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Mar 14, 2017

How the Author of ‘The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking’ Oliver Burkeman Writes: Part Two

In the second half of this file, 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.”

If you’re a fan of The Writer Files, please click subscribe to automatically see new interviews.

If you missed the first half you can find it right here.

In Part Two of this file Oliver Burkeman and I discuss:

  • Modest goal setting and how to be productive when you’re depressed
  • The fallacies of overcoming ‘resistance’
  • How to interview Jerry Seinfeld
  • Why you need to just do a little writing every day

Listen to The Writer Files: Writing, Productivity, Creativity, and Neuroscience below ...

The Show Notes

The Transcript

How the Author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can t Stand Positive Thinking Oliver Burkeman Writes: Part Two

Voiceover: Rainmaker FM.

Kelton Reid: Welcome back to The Writer Files. I am your host Kelton Reid, here to take you on yet another tour of the habits, habitats, and brains of renowned writers. In the second half of this file, 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.

Oliver writes about social psychology, self-help culture, productivity, and the science of happiness for his columns in both The Guardian and Psychologies Magazine. He’s also interviewed celebrities ranging from Al Gore to Jerry Seinfeld. In his critically acclaimed book, The Antidote, the author went undercover to 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 search for an alternate 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 two of this file, Oliver and I discuss modest goal setting and how to be productive when you’re depressed, the fallacies of overcoming resistance, how to interview Jerry Seinfeld, and why you need to do just a little writing every day.

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Modest Goal Setting and How to Be Productive When You re Depressed

Oliver Burkeman: And it’s partly also due to the economic structure of writing, right? I mean if you’re writing, you re likely writing either to be not doing it as your day job or to be doing it in the kind of fluid way where maybe not doing too much today doesn’t necessarily mean no groceries for the week, but it might do in the long run. So it’s a much more sort of murky area than other activities. But I suspect that right at the bottom it is nothing more than the same reluctance and procrastination that strikes anybody. I mean, I can talk if you want about the only sort of remedies I’ve ever found that work.

Kelton Reid: Oh, yeah.

Oliver Burkeman: If that’s helpful.

Kelton Reid: By all means.

Oliver Burkeman: I think the most helpful thing is this idea that I found in a book that I was sent, I think, about how to be productive when you’re depressed. And I actually don’t have very much experience with serious depression, thank goodness, but I sort of read it anyway because I was like, “Maybe there is something I can use here.”

And this kind of really amazing insight, which I then included in my book, is just that you don’t have to feel like doing something in order to do it. And a lot of our sort of motivational culture, self-help, all the rest of it, it all reinforces this idea of, “We’re going to give you the way to psych yourself up, and get your mind in the right place to take action.” And that’s kind of, you know, well-intentioned, but it actually puts an extra hurdle in the path, right? Because now you not only need to do the thing, you need to feel like doing the thing.

And whereas doing the thing is a fairly simple matter of, like, using your arms, and opening your laptop, and pressing keys, feeling like doing a thing involves the very mysterious world of human emotions and the subconscious and it is not at all clear how to get yourself into that mood. So the more that you can actually let go of that need and say to yourself, “Look, I don’t feel like doing this. That’s fine. Those feelings are fine. I’m not going to try to get rid of them. They’re there. Oh, and at the same time, I’m going to open my laptop, open the file, and type some words. You can sort of it’s sort of feel the fear and do it anyway, but not just fear. Just being bored with the work or feeling like you’d rather be doing something else.

You just don’t have to get rid of those feelings. You can just sort of say, “Oh, hello, annoying inner emotions, there you are again,” and also take the physical actions that help get the writing done. And then one other part of it that has been really, really useful to me, again, I know other people have done it for decades, if not centuries, is setting sort of process goals for each day’s work that do not refer to quality. That are things like, “I’m going to work for three hours,” or, “I’m going to get 1,000 words written. Not, I m going to really nail this chapter,” or, “I’m going to write something amazing that is really funny and brilliant.”

The moment that you put quality demands in there, if you’re me anyway, you kind of seize up and the resulting quality is lower. You use this really sort of mechanistic goal of like, any words on the page that meet that word count will count as victory today. Then you actually relax and the chances are, in aggregate, over enough days and weeks and months, the quality will actually be higher.

Kelton Reid: That’s right.

Oliver Burkeman: As a consequence.

Kelton Reid: Oh yeah, that’s fantastic. I like that so much. I actually would encourage you to turn that into a piece in your column or thereabouts.

Oliver Burkeman: Okay.

The Fallacies of Overcoming Resistance

Kelton Reid: Yeah, it’s so good (laughs). Just for all writers out there, that could be very useful. But we have you recorded now, so it exists if you want to refer to your outline there. No, really, really good stuff. And a lot of what you talk about just, kind of, butt-in-chair, and not putting that pressure on yourself is so important.

Oliver Burkeman: And I think, you know Sorry.

Kelton Reid: Yeah?

