Use the twelve days of Christmas​ for reflection on your future self

How we spend our days is how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. These words from American author Annie Dillard have always resonated with me. Of course, it’s an obvious statement, but reflect upon it, it has a deeper meaning than on first reading.

As entrepreneurs, it’s applicable to how we focus our time in our working lives, but as we approach the Christmas holidays, and the humanity and traditions of the festive period, it relates to the days and hours free to spend with family and friends too. It’s a twelve-day period when people matter more than devices, and social connection means real face-to-face conversation replacing the screen for social media exchanges.

I’ve heard The Twelve Days of Christmas everywhere, from radio commercials and shopping centres. You can hear about Three French Hens, Seven Swans-a-Swimming and Eleven Pipers Piping. But what does any of this mean? What does a song about doves, hens and geese have to do with Christmas and how we spend our days?

The carol has its origins in C18th England, as a memory-and-forfeit game sung by children, whereby children had to remember all of the previous verses and add a new verse at the end. Those unable to remember a verse paid a forfeit, in the form of a kiss or a piece of candy to the others. Today, these verses are what we associate with the days from December 25 to the Epiphany on January 6, as the day when the manifestation of Christ’s glory was realised.

But back to Ann Dillard’s quote and how you spend you days. You can use the twelve days of Christmas to work on your business, rather than in it, in a relaxed, constructive way. Take advantage of the downtime for reflection, clear and thoughtful review of your business journey over the previous twelve months.

In order to give this some structure, here are my thoughts on how to use the time we have in the ‘Twelve Business Days of Christmas’.

Day One: Reframe First and foremost, simply bemoaning your luck for not achieving what you set out to achieve twelve months ago by complaining about your competition or lack of customers won’t help. Today’s laurels are tomorrow’s compost, you need to look forward. What are you aiming for? What does success looks like in 12 months time? What are you going to do differently this time that will create a different set of outcomes? There’s no point in feeling sorry for yourself, reframe your own future.

Day Two: Restart Forget about how you’ve done business in the past, it was good enough then but it won’t give you the results you want in the future. The balance shifts dramatically is short time frames, so restart with a clean sheet of paper. Who is my ideal customer? What is their persona? Why should customers buy from you and not others? Don’t get stuck in a rut, press the restart button and don’t be afraid, take a new bold, fresh approach.

Day Three: Rebalance The results of your entrepreneurial risk taking should be freedom and fulfilment, not continuous hard work and a feeling of déjà vu. Dedicate time to rebalance your monthly, weekly, daily activities. If it’s all about the business of today, who is steering the business of tomorrow? Specify what you should be doing, working ‘on’ the business, and not simply ‘in’, and rebalance your priorities. What is your North Star for the next twelve months?

Day Four: Revisit How can you succeed against a myriad of competitors? Offering the same thing provides no advantage, and short-term pricing campaigns offer no sustainable long-term gain. Revisit your business strategy and model to ensure they are capable to building a winning business. Identify what markets and products will work in the next 12 months, and develop your value proposition accordingly.

Day Five: Revitalise Now is the time to revitalise your product offering in terms of features, benefits and customer experience. How can you improve customer engagement? Talk to your customers and prospects, have a conversation – what are their unmet needs?

Day Six: Refinance The best businesses are also the best financed. Now is the time to take a hard look at your financial strategy and cash needs. Prepare a 12-month cashflow, and use this information for strategy, investment and pricing decisions. This will give you a clear focus. Money from customers is the applause, but without adequate working capital, you won’t be able to get in front of them.

Day Seven: Restructure Most businesses use the same organisation chart for years without changing it, but over time, this becomes outdated as customer demands change. Perhaps it’s time to take a look at job roles, skills needed, and responsibilities. Start with a blank piece of paper, what does the structure need to be to deliver the success desired? What are the key roles you don’t currently have? Where re the skills and people gaps for the next 12 months?

Day Eight: Refocus What do you offer or do differently to win customers? How do you gather new fans of your product? Is it time to refocus your customer strategy and look for new customers in new markets? We often develop a myopic, inward facing view, spending too much time focused on product not customer, and ignore our marketing and messaging. Are you clear in what your brand stands for?

