Posted tagged ‘work’

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.


April 6, 2016

Precrastination” is a concept I first heard about a few weeks ago. The name makes it sound like just another tedious manifestation of the cult of early, but it’s a bit more interesting than that.

As the linked article explains, precrastination is when you do things quickly for the sake of getting them done sooner, even if that means losing other benefits. Quickly replying to an email with a message that doesn’t actually move things on at all, just to get it out of your inbox. Paying a bill early so you don’t have to worry about it any more (which to me is completely rational, given that the interest you’d earn by holding on to the money is probably between zero and 1p). Ordering that textbook online right now rather than buying it from a local shop tomorrow, even though the online purchase means you’ll have to wait longer before you actually get your hands on the book.

A couple of years ago I helped a relative buy some birthday gifts for another relative, and I was surprised at her sense of urgency. She felt she had to get everything bought by the end of that day, even though the birthday was over three weeks away.  In her hurry to get the task finished, she misunderstood my suggestions and ended up getting the wrong items. And because the items were bought so very early, once the birthday rolled round and it became clear the items were wrong, it was uncomfortably close to the end of the exchange-or-return period and we had to rush to swap the items for the right ones.

Still on the subject of gifts: in my family, a person with a birthday coming up will often circulate a list of presents they would like. (It’s not done in the spirit of avariciousness, more in a spirit of “I know I’m hard to buy for, let me help you out.”) There is one family member who used to respond to these lists by immediately buying everything on it. In the pre-internet days that would involve a shopping trip the next day or maybe the next weekend; once Amazon came along, it all got done in less than an hour. Highly efficient – and incredibly annoying to all the other family members left scratching around for gift ideas. Eventually we Had Words.

It’s clear that precrastination doesn’t always lead to the best outcomes. So why do we do it? Many of these actions could easily be prompted by a cult-of-early mindset. But I think there’s more to it than that. The cult of early is about thinking that your actions are intrinsically better because they’re performed early. I think precrastination is more about closing loops. So a precrastinator who pays a bill early isn’t being smug about their superior money management; they’re paying the bill early so they won’t have to give it any more brain-space. They want to be done.  They want to close that loop. I think it’s the same with all precrastination.

The concept of “open loops” comes from the time-management system GTD. An open loop is basically a piece of unfinished business, and most of us have hundreds at any given time. One of the big GTD concepts is getting those loops out of your head, where they drain energy, and into some trusted system. But many people – most people? – don’t have a trusted system. So our open loops buzz around our heads and when the chance comes to close one easily, it’s as satisfying as swatting a fly.

People who email you saying: “This isn’t urgent, but if I don’t email you now I will forget”? They are trying to close a loop in their own head by pushing it in your direction. They’re not being malicious, but now “Poss meetup discuss dept reorg June???” is on your plate. And then the temptation is to do a spot of precrastination yourself by sending a quick yet unhelpful reply that bounces it back to them.

Of course, closing a really big loop, like signing off on a major project, is scary as well as freeing. Your lizard brain is frightened. I think that’s why “perfectionist” project leaders indulge in the utterly toxic behaviour of stalling a project by reopening other people’s closed loops. They drain other people’s energy and morale so they can put off the vulnerable moment of completion and stay in the comfortable place of nearly-done for as long as possible.

That’s also why some people’s novels are “nearly finished” for such a long time – but I learnt recently that it’s surprisingly common for authors to submit early, not-quite-finished drafts of their novels to publishers just because they’re sick of writing and want to get the book off their hands. (Publishers don’t like this.)

It would be lovely to conclude that precrastination and procrastination are opposites, so if you’re guilty of one you probably won’t tend towards the other. But my hunch is that the vast majority of us have a problem with both, often at the same time.

Why? Well, think about the kind of stuff we procrastinate on. It’s the big, scary hard stuff, right? Tim Urban of Wait but Why is the author of the most insightful writing on procrastination I have ever read. In his post How to Beat Procrastination (a follow-up to Why Procrastinators Procrastinate, which you should read first) he describes a procrastinator’s planning session:

A big list of icky, daunting tasks and undertakings.

We procrastinate because we don’t really know how to start on the big icky list, and working out how to start is work, because decision-making is work, and defining your options in the first place is work, and dealing with all this open-endedness is a drain on your cognitive resource and makes you feel kind of icky. But you can get yourself a nice energy boost and a feeling of satisfaction by doing a small, do-able thing and getting it done done done.

