Interview: Oliver Burkeman

Having consumed a whole library of self-help manuals, he has a good idea of how we can become less miserable

By Simon Round, January 20, 2011

Oliver Burkeman carries an egg timer wherever he goes. This is not so that he can boil the perfect four-minute egg at a moment's notice, but rather as a tool in his constant battle against procrastination.

The theory surrounding his use of the egg timer, along with many others, is contained within his new self help book - or to be more accurate, his new book on the best advice contained in other self-help and popular psychology books. These volumes are known for the extravagance of their claims, whether it is how to de-stress your life, make you a millionaire or date a supermodel. However it is a safe bet that Burkeman will not face action under the Trades Descriptions Act. His book Help! is modestly subtitled How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done.

Burkeman, a journalist, claims no psychological qualifications and offers no single formula to happiness. Rather, the book is an attempt to distill the best advice from the self-help genre and offer helpful tips delivered with a healthy dose of scepticism.

He has a geeky appetite for self-improvement books. "I think there is a fairly universal urge for what they promise, even if at the same time you are thinking that you are far too smart to fall for that."

Burkeman has, to his slight embarrassment, an entire library of these books at his home. But he maintains that the self-help world is not complete nonsense. "Of course there is some mind-blowing ridiculousness on my bookshelves but there is also some really good advice among the cheesy covers and annoying titles."

There is a universal urge for what these books offer

Now largely based in the United States, he describes his childhood self as the kind who would spend days distracting himself from revision by making revision timetables rather than by actually revising. "But there was this very strong side of me that wanted to get more stuff done. So I began to look for ways to achieve this."

Hence the egg timer. He says: "Part of the benefit of egg timers is in creating artificial constraints. We are all naturally a bit irrational and often the really clever thing to do is to manage that irrationality rather than try to eradicate it. The way I force myself to do writing tasks that I don't want to do is to give myself tiny timed bursts. The resistance seems so often to be against the feeling of starting rather than the feeling of working. If you can reduce what you are asking yourself to do to the tiniest goal, then you are more likely to have success."

This, he maintains, contradicts the prevailing ideology of self-help which says that big ambitious goals are what you need. Far better in his view to set the challenge of making one phone call, "just so that you can do it without those walls of reactivity stopping you."

To Burkeman's slight consternation though, he has discovered that some of the cheesiest concepts in the self-help world actually work. "The most powerful of these is the 'gratitude journal'. People wince when I mention this. But if you want is peer review studies, there are plenty of those, and if you want personal experience - mine anyway - it really does work."

The point of these journals is to record your gratitude for something you have and may otherwise take for granted. The theory is that you get something you think will make you happy and for a brief period it does; then it loses its shine and you revert to your earlier, less happy state. It turns out that if you record your gratitude, you stay happy for longer. Burkeman concedes that gratitude journals "are at the extreme end of the cheesiness continuum but the studies are hard to refute." And he does keep one himself, not on a rigorous daily basis, but every now and then so as to force his mind to reflect on what is good in his life.

In the main, he rejects the grand all-encompassing answers to life's problems - the more radical the solution the more counter-productive the likely effect, he believes. "If a book promises '30 days to a stress-free life', it will probably have the opposite effect."

So how do you make yourself happier? Well, beyond the gratitude journal, there are a few tricks that you can employ. For example, you might want to make yourself better liked. The way to do this is not, as you might imagine, by doing good turns for people but rather by getting them to do a favour for you. Burkeman says: "It might sound counter-intuitive but people are desperate to avoid what is known as cognitive dissonance. In other words it grates to be doing favours for people you are not fond of - so when we do favours for people we become more inclined to like them."

And how about finding Mr or Miss Right? The evidence here seems to suggest that compatibility is an artificial construct we put on relationships. The key is to conjugal happiness is to find someone and just stick with them. "Long-term studies of couples determined that incompatibility only seemed to arise as a problem when the relationship was in trouble. All you seem to need to make a relationship work is the basic chemistry of attraction plus the willingness to create that compatibility - ie two people who want to make their relationship work."

You also may consider going to synagogue more often. "It is basically true that religious people are generally happier than non-religious people. The two major things religion offers are community and the idea of transcendence - being part of something bigger than yourself. Both are things that we seem to need."

So is Burkeman (who is not religious) happier as a result of his project? He laughs: "Well yes, but then I would have to say that, wouldn't I? A better way of putting it is that it has given me the tools to rapidly and effectively deal with a number of different situations. It's not that I don't get angry with people who push past me on the Tube but I'm much less likely to let it fester."

Help! is published by Canongate at £12.99

Last updated: 2:46pm, January 20 2011