There will always be too much to do – and this realisation is liberating. Today more than ever, there’s just no reason to assume any fit between the demands on your time – all the things you would like to do, or feel you ought to do – and the amount of time available. Thanks to capitalism, technology and human ambition, these demands keep increasing, while your capacities remain largely fixed. It follows that the attempt to “get on top of everything” is doomed. (Indeed, it’s worse than that – the more tasks you get done, the more you’ll generate.)
The upside is that you needn’t berate yourself for failing to do it all, since doing it all is structurally impossible. The only viable solution is to make a shift: from a life spent trying not to neglect anything, to one spent proactively and consciously choosing what to neglect, in favour of what matters most.
When stumped by a life choice, choose “enlargement” over happiness. I’m indebted to the Jungian therapist James Hollis for the insight that major personal decisions should be made not by asking, “Will this make me happy?”, but “Will this choice enlarge me or diminish me?” We’re terrible at predicting what will make us happy: the question swiftly gets bogged down in our narrow preferences for security and control. But the enlargement question elicits a deeper, intuitive response. You tend to just know whether, say, leaving or remaining in a relationship or a job, though it might bring short-term comfort, would mean cheating yourself of growth. (Relatedly, don’t worry about burning bridges: irreversible decisions tend to be more satisfying, because now there’s only one direction to travel – forward into whatever choice you made.)
The capacity to tolerate minor discomfort is a superpower. It’s shocking to realise how readily we set aside even our greatest ambitions in life, merely to avoid easily tolerable levels of unpleasantness. You already know it won’t kill you to endure the mild agitation of getting back to work on an important creative project; initiating a difficult conversation with a colleague; asking someone out; or checking your bank balance – but you can waste years in avoidance nonetheless. (This is how social media platforms flourish: by providing an instantly available, compelling place to go at the first hint of unease.)
It’s possible, instead, to make a game of gradually increasing your capacity for discomfort, like weight training at the gym. When you expect that an action will be accompanied by feelings of irritability, anxiety or boredom, it’s usually possible to let that feeling arise and fade, while doing the action anyway. The rewards come so quickly, in terms of what you’ll accomplish, that it soon becomes the more appealing way to live.
The advice you don’t want to hear is usually the advice you need. I spent a long time fixated on becoming hyper-productive before I finally started wondering why I was staking so much of my self-worth on my productivity levels. What I needed wasn’t another exciting productivity book, since those just functioned as enablers, but to ask more uncomfortable questions instead.
The broader point here is that it isn’t fun to confront whatever emotional experiences you’re avoiding – if it were, you wouldn’t avoid them – so the advice that could really help is likely to make you uncomfortable. (You may need to introspect with care here, since bad advice from manipulative friends or partners is also likely to make you uncomfortable.)
It’s wrong to say we live in especially uncertain times. The future is always uncertain
One good question to ask is what kind of practices strike you as intolerably cheesy or self-indulgent: gratitude journals, mindfulness meditation, seeing a therapist? That might mean they are worth pursuing. (I can say from personal experience that all three are worth it.) Oh, and be especially wary of celebrities offering advice in public forums: they probably pursued fame in an effort to fill an inner void, which tends not to work – so they are likely to be more troubled than you are.
The future will never provide the reassurance you seek from it. As the ancient Greek and Roman Stoics understood, much of our suffering arises from attempting to control what is not in our control. And the main thing we try but fail to control – the seasoned worriers among us, anyway – is the future. We want to know, from our vantage point in the present, that things will be OK later on. But we never can. (This is why it’s wrong to say we live in especially uncertain times. The future is always uncertain; it’s just that we’re currently very aware of it.)
It’s freeing to grasp that no amount of fretting will ever alter this truth. It’s still useful to make plans. But do that with the awareness that a plan is only ever a present-moment statement of intent, not a lasso thrown around the future to bring it under control. The spiritual teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti said his secret was simple: “I don’t mind what happens.” That needn’t mean not trying to make life better, for yourself or others. It just means not living each day anxiously braced to see if things work out as you hoped.
The solution to imposter syndrome is to see that you are one. When I first wrote about how useful it is to remember that everyone is totally just winging it, all the time, we hadn’t yet entered the current era of leaderly incompetence (Brexit, Trump, coronavirus). Now, it’s harder to ignore. But the lesson to be drawn isn’t that we’re doomed to chaos. It’s that you – unconfident, self-conscious, all-too-aware-of-your-flaws – potentially have as much to contribute to your field, or the world, as anyone else.
Remember: the reason you can’t hear other people’s inner monologues of self-doubt isn’t that they don’t have them
Humanity is divided into two: on the one hand, those who are improvising their way through life, patching solutions together and putting out fires as they go, but deluding themselves otherwise; and on the other, those doing exactly the same, except that they know it. It’s infinitely better to be the latter (although too much “assertiveness training” consists of techniques for turning yourself into the former).
