In the gloaming

The gloaming is that fleeting, magical time just after sunset but before darkness. We hardly notice it in the summer because it stays light so late. But as the days get shorter, the gloaming’s nearly-night-time arrives ever earlier. Our bodies tell us that it’s time to hunker down for the evening. But our watches, sadly, tell us that it’s only half past four and our to-do lists point out politely that there’s no chance of slumping onto the sofa for at least another couple of hours.

Which is why, at this time of year, Molly and I invariably find ourselves taking our evening walk in this odd half-light, when the daytime is over but the night-time proper hasn’t really kicked in. Now, you might argue that a moonlight stroll is a perfect, even rather romantic, end to the day. But when (a) it is cold, (b) it is muddy, (c) one of you is tired after a day’s work and (d) the other one of you is a nuts Labrador, romantic is not the first adjective that comes to mind.

The views over the valley at this time of day, though, are pretty spectacular. Which is the main reason for this post. Because it has been raining here all day, but as the sun went down the rain stopped and we had a brief moment of calm as the moon rose in the sky and the world prepared itself for bed. As usual, though, I’d forgotten to take a proper camera so was forced to rely on my very rubbish camera phone.

Anyway, here’s the moon over the valley. The three bright points of light in a little row are the floodlights at the football pitch in the next village along. Must be soccer practice tonight. Most of the other lights are street lights along the main road, with some houses mixed in.

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Here’s the view looking west, where you can see that the sun has only just gone down. You can see the lights from a couple of remote cottages in the valley below, but there’s not really much here between us and the sea.

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OK, so the zoom on my camera phone is fairly awful. But I just loved the colours in the sky; the way it goes from pink to blue so delicately, silhouetting the hills below and the clouds above.

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On our way home, we passed the local church and the porch light cast this welcoming glow across the graveyard. I know it’s wonky and blurred (the photo, not the church), but given that I was holding my camera phone and the end of the dog’s lead in the same hand, I’m just glad you can make out anything at all.

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And then, as quickly as it had arrived, the twilight of the gloaming was replaced by true darkness. In wintertime, this ephemeral period is most definitely my favourite time of day. Or is it night? Whatever. Here’s to the gloaming.

Working, not shirking

We have recently survived a short visit by the in-laws. I say ‘survived’ not because they’re particularly unpleasant or because they leave a trail of destruction in their wake. In fact, as far as in-laws go, they seem to be fairly reasonable. No, I say ‘survived’ because we seem to have opposing views on, well, pretty much everything. And principal among the topics of disagreement is what, precisely, qualifies as ‘work’.

(I should perhaps mention at this point that this view is not limited to my in-laws. I have had similar discussions with my parents, too, as well as with former colleagues and people I have met whilst walking the dog.)

For my in-laws’ generation, it seems, work involves getting up early in the morning, commuting some distance to an office in a city somewhere, being bored all day doing something that you don’t particularly like, coming home late, grumbling about your idiot colleagues, eating, sleeping – and then repeating the whole thing over and over again until you’re sixty five (or until you conk out, whichever occurs first). Anything that doesn’t meet this definition, in their view, is not work.

Which is a bit of a problem. Because what I do really doesn’t look like that at all, and I’d be horrified if it did. I’m not saying that I don’t work, though. I run a successful consultancy business and spend most of my time on research and consulting assignments for my clients. And when I’m not doing that, I’m generally working on some writing project or other.  But I’m my own boss and run my own life.

While I’m sometimes out at my clients’ offices, I’ll often be working at home in my office / spare room here…

My desk

Though sometimes I’ll be here…

Living room

Or here…

Garden bench

And while I don’t have colleagues as such, I do have an assistant…

Molly

Who can be of varying degrees of usefulness…

Molly asleep

This, it would appear, does not count as ‘work’. As far as my in-laws are concerned, being at home is not compatible with working. Nor is having almost full control over what your day looks like. Nor, indeed, is having fun. So despite my best efforts to explain what I do and how it does indeed qualify as a ‘job’ of sorts, they still seem to think that I spend all day loafing around the house while their daughter labours all hours to support my indolence.

(We’ll gloss over the fact that Natalie was only working such long hours because she’d decided that it was better to hide out at work rather than come home and face awkward parental questions about her own non-standard career.)

I don’t blame my in-laws for this. I think it’s more a generational thing. The way in which we work, facilitated by the internet and other technologies, is changing so quickly that people who spent their lives working in the old-fashioned ‘job for life’ culture in large bureaucratic companies find it difficult to relate to the more flexible and varied career paths that are rapidly becoming the norm.

But to avoid future misunderstandings, here are a few key principles that I’d like to clarify:

  • Work is something you do, not somewhere you go. So just because I am sitting in the garden drinking a cup of tea, this does not mean that I am not working.
  • Similarly, going for a run, doing the hoovering or playing on the beach with the dog are also not incompatible with being ‘at work’.
  • I do know what I am doing. In fact, people pay me money to do it. I am a highly skilled professional. Even if I do happen to be sitting at my desk in my pyjamas.
  • I am not asleep. I’m thinking. It’s called the knowledge economy. It’s what we do nowadays. Wake up and smell the coffee.

I’d like to think the in-laws will eventually come around to my way of thinking. But, if I’m being honest, I think we’ll just have to accept that times change. They do things their way and I do things my way. It doesn’t mean that either of us is wrong. As with all families, it just means that it’s one more thing on the list of stuff we try not to talk about…

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.

Help! is at hand

I’ve just finished reading a book that does exactly what it says on the cover, no more and no less. Which is quite refreshing in these days of media hype and rash promises. Sufficiently so, in fact, that I just had to tell you about it.

Help! by Oliver Burkeman

Help! by Oliver Burkeman

Subtitled ‘how to become slightly happier and get a bit more done’, Help! by Guardian columnist Oliver Burkeman brings common sense and scientific evidence to the world of self-help books. It guides readers through the maze of hyperbole and seeks out things that may actually be useful in our personal, work, social and emotional lives.

There’s something in the book for everyone, no matter how organised, focused, gregarious or balanced you already are. Here are the eight things that I, for one, am definitely going to try to remember.

1. Goals aren’t always a good thing. We tend to set ourself specific objectives that we want to achieve (indeed, in many big companies, we have SMART goals forced upon us at every turn), but these can act as blinkers when it comes to recognising changes in the world around us or identifying interesting opportunities that may come our way. As Burkeman says, we can have a direction in our lives without obsessing about the specific destination.

2. You regret what you don’t do, not what you do. This pretty much says it all, really. So if you want to do something, just go out and do it. You’ll only kick yourself if you don’t. I can think of few things worse than reaching old age and thinking I’d wasted my life. Having no money and living in a box I could just about cope with, but regrets: not so much.

3. Cut people some slack. When we’re rude to someone or drive like a muppet, it’s because we’re having a tough day or because we’re in a hurry to get home. But when someone else behaves the same way, it’s because they’re an obnoxious so-and-so. Isn’t it possible, though, that they’re also a fundamentally decent person who’s also responding to less than perfect circumstances? So cut people some slack sometimes.

4. Meetings are (usually) the biggest waste of time on the planet. As Burkeman points out, meetings proceed at the pace of the slowest mind in the room. So all but one attendees are wasting large chunks of their time. If you have information to share, then write it down and email it to people. Only organise a meeting if you genuinely need people to bounce ideas off each other. Otherwise, don’t bother. Most people just want to get on with their work, not sit around and jabber about it.

5. Play to your strengths. People spend a lot of time trying to improve in the areas where they are weakest, but they’re only ever going to be mediocre at best. This is particularly the case in large corporations, where a uniform ‘skill set’ is seen as desirable. But we’re not uniform. Instead, why not play to your strengths? Take something you’re good at and get even better. And don’t care if you’re less than perfect at other things.

6. Don’t put off important tasks. When I have a large or important job to do, I have a natural tendency to put if off until I have a big chunk of time that I can devote to completing it. But you and I both know that this just isn’t ever going to happen. So the task remains not just unfinished, but unstarted. Burkeman’s response is to just get on with it, working on the task every time you have a few minutes to spare. Clearly, this won’t work with things that require a lot of set-up time, like painting the living room ceiling. But for most tasks it should do just fine.

7. Make collaborative decisions. Burkeman suggests a useful way for two people to choose between several options, such as which pizza to order or which film to watch at the cinema. The first person chooses five ‘potentials’. The second person narrows this down to three. The first person then picks the ‘winner’. This is great. My wife and I tried it last night when we were trying to decide which DVD to watch, and it worked a treat.

8. It’s OK to give up. We’ve had it drummed into us since we were kinds that once we’ve started something, we should see it through. But how many half-read books, for example, do you have lying around that weren’t as good as you thought they would be, but which you’ve convinced yourself you’ll finish when you get the time? Burkeman’s answer is simple. Just give up. Don’t do things simply for the sake of doing them. Instead, use the time to do something that you actually want to do. And take the books to the charity shop.

I’m back. And I’ve nearly caught up on the last month’s sleep…

It’s been a while. I finally got my dissertation (on quantum cryptography in case you’re interested) completed and submitted on time, which led in rather nicely to a period of intense revision in time for my final exam (on general relativity and theoretical astrophysics) last week.

