Mar 7, 2017
The Guardian writer, psychology journalist, and author of the critically acclaimed book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, Oliver Burkeman, dropped by the program to talk to me about the writer’s journey, turning a weekly column into a book, and rethinking positive thinking.
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Oliver writes about social psychology, self-help culture, productivity, and the science of happiness for his columns in both The Guardian (based in Brooklyn, New York), and Psychologies magazine. He has also interviewed a laundry list of celebrities ranging from Al Gore to Jerry Seinfeld.
In his critically acclaimed book, The Antidote (2012), the author went undercover into the heart of the “happiness industrial complex” to explore why our relentless pursuit of happiness and success often leaves us feeling the opposite.
The author looked to academics, psychologists, Buddhists, business consultants, philosophers, and many others in a unique search for an “… alternative path to happiness and success that involves embracing failure, pessimism, insecurity, and uncertainty – the very things we spend our lives trying to avoid.”
The Los Angeles Times said of the book, “Burkeman’s tour of the ‘negative path’ to happiness makes for a deeply insightful and entertaining book.”
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In Part One of this file Oliver Burkeman and I discuss:
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Kelton Reid: And welcome back to The Writer Files. This is your host, Kelton Reid, here to take you on another tour of the habits, habitats, and brains of renowned writers. The Guardian writer, psychology journalist, and author of the acclaimed book, The Antidote: Happiness for People who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, Oliver Burkeman dropped by the program to talk to me about the writer’s journey, turning a weekly column into a book, and re-thinking positive thinking.
Oliver writes about psychology, self-help culture, productivity, and the science of happiness for his columns of both The Guardian and Psychologies Magazine, and he’s also interviewed a laundry list of celebrities, ranging from Al Gore to Jerry Seinfeld. In his critically acclaimed book, The Antidote, the author went undercover into the heart of the happiness-industrial-complex, to explore why our relentless pursuit of happiness and success often leaves us feeling the opposite. The author looked at academics, psychologists, Buddhists, business consultants, philosophers, and many others, in the unique search for an alternative path to happiness and success that involves embracing failure, pessimism, insecurity, and uncertainty: the very things we spend our lives trying to avoid.
The LA Times said of the book, “Burkeman’s tour of the negative path to happiness makes for a deeply insightful and entertaining book.” In part one of this file, Oliver and I discuss the author’s lifetime love of journalism, how his challenges with time management led to his latest book project, why constraints can improve your productivity, and time-tested advice for getting words onto the page.
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And we are rolling, once again, on The Writer Files today, with a special guest. Oliver Burkeman has agreed to join us. Journalist, Guardian writer, columnist extraordinaire, and author of a book I am quite enjoying right now, The Antidote: Happiness for People who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, probably one of the greatest titles for a self-help book, ever. Thank you for joining us.
Oliver Burkeman: It’s my pleasure. Thanks for asking.
Kelton Reid: So, as I noted earlier, you’re probably sick of talking about The Antidote. It has been out for several years now, but it does seem somewhat timely now, for some reason. When I found it, by another great article you wrote for The Guardian, my wife saw the title, it was sitting on the kitchen table. She was like, “Yes!” I was like, “I know. It’s perfect. It’s perfect for right now.”
So, anyway. I’d love to talk to you some about that, some about what you’re up to more recently. You write about social psychology, self-help culture, productivity, and the science of happiness, all these great things. Yeah, I’d just love to just kind of get into your process. So, maybe for listeners who aren’t familiar with you or your journey as a writer, you could get us up to speed a little bit on how you got here?
Oliver Burkeman: Sure. Yes, I always feel like my story, my personal story rather, is incredibly boring, because I have like …. I’ve been on like one-track mind with regard to this since I was about like, eight, or something. And my parents will embarrass me, if requested, by getting out copies of a little sort of photocopied newsletter I tried to make my, like grade school, whatever the right … it’s not elementary school … primary school in the UK … that people read. And I was sort of doing all that school newspaper stuff, and then student journalism in university, and then as soon as I could, I started hanging around the offices of newspapers doing casual copy editing shifts here and there until I, I don’t know, I guess it was something to get me a job then to get security to escort me from the building.
So anyway, I just like, I wanted to be able to say … First of all, I went out and got a ton of life experience, and then I decided it was time to write about it. But actually, I had apparently known from a very, very young age that writing, and sort of journalism specifically, because I still think of the book that I’m working on now as journalism. Some people take that as almost a derogatory term compared to, I don’t know, nonfiction writing or something. Anyway, I sort of wanted to do it all along.
Now in that time, I’ve done a lot of very cool things. I have done news reporting, I’ve been reporting from the UK, the US, written about politics, written about … interviewed a bunch of celebrities for movie pages or whatever. So, I have done a bunch of different things in that time. But, looked at from one level higher up, one vantage point higher up, it is just writing stuff since I was old enough to have any thoughts about what I wanted to do.
Kelton Reid: Wow, wow. So, that’s cool. So, your life experience has been your … kind of, the journey is the destination for writing. So there wasn’t like a lightning bolt. It was always kind of a part of your life, huh?
