How To Do Everything And Be Happy

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FAQ: Potential Boxing Day Problem #3 – Boxing Days if you’re a parent

Reader Jane dropped me a line:

“I think I’ve figured out something that may help in terms of ‘how Mums can do a boxing day’. You may need to relax the ‘rules’. The thing is, there is always so much to do around the house and for the kids/husband/etc.

“If I had planned a bit more beforehand (e.g. booked a massage, picked a film to go and see, arranged a friend to meet for lunch, booked a table to eat alone, etc) then I might have had more of a successful BD. However, because (the rules state) you’re not ‘allowed’ to think about what you’re doing in advance, I ended up doing a whole load of chores and things that needed doing around the house. Which was fine, but not really the rest a 36 week pregnant woman with a one year old needed!

“I suggest that childcare is arranged, even if it’s just for half a day with Grandparents, and then you allow Mums to book one thing to do (or plan one thing to do) outside of the house. This would remove the temptation to go ahead and get on with chores, etc.

“A Mum’s (and I’m sure a Dad’s!) lot is a busy one and there is, like I say, always so much to do that it’s hard to put oneself first, especially if you have that rare commodity of free time. The first thing that comes to mind is something along the lines of ‘thank goodness! Now I can get that big pile of ironing done, weed the garden, cook for the freezer, etc.”

My gut reaction to Jane’s email was to point out that there’s a huge difference between pre-planning (what you’re going to do on Boxing Day) and preparing (doing whatever’s necessary so that a Boxing Day is possible). Pre-planning is bad. Preparing on the other hand, is very very good. Necessary even.

However, hot on the heels of Jane’s email, readers Kirsty and Alison contacted me with very similar thoughts! It seems it’s just too darn difficult to be spontaneous on a Boxing Day if you’re a Mum – other stuff always gets in the way. Clearly I’m out of my depth here.

So I called in the Big Guns and emailed Keris Stainton –  author, journalist, fan of this book and (most importantly) Busy Mum of two. I put the Busy Mum vs Boxing Day conundrum to her, reserved several pages in the book for her words of wisdom, and waited. If anyone would know the answer it would be Keris. Why, she’d probably end up writing a blog post or an article about it. Fabulous!

Three weeks later (I told you she was busy) I got her  response.

She was, to use her own words ‘flummoxed’ – unable to see how being a busy parent is so different from being a busy anything else. She went on to say:

If the FIRST thing you think of when you get up on Boxing Day is ‘thank goodness – Now I can get that big pile of ironing done, weed the garden, cook for the freezer, etc.’ then, well, you REALLY need a Boxing Day!

If any of this rings true for you then let me just say this; “go for it”. And if ‘going for it’ means you need to have one thing pre-arranged, or you have to have a rule that says Boxing Day takes place Off-site, or you limit Boxing Day to the hours between dropping the kids off and picking them back up again, or Boxing Day is something you do with another Busy Parent – if that ‘fixes’ Boxing Day and makes it work for you – then you have my blessing! I am not going to stand in your way. I’m just pleased that you’re finally taking time out for yourself.

If you’re a parent and have any thoughts on the challenges of Boxing Day, feel free to share them in the comments box below or on the facebook page.

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FAQ: Potential Boxing Day Problem #2 – Not knowing what to do

damien_canderle_gremlins2

Ideally here’s how Boxing Day should work: You wake up, you ask yourself what you fancy doing at that precise moment, then you go and do that thing. And when you’ve done that, or you’ve had enough of whatever it is, you go do something else. Easy?

Not necessarily.

Once you’ve decided (in advance) when your Boxing Day will be, Gremlins immediately take up residence under your bed, ready to thwart you.

The first gremlin is ‘your usual daily routine’. Unless you begin Boxing Day right away it’s incredibly easy to start the day pretty much as every other and before you know it you’re checking emails, opening post and oh, the laundry basket’s looking a little full I’ll just put on a load of washing.

The second is a ‘general lack of inspiration’. There you are. Sitting in bed. Ready for the Boxing Day euphoria to kick in just as soon as you can decide what it is that you’d like to do… and you just can’t think of anything.

I’ve been there.

