Monthly Archives: August 2017

Looking for (lots of) answers.

Unless it’s something incontestable like ‘how many hydrogen atoms are there to each one of oxygen in a water molecule’ or ‘which side of a slice of buttered toast always hits the floor if you drop it’, very rarely is there just one right answer to life’s questions.

So when you’re faced with problems and challenges in your own life, whilst it can be tempting to rush off with the first solution that springs to mind, it often pays to think things through more carefully – although not so carefully that you never move beyond the weighing-up phase into the action one.

When I worked in advertising I learnt that one key to solving problems creatively was to know that the more ideas you came up with, the more likely it was that just occasionally you’d strike gold, and at the very least find a solution that stood a better than evens chance of working.

Generally the best strategy seemed to be to write ideas down as soon as you had them – then put them out of your head so you could move on to the next one.

When someone asked me a question about this the other day, I realised that I’m a great proponent of cracking challenges by writing down as many solutions as possible.

Get them down on paper.

Move on to the next idea.

Then (the important bit) go back to sift through the possibilities and run with the best of them.

It might not be possible to make up your mind immediately, hence the advantage of capturing it all on paper.

If there’s something bothering you, why not start by listing a few options?

The 60 minute timer strategy.

You’ve got too much to do.

We all have too much to do.

But you only have one life.

Only so much time to fit in everything you believe you’re supposed to do.

I often struggle with this myself.

The amount on my To-Do list is never-ending.

If I could work 24-hour days for the next year, I still wouldn’t have ticked everything off.

Sometimes I let this get to me.

But most of the time I think it helps to ignore those nagging worries about The List, and simply to get on with living in the moment, getting done what I can today, and knowing that tomorrow’s another day – another chance to tackle another batch of stuff.

I can’t always block out the big picture worries for long, but putting in an hour at a time seems to work.

I’m sure it seems odd, but one of my most useful pieces of kit is a kitchen timer.

It’s ticking away in front of me right now in fact.

I’ve given myself sixty minutes to do some writing, and have a target of what I need to get done before it emits its plaintive little alert.

You’ve got too much to do.

You won’t get it all done today.

So give yourself a target and block out a shortish chunk of time.

You’ll probably surprise yourself when you achieve more than you think you would.

As I just have.

There goes the ping.

Mixing when you’re low.

It’s good to be with you for the next few minutes, and I hope you feel the same.

Unless you’re hiding in the cupboard behind me, we’re not together in person.

But most of us enjoy being in the company of other people.

Even if at times we choose to be on our own.

(That’s fine too, just as long as it doesn’t turn into the only thing you do.)

The trouble is – and we’ve spoken about this in the past – although it’s often the case that being around other people can give you a real boost, the obstinate part of your brain may try to stop you joining in with social situations when you’re feeling a bit ropey.

Crazy isn’t it?

Logic tells you to accept invitations, to arrange to see a friend, or to pick up the phone.

But the annoyingly pervasive emotional side of your thinking tells you not to.

What to do?

Well perhaps, when the opportunity arises on one of those not-so-great days to spend time with others, ask yourself ‘what’s the worst that could happen if I ignored my emotions’?

I guess the answer is that you might get wherever you’re going, then could need to make your excuses and go home.

But (a) that’s not actually very likely, and (b) it really wouldn’t be that awful a thing to do if it was really necessary.

Why not try this next time you feel a bit rough?

Nine times out of ten it works for me.

Slow. Down.

Have you noticed that some people take a perverse pleasure in telling you how busy they are all the time?

Perhaps it’s a sign of our insecure economic times that they feel the need to be seen as Very Busy, but although bursts of intense activity can be OK there’s a lot to be said for not over-pushing yourself.

In fact it’s often the case that the more you try to squeeze in, the less you actually get done.

So are you giving yourself enough ‘spare’ time each day?

Are you actually giving yourself any?

If you like to drive your life with a schedule there’s a lot to be said for planning down-time, periods when you’re not going to be frantically trying to clear your To-Do list.

This is not to say you’ll be nothing then, but perhaps you can occupy this time with the things that make life good.

Stop and chat to someone.

Have a coffee.

Walk round the block.

Above all, let go of the need to fill every second of every day.

Life’s for living.

Live it today.

Crowd those unwanted thoughts right out of your hair.

Do you think that you sometimes might think too hard?

If you do, you’re not alone.

Many of us spend too much time thinking and not enough time doing.

It’s an easy trap to fall into, especially if your mood is low and you’ve ended up spending a lot of the day inactive and alone.

I’ve been there.

You don’t feel great so you stay at home.

You don’t feel like doing much so you slump in front of the TV or don’t get out of bed.

And then the over-thinking starts.

The excessive worrying.

The rumination.

There’s a great way to trick your brain into thinking less though, which is to completely immerse yourself in something that takes over all your cognitive capacity, drowning out the destructive thinking with something else altogether.

Is this simply avoiding the issues? Well I don’t think so.

When I’ve done this, and have then gone back into my normal routine the next day, I find I have much greater clarity of thought.

