Monthly Archives: December 2014

Giving generously without spending a cent

Despite your best intentions, it’s a time of year at which it’s hard not to get swept up in a whirlwind of feeling as though you should be buying loads of, well, stuff. Gifts for others, food for the fridge, wrapping paper and Christmas cards. It can sometimes seem as though spending money is obligatory during the twelfth month of the year.

In fact plenty of shops depend on their December trade to make up for sometimes lacklustre sales the rest of the year, and you and I – or at least our wallets – are in their sights.


Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly not a ‘no presents’ kind of guy. Like many, I enjoy giving and receiving Christmas gifts.

But I think I’d propose two provisos.

The first is to keep the scale of what you buy within reason. Too much can be overwhelming for both the recipient and the giver, not to mention stressful on the bank balance.

The second is rather more subtle, but it’s something I’ve very much been aware of over the past few weeks. To my mind, one of the very best things you can give people is your attention and time, especially when that attention is undivided.

It’s been brought home to me when Alex and I stop what we’re doing to properly focus attention on her two daughters.

They’re both into gymnastics right now, and really love us sitting down to watch as they demonstrate their rapidly-developing skills.

Also, like most other kids their age they get very absorbed in their laptops, but this doesn’t mean they necessarily want to exclude the outside world: they’re genuinely thrilled to sit own and talk us through whichever game or video is currrently tickling their fancy.

I think there’s a danger that we can end up so focused on the commercial aspects of Christmas that we lose sight of the one thing that anyone, no matter their wealth, can give to others.

Between now and the 25th, please remember to spend proper time with those around you who’ll appreciate it most. Lavishing your attention generously and unselfishly has the wonderful effect of delighting both the object of your focus – and you.

Some thoughts on becoming a better thinker

That we learn how to think is mostly an accident I believe.

I remember empathising when I read that mind expert Tony Buzan had, on his first day at university, asked the librarian where the books on the brain were shelved, only to be directed towards the anatomy section.

He actually wanted to know how his brain worked, rather than wishing to find out what it was made of, but books on this theme simply weren’t part of the university’s collection.


Thinking is something we do a lot of, so you’d imagine that we’d have got pretty good at it. You could also expect that it would be taught as a standalone subject at school, even.

But take me and my typing (which I also do a lot of). I really should have learnt to touch-type, but here I am still hunting and pecking with the index finger of my left hand and the second finger of my right (weird, I’ve never ever noticed that it’s the index on one and the second on the other).

However, the thing is – just as I learnt to type inefficiently by never being disciplined enough to sit down to learn ‘proper’ typing – I’m very aware that my thinking style often lacks coherence.

When I’m aware that things aren’t making sense, it can help to ‘think like a shrink’, questioning myself on what I think and feel, challenging assumptions and clarifying half-baked and woolly conclusions.

If you catch yourself doing the thinking equivalent of two-fingered typing today, perhaps it’s worth imagining some of the things a really good therapist might ask you. Whilst this is no substitute for the real thing (I think time with a good counsellor can be worth its weight in gold) a little self-analysis can go a long way.

A sweet surprise

When I was a kid, my brother Evan and I used to do something he called “covert ops.” We would drive to the house of someone we knew, leave a little gift outside their front door, and drive off, without leaving a card or anything that might identify us.

It was so much fun. It also helped us feel really connected to the person we were surprising.


I just did a similar thing this morning, which put a feeling of warm excitement into an otherwise dark and rainy morning. I made far too much dinner last night, so I filled some containers with the extras.  (Homemade cream of mushroom soup and lentils with rice, in case you were wondering.) I put them in a shopping bag with a few little chocolates, and dropped the bag off on the doorstep of a dear friend who is recovering from an injury.

It’s making me smile now to imagine her opening her door and finding the goodies. I did leave a note this time though, to wish her well.

What’s the surprising thing about leaving surprises for friends to find? It just might brighten your day as well as theirs.

