Six Books We Could and Should All Write

Six books anybody could write. You wouldn?t need any talent to produce these. All you?d have to do is stick with it.

1. Samuel Pepys [A book about oneself]

Dude doesn’t have an idea in his skull. He never philosophizes. His whole trick is he just gets everything down, ideally within hours of its happening, and he doesn’t do anything to doctor the picture to improve his self-image. That’s key.

2. John Aubrey [A book about others]

Treat every single person like they might be of interest one day to scholars. Record every drop of gossip you hear about people. You don’t have to think anything; you barely have to comment at all. Just the facts, ma’am. Keep it brief and lean, and it’ll be great stuff. Leave yourself out.

3. Palgrave’s Golden Treasury [A book of favourites]

Poems one returns to over and over, like one returns to favorite songs. In selecting the contents, there has to be absolutely no concession to fairness. If three quarters of the book is one poet, so be it. If one of the poems is seventy pages long and none of the others are anything like that, so be it. If it’s all men or all women or all gay or all straight—so be it. There has to be one operating principle behind the book: the poems you go back to. Nothing more, nothing less.

4. Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas [A book of words]

And it’s a dictionary all right, but instead of definitions, it tells you what to say about any given topic, if you want to come off like a conventional French twit of the 1880s. So look up “moon,” and it says, “Induces melancholy. May be inhabited.”

5. The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon [A book of lists]

The Pillow Book is not all lists, but it’s the lists that always make the biggest impression. “Things that give you a funny feeling in your stomach.” “Things that make you feel dirty.” “Subtle things that your lovers do when they’re taking their leave and it’s just so offensive.”

6. Li Zhi’s A Book to Burn [A book you dare not publish]

The story is that Li Zhi, the late Ming philosopher and gadfly, wrote this book thinking to enclose therein all his completely unacceptable views. … My philosophy professor at Penn State told us that Sade’s idea was to write a book one glance into which would entail eternal damnation for the reader. Open to any page, you’re going to hell. See, to me, that’s the spirit.

When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing – Daniel H Pink

A very fast read in the Gladwell style. Interesting, potentially actionable advice on how to make the most of time. The last chapter is particularly worth reading.

CAUTION: Probably extrapolates unjustifiably from scientific papers to general principles.

Chronotype

My chronotype is probably the reasonably early ‘Third Bird’ – not a Lark and not an Owl (these are relatively rare). I seem to peak around 1030-1300, have a dip in the afternoon and (sometimes) bounce back in the evenings.

Analytic tasks I should do in the early to midmorning when my brain is at its most vigilant. This is also a good time for making important decisions.

Insight tasks I should do in the late afternoon or early evening when my brain is less vigilant and therefore allows more disparate connections to come through.

When trying to make a positive impression one should always schedule for the morning.

Breaks

Take loads of complete and active breaks from work, ideally outside in nature, ideally with friends.

Don’t sit for too long at a time. Perhaps split 50 minute work bursts with 15 minute breaks. Short naps of less than 25 minutes are good. Longer naps are troublesome.

Follow your chronotype, so for me: work hard in the morning, take a complete break in the afternoon, and resume for a lighter, more creative session in the evening.

Beginnings

Avoid a false start with a premortem: “Assume it’s 18 months from now and our project is a complete disaster. What went wrong?” Make your mistakes in advance in your head rather than in real life on a real project.

Use the calendar to make a fresh start. Everyone uses New Year’s Day and their birthday, but exploit others like the first day of Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter, the first day of the month, the first day of the week, family birthdays and so forth.

Sustain your morale with small wins (Karl Weick’s research). Wins needn’t be large to be meaningful. Succeed 24 hours at a time. Set up ‘high probability’ targets and celebrate their completion.

Midpoints

5 ways to reawaken your motivation during a midpoint slump:

  1. Set interim goals. Instead of imagining your distance from the finish line, concentrate on getting to the next mile marker.
  2. Publicly commit to these interim goals.
  3. Stop your sentence midway through – the Hemingway technique.
  4. Don’t break the chain – the Seinfeld technique.
  5. Picture one person your work will help and dedicate your day’s work to them.

When teams first get together, they often spend a lot of time getting to know each other. Progress only really kicks on at the midpoint when they realise how much time they’ve used up! So don’t panic. The first half is valuable bonding time. Teams generally become less open to new ideas as time goes on, but become more open to coaching and outside guidance.

