Choose your words carefully

Time

To resolve or not to resolve, that is the question. It’s the one we ask ourselves each January as the annual invitation to start over rolls around. In the media, there’s the usual flurry of “How to make resolutions that last”-type articles (the kind of stuff I love to read), along with the expected slew of “Why making resolutions is a waste of time” pieces (not my cup of tea). Personally, I feel resolution-making as an expression of the will to self-improvement is never to be discouraged: the simple act of voicing a desire to change and then attempting to do so is a massive step forward. For me, failure to keep a resolution does not indicate that making resolutions is futile; rather it suggests that the resolution was perhaps the wrong one for you, or it was made for the wrong reasons, or – crucially – it was badly worded.

Specific and committed

The way in which we word and specify our intentions is crucial to their longevity. The difference between “I’m going to be healthier in 2015” and “I’m going to jog for 10 minutes twice a week in 2015” is huge. The first is vague and contains no real action, the second is specific and involves a solid commitment. Which is more likely to be kept?

Now, you’d think that, self-improvement info junkie that I am, I’d be able to sidestep these kinds of mental potholes. Think again. This New Year, I caught myself making a whopper of a rookie error as I sat down to set some intentions for 2015. There I was with a nice list of all the things I wanted to find more time for over the year – yoga, new coaching clients, promoting my work as a writer – when I noticed that every item on that list was – mentally – preceded by the words “I will find more time to…” See the fatal flaw? Answers on a postcard to the woman who’s still looking through her chest of drawers to find where she left that bit of spare time she just knows she put somewhere for safekeeping.

Stop searching, start creating

What was I thinking? You don’t find time for anything. Time is not a crumpled fiver you come across down the side of the sofa, nor is it something you discover left over at the end of a long day. Time is finite; no-one gets any more than 24 hours in a day.

The minute I changed the word “find” to “make”, my perspective on my resolutions changed. I am going to have to make time to prospect for clients, clear space in my diary for that extra yoga class, and – whisper it – make the choice between crashing on the sofa like an extra from The Walking Dead and getting out the laptop to write. Finding time is about trying to cram even more into the day, snatching five minutes here and there. Making time is about saying no to activities that aren’t priority, crafting your schedule to work towards your objectives, and making conscious decisions about where you put your energy at any given moment – which sometimes means giving up things that aren’t useful and don’t serve you.

A sense of agency

It all comes down to a feeling of agency, really. Making time puts me firmly in the driver’s seat of my life, relying on myself to make the decisions that get me where I want to be. Finding time – just like finding a forgotten banknote – relies to a large extent on luck and good fortune. And my goals are a little too important to me to leave them in the lap of the gods. Aren’t yours?

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Finding time

We all get just 24 hours in our day, so how come some people seem to manage to find time for everything and others are permanently rushing? When it comes to time management, some are definitely more equal than others.

The most common complaint I hear from friends, colleagues and coaching clients is some variant of “I would like to, but I don’t have time”. I don’t have time to exercise, take up a hobby, read more, write my novel, go to the theatre… We live in an age of endless time-saving devices; we have more holiday allowance than ever before; and the Internet makes accessing information from around the globe the work of seconds. Yet some of us still struggle to fit everything into the same 24 hours that everyone else is getting. Here are a few simple strategies to reclaim the clock and slow down the race.

1.       Saying yes means saying no

And saying no means saying yes. When you say yes to dinner with friends, you are saying no to an evening on the sofa watching reruns of How I Met Your Mother. And when you say no to drinks with a colleague after work, perhaps you’re saying yes to a bath, a book and early to bed. When you are conscious of what you’re accepting and what you’re rejecting, you can start to make more conscious choices based on what your body, mind and soul need right now. And that’s a first step to using time on purpose.

2.       You can achieve a lot in 5 minutes

You can make the bed, do a short breathing exercise, send a text to reach out to a friend, or write a list of prospects to contact for your business. Every minute is useful for something. Don’t get sucked into to thinking that if you don’t have a whole hour to spend on a project there’s no way you can make any progress today.

