In defence of pottering

For Anna McGovern there is a satisfying, sensory pleasure to be had in rinsing milk bottles: “The very best thing about getting your milk delivered is ‘rinsing and returning’. Don’t cheat by putting your bottles in the dishwasher. Wash them, by hand. Put a small amount of water in the bottle, slosh the water around, put your hand over the top, shake it up and down, upturn the bottle, glugging the water out, then head for your doorstep and put out the bottle with a ‘plink’”.

This is one of many meandering, seemingly mundane tasks that McGovern delights in describing in her new book. Another is pegging out the washing (“Pull it out of the basket in a long, sweet-smelling, damp lump.”) In fact, when we speak about pottering, McGovern tells me she has done just that to “help order her thoughts”.

Pottering – a peculiarly British pastime that evokes the shuffling sound of someone (quite possibly in slippers) going contentedly from one thing to the next – is something McGovern is good at. “I think you can lose yourself entirely while you’re pottering,” she says. “It’s a mental break, it’s completely unpressured and it frees you momentarily from all responsibility. It may seem inconsequential, but it has a uniquely restful effect, which I only discovered by chance.”

Three years ago, McGovern had a full-time job, three young children and an ageing father she was caring for. She recognised she had “done a bit too much for a bit too long” and decided to use her holiday to take the same day off each week for several months. “After a period of intensity in my life, I felt I needed some time off and it was incredibly beneficial – more than I ever thought, because I’d given myself permission to have a rest.”

That rest involved downing her digital devices, staying local and filling her Tuesdays with easy-to-achieve tasks. A couple of months into her new routine, McGovern realised that what she was doing could only be described as pottering. For her the restorative powers of regular pottering were such that she decided to interrogate the activity further. Written pre-pandemic, her book is an eerily prescient guide to the mercurial activity of – well, what, exactly?

“Pottering is personal,” she explains. “One person’s pottering may be another person’s domestic drudgery.” While the book is peppered with examples of what might be considered pottering – picking bobbles off a jumper, arranging the bottles in your bathroom cabinet in height order, going for a day trip with only a vague idea of your destination – it is more concerned with distilling the characteristics of pottering and the effect it can have on our state of mind.

McGovern suggests that one of the defining characteristics of pottering is honesty, or lack of affectation. “Pottering is not glamorous,” she states. “You don’t have to put too much effort in, go very far or even do it with others. Pottering is not a lifestyle concept and it doesn’t require practice.” Unlike mindfulness, say, there is no technique to be mastered. It is, first and foremost, “a chance to have a moment free of responsibility and free of the tyranny of pressure”.

There are, according to McGovern, five fundamentals of pottering. First, pottering is about “making the best of your circumstances and the resources you have to hand”. Improvisation and compromise are key here. In fact, there is an element of make do and mend.

Making do with what you’ve got inevitably anchors pottering to the home. That said, pottering is not the same as carrying out household chores. “The distinguishing feature of pottering as opposed to ‘jobs around the house’ is the slow pace at which you do it,” claims McGovern. There is also a lot to be said for the satisfaction you gain from pottering. (Compare hoovering the carpet, say, to hoovering the crumbs out of a cutlery drawer and you’ll begin to see the distinction.)

Another fundamental is not trying too hard. “There is no such thing as ‘doing it well’,” McGovern writes, reassuringly. “There are no benchmarks for success… no one is judging your performance when you find a matching lid and plastic pot in the odd assortment of containers you use for freezing leftover food. It’s just not something you can ‘excel’ at.”

Pottering is not doing nothing, however. “Sitting around on your phone or watching a box set isn’t pottering,” says McGovern. Pottering is relaxing precisely because you are occupied in the gentlest of ways. “It’s as though you’ve lent a sheen of legitimacy to your unstructured downtime by doing something ever so slightly useful,” she says. Leaving something to soak, executing a minor repair on clothing, rearranging objects on a shelf are all prime examples of this.

Pottering also implies movement (“admittedly not a lot”). Movement causes a “cascade effect” as unplanned, improvised micro-jobs beget more micro-jobs. McGovern argues that this sequence can send you into a “meditative state” and that, once you are in this state of “flow” an interruption can “cause a sensation of intrusion” – proof that what you are doing has created a sense of contentment. But remember, says McGovern, there’s no pressure with pottering, you can always pick it up where you left off tomorrow.

Localism is another defining characteristic of pottering. During her own weekly potterings, McGovern became more connected to her local community. She didn’t have to travel to the city each day; instead, she was able to pass the time of day with neighbours and local shopkeepers. By staying local, she writes, you may discover a newfound appreciation for your immediate surroundings and those who live near you. “Staying local bonds you to the people who surround you in a way that’s really reassuring, calming and pleasant,” she says. “There’s no going back from that.”

For McGovern, the final fundamental of pottering is that it is, on the whole, digital-free. “Ignoring digital devices means you are not bombarded with messages, information, unrealistic images of perfection…” she says. “Without witnessing all that, you can have some time that is your own.”

There is much comfort to be had in reading about the positive effect of pottering. “Think back to the first lockdown when we were all making banana bread and sorting through the contents of our drawers,” says McGovern. “None of those things were strictly necessary, but doing them helped us sort through our thoughts and gave us a sense of control over the situation.”

While pottering results in a constructive, physical outcome (you may have given a bag of clothes to charity or there may be a cake on the table), it’s the “mental rumination” that occurs during pottering that McGovern believes is beneficial to wellbeing. The effect for her was a change in mindset that enabled her to move on from the impasse she had reached in her career.

