Laying fallow

Barn-and-Fallow-FieldRight at the start of my #Flourish40 experiment, a pressing concern was that I shouldn’t turn into a douchebag. The reason? If I were to bang on too much about flourishy-flourishy stuff and become Little Miss Self-Improvement, then I am in clear danger of becoming boring, earnest and perhaps a little bit psycho.

I also remembered, somewhere along the way, that humans are the creatures who are best at habituating themselves of all. In other words we are highly adaptable.* So highly adaptable that what is for a short while a novelty soon turns into something just mundane and ordinary—we go from ‘whoah!’ to ‘meh’ surprisingly easily.

And it’s when we get to ‘meh’ that stuff starts slipping. And, for me, earlier this year, that was a moment for me to go ‘uh?’. I’ll stop with all that ‘meh’, ‘uh’ ‘whoah’ stuff now. It was a moment for me to galvanise myself to take stock, to spring clean.

But now, now I realise that actually to do what Franklin tried to do and have a clean sheet of virtues on repeat week after week for ever is INSANE and most likely deeply depressing. In fact, we humans are cyclical beings**, and what would be much more sensible is to acknowledge, honour and maximise those cycles of productivity/sloppiness or flourishing/languishing.

A regimen a bit like the one I adopted for six weeks is a good idea [well done me], but it can’t last forever. It shouldn’t. It should be a temporary, stop-gap thing. A time to do a slightly drastic realignment, with the expectation that it will need to happen again at another point. Maybe in a month. Maybe in a year.

Here’s how I see my cycle:

  1. TRUNDLE AND BUMBLE. I’m just mooching along, doing what I’m doing, not really thinking, getting most stuff done and feeling okay. I’m picking up a few bad habits, and they’re sticking because I’m not really mindful of them because I’m really pretty busy right now, okay?
  2. LANGUISH AND FADE.The mooching gives way to the mounting stress and doom of too much to do, too little time. I’m not burned out just yet, but I’m conscious that it’s not that far away. So I have a choice: continue trundling along, doing too much and getting stretched or—
  3. GO FALLOW. Deliberately shut down and do just the bare minimum that’s required to function in key elements of life, such as, um, my job or being a parent/wife/friend. Maybe after a few days, I’ll throw a pity party for myself; put on some Annie Lennox, find a box of Kleenex and read through Forbes’ 30 under 30 knowing that I’ll never make that list, while piles in my inbox and laundry basket mount on up.
  4. CRITICISE AND LOAF. Write out all the things I wish I did differently. Then figure out which ones would make the most impact, right now, if I were to change them. At the same time do utterly unproductive, inane and possibly morally/ethically dubious stuff (buy Company AND InStyle AND Grazia, buy scarily cheap clothes, eat three hamburgers and a burrito in a week, plug my child into an iPad for 24 hours) until I get to the sweet spot of functional self-loathing. And this is the moment to devise the regimen, the six-week or forty day boot camp to restore order and move up.
  5. BEGIN THE REGIMEN. Make a small number of hard rules and try to stick with them for a short amount of time. Note down what works and what doesn’t and reflect on the process. Keep going. Stay strict on myself, but reward myself when I do well. Probably with chocolate. This is the time to aim higher than where I ever expect to land, in the expectation that I’ll land somewhere higher than I if I had expected to land somewhere lower. (Victor Frankl says that better.)
  6. DITCH THE REGIMEN. And go to guidelines. If I stay on the regimen too long that’s when I have the potential of really going psycho. Instead, at the end, ditch the rules, and develop just a few guidelines on what I’d now mostly like to be doing. Keep going until it falls back into the trundle and bumble stage and then start all over again.

*This is one of those posts where I’m not fact-checking; so go on the assumption that all claims I’m making are spurious.

**As above.


A forty-day habit


I’m hanging out with the kid more, but I’m still instagramming it.

I’m two-thirds of the way through my #Flourish40 experiment. I’ve suffered systemic failures, and there hasn’t been a single clean sheet yet. So what on earth has gone right? Why am I doing this? Am I just being a, um, “douche”?*  

(*as suggested by a friend when I told him about #Flourish40. It’s never great being called a douche, especially when you’re nearly thirty-two, but it has made me develop a sort of douchey-litmus-test for what I’ve been doing and thinking, to keep my super douchey ideas and actions in check. A bit. So if you see an * in this post, you’ll see where I’m noting to myself that I might have strayed a little into douchedom. You may well argue that this paragraph alone warrants a *. And I am open to that.*)

Some stuff has gone right. Here are a few specific things I’ve learned in the last three and a bit weeks:

  • Final line from 'The Great Gatsby'

    Final line from ‘The Great Gatsby’

    The kid (and I) can do an awful lot of puzzles in an hour instead of watching Cbeebies.
  • A great online collaboration tool (such as Asana) cuts down on so much unnecessary email noise and clutter.
  • As does Twitter.
  • Reading books is better than I remembered.
  • Crochet is a seasonal pastime for me, and tis not the season.
  • After not calling people for about three years, I shouldn’t be surprised that not many friends [read: zero] are calling me back.
  • I’ve been double-checking and it is actually not possible to find the time to work and exercise and cook and sleep and play with the kid and kick back all in one day.
  • whiskeyWhiskey wins over wine.
  • Having a tidy desk makes me feel smug and productive.
  • Getting my inbox to zero is one thing.  Keeping it at zero is another thing entirely.
  • Black bean and chocolate cake is DELICIOUS.
  • Vegetarians get tired.
  • I can make a veggie burger, its bun and its ketchup from scratch. Hello, 100% homemade supper. Booooom.* [Where will this stop? Am I going to suddenly be raising chickens to make mayo? Experimenting with a little project versus getting obsessive.  Note to self. Watch yourself.]
  • Roller Derby is awesome to watch and tempting to join.

