Habit Is the Thinker’s Friend

Edna May Wonacott as Ann Newton in 'Shadow of a Doubt'

Edna May Wonacott as Ann Newton in 'Shadow of a Doubt'

‘We eat and sleep and that’s about all. We don’t even have any real conversations. We just talk.’

Of all the films Alfred Hitchcock directed, he claimed his favourite was 1943’s ‘Shadow of a Doubt.’ This lesser known classic is set in Santa Rosa, California. The serene suburban normality of the Newton family is interrupted by the arrival of sinister Uncle Charlie from the big city.

Joseph Newton: ‘Don’t put the hat on the bed.’
Uncle Charlie: ‘Superstitious, Joe?’
Joseph Newton: ‘No, but I don’t believe in inviting trouble.’

Hitchcock seems to enjoy both celebrating and undermining small town American life. He likes exploring the banality of evil and the strangeness of the familiar. At one stage the precocious youngster of the house, Ann Newton, announces:

‘I’m trying to keep my mind free of things that don’t matter because I have so much on my mind.’

I have some sympathy with Ann Newton. Modern life is full of incidental choices and decisions. We are assaulted on all sides by the insignificant, the inconsequential, the irrelevant. What to wear, what to eat, what to say, where to go, who to meet, who to follow? It’s sometimes hard to find time for the meaningful and important.

In his 1970 book ‘Future Shock’ the American writer Alvin Toffler observed that the contemporary world throws up an excess of equivalent options. It creates ‘overchoice.’ And this choice overload can be confusing, dissatisfying, mentally draining. Perhaps it lay at the root of Santa Rosa's suburban anxiety.

My own response to overchoice is to eliminate decision making from large sections of my life. I decide not to make decisions. I choose not to choose.

So I always wear pale blue shirts with the top button done up. I never wear party shirts. I carry a flat cap in case it rains and a cotton bag in case I need to shop. On a plane I take a window seat. At the theatre I take an aisle seat. On the tube I try for the one next to the glass divide. I walk on the down escalator and I stand on the up. I sleep when a vehicle is moving (so long as I’m not at the wheel). I eat cheddar on Tuc biscuit (with an apple) for weekday lunch. I share starters, but not main course or dessert. I eat fish and chips on Friday (it’s my religion). I take an afternoon nap at the weekend. I make notes on the back of my dry cleaning ticket. I avoid things that are described as ‘fun’ or ‘funky.’ If I must order a cocktail, I ask for a Negroni. And I know I can’t go wrong with a Cotes du Rhone.

As I’ve grown older I have accrued quite a number of incidental habits. They perhaps derive from some active choice I made in the distant past. But for the most part they serve to excuse me from any current engagement with decision making.

Habit demands nothing of one’s attention. Habit frees up the mind for other things. Habit finds space for mad ideas. Habit is the thinker’s friend.

I have found that in business too we are constrained from thinking great thoughts by the dreariness of everyday dilemmas. Routine and repetition may in fact provide protection from the maelstrom of decision-making that confronts us in the office.

I’d suggest you consider the following.

Always wear a suit, grey or navy. Never wear a costume. Write with a fine blue Bic. Use plastic wallets, not bull dog or paper clips. Walk every floor, every day. Limit yourself to one exclamation mark per email. Don’t play golf or work the weekend. Never kiss your Clients. Have a latte in the morning and a Nescafe in the afternoon (with a Tunnock Caramel Wafer). Eat the same lunch from the same vendor. Always nod in meetings and write stuff down. Place your watch on the desk to monitor time diplomatically. Solve it in the room. Don’t high five, literally or metaphorically. Don’t ‘touch base’ or ‘reach out.’ Make your first comment positive and your last comment memorable. And the older you get, the earlier you should leave the party.

It seems clear to me that force of habit preserves us from the trivial and superficial. It makes time and space for proper contemplation. So why not liberate yourself from the tedium of choice by creating your own customs and conventions; by inventing the habits of a lifetime?


