Some things are awkward to say not so much because they require a particularly deft or careful choice of words but because it’s difficult to get into the frame of mind in which we feel it’s legitimate for us to say what we have to say.
It’s so hard to tell someone that they’re fired because we want to see ourselves as good people. And to get to grips with the difficulty of firing someone we have to ask an important – but usually ignored – question: ‘what is it to be good?’
Mostly we don’t ask because the answer already feels obvious: being good involves making other people happy; it means being nice and being warm and generous towards the hopes and feelings of the people around us. This answer is endlessly re-enforced from childhood on; in all children’s books when a mean character learns to be good, it’s because they start paying more attention to the concerns of other people; they discover empathy, compassion and tenderness.
This is why firing someone makes us feel so awful: we’re acutely aware that being dismissed will distress them; they’ll feel humiliated; they might weep; they might get angry and tell us that we don’t care about them at all and that we’re treating them in a monstrously unfair way.
But there’s another model of goodness, which is very important in our practical lives – but which doesn’t get nearly as much attention. This is the idea of goodness-as-excellence. Someone is a good tennis player because of the reliable, superlative (‘excellent’) accuracy with which they play their shots; they may not have particularly tender or sweet thoughts about their opponents. In fact at times, victory will mean that their opponents are going to be frustrated, disappointed, even infuriated. The good tennis player isn’t setting out to humiliate, they aren’t randomly cruel, it’s just that on the court, their eye is on something else besides niceness: playing the game really, really well.
The divergence between goodness-as-niceness and goodness-as-excellence sometimes comes to a head when selecting people for teams. There may be a child who has set their heart on being in the school swimming team; they practice a lot and they’re good friends with others already in the squad. But if they’re not a properly good swimmer they can’t and shouldn’t get a place on the squad, even when their friend is choosing. They’re being rejected not out of cruel indifference to their feelings but out of a devotion to excellence.
And it’s the same thing that happens around firing someone. They have to be fired not because they have a bad soul, but because they are not good at their job. The person who fires them is being good, just not in the good-as-niceness way: they are showing an honourable devotion to the excellence of a business.
Part of the pain of being a boss is that you can’t be sentimental, in other words, you can’t aim for two incompatible things and avoid making a choice. Society on the whole is sentimental in a number of areas – people who, for instance, will happily eat a chicken sandwich will recoil in horror from the sight of an industrial slaughterhouse. We want companies to provide good products and services at a decent price, but we don’t like the idea of people being fired from their jobs. To be a boss is, in effect, to have to run the slaughterhouse as well as the sandwich shop. It means having to do the things that are not at all nice in the service of the good.
The actual words of the meeting might be fairly simple, quick and direct (it’s like ripping of a sticking plaster in one painful moment rather than prolonging the agony by teasing it off gradually):
I’m so sorry but we’re going to have to let you go. We all respect and like you hugely. But the needs of our team are taking us in a new direction. I know this is very painful – but I do hope that one day, not now but one day, you’ll realise that this truly isn’t personal.
The hard thing isn’t stringing the words together, it’s realising that in saying them you are not, as you fear, being a conclusively horrible person; you’re following a lonely, but genuine, path to a distinctive kind of goodness.
A deadline is looming and a member of your team hasn’t made much progress on the crucial part of the task that’s been assigned to them. You feel like going up to them and insisting they make a concentrated effort immediately: Do it now! The strong temptation is to get stern and controlling – and keep them at it, under your eye if need be, until it’s finished.
But there’s a huge problem: your peremptory demands are very likely to undermine your colleague’s ability to perform. They’ll feel flustered and harrassed; they’ll not be able to muster the necessary levels of attention and energy; they’ll make mistakes. Just as significantly, they’ll get resentful: they’ll begin to see you as a tyrant to be hated rather than a team member to be helped.
The more work requires the use of the mind, the more galling the situation becomes. It’s possible (at a theoretical extreme) to make someone hew rocks or chop trees more or less at gunpoint. People who ran slave galleys didn’t have to worry about team morale. For thousands of years, the only tool of management was the whip. But it’s not nowadays remotely possible to motivate an unhappy employee to identify an anomaly in the year-end accounts or come up with a resonant ad slogan or make an elegant refinement to a dress design by being mean and impatient. The more worried, oppressed or anxious an individual feels, the less likely it is that the creative and delicate elements of their mind will ever be coaxed into action. You might be able theoretically to browbeat them into getting the job done – but it won’t be work you’ll ever have any use for.
I’m so sorry to contact you; I know I must come across as deeply annoying and unreasonable. However, I’m just wondering how you might be getting on with the project. Your work is so valuable, we need you more perhaps than you can realise. I might just be fretting, and maybe you have it all in hand, but if you could try to make sure that you can meet (ideally comfortably!) the deadline we agreed, I for one will feel so much more at ease. Needless to say, I’m simply so grateful – and deeply look forward to hearing from you whenever time allows.
The strategy and vocabulary originate in a place that doesn’t immediately seem to have any connection to the modern office: international diplomacy. Diplomacy emerged as the urgently needed alternative to the devastations of war; if you could soothe and encourage, rather than insist, it might be possible to avoid besieged cities and bodies on the field. Diplomacy turned to words like ‘possibly’, ‘maybe’ and ‘perhaps’ in order to create space for the free (rather than enforced) assent of the other. It used praise rather than criticism and suggestion rather than a hectoring demand. It wasn’t the result of cowardice or weakness, but a painfully learned lesson in the way in which a just cause, directly stated, can completely fail to get the desired results.
In our panic, we tend to get stern and forget what we know from the inside. We ourselves don’t respond well to being badgered. Instead it’s the feeling that we are loved, valued, appreciated and liked that brings out the best in our cognitive capacities and builds our motivation: we feel safe enough to explore a promising but difficult line of thought; we feel encouraged to do the absolute best we can; we get more imaginative, more perceptive and more energetic.
We’re encountering the work version of a large – and maddeningly central – feature of the human condition: the correctness and legitimacy of a message doesn’t immediately get the person who hears it to do the reasonable or right thing: a sarcastic demolition of an absurd idea tends to entrench those who believe it; proving by facts and logic that someone is an idiot usually does little to induce them to be reasonable and wise. If you insist that your child eats some lettuce because ‘nutritionists have proved it will help with cardiovascular circulation and you won’t get any screen time if you don’t,’ they will be sure to develop a lifelong aversion to greens; if a teacher is openly appalled that a pupil fails to understand something, their chances of remedying the error are massively reduced. When environmental activists make us feel hopeless, sinful and guilty, we tend to turn away and pretend there is no problem.
I shouldn’t worry, I know, you do amazing things at this company; but if there’s any way you might let me know whether the project is progressing as it should, then you’d be able to put my absurd fears finally and fully to rest. I know that, as always, you’ll be able to do such a brilliant job.
It may feel like another frantic Thursday afternoon but in fact you are participating in an honourable and eternal struggle: to make a difficult truth powerful and attractive in the complex mind of another person.
We tend to have a pretty confident attitude towards the technical failings of the people we work with. These failings may be maddening, but we know how to put them right; someone needs to go on a course to update their knowledge of building regulations or attend a seminar on data entry. We don’t feel too much angst around pointing out either the problem or the remedy.
But it’s entirely different when it comes to an equally serious range of failings a colleague might have in psychological, temperamental or personal areas. It feels much harder – weird, ‘heavy’ and impossible – to mention that they go on too much in meetings; that they use too much (or not enough) deodorant; that they appear too posh when dealing with clients; that they come across as petty and pedantic or that they seem rather defensive in the face of even mild criticism. These are matters we could raise with our partner or perhaps a close friend but at work, to do seems to overstep an unwritten but very real boundary.
The core task is to let another person know of their issue in a way that makes them trust that they have not simply meanly been singled out for fruitless cruel condemnation. And there is no better way to help them do this than to manifest a frequent mature and genial recognition of our own flaws of character:
Yet again, I was a bit of an idiot last week. While trying to get a point across to some clients, I managed to get unnecessarily fired up. I guess I felt criticised and under pressure and, in a defensive mood, made claims that I don’t actually believe in. Of course, no one directly mentioned anything at the time, but I could see that they kept looking at me in this strange way. I’m going to need to think about all that.
