Is it the weekend yet?

 Setting and achieving goals  Comments Off on Is it the weekend yet?
Oct 152013

Do you find yourself wishing your life away, getting through the day, getting through the week, with your eyes fixed on some point in the future?  Living like this may be a necessary and worthwhile investment for a limited period, but if it goes on too long it becomes a terrible waste.  If your days consist of pushing yourself through endless hoops and always being on call in some way, so that it feels as if your life isn’t really your own, I urge you to reflect on whether the reward you envisage is big (and real) enough to justify all you’re putting in and all you’re sacrificing along the way.

However immutable you may consider your situation to be, I assure you there are changes you can make.  If you’re feeling stuck, it’s unlikely your circumstances are going to change by themselves: you have to make it happen – and you can!  It’s just a question of lateral thinking, of coming up with ideas you’ve never tried and testing them out.  This can be challenging because it involves behaving in ways that may seem unnatural, or even impossible, but it’s exactly this change in your approach that will lead to a change in your situation.

The sense of being trapped in long-term drudgery can sap our strength and motivation and leave us feeling low, exhausted and powerless, which is hardly conducive to making brave decisions and pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone.  I know.  But the truth is, either we allow life to pass us by or we take action.  It doesn’t have to be anything dramatic; you can start with baby steps and change things gradually, just as long as you’re doing something to take control and move your life in the direction you want to go.  It took me many, many years to get round to doing this but once I started I soon saw the benefit and the changes gathered momentum.  In the same way as if you smile when you don’t feel like it, it makes you feel a bit better in spite of your mood, doing something to take control, even if it’s scary, makes you feel stronger.

If you’re letting life slide, you know you’ll regret it. You won’t get these years back. Take some time out (important in itself) and think about what you really want. Then set about making it happen.

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The dangers of sleep deprivation

 Health  Comments Off on The dangers of sleep deprivation
Oct 082013

Sleep is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, since I haven’t been getting enough of it. Because most of us are able to function reasonably efficiently even when we’re sleep-deprived, it can be easy to lose sight of how extremely important sleep is to our health and wellbeing.

When I’m not properly rested, I find myself struggling, both mentally and emotionally. I can’t think of the words I want, I forget things, I make mistakes. If the sleep deprivation continues, the world turns into a weird place; I lose my judgement and my perspective and the most trivial incident can cause me to fly off the handle, cry hysterically and/or hide away for days. Lack of sleep is part of the slippery slope that ends in depression – yes, it’s that serious!

In physical terms, not getting enough sleep is bad for our skin – it’s not called beauty sleep for nothing! While there is no long-term substitute for regular good sleep, I do my best to counteract the dehydrating effect of too little sleep by drinking a lot of water.

An article on the BBC website about the role of sleep in tackling obesity brought into focus for me a phenomenon I’d been subconsciously aware of: being tired encourages us to eat too much of the wrong foods. I guess it’s a mixture of a need to grab some energy from somewhere and the misplaced attempt at self-nurturing that is comfort eating.

Catching up on your sleep will quicken both your body and your mind. It’s free and, for most of us, it’s easy to do. So let’s stop pretending we can manage without it, give the zzz’s some priority and let them do their work.

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Urgent versus important

 Relationships, Sense of self  Comments Off on Urgent versus important
Oct 012013

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been working exceptionally hard. I love my job and I like the feeling of being in control of my destiny (well, at least my diary) afforded by being self-employed. I am by no means complaining about being so busy but it has thrown up some issues for me, the main one being knowing when to stop. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the business case, as it were, for rest and recuperation (see All work and no play) and today I’d like to explore the personal side.

When it comes to the work/life balance, the problem is the tension between what’s really, fundamentally important and what’s urgent. I take my work seriously, put a lot into it and get a great deal out of it on many levels but, when it comes right down to it, my list of what’s really, fundamentally important consists of the people I love, followed by health and welfare and a few other abstract-but-vital concepts. In normal circumstances, I make a point of – and enjoy – nurturing what’s important to me: I make time to connect with my loved ones and I work at my relationships, I go to the gym, I cook and eat properly, I read, I go to the theatre. When I’m overloaded with work, that just takes over. It fills my mind, distracts me from conversations, disturbs my sleep, causes me to abandon the gym and all cultural activities and to live on instant or takeaway food. Work is urgent and urgent trumps important in the immediate-action stakes.

But of course if this is allowed to go on for any length of time, the important things begin to unravel. I don’t need to go into this; you know what I’m talking about. So how do we decide where to draw the line? In my case, I’m prepared to let work take over my whole life for a maximum of a week. If there’s loads on, the rest of world can manage without me for a week, my body can put up with junk food and no exercise for a week, if I hardly sleep for a week I can just about make it. Beyond that, though, adjustments have to be made, clients inconvenienced, emails answered more slowly. I ringfence time for friends and family and for the gym and I have a cut-off point in the evening, after which I shut down the computer and give my full attention to my partner and whatever we’re doing together.

I realise I’m lucky to be in a position where I can make this happen relatively easily but, whatever your situation, it’s salutary to take stock every so often and make sure you’re giving enough priority to the things that matter most to you. If you let the urgent run roughshod over the important for too long, you’ll wake up one morning to find that’s all you have left.