What about those of us who are longing to reorder our clothes hangers so that the hooks all face the same direction/reorganise the medical cabinet in a state of meditative flow, but are struggling to get through even the most immediate of professional and/or domestic tasks? “Just do what you can manage,” she says. “If you don’t have time that is your own, there are still benefits to be had from micro-pottering.” Micro-pottering is defined as “those moments in the day when you do something that is not strictly necessary but gives you a short break… to readjust your thoughts.”

So sharpening pencils when you should be making a difficult work call is OK. Pottering, however, is not to be confused with procrastination. (Home-workers, I think McGovern may be talking to us.) “Pottering is guilt-free,” she asserts. “If you have been occupied for a while to avoid doing something necessary and you are beginning to feel guilty, you are procrastinating, not pottering.”

Ultimately, says McGovern, “pottering is one of a number of coping strategies that you can do when you feel a bit frazzled. While it is by no means a substitute for professional help, it is just one thing in the armoury of self-care that happens to fit in with the way that we’re living now.”

Be kind, always.

November 13th is World Kindness Day, a day for us all to come together to consider the ways in which we can all help to make the world a kinder place. I’ve been celebrating it since I first became aware of it in 2011 when my own exploration into the remarkable power of acts of kindness began. This year it feels even more important than ever for us to be kind to ourselves and others as we each manage the challenging and uncertain landscape ahead.

So many of us feel overwhelmed, right now. In the face of the huge challenges many of us are experiencing, it’s easy to feel powerless and despairing. Whenever I start feeling like this, I come back to this quote from Brad Meltzer, “Everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind, always”. It reminds me to always have compassion for others and that kindness is always the answer. I promise you, whatever is going on for you, being kind will change things for the better.

In his recent book, Human Kind, Dutch Historian Rutger Bregman argues that humans evolved to be what he calls ‘pro-social’. In order to survive, we have had to cooperate and trust each other, to be kind, to love and care for each other. Yet we so often hear and share a bleaker version of the story of us: and it makes us fearful, causes division and anxiety. If we can learn to believe in human kindness and altruism and learn to trust each other we can achieve true and meaningful changes in our relationships and in society as a whole.

Practising kindness on a daily basis introduces you to a different version of the world. Really focusing on being kinder can fundamentally change the stories we tell and share about ourselves and others which in turn helps us to feel more hopeful that as challenging as things are, a better world is possible, and that we can all contribute to it. World Kindness Day offers us an opportunity for once to fill our social media feeds with joyful, inspiring stories of love, kindness and compassion, instead of conflict, discord and anger. This isn’t a fairy-tale version of human beings, we are as complex as life is, but that complexity includes kindness, empathy, love and compassion. We just don’t hear those stories as often and because of this, we’re in danger of losing hope and faith in each other.

It’s interesting to ponder: do the stories you tell yourself serve you and make you happy, or do they make you fearful and anxious? Hearing stories of kindness, or even better, being part of these stories ourselves, boosts serotonin and dopamine, the neurotransmitters in the brain that give you the warm glow of well-being, lighting up the pleasure and reward centres in your brain. Acts of kindness can also release endorphins, a natural pain killer. Allowing yourself to connect with kindness can literally help lift yours out of a low mood. Even when things are tough, there is always something you can do to make things better. It needn’t need much time or money to do something nice for someone or indeed for yourself. It just needs you to find the courage to try it, and the rewards are immediate and transformative.

So, to help get the ball rolling, for World Kindness Day, I’ve got some ideas of fun and COVID proof things you can try. It’s worth emphasising the fun part – giving yourself permission to find pleasure in being kind is really important, kindness should bring you joy too, it shouldn’t be seen as a chore but as an act of love. Right now, when things seem so dark, you can discover the real magic and power of kindness: it can make a bad day good, put a smile on a sad face, bring comfort to a lonely heart or bring hope to a despairing soul. If you don’t believe me, try it…

COVID Kindness

A lot of the things I used to practise as daily acts of kindness aren’t appropriate now: but it made me think about the opportunities for the kindness that the pandemic has revealed. Here are some ideas: you will no doubt have some of your own brilliant ones – so think of these as a starter kit.

  • Create a Hope Box. I made myself a box of reminders of all the things that cheer me up and make life worth living as a way of being kind to myself. My box includes objects, words, images, photos, old tickets all sorts of bits and pieces that I can reach for them whenever I need to take care of myself and to remind myself of all the things, I’m grateful for.
  • Window dressing. Fill your windows with funny, kind, inspiring quotes or drawings for passers-by on World Kindness Day – explore your creative side.
  • Revive the art of letter writing. Imagine how lovely it is to receive a handwritten letter instead of a pizza delivery leaflet or a bill? Think of someone who’d really appreciate you taking the time to sit down and writing to them rather just texting ‘Wassup?’.
  • Send a hug through the post. For this, you need a roll of paper and a marker pen. Lay outstretched on the paper and get someone to draw around your outstretched hug. Post it to a loved one. Not as good as the real thing, but pretty good. This is a great one to do with kids as well. Imagine how lovely it would be for a grandparent to receive a hug from their grandchild in the post.
  • Create a playlist. Nothing moves people more than music, so why not send someone a link to the songs and music that you find uplifting and pass on the joy.
  • Send a care package. A friend recently sent me one of these: it had sweets, a face mask and a book of poetry. So simple and beautiful to receive.
  • Help clean up your local area. Do something kind for the environment. Channel your inner Womble, put some gloves on and pick up some litter in your local park or green space. You’ll be amazed at how many people thank you and how many people you inspire to do the same.
  • Feed the birds. If you can do this regularly, you’ll find your feathered friends will wait for you. Feed them things like black sunflower seeds, fatballs and oatmeal – visit rsbp.org.uk for details.
  • Pet plan. Offer to walk someone’s dog who can’t get out and get some daily exercise. Or join borrowmydoggy.com and volunteer your dog walking skills
  • Hello gorgeous. Leave an uplifting chalk message or an inspiring quote on the pavement to make someone smile.

