Monthly Archives: May 2015

Remember your good times

When I was in my early twenties, my passionate ambition was to work in broadcast radio.

A job as a presenter or producer would have been heaven.

Unsurprisingly I poured my heart and soul into applying for positions and must have got at least one part right, for I was invited to a number of interviews.

But that was the fence at which I fell.

Always the interviewee, never the appointee.

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Looking back, I think I approached it in the wrong way, and one particular interview makes me squirm even to this day.

It was at BBC Radio York, and I appeared in front of a nice but slightly stuffy panel of three managers.

The interview started when they asked me to “Tell us a little about yourself” and full of twenty-something immaturity I began “Well, I’m a Pisces”.

As an opening gambit it fell flatter than flat: in fact it was all downhill from there.

Thirty years later I still frequently replay this unhappy experience in my mind.

Why the heck can’t I just forget it?

I’m even writing about it now, for goodness’ sake.

I suspect I’m not alone though.

Perhaps, like me, you’re a past master at recalling unfortunate times in vivid detail?

Sadly it’s pretty easy to do.

Recognising this, though, I wonder if we shouldn’t remind ourselves of using the power of these kinds of ‘mind movies’ to good, rather than ill, effect?

Recreating your bad times can make you feel grim.

Recalling happier times in equally vivid detail, however, may just have the opposite effect.

So next time you’re alone with your thoughts – perhaps driving or waiting for someone – why not try bringing to mind a particularly happy experience, visualising yourself in it, in as detailed a way as possible.

This happiness is stored within you, you know, ready for days when you need it most.

In fact maybe it’s time to access it right now?

When the right thing is doing one thing

At the risk of sounding eccentric, can I just place on record how little I love the word ‘multitasking’?

We have IBM to thank for it, for it was in a paper published by the computer giant fifty years ago that the word first appeared.

Back in 1965 IBM used it to describe the way in which a computer might handle more than one job at a time, an idea rather novel at the time. I admit this was probably rather big and rather clever.

Now, however, we also use the word to celebrate humans’ ability to do several things at once.

We think this is rather clever too.

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But I wonder. You see, psychology experiments have shown that although we are indeed able to juggle several balls at once, we tend to make a better job of tasks when we take them sequentially, something my own experience bears out.

Of course life has a tendency to throw a lot of stuff at you simultaneously, so you’ll probably find yourself having to switch from one thing to another, demanding though this may be.

What I’m going to strongly recommend right now, though, is that you avoid doing what I very nearly did this morning.

I was taking a short break, and believe it or not began to ‘multitask’ (YUCK).

Can you believe it? I sat down for a coffee and was pulling out a notebook when I suddenly realised what I was doing.

Oi Jon! No! Putting away the notebook, I had to force myself to sit back and enjoy the moment, single-mindedly.

Savour the taste of the coffee. Listen to the chirping birds (and before you accuse me of hallucinating as well as being eccentric, I was sitting outside).

Just stop. Let go of the urge to overfill every single minute.

And I wonder if you might join me in this mission today? It is OK, you know, to do just one thing. At. A. Time.

Even (especially) if that thing is resting.

There’s only one of you – look after yourself

Although I now live in California, I’m aware that my vocabulary and spelling make it obvious that I spent most of my life in the UK (or as Alex’s daughters and I jokingly call it, Britland).

Eighteen months after settling here I’m still discovering that figures of speech I thought were international are in fact quite “Britlish”.

One such example (I think, anyway) is the use of “Look after yourself” when you say goodbye to someone.

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It’s meant as a kind of “Take care” or (Britlish again) “Mind how you go”, but like plenty of other socially-minded terms, I suspect that “Look after yourself” is used without much thought.

Could we just pause and consider it for a minute, though?

When you leave me, the decoded version of “Look after yourself” means, “I can’t be at your side once you’ve gone, so please keep your wits about you for unexpected hazards and – in general – remember that you, not me, are responsible for your own wellbeing“.

