Competitive, moi?

I’m not exactly what you could call a prolific blogger. I mean, I read quite a few people’s blogs, click some ‘likes’ and leave a comment here and there. I like messing around with my own blog, too, and try – and sometimes even succeed – to post a couple of times a week. But recently, things have got a bit more serious.

I set up my blog in October 2010 and then proceeded to do very little with it. I sort of liked the idea of having a blog, but things were fairly hectic and I just didn’t get around to writing anything. This was, unsurprisingly, reflected in a complete lack of readers, visits and page views – as you can probably see from the diagram below.

I started to make a bit more of an effort in August last year, when I decided to try a little harder to be a decent, well-rounded human being. (Read my very first post.) This is when people actually started to read my blog, which was all extremely exciting. And when I got my first ‘like’ (thanks http://princesayasmine.wordpress.com/, by the way), I was almost beside myself. My first comment, a couple of months later, provoked similar jubilations.

Wordpress Stats

You’ll notice, though, that I experienced a further bump in views (if going from 50 views a month to about 150 can really be called a ‘bump’ in the big scheme of things) in January this year. So what’s that all about? Well, it shames me to admit this, but this is when my wife started her blog, and I was darned if she was going to have a more popular blog than me. You know all that drivel you read about the male of the species being insecure, egotistical, shallow and pitifully competitive? Yup, it’s true.

So I tried hard to up my blogging game. I read more of other people’s blogs. I wrote more posts of my own. I wrote about what I was doing, thinking, reading, eating, growing and shouting at. I used tags properly so that people could find my blog. And it was great. I’m not saying that I have millions of readers or anything like that, because that’s clearly not true, but I have started to build up a little community of people like me across the world.

So at least a couple of evenings a week, Natalie and I come home from work, walk the dog, have tea and then settle down on the sofa for a couple of hours of blogging*. We catch up with the blogs we follow, we share things that have caught our eye and we write some posts of our own. Far from being a solitary pursuit, like so many people would seem to have us believe, blogging for my lovely wife and me has become a bit of a communal activity. And, thank goodness, I still have more views, ‘likes’ and subscribers than she does.

* This is not a euphemism. I really do mean blogging. Please don’t write in.

Why I’ll probably never live in a little country cottage

I used to dream about living in a little cottage in the country, miles from the nearest neighbour, with a dog resting on the front wall and chickens scratching around in the back yard. Or perhaps an old coastguard cottage on a cliff top somewhere, nothing in sight but the sea and the sky. But the older I get, the more I realise that this isn’t going to happen.

For one thing, I’m no longer sure that I want to live in the middle of nowhere. Having lived for the last four years on the edge of a small market town in Somerset, I’ve kind of gotten used to having neighbours and to being able to walk to the shops. And while it’s not exactly what you’d call a particularly urban area (there are open fields just a five minute walk away), it’s nice to have things like the farmers market, doctor’s surgery and vet within easy reach.

For another thing, I need to earn money and I’m not sure how I’d go about that if I lived cut off from the rest of civilisation. Even though I can do much of my writing and research at the kitchen table (as long as I have a phone and internet access), I do need to get out occasionally. And for my consultancy work, I really need to be near to my clients. If I were to live somewhere in the wilds, I’d definitely need to (a) write a lot more and a lot more quickly or (b) come up with a very different approach to paying the mortgage.

I also like having access to the things that you can only really get in a large town or city. We’re just a twenty minute drive or a short bus ride away from the city of Bristol, with its university, bookshops, clothes stores, coffee shops, theatres, evening lectures and other cultural events. And I’m not sure that I’m ready to give up on them quite yet. Having a mainline railway station, two motorways and an airport all within about fifteen minutes is also a definite plus, and not something that many country villages can boast.

I’ve always loved the countryside and the coast and they have a very strong influence on my life. And I’m really not much of a city dweller. But we’re fairly sociable creatures and living on the edge of our little town seems to suit us quite well. In fact, it strikes me that a city ‘hub’ surrounded by a series small towns could be a fairly sustainable way of living for most people. So while an isolated cottage in a picturesque valley or on some rugged coastline somewhere may have its appeal, it’s perhaps not for me. Or, at least, not yet.

A micro-farmer’s dilemma

I’m starting to detect a slight problem with my food-growing exploits. Nothing to do with the plants themselves, fortunately, which are growing well and looking good. In fact, I’ve started to refer to our garden as ‘the micro-farm’, in anticipation of this becoming a recognised (though haphazard) model of agriculture at some point in the near future. No, the problem is definitely me, rather than my future foodstuffs.