Lastly, don’t forget to wave! We can’t see each other smile or say hello with masks on! Look after yourself and each other and share your stories of kindness with us on the day – I hope you have lots of fun joining in. Kindness can change the world, and you can be part of that change.

Don’t worry, be happy.

A new biography has just been released, charting the life of Prof Anthony Clare, best known perhaps for chairing the popular Radio 4 programme ‘In the Psychiatrist’s Chair’. However, he also offered his Seven Steps for Happiness, a guide to finding and maintaining that most elusive of emotions. I thought they were wonderful and, I’m going to read them regularly as we head towards shorter, darker days and, sometimes, spirits dip. Enjoy!

“Number one: cultivate a passion. It is important in my model of happiness to have something that you enjoy doing. The challenge for a school is to find every child some kind of passion — something that will see them through the troughs. That’s why I’m in favour of the broadest curriculum you can get.

“Number two, be a leaf on a tree. You have to be both an individual — to have a sense that you are unique and you matter — and you need to be connected to a bigger organism — a family, a community, a hospital, a company. You need to be part of something bigger than yourself. A leaf off a tree has the advantage that it floats about a bit, but it’s disconnected and it dies.

“The people who are best protected against certain physical diseases — cancer, heart disease, for example — in addition to doing all the other things they should do, seem to be much more likely to be part of a community, socially involved. If you ask them to enumerate the people that they feel close to and would connect and communicate with, those with the most seem the happiest and those with least, the unhappiest.

“Of course, there may be a circular argument here. If you are a rather complicated person, people may avoid you. If, on the other hand, you are a centre of good feeling, people will come to you. I see the tragedy here in this room where some people sit in that chair and say they don’t have many friends and they’re quite isolated and unhappy, and the truth is they are so introspective they’ve become difficult to make friends with. Put them in a social group and they tend to talk about themselves. It puts other people off.

“So that’s my third rule: avoid introspection.

“Number four, don’t resist change. Change is important. People who are fearful of change are rarely happy. I don’t mean catastrophic change, but enough to keep your life stimulated. People are wary of change, particularly when things are going reasonably well, because they don’t want to rock the boat, but a little rocking can be good for you. It’s the salt in the soup. Uniformity is a tremendous threat to happiness, as are too much predictability, control and order. You need variety, flexibility, the unexpected, because they’ll challenge you.

“Five, live for the moment. Look at the things that you want to do and you keep postponing. Postpone less of what you want to do, or what you think is worthwhile. Don’t be hide-bound by the day-to-day demands. Spend less time working on the family finances and more time working out what makes you happy. If going to the cinema is a pleasure, then do it. If going to the opera is a pain, then don’t do it.

“Six, audit your happiness. How much of each day are you spending doing something that doesn’t make you happy? Check it out and if more than half of what you’re doing makes you unhappy, then change it. Go on. Don’t come in here and complain. People do, you know. They come and sit in that chair and tell me nothing is right. They say they don’t like their family, they don’t like their work, they don’t like anything. I say, ‘Well, what are you going to do about it?’

And, finally, if you want to be happy, Be Happy. Act it, play the part, put on a happy face. Start thinking differently. If you are feeling negative, say, ‘I am going to be positive,’ and that, in itself, can trigger a change in how you feel.”

Feeling frazzled?

Is working from home during lockdown making you feel stressed, anxious and overwhelmed? You could be suffering from burnout. Why not try applying this scientifically approved formula to your daily routine to see if it could help ease the pressure?

The coronavirus pandemic and UK lockdown mean that many of us have adapted to working from home during the crisis, and as we enter what feels like the hundredth week of this ‘new normal’, it’s understandable that we’re feeling the pressure.

A woman working from home

Over half (56%) of UK workers are feeling more anxious and stressed during this time, according to new research from LinkedIn, conducted in association with The Mental Health Foundation. And while 47% of workers have ‘faked’ being busy because they’re scared they might lose their jobs, people are also working a massive 28 hours of overtime per month on average.

During this time, it’s important that we remember to look after our mental health, so what can you do if you feel overwhelmed by work stress? Read on to hear how the 42% rule could help ease symptoms of burnout and stress.
Exactly how much rest is an “adequate” amount?

Science is pretty clear on the amount: it’s 42%.

That’s the percentage of time your body and brain need you to spend resting. It’s about 10 hours out of every 24. It doesn’t have to be every day; it can average out over a week or a month or more. But yeah. That much.

“That’s ridiculous! I don’t have that kind of time!” you might protest — and I predicted you might feel that way (because I did too!)

But before you panic, I’m not saying you should take 42 percent of your time to rest; I’m saying if you don’t take the 42 percent, the 42 percent will take you. It will grab you by the face, shove you to the ground, put its foot on your chest, and declare itself the victor.

Have you ever come down with a terrible cold as soon as you finished a huge project? Have you found yourself sleeping 12 or 14 hours every day for the first three days of holiday?

Burnout can cause illness

It has been established by now that stress is a physiological phenomenon that impacts every system and function in our bodies, including immune functioning, digestive functioning, and hormones. To keep all of those systems in full working order, our biology requires that we spend 42 percent of our lives maintaining the organism of our physical existence.

