Eating Frogs

My old boss used to say ‘time to eat the frog’ when talking about the thing on his to do list that most troubled him – you know, the one that lurks at the bottom, perpetually torturing you with its very existence, until it grows to toad-like proportions, usurping all other tasks. And he was right to eat the frog from time to time, because it’s funny how spending even the smallest amount of time on the things you ritually avoid can instill a sense of calm. Or maybe not so funny, given that procrastination is surely one of the greatest stressors of the modern world.

As a struggling writer (with the emphasis firmly on the ‘struggling’ and often barely on the ‘writer’) it baffles me no end that the things I routinely attempt to hide from are usually related to the one thing I claim to want to do the most. We humans are complex – read ‘stupid’ – creatures. Or maybe it’s just me. Plenty of writers do, after all, write. Many do so for a living. I just dabble part time (or, if I’m really honest, spend 90% of my time worrying about it and 10% actually doing it), and even that is enough to raise my anxiety levels to red. And, while we’re on the topic of anxiety, there’s another by-product of today’s western society, where we have the luxury of almost infinite choice, and yet are simultaneously paralysed by it. In short, we are ruined by our own hands. But then, of course, it’s not all bad. Things rarely are.

The key to not just surviving but thriving in this crazy life is, I’ve begun to realise, taking our feet off the gas pedals once in a while; flicking on the cruise control and acknowledging we can only do what we can do. I’m not advocating laziness, or complacency. But what personal experience over the last thirty three years has shown me is that when I put the most pressure on myself I usually perform the worst. Setting goals is great, but when those goals are metaphorically akin to climbing Everest, it’s unsurprising that it’s often hard to take even the very first step. In scaling back ambition – reigning it in just enough to make it achievable – it dissipates the feelings of anxiety and fear of failure that often stop us from beginning our journey in the first place.

By all means eat the frog – it will invariably make you feel much better. But don’t put so many frogs in your way you have to eat them all. Aside from anything else, it will give you terrible indigestion.

Disclaimer: No frogs were harmed in the writing of this blog post.

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Gratitude, Acceptance and Umbrellas

It’s been a while since I last updated my blog. This is, in part, because I’m currently focusing on addressing some of the issues in my life that are blocking my path to fulfilment and success. At the moment I’m reading two neuropsychology books, one on Hardwiring Happiness by Dr Rick Hanson (whose TED talk on the issue can be viewed here), and the other on conditions arising from neuropsychological damage, The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, by the brilliant (and, sadly, now also suffering from terminal cancer) Oliver Sachs. Alongside the Chopra Centre guided meditations that I am trying to do on a regular basis (which I think I mentioned in a previous post), these books have been helping me to understand some key facets* of the human condition that need cultivating in order to experience true fulfilment. These are:

Part One: Gratitude

It sounds obvious, but how many of us really take the time each day to count our blessings? I think I’ve touched on this before, but now more than ever I am realising how important it is to consciously feel gratitude in order to overcome negative emotions like anxiety, jealousy and fear. It is only by recognising the value of what we have – primarily the people in our lives who bring us joy and make us feel secure and loved – that we can create a sense of calm and acceptance. Which brings me onto…

Part Two: Acceptance

This morning I walked past the elderly homeless man who sleeps in a doorway along my route to work. For a time, during January, he disappeared, and I hoped he had found somewhere warm to spend the rest of the winter. But no such luck. Recently he has been back, huddled with his worldly belongings on the grey concrete step. I have wanted to do something for him ever since I first saw him, but was unsure whether he would welcome being approached and offered charity. Today I had my chance, as I had slipped into my bag a slice of the delicious tarte au sucre that was left over from the dinner party I hosted on Sunday night. As I passed him I had the urge to offer it to him. He declined. And you know what? I stifled the selfish compulsion to feel rebuffed, and in that moment realised that acceptance is an important part of coming to terms with life. We can’t change other people; we can only change our own thoughts, deeds and actions. I’m glad I offered him something, even if he didn’t want it, because generosity is part of being human – it connects us to one another, and it makes us feel less alone.

Part Three: Umbrellas

Also on my walk to work today, the air was damp with the drizzle I’m coming to learn is characteristic of life here in Brussels. But rather than putting up my umbrella the second I felt a droplet of water on my forehead, I deliberately waited until the rain was sufficiently heavy to warrant me being protected from it. And in that moment it occurred to me the umbrella could be used as an analogy for life:

Life is about learning when you need an umbrella to protect yourself – and when you are strong enough to walk in the rain.