Day Nine: Replace: When was the last time you checked in on your internal processes? Are there opportunities to engage and educate customers better? Today it’s about the customer experience, and providing convenience – do your systems make you easy to do business with, or are your customer facing systems clunky?

Day Ten: Revamp What doe you stand for? Have you called any new plays lately? Your management style must be agile, what have you done to refresh the culture and inspire your people based on vision, purpose and values? Think inside out, think about purpose, and share it again.

Day Eleven: Replatform Upgrade platforms through technical upgrades, updates to software, and migration to cloud platforms, providing scale and agility. These efforts are rarely quick ‘lift and shift’ and require thinking, analysis and tailored handling, but now is the time start with the thinking time available about the efficiency and effectiveness of your technology.

Day Twelve: Relive Are you loving and living your dream with your business? Why not? Never forget your dream. Write down what you want your business to do for you personally in the next three years. That’s only thirty-six pay days. Make it personal, so your business enables you to work to live, not live to work. Do you work for your business, or does your business work for you?

By defining the key issues that are crucial for your future success, you can determine the expected outcomes and measure them once or twice a week. You will also get a clearer picture of your weekly availability and stop overusing your buffers by putting too much on your plate.

When you look back at the previous twelve months, the problem isn’t that we have too little time – we all get the same amount of time each day and each week – it’s possible that we have too many things to do. Actually, the real problem is that we want to do too much in the time we have. We want more, and what we have is never enough. It’s this lack of being satisfied that is the real problem. If time flies when you’re having fun, it hits the afterburners when you don’t think you’re having enough.

The most productive entrepreneurs think about what their time will be worth in the future, and focus on doing stuff today that is important for tomorrow. Think about it, all that really belongs to us is time in the moment. No use thinking of the past for its gone, don’t think of the future because it has yet to come.

We live in actions, thoughts, breaths and feelings, not in figures on a dial, yet it is the hands on the clock that dictate our attention. It’s being here now that’s important. Time is a very misleading thing. All there ever is, is the now. We can gain experience from the past, but we can’t relive it and we can hope for the future, but we don’t know what it will bring.

What might have been is an abstraction, whilst time remaining is a perpetual possibility, but both exist only in a world of speculation. As T S Elliot said, Footfalls echo in the memory, down the passage, which we did not take, towards the door we never opened. Reflecting, evaluating and analysing your own experience of what you did and how you did it over the past twelve months develops your insight.

Many years ago, in my more adventurous youth during university holidays, I was part of a rally of cars driving through the foothills of the Himalayas. Some of the trails that we drove through were precarious and dangerous. We had to stop many times to rest and assess our path.

On one rest stop, I woke up to a misty morning and made myself a cup of tea on our camping stove. As the sun began to rise, I carried my tea to the edge of the road to take in the vista below covered in swirling mist.

And that’s when I noticed a lone monk perched on the edge of the precipice, deep in meditation. I wondered if he had been there all night. As the rays of the sun slowly filled the valley with light, the monk came out of his reverie. He stood up and stretched, still on the edge. He looked at the rising sun, let out a deep breath and turned around to climb back up the road. I was fascinated.

As he came up to the road, I approached him and asked him wasn’t it dangerous being so close to the edge of the abyss. He responded, Are we all not just two minutes from the abyss anyway?

I realised at that moment how right he was. Most of us don’t recognise this or acknowledge it. What we all want is to harness the power of time, to slow it down, speed it up, recapture it or simply make it count. But the only time any of us can truly master is right now.

That morning in the Himalayas, I learned a very important lesson. Instead of coasting through life waiting for life to happen to me, I woke up to the importance of living my life with a sense of urgency, clarity and focus.

If something is important enough to you, then why wait for a specific date? There’s no guarantee that something won’t change or detract you from it before that date. All you have is now. We should get up every morning and count ourselves fortunate for having another shot at making a difference, but with urgency. I leave you with these lines from Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run that defines a sense of urgency brilliantly.

Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up, it knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the lion or a gazelle — when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.

So, use the twelve days of Christmas as a time of reflection. A time to look back at how the year has gone, and what you’re going to shape for yourself in the coming year. I urge you to think about your NOW. Let that urgency fuel actions that lead to deeper connections, a higher purpose, and finding your passion and joy. Use the twelve days to make a difference to yourself and your business next year.