I’m having a lot angst around X, they’re so intimidating – at least to me – I find myself mumbling and just agreeing with them like I’ve got no mind of my own. I’m going to have to do something about it – but what?
Oh by the way, speaking of my trouble, I was just wondering …
The tendency to defensiveness is set off not just because a statement feels critical but because we assume that we could not both have a given failing and be understood and thought a decent person. So a central move – prior to breaking news to a colleague – is to establish your own position as a fellow and repeated sufferer. You’re not saying you have their flaw precisely, just one of similar gravity and worthy of a similar quota of embarrassment, but then also of plentiful doses of forgiveness and understanding. Your own failing must be current, rather than be consigned to an earlier phase of existence (it is crushing to be told ‘I used to have your problem’ which at once implies an enraging superiority). And it helps if it seems as though you are at once aware of the problem and still actively searching for a way forward:
Whenever someone criticises me, I always have a habit of thinking: ‘that can’t be true, you’re just being mean’. I know they say not to take it personally but I’m struggling with trying to remember that at key moments….
I have such trouble choosing the right sort of clothes in the morning. I want to look smart – I guess we all do – but also remain comfortable. I know sometimes I get it a bit wrong and maybe come across as scruffy, even just messy. I wonder if you’ve ever felt like that?
I was hearing about this company where they have an ironic prize for the person who talks the most in meetings! I think I might win it, but you might almost snatch it from me…
All our personal failings are essentially inadvertent. Most people don’t say anything to us about them not because these failings don’t exist, but because they don’t care about us enough to undertake the emotional effort that is required to mention them. None of us needs a huge lecture to take on board what is being said. The most mild wink in the direction of the matter will almost always be enough for a lifetime. We may even eventually realise that we’ve not been singled out for mockery; we’ve been given a gift.
In the ideal office there would be notice hanging above the door saying: Everyone here has an awkward personal failing. Except me: I have many.
One of the greatest problems of our working lives is that we lack any experience of, or instruction in, the essential art of failing well. Because our efforts are focused on appearing utterly professional and flawless, because we are guided by an underlying and punishing notion that we might avoid failure altogether, we lack the energy or insight to respond productively to our inevitable stumbles. We forget an essential truth: the issue at work is never whether we will fail or not; simply whether we will fail well or not.
Our bad failures tend to follow a familiar pattern: we deny that anything has gone, or could even go, wrong. When conclusively rumbled, we deny there is much of an issue, blame the person who upbraids us, and suggest they might be being absurdly mean or critical. Or else we fold and go in for histrionic apology, beg for our lives, overdo the contrition and make our colleagues wish they had never said anything to begin with.
A wiser response to screwing up might have some of the following components:
1. A Clear and Unashamed Apology
I’m going to put my hands up here. I’ve made a mistake. I’m so sorry.
Half of the population at least is trapped in a defensive-perfectionist pattern of behaviour. That is, they suffer from an extreme reluctance to acknowledge fault and when it’s pointed out to them, imagine that their entire selves are under assault, as opposed to trusting that it is merely one of their behaviours that is being critiqued. They are told it would be great if they could increase the margin size on a document. All they can hear is ‘You don’t deserve to exist’. One tells them it would have been great if the August figures had been a bit higher; they assume you want them dead. A prerequisite of a good apology is therefore a sound sense of self. You can fail and still have every right to walk the earth.
2. A Technical Explanation for the Screw Up
One reason I messed up was because the systems I’m working with meant that…
There is almost always, at some level, a technical reason for an error. It pays for everyone to know what this might be – so that corrections can be put in place. Which indicates that there is only thing the senior management ever really cares about when it comes to mistakes: that things can go better going forward. There is complete disinterest in poring over the entrails of the failure – except in so far as this can help with the future. Our task is to draw attention to every clue that will help in this regard.
3. An Emotional Explanation for the Screw Up
If I can be frank for a moment, there’s a lot going on at home which means I might not have been in the best frame of mind.
We too often enter the workforce with the punishing idea that to be a good employee means being an emotionless automaton, and therefore that having to admit to emotional disruptions is tantamount to declaring oneself unemployable. But our terror stems from a misunderstanding. The good-enough employee isn’t the one who never has emotional crises; it’s the one who can get a perspective on their fragilities and be honest about their difficulties from a background appreciation of their many genuine strengths.
4. Evidence of Lessons Drawn
What I’m going to take away from this incident is three things in particular. Firstly,…, secondly…, thirdly…
Companies never set out replace people; they want to develop the ones they have – and so what they crave is a hopeful narrative of why they should keep faith with those already in their posts. That means, in essence, that they long for employees to show what exactly they have learnt from each of their mistakes.
5. A Capacity to Move On
Now for the meeting next week…
It’s distinctly possible to apologise too much. If we plead for forgiveness, insist we are the world’s greatest idiot or swear never to make the slightest mistake ever again, it suggests we don’t have a clear sense of the reality of the situation. Our tears don’t bring back lost profit and our promises sound untrue. The most useful thing we can do, to express our maturity and competence, is to get back to our desk, remain confident and hopeful – and keep going.
We are, each one of us, severely limited creatures. We can only ever get good at a few things, we can only apply ourselves properly for a certain number of hours each day; we can keep just a select number of issues in view at any point. And while a working life can feel quite long, we only have three or four decades of high quality effort in us – which is the blink of an eye in the larger sweep of history.
Ideally though, the structure within which we do our work moves the balance in an opposite direction: it radically expands upon individual strength and capacity. When we work alongside others (either as the director of combined labour or as a member of a team), our collective powers are extended way beyond anything that one fragile being could ever accomplish. We can rely on the abilities of others to make up for our own many inevitable shortcomings. We may grasp the legal side of a problem extremely well – but not fully appreciate its commercial implications; we may excel around product development but be fatefully weak when it comes to marketing; we may be excellent administrators but be slow to grasp the wider strategic opportunities and dangers.
The team is far stronger, wiser, more intelligent and more capable than the people involved within it can ever be, considered one by one. We massively exceed our own strength. In the ideal team, we grasp exactly what we contribute but also how much the project benefits from what others bring to it. However annoying our colleagues may be, our irritation with them is soothed by an awareness that it is precisely their differences that makes them capable of particular moves we would be incapable of, and that therefore justifies the unusual efforts we have to make to get along with them. We accept that it is, after all, no particular surprise that we don’t naturally get on with certain types at the office, yet it is via work that we can get to appreciate their merits in a way we never would in a purely social setting. Through team work, our egoism is submerged in a bigger loyalty: we are held together by a shared goal which everyone knows they could never accomplish in isolation.
When – as is bound to happen – one person falters, and loses confidence, the others encourage them to get back in the saddle and everyone knows the favour will be returned when they are in difficulties. Conscious of our joint strengths, we let go of our naturally jealous drift: the success of one contributes to the success of all. Together we can reach many more people with a good idea or product; we can have a serious shot at making a benign impact that would be impossible alone; we can take on larger and more impressive ambitions. Ultimately, we can take on new participants who will be able to continue the project when we are gone. Our efforts aren’t constrained by the limitations of a single working-lifespan. The greatest human projects are multi-generational; our efforts are extended across time; in an important sense we cheat death, because our contribution lives on in the efforts and ambitions of our successor members. The best teams reverse the baneful fundamentals of the human condition: through collaboration, they replace the competitive war of all against all; they substitute collective strength for individual weakness; they turn the brevity of our lives into endeavours that can outlast our regretfully brief spans.
Starting one’s own business is one of the most creative, meaningful and practically sensible things one could ever do with one’s life.
Yet few of us ever get close to giving it a go. Some of the obstacles are technical and economic.
But many others are squarely in the psychological province. They’re the sort of problems businesses should rightly turn to psychotherapy and philosophy for help with.