Oliver Burkeman: Yeah, I thinking one of the things that did sort of happen that was interesting from my perspective, I don’t know about anyone else, was that specifically, coming to write about psychology, psychotherapy, work, productivity, all this kind of area of stuff. That was very much a kind of … that was a sort of fairly sudden realization that I was already obsessed with all this stuff in my personal life and in my work life. And then, actually, it was really good stuff to write about.
So, I was sort of geeking out on productivity systems and sort of furtively reading self-help books long before I realized that actually it was a good, interesting, journalistic subject matter, as well. And I hope that the result, in the case of The Antidote, is somewhere between self-help book and a reported work of journalism. And I kind of like going back and forth over that one.
Kelton Reid: Yeah, yeah. Well, The Antidote, dubbed as an anti-self-help self-help book, has had some great critical acclaim. It’s described as, kind of that blurb, Success through failure, calm through embracing anxiety, a total original approach to self-help. And, I’m really glad I found it. The time management piece you wrote, Why Time Management is Ruining Our Lives, is actually how I found you. And that was a fantastic piece, also. So as you mentioned, you cover a lot of different bases there with your journalism.
But that was a great piece. You were talking about how time is kind of slipping out of our control, and the thousands of productivity apps that we’re faced with every day, and techniques designed to enhance our personal productivity seem to exacerbate those anxieties, which is something that you cover quite extensively as to the reasons behind that. So, that’s cool that the book, it seems, was kind of a culmination of a lot of the things that you write about in your column for The Guardian there, This Column Will Change Your Life.
And then, it’s also, as you noted, it’s got great storytelling, fantastic examples from great philosophers, psychologists, a lot of good writerly quotes in there, too, thank you very much. You’ve got like, Edith Wharton and Shakespeare, and you get into pieces on how the Beat Poets kind of all got into meditation, and so on and so forth. So, I am very much enjoying the book, The Antidote. So what are you working on now? There’s lots of places to find your work out there. I’ll link to the column and your website. What’ve you got in the hopper?
Oliver Burkeman: Well, I’m continuing to write the column for The Guardian. I’m working on a few long pieces for them. But I guess the biggest thing is I am working on another book, which kind of picks up on some of those themes in the time management piece, because it is about, more generally, time, and how to use time, and our experience of time. And basically trying to look at this question of time management, which tends to be treated in a very sort of superficial way, in my opinion, through a kind of philosophical lens, if that doesn’t sound too grandiose, based on the fact that human life is very short.
The average human lifespan is something like 4,000 weeks. So it’s a terrifying thing whenever I think about it. Really, time-management is the ultimate problem in philosophy, right? Because it s like, How do you make the most of this incredibly short period of time? So, you know, it’s kind of a large subject. But, I’m trying to look at that in this book through psychology, different ways in which we experience time, what affects our experience of time, what makes time feel like it’s speeding up as we get older And also, some of the particular challenges that everyone seems to be dealing with a lot these days, which are very much time-related challenges, like distraction and short attention spans, and all this stuff.
As ever, I think it’s a really important point to make in anything I’m writing where I’m telling people, giving people advice, this is all just the stuff that I’m agonizing about and grappling with. This is never because I’ve solved all the problems and my life is perfect and now I’m going to tell you how to have a perfect life. It’s always more kind of therapy, and sort of trying to work it through in the form of a book in the hopes that it maybe helps some other people along the way. So that’s the main thing. The main thing is the book.
Kelton Reid: Yeah. I mean, I’d love to just kind of pick your brain about productivity, and how you fit all the pieces together. You obviously have a weekly column. You do other things on the side, and then you’re working on this new book. How much time are you spending reading, doing research, before you get started?
Oliver Burkeman: Wow, I sort of … I so love talking about this topic. It’s almost troubling, because I think it is partly talking about your process is a great way to not get on with your writing process. But anyway, I think that and the other thing to say is that we have a three month old baby at the moment. So, everything I’ve learned about productivity and work processes has kind of been ripped up into small shreds and thrown up in the air, and it’s all kind of resettling a little bit at the moment.
I think that’s actually been really useful, from the point of view of my writing. I’m glad to have that kind of earthquake strike the process because you get of all sorts of ruts. And the other thing, of course, is that when you don’t have very much time, because you’re trying to be an active parent as well, turns out to be quite good, actually. If you only have three or four hours in a day to dedicate to your writing, you get a move on. If you have fifteen hours, you risk spending it all on Twitter. I still spend plenty of time on Twitter, but less than I did.
I’ve always been someone who very much mixes up the research, reporting, reading, planning, and writing. So it’s really hard for me to put figures on it and say, “Well, if I’m writing a book, first of all, I would spend this many months doing research, and then I’ll move to the writing phase.” There’s as little bit of that. Obviously, towards the end, it’s more writing, and towards the beginning, it’s more research. But, I’ve always sort of jumbled it up. Divided it up into chapters or chunks, and tried to research and write one of them, just to have something, and then you keep the other tracks going simultaneously.
