Category Archives: Work

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

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

The roles people play

I’m not sure when I first developed my pet theory that the roles we played at school can last a lifetime, but it was before I studied psychology or came across social theories that might back me up.

What I thought was this: school is where we have to learn to be ourselves in a group within many groups; it’s our first major test where we find out what our “role of least resistance” might be. That is, the performance that comes most naturally to us when faced with lots of peers — when faced with an overwhelming amount of opportunities to be rejected.

And school, just like the work place many of us are headed to afterwards, is where we spend a disproportionately huge chunk of our time on the planet.

I suspect my theory developed around 1995.

At the time I worked for Dell Computers. Each day I went to work in what I thought of as the George Jetson of offices. George was the father character from The Jetsons — a cartoon or “animated sitcom” from the early 60’s. And while I was not alive in the 60’s, The Jetsons made a brief come-back in the 80’s. In a nutshell, they were the sci-fi version of The Flintstones .  Given that I suffer from an intensely vague memory, it’s unusual that any TV programme, never mind The Jetsons, became so memorable to me. I guess it was because I loved the technology of their everyday lives. To this day I think of Jane Jetson in the morning as I ask myself Do I really have to take a shower, blow dry my hair, find something to wear, put on make-up? Why can’t life be like Jane’s where I could just walk over to the car-wash-like conveyor belt and come out the other side moments later all perfectly groomed by friendly robots, ready to go?

Anyway, I worked for Dell at their office outside Dublin which felt very much like a large hangar which made me think that just like George Jetson’s briefcase, the company could decide to fold up the whole building with the flip of a switch and move it to a different country. Who knew I was so forward-thinking and this is exactly what more and more companies would start to do.

But back to the point — inside this George Jetson briefcase of a building, I sat at my computer alongside two hundred other 20 something’s. So I’m pretty sure that’s when my “school theory” formed.

As for the role I played at school, over the years people have told me that I was some sort of outsider who managed to be cool, aloof and for some of the time … above being freaky. The other half of the time — or that is, to another group of people, I was just your average weirdo.

Which is odd, because I wasn’t particularly weird. I was just separate. And a bit of a loner, but a loner with “leadership energy” which drew other weirdos towards me — which I wasn’t always happy about because some of these kids were different for the sake of being different. And I’ve always thought that was stupid.*

So I was superior too.

Not that this role matched the me on the inside much at all (and this is another theory that I shall explore in a later post — that people with only a little gap between who they are on the inside compared with their outside role, suffer a lot less than those of us with a very large gap between who we really are and how we are perceived.)

I’m sensitive to the fact that we should be able to take a look at The Breakfast Club to find the character that I was. But we can’t. I was absolutely not what’s-her-face the posh snobby one (except possibly for one year of my life when I moved from a rich town where we poor to a poor town where we were, if not rich, then definitely wearing the wrong clothes). And if anyone says I was Ally Sheedy I won’t talk to them again. But it seems as if some version of who I was is probably captured in that movie. It was certainly the basic milieu of my teenage life. And it had the right soundtrack. But I guess I’m over thinking this because it was a movie about a cast of high school stereotypes from the American 80’s, so it’s no mystery I related to it … and if I’m not sure which stereotype I was — well, isn’t that the entire point of the identity crisis that’s otherwise known as being a teenager.

And so it was only when I got to Dell — a company on the outskirts of Dublin with cliques of its own and noticed that it bore an uncanny resemblance to an All-American, Catholic, Ice-hockey champion high school on the outskirts of Boston — that I realized that if you don’t belong in one place, then running off to try new places will backfire if you fail to notice that it is in your nature to be a non-belonger? And that non-belonging is born at school.

More on peer groups and social identity to follow soon …

*If you are a friend of mine from high school who was also a weirdo, I am not referring to you. You are a “keeper” and I did not regard you as weird for the sake of weird. I promise. I lost track of those people as soon I left America.


Filed under Identity, Social psychology, Work

Kids can be mean

But that’s terrible!’

