Archive

Tag Archives: stress

Three weeks into my Quarter Gap Year, everything about Julia Hobsbawn’s new book appeals to me: The Simplicity Principle: Six steps towards clarity in a complex world.

It’s the book for our times and Julia walks us through the data; we pick up our smartphones 80 times per day or roughly every 12 minutes, we are on the internet six hours per day or one-third of our waking time, and being ‘on’ 24/7 is the norm at work. All this when we know the human brain cannot hold more than about seven things at any given time and research shows that it takes 23 minutes and 15 seconds to regain attention and focus after being distracted.

It’s not surprising that over 15 million working days were lost to stress in the UK last year, stress costs $300 billion annually to the US, and – sadly – the WHO reports one death from suicide every 40 seconds. Our lives are too complicated for us to keep up with ourselves, let alone the Joneses. [For more on these refs, read the book!].

Having spent the last five years relocating from the UK to the US, standing up a new nonprofit and building it to the point of it having a solid year’s worth of running costs in the bank (handy during a global pandemic), I know all too well the picture being painted here: always on, constantly multi-tasking, dozens of plates spinning, pressure to succeed, and no social support structure. The ends are hugely rewarding, but the means to get there have taken a toll.

Lucky for me, I’m in a position to take a break, step back and reassess my priorities. So while it’s most definitely the book for our times – it’s also come at just the right moment for me.

Julia outlines six sides of a hexagon which together encapsulate the six sides of simplicity: clarity, individuality, reset, knowledge, networks and time. Each has six ideas within it, which come with six fixes or takeaways and calls to action.

I can’t say the narrative structure of the book worked for me – bees, hexagons, nature – but that doesn’t detract from the central idea and the practical suggestions about how to incorporate the simplicity principle into your own life.

Here are the key things I’ll be building into my life:

Clarity:

  • Minimize the number of decisions you have to make and make them swiftly
  • Take a technology break at a regular time each week
  • Say no much more than you say yes
  • Declutter and have a designated place for everything

Individuality:

  • Distinguish between your online and offline identities
  • Pay attention to place – where you live, work and your journey between the two are critical to have you live and work

Reset:

  • Make sleep a big priority
  • Find ways to switch off, whether through meditation or more active ways that take you out of your day to day
  • Seek out a change of scene regularly
  • Spend time in nature
  • Make time for fun in your life

Knowledge:

  • Always bring what you know already to new situations – it’s your wisdom
  • Focus on your soft skills
  • Use a Knowledge Dashboard to streamline the information you receive
  • Don’t have too many things to focus on at once

Networks:

  • Make time for face-to-face
  • Organize how you communicate with someone according to the quality of the relationship
  • Approach networking as a relational activity, not a transactional one
  • Create social capital by being part of communities
  • Create small intimate gatherings and generally avoid large conferences
  • Identify your ‘social six’ – the people who really matter to you

Time:

  • Don’t do deadlines unless you’ve set them yourself
  • Keep control of your calendar and be intentional about how you spend your time
  • Organize your day in the way that makes most sense for you and your body clock
  • Don’t bother with offices unless you have to

I’d recommend this book to anyone asking themselves why life seems relentless, whether it could be different, and how to get started. It’s a great read, much more accessible than your typical ‘self-help’ book, and offers a practical roadmap for how to make change happen.

Slowing down is the fastest way to get where I want to go

After stepping down from my busy, stressful – but rewarding – job a couple of weeks ago, I gave myself the best leaving gift: time. Three months, to be precise. A Quarter Gap Year. It’s the second time I’ve done it – the last one involved more long haul flights, scuba diving and temples; this time, the quarter gap year has come to me.

As I enter the second full week of the Quarter Gap Year, I’m learning an important lesson: slowing down.

Last week was a heady mix of feel-good productivity: a Johns Hopkins online epidemiology course, dozens of articles on managing pandemics, a couple of blog posts written, and a book on the impact of childhood trauma. I can think of worse ways to spend my days; in fact, it’s really wonderful to feel my brain stimulated, pinging off in different directions. I’m a strong believer in the power of intellectual free-styling.

It was too much too soon, and wasn’t helped by my over-enthusiastic (and age inappropriate) embrace of Peleton online HIIT classes. While Shakira may have warned us that the hips don’t lie, for me it’s all about the neck and shoulders. Thursday it was a slight twinge. Friday needed a husband rub. Saturday extra pillows for my neck. By Sunday the battle was lost and I spent all day yesterday with my left arm supported, sitting upright on the sofa doing nothing more taxing than TV.

Neck and shoulder issues have plagued me all my adult life. The time I almost had to cancel a holiday (and then spent the first 3 days in bed immobile); when I spent a couple of months with a bag of peas on my neck; the frozen shoulder that necessitated opioids and steroids; the countless other times I’ve had to carefully choose my sleeping position to minimize the stress on my neck. It comes, it hurts, I stop. Rewind and repeat.

Acupuncture, physical therapy, massage, sports massage, deep tissue massage, osteopathy, pilates, yoga. You name it, I’ve tried it. I even had calcium deposits extracted from my shoulders with a very large needle a couple of years ago. I’ll spare you the visuals. Some have helped – deep tissue massage and pilates are stand out stars – others didn’t do a thing – acupuncture and physical therapy were a waste of money (for me).

As good as any of these things are, they treat the symptoms not the cause: stress. Stress impacts my posture, which strains my muscles, which are then vulnerable to the slightest tweak, leading to a disproportionate strain, I compensate by changing my posture, and so the cycle continues until I’m in agony.

Meditation isn’t something you do to take you out of your daily life – it’s something you bring into your daily life to cultivate perspective

I’ve found meditation to be the only effective way to treat the cause. In 2017/18 when I was going through undoubtedly the most stressful period of my career, Take Five Meditation studio opened near my office in Washington DC. I’d wanted to try meditation for a while and spent a long time getting round to booking my first class. I hoped it would offer an escape from my daily stress. It did.

More profoundly, after a couple of years practice I came to understand that meditation isn’t something you do to take you out of your daily life – it’s something you bring into your daily life to cultivate perspective. When I feel my stress levels rising, when I have to make a difficult call, when a donor falls though; stop, breathe, focus inwards – and let go. Your mind is clearer, you can focus more easily, and your response is likely to be strategic rather than reactive. It’s something you learn in a meditation studio, but put into practice at your desk.

For me right now, the challenge is not stress as I’m used to – I’m blissfully obligation-free for three months. It’s the stress of change, transition, the unknown. It’s the task of letting go of many years of stress and finding what normal looks like again. Unwinding.

As week two of the Quarter Gap Year gets underway, I realize that slowing down is the fastest way to get where I want to go. Realistically, I know I won’t be able to sit still reading novels and watching Netflix for three months, but a little more idling might just be the most productive thing to do. And if all else fails, Omm…

 

%d bloggers like this: