Friday, 28 May 2010

Initial Hurdles: Raise Yourself

If lowering the bar to overcome a hurdle doesn't help or isn't possible (damn athletic federations and their rules), then why not raise yourself.

On a normal day, I can be slow and lethargic. But I know lots of ways to become happy and energetic. I can meditate. I can buzz. I can look in the mirror and say good things to the handsome handsome face I see staring back at me.

And there are other ways I can raise my game. I can talk to people and get enthusiastic. Or I can read a book on the subject and get enthusiastic.

Or I can find a stepladder. The flylady encourages you to put on your shoes before you start cleaning, because that way you'll be prepared to go outside when you have to. Similarly, if you move your bin bags from that dark damp corner under your sink, to a convenient place in the room which always gets messiest -when you need them, you are halfway over the hurdle.

Now, this enthusiasm doesn't have to last. Generally, it won't. Its a one shot deal every time... certainly it won't go beyond the second or third time you need to do something which looks to hard to begin. But by then, there is a chance you'll be used to jumping the hurdle.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

How do you feel right now?

I've heard about experiments where people carry around little buzzers which fire randomly thoughout the day, and ask their wearer to record their mood. It has always sounded to me like you might collect an interesting dataset (and one of the keys to finding a magic wand is to look at the data)

I've also wondered about the level of research that goes into self-help in general. Sure, there sum total of things in the book may have been helpful for the author - maybe even for their clients (on average). But are they right for everyone? Magic Wand's is about finding what works for you in particular.

I'm very keen on mindfulness. Particularly on being aware of your own emotions and how they change.

So when my wife made a suggestion, I was intrigued:

"Wouldn't it be good" she asked "if there was a little device which asked you how you were feeling, every so often. Randomly. Then suggested something you could do to feel better?"

Yes. Yes it would. And wouldn't it be good if it could look at how you felt the next time it asked you, and was possibly able to tell if a particular improvement activity had any impact on your mood?

We already have the device. Its called a mobile phone. They interrupt you all the time and nobody bats an eyelid. Noone need know what you were doing.

So I thought about implementing this. And, over a few days, I figured out how to do it. The end result was


All you have to do is go to the website, and enter your email address. Straight away the site will send you an email asking how you feel. To reply, you just click on one of the links, and you'll get a simple self help solution. The sort of magic wand type suggestions which appear in this blog.

And then, a few hours later, you'll get another email. And you'll keep getting emails, at random times, asking you how you feel - then giving you a suggestion. In time the site will elarn which suggestions work, and which don't. At least, thats the plan.

Its all very much in early, beta, stages, right now. We have a limited number of places for sign-ups (although I'm trying to cope with as many people as possible... and we should always be able to accept your email address and tell you when we have space to start accepting new users).

There are lots of features I'm still looking to add (including one which will let you look at all your data) - but for the most part, I'm going to focus on adding new suggestions - because to see what works, we're going to have to try everything once.

Why not give it a go: this might be your magic wand.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Initial Hurdles: Lower the Bar

Sometimes a hurdle is just to high to face jumping it. And if you can't face jumping it, you won't even try to get to the other side. Sometimes the problem you're facing is so big and so daunting, that you don't know where to begin, because you certainly don't have what it takes to do it all... and certainly not every day.

The answer is not to try to jump the hurdle (that way lies willpower). The answer is to see if there is a lower hurdle you could face instead.

Perhaps you can't face writing 3000 words in a day. I know I can't keep up with writing 1500 words a day (on a particular subject) for more than about a month at a time. But I can face writing 100 every day. And you ought to be able to face writing 10 words a day... or just one sentence.

Can't face exercise? Would you be happy just walking down the road for 10 minutes each day? Too long? how about 5?

Don't want to start cleaning? Can you just plug the hoover in to the socket in the room that needs cleaning and turn the hoover on? Because that's all you need to do.

None of these challenges are particularly hard. Their not particularly challenging. You can certainly do them every day. And once you've done them, you can see if you've overcome the hurdle to get into the work you've been avoiding. If you have, great. If you haven't - well, there is probably another hurdle to leap. Maybe in a different way. But that doesn't mean you should stop leaping this one, because it brings you nearer to your goal - and every day you do it, you're succeeding.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Initial Hurdles : Willpower (won't work)

The way many of us try to overcome an initial hurdle is by using willpower, figuring that if we can just get through it, we'll get on with what we really want to do.

I'm here to tell you that Willpower won't work - at least not for everybody, and certainly not in the long run.

Willpower can be good. Everyone can summon willpower some of the time. And we can use it to get us to do things we don't want. Sometimes when we use willpower we find things are not as bad as we thought they were. And if you keep using willpower, sometimes what once took will has become a habit.

But. If after a while of using willpower, you find you still have to use willpower : that is you find yourself still wishing you didn't have to jump the hurdle - then its time to try something else.

Because eventually willpower runs out. One morning you wake up tired. Or in a bad mood. Or something else is sapping your willpower. You don't have the energy to get over the hurdle. And frankly you have never really had the desire... not the deep down desire. And so you don't do it.
And if your willpower is directed somewhere else for several days, that's several failures. Several things reinforcing the fact you don't have the willpower to keep at whatever you're doing.

Our culture has a long tradition of saying "Stick with it". But almost every time someone says "Stick with it" to me, I notice that they love and enjoy the thing they are sticking with... and that those who don't love and enjoying eventually stop sticking with it themselves.