The first of these is the confidence-destroying, background suspicion that if an idea for a business is genuinely any good, someone must already have had it. This melancholy thesis tells us that capitalism is hugely overdeveloped as it is: we have all the businesses we need and there can therefore be nothing left for a new entrant profitably to do.
But to see how wrong this is, we need only ask ourselves if we are continously content in every area of our lives.
This is because business can be defined as the organised attempt by one of group of people to solve another’s problems. In which case, business will only ever be mature when every last human has reached a state of total satiety. Whenever we spot a problem – in our own lives or that of others – we are also spotting, at least in theory, a latent business waiting to be developed. The only true end point of capitalist effort (and time for legitimate unemployment) is the conclusion to all our problems.
One way to think about what businesses the world still needs is to run through an average day and ask oneself where one can spot, in any domain, problems, shortfalls, frictions or inefficiencies. There are of course a few areas where capitalism is so well developed, there really seem to be no problems at all. One is unlikely to have anything to complain about around the number of breakfast cereals there are to buy or the number of options one has when picking a pencil. Certain markets are, as economists put it, truly mature already.
But in many other domains, untreated problems – large and small – assail us from every direction. We face a multitude of situations where we’d ideally like a solution and none seem to exist, at least not in a form or at a price that suits: we’ve had a furious argument with our partner and there’s no one to help; the view from the window is dispiritingly ugly; we’re lacking interesting friends, there aren’t any Italian restaurants that pay attention to calories, we feel we’re not making the most of our opportunities; the media we consume titillates but doesn’t nourish us. In a daunting number of domains, we have problems large and small – and no one seemingly interested in fixing them. That’s at once an inconvenience and welcome proof of how extraordinarily undeveloped our economies still are.
Often missed here is the distinction between technical and psychological innovation. Too frequently, we imagine that enterprise can only expand when people make a technological breakthrough; when a new gadget or motor or medicine is brought to market. But this is to underestimate the enormous possibilities that stem from what one can term psychological innovation: in other words, when businesses are founded that don’t solve new problems because they have a new bit of machinery but when they solve new problems because they have evolved new insights, psychological in nature, into the problems of other people.
The culture of business naturally encourages the new entrepreneur to do market research. But this typically fails because most of the world’s good ideas could not have been described by an audience ahead of their creation, and therefore registered on marketer’s questionnaires.
The biggest source of insight into the sort of problems around which a good business can be built is the individual. It is from close observation of the problems one has personally encountered, and minded encountering, that a robust business has a chance to emerge. The best way to understand the needs of millions of potential customers is to understand one’s own needs first and foremost. The smartest form of market research is introspection.
It follows that a big reason why businesses go bankrupt is that they have failed to identify – with sufficient acuity – real problems that real people actually have, at least on a scale necessary to support an enterprise. Economic failure is in essence a failure to know other people, a failure of psychology, far more than it is a problem of execution.
Another hurdle is more personal. To be a successful entrepreneur requires us to have a focused sense of what problems we are really most interested in solving for others and ourselves. It is not enough to operate with a vague sense that, for example, we want to be creative or of use to others. Many problems may mildly intrigue us, while not concerning us enough to lend us the concentration and energy required for a decades’ long assault on a topic.
Few of these psychological dimensions to business are ever handled in business education as we currently understand it. Business schools give us financial and management skills; they rarely help us with the tough psychological dilemmas:
- What important problems do other people still have?
- Where have I noticed problems in my life of relevance to others?
- What problems do I really care about solving for others?
Business is, potentially at least, a hugely dignified and creative field in which we solve each other’s problems – and make a little profit along the way. That human beings are still so deeply dissatisfied is both a social tragedy – and an ongoing provocation and inspiration to anyone longing to develop their entrepreneurial capacities.
Eloquence is the attempt to get a set of tricky ideas into the mind of another person using the art of verbal charm. Managing employees requires eloquence; instilling ideas in children requires eloquence; and leading a country involves eloquence.
Unfortunately, the idea of ‘eloquence’ has acquired a bad name. If a book is charmingly written, if a song makes people want to dance, if a product is well-marketed, if a person has a winning smile and sweet manners, suspicions only too easily develop.
And yet the idea of eloquence is vital to any educational mission, for the ideas that we most need to hear are almost always the ones that we would in some ways like to ignore – and therefore need maximal help in absorbing. We need the toughest lessons to be coated in the most subtle and inventive charm. We need an alliance of education and eloquence.
The opposite of eloquent communication is nagging. The urge to nag is very understandable, especially when a lesson is important. But sadly, nagging – the insistent, urgent, graceless repetition of a message – will only ever work for a small number of people who are almost on side anyway. It cannot change a team – or humanity. This sets up a tragic situation: what naggers have to say may be supremely important, but their manner of delivery ensures it will never be heard.
We need eloquence because a central problem of the mind is that we know so much in theory about how we should behave and what we should do but engage so little with our knowledge in our day to day conduct. We know – in theory – about being punctual, about living by our values, about focusing on opportunities before it is too late, about being patient and open-hearted. And yet in practice, our wise ideas have a notoriously weak ability to motivate our actual behaviour. Our knowledge is both embedded within us and yet is ineffective for us.
Though eloquence is associated with the use of fancy words and the ability to speak without notes, it it is really the close study of how to get a message to live in the minds of an audience. It builds on the grim realisation that stating our case logically and accurately often won’t be enough.
The idea of eloquence was investigated with particular acuity by the philosopher Aristotle, in Athens around the middle of the 4th Century BCE. Aristotle saw how often a weak argument could triumph in public debate while a far more sensible proposal was ignored. He didn’t think this was because the listeners were stupid but because of how large a role our emotions play in determining the way that people react to what is said and to who says it.
When the wrong emotions are stimulated, we have demagoguery, which employs eloquence in the service of a sinister objective. But if we admit – and fear – how powerful this can be, we are implicitly recognising the possibility of, and need for a better alternative, a way of speaking that can be equally emotionally intelligent, and yet aim at goodness and flourishing. Aristotle did not want noble-minded people to stop trying to be eloquent, he wanted to give them the same weapons as the crooked. He dreaded a world in which people of ill-intent would know how to touch the emotions, while serious, thoughtful people stuck to plain facts. Certain of his lectures therefore investigated the art of eloquence – and gave birth to a philosophical tradition of studying how best to speak in order to be truly heard.
A number of moves suggest themselves. For a start, we should take care to humanise ourselves in the eyes of those we are addressing. Our instinct might be to try to bolster our prestige, and stress our seniority and authority, so as to open the ears of the audience. But we are typically facing another problem altogether: the audience is at risk of not engaging with what we say because they have a suspicion that we are remote, from another world, cold to their real concerns and perhaps even privately looking down on them. The eloquent move is therefore to signal our common humanity. We can make a self-deprecating joke, confess to a slightly shameful anxiety or talk a little about the very boring and deeply ordinary events that unfolded for us at the weekend. We indicate that we too are flawed, worried, put-upon and sometimes sad. We emphasise shared experience so that some of the very tricky and unusual things we will need to say can feel like they emerge not from a distant automaton but from the mind of someone they can sympathise and identify with. The need to come across as ordinary is never more important than when one isn’t quite.
Eloquence also remembers the need to give a sensory, emotionally-powerful form to our ideas. In 1894, the prominent English writer Thomas Hardy set out to transform public attitudes to who should have access to education – which at that time was largely open only to the well-to-do. He might have produced a polemical lecture or a statistic-rich essay stressing the potential benefits of education to the economy or making a general case for social justice. But he knew how our minds work – and how little appetite any of us have to be hectored. He understood how cold facts and numbers can leave us and how many worthy causes have died because the language in which they were articulated has been dead to the needs of the heart. He therefore made a move whose applicability stretches way beyond his particular example: he chose to write a novel which we know today as Jude the Obscure. It tells the story of one very particular person, Jude Fawley, a stone mason whose ambitions to study at university are cruelly thwarted. Hardy spends a lot of time describing Jude and his life; he tells us about what Jude was like as a child and how his aspirations developed. He tells us about the clothes Jude wears and what the sky is like when he goes for a walk in the evening. He gives us the precise terms of Jude’s rejection in a letter from the head of the college where he had hoped to study:
Sir,—I have read your letter with interest; and, judging from your description of yourself as a working-man, I venture to think that you will have a much better chance of success in life by remaining in your own sphere and sticking to your trade than by adopting any other course. That, therefore, is what I advise you to do.
