Category Archives: Self-help

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 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

PS how about no goals?

As coincidence would have it the feed from the blog zenhabits (which appears on Panic Station’s sidebar on the right hand side, half way down the page) echoes some of the points I made in this morning’s goal-less goal post.

Many people set fitness goals for the year. I’ve done it myself, but lately I’ve found that I can get fit without them. For one thing, when you set goals, they are often arbitrary, and so you are spending all your effort working towards a basically meaningless number. And then if you don’t achieve it, you feel like you failed, even if the number was arbitrary to start with.

You can create habits without goals — I define goals as a predefined outcome that you’re striving for, not activities that you just want to do. So is creating a habit a goal? It can be, or you can approach it with the attitude of “it doesn’t matter what the outcome of this habit change is, but I want to enjoy the change as I do it”.

So enjoy the habit change, in the moment, and don’t worry what the outcome of the activity is. The outcome matters very little, if you enjoy the journey.

For the rest of Leo’s compact guide to creating fitness habits, click on the zenhabits link on the sidebar.

And for those of you who suffer from too much goal-setting & a relentless focus on “being more productive” — maybe your New Year’s resolution should be to go goal-less for a 100 days … another suggestion brought to us by zenhabits.

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Filed under Self-help, States of mind, Time management

Just in time for New Year’s: The goal-less goal

Being overly concerned with achievements and material outcomes has traditionally been a Western condition. And in the last couple of decades more and more gurus are advising us that we must visualise our success — to see the scale hitting 135 pounds, to imagine ourselves crossing the finish line, to really feel what it will feel like when we finish writing that novel.

It seems logical that with any goal I should know the outcome I’m aiming for — that way I’ll know when I’ve reached it. And so in the past I’ve been committed to outcome-oriented goals… until a couple of years ago when I decided to learn how to run.

The first thing I did was sign up for a 5k race, to focus myself on a specific challenge that would arrive by a specific date. My 5k led to other 5k’s and eventually 10k’s. So having a specific outcome motivating me worked. Or did it? The sense of accomplishment I felt as I crossed the finishing line was not only fleeting, it was barely perceptible as it fleeted!

Only a couple of years before, running a 10k would’ve been inconceivable to me. I was geniunely the worst runner I’d ever met; people twice my body weight could run faster and further than me. For years I did everything but running to keep fit. Depsite this, completing my 10k failed to trigger a sense of pride or mastery or enhanced self-confidence. As I crossed the finish line, all I felt was a sigh of relief. Not even physical relief, but a psychological burden sort of relief: one of my more demanding to-do’s could be crossed from my list.

That’s how I discovered that outcomes aren’t necessarily what makes the goal worth the effort — it’s the process of getting there that is.

If the 10k gave me little satisfaction, the weeks of training for it did.

The sensation of running not only faster and further, but more naturally and comfortably, was deeply satisfying. Every time I hit the pavement, ran along the canal from Westbourne Grove down to Paddington and then into Hyde Park and along to Kensington Gardens and then up to the Caffe Nero on Hereford Road where I’d stop for my well-earned coffee — was worth it … both for how I’d feel at the end of each run and for the minute-by-minute pleasure of feeling my body in sync with my mind.

My trail along the canal and into the park was one little accomplishment after another. Foot in front of foot, in front of foot, in front of foot, my mind fell into rest as I pummelled along. My usual “should’s” and “must-do’s” and “why-am-I-so-bad-at-running” thoughts were finally overpowered and stunned into silence.

Here’s how another blog explains the benefit of process rather than outcome goals …

… people are too obsessed with outcomes and need to focus more on the process. This is captured in a lot of eastern-based philosophies that tell us … this exact moment is all we have so enjoy the present. Too much obsession about future results blocks our ability to grow and uncover hidden opportunities.

The Goal Triangle

The idea that process goals reflect a more Eastern outlook reminds me of Murakami’s book about running and being a writer.  Come to think of it, reading is the perfect example of process trumping outcome. All the pleasure is in the doing rather than the achieving.

Sure, there are things I want to accomplish. I want to complete a triathlon. I want to publish my book. I am not immune to wanting to reach concrete results, but I’ve come to realise that I’ll get a lot more pleasure out of the hours I put into trying to achieving these things than the hour I achieve it.

So happy reading, writing, walking, running, cycling, travelling, performing, playing, doodling, singing, skating, cleaning, cooking, chatting, dancing, sleeping, bathing and relaxing over the course of 2012.

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Filed under Self-help, Sport, States of mind

Get better acquainted

In the 2nd part of today’s 9/11 post, a few words about fiction and community.

On fiction — many have commented that there’s been no “definitive” 9/11 novel and are asking themselves why. Fiction often helps us understand and process what reportage and facts fail to deliver. In this brief 5 minute conversation several authors talk about 9/11 fiction. Listen here 

And if you’re out and about and unable to tune in, here’s an interesting article on 9/11 fiction from Salon.com 

On community — late last night I received an emailed announcement that took me by surprise. It was from the co-founder of www.meetups.com.