3.       Christmas is on 25th December, every single year

And this year will be no exception. So why do so many people find themselves queuing up to buy a soap selection basket in The Body Shop at 4pm on Christmas Eve? Why not buy gifts throughout the year (when you happen upon the perfect present or the sales are in full swing) and put them away until Christmas? Why not set aside a weekend at the end of October for some internet purchases and another mid November to head to the shops? It’s all about planning. The same is true of birthdays, anniversaries and tax returns. Don’t let events that you can so easily anticipate sneak up on you!

4.       Remember who’s the slave and who’s the master

Is Facebook a fun way of keeping up with distant friends or a time suck that distracts you from writing your thesis? Does Twitter help you keep up with the latest news while you’re in between meetings, or do you find yourself emerging from a session of tweet-surfing to find that an hour has passed and your friend’s surprise birthday party hasn’t planned itself? Social media and the Internet can be forces for organisation and time-efficiency when used well. Make sure you’re staying in control.

We all get the same 24 hours every day. And what you choose to do with them is your business. Just make sure you’re doing just that: choosing.   

Lucky burdens

When you’re feeling weighed down by duties and chores, look past the to-do list to the blessing behind the burdens and you’ll soon find they’re light as a feather.

As everyone I’ve spoken to since last May knows (I’m just a little excited), the Beloved and I are currently planning our wedding. He got down on one knee (yep, literally) just under a year ago and we’ve been plotting and booking and researching ever since. Now, I’ve always loved organising and arranging, so you can just imagine the spree I’ve been on since we got engaged. There’s a joint wedding gmail account with an email address for all things nuptial and several (you really thought I’d limit myself to one?) spreadsheets for budget, venues, guest list… It’s planner’s paradise.

The best laid plans

I have to say that my occasionally annoying urge to structure, label and list is really coming in handy right now, and the Beloved has been, to a lesser extent, bitten by the bug too. He’s a maths and computer whizz so my simple spreadsheets now have formulae to calculate the numbers of guests sure to come, the number of children likely to be there, marquee price comparisons…

The thing with a wedding is that there really is a lot to think about, a lot to do and – crucially – most tasks depend on other tasks. For example, we need to book a date at the town hall for the civil wedding, which is obligatory in France. Before we can do that, I need to obtain a certified translation of my birth certificate, but before I can get it translated, I need to get a special version dated within the last six months… So, you see, you can’t just attack your to-do list (which is often my approach – a blind blitz attack); you have to do things in the right order. You can’t book a DJ until you have a date, but can’t set a date until you find the venue, and know it’s available. My college friend Rachel (for whose wedding I received an invitation the very day the Beloved and I first met) encapsulated the beauty and ephemeral nature of wedding planning when she wrote to me: “You have to acquire very specific knowledge very quickly, learning a huge of amount of stuff that you’ll never use again”.

A very specific skill set

Rachel was right. I now have a working knowledge of venue contracts, and I know all the French words for the various shades of a colour I once just referred to as “white”. But, in the midst of tasting desserts and trying on dresses and addressing envelopes, the biggest lesson I am currently learning is one of perspective. When the Beloved proposed, I was over the moon, simply thrilled to know we were to be joined forever in matrimony and that we’d be making our commitment public and sharing the day with all our friends and family. But as

The Day draws near and decisions have to be made and friends and family start offering helpful tips and opinions about how things really should be done, the pressure builds.

Online forums are full of women whipping each other into a frenzy about the traditional meaning of different flowers, the take-his-name/keep-your-own debate, and the “right” number of bridesmaids. Films like “Bridesmaids” with their incredibly opulent weddings make your own somewhat humbler proceedings feel shabby by comparison, and having seen the once hilarious, but now that I’m engaged, frankly petrifying film “The Hangover”, I break out in a cold sweat whenever the words “stag night” are uttered in my presence.

Enjoy the process

With all that going on (plus, you know, little things like holding down a full-time job, writing columns, washing, shopping, hauling myself to the gym…) it’s easy to lose sight of the endgame. Which is – we’re getting married. Never a weekend free from some kind of wedding errand? Deal with it – you’ve met the love of your life! Hand aching from addressing envelopes? For heaven’s sake – you’re lucky to have so many loved ones with whom to share the day. And as for arguing with the Beloved over buttonholes and seating arrangements – well, I’d rather avoid the irony of having cross words over how/when/where/with whom we are to declare our undying love.