We are, by this point, probably in tears – and desperate to help bring a better world into existence. Hardy makes his case eloquent – that is emotionally powerful – by keeping in mind that our sympathies are aroused more by the cases of people we feel we know than by abstract argument. Hardy knows that we must have a visceral sense of the truth of an idea, not just be brow-beaten into accepting it.
Without any aspirations to being a great writer, we can learn from this example. We can grasp that what we are battling is often not so much ignorance as indifference. It is easy enough to share information, it is another and altogether trickier task to persuade an audience to care. And the skills this requires lie in an area almost always overlooked by public speakers: art. Art may be most usefully defined as the discipline devoted to trying to get concepts creatively into people’s heads. The ablest speakers never assume that the bare bones of a story can be enough to win over their audience. They will not suppose that an idea or a committee meeting or a new piece of technology must in and of itself carry some intrinsic degree of interest which will cause the audience to be immediately moved or motivated. These artists of words know that no event, however striking, can ever guarantee involvement; for this latter prize, they must work harder, practicing their distinctive craft, which means paying attention to language, alighting on animating details and keeping a tight rein on pace and structure.
Eloquence is a solution to a basic problem: our minds are sieve-like, we retain little; we are easily distracted, our emotions easily overpower our intellect; envy, fear and suspicion readily turn us against the views of others; our sympathy is moved more by individual cases than by abstract issues. To get a message properly received and retained, we have to acknowledge the peculiarities of our minds. It is not enough to be accurate, concise and logical. We need to do that yet trickier thing: touch the chords of the heart.
The history of every life is made up both of the life we lead, and the richer, more ambitious one we dream of leading – but never quite do… because we are stretched out in the bath or on the sofa, too tired or worried, too distracted or despairing. This alternative life could be ours if only we were able to get to our desks on time, rise early enough, ask people for what we need, remember how finite existence is – or went to see a psychotherapist. We squander some of our best possibilities to the quiet, unheralded tragedy of procrastination.
Our shame at the scale of our procrastination is part of the problem. We’re already so guilty about what we’re not doing, the very thought of examining our errors and taking action feels unbearable. It seems as if we have procrastinated far too much to deserve a new start.
We should be less hard on ourselves – and in the process, less fatalistic about the chances of change. Procrastination is a design-flaw of the human animal, not an appalling and unique personal failing. We need to consider the problem rationally, talk about it openly and learn to take small, manageable steps to attenuate its worst ills.
The goal is not to remove procrastination altogether, but to understand its roots, appreciate when it may strike and work out its hold on us, so that we can plot a nimble path around it. Having learnt the art of managing our procrastination, we’ll still sometimes spend slightly too long on the sofa, but we will have opened up a major new possibility: that of eventually dying with fewer regrets.
Fear and Procrastination
We tend to account for why we procrastinate with a deeply convincing and hugely punitive explanation: we don’t get down to tasks because we are lazy. We don’t do what we should because we are, in essence, self-indulgent, slothful and (underneath it all) surely rather bad people.
The truth is more complicated, at once psychologically more nuanced and more worthy of sympathy. The real reason we are indolent is not so much because we are lazy as because we are scared. What we blithely call being lazy is really a symptom and consequence of anxiety.
Oddly, it tends to be very easy to get down to work on things that don’t matter very much. Their lack of importance encourages our lighter, more carefree and more productive sides. We find we’re done with them in no time and it doesn’t even feel like work; it’s closer to play.
Yet the stuff that really counts, that we need done because our lives may depend on it, terrifies us into inactivity. We are so scared of failure, we don’t dare to make a start. At least, if we leave the task untouched, we won’t need to face any risk of humiliating incapacity or incompetence.
This analysis points to how we might increase our productivity. We would be advised not to remind ourselves (or get others to remind us) of how important a task may be: we know this full well already and that is precisely the problem.
What we need to do is to stress its relative unimportance in the grander scheme. So what if, in the end, we don’t get the job, or lose the contract or are thought an idiot by people we care about? It happens, and it’s survivable. We mustn’t ramp up the pressure, we must strive to turn the task from a horrifying ordeal to the only thing we’ll know how to deal with calmly and energetically: a piece of play.
Lessening the imagined consequences of messing up liberates us to devote to a task all the energy and talent we actually possess.
In Laurence Sterne’s great novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (the first parts of which were published in 1759), there’s an episode in which one of the characters reveals that in his house, there’s ‘a squeaky door hinge that has annoyed him half his life’. That’s rather a long time to leave a hinge unattended for, given that it would take only a minute with some oil to correct the problem. Yet we all have such hinges in our lives.
It’s a theme of great pathos: our lives are plagued by minor irritants which we don’t to get around to sorting out. We neglect to replace a light bulb, we don’t refill the windscreen wiper fluid, a button is kept hanging by a thread, we don’t repaint a wall.
Part of the problem is that we are snobs about happiness: the issue is so small, and yet we operate with a sense that our contentment must be made up of enormous and prestigious elements (more money, a bigger house, a grand job). We leave the hinge or the button unattended because we can’t imagine that our moods could be hostage to such trivial features.
But generously considered, a lot of how we feel is in fact determined by ‘minor things’. We insist on a heroic view of our lives, in which great transformations are all that matter, and neglect how much – cumulatively – the small things add up.
Small things includes not just household items, but also minor dynamics in our relationships with ourselves and others. For half a lifetime, we may neglect to discuss with a partner how their way of alluding to our mother irritates us or how much we’d prefer them not to cut bread a certain way. We may spend decades avoiding a certain kind of introspection or moment of self-knowledge. We are heedless in the way we plan for happiness. The tasks we need to take on include not just the large prestigious ones around status and work; we should focus on a fair number of squeaky hinges too.
One of the odder forms that procrastination takes looks – at first sight – like its exact opposite. It happens when someone (who could be ourselves in certain moods) seems to be extremely busy.
On the surface they are working very hard: at school they get their homework finished in plenty of time; around a job they plough through their allocated tasks; their home is neat and the fridge is always well stocked; the household accounts are in order; the thank you letters get written at record speed.
But secretly there’s a great deal of procrastination going on. These busy people evade a different order of undertaking: they go in for what we might call emotional procrastination. They are practically a hive of activity, yet they don’t get round to working out what they really feel about a loss. They constantly delay the investigation of their own responses to an insult. They procrastinate when it comes to understanding particular feelings about a partner. They nip along to an exhibition, but don’t get around to thinking what the art means to them; they catch up regularly with friends but don’t get round to considering what the point of a particular friendship might be.
Their busy-ness is in fact a subtle but powerful form of distraction. They are, in their own way, far lazier than someone who might have spent the afternoon gazing out of the window.
Gazing out of the Window
We tend to reproach ourselves for gazing out of the window. You are supposed to be working, or studying, or ticking off things on your to-do list. It can seem almost the definition of wasted time. It seems to produce nothing, to serve no purpose. We equate it with boredom, distraction, futility. The act of cupping your chin in your hands near a pane of glass and letting your eyes drift in the middle distance does not normally enjoy high prestige. We don’t go around saying: ‘I had a great day: the high point was staring out of the window’. But maybe in a better society, that’s just the sort of thing people would at points say to one another.
Gustave Caillebotte, Young Man at His Window, 1875: Seeking to bring glamour and higher status to an activity which, for centuries has been condemned and denigrated by moralists, teachers, employers, parents – and our own guilty consciences.
The point of staring out of a window is, paradoxically, not to find out what is going on outside. It is, rather, an exercise in discovering the contents of our own minds. It’s easy to imagine we know what we think, what we feel and what’s going on in our heads. But we rarely do entirely. There’s a huge amount of what makes us who we are that circulates unexplored and unused. Its potential lies untapped. It is shy and doesn’t emerge under the pressure of direct questioning. If we do it right, staring out the window offers a way for us to listen out for the quieter suggestions and perspectives of our deeper selves.