It started on Sunday evening, when I packed my bag and headed off to London, in preparation for a seminar that I was delivering on Monday morning. In itself, of course, no big issue (provided we brush over the fact that I was going to work at the weekend). But before I left, I was compelled to leave Natalie with a detailed list of care requirements for my various seeds, seedlings and young plants.

Keep the seed trays slightly damp, so that they don’t dry out – but don’t let them get soggy. Water the pea plants well and check that they haven’t got tangled up with each other again. Check the chilli plants and water any that are particularly dry, but only first thing in the morning as they don’t like to go to bed with damp feet. Untangle the hop from its preferred home tangled around the bench and try to convince it to stay on its support this time. Open the cold frames once the sun is up, and close them just before dusk – or if it gets windy. Oh, and feel free to eat some salad, but not the micro-leaves as they need a couple more days. The list went on. (Though was, I suspect, mostly ignored.)

I’ve spent the last few years learning about how best to grow the various fruits, vegetables and flowers that I enjoy, and try to make sure that I look after them well. I’m used to doing the rounds first thing in the morning and in the early evening, watering the crops and checking for bugs, as well as generally keeping an eye on things during the day if I’m around. So the thought of leaving them alone, with (let’s be honest) essentially a substitute teacher in charge, was harrowing in the extreme.

The same thing happened last month, when we went over to Germany for a few days. Admittedly, I didn’t have so many young plants at that stage, so things were a little easier. But even then, I spent the days before our departure desperately hoping my chilli and mint plants were hardened off sufficiently, so that I could leave them in the greenhouse for the neighbours to water in my absence. What if something comes up when everything needs planting out? I’ll be a nervous wreck…

I guess this is the problem when you have living things of any form, whether plants or livestock, that require daily attention. You get into a routine of caring for them and then need quickly to come up with a Plan B when other things demand your attention, such as the job that actually pays for you to own the garden and the plants and everything else. And then you end up in London first thing on a Monday morning, trying to deliver a seminar to a roomful of serious people, when all you can think about is whether or not your wife has remembered to water the courgettes.

From plot to plate

This time of year is known traditionally as the ‘hungry gap’, when the winter vegetables have finished and the summer ones have yet to make an appearance. Which is why I’m deriving huge (and perhaps unwarranted) amounts of pleasure from the fact that yesterday, for the first time this year, we were able to tuck in to some of our produce from the garden.

Baby Leaf Salad

The first of this year's salad crop

I mustn’t get carried away here, because it wasn’t a whole meal or anything. But it’s a start. And having spend the last couple of months preparing the soil, planting seeds and caring for the growing plants, it’s nice to get a return on my investment. Especially because I know that from now until the depths of winter, my hard (but incredibly enjoyable work) will result in fresh, healthy food for our plates.

Pea Tips

Pea tips

First up was a delicious home-grown mixed salad to go with our main course, bringing together the baby salad leaves that I have grown in the greenhouse, together with some tender pea tips and a couple of leaves of succulent wild garlic. It was just a small selection of leaves with a bit of olive oil and some balsamic vinegar, but the perfect start to the year’s harvest.

In case this doesn’t seem as impressive to you as it did to me, let me move on to dessert, for which we rustled up my all-time favourite: rhubarb crumble and custard. We have a big rhubarb plant at the bottom of the garden that is getting more rampant each year, and this season’s stems had finally got large and numerous enough that we thought we’d harvest some. And, boy, were they delicious.

Before…

Rhubarb

…and after!

Rhubarb Crumble

Definitely a most excellent start to the year. And with a whole host of other fruits and vegetables either growing away or waiting to be sown, there’s much more to come.

Regaining my balance

The best thing about being self-employed is being able to plan my own time and to do pretty much whatever I want. The worst thing about being self-employed is, inevitably, being able to plan my own time and to do pretty much whatever I want. I say this because, in the last couple of months, there’s been an awful lot of doing, but precious little in the way of planning. And I’m not really striking the right balance between the different things that I do.

I find that I’m fine with the big things, like my ongoing consultancy projects, which start to make a fuss (metaphorically, at least) if they don’t get the attention that they need. But when it comes to the less vociferous but equally important things, like my longer term writing projects, the plants I’m growing and (as you’ve probably noticed from the unforgivable lack of posts recently) my blog, then I’m a little less consistent than I would like.