The path I’m currently treading makes me feel ever more keenly that it isn’t possible to protect ourselves from the negative things in life – they are an intrinsic part of it. What matters is working on our ability to face them head on; to be humble, selfless and brave.

*Interestingly, one meaning for the word ‘facet’ in the dictionary is ‘one of the small, polished plane surfaces of a cut gem’ – it struck me this was also a good analogy for life, which has so very many different aspects, hence the image I have chosen to accompany this post.

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I never knew facets could be so beautiful.

Banishing Self-Indulgence

Earlier today I wrote one of those typical woe is me blog posts, alluding to how hard everything felt, how lacking I was in inspiration etc. But before I posted it I stopped, my finger hovering over the mouse key, and asked myself: What good will it do to share this with the world? It may well be cathartic to get things off your chest, but haven’t you done that just by writing it? Don’t you feel a little lighter as it is? And you know what? I did feel lighter just for having written it. Much like a letter to an ex that never actually gets sent, I had expunged the negative emotions without the need to inflict them upon the world. So that was one thing that happened today.

Another thing that happened was my reading of this article, which can, I believe, be best surmised by the following excerpt:

“The 8-hour workday is too profitable for big business, not because of the amount of work people get done in eight hours (the average office worker gets less than three hours of actual work done in 8 hours) but because it makes for such a purchase-happy public. Keeping free time scarce means people pay a lot more for convenience, gratification, and any other relief they can buy. It keeps them watching television, and its commercials. It keeps them unambitious outside of work.

“We’ve been led into a culture that has been engineered to leave us tired, hungry for indulgence, willing to pay a lot for convenience and entertainment, and most importantly, vaguely dissatisfied with our lives so that we continue wanting things we don’t have. We buy so much because it always seems like something is still missing.”

I don’t know about you, but reading those two paragraphs struck a chord so deep within me that the hairs on my arms stood up of their own volition. Why? Because that person with no time to be ambitious outside work, who feels constantly dissatisfied in a way they struggle to articulate and who spends money they don’t have on ways to make themselves feel better: That person is me. And most likely also many of you. Of course (trust fund children aside) we have to work for a living (and in this respect with a four day week I can complain less than many about my lot), but it’s so true that outside work it takes (what often feels like) a superhuman effort to cultivate the kind of extracurricular activities that leave you feeling wholly satisfied and fulfilled.

But, that aside, the fact is that those with true talent and passion DO manage to make the most of the time they have, no matter how little it is. They don’t sit around complaining about being oppressed and enslaved by the organisations they work for, but rather work out ways to escape their clutches and create opportunities for work – and living – on their terms. Whether incarcerated by consumerism or not, we all have choices. And our choices are the difference between a life of success and a life of failure. Which is a pretty sobering thought.

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Compare This

Last week I read about a one-woman play that was both written and performed by a girl in her early twenties*. Instead of thinking ‘wow, that’s an impressive amount of talent at such a young age’ I’m ashamed to admit my first default reaction was ‘urgh, some people have all the luck.’ And that’s not an isolated incident. Friends’ promotions, publications, engagements and luxury holidays (to name but a few life events) have often left me cold – not because I’m so hard-hearted I can’t be happy for them, but because I can’t help but compare myself to them, and always end up feeling inadequate.

Comparison is the enemy of success. When you spend all your time comparing yourself to others you get paralysed by the fear of failure. I’ve only just found the courage to openly admit to myself I’ve been doing this for years, and begin to acknowledge that it’s not only unhealthy but also downright silly. If we obsess enough over others’ successes we may well be able to emulate them, but the pursuit of that goal can destroy all the good things in our own lives. Is it really worth that?

When we reach the pearly gates at the end of our lives wouldn’t it be better to stand up and say with pride we took our own path in life, rather than following others’? Each one of us was made unique, with different strengths and weaknesses. Why try to fit a square peg in a round hole? I can only be me. And what I’m finally coming to realise is that being me is just fine. No, not fine. Being me is great 🙂

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*In light of the above I’m going to see this play tonight. It’s time to buck the comparison trend and support a fellow female writer 🙂

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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Strengthening Resolve / Finding Wings

It’s been five months since the end of my ‘write every day of 2013’ challenge and I can feel myself drifting. The desire to write – to be a ‘writer’ – has never been stronger, but when I do sit down to write it’s piecemeal, and my attention dots around from short story to novel to sitcom script (this latest addition being the result of my signing up for an eight week sitcom class with the City Academy) like a bee collecting nectar in a flower field. It seems I’ve lost my focus, or my confidence, or both.

