Monthly Archives: August 2015

It’s never selfish to take care of yourself

I wonder what we really mean when we entreat a friend to ‘take care’?

Perhaps we’re suggesting that they should keep an eye out for dangerous threats as they make their way through their day?

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Don’t get mugged, look both ways before you cross the road, check for the imminent arrival of asteroids, that sort of thing.

Maybe we’re also proposing something else though? Perhaps deep down there’s the thought that we want them, literally, to look after themselves? To stay healthy.

And of course, boring as it may sound, you stay healthy by eating properly, drinking plenty of water, getting a decent amount of exercise and a sufficiency of sleep, amongst other things.

After all, if you value the other person you’ll want them to stay well, for their own sake and for yours. It was for the good of the whole tribe that each of our hunter gatherer ancestors needed to remain fit and strong. When enemies attacked, when there was a wild animal to be hunted, when there were youngsters to be cared for, every tribe member had to play his or her part.

Although our circumstances have changed, our bodies and brains have perhaps evolved more slowly. We may believe we’re very different from Stone Age man but deep down our brains have more in common than we may admit.

It therefore makes sense for you to want those around you to stay healthy, to ‘take care’.

But if it’s so important that others do this, isn’t it just as necessary that you too should take care? Of yourself?

I know I have to remind myself to do this, so perhaps you’ll also need a nudge in this direction.

I’m sure you know what’s good for you, so why not add a little of it to your day?

And, by the way, don’t worry about asteroids. None are scheduled for the foreseeable future. No need for a crash helmet today.

How to tidy away a messy mind

As I set out to write a few words about clutter and keeping tidy, I was rather taken aback to find an online newspaper article suggesting that in the United States there’s a National Association of Personal Organizers.

Huh? Rather than de-cluttering, it immediately made me think of a club for people who use Filofaxes, Day Runners and Personal Digital Assistants (remember the Palm?). I should have known, though. The newspaper had somewhat ironically got itself in a muddle, and should in fact have referred to a National Association of PROFESSIONAL Organizers.

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But even after making the mental leap from diary systems to people who earn their money by getting their clients’ homes and offices ship-shape, who knew that such a profession existed?

And what do you do? Me? Oh, I’m a Chartered Tidier-Up.

Mind you, you can see the attraction of such a service, can’t you? Over time our environments seem to degenerate into untidiness, messiness and chaos. Yet it seems to me that the old adage ‘a tidy house is a tidy mind’ rings very true.

If you’re a bit all over the place in your head, it’s not going to help that your place is also, well, a bit all over the place.

Perhaps you know that feeling of calmness which only appears on those maybe rare occasions when you walk into a room to find everything in its place, even if it was you who put it there in the first place?

But why bother? Well, think of it this way. Unless you’re the world’s messiest person, the neatness will persist beyond the time taken to create it. So an hour spent creating order out of chaos is actually an investment in feeling better over a longer period.

In the nicest possible way, therefore, tidy your room.

Or, at a pinch, one corner of it. (Everybody has to start somewhere.)

Do yourself a favour by doing someone else a favour

Oh come on, do me a favour.

Interesting, isn’t it, that when someone says this, rather than literally seeking help, they’re actually asking someone to stop doing something which is making them angry. The English language and its idioms have evolved in curious ways.

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However, in a more obvious – less snarky – way, doing someone a favour can be a neat shortcut to feeling good yourself. Pro-social behaviour is good for the tribe, so it’s unquestionably handy that we’re genetically predisposed to get a kick out of doing so.

And of course, in addition to the sense of feeling good that comes from doing things for others, what goes around often comes around. Even if you don’t overtly expect it, I’ll scratch your back and you’ll scratch mine.

So how about looking for small ways to do things for others today? Here are some suggestions.

If you see someone in the street who looks lost, stop and help. Hold the door for a stranger and let them go first. Share your sandwich or chocolate bar. Praise someone in front of others, being specific about what they’ve done.

Secretly leave flowers on a neighbour’s doorstep. Or on a colleague’s desk. Bake someone a cake. Mend a puncture in their bicycle tyre. Take their dog for a walk. Offer to baby-sit to give them a night off.

Tell them you love them, and more importantly how much and why.

I know you’ll have your own thoughts, so why not embrace the spirit of generosity today? It’s in your gift.

How to feel part of something bigger than you

If you’re ever asked to dress as a pantomime horse (a pretty British thing, I think), I suggest that it’s always preferable to do this as part of something bigger.

At the micro level it’s better of course to have another half. If you’re to be at the front you’ll need a back end, and if you’ve drawn the short straw and are facing the prospect of sporting the swishy tail, it’s crucial to hook up with someone who’s going to wear the head and do the whinnying.

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At the more macro level you’re likely to feel distinctly less uncomfortable if you and your fellow thespian appear in some sort of relevant context. I’m thinking you’ll attract less astonished looks if you’re on stage in an actual pantomime (or even participating in a marathon) than you will if you go to your bank similarly attired.

(I suppose in the latter case you could always proffer the excuse that you were just there to see the loan arranger.)

Although I can’t imagine you’ll be faced with exactly such a prospect today, there’s much to be said for remembering that humans in general thrive by being part of something bigger, and it’s surprising how often the opportunity to do so can present itself.

You can achieve it in a formal way by being a member of some sort of community organisation, or a team member at a place of work or study, for instance.

