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On Working.

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Pass the remote, I need to hit PAUSE

Sometime towards the end of last year the following words came out of my mouth:

“The only way I’d be able to do that is if I worked less, AND had fewer writing projects, AND stopped socialising so much and AND went to bed earlier. But how on earth, would I pull off all of this…”

The “that” in the first part of my remark  referred to “create some free time”.

The only way I’d be able to create some free time is to work, write, socialise & sleep A LOT LESS. I wasn’t even being Melodramatic Me when I said this. In a plain and unexciting way, this statement is more than true.

If I had free time I could

  • read the newspapers
  • find my missing socks
  • stop and chat with Bruce & Leon, our cats (who no doubt know the location of the socks)
  • write a few un-electronic letters now and then
  • be available for spontaneous cups of coffee when a friend texts to say she’s in the neighbourhood
  • or for when my brother calls me out of the blue.

If I had free time I might even

  • stare out the window and watch a squirrel run along the fences in the garden.

Never mind free time for free time’s sake, the quality of my work and writing and time with friends and sleep would likely double were I living off a less frenetic schedule … were I soaking up Life one thing at a time, rather than living everyday on auto-rush.

On the right hand column of Panic Station there’s a feed to the zenhabits blog where Leo Babauto campaigns for things like minimalism, freedom from goals and yes, DOING LESS. I guess I thought that by promoting this way of life I might escape having to live it.

Which is exactly the sort of thing a person too busy to think straight tells themselves.

And so my statement about how hard I’d find it to do less has stuck with me ever since I made it.  Which brings me to the point of today’s post — I’m here to report that sadly, Panic Station must come to a PAUSE.

The aim of my writing life this year is to stop being such a commitment-phobe by fragmenting my writing self across 3-4 too many projects. I need to devote my finite writing time and energy to One Big Thing. To see if I can make a go of it, I need to commit to it. And for this year that committment is Counting Zeros … which itself is barely One Thing at all, but rather a blog & a book & a set of daily + weekly + monthly + quarterly assignments on top of writing the blog and the book…which pretty much makes it a BIG THING. At least, for me.

All of December I angsted about Panic Station. It has become my outlet for Nat-randomness and so I LOVE IT.

I don’t want to kill it.

I don’t want to lose you.

But I need to accept that the only way someone like me does less and focuses more is to make decisions I don’t like making. I must choose some things in favour of others. I can’t keep it all.

And so the PAUSE is about to be hit. Next week’s post will be the last for 2012.

Sigh.

Gulp.

Press Submit.

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Filed under On writing, Self-help, Time management, Work

3 life lessons from the groundhog …

According to Pennsylvania’s Punxsutawney Phil (the groundhog photographed above) there will be 6 more weeks of winter.

At least in the US & Canada which is where Groundhog Day is celebrated.

Tradition has it that if the groundhog emerges from his winter lair on February 2nd and sees his shadow, winter will continue; if there’s not enough sunshine and he doesn’t, we can look forward to an early Spring.

You might remember Phil the Groundhog from his role next to Bill Murray in the movie  Groundhog Day. Murray plays a local TV weatherman who can’t stand his annual assignment covering the big groundhog event in Punxsutawney. Worse still, for the remainder of the movie he finds himself repeating the same dreaded day over and over again.

But thanks to the movie, Groundhog Day Syndrome was coined [which is possibly the reason why the US National Film Registry deemed Murray’s comedy as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” but I doubt it …]

The syndrome refers to the odd way in which time seems to pass more quickly the older we get. The reason our perception distorts time like this is because the older we are, the more repetitive our experiences have become … and this familiarity speeds up our sense of time passing. It’s as if our senses are saying, “ya, whatever … been there, done that, move along.”

But when we experience something completely novel our minds are greedy to soak up as much sensory detail as possible and the more we pay attention to our experiences, the slower time goes. A massive & sudden intake of detail is why time goes very slo-mo when we fall from a great height (brilliant podcast over at RadioLab on this phenomenon).

Here’s how Steve Taylor, the author of Making Time: Why Time Seems to Pass at Different Speeds and How to Control it, explains Groundhog Day Syndrome:

As a child, the world is an incredibly new place; all your experiences are fresh. Children are taking in new information all the time. As we get older, our perceptions become more automatic, and we have fewer new experiences. At five years old, practically everything is new; by 20, you might travel to a new country, or fall in love for the first time; but, by 50, most experiences are repetitious. As we get older, we establish routines in order to feel happier and more secure; but, paradoxically, the more familiar our life becomes, the quicker time appears to pass, and the more anxious we become about running out of time.

But none of this is inevitable.