Oliver Burkeman: Can I butt in? I just want to say I think there’s a very subtle difference. Some people talk about butt-in-chair and they mean, “Yeah, just sit down. And it doesn’t matter if you don’t feel like it. That’s fine. You know, give yourself those feelings and just work.” And other people have this kind of like, “Okay, butt-in-chair, and I’m going to make myself do this.” And they sort of set up this internal battle with themselves and I have huge respect for the books on creative work that Steven Pressfield has written and I don’t particularly want to pick a fight with him.

But, I do think sometimes talking about this stuff as a war and trying to overcome “resistance” and battle the demons just kind of turns it all into an exhausting fight that maybe you don’t want to have to do every morning at 9 am. And I think that being a little gentle with yourself is often a useful tool.

Kelton Reid: I love that. And, you know, writing is re-writing so there is always those multiple passes that makes something better, anyway. So you’ve got to start somewhere, right? Chiseling away the raw elements to get to the good stuff. Very nice. Well, we can touch a little bit on a couple workflow things. It sounds like you’re using Evernote and Microsoft Word primarily?

Oliver Burkeman: Yeah, and like TextEdit. I sort of have, like, the most basic text editor for my first pass at things. I want no ability to format or choose fonts or anything like that. But, yeah, then it goes to Word. And Evernote, I’m sort of constantly frustrated by Evernote. But you know, in the manner of a beloved relative who you sort of ultimately do really love, but spend a lot of time getting aggravated by. And then I just do a lot on paper. I’m environmentally problematic, indeed. I print things out and want to see them in that format. I usually plan chapters and columns by scribbling diagrams on pieces of paper. So a lot of it is off the computer.

Kelton Reid: Sure.

Oliver Burkeman: Yeah, yeah.

Kelton Reid: Well, a part of what you do is the interview piece. I know that in The Antidote you traveled and obviously kind of immersed yourself in some of those practices. But were you then taking notes by hand? Did you have the MacBook with you the whole time? How were you synthesizing and then organizing everything to get it back onto the page?

Oliver Burkeman: Well, back when I was writing the book, I was sort of was in flux with how I was recording interviews. Now I can’t just take lots of British journalists start off learning shorthand, which is amazing, and you can just literally record a whole interview in a notebook, word for word, but I’m not one of those. So I was recording them on a variety of devices that kept breaking. Now, I have a very good iPhone app called DropVox. V-O-X, that automatically sends the recorded files to Dropbox, which is a real discovery, that little app, for me.

Kelton Reid: Neat.

Oliver Burkeman: Then a website called I don’t know, I’m just trying to think I think it’s called Transcribe. Right? Yeah, Transcribe. At Wreally.com, spelled W-R-E-A-L-L-Y dot com. Anyway, this is a web-based interface for doing your own transcription. You know, you sort of load up the file and it s got easy controls to stop and start it. I know there are also sites now that do the transcriptions for you at a competitive price. So far I’ve avoided that, because I kind of find that transcribing my own interviews is a really crucial part of digesting what’s been said. So I tend to do it myself. But it is not a pleasant part.

The process partly because it’s just a lot of labor, and partly because I have to listen to my own terrible, disastrous questions that go on forever and don’t end properly and just sort of tail off. I’ve never really thought I am a very good interviewer. I think I’m okay at writing up the results of interviews. But, I don t know, maybe that helps in a way, because it means it’s more like a conversation. Maybe I put people at their ease by being no good (laughs). I don’t know. But I don’t sort of I’ve never really been able to plan interviews out very much. They seem to have gone the best when I just sort of go into the conversation.

How to Interview Jerry Seinfeld

Kelton Reid: Yeah, that’s cool. And you’ve interviewed quite a few celebrities in your career. I’m thinking back to one in particular. You interviewed Jerry Seinfeld. Yeah, that’s a really cool process, because it’s not like these chunks of interview that are just transcribed. You’re telling a story in between the reportage and the interview.

Oliver Burkeman: He is such, like I mean, he is sort of the ideal perfect professional to go interview, because people who have not had experience of being interviewed are not always very good. But, people who have sort of gone onto autopilot, which often happens at kind of movie junkets and things, they’re terrible too, because they tell you the same three anecdotes and then you find that when you’re writing it up that they told every publication like, last week, the same thing. And Jerry Seinfeld was neither of these things.

He s like, obviously, he s a total professional. But he really … it really felt like he was thinking about the questions I was asking him and giving me the responses that were relevant to him that day now. And also just being funny. Which I kind of don’t automatically expect in a comedian, because I assume they spend months working on their material or something. But he was just sort of naturally funny.

But you probably know from being involved in productivity-type things about his productivity method, which I spoke to him about, I didn’t include it in the piece, actually, because it didn’t seem relevant at the time to most readers. But this thing about having a wall chart or something and trying to place an X in the box for every day …

Kelton Reid: Every day…

Oliver Burkeman: he did some writing. And then you’d have this kind of motivation to not break the chain. And he was funny about this because he had told some interviewer about it years ago and it had turned into this thing online called The Seinfeld Productivity Technique. And he was completely baffled that this throwaway remark had taken on a life of its own, because it seemed so obvious to him. But he made a very good point that writing, and writing comedy in his case, but anything like this is fundamentally like an athletic process. It’s one you have to train and do a little bit each day. It’s much more helpful to think of it as athletics than to think of it as art, in my opinion.

