Five Minutes with Oliver Burkeman

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Oliver Burkeman writes for the Guardian and is best known for his column which claims that it will not change your life. He won the Foreign Press Association’s Young Journalist of the Year award, and has been shortlisted for the Orwell Prize. Oliver recently published a book Help!: How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done.  He doesn’t claim that he will find who moved your cheese or how to get out of the box during brainstorm. He is on his quest to make us just slightly happier with the help of a simple kitchen timer. Obviously, we were curious to know more.

CBF: You’ve obviously read a mountain of self-help books in your research for this book – can you recommend one or two you consider worth the paper they’re written on and maybe (if it’s not too unprofessional) a couple you’d advise everyone to avoid.

Oliver Burkeman: Buy my book! Oh, wait, you mean books by other people. OK. I often mention Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway, by Susan Jeffers, as an example of a book that you might dismiss as cheesy nonsense but is in fact full of rigorous good sense. Sonja Lyubomirsky’s The How of Happiness is a great science-based work on the topic. As for terrible books… I recommend everyone read Tony Robbins’s books, such as Awaken The Giant Within, then do the exact opposite of what he recommends.

CBF: What proportion of such books do you think actually have an impact?

Oliver Burkeman: Very few, but I don’t actually think that’s entirely the fault of appalling self-help gurus. It is partly, but it’s also a question of how readers approach such books, expecting comprehensive one-size-fits-all systems: it’s like we expect every self-help book to be the only self-help book. If you approach such books more sceptically, but not cynically — analysing each piece of advice to see if it resonates with you or not — then even some of the more absurd and easily mockable books turn out to contain a few gems of advice. That’s part of what I tried to do in Help! — to sift out the gems.

CBF: Your title is fantastic – it really does seem to make people smile. Was it something you had to work on or did it come to you immediately?

Oliver Burkeman: Oddly, it was the “Help!” part that took a lot of time — it was the idea of a friend of mine, I should clarify, not mine — but the subtitle, How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done, didn’t take long at all. I’ve long wanted to write a book with that kind of title, deliberately subverting the absurdly grand and unrealistic promises of the self-help genre.

CBF: For the benefit of those who’ve not yet worked out how to get a bit more done, would you be willing to share the secret of the kitchen timer with our readers?

Oliver BurkemanOliver Burkeman: The kitchen timer (I carry one everywhere I go!) is a great way to turn confusing, intimidating, unmanageable or boring tasks into doable ones. If you’re facing a daunting work project, resolve to work on it for five, or even two, minutes, and set the timer. Then take a 15-minute timed break and do what you like — then gradually shift the balance so the work periods get longer. Or try the “Pomodoro Technique” — 25 minutes work, 5 minutes break, four times in a row, then a long break. Or try to tidy up your whole house in 20 minutes: race against the clock. It’s just a question of turning work into a game, I suppose. A bit childish, but if it works, why complain?

CBF: What do you consider to be the thing that most people want to change about their lives and do you think they can?

Oliver Burkeman: Diet, fitness, and procrastination seem to be the main ones. It’s definitely possible to change in these and almost any other respects. But I think the key is not to approach the matter by declaring war on yourself, as people so often do. I’m a big fan of the observation by the psychologist Carl Rogers: “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” Changes is easier when you know you’d still be OK if you didn’t change.

Help!: How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done By Oliver Burkeman, book reviewCBF: I finished your book feeling very inspired and then promptly forgot most of the things I intended to do to act on your advice. What tips do you have for readers to help them get the most out of the book?

Oliver Burkeman: First: don’t sweat it! If my book (or any book) is any good, it ought to alter your perspective on life in a way that’s useful, whether or not you also implement a large number of the tips or not. Beyond that, I’d recommend picking one thing to focus on first, preferably one that’ll make the biggest difference. For example, you could figure out what kind of to-do list or personal organisation system works for you; then you can enter any other tips you want to implement into that system.

CBF: Have you ever read a book that claimed “This book will change your life” which actually delivered on the promise?

Oliver Burkeman: It depends on your definition of “change”! We’ve become seduced, I think, by this notion that change only counts if it’s sweeping and instantaneous. No one book has completely changed my view of the world, but many books have triggered subtle shifts, or provided small “lifehacks” that have helped close the gap between my life as it is and what I’d like it to be.

CBF: It seems to me that setting unachievable targets is a sure-fire route to failure. Do you consider that mediocrity is an acceptable – or even desirable – point for which to aim?

Oliver Burkeman: I agree about unachievable targets, and in the book I do recommend trying to have a “deliberately mediocre day” as a way of combatting perfectionism. But more generally I think mediocrity is a much less useful term than “non-intimidating”. The crucial thing, I think, is to pick goals so small that you won’t resist doing them — even if what they add up to is something fantastically grand. There’s nothing mediocre about small changes that actually get done, when compared to grand, thrilling changes that remain on the level of fantasy.

Thanks to Oliver Burkeman and koshkha for making this interview for Curious Book Fans.
You can find Oliver on Twitter @oliverburkeman and on his blog.
Help! has been published by Canongate Books, Jan 2011.
You can read the full review of Help! here…


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

2 Comments on "Five Minutes with Oliver Burkeman"

  1. koshkha
    05/10/2011 at 21:56 Permalink

    Hi Oliver
    Thanks for coming back with that great tip and illustration of the kitchen timer technique. I bought one after reading your book – but mostly I use it for cooking. Then when the alarm goes off it stops me losing track of time messing around on the internet.


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