How we spend our days is how we spend our lives

How we spend our days is how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. These words from American author Annie Dillard have always resonated with me. Of course, it’s an obvious statement, but reflect upon it, it has a deeper meaning than on first reading.

One of the most unchanged elements of our lives today is our working day, and how long we work. Generally, each of us does around eight to ten hours a day, and yet for most of us it is obvious that this has little to do with how efficient or productive that pattern is. At least, that is what I personally find for my own productivity. So what’s the right daily shift?

With stories from successful entrepreneurs working four hours a week (Tim Ferris) to sixteen hours a day (Elon Musk), it’s hard to know if there is an optimum shift. And why do we have eight-hour working days in the first place? The answer is from the Industrial Revolution. In the late C18th, when owners started to maximise the output of their factories, getting to run them 24/7 was key and for workers, ten to sixteen hour days were the norm.

These ridiculously long working days weren’t sustainable and a brave man, Robert Owen, a Welsh textile manufacturer, philanthropic social reformer and a founder of utopian socialism and the cooperative movement, started a campaign to have no more than eight working hours per day. His slogan was Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest. However, it wasn’t until Henry Ford implemented the eight hour work day, that standards really changed.

In 1914 Ford not only cut the standard work day to eight hours, but also doubled worker’s pay in the process. Surprisingly, productivity off these same workers increased significantly and Ford’s profit margins doubled within two years. This encouraged other companies to adopt the shorter working day as standard.

So the reason we work eight hours a day isn’t scientific or much thought out with regard to the well-being of workers, rather it’s a century old norm for running factories efficiently.

However, let’s not forget that as humans, we are distinctly different from machines. Machines move linearly and humans move cyclically, and today’s business and economic models are fundamentally different. On this basis, research by Tony Schwarz suggests managing our energy rather than time, and identified four different types of energies to manage every day:

  • Your physical energy – how well are you?
  • Your emotional energy – how happy are you?
  • Your mental energy – how well can you focus?
  • Your spiritual energy – why are you doing all of this? What is your purpose?

Time, though it makes animals and vegetables bloom and fade with amazing punctuality, has no such simple effect upon the mind of man. There is an unshakable and discomforting sense that in our obsession with time in terms of optimising our routines, and maximising our productivity, we have forgotten how to be truly present in the gladdening mystery of life.

Equally, beware the startup mantra that a working week of relentless twelve-hour days is needed. Anything else, and well, you may as well not bother. Not true.

The secret of success is to be fully awake to everything about you. You also need to instil a set of good daily habits around your energy and time. Not only do the habits we hold dictate the quality of our lives, but they also reflect our potential for success. Bad habits will always hold us back.

Of course, the worst habit is procrastination, wasting time doing nothing. Hesiod, a Greek poet who lived in the C8th B.C., put it best: Do not put off your work until tomorrow and the day after. For the sluggish worker does not fill his barn, nor the one who puts off his work; industry aids work, but the man who puts off work always wrestles with disaster.

As the complexity of our working life grows, we need to renew our commitment to simplicity, paring back and focus, so that we have space to breathe and control our energy, as highlighted by Schwarz. Leo Babauta identifies a number of reflections, which resonate with me:

We create our own struggles The stress, the frustrations and disappointments, all the busyness and rushing – we create most of these ourselves. By letting go, we can relax and live more simply to focus on the things that matter. How much of the tension in your working day is self inflicted?

Become mindful of attachments Recognising that we fill our own heads that leads to clutter and complexity is half the battle, only you can put a stop to the bad habits. What are the things that loom and fill you head, like the box of frogs leaping everywhere in a random manner?  What is important, and what becomes urgent, and why?

Create a prioritisation system Stephen Covey once said: The key is not to prioritise what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities. We often tend to miss the essentials that bring value in the long run or focus on a single thing too much and leave everything else in the backlog. Time management strategies like Getting Things Done design a methodology structured around creativity, focus, and efficient planning.  Learn to prioritise both long-term activities that gain momentum later in time, and short-term goals necessary for incremental results.