I miss the halcyon days of being involved in writers’ groups, both online and in the ‘real’ world. At their best, they offered valuable critique, support and – above all else – comfort that other people were in a similar situation and going through the same painstaking process. Just knowing that others in the group were feverishly beavering away at their works-in-progress was enough to encourage me to do the same, and my output in the early years of my involvement in such groups was impressive.

At their worst, however, I found writing groups to be time-wasting (when you’ve spent two hours critiquing someone else’s work only to find they don’t have the common decency to critique yours in return it makes you wonder whether you should have spent the two hours working on your own writing instead), demoralising (for the same reason) and, well, downright sad (one woman started coming to every meeting with a clutch of business cards and invites to her latest ‘launch’ event – despite the fact she had self-published her book because no publisher in their right mind would print her terrible, clunky prose. I knew when I began to dread hearing her read her latest excerpt that it was time to leave that particular group for good, although I did so with a heavy heart).

My one remaining solace is being a member of a private writers’ group on Facebook, where many of my ‘old’ online writing buddies have also migrated. A lot of them are published now, and I have nothing but admiration for them. I also know the reason they are published and I am not comes down to one primary factor: Resolve. They have not allowed pithy excuses like having too little time to write (my personal favourite) to stop them from doing what runs through their blood. No. They have made the time to turn their works-in-progress into works-in-print, and in doing so have set their creative spirits free to soar into the literary galaxy and beyond.

At this juncture I am therefore teetering on the precipice, knowing in my heart I cannot bear to let another year of writing promise slip through my fingers like the sands of time. And the obvious fact that’s been staring me in the face is only now making itself plainly and uncompromisingly clear: The ONLY way to overcome procrastination, writer’s block and crippling self-doubt is to WRITE: EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. Not necessarily on my blog but somewhere, and for a minimum of an hour each day. Only then will I earn my wings to fly. And, make no mistake, fly is what I absolutely intend to do.

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Changes

I can’t put my finger on it exactly, but there’s something amiss in my world at the moment. Possible reasons are:

a)      The weather (if in doubt, blame that)

b)      My best friend moving to San Francisco next week (I’m excited for her but will miss her tremendously – just thinking about it makes me well up)

c)       Lack of exercise – after months of marathon training it’s now been over 6 weeks since I did any exercise due to my training-related back injury, so the endorphin supply is running low

d)      Lack of sleep – probably due to all the other reasons, but in recent days my quality of sleep has dropped dramatically, and I’ve noticed when my alarm goes off I’m often slap bang in the middle of a traumatic /stressful dream, which doesn’t get my day off to the best of starts

e)      My overdraft, which is once again getting so large it’s scaring me

f)       Pressure to succeed in writing (see point e, though this is about far more than just money, it’s about realising ambition – or not, as the case may be)

g)      The onset of wanderlust (which may or may not be related to point b)

h)      A combination of all of the above (most likely)

Whatever the reasons, I’m feeling out of sorts and stressed, and I need an action plan to ease me out of the doldrums. That plan is as follows:

a)      Hmm, not much I can do about the weather…

b)      Not much I can do about the friend moving to the US either…Oh dear…

c)       Aha! Here’s one I can work on! Lunchtime Pilates class booked. Let’s see how that goes…

d)      Earlier nights. Switch off technology, have a relaxing bath and go to bed with a good book. This approach I shall trial tonight.

e)      Stopping spending is the obvious one, or moving out of credit crisis London? Neither looking all that possible in the immediate future…Stop eating perhaps? Become a Breatharian?

f)       This one’s obvious: Write more. And believe in myself more. Also maybe give up sleeping and socialising as well as eating in order to find time to get my writing where it needs to be.

g)      I would say go travelling again, which would certainly address point a), but since it would do nothing to help point e), in the short term I’ll just have to settle for booking a (very) cheap weekend away in the UK to keep the wanderlust at bay.

I’m so glad I decided to write it all down. Just a few ‘small’ lifestyle changes and I’ll be back on an even keel before you can say ‘it’ll never work’….

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