By Edward Lucas in THE TIMES, 3 February 2020
My 14 years as a foreign correspondent were stressful, physically and mentally. So I created routines to compensate. In Moscow, I always ate lunch at the same restaurant: the Scandinavia (now sadly closed) was central, clean, quiet and unpretentious. Not only that, I always ate the same dish. Spending the middle of the day in the calm, friendly Swedish-run oasis helped me to concentrate on the chaotic and menacing swamps elsewhere.
What the staff (and probably the spooks assigned to shadow me) regarded as quintessential English eccentricity now turns out to have science behind it. I have been reading the work of the American social psychologist Roy Baumeister, who has made his name with the study of willpower. Self-control, he argues, is what prevents us from responding to impulses that create self-defeating behaviour, such as drug-taking, over-eating, promiscuity and wasting time on trivia. His main insight is that willpower is like a muscle. Your brain gets tired: if you waste your mental energy on one thing, you will have less for another. He calls this “ego depletion”, a reference to Freud’s idea that the ego is what controls our passions. That analysis leads to immediate practical fixes. Do the most difficult things first. Do not, for example, start your working day by replying to emails regardless of importance.
Exercise does tire muscles — but done the right way, it also strengthens them. Simple self-control exercises might include delaying a cup of coffee or a rest, or forcing yourself to speak, at least sometimes, in complete grammatical sentences without swear words. Baumeister also suggests tricks such as using your left hand (if you are right-handed) for routine tasks such as teeth-cleaning or your computer mouse. Unaccustomed efforts jolt your brain into a new routine. This may sound tiresome and eccentric, but it works. The evidence also suggests that greater self-control makes you happier at home and more successful at work, thus hugely increasing your chance of a long, healthy and satisfying life.
Our Victorian forebears would have understood this at once. As a child, I found on a dusty bookshelf an ancient copy of Self-Help, by the much-neglected radical campaigner Samuel Smiles. He reckoned that thrift and personal responsibility were the foundation of individual goodness and social progress, arguing his case with lines such as “even the humblest person, who sets before his fellows an example of industry, sobriety, and upright honesty of purpose in life, has a present as well as a future influence upon the well-being of his country; for his life and character pass unconsciously into the lives of others, and propagate good example for all time to come.”
His book, first published in 1859, was a best-seller, but then went out of fashion. It seemed wrong to blame poverty on fecklessness when crushing social and economic unfairness was the root cause. Social reformers such as Robert Tressell, author of the inspirational socialist novel The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, regarded Smiles’s individualist gospel as callous and pernicious. The pendulum has swung back a bit since then, not least thanks to Gertrude Himmelfarb, an American historian of 19th-century thought who died late last year. She noted that Victorian virtues seemed to produce better results than modern values.
Leaving aside wider questions of social policy, the “power of self-help, of patient purpose, resolute working, and steadfast integrity”, as Smiles put it, certainly looks increasingly attractive on an individual level. In my youth, I survived on adrenalin, quick wits and an excellent memory. It was too much trouble to be calm, tidy or well organised because I would manage everything anyway. As I get older, I tire more easily and forget things more often. I protect my willpower by building routines, not just about lunch (though I have found a quiet, modestly priced eatery in London too). I keep a travel bag by the front door packed with clothes, toiletries, medicines, passport, pens, notebooks and mains adapters. When I go on a trip, I simply put my laptop inside and walk out of the house; when I arrive home, I spend a few minutes immediately restocking it. I almost never answer the phone at home: if it is important, the caller will leave a message. The mobile phone is set to “silent” and sits in another room. I answer texts first, emails only when I have time.
I actively shun unnecessary and exhausting decisions, such as anything involving choosing or buying clothes. My role model here is Barack Obama, a Baumeister fan. Despite mockery from Michelle, the former US president wore only grey or blue suits. He told Vanity Fair in 2012: “I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”
My world is far humbler. But saving my mental energies helps me achieve the day’s greatest pleasure: periods of intense, unbroken concentration. The Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced ME-high CHEEK-sent-me-high) has coined the term “flow” for the joy of complete absorption. It matters far more to happiness than material wealth. The newly popular “mindfulness” is a more limited version of the same thing. Trance-like concentration is easiest to achieve when doing something interesting. Some lucky people may find it easier than others. But even a little goes a long way — and practice makes perfect.