No. 138

The Interfering Boss

The Second Mrs De Winter: ‘I want you to get rid of all these things.’
Mrs Danvers: ‘But these are Mrs de Winter’s things.’
The Second Mrs De Winter: ‘I am Mrs de Winter now!’

The 1940 film Rebecca is a haunting tale of doomed love, corrosive guilt and the ever-present past. It was Alfred Hitchcock’s first movie in Hollywood and his only work to win a Best Picture Oscar.

Hitchcock had been hired for the job by the producer David O Selznick. From the outset it was an uneasy relationship. There were disagreements about casting, performances and scheduling. Selznick liked to review different cuts of the same set-up after the shoot. But Hitchcock’s practice was to work out his shots in advance and cut in the camera.

Selznick took to prescribing executional ideas. He suggested that it would make a dramatic and resonant climax to the film if the smoke from the burning country house, Manderley, mysteriously formed a huge letter R for Rebecca in the sky. Hitchcock naturally felt this rather crude, and, while Selznick was preoccupied with producing Gone with the Wind, he shot a sequence of Rebecca’s burning negligee case, monogrammed with the letter R. Undoubtedly a more elegant solution.

Mrs Danvers: ‘Why don’t you go? Why don’t you leave Manderley? He doesn’t need you…He’s got his memories. He doesn’t love you. He wants to be alone again with her. You’ve nothing to stay for. You’ve nothing to live for really, have you?’

We have all worked with the Interfering Boss. What starts with broad direction and encouragement, evolves into helpful suggestions and ideas, and culminates in executional orders and instruction. As the pressure mounts and the relationship deteriorates, hands-off empowerment transitions into hands-on leadership.

This transition is often accompanied by protestations of special circumstances. The Interfering Boss asserts that he or she has a particular understanding of what the Client wants or the problem needs. This issue is, they say, relationship compromising, account threatening. This one’s too important to take a risk on. And then comes the promise of more creative freedom in ‘Year 2’ of the campaign. Year 2, of course, is a mythical place that few have visited.

I confess I have myself on occasion been that Interfering Boss. In the absence of a strong creative voice, I would sometimes step in with my own strong creative opinions. Leadership abhors a vacuum. I knew even at the time that this wasn’t healthy. Perhaps I was insufficiently trusting of the creative directors. Perhaps I was over-confident in my own abilities. Perhaps I was under pressure.

Thankfully, for the most part, my creative suggestions were rebuffed: the well-meaning ‘thought-starters’; the half-baked script ideas; the painful puns (‘ISA-tonic’ or ‘YouK’ anyone?); the helpful loan of my Parapluies de Cherbourg DVD (I’m sure I was onto something there); the frequent requests for a Luther Vandross soundtrack…. Looking back, my personal creative legacy may in fact be limited to the legendary laundry endline: ‘Smell the Clean.‘

So how should you deal with the Interfering Boss?

Well, you could try to ignore them, in the hope and expectation that they’ll always have their own Gone with the Wind to occupy their time. You could nod enthusiastically and then wilfully misunderstand what you’ve been asked to do. You could perhaps take on the Interfering Boss, and make a career-limiting speech about roles and responsibilities. In the long term, I’m not sure any of these approaches is sustainable.

‘We can never go back to Manderley again. That much is certain.’

I’d suggest that the smart option is to think properly about what the Interfering Boss is trying to get at with his or her awkward illustrations and sketchy scripts. If you can isolate what at root they’re looking for, the problem they’re trying to resolve, you can probably come up with a better, more satisfying solution. This is, after all, how Hitchcock dealt with Selznick’s ‘smokey R’ proposal.

Sir John Hegarty would always say, to Clients and account people alike: ‘Describe the problem, don’t prescribe the solution.’ In other words, tell me we have a branding issue; don’t demand that I put the brand in the first 5 seconds. Wise counsel. I’m sure we always progress further, faster, when well-briefed creatives are allowed to do the creating.

Of course, the ultimate way of dealing with the Interfering Boss is to do exactly what they ask you to do – to the letter. They’ll inevitably be confronted with their own creative shortcomings; with the linear logic of their inelegant ideas; with the merely moderate and quietly conventional. That’ll really wind them up. 

No. 121