Emma Townshend: Find it impossible to get down to the hard graft of boring gardening jobs? Crank up the drum'n'bass...


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The Independent Online

It's easy to feel energetic about the fun stuff. Fun means deciding to grow a new kind of salad leaf or setting off into the countryside to discover the delights of the plant list at an unfamiliar nursery. Not fun is also simple to identify. It's those tricky-to-love, dogged tasks of editing and re-making which form much of the real work in a garden. For me, calling up the enthusiasm to dig up those "Pheasant's Eye" narcissi bulbs which are now growing in the shade and getting round to planting them elsewhere? Hard.

The direct opposite of instant gratification, a whole 11 months will need to elapse before I get any satisfaction. Yes, it's undeniable that gardening is a difficult but valuable lesson in massively delayed gratification. Memento mori, even: these days, when I'm filling in a bulb order in June, 10 months before I want them to flower, I'm generally meditating on whether it's worth bothering, seeing as I might be dead by then. I would like to meet the gardener for whom the completion of this job would represent a glowing sense of achievement, rather than a slightly deflated moment of head-shaking. And general death-related gloom.

Like any of life's activities, gardening is a funny balance of the entertaining, the absorbing, the mundane and the tedious.

Less tedious to me, perhaps, if I can blast a bit of Matrix & Futurebound out the back door while I'm doing it, though drum'n'bass may not be your particular music of choice. But it cheers me to imagine the neighbourhood thinks they are being woken by a grumpy teenager rather than a marginally depressed 45-year-old. This week I got particularly depressed after unpacking a new automatic-watering system only to realise that it took a really weird size of batteries: invented just to make us weep.

I wish I had more gumption. I know there are people in life who actually relish seeing things through. For example, my neighbour Andrew, colloquially known as "the Dream Crusher" due to his spectacular habit of pouring cold water on aimlessly optimistic schemes, nonetheless runs an admirable sideline in the dogged completion of tasks.

Me, however, I'm a starter, not a finisher. And the heavy gritting of the teeth required over the years for the capable completion of a horticultural project has left me with worn molars. In Willpower: Why Self-Control is the Secret to Success, by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney (a 2012 hit I bought in a three-for-two deal in WH Smith at Ealing Broadway Station, while not exercising any willpower at all), the authors explain how each of us has only a finite amount of the stuff. Use some up forcing yourself to finally plant the sweet peas and, remarkably, there will be less left for that horrible pruning later on in the day.

Fortunately, Roy and John have further lessons relevant to the gardener lacking in general resolve. Most importantly, gardeners who appear to be well organised and on track most of the time actually find they less often need to wheel out the big will-fire-power. That's because they have established habits and routines that let them run on tramlines. In fact, the Dynamic Duo seem to conclude that willpower is a pretty weak tool compared with their favourite, "precommitments". Writing that "Pheasant's Eye" move into the diary, in a half-hour slot, rather than thinking about it once a day for the next 20, for instance.

And best of all, they say that we should assign only a short amount of time to rubbish jobs. Willpower quotes productivity guru David Allen: "I know I can pack in 35 minutes, but if I start any earlier, I could spend six hours on it."

Which seems like the best argument of all to, you know, just hurry up and get on with things. Because that means we can get on to the fun stuff and choose those new leaves as soon as productively possible.