Remember: the reason you can’t hear other people’s inner monologues of self-doubt isn’t that they don’t have them. It’s that you only have access to your own mind.
Selflessness is overrated. We respectable types, although women especially, are raised to think a life well spent means helping others – and plenty of self-help gurus stand ready to affirm that kindness, generosity and volunteering are the route to happiness. There’s truth here, but it generally gets tangled up with deep-seated issues of guilt and self-esteem. (Meanwhile, of course, the people who boast all day on Twitter about their charity work or political awareness aren’t being selfless at all; they are burnishing their egos.)
If you’re prone to thinking you should be helping more, that’s probably a sign that you could afford to direct more energy to your idiosyncratic ambitions and enthusiasms. As the Buddhist teacher Susan Piver observes, it’s radical, at least for some of us, to ask how we’d enjoy spending an hour or day of discretionary time. And the irony is that you don’t actually serve anyone else by suppressing your true passions anyway. More often than not, by doing your thing – as opposed to what you think you ought to be doing – you kindle a fire that helps keep the rest of us warm.
Know when to move on. And then, finally, there’s the one about knowing when something that’s meant a great deal to you – like writing this column – has reached its natural endpoint, and that the most creative choice would be to turn to what’s next. This is where you find me. Thank you for reading.
• Oliver Burkeman’s book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management For Mortals will be published next year by The Bodley Head. Find out more at oliverburkeman.com
By Jessica Brown4th September 2020Oils are all packed with fat and calories, but their chemistry – and effect on our health – can be very different.C
Cooking oils are a kitchen staple. But there’s a lot of conflicting information regarding how healthy each of them are. With so many on the shelves – from coconut to olive, vegetable to canola, avocado to rapeseed oil – how do we know which ones to use, and if we should be avoiding any altogether?
Oils used for cooking tend to get their name from the nut, seeds, fruits, plants or cereals they’re extracted from, either by methods of crushing, pressing, or processing. They’re characterised by their high fat content, including saturated fat, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids.
In recent years, coconut oil, which is around 90% saturated fat, has become the latest trendy “superfood”. It’s been hailed as a superfood (including that it’s less likely to be stored in the body as fat and more likely to be expended as energy) – but one Harvard University epidemiologist calls it “pure poison”.
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Consuming too much saturated fat – more than 20g for women and 30g for men per day, according to UK guidelines – makes the body produce cholesterol in our bodies that increases the risk of heart disease.
All fat molecules are made of chains of fatty acids, which are either held together with single bonds (saturated) or double bonds (unsaturated). There are three types of fatty acids: short, medium and long chain. Short and medium chain fatty acids are absorbed directly into the bloodstream and used for energy, but long chain fatty acids are transported to the liver, which raises blood cholesterol levels.
“Coconut oil enjoyed popularity three or four years ago, when there were claims it had a special effect,” says Alice Lichtenstein, Gershoff professor of nutrition science and policy at Tufts University in Massachusetts, US.
Vegetable oils usually contain differing amounts of saturated fat, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids (Credit: Getty Images)
“But when you look at studies that compared it with other oils, the results showed it’s high in saturated fat, and no clinical trial supported any initial claims.”
Most randomised controlled trials show that coconut oil increases levels of harmful cholesterol low, density lipoprotein (LDL), which is linked with heart disease and stroke, but it also raises beneficial cholesterol, high density lipoprotein (HDL), which carries LDL away from the bloodstream.
One explanation as to why a food so high in saturated fat could increase HDL cholesterol is because it contains a relatively high amount of lauric acid, which has been found to raise levels of HDL in the blood far more than it does LDL .
Experts advise opting for an oil lower in saturated fat, and higher in other types of fats that are healthier in moderation
But Taylor Wallace, an adjunct professor in the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at George Mason University in Virginia, argues lauric acid is not as healthy as some claims suggest. It is categorised as a C12 fatty acid, meaning it has 12 carbon atoms, and that puts it at the limit of the definition of a medium chain fatty acid.
“C12s are like long chain fatty acids that got categorised into medium chain,” says Wallace. “About 70% of C12s act as long chain fatty acids, which are transported to the liver.” Longer chain fatty acids are more likely to be stored in the liver as fat and could, over time, cause health issues such as nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.
Instead, experts advise opting for an oil lower in saturated fat, and higher in other types of fats that are healthier in moderation. Polyunsaturated fat, including omega 3 and omega 6, and monounsaturated fat have been found to lower cholesterol levels and provide essential fatty acids and vitamins. They’re found in many different types of vegetable oils, although the exact amount depends both on the plant and the technology process used during their production.
Replacing saturated fats such as butter with olive oil could lead to reduced risk of developing heart disease (Credit: Getty Images)
“Most studies indicate that foods higher in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are associated with lower risk of cardiovascular disease,” says Lichtenstein. “It’s recommended we replace sources of unsaturated fat with polyunsaturated fat, primarily plant-based oils, and nuts and seeds,” she says.