Plato suggested a metaphor for the mind: our ideas are like birds fluttering around in the aviary of our brains. But in order for the birds to settle, Plato understood that we needed periods of purpose-free calm. Staring out the window offers such an opportunity. We see the world going on: a patch of weeds is holding its own against the wind; a grey tower block looms through the drizzle. But we don’t need to respond; we have no overarching intentions, and so the more tentative parts of ourselves have a chance to be heard, like the sound of church bells in the city once the traffic has died down at night.
The potential of daydreaming isn’t recognised by societies obsessed with productivity. But some of our greatest insights come when we stop trying to be purposeful and instead respect the creative potential of reverie. Window daydreaming is a strategic rebellion against the excessive demands of immediate (but ultimately insignificant) pressures – in favour of the diffuse, but very serious, hard work of discovering the unexplored deep self.
Losing the Plot
James Joyce’s Ulysses, published in 1922, is a cornerstone of Modernist literature – but its hold on our attention is compromised by one significant factor: the book hardly has a plot. At each stage we’re conscious that a great deal is going on, but it’s not at all clear how everything fits together: Joyce was trying to convey the confusion of modern existence. His novel, though widely esteemed, has a very limited audience because it rebuffs our appetite for plot. In books, we want to know why something is happening and what it’s going to lead to. We like to be able to trace in simple terms the connections between causes and effects. We don’t much go in for books without a plot.
This proclivity doesn’t just apply to literature. In life as a whole, things can get very boring – and therefore very unproductive – when we lose sight of the plot. Often, oddly enough, we lose the plot of our own lives, and get blocked and unfruitful as a result. We may start to ask ourselves why we should be doing a particular job or why we should be putting in so much effort into a relationship. We can wake up one morning and question why we have made particular commitments in love or around family. Across several years of a major project, we may lose sight of quite why what we’re doing matters. We’re not at all sure whether our efforts will ever amount to much; or how what we do week by week contributes to the whole.
Crucially, there may be some very good reasons to keep going; it’s just that they have a habit of getting cloudy in our minds. We need regularly to step back and retrace the plot once more from the start to the present moment. We need to reorient ourselves in the trajectory of our own lives. We need to remind us ourselves of the ongoing logic of what we’re meant to be doing and have signed up to. We need to tell the story of our lives in a way that can keep illuminating the purpose of the small and large challenges of the days ahead.
The Procrastination of Others
Theoretically we know that others must procrastinate. It’s not as if we can possibly be the only person in the world who suffers from this particular curse. But in practice it mostly feels this way. There’s a tragic, natural asymmetry of knowledge that arises because people normally only procrastinate when alone and out of sight. This means we know our own horrible habits of time-wasting and evasion from the inside. But we see only the smooth, fruitful exteriors of others.
We catch our colleagues and friends mostly in their more active and engaged moments. We don’t get to see how far they may be falling short of their own ambitions. It may look as if they accomplished quite a lot – but their private experience can be of tortured frustration, in which they are acutely aware of the gap between their ambitions and their output.
We need to construct a more accurate and imaginative picture of what others must really be like. Despite the lack of evidence, we need to guess at – behind the facade of productivity that others present – the long hours when their minds must have felt stuck in first-gear, unable to get going on anything serious or demanding; their failures to confront the hard questions around decisions; the things they must have abandoned because they couldn’t muster the intellectual energy to address them properly, the hours they will have spent online looking up woollen socks or holidays in Thailand.
It’s still a problem that we procrastinate; but it’s not a unique or even unusual problem. When we fail to get down to our tasks, we’re participating in our own, painful way in the wide sorrow of the human condition.
A place of anxiety, filled with the evidence of endless mistakes and rejected efforts: the studio of Francis Bacon, c. 1982
Sometimes we procrastinate because of the problem of perfectionism: we’re so ambitious about how something could turn out that we grow acutely nervous about our own stumbling beginnings.
Nothing seems quite right; we take a first step but are horrified by the rawness and amateurish quality on display; it’s so far short of what we would ideally want it to be, we fall into despair and put our tools down. We, who like perfection so much, cannot tolerate the gap between what we have done and the standards of the mature finished products we admire.
We’re like visitors to a gallery marvelling at a beautifully accomplished drawing or a reader of a poem amazed by the graceful precision of every word on a page – by comparison with which our own efforts strike us as damning and pathetic.
To help ourselves, we should – if only in our imaginations – travel to the artist’s studio or look over the shoulder of the writer at their desk. The study and the studio are the places where we encounter the agony of creation before perfection has been achieved: we can see the wrecked early versions, the abandoned early drafts. We can witness the tears of frustration, the wasted mornings, the bouts of self-reproach, the multiple stages of correction and adjustment. These are, in a strange way, more precious than the polished results – because they show us how normal our imperfect efforts are and how little, really, they stand in the way of things finally working out.
We become productive when we learn to forgive ourselves the horrors of our own first drafts. And we do this primarily by taking steps to get to know the first drafts of those we most admire.
A Brief History of Procrastination
We should feel sympathy for the position we occupy in time. If we were to draw up a History of Procrastination, we’d quickly see that we live in an era of acute agony around procrastination, in which it is more likely than ever that we will feel humiliated by the gap between what we have achieved and what we are striving to do. We aren’t merely lazy: we have History against us.
Procrastination is rare; and distraction barely exists. There is little requirement for reflection or lengthy training. Only a few people – heads of tribes and magicians – need to think. A single new idea (we could sharpen the edge of a stone so we can use it to cut things; we could store water in a pot) has currency for centuries. You can do your day’s work in a few hours at most. There is little regret about the lives you have not managed to lead.
– The Roman Empire, 100 AD:
Indolence is considered the greatest goal of life: whiling away your days at the baths and at dinner parties is the ideal (though this is of course in practice open only to a tiny few). It is assumed that everyone naturally hates working – therefore slaves, peasants and serfs are kept under constant, brutal supervision. All forms of craft and trade are looked down on. Procrastination is deemed excellent: hopefully you can keep on putting off anything irksome or unpleasant for your entire life.
– York, England, 13th Century
You are trained from infancy in your line of work; there’s always a master standing nearby telling you what to do, watching you every minute. Intellectual work is confined to restating traditional ideas: no-one is expected to be original. You are born into a station in life and it is almost impossible to rise or fall out of it. You don’t procrastinate since so much of life is governed by ritual and tradition: every action has its allotted time, dictated by your whole society. Projects are expected to advance very slowly: it takes a few centuries to build a cathedral and no one minds too much.
– London, mid-19th century
“Work” by Ford Madox Brown, started 1852 completed 1865 (ironically the artist procrastinated for 13 years over finishing his homage to strenuous activity).
Work of all kinds has become sacred; our toil pleases God. To be idle is a vice, to accumulate money is a great virtue. The potent demand for ‘respectability’ makes people spend even their leisure hours reading improving books. Everyone starts to complain that they don’t have time anymore. In the large cities, a frenetic spirit takes hold. A new ideology implies that everyone could restart the world from scratch every morning – or should feel bad for not doing so.
– The contemporary world:
Work is our new religion. We are the sum total of our achievements. We could always be doing something more. At the same time, possibilities for distraction have increased exponentially. The internet is necessary for almost every activity but is – by a tragic error – the richest source of distraction ever invented. The most ambitious, insightful minds on the planet strive ceaselessly to entice us towards novel ways of amusing ourselves when we should be working – opportunities for procrastination are massively multiplied and pushed widely and deeply into our lives. Employment is insecure, any failure can be fatal. There is pressure to justify our existence every day. Procrastination becomes a central secular sin: the intimate revelation of a lack of fitness for life; yet the inducements to, and opportunities for procrastination are at all all time high. Dentistry and plumbing are excellent, but with respect to work, we deserve genuine pity and tenderness for the misfortune to be born into this phase of world history.