So we pay our credit card bills quickly. We press “reply all” and write “Copying in Pam for her thoughts on this,” because it’s easier than having our own thoughts on this. We get our Christmas shopping done in November. (Actually, I have a relative who does hers in the January sales, and she’s not even one of the two relatives I’ve already mentioned in this blog post.)

Meanwhile, we drift on the big scary things where there’s no real deadline. We abandon writing that novel after the first chapter. We put off deciding whether or not to try marriage counselling. We get stalled in our PhD studies. Maybe we want to move somewhere new but we don’t put in the work of researching possible places. Maybe we’re unhappy with our job but we don’t put in the work of finding a new one.

The consensus on how to handle this is (all together, now): break up the big icky formless stuff into discrete, manageable tasks and actually schedule those tasks. We all know that; the tough bit is actually doing it. The only extra insight I have is that if you want to achieve big things in your life, you’re going to have to make your peace with open loops, because big and important things don’t tend to get done quickly and simply. Open loops keep claiming our attention and energy. But if you’ve chosen to focus your attention and energy on something, because you’ve decided it’s worth it, it will be OK.

The politics of sleep

July 28, 2015

When I was a child, my mum worked as a childminder for a friend. Once she was annoyed with that friend for something she’d done, and she got back at her by… letting the friend’s younger child have a nap.

I was utterly confused by this. How could letting a tired child sleep be an act of revenge, rather than an act of kindness? (And how do you get revenge on one person by doing something to another person, anyway?)

I categorised it as just one of those things that didn’t make any sense now, but might make sense later. Along with my mum’s fear that her kids might doze off in the car on long journeys. Why did she keep waking us up by clapping her hands? Why wouldn’t she just let us sleep when we were tired and sleepy and there was nothing else to do?

As a young adult, I began to think about it a bit more critically. I formulated the concept of a “politics of sleep” after being seated on a delayed plane next to a grandmother who was trying very hard to get a happy, alert toddler to sleep. She needed him to be asleep for some reason, even though he clearly didn’t need to be asleep. He was interested in his surroundings and his toys. It was the mirror image of the situation where my mum needed me and my siblings to be awake.

The grandmother kept saying “Freddie! Do you want your bot-bot?” to tempt him to drink from the pool of oblivion (well, a plastic bottle which clearly had some kind of sleepy-making substance in it). But he was having too much fun. I couldn’t understand why she was so determined to make him sleep.

Freddie and his bot-bot made it clear to me that when adults try to manage the sleep of the children in their lives, it’s not necessarily about the child’s happiness or welfare. I realised it was about control. But I didn’t understand why for a long, long time.

I didn’t understand, because I didn’t understand that I was work.

My mum was waking us up in the car because she knew that if we snatched some sleep there, we would be fresher in the evening and we would want to stay up later. Waking us up was a pro-sleep, not an anti-sleep action. Or rather, it was about controlling our sleep. Because when we were awake, we were work for her.

When you’re a kid, you don’t get that. And I think it’s kind of a shock when you realise that as a child, your existence constitutes work for someone else. I suppose it’s part of the general shock of realising the world doesn’t revolve around you. You realise that trip to the playground isn’t about you – it’s to give your parents a break from you. That organised activity you do, whether it’s violin lessons or Sunday school or Cubs or whatever – your parents look forward to it as a break. Giving you structured time is as much about giving your parents the luxury of unstructured time as it is about the actual activity you’re doing.

But of course, when you’re hanging out at home, playing with your toys, watching telly, whatever – you think you’re just being. You don’t know you’re being work for someone. I didn’t realise this until I was an adult myself. And I wonder if there are some people who don’t even realise it until they have their own children.

Readers of this blog will know that I’m interested in identifying under-recognised or invisible work. Well, the politics of sleep is at least partly about invisible work. We try to control the sleep of others when we perceive that those other people’s existence constitutes work for us.

A tale of two divas

March 25, 2015

Mariah Carey is a diva. She’s famous for her outrageous pre-performance demands: 20 white kittens, 100 doves, white roses. I’ve joked before that the “no stairs!” thing might be a sign she’s part-Dalek.

Why do you know about her demands? Because they’re public, part of the public narrative about Mariah Carey. And, as I’ve written before, maintaining a “diva” narrative means you kind of have to ask for a load of weird stuff, even if maybe you don’t want or need it.

