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How to stop chasing the clock

If time won’t stop running, and you wish every day could feel like a long weekend, check out On Time — extracted in YOU magazine.


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ON TIME is coming out

After an indecently long wait, my new book On Time: Finding Your Pace in a World Addicted to Fast is coming out next week. Why has time sped up? Why is there never enough? And how can you make it yours again?

IMG_0018Learn about the madness of busyness, the science, philosophy and psychology of time in everyday life, and how we all got addicted to fast. With cutting-edge neuroscience, fascinating facts and entertaining stories, it reveals simple tools for seizing the freedoms in our world without limits.

People have said some lovely things about it too.


‘I loved this scholarly, elegant and witty book. Blyth has that rare gift for being both erudite and accessible, mingling fascinating philosophical and scientific ideas with hard data and personal wisdom. I was intrigued, challenged, informed – and at times deeply moved by the warmth and sincerity which underpins the author’s learning. This is a marvellous work – and one which has surely never been more timely.’ Sarah Perry, author of The Essex Serpent

‘This truly extraordinary book can genuinely elongate your life, or at least allow you to achieve hugely more in your allotted lifespan. Funny, informative, quirky and brilliantly written, it is somehow also very wise in a profoundly philosophical way, The Storm of Warwith insights from every part of human existence from King Harold to Mark Carney. Find the time to read it, and you’ll discover where more time – and ultimately also happiness – can be found’
Professor Andrew Roberts, author of The Storm of War

‘On Time is spot on. Practical and yet profound, it is rich in ideas and a rallying cry to anyone in thrall to being busy and in a hurry’ Julia Hobsbawm, Hon. Visiting Professor, Cass Business School and University of Suffolk, author of Fully Connected

‘An addictive blend of philosophy, psychology and science that tackles today’s most pressing issue how to manage, savour and expand our time.’ Jane Thynne, author of Solitaire

‘A rare find; a book which beautifully mixes a reflective, personal chronicle with a smart, insightful reading of cultural history. A rich, deft work.’ Tristram Hunt,  author of Ten Cities that Made an Empire

‘This is a beautiful, thoughtful book about time… I can’t think of the last time I read a book that not only engaged me, but also made me think about my own behavior and gave me some meaningful strategies for ways I might change.’ Professor Sophie Scott, Deputy Director, Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London

‘Few books are truly life-changing. On Time is. Catherine Blyth is wise, witty and a very good writer. To find out more, you will have to read her brilliant book.’ Rachel Kelly, author of Black Rainbow

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Listen to BBC Radio 4 at 11.30am today to learn more about the fiendishly elusive art of writing happiness, with insights from the excellent authors Ann Patchett and Helen Simpson, poet Don Patterson, and happiness hunter Gretchen Rubin

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Never read Salman Rushdie? Then you can’t like cream cakes. Long before the mullahs issued their fatwah against him, Rushdie became the bard of lardy sins when he coined the 1970s Dairy Council slogan, ‘Naughty but nice’. The ad lasted well into the 1980s, not just due to its nice alliteration, but because it encapsulated Thatcherite beliefs that self-seeking is good.


Will this austere age make it harder to spoil ourselves? As a cake lover, I hope not, and I’m not alone. The argument for self-indulgence crystallised in the so-called ‘caring 1990s’, when Jennifer Aniston spoke for L’Oreal and womankind in the line ‘Because You’re Worth It’. Cheryl Cole still peddles this philosophy because in our aspirational world, self-indulgence is less a treat than a duty.


How so? Admittedly the definition of luxury is it’s something we want not need, its purpose being to attain that idle boon, pleasure. From latin’s ‘luxuria’ (‘sumptuous enjoyment’), the word originally meant lust. Hence a fourteenth-century father cautioned his daughters against ‘leude touchinge and handelyng’ and the ‘orrible synne of luxurie’. Today a luxury is a commodity, bought with surplus wealth. Yet increasingly, serving our wants is regarded not as a sin but a necessity that our morale, our very mental health, cannot do without.


Don’t believe me, believe the figures.  Sales of Jaguar cars and LVMH brands, like Louis Vuitton and Moët et Chandon, are soaring. This irrational exuberance isn’t just down to Chinese big spenders. Economists reckon its symptomatic of emotional vulnerability, our need to cheer ourselves up. Likewise they rationalise the boom in littler luxuries, like lipstick and foundation.


You could lament this trend, say we’re in denial of our humbled financial state, or under unhealthy pressure to keep up a front. But I welcome it. Latest psychological research confirms it’s not reason but emotion that drives us. And if we made pleasure our top emotional motive – rather than guilt or envy – couldn’t the world be a better place? Better still, we would redefine self-indulgence as giving to others. Wellbeing studies find the most enduring bliss comes from being kind, and Bill Gates certainly seems happier now he’s the world’s second richest man, but number one giver. So whatever your pleasure, go on, spoil yourself. If nothing else, it will do the dratted economy good.