Here’s what your 42 percent might look like:

burnout• Eight hours of sleep opportunity, give or take an hour.

• 20 to 30 minutes of “stress-reducing conversation” with your partner or other trusted loved one.

• 30 minutes of physical activity. Do this with the explicit mindset of gear-switching, feels-purging, rest-getting freedom. Physical activity counts as “rest” partly because it improves the quality of your sleep and partly because it completes the stress response cycle, transitioning your body out of a stressed state and into a resting state.

• 30 minutes of paying attention to food. “30 minutes?” you say. Don’t fret. That includes all meals, shopping, cooking, and eating, and it doesn’t have to be all at once. It can be with people or alone, but it can’t be while working or driving or watching TV or even listening to a podcast. Pay attention to your food for half an hour a day. This counts as rest partly because it provides necessary nourishment and partly because it’s active rest, a change of pace, apart from the other domains of your life. Think of it as meditation.

• And a 30-minute wild card, depending on your needs. For some people, this will be extra physical activity, because they need that much to feel good. For others, it will be preparation for their sleep opportunity, because they know their brains need time to transition from the buzzing state of wakefulness into the quiet that allows the brain to sleep. For still others, it will be social play time, because their appetite for social engagement is strong. And for some, it’s simply a buffer for travel and changing clothes and other rest-preparation time (because: reality) during which you engage your default mode network — that is, you let your mind wander.

These are just averages, and as you can see, you’ll sometimes do more than one thing at a time. Some people need more sleep than others — sleep need is estimated to be about 40 percent genetically heritable, so even identical twins can vary a lot.

Natural exercisers may want to spend more time on physical activity. Foodies may want to spend more time on food. Extroverts may want to spend as much of this time as possible with other people. Your mileage may vary; fine-tune it to fit your individual needs.

If you’re thinking, I can get by with less, you’re right. You can “get by,” dragging your increasingly rest-deprived brain and body through your life. And there are periods in your life when adequate rest will not be an option. Newborn baby? No sleep for you. Elderly dog? You’ll be up every four hours. Working three jobs while finishing your degree? Get by on five hours of sleep.

exhausted person sitting at home working in front of a laptop with their head in their hand

But no one who cares about your wellbeing will expect you to sustain that way of life for an extended period of time. No one in your Bubble of Love wants you to “get by”; they want you to thrive and grow stronger. They want you to thrive and grow stronger. What makes you stronger is rest.

Suppose you send your 10-year-old child away to camp and you learn they aren’t feeding her adequately because they’re sure she can “get by” on less?

Suppose you leave your dog with a dog-sitter and learn they’re having your dog sleep outside in the cold because he can “get by” in that weather?

Suppose your best friend starts wearing a tight-laced corset everywhere, so that she physically can’t take a full breath and is constantly slightly oxygen-deprived, gasping as she climbs a single flight of stairs, but she can “get by” with that much oxygen?

Your child, your dog, and your friend can all “get by” with less than the optimal levels of every basic bodily need. So can you. But the way you react to your hungry child, your shivering dog, and your gasping friend is how you feel about you “getting by” with too little rest. Now, off to work out my calculations for tomorrow!

Bouncing Back

Let’s face it, sometimes life is just hard. Plain and simple. There is frustration, anger, sadness, loss, tragedy, grief. At times like this, when all we can see is darkness, putting one foot in front of the other is as much as you can do.

Helen Keller said, “The marvellous richness of human experience would lose something of rewarding joy if there were no limitations to overcome. The hilltop hour would not be half so wonderful if there were no dark valleys to traverse.” But it can be difficult to feel and imagine the light when we are in those dark valleys.

Resilience is our ability to bounce back, to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and go again. Think about a boat in a river. The rocks on the riverbed are always there but when the water level is low the boat is more likely to crash into them and sink, whereas when the water is high the boat bobs up and down, unaffected by those same rocks. When our resilience is low our ability to deal with the problems in our lives is lower.

Building up our resilience allows us to cope better with the problems that life throws at us. The greater our resilience, the greater our ability to move away fromautonomic, reflexive reaction; the reptilian brain fight-flight-freeze response. We can instead deal with things rationally, calmly, to respond rather than react to issues, to think creatively and problem solve. We can move from SURVIVE mode to THRIVE mode.

I’m not suggesting that if you lose your job, get seriously ill, suffer a bereavement or survive a pandemic that you should simply think yourself happy, but your ability to take a breath, deal with difficulty and come out the other side stronger, better, more, will be enhanced if you have developed these practises during the ‘good times’.

Across a plethora of studies on the topic, regardless of the type of trauma suffered, cultural background, ethnicity, age, gender there are broadly seven core things that have been identified as key to building resilience:

  1. Having a strong connection to others – The support of close friends and family is the most important component of resilience
  2. Having connections to animals – cuddling and playing with pets is known to be therapeutic (care dogs, equine therapy)
  3. Having a connection to nature – walking in nature, lying on the grass looking up at the clouds, listening to the ocean, swimming in a cold lake feeling the icy water invigorate your body, bringing you into your body, connecting you back to your body
  4. Having a connection to beauty/art – getting out of yourself and your own head, appreciating great works of art, your child’s painting, a sunset, connecting to our heritage and our history through galleries, blogs, radio, singing, dancing
  5. Having a connection to a higher being / purpose – a god, synchronicity, destiny, the stars
  6. Having a strong sense of self-worth – being kind and gentle to yourself, belief in your abilities, self-care, and self-love
  7. Finding greater meaning in things – seeking to understand a deeper meaning

To build our resilience we should recognise, acknowledge and practise our own STRENGTHS, such as; courage in the face of adversity, sense of humour, patience, kindness, good judgement, optimism, gratitude, long term focus, generosity etc.