I suspect Mariah Carey would be happy with a comfy chair, a good wi-fi connection and a tube of Pringles. But it’s a basical behavioural economics trick: demand rare, expensive stuff and maybe you’ll be seen as rare and expensive too. The rider demands are are way of anchoring her perceived value, which means she can keep charging huge sums for her performances.

And when your behavioural economics “nudge” also feeds into a misogynistic narrative about how women are unreasonable and fragile and high-maintenance…you’re on to a winner, because the story fits together so perfectly.

Jeremy Clarkson is officially very much not a diva. His image is based on him being an ordinary bloke who doesn’t stand for any nonsense, a bloke who takes life as it comes. Clarkson tells it like it is, and never mind the forces of political correctness trying to silence him!

Who had the diva fit? Who completely lost their temper because the catering was not up to the required standard? Yup. Clarkson.

The thing is: maintaining the narrative of “ordinary bloke” actually takes rather a lot of work, especially when you’re a multi-millionaire telly personality. It’s just that in Clarkson’s case that work is outsourced. He’s pampered, subsidised and managed almost every moment of every day, just so he can keep up the highly lucrative everyman facade.

It amuses me that so many people are urging the BBC not to overreact over the incident. I wonder if Clarkson has ever, in his entire life, been told not to overreact. I wonder if he’s ever been told to calm down and get some perspective. I would bet money that never in his life has Clarkson been (explicitly or implicitly) given the job of smoothing things over, taking shit in order to keep the peace, managing other people’s feelings. That’s women’s work, amirite?

It takes an over-the-top incident like throwing a punch because the food wasn’t to his liking for the veneer to crack. And even now, people are managing, smoothing, defending. He’s never had to do that work. I don’t think he even understands that it is work. But as divas go, he’s a much higher-maintenance one than Mariah Carey. It’s just that a lot of the maintenance work was done before either of them were born.

On homework

December 4, 2012

New(ish) research finds that the evidence on giving children homework is complex. In general, it seems that older, brighter children get more out of homework than younger, less able children. The linked article also says that:

Overall, the more complex, open-ended and unstructured tasks are, the lower the effect sizes. Short, frequent homework closely monitored by teachers has more impact…

I wrote a while ago that

lazy teachers would rather dump a poorly explained, confusing, pointless activity on their pupils than actually teach

and I’d say that’s even more applicable to homework than to in-class activities. If you’re over 25, cast your mind back. I can’t speak for everybody, but I remember getting lots of homework requiring independent research or creativity, sometimes even asking me to “go to the library and find out about…” despite the fact that the library closed long before I got home and the homework was due in the next day. (Other misery-inducing tasks included somehow building objects out of materials I didn’t have, or writing a short story in an evening on top of all my other work.) I worked out when I was about 13 that the teachers who set that kind of work weren’t hard taskmasters who genuinely expected the near-impossible from me; they were just sodding lazy. So lazy that they copied homework tasks from existing teaching resources without even bothering to read through them first and find out what they were asking us to do. (We all worked out eventually that with those teachers, there was a good chance they’d forget to mark the work at all, so it might be worth risking detention rather than attempting the impossible.)

Now, of course, the internet is your friend. You don’t need to live in a home with a full set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica or knowledgeable adults. You just Google it and copy/paste a Wikipedia entry. I find it amusing to imagine that my teachers in the 1980s and the 1990s weren’t lazy or stupid – they were just prophets who could see the internet age so clearly, they assumed it was here already. I also find it quite funny that now the teachers who don’t read the tasks they’re setting are matched by kids who don’t read the homework they’re “writing”.

But I think we’re asking the wrong question. Why are we having a debate about whether homework benefits kids or not? Why don’t we go right back to the drawing board, drop all our current assumptions about what education looks like and ask what’s actually best for kids?

To give just one example: the debate about homework is starting from the point that a schoolkid’s day ends around 3:30pm. We’re having arguments based on the idea that they’re only in school for about six hours a day, so the discussion becomes about whether that’s enough or whether they need “extra” work. Why? Why, when that actually makes no sense at all?

