I really hate self-help books. Or, at least, I can’t read them and definitely would hate it if I were forced to. Most of them are repetitive and simplistic, almost to the point of being offensive. I vividly remember trying to make my way through Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up in a desperate bid to reign in my raging messiness.
Despite my best attempts, trudging through chapter after chapter of the same basic advice was more than I could bear. If I wasn’t reading it on a Kindle, KonMari’s half-read bestseller would undoubtedly end up tossed onto one of the piles of clutter randomly springing up in the most unlikely of places (and usually staying there for weeks before the next deep clean weeds them out).
Still, self-help has recently become one of the most popular literary genres, bested only by romance — and thank heavens, because I wouldn’t want to live in a world where efficiency and success are more important than love.* Overhearing a discussion in which somebody was admitting to reading self-help only (or, using their preferred term, self-improvement) and not having enough time for fiction, I couldn’t believe my ears. Then they went as far as to describe the feelings of guilt when they reached for a novel.
While I can’t imagine many concepts more alien than placing literature on the list of guilty pleasures, I have recently fallen prey to the ever present feeling that there simply isn’t enough time for everything that I have and want to do. I began to frame simple habits, like writing stories — a fairly non-controversial activity for a writer — as a waste of time. I still could always find a few minutes here and there for reading for pleasure, mostly right before bed, but spending time writing for pleasure and not for a specific assignment has become difficult. It simply didn’t feel productive enough.
With ever growing to-do lists, I hardly had time for anything at all. The constant sense of urgency (more like, emergency!) created by work, life admin and house chores was overpowering. Unknowingly, I became much like the guilt-ridden self-help reader: a slave to spending my time frugally, cautious to only fill it with the VITs (the Very Important Tasks).
And, with so many VITs, how could I do anything else at all? On top of that, I started to beat myself up for my poor time-management skills, shaming myself for the messy, ad-hoc personality often associated with ASD and ADHD. Why couldn’t I get more done? Why were there only twelve hours in a day?
Stumbling upon Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman was, at least in part, what saved me from an impending nervous breakdown. And, with self-help titles being far from my favourite genre, I reached for it only because of a friend’s fervent recommendation — in fact, she had to describe it as “more of a philosophy book” for me to overcome my aversion. Or, is snobbery a more accurate word? (Here you laugh politely at my self-deprecating joke, but we both know there’s a grain of truth to it.)
Burkeman, a self-confessed former productivity geek, spent years optimising his habits so that he could get more done. He envisaged himself... read more now→