By yesterday evening I realized I’d said these words 4 times this week in response to completely different stories about bad things happening to other people.

Each was a workplace war story.

In one case a friend’s husband lost his job in the first wave of the recession. He’d worked for a US transport company for 15 years. Everyone at the company knew that people would lose their jobs. But one senior person, instead of accepting he’d have to let people go and give those that were entitled some sort of compensation package, worked out how many of his staff he might be able to force into quitting. By making their life hell.

The friend confessed that she tried to convince her husband to quit several months into this regime …because she lay awake at night wondering if he was going to have a heart attack.

But he stood his ground, hit his impossible targets, eventually got made redundant and used the money to pursue his dream of running his own business.

The endings to the 3 other stories I heard were far less satisfying and involved everything from deeply immature managers to heads of HR with personal vendettas.

“But that’s terrible!” I’d say.

And then the following thought would enter my head: I am going to find out who these people are that ruin other people’s lives and I am going to write to them!!

Yes, well — it was a fleeting thought each time. A more lingering thought involved something my mother used to say about school playground crimes  “Well, kids can be mean.” And that’s the subject of this weekend’s blog — how it is that experiences we had in school can follow us around for the rests of our lives — and most especially into the workplace.


Filed under Identity, Work

Commissioned vs Non-commissioned Officers

Before I call it quits on this weekend’s investigation into words I’ve never properly understood, it is with shame that I mention that whenever I come across a reference to a commissioned or a non-commissioned officer, I think to myself that I must look up the difference. But I haven’t ’till now.

The shame …
Having spent most of my history degree studying wars, you’d think I’d have NCOs and COs clear in my head, but I don’t. I had forgotten. It reminds me of when I was a kid and about 90 minutes into The Eagle has Landed I’d double check with my dad to make sure I knew which ones were the Germans.

Strange coincidence …
In the past couple of weeks I’ve bumped into COs and NCOs on 3 different occasions of fiction which is weird because I don’t read a lot of fiction. It’s also weird in an on-time way because it was Remembrance Day this week … even if the anniversary of the end of  the First World War had zero to do with my recent choice in fiction.

3 different fictions …
I bumped into NCOs and COs in Murakami’s Wind-up Bird Chronicle, Verghese’s Cutting for Stone and O’Brien’s The Things they Carry.  

I cannot recommend O’Brien’s story enough. It’s short and it’s stunning. The back-drop is Vietnam, but the experience is Any War. If you haven’t done anything else to remember the military this week, please read this. You can download it here.

I also loved Cutting for Stone. Based mostly in Ethiopia in the second part of 21st century, we get to see some military action though the main focus of this addictive saga is the world of medicine and the fate of twin brothers born to an English surgeon and an Indian nun. Coincidentally, fellow blogger Aliceson posted a review of the book a few days ago.

As for Murakami’s Wind-up Bird, not so much my cup of tea. I loved his memoir on running, but this fiction left me cold. With one big fact exception. At a book club this past week we discussed this story and where we could all agree is that the best part of this 600 page book came about 100 pages in with Lieutenant Mamiya’s Long Story Part I and II, an account from the Japanese-Soviet  border fighting in Mongolia during World War II. The extract of this tale (complete in and of itself without needing to read the rest of Wind-Up) is also available online, here.

But back to the question … what’s the difference between a commissioned and a non-commisioned officer?

While it varies from country to country and across different parts of the armed forces, the former went to officer training school whereas the latter worked their way up through the ranks. Beyond that, it’s better explained by NCOs and COs themselves …. here are some of the best explanations I found online:

this is a difficult one to grasp and it varies by branch, ill try explaining it as a Marine. Commissioned Officers are managers. They all have formal schooling prior to joining. Their job is to oversee an office of Marines (who have been trained at specific tasks: motor repair, fuel, photography, computer networks.)

Non-commissioned (NCO’s) are enlisted Marines who have risen through the ranks. They are tasked with taking the officers plan and helping figure out how best to use the Marines to get it done. The NCO is responsible for training new Marines and
keeping them on task to complete the officer’s mission.