It’s always a surprise to me how I can study something all year and then, two weeks before the exam, fail to recall anything that I’ve read. Luckily, I was able to to rectify this – at least partially – in time for the exam. To be honest, though, I’m mostly just glad that it’s over. I’ve really enjoyed my studies*, but for the last few months I’ve been looking forward to having a bit more time to get on with some of the other things on my ‘to do’ list.

And here I am. Provided I’ve managed to pass everything (which I won’t find out until December), I now have somewhere in the region of an extra sixteen hours each week to play with.

But I also have a long list of things I should really have done by now but haven’t, including a load of article and other writing ideas, a dog that has never experienced the hills of Dartmoor and the Brecon Beacons and a kayak in the shed that hasn’t seen nearly as much use as it should have done. Oh, and a pitifully neglected blog.

So I guess it’s time to crack on…

* In case you didn’t know, for the last five years I’ve been studying part-time for a degree in physics with the Open University. Which has meant spending virtually all my lunch breaks, evenings and weekends reading about things like quarks, neutrinos and supermassive black holes. And which is amazing fun, but leaves very little time for anything else – like sleep.

A bit of an apology

Please accept my apologies for the deplorable lack of posts in the last few days. I’m trying to get my final year physics dissertation/paper/project finished by the end of this week, so that I can post it off and go on holiday with a clear conscience.

As you can perhaps imagine, it’s quite time consuming and requires a fair amount of focused, dedicated thinking and typing. Which doesn’t leave much time, when combined with my day job, with anything else but sleeping, a bit of eating and some dog walking. Sorry. Back to normal soon…

On balance

I’d like to think that one of my strengths is my ability to focus on a particular task to the exclusion of all else. Unfortunately, one of my many weaknesses – you’ve guessed it –  is my ability to focus on a particular task to the exclusion of all else.

Whether I’m writing an article, working on my studies or potting up plants in the garden, I can get so wrapped up in what I’m doing that hours can pass without me noticing. Which is fine, except that I rarely, if ever, have just one thing on my ‘to do’ list. So while I’m getting absorbed in one thing, there’s a whole load of other stuff that’s just not getting done.

Take this afternoon, for example. I was working on an assignment for my studies, and got so involved in it that it was six o’clock before I realised that I hadn’t watered the plants, prepared dinner or walked the dog. All relatively minor things, but things that I needed to do, nevertheless. And more importantly, things that I’d promised my wife Natalie that I would do.

We all have many roles to play in our lives. I’m a husband, son, brother, colleague, friend and pack leader (to a small orange Labrador). I’m a writer, employee, student, home owner and gardener. I’m also a hiker, runner, sailor, swimmer and lounge lizard. All of these roles need constant attention if I’m to do them well.

Life is a juggling act. While I don’t need to focus on each of my roles all of the time, I do need to make sure that I don’t neglect any of them. I need to strike the right balance between the things that I need to do and the number of hours in the day. And that’s going to take some effort (and a lot more lists).

Sunday lunch with the family

I had the best meal today that I have had for some time. But it wasn’t in some fancy restaurant or the end result of hours of slaving over a hot stove. In fact, it was a cheese sandwich, a bottle of water and a piece of carrot cake. So what’s the deal? Are my culinary standards really so low that this qualifies as something special?

Far from it. I’d be the first to admit that this isn’t a particularly salubrious meal. In fact, it’s pretty much my regular lunch (minus the cake). But the thing that made this particular Sunday lunch great was the company of my family.

After a fairly hectic week in which we’d seen each other for the sum total of about six hours, my wife and I bundled the dog in the car and headed for the nearby city of Bath to do a bit of shopping. But before we disappeared into the shops, we grabbed a takeaway lunch from a local deli and found ourselves a patch of sunshine in front of the imposing Georgian architecture of the famous Royal Crescent.

Royal Crescent, Bath

Royal Crescent, Bath (Source: Seier + Seier, via Flickr)

And here we sat, playing with Molly (my Labrador dog, of ‘Gratuitous Labrador photo of the week‘ fame), eating our lunch and chatting about our week. And it was brilliant. We have pretty hectic lives, and there’s always something going on, so we seldom take the time to just chill out and enjoy each other’s company. But loafing there on the grass, we just sat comfortably with each other, sharing our thoughts, our concerns, our hopes and our ideas. In fact, I think we probably talked more over that one sandwich than we have in the previous month.

I tend to struggle a lot in life to set priorities and to recognise what is important and what is not. But this simple meal in the sunshine brought it home to me just how important my (admittedly quite small) family is to me, and that I want to spend more time with the two of them, no matter how busy life gets. And anything that gets in the way of that is, well, something that I’m just going to have to change.