We need to develop useful INSIGHTS to draw on, ideas and perspectives and sayings that we find useful such as; developing a growth mindset, learning from the past, practising gratitude, seeing this as temporary, understanding the personal growth we will gain from the experience, practising radical acceptance, practicing kindness and showing empathy and understanding to ourselves and others around us, thinking of the bigger picture, ‘and this too shall pass’.

Consider and use all the RESOURCES we have for guidance, support, nourishment, and inspiration, such as beautiful parks, walkways, river, seaside views, galleries, museums, family, friends, pets, places we feel safe, people we trust, helpful websites, books, blogs, podcasts etc.

And we must implement STRATEGIES, things we can do, actions we can take such as taking care of our own wellbeing with exercise, food and self-talk, going for walks, runs, practising yoga, meditation, taking up a new or re-visiting an old hobby, caring for others, writing in a journal, practising mindfulness, taking up a new sport.

As we head into the winter, feeling like we never really had a summer, like we lost a year. Perhaps we should focus more on what we HAVE rather than what we have NOT, a shift of focus.

Ask yourself these questions:

What have I found stressful in the past and how has that affected me, my mood, my behaviour with others? What helped me then? Who helped me then? How did I grow from that experience? How am I different today than I was last year? How have I grown as a person?

What have I learnt about myself from past difficult times? What do I do to support myself? What do I need to do more of? Less of? Start doing? Stop doing? How can I help myself? How can I help others?

What would make me feel more hopeful for the future? What I am going to do today to make that happen?

Who do I choose to be today, now, in this moment?

“At the end of the day, we can endure much more than we think we can.” Frida Kahlo

Needs must

In her book, Better Than Before, Gretchen Rubin writes: “Any beginning is a time of special power for habit creation, and at certain times we experience a clean slate, in which circumstances change in a way that makes a fresh start possible…” For me, September has this special power.

According to the calendar, September is just another month in the year. But according to our emotions, this time of year often feels particularly weighty.

With summer at an end, many people experience a pang of nostalgia for the good weather as the days grow shorter and there’s a distinct nip in early morning air. For parents and students, the back to school period is often a potent cocktail of relief, excitement, and anxiety.

The idea of setting intentions or a ‘resolution’ may only seem necessary when you’re counting down the seconds at a New Year’s Eve party, or overcoming a transformational life event. Resolutions might seem like the sort of thing we reserve for special occasions, when we really want to make a change. The thing is, every day is ripe for resolution-making, whether it’s a rainy Thursday afternoon or a bright and optimistic Monday morning. Every moment offers the opportunity to set an intention, a sankalpa and a resolution.

The word resolution itself has two meanings; the original word comes from the Latin solvere, meaning ‘to loosen or release’, and also breaking into parts’, while the relatively modern version is derived from the word ‘resolute’, referring to a sense of being determined and firm. Usually, when we set a resolution, our attitude is determined and firm, an attempt to control our mind or body. Your resolution might be to give up sugar, start jogging, to practice yoga every day, or to be more organised. When we set resolutions like this however, we can sometimes miss the entire point of making the resolution itself, which deep down is probably along the lines of being happy and enjoying life more. If the reason behind setting resolutions is about being happy or enjoying life a little more, I invite you to think of a resolution that is more about cultivating solvere – loosening, releasing and breaking into parts – than it is about controlling. What do you feel you try to control and grip a little too much? What would you benefit from loosening or releasing a little more? So much of our lives is already about improving, developing and hiding any imperfections, that loosening and releasing from time to time could be the very medicine we need and the missing link to feeling better.

Dr. Claudia Welch, who specialises in Ayurveda and Chinese Medicine, and who authored the book Balance Your Hormones, Balance Your Life, champions the notion of giving ourselves more rest, and letting go of the need to achieve and ‘do’ all the time. “If we’ve done some work on ourselves, we respect the natural urge of hunger, we respect thirst, but we tend not to respect tired”. Indeed, in a bid to be our ‘best’ selves, very often resolutions are about ‘doing’, ‘improving’, and exhausting ourselves, more than they’re about honouring and nourishing ourselves. So perhaps pause for a moment and listen – really listen; if you were to loosen and release, and if you were to allow parts of your identity and current habits to ‘break into parts’, what might that look like? What one thing in your life would you benefit from loosening the grip on or letting go of? Chances are it’s the first thing that comes into your mind… To practice setting a resolution this month, set some time aside some time in silence whether sitting or walking, and simply listen when you ask the question; “What do I need?

Get ready for sortumn

No, that’s not a typo. It’s a word I found recently that’s quite perfect to describe this time of year: sortumn. Not summer anymore, but not quite autumn either, this just might be my favourite season – a beautiful in-between time made up of equal parts golden sunshine and misty mornings.

It’s particularly lovely where I live, in my semi rural idyll of Romsey. The evenings are still long enough to walk the canal path before dinner, while the slanted sunshine gilds leaves that are just beginning to turn colour. My favourite walk takes us under an ancient apple tree, and at the moment the windfalls are filling the air with a wonderful cidery smell that evokes thoughts of the months yet to come – full of crisp air and cosy jumpers and soup for dinner, with a warm apple crumble afterward if we’re lucky.