These of course are all specific to me and most likely of no help to anyone else. But there are a couple of things I’ve gleaned so far that I think do have wider relevance. Although maybe this is where the my-being-a-douche bit comes in.

The prospect of changing a habit is likely to be harder than actually changing it.

Take me and steak. I love steak. Rare steak. As in, any time it’s on the menu at any restaurant, I order it and I eat all of it. [Note, this is also something for me to cross-reference with my inability to budget]. So the prospect of not eating steak for six weeks? ANATHEMA. IM-FULL-STOP-POSSIBLE. Before the #Flourish40 kick-off, I had a week-long thought process that went a bit like this: Bud [husband] is considering going veggie for a bit? Okay. No, not okay. He’s been making artisanal salami for a living, for one thing. But also: what about me and steak? When can I eat steak? I can’t ever be veggie. What would I eat? A meal without meat does not constitute a meal. OXYMORON. Can’t do it. I really want a steak. Now. Maybe I have a problem? Still want steak. Maybe I should try to not eat steak? Steak. Steak.  But what if I set myself a short amount of time to not eat steak? Maybe it would be possible to not eat it. Like, it’s a game, for me. I like games. Perhaps as much as I like steak. I mean, I am competitive. And I’m perfectly happy being competitive against myself—it’s a win-win. Ahahahaa I am funny.* So here’s a game! Let’s play the I’m Not Going To Eat Steak (Or Any Other Meat) Game! For six weeks! F to the U to the N! That was my thinking. And I’ve totally not eaten steak. Or any other meat stuff. Weirdly, the hardest bit has been getting to that decision, getting to that place where I could actually say: I am not going to eat steak/meat for six weeks. Since then it’s felt a bit like a done deal. Decision made. Very little temptation. It’s been easy because something either is meat or it isn’t.  It’s clear cut.  I really thought it would be harder.

It is REALLY hard, as in distinctly-unnecessary-hard, to actually change about eleven habits at once.

I can play this game with other stuff too! I love telly and Twitter! A bit too much! Let’s play the I’m Not Going To Be On Screens Game! AWE-FULL-STOP-SOME. I’m good at getting over-excited by an idea and taking it to the point of delirium. I’m also good at either/or situations, as in I either eat steak or I do not. It’s when stuff is a little less clear cut that I run into difficulty. That, and having a lot of other F to the U to the N ideas that I am running simultaneously. I can allow myself to bring in valid sub-rules (as in “no screens pre-9am or post-6pm, except when I’m getting an early or late train or when Bud is out in the evening and it would be good to use that time to work, like right now) and basically game myself out of being a real-deal winner. There are people in the world who say that less is more. I am still not one of them.

It’s okay to set wildly ambitious goals and not achieve any of them.

I am competitive. I mentioned that. These days I’m also pretty good at being competitive about things that I have a strong likelihood of achieving, which reinforces my smugness, and my competitiveness. So it’s been good for me to aim to set myself a goal that I alone have the capability to achieve, but that I haven’t. And to watch myself as I go through that process of failing and how I manage that. And also not then getting too smug and competitive about what a good failure I’ve been. Because on the scale of one to dementing, that ranks in at about eleven.

I’ve found an elegant and persuasive quote to explain away my incessantly optimistic and overly ambitious nature. Thank you, Victor Frankl, for your lecture in 1972, where you speak following the tracks of Goethe:

“We have to be idealists in a way, because then we wind up as the true realists. If we take man as he is, we make him worse. But if we take man as he should be we make him capable of becoming what he can be.”

I love, love, love this. I highly recommend you watch the full (three minute) video here: 

Being successful at being a grown up involves learning how not to have a tantrum and how to keep on top of admin [my old adage], but it also involves how to budget your time and money [my new, less snappy adage].But budgeting in time for spontaneity is JUST WRONG.

That’s all I really have to say about that.

Attempting to change, to do stuff differently, works better when you have a bit of time to think about what you’re doing and to communicate your reflections.

This isn’t just an excuse to have lots of really long baths. Crucially, you need to find the time and space to put your thoughts out there, somewhere, to make sense of them and to develop your own narrative arc.* It helps makes things stick.narrative_arc

I think I might leave this post right here, at 4 and change…

benjamin franklin self-improvement

Franklin and other folks

franklinReader, I don’t know what you were doing when you were twenty, but I was mostly slumped on a sofa, eating toast and Nutella, crying as dogs died on telly, and using my tears to drown the swift-rising dread of next morning’s essay deadline.