Here then are some top tips should you find yourself in a similar situation:

  1. Start Boxing Day from the moment you open your eyes – Try and break from your normal daily routine from the moment you wake up. A couple of times I’ve come downstairs and as I’ve reached for the milk in the fridge I’ve seen those eggs, sitting there, quietly doing nothing, and thought to myself – sod it – let’s cook breakfast. And other times, as I opened the cupboard to take out the Weetabix, I’ve noticed a kilo bag of oats and thought to myself, “You know, what I really fancy right now are flapjacks.”
  2. Perform the Boxing Day Dance – Flushed with the success of the first Boxing Day (which you’ll remember was an accident) I was quite excited when, having made an appointment with myself, it was time to have the second one. I was so excited that I danced round the flat in my dressing gown making up a silly Boxing Day song as I went, much to the bemusement of my cat. Strange thing is though, I’ve since found that if I’m having a Boxing Day which feels a little flat, a few bars of my Boxing Day song will be all I need to get the Boxing Day juices flowing. (No you can’t hear my Boxing Day song – make up your own!
  3. Do the first thing that comes to mind – Sometimes it’s difficult to decide what to do with your Boxing Day because you’re over thinking it. If you’re struggling to feel inspired, stop, and ask yourself “What do I want to do RIGHT NOW?” The thing that comes to mind, usually before you’ve even finished the sentence, is very possibly the thing you should do. It doesn’t matter how silly it may seem, or how simple – if it can be done, now, and you like the idea – do it!
  4. You can work – Working on Boxing Day is a completely legitimate exercise if that’s what you really want to do. And let’s broaden the definition of work to include any activity that you might not consider typically “fun”. Decorating, for instance. Balancing your cheque book. Filling out an application form. Don’t put yourself under pressure to fill your Boxing Day with “fun” activities. If it’s what you want to do (want to do – not need to do) then it’s a legitimate Boxing Day activity. For instance, I am writing this paragraph on Boxing Day! That’s the absolute truth, and I can honestly say that right now, given the moment, the opportunities available to me, and how I feel, writing this is what I really want to do.
  5. Make a list – Pre-planning Boxing Day is utterly forbidden, but if you’re a planner at heart (as I am), there’s nothing to say you can’t do a little brainstorming at the start of the day. If I don’t wake up and feel instantly inspired I often grab a piece of paper (rather than sit at my computer) and jot down ideas – things that I could do. I try and write my ideas all over the page and at weird angles so that it’s as un-list like as possible (otherwise I might be tempted to start at the top and work through the items). And then, when I’ve finished brainstorming, quite often I’ll toss the list to one side and do something entirely different.
  6. You can be dull – If you want to do nothing but sit on the sofa and watch TV, or go back to bed, or read a magazine cover to cover, or play computer games, that’s perfectly acceptable. If it’s been a while since your last Boxing Day (perhaps you had to postpone it) then maybe this is the first opportunity you’ve had in a while to rest. So do it. Rest. However, I encourage you to rest with gusto – if you want to go back to bed, put your PJs back on, close the curtains, put on some soothing music, maybe download some “ocean sounds” to your iPod, sprinkle lavender on your pillow – really go for it! If you want to watch TV, grab some snacks, then sit down and watch an entire season of Lost, or 24, or the Gilmore Girls, or Doctor Who, or whatever floats your boat.

Towards the back of the book, under the section ‘Putting It All Together’, you’ll find an example of what a typical Boxing Day looks like (for me).

 


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Now List – The Importance of Being Earnest

mr earnest worthing

If you’ve read the book then you may remember that

  1. playing a part in The Importance of Being Earnest was on my original Now List, and
  2. near end of the book (page 209 if you have the paperback) there’s a throw away remark that could suggest that I had achieved that item.

Indeed I had.

This time last year, almost to the day, two things dominated my life. I was finishing up the first draft of How To Do Everything and Be Happy, and I was preparing to play the character of Jack Worthing in Oscar Wilde’s most famous play.

I first read The Importance of Being Earnest at the age of twelve or thirteen, in Miss Pyrah’s English Literature class. And when I say read, I mean out loud,  in front of thirty or so other kids. Back then reading out loud was possibly the worst experience I could imagine. Second only to having a love-note intercepted by someone other than the intended recipient. As Miss Pyrah handed out dog-eared copies of the script she proceeded, tyrant that she was, to allocate parts seemingly at random, and of course she picked on me. I realise now her casting wasn’t random at all, and though I, along with my class mates, feared this woman who we all assumed ate small children for breakfast, she was actually showing a huge amount of favouritism by casting me first as Algernon, and later as Jack.

By the end of the first act I had fallen in love with the play. I suspect Miss Pyrah always knew I would.

So, some thirty or so years later it was kind of inevitable that it would end up on my Now List.

Saying those words again, but without the script in front of me, and as if Jack’s words were my very own thoughts – I think it’s safe to say I’ve never been more nervous about anything in my entire life. Nerves that were both eased and aggravated knowing that I was performing alongside professional actors and actresses for whom I have a great deal of awe and respect. And whilst to you it might not seem as impressive as, say, mountain climbing or hand-gliding, when I was stood in front of that audience, made up of paying members of the public, the air felt just as thin, and the stakes just as high.

It was exhilarating. Terrifying. Wonderful.