As we make our way between the hedgerows, hubby and I, a few early leaves crunch underfoot; the pheasants, stealing a few more days of leisure before the hunters arrive, cluck and chuckle in the fields which border the canal. It’s warm enough to wear short sleeves, but not hot enough to be uncomfortable – the perfect sort of evening to bring along a blanket and a beloved and a bottle of wine to share beside the river, while the mayflies dance and the swallows perform an aerial ballet overhead.

A neighbour asked me the other day why this season is my favourite, as opposed to spring. True, the delights of a full-on English spring are not to be sniffed at – this country knows how to burst into bloom with a vengeance – but there’s something a bit melancholy and bittersweet about these brief few golden weeks that I love beyond reason. The mellow sunshine is fleeting, and the long nights will soon draw in. (These have their good side, too, but they do take some getting used to.) This small season – this sortumn – is a transition, a moment trapped between one thing and another, and as such it can’t ever be truly savoured before it’s gone. Maybe that’s why it feels so precious.

The Black Dot

I would like to share a simple story:

One day a psychology professor gave his students a surprise test. They all waited anxiously at their desks for the exam to begin. The professor handed out the exams with the text facing down, as usual. Once he had handed them all out, he told them to turn over the papers. To everyone’s surprise there were no questions – just a black dot in the centre of the sheet of paper. The professor gave them the simple instruction: “I want you to write about what you see.”

At the end of the class, the professor collected all the papers and read each one of them out loud, in front of all the students. All of them, without exception, defined the black dot, describing its size, its colour, its position in the centre of the sheet. After he had read out all the answers he put the papers down on his desk and looked out at the room of silent students and said, “I’m not going to grade you on this, I just wanted to give you something to think about. Not one of you wrote about the white part of the paper. Everyone focused on the black dot. We do the same thing in our daily lives. We have a beautiful, full piece of white crisp paper to observe and enjoy, but we focus on the dark spot. Our life is a gift, for each and every one of us. There will always be darkness, but there will also always be reasons to celebrate, to be grateful; our families, our health, the blue sky, the rain making the grass green, nature renewing itself daily, friends around us. However, we insist on focusing only on the dark spot – the health issues that bother us, the lack of money, the complicated relationships with others, or the disappointment with a friend. The dark spots are exceedingly small when compared to everything we have in our lives, but they are the ones that pollute our minds. Take your eyes away from the black dots in your life. Enjoy each one of your blessings and each moment that life gives you. Be happy and live a full life.”

This week I challenge you, in these unprecedented times – a global pandemic, a deluge of political unrest and economic challenge – I challenge you every day this week to take out that piece of paper, place all the darkness into the one spot in the middle of the page and then fill the rest of the page with all the bright colour in your life. Fill the page with all the things you are grateful for, everything you have been lucky enough to have in your life. Use colour, images, words. Make a mess because life is a glorious mess. Illuminate the page with the sparkle and lustre of your life. Remind yourself. This is who you are. This is your life. Make it big, shiny and bright.

It’s okay to say no (and how to do it!)

I am a reformed ‘yes’ girl. I used to fling my ‘yes’s’ around like there was some kind of magical endless supply. I was careless with my ‘yes’s’, I didn’t treasure them like I should have.⠀

And then, after many years of getting stressed and overworked, I finally got it. ⠀

My ‘yes’s’ are sacred. They are a valuable treasure to be protected at all costs. When I say yes to one thing – I’m saying no to another thing. It’s logical. I can’t do all the things.

So I became a ‘no’ girl. Almost overnight.

But of course staying a ‘no’ girl is a different story. It’s far too easy to slip back into old habits. Especially when we are struggling a bit in the self-worth department.

“Yes, I can absolutely look after your kids – send them over!” When all I really want is to know that my friendship is valued.

“Yep, I can fit in that extra job this week” Because if I don’t I’ll look useless and like I can’t handle the workload.

Ugh.

If you feel like you say YES far to often and wind up overcommitted and overwhelmed, stick with me. Let’s figure out what to say no to, and how to say it!

It’s okay to say no

It took me a long time to understand that it was actually okay to say no. My brain seemed pre-programmed to yes. And it was stuck on it, like a broken record.

I also presumed that people expected me to say yes. I couldn’t imagine that they would be okay with me saying no.

Once I gave myself permission to try it out – saying no – I discovered it wasn’t as scary as I thought. I also found that people were generally okay with me saying no. Despite what my ego told me I wasn’t always the only person for the job! My saying no didn’t affect them as much as it did me.

How to work out what to say no to

So now that I knew it was okay to say no, I needed to figure out when I could say it. As tempting as it was, surely I couldn’t say no all the time. What were the right things to say no to? Should it be based purely on my availability? Or could I choose to say no to things simply because I didn’t want to do them (surely not!)??

Of course, I had moral and ethical boundaries that made some decisions easy but what about everything else?

When I’m asked to commit to something new, whether it be an ongoing project or a coffee date I like to consider two main things;

Does it fit with my ‘why’ – my core values and purpose

I don’t commit to random things anymore. I’m purposeful with whatever projects I take on. I like to run it by my basic core pillars. Does it feed my innate need to create something? Does it mean I get to connect deeply with someone? Is it serving an area of my life that I’m developing?

Do I have time?

There are many things that I would love to do. But I can only do a few of them. My time is limited. Like so many of us, I wear many hats and shape shift my way through my week. f

This revelation has not come easy though. I used to try and squeeze all the things into my calendar (like the time I trained to teach yoga, travelling up and down to London every other weekend whilst juggling a full time job in a stressful environment). There was no white space. No extra time in case of emergencies. Fuelled by a desire to please others and my ego, I would stack training sessions, coffee dates and meetings on top of each other until it all came tumbling down.

