Jenny McCartney Jenny McCartney

How productive is it to listen to productivity gurus?

Plus: a journey into the sinister thickets of the life-coaching business

[Image: incamerastock / Alamy Stock Photo]

I was making my way slowly through one of my dismally prosaic little to-do lists – ‘pay the water bill’ ‘wash hair’, etc. – when the voice of the journalist Helen Lewis came on Radio 4 talking about productivity. It’s the Holy Grail of modern life, apparently, and we are now constantly looking for ‘charismatic individuals’ to help us maximise it. Her writer friend Julian Simpson is obsessed with the topic, she said, even though he disarmingly admitted what some of us may quickly have suspected, that ‘my interest in productivity manifests itself when I need to be doing something else’. 

It’s like buying shiny folders from Ryman and writing ‘Tax Stuff’ on them in curly capitals

My ears pricked up, however, when Simpson named one of the leading ‘productivity gurus’ as James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits. This book is a vigorous guide to how small, oft-repeated actions can eventually result in what Clear calls ‘the compound interest of self-improvement’. It has sold more than nine million copies worldwide, including to me. For just as the alcoholic daydreams of sobriety, I recall imagining that Atomic Habits might render me more energetic and orderly. Might I perhaps even be able to inspire junior family members with my new regime? In theory, much of his advice seems solid enough: if you want to remember to send more thank-you notes, he says, keep stationery on your desk. When you’ve finished your dinner, stick your plate straight into the dishwasher. So far, so good.

Yet it turns out that Clear – who has more than 870,000 Twitter followers – is just the daddy of a pack of other productivity gurus, each frantically advising their followers on how to wring more out of their days. One is called Ali Abdaal, a genial former NHS doctor who has discovered he can make significantly more cash with his YouTube channel, which boasts 4.15 million subscribers. A large chunk of his income derives from running courses online which teach other people also to become successful YouTubers. Abdaal talks very quickly, although not quite as fast as his former mentee, the glamorous young medical student, artist and ‘productivity coach’ Elizabeth Filips. 

‘There are so many different versions of myself!’ Filips told us, listing her numerous roles at breakneck speed. Daringly, she kicked against ‘Atomic Habits’ to advocate ‘Organised Chaos’, which seemingly involves concentrating on things only when she is really motivated. I was starting to feel exhausted by this crowing about production – especially when the chief product is more advice on productivity – so it came as something of a relief when the author Oliver Burkeman suggested abandoning the entire notion of a perfected ‘time-management system’. Surely steeping oneself in these burgeoning books and videos is the modern equivalent of buying shiny folders from Ryman and writing ‘Tax Stuff’ or ‘Revision’ on them in curly capitals. They might help get you in the mood, but we shouldn’t mistake them for actually doing the work.

In the kingdom of self-improvement, however, this territory looks benign when set next to the sinister thickets of the rogue life-coaching business exposed in Catrin Nye’s fascinating podcast A Very British Cult. The story opened with Jeff Leigh-Jones, who described how he had recently poured more than £130,000 into membership of Lighthouse, an organisation that promised to help people transform their lives and realise their goals.

Jeff’s main ambition was to mount a Shackleton-style expedition to the South Pole, for which he decided he needed to strengthen his mental resilience. His gateway to Lighthouse was through an enjoyable online book group, which met every week to study Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. There he built up a strong rapport with the host, Jai Singh, who introduced him to the life-coaching group run by Paul Waugh, a ‘physically imposing’ man in his late fifties, who was prone to ‘outbreaks of deep laughter’ – and, later, rage.

‘I tried imposter syndrome but I couldn’t really pull it off.’

At first, the group seemed encouraging. Then it gradually got nuttier and nastier, immersing Jeff in a gruelling ‘Discipline Programme’ of endless online conversations with Waugh and others, all scrupulously recorded. Lighthouse mentors tried to isolate Jeff from his family and commendably loyal girlfriend Dawn, while squeezing him for more payments towards membership and ‘investments’. Jeff remortgaged, then sold, his house. The goal of the South Pole trip drifted ever further away, replaced by his growing entanglement in the weirdly disorienting Lighthouse mechanism. Eventually, Jeff broke free. But Waugh could turn threatening and intimately cruel when challenged by members: he’s heard here haranguing one female survivor of sexual abuse that she is ‘a cynical little old witch’.

Nye is careful not to damn the entire, booming life-coaching industry, which currently numbers about 100,000 practitioners in its UK ranks alone: a jolly Irish coach called Mark Fennell keeps emphasising how deeply unethical Lighthouse’s methods were. Yet this podcast does reveal the potential for abuse when charlatans gain access to people’s yearnings for self-betterment, and fashion an instrument of torment from their dreams.