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There are three kinds of person: the happy-messy, the organisers, and the conscience-stricken slatterns who periodically reform, only to resume the slow slide into chaos. Unsure which you are? Then consider Quentin Crisp’s defence of not cleaning: ‘After the first four years the dirt doesn’t get any worse.’ Do you cringe? Envy his laissez-faire? Or does this sound like home?

‘Westerners have different standards, we have different standards,’ said an organiser of Delhi’s Commonwealth Games, defending the stray dogs and piles of rubbish in the athletes’ accommodation. He was right, mess and hygiene are relative values, shaped by culture and upbringing.

Many doze oblivious to mugs sprouting cataracts of mould beside their bed. Meanwhile their loved-ones fume at being forced, as they see it, to tidy after them. It feels a power game, and what makes it so upsetting is that mess is more than a question of health, safety or respect. It both  embodies and creates chaos. It not only echoes but shapes our ability to cope with life.

I know because I spent my teens in a stew. My bedroom, worse than anything Tracy Emin’s spewed, symbolised my misery and provided evidence I shouldn’t bother getting better. Today I’m better at being messy in moderation (my husband might disagree), and at life. When I see friends knee-high in debris, it seems all too eloquent of their inability to make choices, to let go of the past.

Okay, I’m smug. You may reject equations of tidiness with goodness, like committed idler Tom Hodgkinson, an author who expends vast energy on informing us he’s happy. But his partner looks tired. And ask yourself why we have metaphors like ‘messing up’ or ‘don’t mess with my mind’. Indeed, social research proves that mess, mental and moral behaviour are intertwined. Ingenious tests found that in squalid environments, people are likelier to act dishonestly.

You may never be as lucky, lucky, lucky as Kylie Minogue, for whom tidying is a choice not a necessity: “I like to clean my cupboards. Hours go by. I get my Marigolds on and have a fantastic frenzy,” she trills. But believe, like her, that cleaning cupboards is therapy, and I guarantee you’ll feel better.

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My cousin is auditioning for a sainthood. She’s both a bravura host and all-weather Samaritan. For this she’s duly punished by two women who imagine they’re her best mates. I call them Poor Me and Me Too. Poor Me visits weekly, bearing vats of oily soup as a form of payment, then parks on the sofa and moans. Me Too lives further afield but monitors my cousin on Facebook, doling out unsolicited advice, looming large at every party, staying for days to ‘help clear up’.

Does your halo hang heavy? Well whose fault is that? Forgive my cynicism but I find compulsively helpful people suspect. ‘Why do you want me in your debt?’ I wonder. This attitude is mean spirited. More worryingly, it could be bad for my health. 

Happiness studies suggest the most rewarding activities, for pleasure and wellbeing, involve kindness and gratitude. Help others and you help yourself. This circular logic perfectly fits the explanation of altruism as ‘enlightened self-interest’ proposed by that least rose-tinted philosopher, Thomas Hobbes. Ornithologists agree, seeing help as a weapon among teenage Arabian babbler birds, which compete ferociously to feed their younger siblings. Why? To gain valued social commodities like prestige – just as billionaires pay fortunes for junk at charity auctions. In exchange, recipients can feel overloaded with obligation, deprived of choice, or prey to donors’ whims. Hence insistent helpers, like Me Too, can resemble bullies – because they know best…

This is an etiquette problem, but doesn’t prove we’re ruled by ‘selfish genes’. (As Mary Midgley recently teased Richard Dawkins, the word ‘selfish’ wouldn’t exist if it was a universal condition.) I’m with Epicurus, ancient connoisseur of delight, who held, ‘It is not so much our friends’ help that helps us, as the confidence of their help.’ Goodwill doesn’t just boost egos. Much of civilisation’s history makes sense only in light of the mingled benefits and mixed motives of co-operation and patronage.

Being helpful may lose its virtue if you tingle with superiority, or resentment. That doesn’t make it bad so much as human, although probably it also means this is less a friendship of equals than power game. To avoid such pitfalls and aid a friend, let her know you’re there and leave gifts you see a clear need for. But knock on the door. Don’t force it.

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THE ART OF MARRIAGE is out now Down Under.  Or up above.  I guess it depends on your centre of gravity.  In Australia, anyway.

I had great fun talking about it on Sunrise Breakfast TV, although I think I looked down throughout the interview — and with my fluffy top and a seven and a half month bump, I also looked like big pink pom. (Or pom-pom.)

Any thoughts about marriage in the Antipodes, gratefully received…

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