Distraction and constant switching are mental habits We don’t need any of these habits, but they build up because they comfort us. We can work more simply by letting go of these mental habits. What would life be like without constant switching and distractions? The addiction to smart devices and social media are primary examples of this.

Single-task by putting your work focus in full-screen mode Imagine that everything you do goes into full-screen mode, so that you don’t do or look at anything else. You just inhabit that task fully, and are fully present as you do it. Things get your full attention, and you do them much better. And you can even savour them.

Create space between things We tend to cram as much as possible into our days and this becomes stressful, because we always underestimate how long things will take. We never feel like we have enough time because we try to do too much. But what would it be like if we took a few minutes’ pause and break between tasks, to savour the accomplishment of the last task, to savour the space between things, and time to think?

Get clear about what you want, and say no to more things. We are rarely clear on what we want to complete in a day, and often the course of a day veers off in a direction we didn’t anticipate. When someone invites us to do something cool, we instantly want to say yes, because our minds love saying yes, to all the shiny new things. Saying no to more things at work would simplify our lives, having discipline means giving more focus and more chance to get stuff done.

Practice doing nothing Allocate unstructured time – this is exactly what it looks like, it is a time allocated for nothing. By ‘nothing’, it’s anything aside from a work agenda. Unstructured time is your ‘me time’. Why? The more time you put into your schedule, the busier you get. And the busier you get, the more you push yourself into physical and mental exhaustion. The point is it’s the time when your brain is free to wander which allows you to be more imaginative and refreshed, thus, having more energy, attention, and focus on work.

Create a long-term roadmap While it’s okay to have individual tasks emerging from your interactions during a working week, creating a long-term plan lets you focus better, and decide whether your new tasks are in line with your goals. Set out your key goals, assign milestones, and take it from there.

By defining the key issues that are crucial for your future success, you can determine the expected outcomes and measure them once or twice a week. You will also get a clearer picture of your weekly availability and stop overusing your buffers by putting too much on your plate.

The problem isn’t that we have too little time – we all get the same amount of time each day and each week – it’s possible that we have too many things to do. Actually, the real problem is that we want to do too much in the time we have. We want more, and what we have is never enough. It’s this lack of being satisfied that is the real problem. If time flies when you’re having fun, it hits the afterburners when you don’t think you’re having enough.

The most productive entrepreneurs think about what their time will be worth in the future, and focus on doing stuff today that is important for tomorrow. Think about it, all that really belongs to us is time in the moment. No use thinking of the past for its gone, don’t think of the future because it has yet to come.

We live in actions, thoughts, breaths and feelings, not in figures on a dial, yet it is the hands on the clock that dictate our attention.  It’s being here now that’s important. Time is a very misleading thing. All there ever is, is the now. We can gain experience from the past, but we can’t relive it and we can hope for the future, but we don’t know what it will bring.

What might have been is an abstraction, whilst time remaining is a perpetual possibility, but both exist only in a world of speculation. As T S Elliot said, Footfalls echo in the memory, down the passage which we did not take, towards the door we never opened.

So, let’s reflect again on the words of Annie Dillard: How we spend our days is how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.

The past, the present, the future: take a lesson from Ebenezer Scrooge this Christmas

Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol was first published on 19 December 1843. It tells the story of a bitter old miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, and his transformation resulting from a supernatural visit by the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley and the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Yet to Come.

The story’s message of forgiveness, generosity, hope and redemption resonates to this day, it possesses life and business lessons that are every bit as relevant as they were in Victorian England. It is also responsible for giving us many of our holiday customs, including the name ‘Scrooge’ for a miser, the exclamation ‘Bah, humbug!’ and the phrase ‘Merry Christmas’ itself.

The core of the story is how Ebenezer Scrooge, a miserable, self-focused businessman is transformed into a generous and joyful human being, thanks to the intervention of the spirit of Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s business partner who died seven Christmases ago, a tormented ghost to reveal the fate that awaits a terrified but recalcitrant Scrooge.

He informs Scrooge on Christmas Eve that those who do not walk among their fellow humans and treat them with care are condemned to forever walk the earth as spirits who can only observe the things they would now mend, the people they would like to help.

He also drags a chain with heavy moneyboxes and padlocks on it as he walks in spirit form and tells Scrooge that he forged the very fetters he must wear for all eternity while he was alive and indifferent to the needs of those around him.