An officer will make general plans without specific knowledge of what the capabilities or restrictions of their Marines are. The NCO and Staff NCO (gunnery sergeant or staff sergeant) take those broad ideas and turn them into achievable goals for their junior Marines and then keep driving those Marines to get the job done.

Hope this helps, msg me if you still have a question.

Active duty Marine — NCO

* * *

I have been both an officer and an NCO. I was nine years enlisted before going to Officer Candidate School (OCS). It is not so much “which is better”… both are extremely important to the military… both jobs take skill and intelligence.An officer who has enlisted experience ( a “Mustang”) makes a better troop leader … but his chances of succeeding in the higher ranks is limited for several reasons (“ring knocker” clicks; right type of education, etc). As for the “@ss kissing” that goes on at all levels not just the officer ranks … the politics of personality is pervasive. You get paid more as an officer because you have more responsibility…your career can be destroyed in the slash of a pen. As an enlisted man I had nine article 15’s and a court martial…and still made E-8. As an officer I told my rating officer he was a “f_cking liar” in front of his boss and lost my career….. (never said I was smart.)

Airborne Ranger Green Beret, Cpt (retired)


I enlisted with plans of going to OCS [Officer Candidate School]. Got deployed to Iraq the first time and decided I would rather be an NCO. Now I am kind of regretting it somewhat – seeing guys with less experience, same education, having a great impact. Now on my 2nd deployment I wish I had of went to OCS.


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Filed under Books etc., Identity, Words, Work

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

Dead-tree journalism

As I mentioned yesterday, within hours of each other I came across two different stories where the central character wasn’t a person but a newspaper.

On the plane I noticed BA starred Page One, the documentary about The New York Times as a “hidden gem” and so I watched it. And when I arrived to my holiday destination I started on the novel I’d brought with me, The Imperfectionists, which revolves around an imaginary international broadsheet based out of Rome.

Both are better described as portraits as opposed to stories in the classic sense since both leave us with a sense of unresolved struggle. Both were satisfying in different ways and with both it was impossible for me not to revisit the fantasy I once had about becoming a journalist — they reaffirmed just how ill-suited I am to that profession.

Since the tension driving The Imperfectionists doesn’t rely on the fate of the newspaper, but rather the characters connected with it, I don’t think I’m spoiling things by revealing that the paper does indeed collapse. But how and why and when is well worth reading. More on that in the next post.

The Page One reality piece is interesting for a different reason — the characters are colourful, but we’re more gripped by the integrity of the paper itself and whether it can continue.

The film introduces us to an old hack, a new idealist and a tweeting pragmatist (read or listen to this short review by NPR if you don’t think you’ll get a chance to see it for yourself.) We get an insight into new vs old media as the movie offers us a New York Times investigation into the potential end of The New York Times.

Watching Page One I didn’t get choked up like I did when a colleague of mine insisted that the Kindle had come along to kill the book, but I was reminded of all the reasons why I’d once thought journalism if not the most noble, at least the most romantic job in the world.

I remain hopelessly intimidated by the sort of writers with the ferocious ambition, never mind talent, fearlessness and occasional personality disorders who go get the news for us. After the recent phone hacking sleaze and all the usual questions about who really owns the press, Page One is an on-time reminder that plenty of people still try hard to do the right thing. However much they might disagree about what that is.

But that’s all a bit preachy …. what I really got out of watching it was a nice big fat armchair fix.

If I wasn’t built to go off and be a journalist that doesn’t stop me from feeling a thrill watching others who did. Sure that captivation is infused with an envy and a disappointment with myself, but in the end that’s soothed by watching people do things I’d never want to do even if I believed I could. I remember reading Dark Star Safari, Paul Theroux’s intense account of travelling from the top to toe of Africa by land and water. I read the book from an infinity swimming pool in Turkey and when I put the book down I was beyond glad to be where I was and not where Paul had gone. I still feel that way about most of the news I read. On balance, grateful that someone else went out to get it.

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Filed under Bibliotherapy, Identity, Work