Would I do it again?

No. Never. Ever.

What about a different play?

No.

Although… Miss Pyrah did manage to instil in me a similar love of Shakespeare. Hmmmm.

Anyway, sadly I don’t have any pictures of me actually on stage, but below are a selection of back stage photos.

If you have any acting ambitions lurking on your Now List, or if you know the whereabouts of Miss Pyrah, I’d love to hear from you. You can use the comments box below.


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What to put in your Diary

You might think it’s pretty obvious how to use your (appointment) diary, but you’d be surprised – especially if you’re a ‘diary newbie’ – how easy it is to screw things up. So here’s a quick reminder of what should (or shouldn’t) be on your schedule:calendar

1)  Put ALL your appointments in it. Not just your appointment with your Physiotherapist or Family Planning clinic. Everything. Even the appointments you know you won’t forget: your band rehearsals, your evening classes, even WORK. The only possible exception is IF you work a regular 5 day week (in which case put the times you’re not at work in your diary – such as a vacation). If you don’t work a five day week – if you work part-time, or shifts, or you’re on a contract – put the work days in. Yes, it looks crowded! Now you know how busy you are.

2) Unless you have another system for this (one that actually works) add all birthdays and anniversaries, and potentially extra reminders a few days ahead of the real event (e.g. you might want an appointment entitled ‘it’s your wedding anniversary this time next week’).

3)  Add public/bank holidays[1], Easter[2] (remember Easter moves around from one year to the next), Mother’s Day[3], Father’s Day[4], Christmas Day, Boxing Day (the real Boxing Day), Valentine’s Day, and both days when they change the damn clocks[5] – in your diary. If you’ve elected to use Google Calendar you may be interested to know that you can get it to do this for you by clicking the small down-arrow (next to ‘Other Calendars’ in the bottom left hand corner) and then browsing ‘Interesting Calendars’

4) If your diary has a reminder function I recommend you set it to remind you several days in advance. Yes, days. Mine is set to 10 days (and the day itself). Birthdays are set to one month. There’s no point in getting a reminder about an important birthday or anniversary on the actual day itself – not if you need to get a card and a gift (what d’you mean you always buy the card and gift on the day?)

5) Add your own birthday. You’ll be surprised how many years I agreed to work on my own bloody birthday!

6) Delicate one, this one – you may wish to add your menstrual cycle, or the cycle of someone you’re close to, to your diary. I’m just putting the idea out there. Moving on….


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‘The List’ – a 13 point survival guide for curing ‘the blues’

In the first edition of  ‘How To Do Everything and Be Happy’  I discussed five Bullet Proof Layers to protect yourself against those pesky ‘External Forces’ that would trample your happy mood into the dust if they could (you can find them here).

My Bullet Proof Layers were inspired in part by my friend Agent Sparkles who a long time ago created a 13 point survival guide for preventing and curing the blues. Sparkles created her list after a difficult period in her life struggling with depression and amongst her friends ‘the list’ has become quite famous. So here it is for you, unabridged and unedited.

1)      First, and I would argue, the most important – get out of bed. Before 9am. Get up, have a shower, get dressed, put on some decent clothes, make up, and do your hair. Shave your legs. EVEN if you have no plans for the day. Don’t give yourself an excuse to feel bad about yourself.

2)      Eat good food. An example would be: Breakfast, poached eggs on brown bread. Snack, piece of fruit. Lunch, chicken salad. Dinner, piece of fish pan fried in butter with lemon (yum). No caffeine after about 2pm.

3)      Do some exercise. In a way that isn’t an excuse to beat yourself up (e.g, I can’t run, I’m too unfit, I look awful in these gym clothes, etc etc). Walk to the park. Buy the paper on the way. Lie in the sun and read. Or, go to a dance class. Walk to the gym and do the easiest thing there is, e.g sit on the stationery bike for 20 mins. Get into the pool and just float. Do a yoga class. Or, just walk to the corner store for a pint of milk. Something that used to make me feel REALLY good about myself was going to over 60’s aerobics. Yes I was fat. Yes I was unfit. Yes I was unemployed. But, was I the slimmest, youngest, fittest, and most likely to be alive in ten years person in the room? YES.

4)      Sleep. Go to bed at 10pm, with a chamomile tea, and sleep. Don’t f*ck about pretending you’re too stressed to sleep, you can’t sleep, you’ve got insomnia, blah blah blah. Count sheep. Read an algebra text book. SLEEP.

5)      Daylight. This  ties in with point 1. And I’m not even talking about SAD. If you spend all day in bed or on the couch with all the curtains closed, you are going to feel like sh*t by the late afternoon. Go back to point 3. And note: LEAVE THE HOUSE.