Scrooge learns that the chain he has forged is a fearsome thing that dwarfs the one Marley must drag behind him. The ghost offers to help Scrooge and tells him that three spirits will visit him to help in his possible salvation.

What follows are visits by three spirits of Christmas past, Christmas present and Christmas yet to come. Each spirit guides Scrooge through his own experiences and illuminates the experiences of the people whose lives Scrooge has touched. The spirits succeed, and Scrooge is transformed by their visitations.

Business might be the furthest thing from your mind at this time of year, but as we all gather around the Christmas tree and dinner table it is worth reflecting on the values that A Christmas Carol highlights, and the insights it offers to enrich our business thinking:

The Ghost of Christmas Past shows us the value of perspective. While in the company of the Ghost of Christmas past, Scrooge visits Mr. Fezziwig’s warehouse, where he was an apprentice, just in time for their annual Christmas party. What ensues is an evening of joy, laughter, feasting, music and dancing that awakens a long denied aspect of Scrooge’s personality.

As the evening wanes, and Scrooge and his fellow apprentice are pouring out their hearts in praise of Mr. Fezziwig, the spirit provokes Scrooge to reflect briefly and regretfully on the mistreatment suffered by his employee, Bob Cratchit as a result of his own behaviour.

The contrast to Fezziwig’s leadership, in his sincerity and consistency is plain to see. Fezziwig’s leadership is born of high regard for the people he employs, the Christmas party serves as a celebration of relationship that are already rich and rewarding.

Perspective gives us a sense of what really matters. You must be able to recall, in the heat of the moment, what is most important. If perspective is lost then it is easy to get lost in the transactions of the moment, in doing what is easy rather than what is right, or with a longer term view for your business. Perspective enables us to view our business at a more strategic level, and in doing so, offers greater awareness and options.

The Ghost of Christmas Present provides the second insight to Scrooge and that is the importance of knowing current reality, seeing where you stand in the moment of today. The ghost helps him observe the lives and intentions of others, he gets to see how his employees interact with their family and discovers that the youngest is a little boy, Tiny Tim who is crippled and sickly of body but great in spirit.

The wealthy business-owner could not hold a candle to the brilliant light of Tiny Tim’s heroic spirit and loving heart. The child’s example touched the old miser’s heart. Scrooge was inspired to admit his mistakes and open his heart by Tim’s spirit, in spite of living in a crippled and declining body.

Scrooge sees what he is missing in the moment and how his way of thinking and behaving impact not only his life but also the lives of others. As a business leader, you must know where you stand if you are to form any realistic plans and make positive changes.

Although we can’t accurately predict every factor that will affect business even one year into the future, we need to starting to think now about the possible long-term influences that will change our business, and where the gaps are. In order to prepare your business model today for the future, it’s time to start thinking further into the future now – but you do need a firm grip on reality today in order to move forward.

The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come The third insight is the need to be brave and seek a transformation for the future. When the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come takes Scrooge to a forlorn, unkempt grave site, Scrooge sees his own name written there on the gravestone. He begs the spirit to give him another chance. Part of what Scrooge learns is that his deeds have directed his future. His greed caused him to give up the love of his life. He recognises he needs to change.

After the visits by the three spirits, Scrooge sees what his greed has cost him. He sees people who have so much less than he does and yet that they are far happier than he. As a result of this insight, he is motivated to contribute to charity and to speak kindly to everyone he meets.

He even promotes Bob Cratchit to the position of partner. Scrooge had a faithful employee in Bob Cratchit, but he treated him with disrespect. Scrooge rarely gave the man a day off and even begrudged him burning enough coal to keep warm while he worked.

After the three visits however, Scrooge realises it is not too late to radically change his life. When Cratchit arrives at work a bit late on the day after Christmas, apologising by saying he fears he was ‘making rather merry’ the day before, Scrooge tries to reprimand him. However, the former old miser can hardly contain his newfound joy. Not only does he forgive the infrequent tardiness, but he offers Crachit a pay rise.