There are lots of things out there you love and enjoy... and you can use these to get to your goals. "Sticking with it" and using willpower as the way to do so only causes you the pain of having to keep sticking with it every day. And that is no way to get the life you want - because in order to get freedom, you're putting yourself in the chains of pain.

Friday, 14 May 2010

Making Magic Wands From Hurdles

I was thinking about my problem of overcoming an initial hurdle in order to do something that I know I benefit from - especially when I'm in a bad mood - and it occurred to me that this is a good source of magic wands.

Think of a problem, something you can't keep up: writing each day, exercising each day, keeping the house clean, whatever. All of these a problems. And in my case, I can blame each and every one of these problems not on the actual activity, but on getting started with the activity. I have no major problem with writing (I love it) but I start off blocked and unwilling. No problem with exercise (it makes me feel great when I'm doing it) but I prefer to stay sat on my couch. No problem with cleaning either (it can be rather satisfying as it often shows very visible progress), but 101 things (including reruns of Friends on TV) seem preferable to starting.

In each case, if I remove the initial obstacle, the initial hurdle, the problem will go away. The solution is to solve something small (the hurdle) not something big (the entire problem). In short, removing a hurdle is like a magic wand... moreover knowing that, and knowing that when you're faced with a challenge, you can look for a hurdle, then try to solve that, rather than running head on at the entirety of the problem - that is a magic wand too.

I'm going to write a series of posts on ways to overcome hurdles - some of which are more useful than others... and some of which are almost certain to cause as many problems as they solve. I hope you find your magic wands amongst them

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Creativity, Flow, Mood

Here is a conundrum that I haven't solved yet:

Writing improves my mood. I very easily get into flow and am able to distract my mind from the emotions it would otherwise hang onto and obsess about. Creativity kickstarts flow for me.

But writing is also something I put off when I'm feeling low. It has a high mental barrier I have to overcome before I start. I can force myself to write (and that works), but it takes willpower... and willpower (as we know isn't a magic wand)

The more I think about this, another enemy of mine - exercise - is exactly the same. I can do it regularly, and I have to use the same tricks. And eventually I stop.

There is a magic wand I need to find to overcome the initial block. It shouldn't be hard. Maybe this blog is a first step towards it - a publish or be damned attitude which goes against my nature (of don't publish and hide behind the knowledge that I could do this brilliantly, if I wanted).

But this is exactly what magic wands are about: if I can overcome one small block (using something other than willpower) my quality of life will improve dramatically, because I'll be able to shift my mood whenever I'm in the doldrums - and have something to show for it at the end. And if I find a trick that does work for writing, hopefully it will point the way to similar ticks I can use to get over the initial emotional hurdle in other activities

Friday, 7 May 2010

Trust me, I'm a blogger

I think the opposite of worry is trust.

Ponder on that for a fleeting second.

We worry when we don't know what the result is, but suspect it is going to be bad. When we know that whatever we are doing is taken care of, we don't worry. Because its just going to happen.

So to eliminate worry from your life, you have to introduce more trusted systems.

This is what David Allen is talking about in his popular "Getting Things DOne" organisational system. All the stuff about 43 folders and and obsessive compulsive dymo labling - all the productivity porn associated with GTD - is "How to build a trusted system". But the key secret behind GTD is that if you can get it to work, then everything is taken care of - you have no more worries, and you have more time to do things rather than work out what it is you have to do (and cope with all those things you've missed doing). The productivity porn isn't important - there are probably other ways to acheive a trusted system - what matters is that the system is trusted.

Now, as it happens, I've never made GTD work for me, because I can't fit the "how to" into my way of working... but getting a trusted system that I can rely on - that has to be a goal. I'm going to need to manipulate some of the ideas of GTD into something that fits my particular approach to life.

Trust comes from reliability and understanding. Reliability implies predictability - the system needs to give you the same results every time, and they need to be the results you want. Understanding means that you know why the system works, and you know what its limits are so you don't try to do something with it that it can't cope with.

Now, not all trusted systems are about automatability. It isn't all about lists and notebooks.

Some come from knowing your capabilities under fire ("if I do have to write this paper in one night, I can. I've pulled all-nighters before and I know I'm free the night before the deadline"), some come from having a safety net in place ("I know that if I lose my job, I have three months of savings to tide me over until I find another one - and Carl is always begging me to go and work for him") and some come from distancing yourself from identifying with things ("I lived without one of those for twenty years, I can live without this one if it happens to break")

So if you worry, its because you're missing some element of trust somewhere in your life. And that is because whatever you have in place either doesn't behave reliably where it counts, or because you don't understand the limits it works under.

Incidentally, this is as true with relationship worries (is my partner reliable, inso far as my needs are concerned? Do I undersatnd the needs and stresses that my partner is experiencing at the moment, that could limit her reliability?) as it is with worrying if you have enough milk in the fridge for breakfast (does my shopping system reliablymake sure I always buy milk before I run out? How does my system cope with unusual events like when I am sick? Do I have a safety net box of UHT to cope with the unexpected?)

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

A problem internalised is a problem doubled

So you're worried about something? Does it seem terrible? Are you worried about all the horrible outcomes?

You've probably felt like this before? Bad, isn't it?

Do you remember what it was you were worried abot then? And all the terrible outcomes that could have happened?

But they didn't, did they? And even if they did, I bet they were not as bad as you imagined.

When you worry, you think about the worst case. And you usually forget that most things just sort of seem to work out. A year later they can even turn out to have been for the best.

So the worst part about all those terrible consequences you're imagining isn't that they might happen: its that you're experiencing them now, rather than waiting to see what actually happens.

You're treating yourself worse than any consequences ever will.