Bit of a mouthful. But I think it sums up the sentiment.

When a Brit says “Look after yourself” they probably do so pretty unconsciously, but the core concept of being responsible for your own wellbeing is, I suggest, a crucial one.

I suspect that like many you don’t put yourself first nearly enough. I’m sure you do a great job of thinking about others, but how often do you think about yourself?

All too rarely, probably.

Self-care isn’t selfish. It’s the responsible thing to do, not only for you but for those around you too.

When you feel good, you’re good to be around.

So today, why not hunt out small chances to be kind to yourself? Rest well, eat well, work well, exercise well, sleep well.

In short?

Look after yourself.

Happier, one leaf at a time

A last minute change of plans last weekend meant that my friend Raj and I missed out on the hike we schedule for the first Sunday of each month.

Once a month we walk and talk (boy, do we talk).

We also unconsciously benefit from being out in nature for a couple of hours.

So to miss the walk meant missing the boost I nearly always get from the natural environment.

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The American journalist Richard Louv created a term for a lack of this kind of exposure in his 2005 book “Last Child in the Woods”.

He called it “nature deficit disorder”, a bit of a loaded name – although to be fair Mr. Louv didn’t exactly mean it as a medical diagnosis but, in his own words, as “a description of the human costs of alienation from the natural world”.

In particular he suggests that too many children get too little time in nature.

I suspect that he’s probably right. But I also know that the demands of modern life often conspire to make it hard to find the time and opportunities to get outdoors.

Does this mean abandoning the idea altogether, though?

Nope.

One great small nudge-like suggestion is to bring the outdoors indoors.

Not by tramping your muddy boots all over the living room carpet, but by simply placing a plant somewhere you’ll see it during the day. On your desk, if you have one, is always a winner.

Even better if the plant’s a fragrant one, so you can pick it up and sniff it from time to time. Herbs are a good idea in this respect.

Please don’t forget the very real benefits of being out in proper nature, but also remember to make room for it in your own space.

Why it’s good to have the occasional unplanned day

Throw away that To-Do list. That’s right, escape the tyranny of your task list! Live life spontaneously!

What? No, I know, me neither.

I’m sure you rely on your lists just as much as I do. In particular, making a list can be a really helpful way to get through periods of low mood without ending each day having achieved nothing.

So, yes, the To-Do list has its place.

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However I believe there’s enormous value to be had from occasionally allowing yourself the unfettered pleasure of an unstructured day, so long – of course – as your emotional state is sufficiently robust to enable you to make the most of it.

Without a plan you can allow life to just happen. You allow good things to come to you. You allow yourself to breathe.

It may not work all day, and it probably won’t work every day, but now and then it can feel hugely liberating to allow yourself to be taken anyway the wind blows.

Many do this when they’re on vacation, so ditching the list could even make you feel as if you’ve enjoyed a mini-break.

Curiously, of course, having unplanned time often means making plans to do so.

Which is definitely something for your To-Do list.

When is it OK to fish for compliments?

As Garrison Keiller, the American author of “Lake Woebegone Days”, pointed out, “They say such nice things about people at their funerals that it makes me sad to realize that I’m going to miss mine by a few days.”

In fact a good friend and I were talking about this very idea a month or so ago as he told me about his mother’s funeral. We agreed that she’d have loved to hear what had been said. And who hasn’t wondered this about their own death? I know I have.

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Of course, while they’re hardly eulogies, professional references can at their best be affirming, although – just like being at your own funeral – the subject of a reference doesn’t always get to see it.

There’s a thing on websites like LinkedIn where people are asked to write testimonials for others they know professionally. That’s fine up to a point, but the devil in me always secretly hopes to find something like “He sets low personal standards and consistently fails to achieve them” on someone’s profile. Not my own, though, of course.

My small suggestion for today, however, is to take an indirect leaf out of the personal reference/eulogy books.

Why not, quite simply, and perhaps with your heart in your mouth, ask a friend what it is that they like about you and admire in you?