The Distraction of the News
News got started as an urgent bulletin of facts delivered to people with a desperate need to know things: the wildebeest are at the waterhole; if you eat this kind of berry you will die; enemy troops are marshalling on the western frontier; the king’s younger brother is plotting a coup. News was vital and difficult to obtain; it was the direct spur to action and a guide to wise decision making. You needed the news to live well.
But the modern, democratic concept of news quietly forgets this. Every day, it sends out a massively expanded dossier to us – so we are informed about pretty much everything that has happened anywhere in the world in the preceding hours: a murder in a town far from where we live, an update on how the mining sector is faring in Australia, the discovery of a severed head in Tokyo, developments in a bank in France, the weather in Siberia… even though there’s absolutely nothing we can or should be doing with any of this knowledge. It’s merely cluttering our minds and distracting us from our true priorities.
We’ve inculcated the idea that it’s necessary and deeply prestigious to constantly follow what’s happening in the world and we’ve collectively provided ourselves with endless opportunities to do so. It’s the ideal distraction: scanning the news still feels urgent and important even though it’s generally ceased to guide our actions and has in fact become the greatest source of mindless procrastination.
We should – when we can – dare to switch off the news and focus on a far more urgent priority: the course of our own lives.
The Distraction of Pornography
The 19th century English painter, J. M. W. Turner, was celebrated for his noble-minded heroic landscapes and moody, impressionistic sketches.
But he also spent a lot of time making a vast number of more or less explicit pornographic drawings. When he was supposed to be painting a majestic sunset, he’d often be procrastinating by penciling a few erotic scenes. He was particularly interested in felllatio.
After Turner’s death, his executor – the critic and social reformer John Ruskin – carefully hid the drawings to protect Turner’s reputation as a great artist. But actually Ruskin did us a disservice. He tried to hide from the world a crucial bit of evidence: even a hugely accomplished and successful artist like Turner was plagued by a dithering and avoidance of real work through the use of sexual imagery.
Ruskin’s censorship dissuaded us from considering how common it is for our procrastination to adopt an embarrassing but not inherently shameful form: sexual fantasy. Knowledge of his images can help reduce our unhelpful self-disgust around our own sexual daydreams. It’s not impressive that pornography distracts us – but it is both natural and entirely consistent with being a serious and interesting person.
The need to eat never feels as compelling or appealing as when we have a prior need to start working. There is a particular appetite that descends at just the moment when we have to begin writing a report or complete a set of letters.
Someone who found us in the kitchen at such moments, eating a fourth chocolate biscuit or cutting another slice of lemon drizzle cake, might easily describe us as greedy. But of course, it isn’t really food we are craving. We are eating because what we really want isn’t available – and that is reassurance, comfort and encouragement for the challenges of getting down to work.
We don’t need sweet foods, we need friendship where we can confess our darkest anxieties and be heard and forgiven; we need help in calming down about a deadline, reassured that we can withstand the very worst that may be coming our way. We need someone who can help us discover our real talents and guide us to realise our true potential.
We know that, when reaching for a tube of potato chips or biting into yet another burrito that the problem doesn’t lie there. We just don’t know where else to turn and there is, at least, a short-term satisfaction to be found. Our tragedy isn’t our unconstrained appetite but rather, the difficulty we have in getting access to the emotional and psychological things that would nourish our anxious, procrastinating souls.
A boy of seven is in a toy shop with his grandmother who is going to buy him a present. He’s trying to make up his mind. He could get some special pieces of Lego, which opens a vista of the spaceship he’ll be able to make. Or he could get a wooden swing bridge that he could drive his model cars across – and engineer amazing accidents with. But he can’t have both.
The result of this need to choose is indecision and a degree of agony. The boy asks his grandmother if they might come back another day. Until he decides, both prospects remain possible. It’s only when he actually opts for one or the other that the fatal moment will arrive. Whichever he chooses, he’ll be losing the other – and the special zone of happiness it promises. It’s a difficult moment. His grandmother is doing her best to please him, but he’s plunged into the agony of choice: he’s confronting what philosophers have called Existential Angst.
In 1843, the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (who developed the term Angst) published a book called Either/Or. His thesis was that life constantly forces us towards decisions: we can marry and be constrained, or be free but miss out on cosy long-term companionship; we can be sober and thoughtful but cut off from our times or we can join-in, be sociable – but know at the back of our minds that we are wasting our lives; we can seek fame and money, and get very stressed or we can opt for a quiet life, but always be haunted by the idea that we’re eluding our real possibilities. Kierkegaard made another observation: the difficult of choosing means that many of us spend our lives avoiding choice, which ends up being a kind of choice all of its own. There is, in his eyes, no alternative but to face choice and the compromise that every choice entails. Procrastination isn’t merely a delay, it’s a symptom of not recognising that we humans have to choose and always lose out through choice.
We procrastinate, at times, in a desperate attempt to keep at bay the cruel limitations of reality. If we move city, we might have new work prospects, but we’ll lose our current friends; if we devote ourselves to one specific career, other sides of our character will be neglected; if we break off a relationship, well be free but we’ll lose all the sweeter moments we do actually have with this person.
If we delay choosing, all options appear to stay alive, at least as possibilities – but only for a while. Yet that is a grave illusion. We should quell our procrastination by accepting that not choosing is in itself a choice and that every choice will necessarily mean missing out on something important. We should get better and faster at making decisions, sure in the knowledge that (as Existential philosophers teach us) every decision will be in its own way slightly wrong and somewhat sad.
A central idea of psychoanalysis is that the troubles of adult life often have important roots in childhood. We may have initiated a way of acting and feeling at a young age as a way of coping with what was then a very serious challenge. But we tend then to stick to this emotional pattern in later life, even when it’s no longer actually needed and brings with it some considerable costs.
Around procrastination, psychoanalysis might ask a strange sounding, but helpful, question: why might a child find it useful to fail to make headway with a project or to hold back from applying their best abilities in a concerted way? Why might a child want to delay? And by extension, why might the adult version of this child keep sabotaging their work?
The answer is that there must once have been some sense of danger associated with getting things done. Not procrastinating was a risk. Perhaps accomplishment was seen as showing off; perhaps there was a rivalrous older sibling ready to attack any signs of excellence. Maybe a fragile, competitive parent felt threatened by their own child’s success or an anxious parent was panicked by the slightest sign of failure, of the kind that accomplishment demands in its early stages. In such circumstances a child could learn to sabotage their own capacities: they might feel it was too dangerous to properly concentrate and push their powers – and might stall and hold back instead.
Psychoanalysis promises us that, by becoming aware of childhood dynamics, we can liberate ourselves from the past. The rivalrous older sibling now lives in another country (and we get on with them well enough). A competitive fragile parent is now dead. There is no need to keep playing out the defensive strategies that we developed in relation to threats that no longer exist. We can dare to get down to work, take our time and succeed – without a fear that our accomplishment will threaten anyone we love.
Monasteries were developed to help people concentrate their minds. In a sense, they were giant, beautiful machines to assist us in avoiding procrastination. They started from a usefully pessimistic assumption: we are naturally very easily drawn off course and need all the help we can get to devote ourselves to tasks we are theoretically committed to.
Monasteries carefully incorporated a range of features to assist us in avoiding procrastination. They were usually located in remote places – to keep at bay the temptations of the town. They had codes of silence – to restrict gossip. They regulated every moment of the day – to combat idleness. Monks had little or no personal money – so thoughts of shopping did not distract them. They were required to constantly meditate on death and the brevity of life – to foster a sense of urgency. They had a system of regular confession and spiritual supervision – so that time-wasting tendencies could be properly recognised and cured. The walls of the monastery were extremely thick – to avoid distracting sounds. There were pleasant walkways under covered arches – because some of our best ideas come to us when we are pacing.
The polar opposite of the monastery is the home office, a place designed to maximise distraction and incentives to sloth: no-one is watching us, there is a bed and a fridge temptingly close by; we could do the laundry or repaint the bathroom or solve eighteen sudoku puzzles in a row. Or, of course, we could look up Turner’s erotic images. The home office makes a flattering, but fatal, error: it assumes that we are by nature inclined to work and only need more freedom to unleash our productive potential.