One observational study associated replacing saturated fat with olive oil, for example, with a lower risk of heart disease. Substituting butter, margarine, mayonnaise or dairy fat olive oil reduced the risk by 5 to 7%.
Marta Guasch-Ferre, author of the study and a research scientist Harvard University’s TH Chan School of Public Health’s nutrition department in Boston, analysed the health and diets of more than 100,000 people over 24 years, and found that those with higher intake of all types of olive oil had a 15% lower risk of heart disease.
Olive oil, which is made by crushing olives and separating the oil from their pulp, is renowned for being the healthiest of plant oils
Olive oil’s health benefits can partly be attributed to its monounsaturated fatty acids, which contain vitamins and minerals, and polyphenols, micronutrients derived from plants.
“But it’s not just that you’re adding olive oil into the diet, but that olive oil is substituting other unhealthier fats,” says Guasch-Ferre.
Olive oil, which is made by crushing olives and separating the oil from their pulp, is renowned for being the healthiest of plant oils. One review of research found olive oil has beneficial effects on gut microbiota and heart disease, and that extra virgin olive oil can be beneficial in preventing cancer and type 2 diabetes.
The smaller short chain and medium chain fatty acids in some vegetable oils are dissolved in the blood rather than being stored in the liver (Credit: Getty Images)
“The monounsaturated fatty acids and compounds found in olive oil help prevent noncommunicable diseases, not through any special mechanisms, but because our body needs them,” says Francisco Barba, professor at the University of Valencia’s preventive medicine and public health department in Spain.
Olive oil is synonymous with the Mediterranean diet, which is high in fruit, vegetables and legumes, and low in saturated fat, and is associated with a reduced risk of heart disease, despite the high fat content.
“What makes the Mediterranean diet different from other types of healthy diets is olive oil,” Guasch-Ferre says. “Most other components – nuts, fruit and vegetables – are parts of numerous diets, including plant-based.”
Some research has found that extra virgin olive oil is associated with the most health benefits
However, some research suggests these health benefits could be partly driven by other components in the diet, rather than olive oil. One review of evidence found that the only benefit of olive oil independent of the Mediterranean diet was its ability to raise levels of beneficial cholesterol HDL.
Researchers reviewed 30 studies where participants’ diets were altered to test the effects of olive oil, and found that the Mediterranean diet led to lower glucose levels and higher LDL compared to the Western diet. Intervening that diet with olive oil, where it had a high polyphenol content, further increased HDL.
However, consuming olive oil by following the Mediterranean diet was associated with improved glucose levels, which is associated with a greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes if it is too high. It also reduced the level of triglycerides, a type of fat in the blood, and LDL cholesterol levels.
These studies tested numerous types of olive oil, but some research has found that extra virgin olive oil is associated with the most health benefits, including a possible lower risk of heart disease.
Experts advise opting for an oil lower in saturated fat, and higher in other types of fats that are healthier in moderation (Credit: Getty Images)
Extra virgin olive oil is rich in antioxidants and vitamin E, and researchers have found that it’s better at protecting against LDL cholesterol than other types of olive oil. Other types of olive oil are processed after the oil is extracted, which causes them to lose some nutritional qualities.
Extra virgin olive oil, however, has a lower smoke point, which means it starts to smoke at a lower temperature, and in recent years there have been concerns that this could release harmful compounds, and that some of its benefits are lost through the heating process.
“Extra virgin olive oil is especially beneficial when it’s not cooked, but even under cooking it has a very high percentage of monosaturated fatty acids,” says Barba.
The message isn’t to add lots of oil because we think it’s good for us, because that’s just adding lots of calories – Alice Lichtenstein
Recent studies have shown that extra virgin olive oil is safe to use for cooking. Researchers carried out a number of experiments monitoring extra virgin olive oil as it cooked at 120C (248F) and (338F) on a pan for different lengths of time. They found that temperature, but not time, had some effect on the polyphenol content in the oil.
In 2011, the European Food Safety Authority concluded that makers of olive oil can say it reduces oxidative stress – an imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants in the body – and protects cells and LDL cholesterol from oxidative damage, which can age cells. The researchers carrying out the experiments found that extra virgin olive oil used for cooking still falls within the guidelines for the health claim.
Lichtenstein argues that olive oil doesn’t have any unique properties aside from what you’d normally expect from an oil high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. But what is clear is that the evidence supports using this and other vegetable oils instead of saturated fats, but to limit our intake of oil in general.
“The message isn’t to add lots of oil because we think it’s good for us, because that’s just adding lots of calories,” she says.
“Once we shift the balance of saturated fat to unsaturated fatty acids, we should then be able to choose the oil we prefer.”