May I suggest, however, that there may also be smaller chances to feel part of something bigger all through your day? Even something as ostensibly lonely as waiting in line in a shop can turn into something else altogether when people start talking to each other. A simple smile exchanged with a stranger can make you feel that you’re a member of a community rather than a solo traveller.

So whenever there’s a chance today, see if you can join in.

Oh yes, and on matter of pantomime horses, if you’re given the choice I’d sign up for the front end if I were you. The view’s generally better.

Learning to love learning

Whatever you want to learn, you can bet your bottom dollar that someone somewhere has made a video explaining it and put it on YouTube.

When I wanted to find out how difficult it might be to replace the element in a fan oven, the film with its accompanying commentary was right there on YouTube suggesting that as long as you put the power off and don’t have wet hands, it’s a piece of cake (so to speak).

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Next, and demonstrating the often random nature of my quest for knowledge, I set out to get an outline idea of how you do that lettering you often see on blackboard A-boards outside bars and restaurants. Again, there was the demo – instantly available and free of charge.

The lettering artist made it look easy of course, but what particularly drew my attention was the confident way in which he worked. The trick, it seems, is to rough out the wording in ordinary graphite pencil on the backboard’s surface, then go to work very rapidly with your chalk paint pen (a kind of magic marker loaded with runny opaque liquid colour).

I’d imagined you’d probably produce the lettering gently and steadily, but the best approach apparently is to be bold and decisive, putting down the paint with fast, fluid moves of the pen. This way, your lines are smoother and less shaky, which makes sense when you think about it.

Perhaps there’s something to learn from this in parts of everyday life?

Rather than expecting to fail, rather than going about things in a piece-meal manner, rather than taking the timid approach, there’s a lot to be said for taking the positive approach (when appropriate of course).

I expect there’s even a YouTube video about that, if you care to look.

Thomas Edison, the serial failure

Although Thomas Edison didn’t, as is often popularly claimed, invent the incandescent light bulb, he did improve upon and commercialise work which had been done by others some fifty years earlier.

And he took a trial and error approach when it came to hunting down a way to prevent his light bulbs’ filaments fizzling out in mere minutes.

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Try something. Fail. Try something else. Fail. Another route. Fail. And so on, and so on, until he eventually chanced upon the perfect solution.

A less focused man would have given up and gone home to read by the light of his oil lamp, but Edison had a remarkable ability to keep going, probably helped in no small way by the view he took of what you and I might regard as failure.

When one of his many experiments ended in yet another burnt-out bulb, he explained that rather than failing, he’d actually successfully discovered one more way in which his goal was NOT going to be reached.

It’s a bit like someone finding their way out of a maze. Inevitably they’re going to take wrong turns, but provided they learn as they go, each blind alley takes them a step closer to finding the exit.

If you can, perhaps there’s something to be said for adopting such an approach when things don’t totally pan out for you? Rather than grumbling that it’s just another thing that’s gone wrong for you, maybe it’s possible to convince yourself that you’re actually now one step closer to reaching your goal?

The truth is, we never know how close we are to success. Don’t give up when it might be just one step away.

Sometimes it’s enough to have small things to look forward to

It’s pretty well accepted that people who have things to look forward to in life tend to have a better state of wellbeing than those who don’t.

It results in maintaining a relatively optimistic outlook, and when you’re able to maintain a glass half-full view of life it stands you in good stead.

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But what if you believe, rightly or wrongly, that you don’t actually have much to look forward to? What if you’re going through one of those patches when it feels as though life has dealt you a shabby hand?

Believe me, it happens. Whilst there may be some who appear to skip through everything without a care in the world, I think the honest truth is that most of us face periods when it feels as though someone has turned down the colour on our life, a bit like the knob on the first colour TV my family owned which, when twisted, changed the picture from saturated psychedelic at one end to monotonous black and white at the other.

During these times it can genuinely feel as though you’ve nothing to look ahead to.

If this happens, one trick can be to persuade yourself to anticipate quite small (perhaps, in the normal run of events what you might call routine) events.

If you’ve been out somewhere and are on your way home, look forward to walking through the front door to put the kettle on. If you’re engaged in some run of the mill chore, look forward to finishing it.

When you’re doing this, even if it’s only fleetingly, create an image in your mind of how you’ll feel when you get home, or complete the task.

It can help you get through an otherwise grey day.

Be in the here-and-now rather than the there-and-then

Glancing round a crowded train the other morning it me smile to see how many people had white wires dangling from their ears. Whatever you may think of Apple as a company, making the iPhone’s earbuds white was a branding master-stroke, allowing one to count at a glance the considerable number of people who use this particular device.

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I’m one myself as a matter of fact, and sometimes walk the streets ‘with my ears in’. But what I’ve noticed quite markedly is that listening to music as a pedestrian can be a bit on the dangerous side. It can feel other-worldly, distracting your attention from serious things such as ten ton trucks about to turn into your path.

I think you tend not to notice stuff when you’re lost in music, in much the same way that your attention gets fogged by a low mood. When worries consume you and the negative thoughts are going round and round in your head, it’s far more difficult to be properly conscious of all that’s going on about you.

As is so often the case, though, cause and effect seem in some ways to be interchangeable. Although feeling ropey stops you noticing things, deliberately making an effort to notice things can crowd out the ropey mood.

So the next time those bleak cognitions try to muscle in on your consciousness, why not send them packing – if only temporarily – by paying detailed attention to the world around you? Wherever you look, there are things to be seen.

White earbuds for instance.