Monasteries are there to remind us that, if we are to think and achieve to a high standard, we may need to make a lot of changes to our routines and the structure of our lives. We shouldn’t just blame our willpower. We can blame the whole architectural and social setup around the way we work.
Honore de Balzac was one of the most productive writers of the 19th century, turning out several novels every year for more than two decades. In order to squeeze such an achievement out of himself, he developed an exceptionally eccentric working routine. He found he couldn’t normally write during the day, so he would sleep during the morning and again in the evening and get up around 1am. He put on a large monastic robe with a hood and wrote through the hours of darkness – often until around eight in the morning. As he worked, he drank around fifty cups of coffee (which he mixed with chocolate and brandy) which had an immense effect on his brain: ‘Ideas quick-march into motion like battalions of a grand army’.
If he’d been forced to work under standard conditions in an office during normal business hours, or had to wear normal clothes, if he’d been forbidden from taking his special drink … he would (we can well imagine) have been deeply unproductive. Balzac’s enormous output wasn’t a reflection of freakish absence of the desire to procrastinate; rather it depended on the remarkable strategies he adopted for combating his own resistance to work. He took his procrastination very seriously and was willing to go to dramatic lengths to overcome it.
Our own productivity might be transformed if – like Balzac – we were to follow our odder instincts and properly shape our lives around the real requirements of our working temperament.
It’s a humbling fact about human nature that deadlines work. We are hugely dependent on someone else – a boss, a supervisor, a client, an editor or perhaps a parent – to impose a demand and threaten (in however civil a guise) to punish us for a failure to deliver on time. We might feel resentful, we might have to say up late or make frantic efforts till the last minute, we might curse the guardian of the deadline – but we almost certainly get the work done and are privately a bit grateful for the supervision.
Unfortunately, only a few of the important tasks in life carry deadlines. For much of what truly matters, there’s no-one to boss us around; no one appears to care. Our work is not expected at any particular point.
In dealing with a difficult client, a senior colleague might suggest a definite timeline and precise questions to ask. But there isn’t a clear deadline around taking steps to resolve a tricky issue in an relationship. There’s no-one to say: ‘you must have dinner with your partner tonight and ask these five questions and listen very carefully to the answers without interrupting. We’ll discuss them in the morning and frame a good response.’ No one has given us a deadline to work out what job we should really be doing – or how we might best resolve a conflict in our family. There are no deadlines around getting on better with your children or identifying how to be creative. And so these thorny, vital issues have a habit of getting sidelined and ignored.
Painfully – but productively – what we need to do is to create deadlines for ourselves. We need to become our own inner bosses. Furthermore, we have to tell others about our intentions and figuratively sign them up to expect a specific amount of progress from us by a particular date. We have to invite a degree of nagging from people with no prior interest in delivering it – because this is better than the alternative: wasting our lives. Finally, we need to keep the ultimate deadline always in mind, perhaps by positioning a skull or an X-ray of a cancerous pancreas prominently on our desks.
- One way to break paralysis around an unpleasant task is to introduce an even more unpleasant task – by comparison to which the first task starts to seem more appealing.
A good way to start work on a tedious report is therefore to raise the spectre of a long delayed thank you letter or phone-call to a tedious but kindly relative.
- Work offline as much as possible; the internet is – plainly – the enemy.
- Use an egg-timer: work for 15 minutes and not a moment more. If that doesn’t help, try five minutes. Humiliate yourself into finding a unit of time you can stick to. It might be only a minute and a half. It often is.
- Use starkly accurate working titles for your efforts: ‘First Rubbish Version’; ‘Second Marginally Less Rubbish Version’; ‘Initial Pathetic Sketch’. Don’t expect it to be right for a long time. If ever.
- Break a task into 100 sections. Note what percentage is done. For a 1,500 word report, every sentence is pretty much 1%.
- Take a shower, go for a drive. We often have our best ideas when theoretically we’re not supposed to be working at all. The mind is so scared of thinking, it tends to wait to let out its more valuable thoughts until we are on a break.
In Praise of Procrastination
We’re so alive to the problems of procrastination, we can overlook that there might be a few things to value in the condition. Precisely speaking, the word procrastination only means waiting, until tomorrow – or a more distant day. And sometimes at least, that’s a very wise and helpful thing to do.
Cherry trees, for example, procrastinate a lot. It might be five or seven years before a new tree bears fruit. An olive tree might require twelve years. But the fruit that emerges from such slow gestation bears witness to the advantages of procrastination, being rich, experienced and redolent of a succession of long summers and sharp winters
It might be a good idea to procrastinate around having sex with someone or around choosing a career; we can be legitimately too young to drive or to leave home, to run our own business or to put up a building.
There are many important tasks we can’t hurry: we can’t make our children grow up quickly, we can’t write a good novel too fast, we can’t successfully complete psychotherapy in a few days; it can take years to assemble our ideas about how to direct an enterprise or structure a department…
The late 18th – early 19th century French painter Ingres dithered for decades over some of his most impressive works. He started his painting of Oedipus and The Sphinx in 1807, when he was in his late twenties – but didn’t complete it until 1827, by which time he was in his late 40s.
In the intervening years he changed many details, he repainted some parts many times and added extra portions of canvas to the top and the sides.
Our society is very good at honouring certain kinds of speed. We’re impressed by how quickly some people can run or drive a car. But we’re much less familiar with the (equally important) idea of honouring those who precisely didn’t do something quickly – and did it well because they did it very slowly.
During the Second Punic War (218-201 BC), the brilliant Carthaginian general Hannibal invaded Italy and reached the walls of Rome. Fabius Maximus was appointed to lead the defence of his country, but instead of immediately giving battle, he deliberately kept out of reach of the enemy. He harried their supply lines and kept them on the move and prevented reinforcements arriving. There was minimum bloodshed. Unable to sustain his campaign, Hannibal finally withdrew from the Italian peninsula and the nation was saved. Fabius Maximus procrastinated not out of cowardice or stupidity, but because this was the wiser, more humane and more effective strategy.
By remembering the trouble impatience brings into our lives, we can gain an unexpected degree of admiration and sympathy for procrastination. It’s not in principle a bad quality – it’s just that we don’t always use it in the right manner. It’s no so much that we should try to stop procrastinating in all ways; the ideal is to direct our ability to delay to the places where this move is at its most useful.
No one can ever be efficient in every area of their life. A so-called ‘successful’ person isn’t someone accomplished in everything they are involved with; it’s someone who has focused their energies with unusual intensity on a particular set of questions.
In the life of every person who gets a lot done, there are, inevitably, a great many things they have avoided. There are many tasks that have been put aside, and many obligations that have been neglected. Achievement mostly depends on not doing a whole host of things which, in a broad and reasonable sense, one really ought to do. The efficient person may be considered deeply lazy in some areas of life; they’ve been an expert at winnowing their sense of responsibility; they are good at avoiding many details in order to concentrate on just one goal.
The efficient parent may have heavily neglected the upkeep of the house. The superb accountant may have been a disaster around keeping up with the latest highbrow films and novels. The devoted entrepreneur may have evaded many tricky conversations around their relationship.
A good life doesn’t require us to banish procrastination entirely, it involves making choices about where we will allow ourselves to remain inefficient, in the name of having a shot at excellence elsewhere.
The Limits of Hard Work
The Duc de La Rochefoucauld was a 17th-century French aristocrat who wrote one of the greatest books of all time, the Maxims, in a few weeks when he was in his early fifties.
The Maxims is an extremely slender book: composed of only around five hundred wise and charming observations, rarely longer than 100 words – for instance: ‘If we had no faults we would not find so much enjoyment in seeing faults in others’ or ‘The world more often rewards the outward signs of merit than merit itself’.