If you find yourself thinking too hard, it’s not always easy to tell yourself to stop.

It might be a lot more practical to crowd out the negative thinking with something else altogether.

Spread a little thinkiness

It sometimes seems as though we live in a selfish world.

People allow shop doors to close behind them without looking to see whether there’s someone following.

They don’t make way for others when they’re walking along a footpath.

They carry on their loud conversations as though you weren’t there.

And these are just the minor irritations of everyday life.

I’m sure you can think of much worse examples yourself.

So what’s the answer?

Do you fight fire with fire?

Do you become twice as selfish yourself?

Well I think (and hope) not.

There’s a lot of evidence that altruism can play a big part in overall mental wellbeing.

In a neat twist, it turns out that doing good can actually make you feel good.

And I suspect the reverse is equally true.

Those who behave selfishly end up with lower moods.

I also believe that, just occasionally, our good manners can rub off on those who have lower standards when it comes to considerateness.

But even if you can’t make a dramatic change to your world, you can at least improve your own day by thinking about others.

Why not give it a try today?

The mother’s reaction

Almost certainly you possess the remarkable capacity to put together explanations when you see something happening (in the street for instance).

A huddle of people are looking up at a tree, so there’s probably a cat stuck up there.

A man is sitting on a shop doorstep, and he’s likely to be homeless and will ask you for money.

But of course we don’t always get it right.

Our assumptions can prove wrong.

The tree observers could be council workers discussing a pruning job.

The man in the doorway could be simply tying his shoe.

But there was no doubting the cause of the little scene I passed the other morning on the way to work.

Outside the nearby children’s daycare place, a young mother was smiling and waving through the window.

I saw her first.

A few paces on, I spotted her little boy inside, with the unhappiest face in the world.

He clearly didn’t want to be left there.

As I walked on, it seemed mean and heartless of the mother to be smiling.

Surely she’d be upset to see her son in such distress?

Thinking a bit more though, she was probably doing the right thing.

Trying to get her little boy to see it as normal, nothing to get upset about.

And this is probably a good way to think about how you’d like others to be with you, if and when your own mood is low.

You hope they’ll empathise with you.

The last thing you’d want is for them to suddenly get as low as you.

It’s a fine balance though, worth exploring when the boot’s on the other foot and you’re around someone else whose mood is low.

The answer is almost certainly to be yourself, and to behave as normally as possible.

Being around depression without it also getting to you.

Moods are contagious.

Sharing time with someone who’s ‘up’ can rub off on you, giving you a lift.

Unfortunately however, being around miserable people can mean you may end up being dragged down yourself.

Some might suggest that you should steer clear of those who are low, and whilst there may be a small degree of sense in this in terms of those you have no connection with, most of us have little choice over whether we are with our friends and family.

Indeed it would be a pretty uncaring and cold world if you simply cut off anyone who wasn’t in a great place.

What to do therefore?

Well I think you can sympathise with people without taking on their problems themselves.

If you think about this, professionals such as therapists have to operate like this, otherwise they’d be gibbering wrecks at the end of every working day.

On a path where many may be carrying too much weight, you’ll be of little use by offering to taking on everyone’s loads.

You’d soon collapse.

Better to show sympathy and offer encouragement.

Which, if the original load was on your shoulders rather than theirs, is probably what you’d want too.

Put the correct fuel in your tank.

As you’ll find if you mix up the diesel and unleaded pumps, cars don’t work with the wrong fuel.

We kind of know this, just as we’re aware that babies aren’t likely to take to spare ribs, and should remember that you must never, ever give dogs macadamia nuts.

So why, if we’re this astute when it comes to the nutritional needs of cars, babies and dogs, do we seem to ignore that having a healthy diet is crucial to our own physical and mental wellbeing?

Why do we sometimes think it’s fine to shovel down unhealthy food without expecting to see an associated decline in our health and all-round happiness?

Of course there’s a lot of psychology surrounding what we eat and why.

It can get complicated.

But one thing that generally holds true is the principle adhered to by computer experts, among others: garbage in, garbage out.

You’ll have choices today about what you eat.

Try to make as many sensible ones as possible.

Your mind and body will thank you, even if your willpower gets a bit challenged.

Plan yourself some down time.

I may be the world’s worst when it comes to taking time out.

I wish I wasn’t, but something inside me seems to stop me stopping.

I know I’m not alone.

I’m certain you’ll have gone through this yourself from time to time.

But the thing is, when I do slow right down and take time off, the clarity of my thinking improves to an enormous extent.

Problems that seemed insurmountable appear much more manageable with the perspective afforded by a rested mind and a brain that’s no longer frazzled.

Often it’s not good enough to expect that an opportunity to rest will pop up by accident.

It needs to be planned, and put in your diary in indelible pen – just as if it was a vital appointment or a crucial meeting.

Don’t wait too long to do this for yourself.

I recall speaking to the wife of a retired clergyman who said that when she got home from the shops, her husband told her he’d booked them a fortnight’s vacation.

Now that’s the way to do it.