Five ways to combat a midlife slump:

  1. Prioritise your top goals – the Buffett technique. List your 25 top goals. Then circle the 5 toppermost. Focus on them and them alone. Ignore the others completely until your first five are achieved.
  2. Develop midcareer mentors to continue guiding and supporting you.
  3. Mentally subtract positive events – the It’s A Wonderful Life technique. Begin by thinking about something positive in your life. Then list all the circumstances that made it possible. Write down all the events, circumstances and decisions that might never have happened. Imagine your life without that chain of events and without that huge positive in your life. Now return to the present and remind yourself that life did go that way. Consider the happy, beautiful randomness that brought that person or opportunity into your life. Be grateful. Minkyung Koo et al (2008)
  4. Write yourself a few paragraphs of self-compassion from the perspective of an unconditionally loving imaginary friend.
  5. Wait. Slumps are normal, but they’re also short-lived. Think of it as a cold: a nuisance, but eventually it’ll go away and when it does you’ll barely remember it.

Endings

When to quit your job: three questions. If you answer ‘no’ to two or more, think about crafting an end.

  1. Do you want to be in this job on your next work anniversary?
  2. Is your current job both demanding and in your control?
  3. Does your boss allow you to do your best work?
  4. Are you outside the 3-5 year salary bump window? Moving jobs when you’ve been at a company for 3-5 years is more likely to result in a wage increase at your next.
  5. Does your daily work align with your long-term personal goals?

Making progress is the single largest day-to-day motivator on the job. So take a moment to record your progress today. While you’re at it, write down a plan for tomorrow. And send someone a thank-you note.

Use endings to create a sense of meaning. When a project comes to an end, bring things full circle. Offer toasts to each other; write a letter to your future self and post it in 6 months’ time; make pancakes. Create an elevating final moment to remember with poignancy.

Syncing with others

  1. Sing in a choir.
  2. Run together.
  3. Join a rowing crew.
  4. Dance.
  5. Join a yoga class.
  6. Flash mob.
  7. Cook in tandem.

For groups: make sure there is a clear boss or external standard; foster a sense of belonging that enriches individual identity and deepens affiliation with the tribe; activate the uplift, feel good and do good.

“Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.”

Thinking fondly of the past is good for us. Nostalgia gives us a sense of meaning and a connection to others. It literally makes us feel warmer and more tolerant of the cold.

Thinking of the future – and feeling connected to our future selves – is also good for us. It increases the likelihood of us treating that future self well by quitting smoking or saving for a pension. Think of the future in terms of days not decades – bring that future self closer.

Thinking of the present is also good. Send your future self a time capsule of the present moment – the last three songs you listened to, an inside joke, the last social event you attended, a recent photo, etc.. People underestimate the value of rediscovering current experiences in the future – it’ll be far more meaningful than you expect.

And of course: experience awe. Awe brings people into the present moment. Time slows down, expands and it feels like we have more of it. That sensation lifts our well-being.

Taken together, all of these studies suggest that the path to a life of meaning and significance isn’t to ‘live in the present’ as so many spiritual gurus have advised. It is to integrate our perspectives on time into a coherent whole, one that helps us comprehend who we are and why we’re here.

Interview with Daniel Pink on NPR.

This is Going to Hurt – Adam Kay

Brilliant book that is essential reading for anyone disillusioned or dismissive of the NHS and the work that hospital doctors do.

Not only is it a masterclass in funny, but it’s also a reminder that writing can sometimes matter deeply, if not Make A Difference. It is a highly empathic book that follows Adam’s 10 year career as a Junior Doctor, ending as his career did: suddenly and tramatically. He now makes a living as a comedian and script writer.

Recommended to me by Beth as one of the two best books she read in 2017. Incidentally, it was represented by Cathryn Summerhayes at Curtis Brown.

[Memory] Why We Forget Most of the Books We Read – Julie Beck

In the internet age, recall memory—the ability to spontaneously call information up in your mind—has become less necessary… what’s called recognition memory is more important. “So long as you know where that information is at and how to access it, then you don’t really need to recall it,” [Horvath] says.

Continue reading [Memory] Why We Forget Most of the Books We Read – Julie Beck