The Baby Monkey Metaphor

This is an honest post about an emotion that clings to my back like an orphaned baby monkey every day of my life. That emotion is guilt.

To give examples, here are some of the myriad things I feel guilty about on a daily basis: Not working hard enough; Not being ambitious enough; Not being a good enough fiancé; Not being a good enough daughter; Not being a good enough friend; Not writing; Not pursuing my life goals; Watching too much crap instead of writing/pursuing life goals; Caring too much what people think about me; Being so privileged when so many are not; Not appreciating being so privileged when so many are not; Never being satisfied/always wanting more; Eating badly; Not going to the gym; Not being mindful; Worrying about everything/sweating the small stuff; Being too apologetic; Wasting too much time on social media. I could go on. In fact, I daresay I could fill ten pages with all the things that I feel guilty about from one moment to the next. But I won’t (because I’d only feel guilty about the time I wasted writing it). It’s a depressing (if somewhat exaggerated, for the purpose of this post) truth that the only time I don’t feel guilty is when I’m sleeping, although if I remembered more of my dreams I wouldn’t be surprised if I felt guilt in most of those as well.

It never fails to amaze me how humans can be so intelligent and yet so utterly stupid at the same time. Unless felt in a justified context, for example when we have genuinely done something to upset another person, guilt – like worry and anxiety (which I could also fill a small tome about, let’s not go down that road here) – is a useless emotion. After thirty four years of living with it I can vouch for the fact it does not increase productivity – far from it, it is productivity’s antithesis. It also doesn’t improve personal relationships, or indeed help other people in the slightest. I wouldn’t go so far as to label it a selfish emotion, because it is usually underpinned by a sense of duty towards others or towards our true (non-egotistical) selves, but it sure is good at making a person introspective to the point of being boring.

So in the spirit of the age old ‘new year, new me’ mentality, it’s time to face the truth: the baby monkey on my back, whilst cute, has never led me anywhere positive; in fact, it has only led me into procrastination, anxiety and paralysing self-doubt. In short, cute or not, it’s time to ditch the monkey. Life is too short to be paralysed by useless emotions. It’s time to start fostering the useful ones.

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NaNoWriMo Days 7 & 8 – Back on Track

It’s late, so I will be brief. In short, I’m back on track for a November 30th finish! Have pulled victory from the jaws of week one defeat, just in the nick of time, after an uber productive writing group today. Phew.

In other, possibly-NaNo-related news, I’ve had a tremendously productive weekend in other respects too, primarily in terms of getting a new hair colour (not, I suspect, all that easily detectable to the untrained eye, but exciting for me nonetheless), buying some Christmas presents (groan) and organising a baby shower.

I say possibly-NaNo-related with regard to the above because I really am wondering whether NaNo has a positive effect in other areas of my life besides my writing. In the past week I have felt more positive and capable than I have for some weeks, and this weekend has been a really calm and focused time, full of rewarding pursuits and positive reflections about what I want to achieve in my writing and in life in general.

I suppose the learning is to always have a tangible and (relatively) immediate goal, to never stop striving for that goal and to spend time every single day working towards achieving it. A lesson I will endeavour to remember long after my sixth NaNoWriMo has ended.

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Riding the Hamster Wheel

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After the success of my sitcom writing course (writing a 15 minute script and having it acted out by a Game of Thrones actress does count as success, right?) with the City Academy I have once again grasped the nettle and signed up for a 7 week summer course in crime writing, this time with the City Lit. This will run concurrently with the screenplay idea I’m working on with my amazing writing mentor, so I’ll have lots to keep me busy!

You see, what I’m coming to realise is that being busy is always best – or at least that’s the case with people like me, who are creatively minded and enthusiastic but tend towards laziness and phases of paranoid inactivity. Deadlines are key to productivity, and without concrete plans (submit essay by x, write plot outline by y) it’s all too easy to drift out with the tide, never to return to shore. So whilst I will quite often bitch and moan about not having enough hours in the day, I know deep down without these goals and targets I would lack the momentum to achieve anything at all.

Discipline, however, is a different beast entirely, and one that’s far more difficult to tame. You can set all the goals and targets that you like, but if you don’t ‘show up’ regularly, as a good friend recently said to me, the game is lost. And the fact remains that whilst I’m full of good intentions and prone to bursts of fervour, showing up regularly is still something I struggle with. That, and the idea that you don’t have to be in the ‘right’ mood to ‘write,’ nor even must you know where the writing will take you. You just have to sit down and do it. No but-I-have-to-hang-out-the-washing-then-go-to-the-gym-and-make-dinner excuses.