In order to at least attempt to rectify this appalling lack of focus, I’ve tried to figure out what I do in my consultancy work that I don’t do with everything else, in the hope that I might be able to apply this discipline to some of the other aspects of my life. And what I found out was, in fact, remarkably simple. In my work, I set goals for each activity, assign a deadline and then set aside a specific time to do it. So whether it’s a meeting with a client, some data analysis or writing a report, each gets an appropriate slot in my diary.

So why, I asked myself, does this rigour have to apply only to the more ‘traditional’ aspects of work? Why can’t I use the same approach for everything else? And the answer, of course, is that I can. The best way to make sure that I get everything done is, clearly, to set aside a specific time to do it. (And then actually do it, of course, but that’s a different story.)

It reminds me of something someone once told me on a management course that I went on for my old job. There are the important things, he said, and there are the urgent things. The important things wait patiently to get done, while the urgent things jump up and down like the kid at the front of the class desperate to answer the teacher’s question. “Pick me! Pick me!”, they insist. And so we invariably do the urgent things, while the more important matters (which are generally the things that we actually want to do) remain forever on the ‘to do’ list.

The answer, the guy explained, is to think of the important things as big pebbles and the smaller ones as tiny bits of gravel. Imagine that you have to fit them all into a jar, which represents the time that you have available. If you put the gravel in first, then it fills up the jar and there’s no room for the larger pebbles. But if you put the pebbles in first, you can then use the gravel to full up the gaps around them. In essence, then, I need to make time for the more important things first, and then spread the smaller, urgent-but-not-necessarily-important things around to fill in the gaps.

So this is what I’m now trying to do. I’ve been through my to-do list and have decided for each item whether it is important, urgent, both or neither. Things that are both urgent and important come first, so I’ve allocated each of them a specific time in my diary over the next few days. The important things come next, so I’ve set aside some time each day to work on one or more of them, such as my writing projects or potting-up my chilli plants. The things that are neither urgent nor important have either been wiped off my to-do list entirely (very liberating!) or scheduled in when I know I’ll have a bit of down-time, such as when I’ll be travelling on the train or when I have a gap between meetings. (I wrote this blog post on the train, for example, and am now posting it online in Starbucks.) As new to-do tasks arise, I’ll do the same sort of triage with each one.

The end result is a to-do list where I now have a date and time allocated to do each thing, which makes it look a whole lot manageable. I also have a diary where at least two thirds of each day is planned out, which will make it much easier for me to manage my time productively. It also makes me look a whole lot more busy, even if some of the slots are for things like ‘sow beetroot seeds’, which don’t look particularly executive. And the unscheduled third of each day gives me some flexibility to respond to other things that come up, such as a sunny day that requires my urgent attention in the garden!

This doesn’t mean that I have to stick rigidly to my schedule, of course, as things will inevitably crop up from time to time that mean I need to change my plans. But I’ve made a deal with myself that if I have to ‘cancel’ an activity that I’ve planned in, then I will reschedule it for a later date, just as I would do if I had to push back a meeting with one of my clients.

I’ll be the first to admit that this isn’t an earth-shattering change to my life, particularly as it’s basically something that I’ve been doing for many of my ‘work’ activities for some time now. But it does give me hope that I’ll be able to create and maintain a harmonious balance that lets me devote time to all of my activities and interests. Which, after all, if why I became self-employed in the first place.

Knock, knock.

If you spend all day in an office, you might think that things are all quiet on the home front while you are away. Images of deserted streets may flash through your mind. A clump of tumbleweed ambling its way gently past number 42. An empty child’s swing oscillating wistfully in the park opposite the phone box.

As someone who spends a significant proportion of their time working from home, however, I can report that this is most certainly not the case. In fact, if the number of people turning up on my doorstep over the course of the average day is anything to go by, our street may soon rival Piccadilly Circus in popularity.