One helpful tool I try and use when considering something new is to overestimate the time it would take. This gives me space to breathe in between commitments rather than letting them stack up on top of each other.

Just Say No to (Most of) the Current ICOs | by Ty Danco | Medium

Ways to say no (and still keep your friends)

So now you know (hopefully) that it’s okay to say no. And maybe you’ve got a better idea of what you might say no to by checking if it aligns with your ‘why’ and your calendar.

But you might still find yourself saying yes. In the moment, caught off guard, you know you shouldn’t commit, but you do it anyway. Because you can’t figure out how to say no.

Use the power of the pause

A helpful tool when learning how to say no is to use the power of the pause. Pause after you are asked to do something. You don’t need to respond immediately. Take three deep breaths and let them know that you’ll get back to them.

You don’t have to decide right then and there. Most people will respect that and offer you time before you ask for it.

Soften the blow

I don’t buy into the idea that ‘No’ is a complete sentence. I understand the concept behind it. We don’t have to explain ourselves to other people. Our reasons for saying are our own. But how many times have you actually said ‘No’. and stopped at that?

It’s pretty difficult. We naturally want to apologize. ‘I’m really sorry, but I can’t do that’. There’s nothing wrong with this!!! Being genuinely sorry that we can’t help out helps soften the blow. And also, it’s just a kinder way of saying it.

Try these alternative one-liners

Here are some other one-liners that you can use if, like me, you aren’t comfortable with a harsh ‘No’;

“No thanks, my schedule is full right now.”

“No thank you, I’m unable to help this time.”⠀

“I really appreciate you asking me, but I’ll have to decline”⠀

“No, I don’t want to engage with that right now.”⠀

“No thanks, I’m working on having less busy and more happy”

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. You are the boss. This is your show. Get in the director’s chair and orchestrate your masterpiece. You are worthy of doing what lights you up. You worthy of doing what you need to do to thrive. Yup, even if it’s getting into your pj’s at 5pm and eating toast for tea.

I’ll take my seat in the front row and cheer you on.

Summertime and the living is….simple!

It came as no surprise that a recent poll showed that a mere 12% of the population want life to return to pre-lockdown ‘normal’. After a life that’s been unavoidably pared back, how can we take the positives of operating in a more streamlined way and apply them when ‘normal life’ resumes?

‘Lockdown has been simplicity’s moment in the sun,’ says Julia Hobsbawm – entrepreneur, speaker and author of The Simplicity Principle. ‘It has connected us to the idea that, in the end, all we really want is to be safe, well, and to love and be loved. Now we know this, I don’t think our old lives will hold the same appeal.’

That said, lockdown life can be knotty in its own ways. We have become even more reliant on technology for social interaction, and, in many cases, our careers, home-schooling and hobbies have become tangled into one big messy ball. Plus, the world has possibly seemed more confusing and disorientating than ever before.

And you won’t be surprised to learn that humans are about as complex as it gets anyway. We have 86 billion neurons firing all the time in our brains, and our bodies are made up of nearly 40 trillion cells. We are capable of doing amazing things yet this is at complete odds with the simple needs we have, emotionally and physically.

‘Our working memory – the part of the brain that governs reason and behaviour, typically shows a limit of between 4 and 7 items at a time,’ explains Hobsbawm. This would be fine if we were all still hunting and gathering like we did thousands of years ago, but it’s not so useful now, when we’re overwhelmed by endless choices, multiple social media accounts and we’re constantly zig-zagging between tasks.

‘Neuroscience shows us that once things get too complicated, our brains effectively short-circuit and cut out,’ says Hobsbawm. ‘When we are overloaded, we make mistakes. We get stressed, anxious, depressed, angry and disappointed. We struggle.’

So is it ever possible to cut through the chaos and find simplicity? The short answer is, yes.

Hobsbawm embarked on her own quest for simplicity five years ago, when an exhausting decade filled with illness, grief, and the challenges of balancing a busy career with motherhood, left her feeling burned out and overwhelmed.

In response, she made a commitment to remove as much unnecessary complexity from her life as possible.

‘Life will always be complicated, and we can’t control everything,’ says Hobsbawm. ‘Plus, we are curious creatures – we like intrigue and variety. But that doesn’t mean that how we soothe ourselves and complete our tasks shouldn’t be streamlined and simple.’

‘I’ve learned that it’s about pattern, structure and rhythm, such as having regular sleep and setting boundaries,’ she says. ‘It’s about knowing when to stop and stand back.’


Here are my 10 top tips and helpful ways to find calm in the complexity, and clarity in the chaos…

1. PICK SIX

‘Our brains can only handle a maximum of seven things at once, so – to stay within this – I have chosen six as my magic number,’ says Hobsbawm. You can use the number six as a guide in all aspects of life, for example, having no more than six people in a group chat, or on a video call. But it really helps when working through your to-do list. ‘Start each day with a list of just six major things, and perhaps six tiny tasks you need to do by the end of the day,’ she says. ‘It will immediately focus your mind on the most important things, rather than blurring the boundaries between essential and optional. It means that you can commit to what you’re doing and be confident of success. Another benefit is that when you focus on fewer things a day, you make sharper decisions more quickly.’

2. RING-FENCE YOUR DAY

You can also streamline your life by dividing your day into time-zones. ‘I break up my day by using the “three Ps”: personal, process and people’, says Hobsbawm. ‘Personal can mean exercise or reading a book, process could be anything from tackling my inbox to financial management and people is all about connecting with others, whether friends or clients.’ When you’re in your ‘personal’ time-zone, switch your emails off. When you’re speaking to friends, give them your full attention. Divvying up your day will help you focus your mind on what really matters in the present moment.