And on that note, I’m just off to the gym and to make dinner before I sit down with my laptop for the evening…..

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The Never-Good-Enough Club

What is it about the human condition that makes it so damn hard to celebrate our achievements yet so easy to lambaste ourselves for our failures? Take my experience of today as an example: After waking at 8am still feeling exhausted from my friend’s (amazing) hen weekend I decided to have extra hour’s sleep to ensure maximum productivity for rest of day. When I re-woke up at 9am feeling good I not only wrote my morning pages for the first time in weeks, I also wrote a ‘to do’ list for the day which comprised the following: 

  • Do physio exercises
  • Write short exposition scene for sitcom class homework
  • Devise comedy sketch show idea (as above)
  • Write first episode of sitcom
  • Write dialogue piece for tomorrow’s sitcom class (homework set by guest speaker)
  • Update short story competition spreadsheet
  • Write a new short story
  • Go to shops (to purchase shampoo, floss, Brita filters and dinner, should you be interested in the mechanics of my banal daily existence)
  • Go to gym for twenty minute cycle
  • Do washing

By 10am I had showered, completed my physio exercises, eaten breakfast and written the exposition scene. By 11am I had come up with an idea for the sketch and put the washing on. By 1pm I’d done my shopping and been to the gym. By 2pm I’d written the dialogue piece, and by 5pm I’d written three quarters of the first episode of my sitcom. As I sit here at 8pm I’ve all but finished (bar a few closing lines) the sitcom episode, updated the short story competition spreadsheet, caught up with my best friend in the US (on the phone) and my good friend in Hawaii (on Whatsapp), and am now writing this post. But do I feel a sense of satisfaction? Not really, because of the ten things on today’s to do list, I only managed to complete nine. And that one outstanding task (writing a short story) is hanging over me like a dark cloud – so much so it may as well be a neon sign over my head saying ‘FAILURE.’ If only I’d got up at 8am and used that extra hour instead of sleeping in, my inner critic reasons, I might have ticked that final box and ended the day with a very different sign over my head: A sign that said ‘SUCCESS.’

The reason I’m sharing this is because I know I’m not alone; there are many others like me. Perhaps it would be better if we lowered our expectations of ourselves and set easier targets that guaranteed success. But, in doing that, would we not just be letting ourselves off the hook and accepting there are limits to our capability? True, it’s no fun always feeling like you’re underachieving because you don’t meet your own high targets, but at least you have the ambition to set high targets in the first place, and the inherent belief that, in exceptional circumstances, you are capable of meeting them.

I think the real answer to this conundrum lies in acceptance; of ourselves, of our abilities and, perhaps most importantly of all, of the distance between our dreams and our realities. We may not always manage to tick everything off our daily lists, but as long as we’re keeping up enough forward momentum to inch ever closer to fulfilling our potential, that might just be okay.

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A Bridget Jones Post

Talk about going from yin to yang in one weekend. Whereas Friday saw me leaving my coat and house keys in an unknown location in Clapham at 4am after an impromptu night out with friends, Sunday has seen me complete an 11 mile run (in a very respectable hour and forty eight minutes I’ll have you know – if I run at that speed for the whole marathon I’ll complete it in under my target time of four and a half hours. Though I’ll admit that is a BIG IF), make some headway with planning the marathon fundraiser in February and cook a lasagne. Tomorrow needs to be more productive still if I’m to catch up with myself before going on holiday two weeks today (whoopee!), although annoyingly I now have ‘buy new coat’ and ‘get new set of house keys cut’ as unwelcome additional items on the to do list.

On another note entirely, when I started this blog on the first of January I wasn’t sure I would be able to fulfil the commitment to post something every day. Now, as I sit here writing the post for December 15th I can hardly believe there are only 16 posts left to write before the end of the year. What I’ll do beyond that I haven’t yet decided, but whilst it’s unlikely I’ll continue posting every single day, I’ll definitely continue to keep a regular blog. The ‘Bridget Jones’ posts (as my Dad not-so-affectionately refers to them – and, given this weekend’s antics and posts that description’s not all that wide of the mark…) are always cathartic to write, the fiction posts entirely different and yet arguably more important where the future direction of my writing is concerned. In February I plan to dig out this year’s NaNo novel, dust it off and start the ‘real’ work of editing. Because, I’ve decided: 2014 is going to be my year. And, like Bridget, I won’t let anything or anyone stand in my way.

