30 Days

Today marks the last day of my 30 day experiment. I decided to do this to set myself a challenge; could I publish content every day for 30 days that I could be proud of? The task itself – writing 500 words a day for 30 days – is something I’ve been doing for over six months now, so I’ve got the ability to write, but the challenge was to make it public so I could practice writing for an audience.

In practice, I have both succeeded and failed. I have succeeded in that I have managed to make content public for 30 days in a row, and to my knowledge it isn’t libellous or simply embarrassing, but I’ve failed in that it hasn’t produced great works of art or public posts I would be proud of.

My perceived failure is due to several reasons – I didn’t edit my content, but just wrote it, I rarely considered what I wanted to write about before I approached the keyboard, and I don’t have an audience to tailor my content for. To add insult to injury, writing 500 words a day in public posts and doing them adhoc was never going to build carefully considered and tailored content – I simply don’t have the time or ability to plan out and write this volume.

Of course, the failures that I mention above all have ways of being solved – I can always plan ahead, set aside time to write something more structured, and choose an audience – or at least a topic – that I can write about. I have several of those in mind at the moment, but I simply haven’t set aside the time to dedicate myself to them.

In looking back to my earlier posts in the 30 day cycle, I had that traditional burst of energy and put more thought into what I was writing. Over time, though, my lack of dedication to the task at hand – or at least, my lack of planning to set aside time every day – put paid to the considered work. If I’ve learnt anything from this, it’s to plan a fixed time every day to work on projects like this, and stick to the time come hell or high water. I have no reason why I couldn’t do that; there have been very few interruptions during the day, or shifting priorities, that have forced me to set aside anything that I could plan to do.

In summary, while I haven’t felt that this has been a resounding success, I have learnt from the experiment and have committed to myself that I will write publicly more often. I think that once a week will be a decent amount to write, but only if I haven’t done anything else on other projects – I do, after all, have a day job and a baby at home that require attention and don’t really give me time to do project work at the same time.

This has been a useful exercise, and one that bears repeating semi-regularly to keep me sharp. A tool that is not used often will grow blunt over time.

Adaptation

I’m thinking this morning about the amount of adaptation I’ve had to make in my life, and how that has affected my ability to handle change. On the surface of it, I’m not very good at handling change. My reaction to it has caused me to consider if I suffer for a low level of autism, but I’m sure I don’t – I’m just averse to change in many forms and have a hard time dealing with it until I’ve figured out the pattern and what I need to do to satisfy the new status quo.

Obviously, this is now the time to point out that the addition of our baby son into the household has been the most disruptive thing of all. In fact, handling him this morning is the thing that drove the subject of today’s piece – I have had to quickly adapt to a changing pace of life – letting him do things at his own pace, and give him the space and time he needs to relax and do what he wants to do – while packing everything else into the space that is left when he sleeps. I can only imagine it will get tougher when he gets older.

But that isn’t the only thing I’ve had to adapt to. I have a new job, and that takes a bit of time to settle in to. Thankfully I’ve been there three months already and I’ve been surrounded by a host of welcoming and easy to work with people, so I’m back in a job that I actually enjoy doing. I’m fortunate also to be in a position where I can get to and from work in 45 minutes and so I can do a full day at work and then come home and spend some proper time with my family. In a way, that requires adaptation of its own – I’d built up a schedule and a routine around the the early starts in the office in Oxford and changing that to later starts and arriving home earlier meant that I had to change my routine to one that suited the different timescales. This sounds trivial, but I’m a lazy sod and the chance to lie in later in the morning could have resulted In a schedule that would have made me late every day. Now, I’m in the office early while still getting up later than I had done previously.

Writing 500 words a day requires some adaptation of it’s own – regardless of what happens in any given day, I have the mental obligation to write every day, and so I need to set aside the time to do so. Thinking up a topic and piling into writing it can take half an hour at least, and if I were to edit it and actually read and re-read it for sense and style, then it would take a lot longer. That’s the reason why a lot of the content is hastily produced – sometimes I can barely find half an hour and I end up doing this late at night, when I am not at my most creative.

So, I’m going to end this here. It’s starting to come across as one of those “what I did last summer” school stories, so I’m going to do the usual thing – not re-read or edit, just push “publish” and move on.

Dummies

The idea for this piece of text came to me earlier on today when I was trying to calm my baby son, and in thinking about it more it’s an analogy that extends far further than the care and soothing of babies. In one way or another, we all have dummies.

Freddie, like most babies, needs something to suck on now and again to calm him down. We introduced him to the magic of a dummy out of sheer need – it was something that got him off to sleep more easily, and so gave his mother and I a few more precious minutes of sleep, or time to do anything that didn’t involve constant watching or feeding or soothing of our infant. Now he takes it every now and then as a handy mechanism to drift off, though he rarely needs it once asleep. The magical irony of this is that once he is asleep, I frequently turn to the dummy of my own – the internet.

I was going to write that my dummy is my iPad, or my iPhone, or my mac, but it’s any and all of those three. All represent a gateway to the internet in one form or another, and depending on the need at the time some will represent more of it than others (the mac, having a keyboard, tends to be used for more creation, typing, occasionally coding or capturing ideas that the keyboard gives me more freedom to do). The end result is the access to a constantly updated resource of ideas, inspiration, entertainment and distraction from the other things in my life I should be doing.

In thinking of the internet as a dummy – at least, that’s how I think of it at the moment – it gives me an interesting viewpoint on how much I use it and what I use it for. For Freddie, it’s a handy tool to relax him enough to get him off to sleep; in this context it’s the gateway to something more productive. This poses a contrast for me as I’m going online to distract myself from other tasks. I’ve written several times about how I will do almost anything but spend time on the projects that I once got excited about, and the allure of social networking, tech news and random games is my own drug. In this analogy I have the dummy stuffed in my mouth all the time.