Not so young Benjamin Franklin. By the time he left his teenage years, he had drawn up a list of thirteen virtues that he would then fastidiously act upon week after week, year after year.

What were the thirteen? Ta da:

  1. TEMPERANCE. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
  2. SILENCE. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
  3. ORDER. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
  4. RESOLUTION. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
  5. FRUGALITY. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
  6. INDUSTRY. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
  7. SINCERITY. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
  8. JUSTICE. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
  9. MODERATION. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
  10. CLEANLINESS. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.
  11. TRANQUILLITY. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
  12. CHASTITY. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
  13. HUMILITY. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

Now, fascinated as I am by his thirteen and his definitions (why thirteen, buddy? feels odd), they would not be how I’d put things. I actually think I could do with more trifling conversations rather than less. And the whole chastity thing, well. Good use of ‘venery’ though. And ‘injury’. High fives.

It’s not that Franklin is alone in trying to drum up a taxonomy of virtues or characteristics/traits/attributes/strengths/whatever-you-wanna-call-them. In fact loads of other people have. It’s a thingArtistotle had a go, a while ago, in a long-winded and nebulous way. In recent years there’s been a new explosion, and a whole new branch of science called, horribly, ‘positive psychology’. Check out Martin Seligman‘s twenty-four, Angela Duckworth‘s seven and, most recent of all, Alain de Boton‘s ten.

There are lots of similarities and overlaps in all of them. A sort of top level consensus that there are a number of things we should focus on to improve our levels of happiness/ability to flourish. But beyond that there’s no real agreement. Nor disagreement. More like a bunch of theoretical ducks bobbing merrily about in the same sea of happy.

To be honest, I can’t exactly remember why, when founding Spark+Mettle, I focused on the nine ‘competencies’ highlighted by Felicia Huppert at Cambridge’s Institute of Wellbeing. But I did.Over the last couple of years we’ve tested them out with young people we’ve been working with, and developed a programme that allows us all to talk about, act upon and reflect on them on a weekly basis. We did a little reshuffle, threw ‘creativity’ into the mix, and squidged ‘optimism’ into ‘positive emotions’, and these are now the Spark+Mettle nine:

  1. SPARK. Engagement or interest in what you do.
  2. METTLE. Resilience, grit or determination; the ability to keep going and work through something even if it’s hard.
  3. PURPOSE. A sense of meaning to your life that can help carry you forward.
  4. CREATIVITY. The ability to make things that are new or original, either with your hands or in your head—including coming up with new ideas or approaches.
  5. POSTIVIE RELATIONSHIPS. Strong and meaningful ties with a range of other people, including family, friends, colleagues etc.
  6. AGENCY. A sense that you have good control over your life, your decisions, your direction.
  7. SELF-ESTEEM. A feeling of confidence and an understanding of who you are and what you are capable of.
  8. POSITIVE EMOTIONS. Feelings of optimism about the future as well as a feeling of contentment, satisfaction or happiness about the present, or even the past.
  9. VITALITY. Energy, alertness.

[Aside: You can take a quick survey and find out your top three on our new Discoverables site.]

Back to Franklin. He didn’t just come up with a list. He then came up with a framework to make sure he was improving. He drew up a weekly chart, making a mark on any day when he did not achieve any of the thirteen virtues.  And each week he had a particular focus on one of the thirteen; temperance, say. And when thirteen weeks were up, he started all over.

benjamin franklin self-improvement


We adapted this idea to Spark+Mettle and it is now at the core of our framework.

Crikey, this is a long post. The point is that I love this format: taking a small(ish) number of strenghts/traits to work on, and doing it again in a cyclical process: gradually improving, constantly mindful. It’s neat. We get to talk and think and do. And track how we’re moving forward towards the best version of ourselves. In and of itself, it makes me really happy.

But my dilemma is how to now throw in this crazy, intensive 40-day super flourish period that I conjured up in a flurry of excitement and a blog post?  How it would actually work? How to make it productive, useful and manageable? And, er, fun? Don’t want to be no killjoy. That would totally defeat the point. I’m now at T-3 days. Is that how you say it? I don’t know even why I tried.

I’m going to go walk the dogs. It’s miserable outside. I may be sometime.

3 good things

The quickest way to improve well-being

There’s a book called Flourish, written by esteemed psychologist Martin Seligman. It’s fascinating, and readable. And long. And contentious. So if you don’t have the time/inclination to read it, let me tell you its quickest solution to helping you flourish:

Once a day, write down three things that went well.

That’s it! And they don’t have to be things that YOU did, they could be things that just happened. And they don’t have to be things that happened directly to YOU, they could be things that affected you indirectly, but in a positive way.

Now—I don’t know about you, but doing that once a day is a bit much. Is that the British in me? Or just the busy in me? Who knows. So I like to adapt Seligman’s recommendation and say instead:

Once a week, write down three things that went well.

I also recommend sharing them with someone: a colleague or teacher or friend. Or me! I’d love to know what’s been going on… :-) Drop me an email or leave a comment below and tell me all about it. Here are my examples for the week…

3 good things