I think that’s probably a very, sort of, someone trained in newspapers, like I was. I think that’s probably a very typical thing, as opposed to being, I don’t know, an academic who moved into this kind of writing. It’s all kind of jumbled. And I have quite thought-through ways of keeping the material organized, like, physically, and then Evernote, and Word, and everything, but when it comes actually to how I’m using the time, all those stages are pretty much jumbled up with each other.
And I think that’s, partly, I’m unable to do anything more organized, but it’s also because I think it’s also helpful. I think you sort of … One of the things I always get from planning and actually writing long pieces or chapters is then you suddenly see the piece that you’re missing, and the person you’ve got to go and talk to, or the bit of your argument that doesn’t make sense yet. So, you’ve got to go away and walk around the park with a pencil in your mouth for a couple of hours to try to figure out how to make it make sense. And you don’t find that if you don’t get going. If you’re just sort of vacuuming up information waiting for the day when you’re going to start writing.
Kelton Reid: Yeah, yeah. Well, it seems like there’s a teaching piece to kind of do what you do, too. It’s almost as if you are like you re in academics with the amount of research that you put into stuff. So, I’m sure that your brain kind of needs those restful periods where you’re doing productive procrastination and focusing on other … or just taking a walk to let your brain kind of incubate some of these bigger ideas, because there’s a lot of big ideas in your writing. So, I mean, it sounds like you sit down every day. Do you find that you’re more productive in the morning or the evening, or again, is it just kind of whenever the inspiration strikes?
Oliver Burkeman: No, in the level of the day, I am fairly rhythmic. As I say, thrown up in the air a bit recently. But basically, I am a morning writer, and I sort of try to re-fence really only maybe four hours, occasionally, and maybe five consecutive hours. Usually … it used to be like 7:30 am to half-past mid-day. Now, thanks to my son, it’s more like going to be nine am to one or one thirty or something. But that’s sort of before anything else.
On a good day, this does not always work, and anyone listening will probably be able to go on Twitter and find evidence of it not working, but on a good day, I would not check email or Twitter or anything else before those hours are done. I even … I’ve got a MacBook, and I had an old one that I thought was broken, and I replaced it. Then, I realized that I could get that one fixed for a small sum. So, now I’ve got a machine that I try to do the writing on for the book, and it is … it does have the Internet, but it basically has nothing. I deliberately removed the possibility of almost any form of distraction.
I can find the browser, because sometimes you need to go back and look at your research or whatever, but that’s a kind of trick that has worked well for me on the book. With more sort of day-to-day journalism I need to be more connected than that, so I don’t try to hide myself away so much in those hours. But, the only thing that has ever really worked for me is the time honored advice to do the most important thing first, and then, if the rest of the day sort of collapses into a mess, at least you’ve done the thing that you really needed to do.
Kelton Reid: Right. That’s a good one. Well, both the using a dedicated machine for the bigger writing piece, and then swallowing your frog kind of first thing of the day is … those are good time and tested tricks.
All right, so I really want to pick your brain about the writer’s block question. I’ve spoken with … and I know you kind of rub elbows with neuroscience and psychology, and I’ve actually had a neuroscientist on the show to talk to me about some of the causes of writer’s block, or even whether or not it’s a thing. So, do you have some thoughts on the subject?
Oliver Burkeman: Yeah, I don’t have much in the way of sort of a scientific explanation, as far as anything I’ve worked on recently in that sense, but I’ve sort of experienced my fair share of it. I really like … there’s a guy called Paul Sylvia who wrote a book called How to Write a Lot, which is aimed at academic psychologists, but it’s actually really useful information for anybody writing, I think.
He makes this great point that writer’s block is kind of an example of a certain kind of fallacy in explanation, because you’re using the description of what happens, which is that you’re not getting any writing done, as an explanation. It’s like, “Well, I’m not doing any writing. I must have writer’s block.” It’s just another way of saying “I’m not doing any writing. I must not be doing any writing.” It’s sort of a description of the behavior masquerading as an explanation for that behavior.
I don’t know that some distinct thing called writer’s block, in any meaningful sense, exists. I think that procrastination and inactivity and not doing the things you wanted to do definitely exist, and probably we sort of romanticize it a bit more with writing than we do with other things. And, the romanticization helps create the problem, because it becomes this very sort of … this idea that there’s this very grand issue that you’ve got. I’m not the first person to say, but you don’t get “washing machine repairman block” or “plumber block” or “barista block.” When you have to do the job, and we don’t glamorize it in the culture as an amazingly romantic job, you find a way to get on with it even when you might not feel like doing it.
Kelton Reid: Thanks so much for joining me for this half of a tour through the writer’s process. If you enjoy The Writer Files podcast, please subscribe to the show, and leave us a rating or a review on iTunes to help other writers find us. For more episodes, or to just leave a comment or a question, you can drop by WriterFiles.FM. And you can always chat with me on Twitter @KeltonReid. Cheers. Talk to you next week.