Amsterdam Door Bells

Don’t. Even. Think. About. It. (Image: Michiel S/Flickr)

I don’t know why, but the daylight hours – when I am, like practically everyone else, least likely to be home – seem to attract all manner of individuals with their minds set on destroying my concentration, interrupting my work and waking up the dog. Here are just a few examples from recent memory:

  • a young lady claiming to be from a construction firm, wondering if I would like to buy a new roof, as the tiles on the current one apparently look at imminent risk of ‘breaking down’ (I don’t, they’re not, go away);
  • two twelve year olds in shiny suits and hair gel checking that I am ‘getting my energy discounts’ and wanting to know who supplies my electricity (and presumably, angling to get me to switch to whichever money-grabbing utilities supplier has engaged them this week);
  • a lady hoping to drop off a small child with me after a day at nursery (I don’t have a child, have no need for one, and most certainly don’t want to go looking after anybody else’s) – seriously, shouldn’t there be some basic level of security, intelligence or map-reading skills when you’re looking after other people’s offspring?;
  • a man who, having spent ten minutes reversing his gargantuan juggernaut of a car through the extremely narrow entrance to our driveway, announced proudly that he’d come to collect the sofa that we’d advertised on Freecycle. It nearly broke my heart (and his) when I informed him that he’d clearly come to the wrong place, as I only have one sofa and would very much like to keep it (it’s the dog’s favourite place from which to watch TV) – though if I had had a spare one, then it would have been his for sheer parking effort alone;
  • an angry lady demanding that I return the shopping catalogue that she’d put through my letterbox the previous week, and that I’d apparently failed to leave out on the doorstep for her to collect (some people around here stubbornly refuse to accept the existence of Amazon, eBay or even supermarkets);
  • a very cheerful man (twice in as many days) asking if I would like to buy any fresh fish – I asked him where they were from, and he said “from the sea” (the idea of understanding where your food comes from is also, clearly, in its early stages in this neck of the woods);
  • various unkempt and excessively enthusiastic individuals (known, I understand, as churglars – or charity burglars) trying to separate me from my hard-earned cash in order to support charities of varying degrees of dubiousness (although a direct debit mandate now seems to have replaced the bucket as their weapon of choice); and
  • a steady parade of tattooed young men purveying all manner of household cleaning items, each claiming that their ongoing parole from prison is utterly dependent on selling every last dishcloth and bottle brush before sundown – they might find that they would have more luck, though, if they didn’t all come on the same day.

What’s that all about? Can’t a man earn an honest day’s living in peace? Am I not able to just enjoy the comfort of my own home without some eejit hammering on the door? Does the world assume that because I am at home during the day, I am (a) so bored that I’ll chat with anyone who comes along, and (b) so monumentally stupid that I’ll agree to whatever they suggest in terms of construction projects, household purchases or adopting other people’s children?

Here’s the deal, people. Yes, I am at home. But I am working. I am not sat in my pyjamas, watching pitifully bad daytime television and waiting for the world to come calling. So if you are minded to impose on my working day, then you had better have an exceptionally good reason. Before you knock, think carefully. Very carefully. And whatever you do, don’t disturb the dog.

The two body problem

There’s a thing in physics called the ‘two body problem’. It’s about predicting the behaviour of two particles (or stars or billiard balls or anything else) when they interact only with each other under the influence of external forces. And, in physics at least, this particular problem can be solved exactly.

In real life, however, things are not so simple. Like many couples, my wife Natalie and I both work – she’s a university academic and I’m a business consultant and writer. And because Natalie’s work is on a fixed-term contract basis, every once in a while her contract comes to an end and she needs to find a new job. Now is one of those times.

Green 'for sale' sign

There's more to relocation than just a job change (Image: Diana Parkhouse)

In the past, my work has been quite flexible, so we’ve been able to move around the country quite easily to wherever her new job happens to be. Which has been fine. But now at least part of my work is specific to where we live now. We’ve both made friends and generally put down some tentative roots. And we’ve bought a house and spent ages getting it and the garden just how we want it. In short, neither of us really wants to up sticks and move somewhere else.

I’m sure it’s not just Natalie and I who are grappling with this dilemma. Any couple must face the same problem of what to do when one half needs to move somewhere else. Do you stay where you are and see if something else comes up? Do you go and hope your other half can find a job too? Or does one person go and the other stay?

And how are we supposed to balance this need for flexibility, so beloved of government and employers alike, with a desire to form links with our neighbours and our communities? How are we supposed to set down roots when we’re always on the move? I know a few people around here who have never lived more than a few miles from where they were born. And while I mock them shamelessly, I can’t help but feel a little jealous, too.

So what’s the answer? To be honest, I’m not sure. But I do know that the household where both adults work is now pretty much the norm. And I know that none of us has a job for life any more. The two body problem, it would appear, is here to stay.