Staying Social Versus Becoming a Hermit

Kelton Reid: Oh, for sure, for sure. That’s so funny. Well, how does Oliver Burkeman unwind at the end of a long writing day?

Oliver Burkeman: I’m trying to remember back to when it wasn’t all changing diapers and rocking babies to sleep. I mean that actually is great even when it’s tiring and a bit stressful because it is so completely distracting that there’s no part of your brain that is fretting over other things. So, I almost feel like anything that fully occupies your attention is worthwhile, in that respect.

What do I do? I get a lot of restoration out of just socializing with good friends. And I’ve discovered over the years that something that some writers do when they’re in crunch mode, which is to become hermits and politely tell their friends that they won’t be seeing them for the next three or four months. I’ve learned that it doesn’t work for me and that I will be better the next day if I go out for a beer with a friend. If I stay and have four beers, then it’s a different story.

But, staying socially connected is actually really important to me. And I love hiking in the country. I belong to a community chorus here in Brooklyn, which is kind of like a slightly weird hobby to have, but that is amazingly good fun. It’s kind of weird how great singing in a group makes you feel. I recommend that to anybody, even if, like me, I’m not much of a singer, but you can’t tell in a big group.

Kelton Reid: Well, I think it’d be good to hear that one, as well. Is it all writers?

Oliver Burkeman: It isn’t, although you know, parts of Brooklyn there are a few in that mix.

Kelton Reid: Well, I know we’re kind of bumping up against a half-hour mark. Do you have time to talk about creativity?

Oliver Burkeman: Yeah, a few more minutes, absolutely.

Kelton Reid: Okay, cool. We can just skip through a few here. Do you have a definition handy of creativity? I know that a lot of what you do and a lot of people you speak with are kind of in the creative fields.

Oliver Burkeman: Wow, that is really interesting. I’m not sure I do have a definition of creativity. I definitely think that any definition I would want to use would really have to apply to almost any field. I don’t think it’s true that you can only be creative as a writer or a painter or a musician. I definitely feel like something about creativity is just the combining of two existing ideas to find a new idea, basically. And that is as likely to happen in an accountant’s practice as it is in a writer’s study or painter’s studio. So I think it’s something to do with combination, is really very central, I’m sort of just parroting Steven Johnson, who s written really great stuff on this, his book, Where Good Ideas Come From, is well worth anybody’s time.

And then I guess the other thing is that sort of combination and innovation in the context of constraint. It is … I ve always, myself, thrived on only having 600 words to write my weekly column, and deadlines, time constraints where you just have to get on with it. So I think that sort of combining things for new effects within constraints, there would be some sort of makeshift definition in there.

Why You Need to Just Do a Little Writing Every Day

Kelton Reid: Okay. Love it. Yeah, so before we sign off here and remind listeners about your great book, do you have any advice to your fellow scribes, just on how to keep going, how to keep the ink flowing and the cursor moving?

Oliver Burkeman: You know I think the thing I said about telling yourself that you have to feel like doing it everyday is important. I think that keeping your goals really low on a daily basis is really important. I think the most important thing that I keep having to relearn, even though it’s such an old saying or whatever, is just that a very small amount of writing that you actually do almost every single day is worth so much more than a huge, impressive day that you only actually manage to get around to once every few weeks.

And there’s a quote by Adam Smith, that I have on my desk, I’m not at my desk right now, but it says something like, “The man who works so moderately as to be able to work all year round, not only preserves his health the longest, but at the time will produce the greatest quantity of work.” So it’s that whole idea of, just do a little bit, but really do a little bit every single day, or six days a week, or whatever it might be. I think that’s probably the most powerful piece of writing advice.

Kelton Reid: Love it. Well, the book is, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking,” explores the upsides of negativity, uncertainty, failure, imperfection. So many good things in there. I’m a big fan of the stoicism angle and kind of you talk about the negative path to happiness, the Nirvana of failure, wabi-sabi as it were. All amazing stuff. So thank you for the book. Where can fellow scribes connect with you out there, or online?

Oliver Burkeman: Well, my website is OliverBurkeman.com. It’s, like so many writers websites in the states, it s imminently launched, always. I’m most active on Twitter, @OliverBurkeman, B-U-R-K-E-M-A-N. And yeah, the book is where you d expect to find the book, and there’s an audiobook where you expect to find that.

Kelton Reid: Did you do the audio yourself?

Oliver Burkeman: Yes, I did. Yes. That was fun. The audiobook is me reading my book.

Kelton Reid: Well, I will try to find that one, as well, so I can listen to it in the car. Fantastic stuff. Thank you again for coming onto the show and wrapping with us about the writing life.

Oliver Burkeman: It’s been a pleasure. Thank you for inviting me.

Kelton Reid: Cheers. 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.