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.

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.