Even more remarkably, writing the book did not cost La Rochefoucauld any great effort – as he briefly hints: ‘It often happens that things come into the mind in a more finished form than could have been achieved after great study.’ He wrote most of it during tea parties, he confessed to being a very lazy person, only writing when the mood seized him – and though he never expected it to sell well, it garnered him immediate respect and enduring fame. Voltaire said it was the most important book in French literature – which still seems just about right as a verdict.
To the bourgeois imagination, this is a scandalous story: La Rochefoucauld didn’t put in long hours, he didn’t work very hard – and his little book has been selling well for more than three hundred and fifty years.
This violates our cult of hard work, and our firm belief that huge and constant efforts are always at the root of success. We can’t bear the idea of the inspired dandy. It’s become standard to hear anyone who wishes to be seen as a good person, emphasising how hard they work – as if the sheer quantity of time invested will guarantee the worth of what they are – so laboriously – doing.
We’ve become devoted to the notion that it is only procrastination that is holding us back – and that we would succeed if only we could force ourselves to work harder.
But there is a more disturbing thought that we are thereby keeping at bay: that perhaps simply working hard isn’t the decisive factor, that we might work for years and produce nothing good, or (on the other hand) sit around for decades and then – in a few weeks – do something that changes history. We fetishise the hours of labour to distract ourselves from a very awkward truth: that sheer hard work often isn’t enough and that, when talent is supreme, one can get away with a lot of ‘laziness’ .
What we denigrate as procrastination might sometimes be more generously – and more accurately – renamed in very different ways.
|Procrastinating activity||Can better be called||People who did this well|
|Staring out the window||Giving the quieter parts of the mind a chance to be heard||Virginia Woolf|
|Lying in bed for hours||Thinking, accumulating self-knowledge||Rene Descartes
|Chatting with friends||Philosophy||Socrates|
|Making a snack||Developing a new style of cooking||Elizabeth David|
|Going for a stroll||Communing with the universe||Henry David Thoreau|
In other words, what we do when we procrastinate is not necessarily bad; it just looks inconvenient at this precise moment and can be hard to explain to suspicious outsiders.
When it looks like we are ‘wasting time’, we are often at work on activities that are on the cusp of becoming, themselves, genuinely productive and admirable.
There’s enough time left
Until quite late on in his life, the 18th century German Philosopher Immanuel Kant was regarded by his contemporaries as prone to wasting his time. He went to many parties, he flirted, he chatted away amiably all afternoon and evening. It wasn’t until he was in his late fifties that he published his first important book: a very difficult, but highly influential, treatise on the basic structure of experience called The Critique of Pure reason. Over the next decade he wrote two more major works the Critique of Practical Reason (which is about ethics) and the Critique of Judgment (which seeks to answer the question: what is beauty?) Together they established Kant as one of the great thinkers of modern times. Yet it had all come very late indeed (life expectancy for a man of his era was 44).
We sometimes use the fact that we have wasted a lot of time as a reason not to begin. It seems impossible that we would be more than half way through our lives and yet still have a chance to pull off something important: start a family, run a business, invent a machine, write a book or build a house. Tales of late achievers are therefore of particular importance to the self-hating, self-doubting procrastinating ones among us.
We should not be embarrassed by the amount of time we have wasted sitting on the sofa. It probably taught us a lot; it has left us with a reservoir of self-disgust we can use to fire our efforts and it has brought us fruitfully closer to that ultimate deadline to ensure that we now have the motivation to finish our real work before our time is up.
Networking has a bad name. It’s associated with self-enrichment, egoism and snobbery. But it is, in its essence, just a search for help. It springs from a fundamentally modest awareness of how fragile and limited each of us is, and therefore how much we stand in need of the support and strength of others.
Networking is only ever as good or bad as the ends to which it is put. There are, in history, some very impressive versions of the activity. The ancient Greek story of the Argonauts tells how the heroic captain Jason travelled around the countryside networking, so as to assemble a band of associates to help him in his search for the legendary Golden Fleece. Jesus of Nazareth networked extensively in order to put together a team of disciples that could help him to spread a message about love, redemption and sacrifice.
To network means to filter intelligently, to recognise that one cannot – and indeed should not – try to get to know everyone. It involves aligning one’s path through the world with a mission. It implies a wise acknowledgement that we do not have unlimited time.
Ideally, our networks should be wide, diverse and utterly without snobbery – because we can see that useful information, valuable skills, perspectives, opportunities and guidance can be located in a host of very unexpected places. In espionage, this key point has been deeply understood: it might be as productive to make contact with the embassy cleaning staff as with the economic attache; the bartender could be as rich a source of information as the general. We can take this refreshingly open-minded attitude into the world at large. We may learn as much about business from a bankrupt as from a successful CEO; the taxi driver may – amidst the chatter – have one or two key things to teach us; the person with the woolly hat standing by the bus-stop may provide the starting point for a new entrepreneurial idea. With an elevated conscious mission in mind, networking ceases to be a brutal, discriminatory activity. It’s just a way of making sure we are never far from harvesting insights and assistance.
‘Creativity’ is one of the most prestigious ideas of modern times and as a result, we often want to feel creative while lamenting that our lives don’t give us sufficient opportunities to be so. But this impression may come down to an unfairly inflated and unhelpfully skewed notion of what creativity could actually involve. We are far too focused on creativity’s dramatic highpoints within a narrow, cliched band of activities, like the writing of a prize-winning novel or the making a film that receives accolades at Cannes or Berlin. By this standard, almost no-one can be creative and creativity must remain an elite and even freakish anomaly entirely disconnected from ordinary life.
Pablo Picasso, Tête de taureau (Bull’s Head), 1942
In 1942, Pablo Picasso dismantled an old bicycle and attached the handlebars to the seat to bring out the resemblance to the head of a bull. It’s hard not to be a bit charmed. It is a move that helpfully gives us a more accurate idea of creativity. The items Picasso used were already very familiar to everyone. The key initiative was that he rearranged them to make each part more valuable than it had been in its previous role. This act of combination tends to be central to the creative act. There is very little that is entirely new under the sun, but to be creative is to learn to see how apparently unlikely elements might fit together in a fruitful new arrangement. One might borrow a way of organising information from the world of computers and apply it to the management of a gym. One might take an idea associated with the history of Ancient Greece and set it to work within the running of a modern school. One could take a way of speaking popular in Japan and collide it with contemporary English diction.
Essentially, creativity means spotting an opportunity to improve things through recombination. The German philosopher Hegel put the idea in its grandest terms: we are creative, he wrote, when we ‘strip the world of its stubborn foreignness and adapt it to our needs.’ Usually, we just put up with matters that are frustrating or disappointing. But when we get creative, we adapt what is to hand – combining, reorganising, starting afresh – so that it better matches our interests and ideals. It is the opposite of feeling stuck and resigned, it is a refusal to accept the status quo. The creative person is someone particularly committed to the idea that there must be a better way of going about things.
A lot of work – paid and unpaid – is more creative than we usually suppose: when we repaint the bathroom and choose a more pleasing colour that we noticed in a book about houses in India; when we cook a meal and arrange the asparagus on a serving plate in the way they did in a film; when we introduce a set of icons in a report so that the main points come across more clearly, when we put a pot of geraniums we found in the garden center on the window sill to make a space more cheerful or introduce two friends to each other because we’ve realised how, despite some quite striking differences, they’ll get on well. In every case, we are being creative because we are spotting an opportunity to make an improvement and increase our pleasure in life through an act of rearrangement and combination.
Creativity isn’t a rare and highly dramatic activity; it’s not a side-show incidental to the core concerns of our lives. It’s something that – ideally – we’re always involved in. It’s a refusal to accept the world as it is in all its facets, it’s a commitment to doing better with what we have. As creative people, we don’t have to write novels, we are just persistently on the lookout for ways (sometimes very small) of improving our lives: we try being more complimentary to a tricky colleague; we experiment with different music in the car; we reorganise the cutlery drawer or get up ten minutes earlier so we can do some stretching exercises first thing. We don’t see the current arrangements as fixed; we’re always ambitious to fine tune, to re-arrange, to adapt, cut out and adjust in order to creatively bring a little more pleasure and coherence into our own lives and those of others.