The business insights and lessons from A Christmas Carol are clear: first, step back and gain perspective in order to know what is most important; second, take an honest look at your current reality in order to know where you stand. Finally, understand that you have to look forward at all times, and identify where you want to be, and make adjustments – no matter how uncomfortable – to ensure the changes you need to make are enacted.

If we look at this a little closer and at the same time stand back, what are the personal lessons we can all take from A Christmas Carol as we head into the Christmas break? We all know that holidays are good for us, giving time to reflect and evaluate the past year, where we currently stand, and what we can see ahead. However, many of us do not take time off to reflect, we are constantly ‘on’, solving problems, in front of us putting out fires, thinking of ways to grow faster, bigger, better, but in truth, running too fast.

A holiday provides a great opportunity for personal growth in an accelerated way. Yes you rest, you catch up on sleep, you read a book or two, you may be even be lucky enough to fill up on vitamin D and get some sun. But above all, you constantly reflect, absorb and learn. So, what are the key lessons?

The greatest reflection of yourself is how you use your time Whatever you say about what really matters to you, the true test is where you place your time. Whatever you say your priorities, that statement will only be true if your calendar reflects it. The only reason for time is so everything doesn’t happen at once, but don’t wait, the time will never be right.

To know what you think, write it down I don’t see many people writing stuff down these days. For me, I am constantly scribbling ideas, comments, thoughts, notes, conversations into a notebook, to let it see light, it’s the best way for me to clarify what I actually think about something. ‘Writing is the painting of the voice’ said Voltaire, for me, I realise that writing is the best way to talk without being interrupted.

Replace fear of the unknown with curiosity You can’t artificially generate curiosity, so you have to follow where yours actually leads. Curiosity ends up being the driving force behind learning and the thirst for knowledge. ‘Millions saw the apple fall but Newton asked why’ said Bernard Baruch. Curiosity did not kill the cat, conventionality did. What are you curious about in your business?

Get outside Sometimes you need to step outside, get some air and remind yourself of who you are and who you want to be. Being on holiday gives you freedom from the usual routine, to breathe the air without interference and to just do stuff. What you think of yourself is much more important than what other people think of you. Be yourself, everyone else is taken, so give yourself some space.

Pay close attention to what you do when you’re alone When no-one else is around, or looking, or talking, when the house is empty, when the afternoon is yours alone, what you choose to do says a lot about you. Pay close attention to where your mind wanders in the shower. Your natural wanderings are your compass to what’s truly interesting to you. Equally, it’s bad enough wasting time without killing time.

Self-control is a finite resource I’m good company for me, I like the idea of solitude, being alone and being content with myself, but I fear loneliness, the pain of being alone, and I’ve never been lonely, an exposed position. However, you can only ask so much of yourself each day, you’ll snap or warp or splinter if you ask too much. You have a limited capacity to direct yourself a certain way. I now realise there are boundaries to being independent.

Put yourself in places that make you nervous Nerves are really the only way to know that you’re being stretched. If there hasn’t been a moment of nerves in your life for a month, it might be worthwhile asking if you’re pushing hard enough. Step outside your comfort zone into the learning zone. If you do what you always did, you will get what you always got. Great people did not achieve great things by staying in their comfort zone.

Listen to your own pulse Money can’t buy you happiness, but consciousness can. I read Laura Vanderkam’s book, ‘168 hours: you have more time than you think’ recently. She talks about thinking of your week in terms of 168 hours, instead of seven 24-hour chunks. When you look at your week from that perspective, you have more time than you think. This book is a reality check that tells you I do have time for what is important to me.

Ebenezer Scrooge shared the tendency we all have to become myopic when we focus too long on the same thing and we forget to look beyond our horizons. The lesson from A Christmas Carol is be aware, alert and alive – live for the moments of serendipity and synchronicity. Sleep. Hydrate. Learn. Move. The basics are key. You strive to be conscious in all areas of life, relationships, raising children, your work, but we all need more awareness and clarity.

I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year, Scrooge vows near end of the story. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!

Having re-read the book, and written this blog, I already feel more relaxed and more deeply connected to myself and refocused, that’s not been the case for a while. So now ready with new things identified to learn and habits to unlearn, I’ve already begun to create and continue a healthier, more authentic life rhythm that’s best for me. And the thing is, in doing that, what I give to those close to me and what I develop for myself will be so much better.

No space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused, wrote Dickens in A Christmas Carol. The simple, yet eloquent story continues to teach us much about ourselves, and what it really means to be a successful person.

A train journey with Einstein: quiet carriage, window seat, facing forward.

It’s not the best way to see the land, travelling at speed on a train, walking has always been the appropriate pace for contemplation, but it can still be a pleasure. I would love to go to the Himalayas and cross over into Nepal to do the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway.

I like train journeys. I like their rhythm of the rail and the freedom of being suspended between two places, all anxieties of purpose taken care of – for the moment, I know where I am going. I always travel in the quiet carriage, window seat, facing forward. There’s something special about the cadence of the movement, and keeping your eye on the horizon.

When I was a child, every train ride was an adventure, especially the trip to Scarborough. Not so much for where I was going, as for what I saw along the way. As the journey progressed, the scenery shifted from the hills grazed by sheep, to the patterns of man-made dry stone walls, then passing through through damp fields of dreamy cattle, over the hill and there was the sea.

I was fascinated with everything on the journey – the geology and landscape, people standing on platforms and people running for their trains, the ticket inspector and his stern demeanour, the throng urgently pushing to get on the train before the folks alighting could step onto the platform. I just soaked it in and the journey dovetailed with the rugged terrain, the wind and the water table – it’s a Northern thing. Who doesn’t feel a frisson at the thought of what you see out of a train window?

Today, trains are much faster than they were in my childhood, and the North Wales, North Yorkshire or Northumbrian landscapes I traverse on have lost much of their diversity. You can see too many business and retail parks from trains these days.

Yet, I am always surprised when a fellow passenger slumps into the seat next to me, plugs herself into a headset and starts rambling on about her day, presumably to some selfless good listener who likes the sound of her voice as much as she does herself. Look up, I want to say. Turn that thing off. There’s a world passing outside.

From planes you see clouds, from boats you see seabirds, from cars everything streaks past too fast to notice. But several authors have used the transitory moment of reflection on a train, when time seems to freeze as the landscape rushes by.

The most famous example is perhaps Agatha Christie’s 4.50 from Paddington Two trains moving in the same direction briefly overlap – and Mrs McGillicuddy witnesses a murder on the parallel train. No one believes her, no body turns up, so her friend Miss Marple has to investigate for her. Having read the book, to this day I’m always a bit nervous looking across in those seconds when two trains move together.

A while back, I read an interesting book that compared business life to a train ride or a series of train rides. Business life is like a train ride, it read. We get on. We ride. We get off. We get back on and ride some more. There are delays, some good journeys, some bad. At certain stops there are surprises. Some of these will translate into moments of joy, some will result in bad news. The direction of travel. Eventually we get to our destination.

However, many of my trains seem to get delayed and arrive late, perhaps reflecting the gap between what we want and what we can have in business. The paradox – and the most important point – is that it is through the privation of not getting what we want when we arrive at the next station, that we learn about our business.

I suppose in our unlived lives we are always more satisfied, less frustrated versions of ourselves. Our possibilities for satisfaction depend upon our capacity for frustration. If we can’t let ourselves get frustrated then we can’t get a sense of what it is we might be wanting, and missing, of what might really give us a definition of success.

Notwithstanding this wistful vestige of an existential neverland of train travel lodged in my psyche, where I create and hold on to various possible versions of my business self and possible outcomes – pockets of possibility that exist no matter how remote the probability of realising them might be, I do enjoy the tranquillity and time spent alone on my train journeys.

So that’s how I came to get the train to Edinburgh the other morning from Manchester. I needed time and space to think and get stuff out of my head, yet a place to look at the horizon and keep me fresh. A day return with the train as my working space was just the job – sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel is a train. As Hemingway said, it is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.

Long, solo train journeys are the perfect place to think and reflect. This habit of personal, private reflection is something that I’ve developed in the past few years. It is a purposeful activity. It involves thinking about an experience and stuff you’ve got going on, and trying to make sense of it in order to learn something from it. I use this to develop new perspectives. This drives learning and change, it is a way of working through issues and thinking of solutions, a way of improving the way you work.