If you haven’t participated in a meet-up, check out the site. If you’re in London you could sign up to online marketing and social media events, “healing” nights, laughing clubs and impromptu gatherings of improving Spanish speakers — all taking place in the next couple of weeks. If you’re stuck working in a foreign city, meet-up’s are a brilliant idea.

I never knew that meet-up is a “9/11 baby” — born of a desire to get people talking to their neighbours again. The idea was to use the internet to get people off their computers and back out into the real world — spending time with like-minded souls and building off-line, in-the-flesh communities. Scroll down to read the email I received.

On getting better acquainted with other people — as squirmy as it feels to promote an hour of streaming Nat, since it’s just been published it would be weirder not to. And anyway, if you’re my Facebook friend you’ve already been bombarded with it earlier this week. So to wrap up on a weekend of podcast recommendations, this one involves getting better acquainted with me.

Brought to us by Dave-of-frequent-mention here at Panic Station, GBA (Getting Better Acquainted) is a weekly show about Dave getting better acquainted with someone. In this case — that person is me.
Listen to it here.

I’d also highly recommend getting better acquainted with Dave himself — Listen here for a very amusing collection of personal stories which he’s captured in the opening GBA podcast. Or if you’re short on time, start with this GBA sampler

Till next weekend, over & out — have a great week!

* * *

Email from Meetup Co-founder

To: Nathalie Hourihan
Subject: 9/11 & us

Fellow Meetuppers,

I don’t write to our whole community often, but this week is
special because it’s the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and many
people don’t know that Meetup is a 9/11 baby.

Let me tell you the Meetup story. I was living a couple miles
from the Twin Towers, and I was the kind of person who thought
local community doesn’t matter much if we’ve got the internet
and tv. The only time I thought about my neighbors was when I
hoped they wouldn’t bother me.

When the towers fell, I found myself talking to more neighbors
in the days after 9/11 than ever before. People said hello to
neighbors (next-door and across the city) who they’d normally
ignore. People were looking after each other, helping each
other, and meeting up with each other. You know, being
neighborly.

A lot of people were thinking that maybe 9/11 could bring
people together in a lasting way. So the idea for Meetup was
born: Could we use the internet to get off the internet — and
grow local communities?

We didn’t know if it would work. Most people thought it was a
crazy idea — especially because terrorism is designed to make
people distrust one another.

A small team came together, and we launched Meetup 9 months
after 9/11.

Today, almost 10 years and 10 million Meetuppers later, it’s
working. Every day, thousands of Meetups happen. Moms Meetups,
Small Business Meetups, Fitness Meetups… a wild variety of
100,000 Meetup Groups with not much in common — except one
thing.

Every Meetup starts with people simply saying hello to
neighbors. And what often happens next is still amazing to me.
They grow businesses and bands together, they teach and
motivate each other, they babysit each other’s kids and find
other ways to work together. They have fun and find solace
together. They make friends and form powerful community. It’s
powerful stuff.

It’s a wonderful revolution in local community, and it’s thanks
to everyone who shows up.

Meetups aren’t about 9/11, but they may not be happening if it
weren’t for 9/11.

9/11 didn’t make us too scared to go outside or talk to
strangers. 9/11 didn’t rip us apart. No, we’re building new
community together!!!!

The towers fell, but we rise up. And we’re just getting started
with these Meetups.

Scott Heiferman (on behalf of 80 people at Meetup HQ)
Co-Founder & CEO, Meetup
New York City
September 2011

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Filed under Bibliotherapy, Books etc., Current affairs, Not in London, Podcasts, Relationships, Self-help

I’m OK, You’re OK

Did you know that “OK” isn’t acutally a feeling? I didn’t.

I mean I didn’t realize that “OK” was an inappropriate response to:

 “So, how do you feel?”

But come to think of it, isn’t that a fairly invasive question? Well, it can be. It’s also a thoughtful one. Just depends who’s asking and why.

Often I reply that I’m OK or Fine or Good rather than admit to something less neutral (even “Good, thank you”  is an empty reply in polite society), because I’m not actually aware of what I’m feeling. Or whether I’m feeling anything at all. 

Are feelings at large at all times?

Maybe some people live in emotional technicolour. For the most part, I do not. I spend much more of my time picking up on other people’s feelings, like the situation I just walked away from at the Dunkin Donuts around the corner from my brother’s apartment here in New York.

We’ve got Hurricane Irene beating a path this way and with less than 48 hours to go, they’re already down to only 3 types of munchkins and no Boston Cremes. I thought the guy in front of me was going to lose his marbles with the poor man behind the counter doing his best. The situation was definitely going red.


Anyway, I’m not really convinced feelings are a good idea, but since I know that  ignoring them can lead to long term bad news (like clinical depression or donut addiction), I sometimes refer to this handy wheel if I have no idea what’s going on with myself.

I was thinking of campaigning the Feeling Wheel people (who are you? where are you?) to include OK/Fine somewhere on this chart. Maybe it could be like a 4th outer circle?

Please get  back to me if you are in fact one of those in charge of allowing new entries into the wheel.

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Filed under Not in London, Self-help