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 – ┬áis 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.