There are things we can do to mitigate the effects of Groundhog Day. Here’s 3 that Taylor suggests:

  1. Change a routine – go on a holiday, take a different route to work, try a new sport … shaking things up  stimulates the senses … and this in turn, slows down time (and as a bonus, creates new memories)
  2. Reclaim nights and weekends —  these pass faster than our working weeks for both good and bad reasons. If we spend time on activities that absorb us — reading, hiking, cooking — time flies, but we have the reward of doing something meaningful and pleasurable (and in-the-zone activities are excellent for our our mental health.) But if we spend too many of our evenings and weekends passive and mindless — zoning out by watching TV or surfing the net, then time passes just as fast but without any benefit to us.
  3. Be Here Now. Much as I hate this expression, mindfulness meditation (which involves taking a few minutes out to simply ‘watch our thoughts’), slows the mental chatter in our brains which in turn brings us to a calmer, more awake state of mind… which, once again, slows time. Just this week, right as the groundhog was getting ready to rise from his bed, my mom was listening to a talk on mindfulness and sent me this link. Skip to the 7th minute to enjoy a simple introduction to a practice which takes no more than minutes to build into your everyday.

And the really great news is that these 3 life lessons are useful not only in the management of time, they’re also perfect techniques for developing our creativity and for battling off depression (which many of us now face given Punxsutawney Phil’s prediction of several more weeks of winter).

And so it was that this week’s life lessons were brought to us by a little, furry groundhog. Till next Friday …


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Filed under Books etc., Self-help, States of mind, Time management

The cat that walked by himself

Last weekend I was having a “deep and meaningful” with a buddy. You can’t really put the two of us together without this happening. Though there’s something about both of us that means a D&M rarely gets too heavy (unless copious amounts of red wine are involved and then nothing’s sacred and no-one’s safe.)

At some point I mentioned how confusing I find it to know who my people are … what sort of ‘milieu’ I belong to.

Who cares?

Well, if you’re dating this gets VERY confusing. But if ever I blog about dating please shoot me, so let’s leave it at that.

In reply to my identify confusion, my good friend replied,

“But, it’s obvious! You’re the cat that walked by himself”

“I am?”

“You are.”

At which point I lost her for a bit as she frenetically googled on her iPhone looking for the source of her reference … the story that led her
to say this …while I sat there sipping my latte pleased that there appeared to be a well-documented report on my condition, involving a cat no
less.

The point of her point was to congratulate me on my independence even if it does cost me a sense of belonging. Had she simply used these words
there’s no doubt I’d have felt far less consoled than I did when I learnt that I am a cat. A cat written of in legends!

So if ever you want to cheer someone up that they’re not just a stray or a freak or an outcast, I highly recommend sending them The Cat That Walked By Himself.

Thanks to my friend for giving me this story.
***
“The Cat That Walked By Himself” is from Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories. Here are the lines my friend had in mind, a 5 minute video of extracts from the story and the full Kipling text.

… and when the moon gets up and night comes, he is the Cat that walks by himself, and all places are alike to him. Then he goes out to the Wet Wild Woods or up the Wet Wild Trees or on the Wet Wild Roofs, waving his wild tail and walking by his wild lone

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Filed under Bibliotherapy, Books etc., Identity, Relationships, States of mind, Words

Stuff I keep forgetting to remember

It’s been five days since my return from my break in Chile and I remain well-rested, mentally de-cluttered and slightly browner than normal (even if I didn’t sunbathe, a hole in the ozone layer makes Chile ideal for roasting yourself.)

Within a week I expect normal levels of pale stressy-ness to resume. 

But on the off-chance that I can keep them in mind, here’s a few personal truths that I remember every time I go on holiday.

Less is Calming
Lighter is Better
Slower is Better
Structure is not only Good, it’s Necessary
Random works when Usual doesn’t

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Postcard from Zapallar

Given that it never takes more than 20 minutes, it’s crossed my mind that my daily run over the course of the past week has been more ritual than work-out.

But that’s OK, I’ve got to start somewhere.

For all of 2011 I never got close to reaching any sort of stamina for running — at least not the level I’d mastered only a couple of years prior.

Finding myself, at the start of 2012, in a location of mind-stopping natural beauty for a 10-day break, I decided this was a motivational opportunity too good to ignore. I said to myself that all I had to do each morning was follow the trail from the house along the road to the cemetery, down the cliffs and onto the rocky beach path which leads back up to the house. A perfect loop with unnaturally spectacular views. If I had to walk part of it, or even all of it, that was fine as long as long as I tried to run it. Daily. Without fail.

And as of Day 7, I have.

Two things inspired me to kick-start my running again. Something I read and something around me.

The something I read was an article posted by my fellow blogger, Ruben. It tells the story of a guy who claims he needs help getting motivated to go to the gym. The author replied that motivation wasn’t the issue. The problem was follow-through.

Each attempt to “motivate” himself will only increase his stress and guilt as it widens the gap between his motivation and his follow-through, between how badly he wants to work out and his failure to do so. We have a misconception that if we only cared enough about something, we would do something about it. But that’s not true.