Back to work

No matter how much you love your job, you always have a degree of back to work dread when the alarm goes off on your first morning back in the office post-holiday. And so it was at 7am this morning, when I groggily opened my eyes and pulled back the curtains to see yet another delightful day in the making. After a twenty minute armpit-in-face commute I was even less enamoured with the idea of a day spent in an airless office (the window open is sealed shut – far from ideal in these sweltering conditions). And by 11am – by which time I was less than a third of the way through my emails – I was about ready to face plant onto my desk.

Fortunately the afternoon part of the day proved far more fruitful than its morning predecessor. After a brief stint in the sunshine I returned, fortified, to tackle the To Do list head on. But, though a welcome development it wasn’t my increased productivity that proved to be the ultimate redeemer. What rescued the day from the jaws of defeat was the time I spent with one of our young people helping her to prepare for this evening’s exciting Backing Youth event, hosted by HRH The Duke of York at Buckingham Palace. Hearing the passion in her voice when she spoke about how much the charity has helped her was inspiring, and reminded me of why I do what I do.

Here’s a sneak preview of some professional shots we had taken recently on one of our projects. Definitely a good reminder of how important my role is as PR Manager for the charity.

Productivity and pressure

Today’s mot du jour (said in a sophisticated French accent, naturellement) is “productive.” It’s 11.07am as I type this and already I’ve run five kilometres on the treadmill, sifted through the reams of crap accumulated in my desk drawers during my sixteen months here (binning most of it and saving a few nuggets that may be of use later on), applied for my New York visa, ordered both my travel money and insurance and made an exhaustively comprehensive to do list covering virtually every remaining minute of my working day (and indeed beyond, as this evening I’ll be helping my boyfriend move into his new place by lugging a massive suitcase from one end of London to the other in the name of love – or lunacy, I’m not sure which).

In short, I’m in the midst of a necessary manic phase, which has got me thinking about the nature of pressure. I don’t know about you but I have a love hate relationship with pressure. When I’m under huge amounts of it I panic; my hands sweat, my head pounds, my breathing is shallow. Sometimes (too often) I turn into a whimpering, gibbering mess in the corner, claiming between sobs that it’s all too much, I just can’t do it. But then a funny thing happens; I remind myself to breathe, drag myself out of the corner, put the kettle on and sit back down at my desk. And then I simply carry on. And you know what? If it wasn’t for the pressure bearing down on me I often wouldn’t complete the task I’d set out to achieve in the first place. In other words, much as it stresses me out, pressure is an essential part of my productivity. I work better with it than without it – and that’s a fact.

At school and university I could often be found at 2am the night before an important exam, cramming every bit of information I possibly could into my brain. It wasn’t that I hadn’t bothered to revise (well, it wasn’t always that), I just couldn’t focus properly until I was under sufficient pressure to be able to block everything else out. I’ll never forget the week before my dissertation was due when it dawned on me I really had left it too late, and I had to pull out every last stop to deliver on time. My body’s reaction to that particular period of pressure was somewhat extreme – I blacked out whilst hyperventilating over the choice of finishing my dissertation and attending a party. Needless to say I eventually (and sensibly, as wasn’t always customary in those days) opted to stay in and finish the dissertation, and thankfully went on to clinch an upper second degree as a result.

In today’s society pressure is, whether we like it or not, all around us. We feel pressure to succeed in every aspect of our lives, from our jobs to our relationships and even in our hobbies. Even those who seem, on the face of it, to be at the top of their game – the company CEO, for example – are under constant pressure to deliver better, smarter, cheaper. But the reason such people get to the top of their game is because they’ve managed to get a handle on the pressure and make it work to their advantage. They’ve understood that often pressure is a good thing which provides a necessary catalyst for change (if you don’t think change is a good thing, see yesterday’s post which, I hope, will change your mind – geddit?).

Now I’m afraid I really must be off, I’ve got a million and one things to do before the day is out and my hands are getting clammy….

This photo shows me at a time when I was under considerable pressure – to host and deliver a successful end of expedition ceremony in Borneo in 2011. You can tell from the sweat on my brow I was nervous (and also brown – so brown, sigh…), but fortunately my effort was passable and the event was a success. See? Pressure in action. I rest my case.