Why not give it a tiny try today? Pick a flower and leave it on a co-worker’s desk. Empty the dishwasher at home if it’s not normally your job. Pay the bridge toll for the car behind you. Leave an inspiring message somewhere. (I saw a water fountain the other day that had a sticker on it saying “You’re beautiful.”)

In a way, this moodnudge is like a little gift from me to the doorstep of your inbox.

If you decide to try it too, please post your surprises in the comments, so we can all learn and share in the sweet uplifting brightness.

Wishing you a wonderful day.

How to tackle complicated problems by uncoupling

Say you needed to untangle a ball of string but just as you began, you inadvertently dropped it into the kitchen sink, full of sudsy water.

Then the lightbulb went, plunging the room into darkness.



Rather than attempting to solve all three of these issues simultaneously, the answer is almost certainly to uncouple and prioritise.

Dry your hands. Fix the light. Take the string out of the water and probably allow it to dry, too.

Then – and only then – have a go at untangling it.

It seems pretty obvious to tackle a hypothetical situation in this way, so why do we fail to follow a similar course when we’ve multiple issues occupying our minds?

Why do we believe we can solve them all at once?

Why do we persist in thinking that they’re all somehow connected?

It’s easy to imagine that because everything’s not as it should be in one part of our life that the same reasons affect other parts. But this isn’t always the way.

When you’ve multiple worries, it’s not always that easy to uncouple one from the other.

Not easy, but almost certainly the only way to move forward.

One step at a time.

How to start stopping and thinking

I get up at 5:00am on weekdays. Although it’s dark and chilly as I make my way downstairs to our garage office, I really don’t mind. In fact it’s one of the most enjoyable parts of my day.

Over the past couple of months I’ve re-introduced a habit I began a few years ago, rising early to spend the first hour of each day thinking about what I’m doing now, and planning what I’ll do in the future – both immediate and longer-term.


I think by conducting a kind of conversation with myself, making notes on a piece of photocopier paper turned sideways. A creature of habit, I divide the sheet into three equal columns with two vertical lines, add the date in the top left-hand corner, then beneath that write a heading based on the day of the week. Underneath, I start my written thinking.

On Mondays I focus on ‘Diary and Planning’ which is where I schedule my week with short, achievable To-Do lists in an old-school Filofax day planner.

Tuesdays see me spending an hour thinking and making notes about my Personal life: health, relationships and environment are covered. How’s my sleep? What’s my WellBee score (see below) been looking like? How are things with Alex and the girls? Have I been keeping in touch with my Mum and brother as much as I should? Would it be good to make arrangements to see or talk to friends?

Wednesdays’ and Thursdays’ hours are devoted to thinking about work. Current projects on Wednesday, future ideas on Thursday.

Lastly, Fridays are all about summarising progress over the past seven days, and then – really importantly – celebrating success. I’m nearly always surprised by the length of the progress list when I look back at what’s happened during the week. It might include a great business meeting, or a fantastic weekend afternoon with Alex, Samantha and Megan. Business or personal. Doesn’t matter. It all goes in the list.

As each morning’s hour finishes, I put that day’s planning sheet safely away in a display folder with transparent pages, so it’s there for future reference.

Now although I can thoroughly recommend my kind of early-rising planning sessions, I appreciate they may not be right for everybody. What I heartily endorse though is the principle of setting aside proper time to sit and think about yourself and your life.

Some might dismiss this as self-indulgent navel-gazing: I’d argue that it’s pretty absurd to live a life in which you never stop to take stock of where you are, nor plan where you’re going.

You do certainly need to make time to do this sort of important work though. I don’t think you can expect to squeeze it in on top of everything else you’re already doing.

So why not try it? Get up before everyone else, or take yourself off to another room while the TV’s on. I’d heartily endorse writing some notes as you go.

Stop and think. You can’t do one without the other.

Oh yes. I mentioned WellBee, our playing-card system which enables you to measure, track and share your wellbeing score day-by-day. In its own way it helps you stop and think, and here’s a nice description of it written by the incisive and warm-hearted Susan Williams.

Mostly sunny with a chance of clouds

For virtually all of its 93 million mile journey towards Earth, the sun is always shining. It doesn’t know how to do anything else other than produce heat and light.