I only intend to get married once in my life, so I am determined to enjoy the process as much as the day itself. I refuse to squabble for a year while we plan what is supposed to be the happiest day of our lives. And a wedding is just one example of how keeping sight of the endgame and maintaining a sense of perspective prevent you from undermining the ultimate joy of what you’re doing. Quarrelling over holiday plans falls into the same category for me, as does getting uptight about taking the wrong route out of the city for a weekend away. The drive is part of the trip – enjoy the process, put it in perspective, and remember to buy a more up-to-date map when you get back.

Lucky you

Whenever I feel overwhelmed by all the stuff I have to juggle in life, I remember the words of my wise friend Pam. Once, as I complained about how I was behind in my novel for book club, didn’t have an evening without a commitment for the next two weeks, had only half-written my latest column, and couldn’t even find time to get to the bank to pay in a cheque, she looked me in the eye and said: “Wow, it must be fun to be in a book club! And you’ve loads of social nights out planned? Nice! You’re already half-way done on your column? And someone gave you some money that you need to put in the bank? What a lot of lucky burdens to carry.” Pam’s point, simply stated, has proved very hard to forget. Luckily.

Make it easy on yourself

Acquiring just a few good organisational habits will help your day go with a swing rather than a bang – because life doesn’t have to be so hard.

It’s a commonly held misconception that life is hard. That it’s a struggle, a war, and that, even in the comfort of relatively peaceful first-world countries, we still have to do daily battle – with a never-ending to-do list, demands from family, friend and bosses, the pressure to keep up with fashion, the news, the Joneses…

But I don’t buy all that. Sure, life has its challenges. They range from the everyday, like finding and keeping a job and maintain good relationships, to the exceptionally hard times when we encounter death, heartbreak, serious illness, depression… Luckily, these kinds of major problems are infrequent for most of us. What’s more, when the serious problems do come along, we have a tendency to rise to the challenge – we activate our support network, we shore ourselves up, and become acutely aware of the need to be kind to ourselves and stay strong.

Nice and easy does it every time

In my experience, it’s not the “big stuff” that floors people, but the accumulation of lots of “small stuff”. When people talk about what regularly exhausts them and causes them stress, more often that not it’s the regular hassles, the daily grind, a lack of time, the constant feeling of frazzled and overstretched. Yet, most of these sources of stress are self-induced. Household clutter is an issue for many people – yet what’s to stop them clearing it away? The pre-work rush gets lots of us off to a bad start but the quality of our morning routine is entirely in our own hands.

Acquiring a few simple and healthy organisational habits can make such a difference and help you live a more easeful life. After all, when you rush from place to place, lurching from crisis to crisis, are you running your life or is your life running you – into the ground? I get frazzled at times, just like everyone, but I do try to stick to a few great strategies for making life just a little easier and therefore more pleasant for myself and everyone around me.

If it will only take two minutes, do it straight away

You get home from work and change your clothes, remove your jewelry, etc. It takes almost as long to throw everything on your dressing table as it does to put them in the wash basket, hang them up and put your earrings into your jewelry box. The difference: a clear bedroom, your favourite gold hoops don’t eventually get lost, and, when you have friends for dinner that week, the pre-visit clearing up is reduced, which in turn means you don’t have to rush home from work, frantically stuffing piles of cloths under the bed and swearing as you step barefoot on the aforementioned lost earrings!

Leave more than enough time between meetings and appointments

You need to make a doctor’s appointment. The receptionist suggests 6pm on Tuesday. You’ve got a meeting until 5.30pm and you want to get to your tango class at 8pm. The doctor’s office and the dance school are about 45 minutes apart. Sounds doable, but before accepting the appointment, think about the possibilities for that day. Your meeting ends at 5.45pm instead of 5.30pm. You don’t even have time to tidy your desk before rushing out the door to the doctor. She’s running late and you don’t get to see her before 6.45pm. The doctor has a test she wants you to undergo, she calls the clinic to make the appointment while you’re there…the clock is ticking. You leave her at 7.15pm, run to the station, catch a train in the nick of time and arrive at your class just as the warm-up is beginning. You’re already hot and frazzled, you haven’t had time to change your shoes, and you go straight into the class without even having time to say hi to a few of the other regulars (which was the reason you joined in the first place – to make new friends). What part of all of that did you actually enjoy, let along savour? And, seriously – why on earth would you do that to yourself?

