πŸ’Ž We can’t stand a mismatch between our actions and thoughts (Benjamin Franklin Effect)

because we hate cognitive dissonance: we can’t stand a mismatch between our actions and thoughts. So if we find ourselves helping someone out, we’ll unconsciously adjust our feelings for them. After all, we don’t want to feel we’re valuing someone who doesn’t deserve it. In one key study, students won money in a contest; afterwards, some were asked to return it because, they were told, it was the hard-up researcher’s own cash. In a subsequent survey, that group liked the researcher significantly more than those who weren’t asked to give any money back.

The implications are striking. Don’t suck up to your boss – make demands. Don’t shower your friends with gifts – ask to borrow their stuff.

Excerpt fromΒ Help!: How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done by Oliver Burkeman

πŸ’Ž On our tendency to explain behaviour too much in terms of personality and not enough in terms of circumstances

The bias runs deep. Few of us, surely, think of ourselves as having a fixed, monochrome personality: we’re happy or sad, stressed or relaxed, depending on circumstances. Yet we stubbornly resist the notion that others might be similarly circumstance-dependent. In a well-known 1960s study, people were shown two essays, one arguing in favour of Castro’s Cuba and one against. Even when it was explained that the authors had been ordered to adopt each position based on a coin-toss – that their situation, in other words, had forced their hand readers still considered that the pro Castro author must be deep down, pro Castro and vice versa.

Excerpt from Help!: How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done by Oliver Burkeman

πŸ’Ž On how transient our beliefs can be

In a study entitled β€œAfter the Movies’, some crafty Australian researchers grilled people leaving the cinema about their views on politics and morality; they discovered that those leaving happy films were optimistic and lenient, while those leaving aggressive or sad ones were far more pessimistic and strict.

Excerpt from Help!: How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done by Oliver Burkeman

πŸ’Ž On the underrated value of β€˜interstitial time’

There’s a popular subgenre of books about writing known informally as ‘writer porn’, in which famous authors describe their daily routines, which pens they use and, especially, the secluded mountain-top cabins where they work each morning for six blissfully undisturbed hours. I don’t think I’ve ever actually met such an author, but for anyone whose job is even slightly ‘creative’, they stir envy: we’d all love such big chunks of time in which to focus. Instead, our lives are plagued with what the blogger Merlin Mann, at 43folders.com, calls β€˜interstitial time’ – small chunks of minutes spent waiting at the doctor’s surgery, or for someone who’s late, or for a meeting postponed at short notice.

It feels like time wasted. But it needn’t be. The poet William Carlos Williams, for example, wrote much of his oeuvre on the backs of prescription pads during gaps in his workday as a paediatrician.

Excerpt from Help!: How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done by Oliver Burkeman

πŸ’Ž Why failures to act tend to haunt us more than failed actions

But in his book If Only, the psychologist Neal Roese argues that when it comes to real-life choices, ‘if you decide to do something and it turns out badly, it probably won’t still be haunting you a decade down the road. You’ll reframe the failure, explain it away, move on, and forget it. Not so with failures to act’. You’ll regret them for longer, too, because they’re ‘imaginatively boundless?’ you can lose yourself for ever in the infinite possibilities of what might have been. In other words: you know that thing you’ve been wondering about doing? Do it.

Excerpt from Help!: How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done by Oliver Burkeman

πŸ’Ž If you can’t make it shorter, make it feel shorter

Indefinite wait seems longer then defined ones, writes David Maiste in his paper “The Psychology of Waiting Lines’, which is why Disney theme parks use complex formulae to calculate and display wait-times. ‘Pre-process’ waits seem longer than ‘in process’ waits, which is why restaurants will seat you before they’re ready to serve you. Customers are happier when queues are acknowledged: when a supermarket calls ‘all staff to the checkouts’, it’s as much about you hearing it as about staffing. And occupied time passes faster than unoccupied time: mirrored walls are especially effective, apparently because most people love looking at themselves.