Genuine feedback like this can be enormously uplifting, so long as you ask for it in the right way. It’s important, for instance, not to come across as conceited and attention-seeking.

But maybe, just maybe (and of course, if it’s true) it’s OK to tell a good friend, “Look I’ve actually been feeling pretty bad about myself recently, to the point that I’m not sure I like myself very much. So if you don’t mind, could you give me a boost please? I think (and hope) that you like me. So could you perhaps tell me why?”

Alright, I know not everyone will be comfortable with an approach like this. However, the next time you’re in need of a lift, perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to experiment?

And if you really don’t want to ask, you could always just forward this whole post to a friend, highlighting this last section.

You’re wonderful, you know. Please ask a friend to remind you why.

What helps you? We’d love to know

I was staggered a couple of weeks ago.

When I asked for people’s advice about what really works for them when their mood is low, there was a tidal wave of contributions.

Almost 100 people pitched in, so if you were one of them, or you simply found some of the many brilliant ideas helpful, an enormous thank you.

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In fact I wrote that post as something of an experiment. I was genuinely curious to discover how happy people would be to take part.

Very happy was the answer.

It’s therefore prompted me to ask another question today. It would be amazing to get a similar level of response.

So here’s what I’d love to know. If, like me, you’re someone who suffers from low moods now and then, what can other people do to help you?

And associated with this, perhaps, in what ways have well-meaning people tried to help you, but spectacularly failed?

I have a feeling, by the way, that we may learn from this that in some cases one (wo)man’s meat is another (wo)man’s poison: what really helps Person A may be Person B’s pet peeve. But I shouldn’t pre-judge.

Please do just chip in.

A couple of house-keeping notices along the way. When you add a comment to the post you’ll be asked for a name and email address. Important: your email address will NOT be published. When it comes to your name, it’s perfectly fine to just use your first name. If this makes you uncomfortable, however, please feel free to adopt a nom de plume.

I’m optimistic that this collaboration will prove really useful. It’s hard for would-be helpers to get it right when they try to support a friend whose mood is low. But together I think we can build a vital resource bank.

I have in mind some kind of “tick-box” list coming out of this, which someone with a low mood can give to others so they can see at a glance “here’s how to help me” and “here’s how not to”.

So once again, those questions. What can other people do to help you when your mood is low? And what ‘help’ really isn’t of any help at all?

Thanks so much for working together on this.

Lift your mood by talking to three people you don’t know

There’s long-running amusement in the UK that should you ever meet the Queen she’ll ask by way of small talk, “Have you come far?”.

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Now I’m pretty sure the done thing is to answer, “We came up on the train from Cornwall, Your Majesty” or “I walked over from Whitehall, Ma’am.”

What I certainly don’t think she’d appreciate is something along the lines of “Well I was born in a cramped, damp one bedroom flat in Neasden, but through sheer hard work and the good fortune of a university scholarship, I’m now running a small chain of grocery stores across the East Midlands.”

Hmm.

Of course, I say the Queen wouldn’t expect this kind of smart-aleck answer, but who knows? Maybe it would amuse her.

OK, probably not.

The thing is, though, being Queen means meeting new people every single day of your life. Way too many new people, probably.

And of course there are other less-regal jobs where you’re always meeting new people for the first time. Working at a supermarket checkout springs to mind, for example.

For lots of us, though, it’s relatively easy to navigate an entire day without interacting with those we don’t already know. Indeed if you’re feeling a bit down in the dumps, that’s probably what you prefer. Low mood doesn’t exactly make you want to be sociable, does it?

But small interactions such as these can be like medicine. Connections with others can lift your spirits without you even realizing it.

So here’s a thought. If they can be like medicine, why not treat them like medicine?

Just as you might be asked to swallow your tablets three times a day, why not set yourself the mission of talking to three people you don’t know, in the next 24 hours?

Maybe even turn this into a habit.

“Have you come far?” probably won’t work, but a simple “How’s your day going so far?” can definitely do the trick.