Pack your bag the night before

It takes three minutes to make sure your handbag is ready for the next day before turning in for the night (even better – do it as soon as you get home, before you sit down to relax). Run through your day in your mind and imagine what you’ll need as you leave the house, see a client, walk to the tube, call a taxi, stop by the shops. Keys, purse, phone (does it need charging? plug it in now!), train pass, lip balm, period is due – shove a couple of tampons in the side pocket, meeting first thing – do I have a few business cards in my wallet?, take that letter to post, grab a reusable shopping bag… It’s one thing you won’t have to do the next day before the coffee has truly kicked in and you’re firing on all cylinders.

Delete or file emails as you read and reply

My email inbox is basically my online to-do list. Everyday, I go through the new emails, read and file things that are just for information, delete the junk and am left with, say ten, that actually require action. I fire off responses to the ones I can (glorious quick wins) and then file them. The inbox is now halved. As long as an email remains in my inbox I know I haven’t finished dealing with it, and the fact that it’s not lost among 50 emails that I have dealt with means that I won’t forget to do so.

Let the phone go to voicemail

Ok. Minor rant now. Why, oh why, do people answer the phone only to say, “Sorry, I’m in a meeting / having lunch with a friend / in a museum. Can I call you back?” Firstly, it’s rude to the person they’re actually with. Secondly, it ruins their concentration and ability to be in the here and now. Thirdly, they almost always forget to call that person back because how often do you immediately write “Call Sandra back” on your to-do list?  What is so wrong with letting calls go to voicemail when it’s an inconvenient time to talk? The voicemail reminders ensure you won’t forget to return the call, and you’re etiquette karma is intact.

Days of our Lives

It’s easy to let the days go by, unchecked, unnoticed. But the days become years, and the years become your life. Take a moment to consider what you want to look back on in a week, a year, a decade and start living that life today.

For one month during the autumn of 1995, the first thing people said to each other when they arrived for work on Monday was some variant of “Did you see Pride and Prejudice last night? Oh my God, Darcy in the lake!” Other than those unforgettable few weeks, when every British woman’s Sunday evening was brightened by Colin Firth smouldering around Derbyshire, the most common Monday-morning coffee room question has to be: “So, what did you do this weekend?”

Just another manic Monday

It’s a perfectly innocent question, but it can feel so probing. It’s fine when you’ve been out and about, visiting family, a museum or a stately home (keeping an eye out for signs of brooding, muscular, white-shirted lake-swimmers, of course). But when you know the most action you saw was when you punctuated your busy day of watching reruns of How I Met Your Mother with some short bursts of standing in front of the fridge wondering what to eat next, the question is less welcome.

Lazing on a Sunday afternoon

Most of us get two days off work a week and, in 2011, there are 105 weekend days. What we choose to do with the 2520 free hours we have this year makes a statement about who we are. Obviously, we all need to recuperate from the working week; we also need to shop, iron, wash clothes, etc. And we all need a certain amount of time for what my friend Charlotte calls “slobbing”. But, in all honesty, can any of us really say that we make full use of every Saturday and Sunday? Maybe thinking about what we’re going to tell colleagues we did with our days off by the water cooler on Monday morning would motivate us make the best of the time we have to ourselves.

It was a very good year

It’s easy to fritter weekends away, but the days add up, and soon a year has passed. I’m currently approaching my next birthday and as a result, am prompted to think about all that’s happened in the last 12 months. I’m thinking about what I’ve achieved and experienced, and people I’ve spent time with. Invariably, I see my birthday as a kind of personal Day of Judgement, where I am held accountable for how I have chosen to spend the precious time I’ve been given over the last year. And the question I always ask myself when I’ve finished evaluating the past is an extension of the Monday-morning office question: “How do I want to be able to say I spent my days, this time next year?”