Excerpt from Help!: How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done by Oliver Burkeman

πŸ’Ž An explanation as to how groups (and companies) make decisions which are favoured by none of their members

The article is called β€œThe Abilene Paradox’, and it’s by the management theorist Jerry Harvey; it begins with a personal anecdote set not at Christmas but during a stiflingly hot Texas summer. Harvey and his wife were staying with her parents, and relaxing one afternoon when his father-in-law suggested a trip to Abilene, 50 miles away, for dinner. Harvey was appalled at the thought of driving β€˜across a godforsaken desert, in a furnace-like temperature … to eat unpalatable food. But his wife seemed keen, so he kept his objections to himself.

The experience was as terrible as he’d predicted. Later, trying to be upbeat, he said, β€œThat was a great trip, wasn’t it?’ but one by one, each family member confessed they’d hated they had agreed to go only because they believed it was what the others wanted. “Listen, I never wanted to go to Abilene”, Harvey’s father-in-law said. β€œI just thought you might be bored?”

Excerpt from Help!: How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done by Oliver Burkeman

πŸ’Ž The happiness benefits of closing down our options

Once, in an experiment, the Harvard University social psychologist Daniel Gilbert and a colleague gave hundreds of people the opportunity to pick a free poster from a selection of art prints. Then he divided the participants into two groups. The first group was told that they had a month in which they could exchange their poster for any other one; the second group was told that the decision they’d already made had been final. In follow-up surveys, it was the latter group β€” those who were stuck with their decision, and who thus weren’t distracted by the thought that it might still be possible to make a better choice β€” who showed by far the greater appreciation for the work of art they’d selected.

Excerpt from: Four Thousand Weeks: Embrace your limits. Change your life by Oliver Burkeman

πŸ’Ž On originality lying on the far side of unoriginality

The final principle is that, more often than not, originality lies on the far side of unoriginality. The Finnish American photographer Arno Minkkinen dramatises this deep truth about the power of patience with a parable about Helsinki’, main bus station. There are two dozen platforms there, he explains, with several different bus lines departing from each one β€” and for the first part of its journey, each busk leaving from any given platform takes the same route through the city as all the others, making identical stops. Thinly’. each stop as representing one year of your career, Minkkinen advises photography students. You pick an artistic direction β€” perhaps you start working on platinum prints of nudes β€” and you begin to accumulate a portfolio of work. Three years (or bus stops) later, you proudly present it to the owner of a gallery. But you’re dismayed to be told that your pictures aren’t as original as you thought, because they look like knock-offs of the work of the photographer Irving Penn; Penn’s bus, it turns out, had been on the same route as yours. Annoyed at yourself for having wasted three years following somebody else’s path, you jump off that bus, hail a taxi, and return to where you started at the bus station. This time, you board a different bus, choosing a different genre of photography in which to specialise. But a few stops later, the same thing happens: you’re informed that your new body of work seems derivative, too. Back you go to the bus station. But the pattern keeps on repeating: nothing you produce ever gets recognised as being truly your own.

What’s the solution? ‘It’s simple,’ Minkkinen says. ‘Stay on the bus. Stay on the fucking bus.’ A little further out on their journeys through the city, Helsinki’s bus routes diverge, plunging off to unique destinations as they head through the suburbs and into the countryside beyond. That’s where the distinctive work begins. But it begins at all only for those who can muster the patience to immerse themselves in the earlier stage β€” the trial-and-error phase of copying others, learning new skills and accumulating experience.