Firstly, the time a child officially spends in school is not the time they spend on school-related things. Maybe teaching starts at 9:30am, but you’ve got assembly at 9am and your dad needs to drop you off earlier on his way to work, so you’re actually in some kind of school breakfast club from 8:30am onwards, which means you left the house at 8am, which probably means you got up at 7am, which for teenagers is a stone-cold killer, fucking up your body clock and leaving you exhausted for the rest of the day. Then school ends at 3:30pm, but neither of your parents can pick you up then, so you go into an after-school club until maybe 5pm, and then your mum drags you to the supermarket because she can’t do the weekly shop any other time, so you actually get home about 6:30pm. Yes, even then you theoretically have a few hours to get your homework done before a sensible bedtime, but that’s assuming you’re a reasonably quick worker, you’re still capable of doing difficult or creative work when you’re tired and hungry, you don’t do any after-school activities like Scouts or music practice or sport, you don’t have to cook your own evening meal or wash up afterwards, you don’t see friends on weekdays, you’re not tempted to relax in front of the telly…

I mean, maybe you live in some beautiful Holland-like paradise where you’re trusted to walk or cycle to school and back on your own. Maybe you get to let yourself into the house at 3:40pm, eat some Nutella on toast and practice speaking six languages. But I’m talking about the huge numbers of kids who live in some stressed-out, unhealthy bit of England or Wales where driving everywhere and working full-time is the norm.

So, the “they’re only in school for six hours” thing is incredibly misleading, because it suggests that a child could get eight hours’ sleep, spend six hours in school and have ample time where they’re in a position to do homework. Which is obviously bullshit, because it ignores things like commuting and stress and tiredness and the fact that if you’re under 16, a huge chunk of your day is taken up with being dragged to places you don’t want to go and waiting in places you don’t want to be. It assumes that kids don’t see friends in the evening or do after-school activities or have any caring responsibilities. It assumes that every parent is ready at the school gates when school’s out.

But more than misleading, it’s stupid, because it assumes that’s the way things have to be. Why? Why have we set things up so that parents who work 9-5 have to run around organising childcare to bridge the gap between the end of their child’s school day and the end of their own work day? If there’s any validity in the argument that six hours of learning isn’t enough, why the hell are we booting kids out of school mid-afternoon? Why doesn’t that extra learning they supposedly need happen in the actual school?

Maybe the current situation is to do with pressure from teachers who want to “beat the traffic”, get into their little Vauxhall Corsa (or equivalent small, roundish, sensible little hatchback) and fuck right off out of there. And part of the reason they need to leave early is that they have all that homework to mark…

Or maybe it’s just because nobody’s ever questioned the current set-up publicly enough. I agree that teaching classes is the kind of full-on experience where you need a break after an hour, and eight hours of it in a day is unsustainable. But couldn’t we rethink the school day so that kids are there for eight hours without teachers actually having to teach for eight hours?

And couldn’t we rethink some other stupid assumptions too? When I was at school, there were rules forbidding pupils from doing homework on the school premises, and I think that was quite common. That turned the pre-school and after-school clubs into dead time where you were literally forbidden from doing anything education-related except possibly reading a book in the corner. Couldn’t we rethink school rules to stop them being anti-education, anti-time-management and generally batshit insane?

Conversations, research and media “debate” about homework are all starting from the wrong place. Let’s have a complete rethink about what actually benefits kids, their parents and teachers in the 21st century.

George Osborne and the cult of early

October 10, 2012

George Osborne has been talking about blinds. He seems to have made the same point both during his speech at party conference and during a Today programme interview, which suggests he’s proud of it.

“Where is the fairness for the shift worker, leaving home in the morning, who looks up at the closed blinds of the next-door neighbour, sleeping off a life on benefits?”

Yes, Osborne is a paid-up member of the cult of early. His speech makes a lazy equivalence between opening your blinds, getting up early and doing valid work. Or rather, a lazy equivalence between not opening your blinds, lying in bed all day and receiving benefits paid for by the sweat and toil of others.

I’m delighted to see that there’s already been a backlash against his bullshit on social media with the “#myblindsaredownbecause” hashtag. (The Guardian did something similar too.) If you’ve ever read this blog before, you won’t need me to explain why Osborne’s rhetoric is dangerous, lazy rubbish. There might be a thousand reasons to leave your blinds down – and none of them are the Chancellor’s business.