Those were the days, my friend, we thought they’d never end

As the years turn into a lifetime, that question becomes: “How do I want to say I spent my life?” Do I want to look back on my weekend/year/life and feel that it sort of just went by without me noticing? Or do I want to be able to say that, for the most part, I kept my eyes open and drank it all in? Do I want to take stock and say I was generally there for people who needed me – that I showed up for the important moments, or will I have to face the fact that I didn’t really make enough effort to see people I loved? Do I want to have to admit that I spent a lot of time sulking, or shouting, or being angry? Or do I want to tot up the hours and find that, by and large, they were spent in happiness?

That’s life

The question, “How do I want to be able to say I spent this weekend?” is nothing to do with wanting to brag about all you did/saw/bought. It’s about reminding yourself that how you spend your days is how you spend your years and, ultimately, how you spend your life. So, when your Saturday-morning sluggishness makes you want to skip your jog, cancel your lunch plans, not bother going to the new exhibition you had wanted to see, and just slouch in front of The West Wing, remember that no-one’s last words were ever “I wish I’d spent more time watching TV”.

Activity monogamy or, the joys of doing one thing at a time

When multi-tasking leads to half-hearting, it’s time to remember the old adage – less is more.

I have a confession to make: I am a cheater. A while back, I was spending some time with Robert Ludlum and – I don’t know what I was doing – I played around behind his back with… Charles Dickens. And I can’t say I was thinking about Bob the whole time. I really can’t. It wouldn’t be so bad, but I then cheated on Charlie with Alain de Botton. And then, to add insult to injury, I added Jasper Fforde and Dan Brown to my little literary… what, erm, six people – does that make a love hexagon?  Yes, I had no fewer than five books on the go at one time.

Read me! Read me! Read me, now!

While I love skipping from tea with Pip and Miss Havisham to baddie-chasing with Jason Bourne, philosophising with Alain, feeding marshmallows to dodos with Thursday Next, and cracking codes with Robert Langdon, the effort of keeping up with all the characters and the plots was somewhat exhausting. I honestly don’t know how bigamists and love rats do it. I actually turned reading, one of the purest and simplest of pleasures, into a source of stress. The books became obligations and things to put on my ‘to do’ list. When I picked up one to read, I was faced with the feeling of “but I’ve got so much to get through, where do I start?”

The urge to double- or triple-up extends to most areas of my life (for my beloved, who will read this, I assure you I’m talking only about activities and not beloveds – of those I’ve only one). I have always been a rather enthusiastic multi-tasker. I like knowing that dinner’s in the oven as the washing machine is going, and I’m finishing off the ironing while also catching up on the latest shenanigans on Grey’s Anatomy. It makes me feel that time is being optimised. Equally, I file emails while on the phone at work; I make lists on the tube, I return phone calls while walking home from my yoga class. In all these situations, I feel like I’m making good use of what would otherwise be ‘dead time’.

Fidelity feels good!

But recently, I made the decision to streamline and simplify my life, and that involved reading just one book at a time. Novel, huh? Sorry, couldn’t resist that one. I forced myself to eschew all new tomes until I had finished one and, do you know what? – I loved it. I enjoyed the book I was reading so much more. I got through it faster (so I didn’t lose interest) and could remember the intricacies of the plot (so I didn’t spend time leafing back and trying to remember why the brass key was important and what family Lord Thingy belonged to). Most importantly, I rediscovered the joy of giving my full attention to just one thing and losing myself in it.

The experiment worked so well, I’m now extending it to other areas of my life. The bid to streamline, which started with unsubscribing from all those e-newsletters I regularly delete without reading and paring down my belongings, has turned into a resolution to do one thing at a time. If I’m on the phone, I’m on the phone. I’m not sorting the darks from the lights in the washing bin or straightening out my sock drawer. If I’m writing a report at work, I no longer stop every two minutes to read emails as soon as that nasty little blue envelope appears. The result? I actually enjoy each activity more, and I get things done faster and better. I’m also calmer, no longer frazzled by keeping an eye on several boiling pots, and – here’s the kicker – I find I have more time. The next step is obviously to cut back on the sheer number of things I try to do each day. That’ll be a challenge, but worthwhile, I suspect, since it turns out less really can be more.