking to an agreed time is hard enough even when you’re trying your best. I’m often guilty of unintended earliness (and plenty of unintended lateness) myself. People are always going to miss buses, have childcare emergencies, get their dates mixed up, allow too much or too little time for the journey and so on.

But a lot of irritating, stressful earliness isn’t caused by mistakes – it’s caused by people thinking they have cultural approval to abruptly move the goalposts. We need to withdraw that approval so we can start taking agreed times literally again.

In the car on the way to the funeral, we made a point of saying “Oh, look, it’s 8:30am. We should be setting off round about now!” and giving the early-bird meaningful looks. I think that’s the way forward. Don’t politely wave aside the agreed time as you would if someone was late or early through no fault of their own. Push back. Argue for a consensus reality that makes sense.

The cult of early and the race for calm

February 26, 2013

I do a weekly yoga class, to help with my rage and anxiety issues, which are many and legion. The class starts at 9:30am. I usually find myself leaving the house slightly later than planned, but getting into the building roughly on time and then bounding up the three flights of stairs like a much younger person. Then I get into the room and see everybody else already there, lying on their mats as if they’ve been there for centuries. And I feel awkward and embarrassed about being late, so I kick off my shoes, get my mat out, go to switch my mobile phone off – and then spot from the time display that it’s still 9:25am. I’m in the room and ready a full five minutes before the start of the class, yet I feel stressed about being late because most of my fellow yoga practitioners are so fucking early, every time.

I once tried turning up at 9:15am, a full fifteen minutes before the start of the class. That’s early to the point of being sodding rude, in my worldview; what if the teacher needs that time to prepare in peace? But it made no difference. The fuckers were still already there, stretched out on their mats like beached whales. There’s only one person who ever arrives after me and she’s my favourite person in the class because I suspect her of having an interesting life.

I’m the youngest person in the class and I think I’m the only one who works full-time, which may have some bearing on this. I’ve written in passing about how older people seem to get up naturally early (hell-o, have you SEEN them queueing outside the post office before it opens?) and how the fewer responsibilities you have, the less sleep you need. I’m also the only person in the class who doesn’t travel there by car, which makes my journey slightly more difficult; there’s a free car park less than a minute’s walk away from the building, while the nearest bike parking is further away and you have to cross several busy roads to get from it.

Many people would say that I should stop moaning about the factors outside my control and just start leaving the house early enough to get to the class as early as everybody else. But it winds me up. Why agree a start time at all if nobody’s going to respect it? If the class started at 9:15am or 9am, I would be there for 9:15am or 9am. But why the fuck should I turn up at 9am if the class is scheduled to start at 9:30am? It’s dishonest and frankly loopy behaviour. Do you think you’re going to attain enlightenment faster by swapping 20 minutes lying in bed for 20 minutes lying on a mat?

This morning, I was actually bona fide late for the first time ever – as in, I got through the door at 9:31am. And the beached whales were all lying there, smugly doing their deep breathing. And you know what I wanted to do? I wanted to run around the room kicking them all as they lay there and screaming at them. So yes, the yoga is really helping with my rage and anxiety issues.