16.2% of the year is gone, what have you done?

At the outset of each new year, collective humanity sets out to better itself, resolving to eradicate our unhealthy habits and cultivate healthy ones. But while the most typical New Year’s resolutions tend to be about bodily health, for me the most meaningful ones aim at a deeper kind of health through the refinement of my mental and emotional habits.

It’s an intriguing thought first thing on the first Monday morning in March that the new year is not so new any more, we’ve done 16.2% of the year, and by the end of the month we’ll have swallowed 25% of the year.

My working life has a drumbeat which has order and chaos intertwined, and whilst I have a determined focus, it’s hard to set priorities consistently as through opportunity, spontaneity and serendipity good stuff generally happens to me which means it’s hard not to get distracted by the constant flow of stuff and pulls on my time.

I try to follow the Eisenhower Box (http://jamesclear.com/eisenhower-box) of determining the urgent but not important and securing a sustainable and scalable level of productivity, drizzled with some nice to haves, but before you know it another week will have passed by. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not sleepwalking into a random future feature set, I do have a plan based around a set of macro assumptions – it’s not all improvisation like a stand up comedian – it’s a plan based on an ideal future state and the steps required to make it happen, it’s just that sometimes stuff comes at me which can either boost or batter me.

I also read an interesting blog by James Clear (http://jamesclear.com/), which talks about the two identities we all have – Big Me and Little Me.

Big Me is the version of yourself that comes out when you’re at your best, the identity you display when you fulfill your potential, live up to your values, and achieve your goals. Big Me is who you are when you’re fully engaged in life rather than partially engaged. Big Me is you on top of your game.

On the other hand, Little Me is the version of yourself that shows up when you’re inconsistent, when you lack focus, and when you fall short of your potential. Little Me is that side of you that makes excuses and hesitates when faced with uncertainty or discomfort.

Here’s the thing about Big Me and Little Me – they are not different people, they are two versions of the same person and these two versions of yourself compete to show up on any given day. So what makes the difference?

We all have good days every now and then, days when we feel motivated, productive, powerful, and healthy. But having a good day every day is really hard. What makes the difference between the days when you show up as the Big Me version of yourself versus the Little Me version of yourself? In my experience, your habits make the difference. The top performers in nearly any field of life have developed systems and routines that help them make better decisions each day.

So that’s what I took into 2015, clear the clutter and a desire to perform near the top of my game on a more consistent basis, be a Big Me, then I have to understand how to build habits that stick. From this I identified the five barriers I needed to overcome that were holding me back:

  • Lack of time due to too many commitments
  • Inconsistency with taking action
  • Procrastination – almost laziness at the extreme
  • Self-doubt and lack of confidence
  • Lack of clarity and focus

So, at the end of February we are 16.2% through the year, how are my resolutions, plans and strategies made with good intent and purpose, shaping up? How many will involve a ‘note to self’?

My four primary personal targets for 2015 were as follows:

  • Stop procrastinating, saving work for tomorrow, and waiting to be inspired to work. I like to save stuff up until I absolutely have to do it to meet a deadline, and work most effectively by putting myself under pressure. This technique is a high-risk strategy, but hasn’t let me down since I went to university in 1981. Yet.
  • At the same time, stop working at an unsustainable pace and to do things better, you have to stop doing so much. Stop mistaking confidence for competence. Stop getting defensive (not that we’re accusing you) and if you can’t stop doing any of these things… stop believing you have to be perfectly perfect every time.
  • Stop being so positive – research shows it’s not all that helpful for achieving your goals, and stop overdoing your strengths (lest they become weaknesses). Speaking of things that don’t work, stop searching for a silver bullet to your strategy dilemmas for clients.
  • Stop sitting so much. Seriously.

So, note to self. I have just re-read my 2014 diary and am much struck by the rapid haphazard gallop at which it swings along, sometimes indeed jerking almost intolerably over the cobbles. Still it was a good year, and if I stopped and took thought, and planned it more, I’d lose some of the spontaneity and new stuff that it swept up accidentally, several stray new opportunities and relationships which I should exclude if I hesitated, but which are the nuggets of the heap.

I was going to have a resolution ‘Stop Thinking So Much’, but there is a paradox here, what are we ‘doing’ when we do nothing but think? Where are we when we, normally always surrounded by our fellow-men, are together with no one but ourselves?

Occasionally I give myself a good talking to, but as I’ve got older I’m simply becoming more curious about everything and wander off down every garden path to find stuff out. My latest interest is bee keeping. Don’t know why, but just got loads of questions about it.

Consider the crucial necessity of never ceasing to pursue questions, those often unanswerable questions, of stuff we don’t know. Behind all the cognitive questions for which men find answers, there lurk the unanswerable ones that seem entirely idle and have always been denounced as such. Whilst I live in the moment, for the moment, 2015 will be a year where I just want to do more reading and thinking.

On how one orients himself to the moment, Henry Miller wrote, depends the failure or fruitfulness of it. Indeed, this act of orienting ourselves to the moment, to our own selves often leaves us fumbling, frustrated, discombobulated. And yet therein lies our greatest capacity for growth and self-development. I think something of this in me lies in my capacity to get lost in public libraries as a child. Oh, and supermarkets, beaches and football grounds.