Having become the Queen of exactly this sort of guilt-stress over the course of 2011 regarding my inability to stick with running, I read on…

Motivation is in the mind; follow-through is in the practice. Motivation is conceptual; follow-through is practical. In fact, the solution to a motivation problem is the exact opposite of the solution to a follow through problem. The mind is essential to motivation. But with follow through, it’s the mind that gets in the way.

Here’s the key: if you want to follow through on something, stop thinking.

Thinking about whether I’ll start running again or maybe try something new — that’s fine. But once I make the decision that I’m going to run and that I’m going to run tomorrow when I wake up here on my holidays in Chile — from that moment on any “thinking about it” turns to excuse-making self-sabotage.

It really is as simple as the Nike advert says.

Something around me
While I believe that most in things in life can be solved by the right words at the right moment in time (in books or conversation), words fix the mind whereas nature (wordless as it is) cures the soul.

So on top of the pep talk brought to me by Ruben, what really inspired me to get moving this week was the call of the wild. Not just the views: savage waves smashing against a shore of rock, a string of 10 pelicans gliding by on their coastal patrol, the sight of the sun creeping down and then falling below the perfect line of a horizon — but the soundtrack accompanying the scene. This is the loudest water I’ve ever faced.

As soon as I arrived the gutsy performance raging just beneath the perch of our house seemed to lay down the gauntlet … ‘come run with ME!” … and how often do I get that chance? in my everyday non-coastal life?

The path from Cementeria de Papudo back to our house at Las Perdices

Even if it is only 20 minutes each day, the sharp descents and rocky paths and collapsed stone walls are a challenge. Though not as heart-stopping as the one-eyed German shepherd that sleeps in the shade of the bushes at the entrance of Cementeria de Papudo.

I’m sure I appear demented as I slow my pace when I come to the part of my run where the dozing canine crosses my path. Each day my aim is to assure him that it’s not fear he smells, I swear. I slow down, get closer, even hold out my hand (oh god …) while telling him I MEAN YOU NO HARM I’M JUST TRYING TO GET FIT. As the days pass, the expression on the dog’s face is becoming increasingly perplexed. I suppose he worries about my mental health. He probably thinks I’m an axe murderer. I used to think this of runners too.

Anyway, once past the cemetery beast …. my obstacle course along this small stretch of the Pacific Ocean is getting easier by the day. I’ve learned to trip faster down this or that path, not stop at the top of the next one and to keep very low as I get to the end and face the steep and tricky climb up to the house.

If I was here for another week I’d have to graduate to some next level – maybe a double loop?

I’m hoping that my 10 days working this circuit has done the trick and that I’ll remember Zapallar the next time I lie in my bed on a wintry London morning and tell myself that it’s raining and too slippery or that more sleep would do more good than a run.

Perhaps I’ll ask the dog to wish me luck before I go.

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Filed under Not in London, Sport, States of mind, Words

The pleasure in doing the wrong thing

Here are some of my favourite wrongful activities:

  • Taking a bubble bath in the middle of the day, and even better, a weekday
  • Taking myself out to dinner while I’m working on a piece of writing, so that I can work alone but amongst people (and get fed)
  • Going to a foreign city, making little to no effort to see the tourist attractions and sitting outside a cafe people watching instead

The way I was raised, my basic personality, the attitudes of people around me — each tell me that all of the above are at least a tiny bit wrong. Eyebrow raising indulgences. Signs of brat-like behaviour.

I mention these guilty pleasures today for a couple of reasons:

  • I’ve just been in Madrid for a couple of days and it reminded me how much I love lounging in foreign cities (especially beautiful ones). I wasn’t a total sloth – I did take the photos above, I did stroll to Plaza Mayor, I did walk down to the Museo Prado (though I didn’t queue to go in.) But mostly I did things I could do anywhere – I wrote, I read, I ate, I got a pedicure (the friend who mentioned the state of my toenails can now relax) and in doing all these things I chose not to work my way through a list of must-do attractions. I can’t tell you how how much I enjoy this particular brand of laziness
  • The 2nd reason why I mention “not doing what I should” is because it’s that time of year again when a lot of people push themselves to “be good” … to lose weight, quit smoking, stop shopping, find a mate, change jobs, give up alcohol … [insert yours here]. In fact, I just read somewhere that the new name for the month we’re in is Janupause … we put our bad habits on pause for a few weeks until we revert back to standard operating procedures. And so, I thought I would share 2 cool things I read this week that suggest we should adopt a different approach to improving/fixing ourselves.

Forget normal self-help, this lady is brilliant.  My biggest complaint against self-help is just how annoying (and tedious and un-funny) the tone of it usually is… not so with Danielle LaPorte — check our her blog post on how she kicked the time management habit

In a similar vein, a former colleague of mine (and active blogger) recommended this HBR article on 5 things to stop doing in the year ahead– the lingo is a tad corporate and work-y, but the ideas are very wise. And for all of you who know me personally, yes I know I am SO guilty of all of 5 things — you don’t need to remind me.

Happy Reading … till next week

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Filed under Not in London, Self-help, States of mind, Time management, Work