Besides modelling my own hairstyle on Einstein’s, as part of my approach to reflection, I’ve always tried to adopt his maxim we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. Einstein had a thinking strategy of his own and was able to visualise the main stages on the way to solving a problem. He regarded his major achievements as mere stepping-stones for the next advance.

What Einstein did, he did using tools available to all of us. He had no magic wand or secret subscription to Google. He used thinking tools and methods available to everyone, the same books and research journals available to all scientists of his day. His principal tools were a notepad, a pen and pencil. He thought and wrote and calculated, and out poured his extraordinary achievements.

What made Einstein tick? Intuition, unconventional thinking for sure, but one of the main things was Einstein’s imagination, and his ability to visualise the issues before him –  ‘thought problems,’ where he would paint a picture of the problem he was trying to sort out. His thought processes were very much about coming up with questions and visually thinking through their answers. His ability to ask questions was just as revolutionary as his answers.

And that’s what I do on my ‘thinking train journeys’, I say to myself, How would Einstein approach this situation? to breakdown and get to the root of an issue I’m stuck with. Here’s my Einstein disruptive thinking tool kit for train journeys, in his own words:

Imagination Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world. The blokes over at Apple and Google had all the smart computing skills and knowledge they needed to have successful careers in IT. What makes Jobs and Ives, Page and Brin household names is the fact they imagined – what if?...there was a better way to do things, and then they created it.

Look to the horizon and beyond the day-to-day I want to know God’s thoughts, the rest are details. Einstein didn’t waste time detracted on mundane details, he wanted to wrestle with the big things that made a difference.

Never top questioning The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. Einstein was relentlessly curious, he was fixated on following through until he was satisfied with the outcome. He was restless to a point of perfection.

Same problems, new ways of thinking We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. Einstein’s thinking here this resembles the Blue Ocean Strategy model, and Job’s Think Different motto.

Intuition The only real valuable thing is intuition Einstein had to trust his intuition to move forward on anything. Trusting one’s gut instinct, once you’ve tested the hypothesis, your gut instinct rarely lets you down.

Willingness to try new things – and fail Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new. The continued evolution of Amazon’s Kindle – which has the reading capacity of 16 tonnes of paper – from its introduction in 2007, to the DX in 2009, Kindle Touch, Kindle Fire and now Kindle Paperwhite reflects this focus of continued reinvention. Einstein kept pushing the boundaries in a similar manner.

Maintaining balance If A is a success in life, then A equals x plus y plus z. Work is x, y is play and z is keeping your mouth shut. Notice Einstein didn’t put absolute amounts on each of his variables – he lived his life by constructing ‘what if’?’ formulas to look at relationships and variables. He knew getting the ingredients and then working out their relationship would lead to success.

Look at problems in many different ways, and find new perspectives Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts. Einstein believed that to gain knowledge about the form of a problem, you begin by learning how to restructure it in many different ways. He was in good company: Da Vinci formed a relationship between the sound of a bell and a stone hitting water: this enabled him to make the connection that sound travels in waves.

Prepare yourself for chance I never think of the future, it comes soon enough Einstein had particular strengths, an acute intuition that guided him to the fertile ideas and revealing experiments to undertake, he had a characteristic tolerance and even delight in contradiction.

Einstein tells me to think about what I’ve never thought about, but also to reflect that the most consequential ideas are often right under our noses. How many times have you metaphorically banged your head against a wall for a long time with a particular problem?

One of two things is true at this point, either we keep banging our head and the wall will crumble soon, or we should do something different and hope things get better. Einstein said insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, perhaps it’s good to reflect upon that.

So on my ‘thinking train journeys’, which I do about once a month, Einstein is my travelling companion. By the way, he’s a massive tea drinker. When we talk about taking the time to reflect, it’s about thinking differently, and not just sitting there and daydreaming, it’s about picturing the alternate realities – working out possibilities of new realities where what you are doing today is completely different tomorrow, in order to go and find the revolution before it finds you.

The world isn’t waiting for you to get inspired, you have to inspire it, and at the same time don’t let your doubts sabotage your thinking – there are far better things ahead than any we leave behind, we just have to find them. We are all confined by the mental walls we build around ourselves. So get yourself on a train, in the quiet carriage, window seat, facing forward, and see where it takes you and your thinking.