I once read a quote from the pre-Socratic philosopher Meno. It read, How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you? I copied it down, and it has stayed with me since. The question struck me as the basic tactical question in life. To calculate on the unforeseen is perhaps exactly the paradoxical operation that life most requires of us.

So, this year for me was all about being more focused and reducing ‘the art of straying’ – not finding my way and losing myself. That thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you is usually what you need to find, and finding it is a matter of getting lost.

But before I run out of time, show my inconsistency, start to procrastinate, share too many of my self-doubts and lose focus…here are my reflections on 2015 so far.

Stop sitting, walk and be more present

No one has made a more compelling case for the bodily and spiritual value of walking than Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau reminds us of how this primal act of mobility connects us with our essential wildness, that spring of spiritual vitality methodically dried up by our sedentary civilisation – note I make a special point of differentiating the art of sauntering from the mere act of walking. Walk in silence, an expedition or tour, either way just get out of the building more, and I have.

Driven by urgent, dangerous and apparently irresistible drives, from hysterical acquisition of ‘stuff’ through to lust (‘perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame/savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust’), and being a bit sorry about that, then I do feel more present.

Make my life wider rather than longer

It’s knowing perfectly well that from the moment we are born, we are dying and yet, as the time clock ticks louder and louder and amiably lollops towards lights out time, being greatly surprised and personally offended by this every day as there’s just so much I want to do. In reality, it’s the most humdrum and unremarkable intrusion of all in my head, and I’ve not quite promised my children ‘I won’t be a burden’ – and then being a burden, and being a bit – but only a bit – sorry about that – but the clock is ticking so this year I’m going to pedal just a little bit slower.

Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realise that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is, we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it. Life is wider if you know how to use it.

Being genuinely happy and getting pleasure from work

I’ve taken a very long time to understand the difference between happiness and pleasure in my work, but getting there eventually. And being happy about that. I’ve resolved to work with a smaller, fixed number of clients this year, those who I respect, I can add value, be more intimate (doesn’t mean we are going to go on holiday together) and most of all, where I get pleasure from working with them. I do need the civilising influence of my wife to avoid the dark primordial spiral of gluttony and shabby indolence in my personal life, and I’ve used her as my mentor to declutter my work life and identified my ‘ideal’ client.

I’m trying harder to focus on doing stuff that earns me a living, fulfilment and learnings opposed to doing stuff that is simply interesting to me. It’s abdication and mental slothness, refusal and sprawl. I start off brimming with urgency about the day ahead, then hit social media and the internet after breakfast, shuddering slightly and staying in that nice, warm zone of ‘this is interesting stuff’. ‘Today’s laurels are tomorrow’s compost’ is now my motto.

So this is Permanance

I’m learning, just in time, to manage my addictions – no, it’s not to prefer toblerone over cocaine and the scent of home baked bread to the smell of marijuana, rather to reduce my Benedictine intake in lieu of more water, not to be personally responsible for 1% of the UK’s annual cheese consumption, and to stop the festering addiction to technology, devices and Apps. Fortunately our rural broadband fails at times due to the vagaries of wet/cold/windy weather and sheep breaking into and eating the BT broadband network kit in their shiny hub box on the lane, but I could just switch stuff off too.

I’m learning to substitute the pleasures of being older for the lost pleasures of youth. Three hours standing at a James concert provides a mix of euphoria and exhaustion viz sitting outside a café with a pot of fresh peppermint tea and a copy of a decent newspaper, staring vacantly into the middle distance. Anger is an energy, but drinking more tea is actually quite relaxing and a mellowing ahead of grey hair beckons.

Unknown Pleasures

Your own frailty never occurs to you, you don’t notice how much time has already passed, but squander it as though you had a full and overflowing supply. You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire. How late it is to begin really to live just when life must end! How stupid to forget our mortality, and put off sensible plans to our 50+ year, aiming to begin life from a point at which I have arrived, mentally and physically, somewhat unexpectedly.

It’s a bit like Sam Tyler in Life on Mars, only in reverse. It’s having too few regrets to mention, but boring on incessantly about them anyway. It’s insisting that one has lived one’s life ‘My Way’ while having in fact behaved exactly like everybody else – bipedal, vainglorious, self-deluded and yet, luckily, just lovable enough.

Egyptian pharaohs, Chinese emperors and European royalty have all consulted with fools, or court jesters, when faced with tough problems. The persona of the fool allowed the truth to be told, without the usual ramifications that might come with speaking blasphemy or challenging conventions. Give yourself permission to be a fool and see things for what they are has helped with all of this analysis.

So, 16.2% into the year, I’m a work-in-progress to wards a Big Me for 2015. We know what we are, but not what we may be. Life is divided into three terms – that which was, which is, and which will be. I aim to learn from the past to profit by the present, and from the present, to live better in the future.

The future belongs to those who prepare for it today. The best thing about the future is that it comes one day at a time. Make it matter where it counts, the most, inside. Be a Big Me.