6)      Make a list of all the things that make you feel bad, and another list of all the things that make you feel good. Be honest. Don’t put things on the list that make you feel good just because you think they ought to make you feel good. For instance – calling or visiting your mother. If it makes you feel bad, (are you still unemployed? Are you still seeing that awful man?) don’t do it. If it makes you feel good, even if your brain says it’s lame (e.g, finding a sheet of bubble wrap to pop), do it.

7)      Have faith in a Higher Power. I know this is very AA, but it works. In my opinion, the difference between people who hang in there until life gets better and people who decide to check out early, is having faith that things are going to get better. Even if you’re an atheist, pick something to believe in. Believe in science. No matter how bad your life feels, the sun is going to rise tomorrow. And the day after that. The tide will come in. Rain will fall, grass will grow, the seasons will change. Life will get better.

8)      Do not listen to sad music. In my mind, this cuts out: Radiohead, Coldplay, Dido, Leonard Cohen, Portishead, the Smashing Pumpkins, the Smiths, Eminem and anything of a similar ilk. Make yourself a ‘happy’ play list. This will include reggae. I defy anyone to be depressed whilst listening to Shaggy’s ‘Mr Boombastic’. Beware of music that seems like it ought to be uplifting, but in fact isn’t. Perfect case in point – The Carpenters. Karen wasn’t exactly on ‘Top of the World’ was she?

9)      Ditto for literature. Do not, under any circumstances, read any Jodi Picoult. I always find Paolo Coelho to be a good one for uplifting the spirit. Give the Alchemist a try. Avoid, like the plague, self-help books – particularly the ‘you can heal your life’ sort. Light hearted detective novels work too, Agatha Christie worked for me.

10)   Let it go. The only person that you’re hurting by hanging on to your ‘demons’ is you. So your mother was controlling, your father ran out on you, your husband turned out to be an arsehole. You and the rest of the world. Maybe you have had a truly traumatic experience. Just let it go. I read somewhere that it helps to physically let things go – such as buying a whole lot of helium balloons, then writing the things you want to let go of onto a scrap of paper, tying it to the balloon, and literally letting it go. This sounds lovely in theory, but obtaining the helium balloons seems like a major hassle, and also, a lot like littering.  Other options are just to imagine your problems floating away one by one. Or think about it logically – yes, I can hold onto this problem like a barnacle, because it defines me and it’s part of who I am – but who’s going to win out if I do that, and who’s going to lose?

11)   Stop picking the scab. There are studies that show that Vietnam war veterans who received ongoing counselling to talk about their experiences, had higher incidences of self harm, alcoholism, etc, than veterans who didn’t attend counselling. Evidence suggests that talking about an experience is similar to reliving it over and over again, and actually extending recovery time. To this end – hang out with people you don’t know very well, rather than really good friends, so you can’t spend the whole time moaning.

12)   Don’t drink alone. Ever.

13)   Make a pledge that one day, when you’re ok, you’ll pass on the good turn that someone else has done you whilst you’ve been down and out, by helping someone else who needs it. I once got a call from my flat mate to ‘please come home’ – when I got in she was rocking back and forth on the floor with a kitchen knife in one hand and a bottle of vodka in the other. Five years later she’s 100% okay, happily married with a baby.  I was the 6th person she’d called (including her best friend and parents), and the only one who agreed to drop what I was doing and come over.

There’s a downloadable PDF version of this list here


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Selective Attention

Brains are amazing. Especially yours. Even mine has its moments. And one of the most fascinating mechanisms of the human brain is how it deals with “focus”.

Have you ever noticed how when you buy a new car, or even when you’ve merely decided what type of car it is you want to buy, you start seeing that same car everywhere!

Or the kettle packs up, the DVD stops playing, and suddenly half a dozen other electrical items in the house decide to turn up their boots, like they’re all suffering from some sort of appliance manic-depression?

Or how you can sleep through a thunderstorm, the traffic noise, and the sounds of revellers returning from a night on the town, but if your new-born’s breathing changes even slightly – in the next room – you’re awake!

Or have you ever seen someone across a crowded room, started to walk towards them, and somehow walked into the table, the person, the immoveable object, that was directly in front of you but momentarily invisible?

Or have you ever fallen in love, fallen out of love, had a tiff, a blazing row, a passing thought about that girl you used to know – and the words of the next song on the radio seem to capture your feelings precisely?

That’s the power of focus. Your brain is extremely good at noticing things, or disregarding things, depending on whatever it is you’re currently focused on.

The following video – a ‘selective attention test’ – is an intriguing demonstration of the brains uncanny ability to focus only on what we deem important. Press the play icon in the middle of the image, and concentrate carefully on the number of times the players in white pass the ball to each other.

You can find out more about this video, and the science behind it at here.