3. REDUCE YOUR DECISIONS

We make tons of unconscious decisions every day – in fact, science has found we make a staggering 35,000 separate decisions, on everything from where we move our bodies, to what to eat, to whether to click on your Instagram app. You might not even notice it, but all of these tiny decisions can add up to make you feel overwhelmed. ‘The ability to decide both faster and more firmly is a sign of clarity,’ says Hobsbawm. We often think more choice is better, but in many instances, they can actually just crowd our brains and make decisions harder to make. In fact, a famous study in a California supermarket found that a table offering a limited range of six jams elicited a 30% purchase rate, compared to just 3% on the table offering a choice of 24. So, find ways to reduce unnecessary choice in everyday life. You could make like Barack Obama, who admitted that he limited his choices of suits and shirts. ‘I have too many other decisions to make,’ he said in a 2012 interview. You could do the same with your lunch options or hairstyles – whatever works for you.

4. RECONNECT WITH NATURE

‘Experiencing the world around you is a powerful tonic for clarity and inner peace,’ says Hobsbawm. There are countless studies showing the benefits of walking in nature for promoting relaxation, lowering heart rates and reducing stress. One study from the Netherlands even found that looking at a picture of nature is enough to calm the parasympathetic nervous system. ‘Nature teaches us a bit of humility,’ says Hobsbawm. ‘You can’t keep up superior airs and graces, job titles, or look-at-me Instagrams when you’re amongst all creatures great and small because, well, you realise how silly it all is. Simplicity hinges on balance, and nature is the great re-balancer.’

5. BE CLEAR TO OTHERS

In order to gain clarity, it’s also important to be crystal-clear yourself. ‘There is nothing worse than muddle and confusion, which brings with it delay, miscommunication and distrust,’ says Hobsbawm. ‘When you’re clear about something, others get clarity. Being clear is an act of generosity.’ For example, if you want to ask your kids to do some chores around the house, give basic, broken-down instructions. This means they’re more likely to get it right, avoiding complication in future. This also means saying ‘no’ to something you don’t have the time, energy or mental-space to commit to. When you start setting clear boundaries, you’ll be less scattered, and you might even find this frees up more time to nourish your closest relationships.

6. GIVE EVERYTHING A HOME

The benefits of tidying up are well-noted – it’s true that physical clutter can actually clog up your mental space too. One American study found that people who described their homes as ‘cluttered’ and full of ‘unfinished projects’ were more likely to be depressed or tired. This doesn’t mean you need to embrace full-on minimalism – according to Hobsbawm, it really is as simple as having one place for everything, so you can always find it. ‘Not only can it be terrifying to find something in an emergency when you don’t know where to begin, but it symbolizes something deeper: if you can’t keep your house well, what else is too messy in your life?’ says Hobsbawm.

7. MONO-TASK

Many of us wear the fact we can multi-task as a badge of honour. But actually, research from Stanford University has shown that when we try to do more than one thing at once, it has an immediate and negative impact on our memory. Humans are monotaskers by nature – we work better when we focus on just one thing at a time. ‘Decide the one thing you want to do or achieve and stick to that until it’s done,’ suggests Hobsbawm. ‘This could be reading, writing a document or clearing your inbox. The latter of these, I find, is essential. I recommend never finishing the week with anything in your inbox. If it remains full, so does your brain.’

8. LET GO

There will always be obligations we simply can’t drop, but many obligations are ones that we’ve actually created for ourselves. ‘Arianna Huffington puts it beautifully in her book, Thrive, when she talks about release from too many tasks,’ says Hosbawm. ‘She writes, “It was liberating to realise that I could ‘complete’ a project simply by dropping it – by eliminating it from my to-do list. Why carry around this unnecessary baggage?”’ Look at your own goals and think, what actually needs doing? What can you postpone for now?

9. CURATE YOUR KNOWLEDGE

We’re bombarded with news and information at all times – whether that’s on TV, through app notifications, or as we scroll through social media. Hobsbawm describes this as ‘infobesity’ – ‘just has our bodies can get clogged, and slowed down by too much complex food in too-high quantities, the same is true of knowledge,’ she says. ‘We need it, we should enjoy it. We just need to simplify how we absorb it.’ Hobsbawm recommends coming up with a “knowledge dashboard” to keep track of what you’re taking in. ‘Aim for no more than six sources a day,’ she suggests. ‘You should aim for both a mix of topics – for example, three that cover news and views, one that covers whatever your specialism is, and some general entertainment. And then a mix of mediums – whether that’s blogs, trusted news sites, TED talks or books. Curation cuts down and cuts through the fatty tissue of TMI: Too Much Information.’

10. EMBRACE MINDLESSNESS

Being able to relax and press pause is key to living a simple life, but we tend to overcomplicate the act of rest. ‘In order to practice meditation or mindfulness seriously, you have to do something – whether that’s setting aside time, sitting down or turning on an app,’ says Hobsbawm. ‘Ironically, you are turning your mind on in order to let it relax, and switch off.’ It can be simpler than that: ‘by weeding out all the limitless possibility and narrowing our focus, we can achieve a state of reset,’ says Hobsbawm. ‘When I listen to a piece of classical music or chop a single piece of garlic when I cook, I am simplifying my actions. In slowing my thought processes, I’m reaching that increasingly elusive state in our frantic world: relaxation.’

And that’s surely what we want more of in our post-lockdown world.