Category Archives: Time management

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.



Press Submit.



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

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

Continue reading


Filed under Not in London, Random idea, 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


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.


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

Walking to work

Train journeys and beach combing are great, but they don’t happen everyday. If they did happen everyday they might not be quite as special as they are. Even though there are special times that happen every day. And one of them is walking to work.

For a couple of years I had a 20 minute walk to the office. My morning and evening strolls took me through Kensington Gardens and so it was a form of commuting that couldn’t go on forever. It was just too ideal.

But even if it’s not as easy to walk to work today, I’ve kept this part of my day in tact for 2 reasons — for what walking to work spares me and for what it gives me.

It spares me the rat race that got the better of me a few Wednesdays back. Nothing gets the day off to a more unhelpful start than having to fight your way to the office and nothing saps the final ounce of fight we may have left having to do the same all the way home. Walking liberates me from the worst part of urban living – the commuter crush.

But walking to work also gives me something on top of what it spares me. It gives me TIME TO PREPARE.

Walking to work I gather my thoughts before I am bombarded by the demands of others.

Boundaries aren’t my specialty. I’m wired to respond. No matter what else is more important to do first, I’ll cave into what other people want me to do first. If I’m not prepared. A walk to work prepares me. It bolsters my own sense of what needs doing.

A few years ago I was at my mother’s house. She’d invited over a handful of people for dinner. Like twenty. This is what my mom likes to do. Have people ’round. I got talking to two of them. At first we were speaking about writing a book. One of them had and he was saying how the only way he managed it was to force himself to write every morning for an hour. Which led us into a conversation where I said that I needed to start each work day by doing “3 things first.”  What I’d meant was that if I don’t start the day with the things in mind that must happen first, then some of the most important things I need to do may not get done. They’ll get brushed aside in favour of other urgent/important things that I hadn’t even known about before I got to work.

Sure, sometimes these urgent/important new things are more important than my “first 3 things” but since there’s no end to new urgencies they can wait the 30 minutes I set aside to do my important 3 things.

I tend to pick things that I might forgo for more temptingly urgent work. Stuff that’s important but not so exciting. And I choose these 3 things on my walk to work.

I enter a trance like state — helped by walking the same well-worn path each morning — one involving very few traffic lights and walk signs (which require concentration, folks, wait for the green-sometimes-white man, what’s your hurry? let’s not run in front of moving cars!). Over the course of my trance, the to-do’s that have stuck in my consciousness — the ones that carry more guilt than the rest of my to-do list — float around the place like leaves in the wind and before I get to the office I choose 3 worth sorting out first.

When I finished explaining this (the shortened version without the leaves), I noticed the non-book-writing friend of my mother was staring at me expectantly.

“What?” I asked.

“Well, what are the 3 things, then?” she asked.

She had no idea that my 3 things were a principle and a modus operandi, not the same 3 things each day. Which was a reminder to me that some people don’t have the sorts of work where they have to manage their own time. This woman is a trauma nurse, she works in A&E . She goes to work and she executes. What she does is lying before her waiting for her attention. Literally.

The last time I had a job like that I was a waitress. Not that I’m saying that this is the same as nursing, but both jobs demand much more Doing than To-do Listing. Neither leave room for much procrastination because neither offer that level of autonomy or choice about what to do next. It’s possible to be a brilliant waitress or nurse and not even have a to-do list!

And even if inboxes can require as much triage as an A&E room,  I knew then that my “first 3 things” were somewhat lost on the life-long nurse to whom I’d be talking.

But anyway, that’s what walking does for me – it puts me into work mode before I get to work, so that I get at least 3 things done before succumbing to the chaos of the day.

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Filed under States of mind, Time management, Work