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Self-esteem and materialism

 Sense of self  Comments Off on Self-esteem and materialism
Sep 242013

Until I read a book called :59 Seconds by Professor Richard Wiseman, I had never thought about a relationship between self-esteem and materialism. As soon as the professor pointed it out, though, I could instantly see the link and how they rise and fall in inverse proportion to each other. When I thought about it some more, I saw how they can also rise and fall in direct, not inverse, proportion.

There are two aspects to materialism, external and internal. The external aspect is about the image we want to project, how we want the world to perceive us. Some people flaunt their wealth in an attempt to demonstrate to those around them (although principally to themselves) that they are successful. Their materialism is based on wanting to impress their friends by always having the latest, the biggest, the most expensive whatever it is, struggling to bolster their self-esteem by polishing the façade.

On the other side of the same coin is the person who chooses to strike an anti-materialist pose. As an angry victim, I spent many years ostentatiously having the oldest, cheapest, most decrepit whatever it was. My self-esteem was low and I thought flaunting my poverty was a good way to demonstrate my failure and draw attention to my suffering.

The first approach is probably more fun than the grinding austerity I insisted on wearing as some sort of badge of honour, but neither is really effective in boosting self-esteem. The image is not the person; even if we manage to fool all the people all the time, we’ll never truly convince ourselves with our own propaganda. Fulfilment lies not in eliciting the admiration of others but in loving and respecting ourselves. All we’re doing by setting huge store by our abundance or scarcity of material resources is shifting responsibility for our own welfare to other people. We’re relying on other people’s reactions to build our self-esteem. This is never going to work: self-esteem has to come from the inside.

The internal aspect is about the material things themselves and how we feel about them. It’s a well known fact that money can’t buy happiness but it’s equally true that money can make life much easier and material wellbeing can promote happiness. This is another coin with two faces – on the one side, we’ve got the person who buys endless stuff, almost like an addiction, desperately seeking fulfilment through retail therapy. On the other, we have the person who feels he/she doesn’t deserve nice stuff and that spending money on him/herself is an unacceptable indulgence.

Again, neither attitude fosters self-esteem. Buying things because we like them is better than buying them to impress other people, but the responsibility for our welfare is still outside ourselves as we pin our hopes on the next purchase to lift our spirits. Material stuff is never going to fill the void. The sooner we realise that and start working on what really matters, the sooner we’ll reach a stable, happy equilibrium.

To those who feel uncomfortable spending their own money on themselves, I say this: life is for living and I urge you to examine your reluctance to buy the things you want. Of course, there may be good reasons for your stance if finances are tight and you’re responsible for people who can’t provide for themselves, but it’s worth reassessing your feelings every now and then, in case it turns out they’re not actually your feelings but ones your parent-figures instilled in you at an early age.

Self-esteem is not acquired by amassing wealth or refusing to, nor by spending it or refusing to. It cannot grow in the shadow of Mammon but thrives if nurtured independently of material concerns.

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Embracing change (2)

 Facilitating change, Sense of self  Comments Off on Embracing change (2)
Sep 172013

Last week I was talking about the need to embrace external change. Today I want to address the need to foster change on the inside too.

As AL Kennedy indicates in the episode of Radio 4’s A Point of View I quoted last time, one reason people are resistant to changes taking place around them is that they result in changes to their own identity. If I am accustomed to having status, money and a spouse, the removal of one or more of those will cause me huge emotional upheaval, not just in coming to terms with the new situation but also in recalibrating my sense of who I am.

As Ms Kennedy also points out, during times of uncertainty people often become more superstitious, turning to fortune tellers and tarot readers for guidance. Gambling is another area where people seek solace from life’s turmoil. In both cases, magical thinking becomes a refuge from reality and provides a spurious impression of being able to engineer the future we want. The problem with putting one’s faith in ‘psychics’ and tipsters is that it involves giving away the power (and responsibility) we have to shape our own destiny.

Instead of trying to control the world by resisting change or trying to steal a march on Fate in some mystical manner, we need to focus our energy on shoring up our own psyche and building our resilience and confidence. If I have a strong sense of who I am, rooted in me and not in my external circumstances, I will be less shaken by a change in those circumstances. This is not to say I won’t still be terribly sad or angry, but I won’t have my Self thrown into question.

If we get too hung up on labels and pigeon holes, we can end up stifling growth, in ourselves and others. It’s easy to go along with the stereotypes written by parents and friends – A is the clever one, B is the sporty one, C is the attractive one, and so on – but this is just another example of people wanting to understand the world around them and know what to expect from it. ‘Positive’ labels such as the ones I’ve mentioned are better than negative ones, of course, but they come with a lot of pressure to perform and, less obviously, they can be restrictive in not allowing the people to experiment in other fields. Within groups and families, those without the reputation for achievement in a given area can feel there’s no point in even trying. Good at something or bad at it, our destiny is already charted if we accept these labels.

Once we realise the power we have to change ourselves and be who we want to be, it becomes much easier to accept external change. The key to peace and happiness is knowing that we will be all right whatever comes our way. We can’t control what life throws at us but we can control how we handle it.

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