Excerpt from: Four Thousand Weeks: Embrace your limits. Change your life by Oliver Burkeman

πŸ’Ž Rather than trying to clear the decks, instead decline to clear the decks and instead focus on what’s of greatest consequence

In my days as a paid-up productivity geek, it was this aspect of the whole scenario that troubled me the most. Despite my thinking of myself as the kind of person who got things done, it grew painfully clear that the things I got done most diligently were the unimportant ones, while the important ones got postponed β€” either forever or until an imminent deadline forced me to complete them, to a mediocre standard and in a stressful rush. The email from my news-paper’s IT department about the importance of regularly changing my password would provoke me to speedy action, though I could have ignored it entirely. (The clue was in the subject line, where the words ‘PLEASE READ’ are generally a sign you needn’t bother reading what follows.) Mean-while, the long message from an old friend now living in New Delhi and research for the major article I’d been planning for months would get ignored, because I told myself that such tasks needed my full focus, which meant waiting until I had a good chunk of free time and fewer small-but-urgent tasks tugging at my attention. And so, instead, like the dutiful and efficient worker I was, I’d put my energy into clearing the decks, cranking through the smaller stuff to get it out of the way β€” only to discover that doing so took the Whole day, that the decks filled up again overnight anyway, and that the moment for responding to the New Delhi email or for researching the milestone article never arrived. One can waste years this way, systematically postponing precisely the things one cares about the most.

What’s needed instead in such situations, I gradually came to understand, is a kind of anti-skill: not the counter-productive strategy of trying to make yourself more efficient, but rather a willingness to resist such urges β€” to learn to stay with the anxiety of feeling overwhelmed, of not being on top of everything, without automatically responding by trying to fit more in. To approach your days in this fashion means, instead of clearing the decks, declining to clear the decks, focusing instead on what’s truly of greatest consequence while tolerating the discomfort of knowing that, as you do so, the decks will be filling up further, with emails and errands and other to-dos, many of which you may never get round to at all. You’ll sometimes still decide to drive yourself hard in an effort to squeeze more in, when circumstances absolutely re-quire it. But that won’t be your default mode, because you’ll no longer be operating under the illusion of one day making time for everything.

Excerpt from: Four Thousand Weeks: Embrace your limits. Change your life by Oliver Burkeman

πŸ’Ž On work expanding to fill the time available

The same goes for chores: in her book More Work for Mother, the American historian Ruth Schwarty Cowan shows that when housewives first got access to β€˜laboursaving’ devices like washing machines and vacuum cleaners, no time was saved at all, because society’s standards of cleanliness simply rose to offset the benefits; now that you could return each of your husband’s shirts to a spotless condition after a single wearing, it began to feel like you should, to show how much you loved him. Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion, the English humorist and historian C. Northcote Parkinson wrote in 1955, coining w became known as Parkinson’s law. But it’s not merely a joke and it doesn’t apply only to work. It applies to everything that needs doing. In fact, it’s the definition of what needs doing that expands to fill the time available.

Excerpt from: Four Thousand Weeks: Embrace your limits. Change your life by Oliver Burkeman

πŸ’Ž There is no moment in the future when you’ll magically be done with everything

The same logic, Abel points out, applies to time. If you try to find time for your most valued activities by first dealing with all the other important demands on your time, in the hope that there’ll be some left over at the end, you’ll be disappointed. So if a certain activity really matters to you – a creative project, say, though it could just as easily be nurturing a relationship, or activism in the service of some cause – the only way to be sure it will happen is to do some of it today, no matter how little, and no matter how many other genuinely big rocks may be begging for your attention. After years of trying and failing to make time for her illustration work, by taming her to-do list and shuffling her schedule, Abel saw that her only viable option was to claim time instead – to just start drawing, for an hour or two, every day, and to accept the consequences, even if those included neglecting other activities she sincerely valued. If you don’t save a bit of your time for you, now, out of every week,’ as she puts it, ‘there is no moment in the future when you’ll magically be done with everything and have loads of free time.’ This is the same insight embodied in two venerable pieces of time management advice: to work on your most important project for the first hour of each day, and to protect your time by scheduling ‘meetings’ with your-self, marking them in your calendar so that other commitments can’t intrude. Thinking in terms of ‘paying yourself first’ transforms these one-off tips into a philosophy of life, at the core of which lies this simple insight: if you plan to spend some of your four thousand weeks doing what matters most to you, then at some point you’re just going to have to start doing it.

Excerpt from: Four Thousand Weeks: Embrace your limits. Change your life by Oliver Burkeman