I’ve written in the past about how the cult of early preserves the sumptuary laws. What I meant by that is that the cult of early is inextricably linked with a culture that says you have to be seen to be working, to go through certain rituals that have no value in themselves if you want the value of your work to be accepted. When we talk about “getting your hands dirty” we are talking about producing a visual sign for the approval of others, a sign that says our work is “real”.

Of course Osborne is of the social class that wears a suit rather than a fluorescent tabard, a class that stays up late in the House of Commons rather than getting up early to take up somebody’s floorboards. But his commitment to the modern-day sumptuary laws is total. The Conservatives want – have always wanted – people to look like what they are. That’s what’s behind the Conservative obsession with keeping school uniform despite no evidence that it improves academic performance or children’s behaviour.

Conservatives want the little people to look and behave like little people. They’d love it if social pressure controlled our appearance even more than it already does. If you work in a blue-collar job, you probably already get up early, drive a white or branded van and wear suitable clothes for the job. Maybe you drive badly and park on double-yellow lines to make the point still further that you are a Real Worker. Perhaps your appearance is visibly dirty or dusty. But for the Conservatives, that’s not enough. Open your blinds before you leave the house, for God’s sake, or all this theatre will have been for nothing!

The party that preaches rolling back the state and social mobility wants nothing of the sort. They want grubby little tradesmen to be thinking about their low social status before they’re fully awake in the morning. And they’re encouraging our neighbours to judge us even more than they already do. Leave your blinds closed and you invite judgment; open them and people get to look inside your house and draw more detailed conclusions about how you’re failing at something.

I used the word “theatre” when I described the rituals we go through to prove we’re workers, and I used it advisedly. Osborne is using the misdirection techniques of a stage magician. Leaving the house painfully early? Sick of your job that doesn’t pay enough, your boss who treats you like crap, the fact that you can’t leave because you won’t find another job? Don’t look at what might be causing those problems. Don’t think about the failure of coalition policy and contemplate joining Labour or the Greens. Don’t think about getting some real protection in your workplace by joining a trade union. Just look up! Look up at your neighbours’ windows and occupy yourself in observing, policing, judging. What lazy scroungers they must be.

Why offering to get out of my way is passive-aggressive

August 29, 2012

“I’ll be out of your way in a minute.” On the surface of it, you’re being nice. You’re saying “hey, I get that you need to do your thing in this space, so I’m going to move myself in order to give you room to do it.”

Sadly, I don’t think I’ve ever heard this expression used in anything other than a passive-aggressive sense. What “I’ll be out of your way in a minute” really means is:

Wait. I acknowledge that you need to do your thing in this space, and that you’re trying to share this space with me so we can both get on with our thing, but what I’m asking you to do is to wait until I’ve finished my thing, because I want control of the space now.

It means “Look, we can both get our respective tasks done faster if we could each get to use this space without the other person. So it makes sense that one of us either leaves the room or stands aside to take up as little space as possible while the other one finishes. And I’ve decided that the person who leaves should be you, because I don’t want to wait. But I’m telling you this in a way that sounds superficially submissive and as if I’m doing you a favour, so it’s hard for you to argue.

I’ve only ever been told “I’ll be out of your way in a minute” by someone who wanted me out of their way, rather than the other way round.

When you realise that it’s often used by someone doing an identical task to you, you realise just how rude it is. I was once in a changing room at the swimming pool when the room was flooded with women who’d all just finished the same aquarobics class. The room was really too small to accommodate everybody without lots of small, subtle negotiations over space-sharing. Several women decided they didn’t want to play that game, so they pushed past their peers to grab the showers, the lockers, the bench space first. Inevitably this pushing was done with the words “I’ll be out of your way in a minute.”

Why would any one of those women be out of the way of the others any more quickly than they would be out of her way, given that they all finished the class at the same time and they all had the same task (getting dressed) to do? Inherent in the concept of being “out of your way in a minute” is the idea that you’re naturally quicker and more efficient at doing whatever it is the other people are trying to do, which means that you somehow deserve to be fast-tracked by being given more of the space to yourself. You need to get stuff done and get out of there! You’re a high achiever! Your time is more important!

At work, if two people walk into the kitchen at the same time, both wanting to prepare their lunch, the one who says “I’ll be out of your way in a minute” is the one who’s asserting dominance. It sounds like it should be the other way round, but it isn’t. It’s even ruder and more dominant if the person who says it actually arrived in the room after you.