Oh yes, and act as the hub of our solar system, keeping our planet and its neighbours in their proper orbits. But you get my point I hope.


The dependable nature of sunshine is evident when you travel by air, as I did a couple of weeks ago. Whatever the weather when you take off, during daylight hours it won’t be long before you’re high enough for the sky to be crystal blue.

So what stops the sun shining all day, every day here on Earth? Well in most parts of the world, it’s a relatively thin layer of cloud which gets in the way.

93 million miles of unimpeded sunlight, then it all gets blotted out in the final twelve or so.

A metaphor for the way life affects our moods perhaps?

Talking to someone who generally has a sunny disposition might make you see that a lot of their life is not that different from yours.

Often it can be no more than one or two things which get in the way of a day being good.

Not always, but sometimes, it only takes a few tweaks to make everything quite a bit better than it might otherwise have been.

A day for tweaking, perhaps?

Stay with your experience

I was driving down the 101 yesterday, on a sunny California November day, listening to the wise words of Buddhist nun Pema Chodron.

In her Getting Unhooked audiobook, she talks about the power of “staying with your experience.” The basic idea is that whatever you are feeling, whether it feels intensely good or intensely uncomfortable, try to stay with it.

Don’t push it away – but don’t cling to it either. Give it space to be there, like opening your home in warm welcome to a friendly guest.


Many of us (me definitely included) try to escape when hard feelings come up.

On my drive I was feeling anxious about some potentially life-changing news that I was waiting to hear. Waiting, day after day, not able to do anything but worry and try to be patient. My usual escapes are doing physical exercise like yoga or dance, eating comforting foods like ice cream or homemade chili, and watching 18th century British period movies (just ask Jon, and he’ll roll his eyes.)

I started to wonder, what if I don’t try to escape? Pema says that if we can manage to stay present with whatever we’re feeling, chances are it will shift after a while and move on by, like a cloud in the sky. If we try instead to either escape or hold on to it, it will tend to grow bigger and more powerful in our minds.

So, since I’m always game to learn new things, I decided to try it this morning to see what would happen. I woke up with a grip of anxiety in my stomach, and I said to myself, OK, this is anxiety. It’s perfectly normal to be feeling this right now, and I’m going to just let it be here with me.

Hello, anxiety, nice to see you. Have a seat here beside me. Would you like some tea?

It sounds silly, but I found that the feeling stayed around for an hour or so, then softened, then evaporated when I biked down to a new yoga studio near our house. The anxiety had completely left my body and I was in a blissful state.

Pema talks about this as a practice that we can include in our lives. I know rough feelings will keep popping by to visit me every so often, and hopefully I’ll remember to greet them with love and compassion. Maybe I’ll even be able to expand that compassion to everyone else in the world who is feeling like this right now.

We aren’t so different, we wonderful human beings. And if we can learn to stay and not run away from ourselves, we might find a new understanding. Deeper insight into ourselves, and deeper insight into the human condition.

Wishing you the courage to stay with one tiny experience today, even just for a minute. Let me know what happens!

The stranger on the train

It’s strange really. In general our most profound conversations tend to be with the people we know (and trust) the best, yet there’s nothing to beat talking to a stranger on a train.

You can surprise yourself, as I often do, with how much it’s possible to reveal to someone you’ve just met, and in all probability will never see again.

There are no preconceptions, no history. You can talk to each other openly and honestly.


It happened to me the other day while back in the UK, and on a train travelling north. With no seats available, a woman (who’d just flown in from New Zealand) stood in the lobby with me, slipping into conversation.

I learnt a little about her, but just as important I learnt about myself too.

Perhaps the things you choose to tell a stranger reveal more about you than you realise?

At times our lives can feel intolerably crowded, yet simultaneously lonely and isolated, and this is perhaps why it can seem such a pleasure to snatch a few beats of conversation with someone you’ve never met before.

Why not watch out for an opportunity like this today?

And should it happen, listen to yourself every bit as intently as you listen to the other person.