That leads me to consider how I should focus on reducing the distraction and get back to the point of working on the projects that I have told myself I want to do. I have already ditched and started up several ideas – none of which have got remotely to the point of shipping – so although success is yet to be envisioned I haven’t stopped trying yet. Instead, I let myself get distracted and sidelined into something that I can easily call research but isn’t anything of the sort. It’s prevarication, procrastination, and distraction of the very worst sort, and when I castigate myself for a lack of progress on projects I have only my desire to be easily distracted to blame.

For this idea to stick requires, as I’ve said several times before, the grit and determination to continue with projects that I want to do, instead of the happy distraction of other things. The dummy analogy isn’t a solution to any of the procrastination concerns, it’s simply another way at looking at how I get distracted. I hope one day to find enough of these analogies for one of them to stick, and act as a reminder that I should be working on my projects.

Opportunities

I’ve been reading inspirational content today as an issue of Offscreen Magazine arrived, which I absolutely adore. There is nothing quite like losing yourself in a physically printed and beautifully laid out magazine – especially while I sit over a sandwich in a local cafe, and get away from my desk and its’ associated stress.

As with a lot of web content I read, there are the stories of how people managed to become successful and achieve what they wanted to in life. This mainly focuses around two aspects – being brave enough to take the leap into uncertainty, and working hard enough to make a difference regardless of the circumstances.

I envy these people. There is no reason why I shouldn’t be able to emulate their success, but I appear to have a block (entirely self inflicted, of course) which stops me automatically becoming as successful as they are purely by reading about them in magazines, following them on twitter, and reading about them on the internet. If that was all that was required in order to be as successful as them, I’d be a multimillionaire by now.

Let’s be honest. I have multiple projects on the go, and all of them are progressing, albeit slowly. I have lots of ideas, now that I have embraced the feeling that no idea is a bad one, and deserves attention. I have the desire to make these ideas bear fruit, but of course I am trapped by a situation that is by no means unique to me – I simply can’t, or won’t invest the time to turn what could be successful into an actual living and breathing project.

I could spend another thousand words bemoaning the lack of motivation that I go through occasionally and I could endlessly repeat the previous written blurb about the commitment that is needed to take a project from an idea to a real thing, but in all of this I must also give myself a little breathing room. I have acknowledged the successes that I have managed – I write every day, and for the last god knows how many (23?) days I have published my 500 word outpourings on the internet, unedited and largely forgotten once published. I manage a day job, I go home to my lovely wife and our adorable little boy, so I have a lot to be thankful for.

Expressing a bit of regret that the latest idea that has captured my fruit fly like attention for the last few days hasn’t quite managed to flourish into adulthood purely through my wishing it so isn’t going to improve the situation any. I’ve tried brow beating myself into it, and I’ve tried all manner of lifehacks and tricks to build up the push to get me going. Ultimately, I’m trying to fool myself and that never really lasts long. I will always wake up and realise that I’ve been fooled at some point.

What does work is repetition, and what gets me to repetition is sheer bloody minded grit and determination. If I can’t magically harness the endless enthusiasm that should drive me through each project, then there is no other substitute than for digging in my heels and dragging my way through the project until the habit takes over or the enthusiasm comes back.

So there ends the self help sermon for the day. Off to do project work, after the day job is complete. It is a friday night, after all. If I can find the energy to lie slack jawed in front of the TV, then I can probably summon up the wherewithal to construct a mind map, install some software or a theme on the web somewhere, or take just one little step to get another project just that little further off the ground.

Money

Ahead of a fantastic series of detailed posts on managing money, finances, and how I got myself out of a hole financially, I thought I’d add another hastily prepared chunk of writing to the mix and talk about money today.

I’m not very good with money. I really, really try, and am now at the point that I can deny myself almost anything or at least control my budget so I know how much I can spend in a given month and attempt to do a bit of forward planning. This is built on a shocking previous history where I essentially just spent all the money I had all the time, bought random stuff that thankfully I was able to sell later, and generally acted like a child for years.

It all came to a grinding halt, as these things always do, when I essentially ran out of options. When you acquire significant amounts of debt and build a habit so insidious that spending money is all you can do, the issues regarding actually repaying that debt start to mount and your credit score starts to nosedive. In the end, a defaulted credit card put paid to it all. I was at the bottom, unable to borrow money, having to service huge amounts of debt and needing a way out. Thankfully I found someone who could help me – my girlfriend at the time, now my wife and the mother of our adorable son.

I’m not going to go into detail here. That will be saved for the series of financial posts that I have been planning for months and have yet to write. I will, at some point, when the mental pressure to do so is almost overwhelming and I really really need to get them out. It won’t be a monster series, but it will be useful. Look at me, bigging up something I haven’t even started making yet.

What I take issue with these days, now that I recognise in the general economy the signs of my own financial failure, is how often a public marketplace will rebel against austerity measures and treat them as a simple, single action that hurts a bit and then allows us to return to the way we were before. I am staggered by the number of people who think that using austerity as a method to pay off debt lets us revert to wild overspending and ridiculous growth without at least a nod to the need to remain financially sustainable. Surely if you have got yourself in trouble with money, being sensible and paying it all off is the end goal? If you go through the pain of repaying debt, the next thing to do is not go right back out and rack it all up again; you’ll be right back in the poorhouse before you know it.

Hmm. A rant. I’m not normally prone to these outbursts, but the point above encapsulates my thinking of several years. I am now so averse to the spending of large amounts of money that it actually makes me uncomfortable – something that will keep me in good financial shape for many years to come.

Running out of subjects

As I near the end of the 30 day project, I’m experiencing a mixture of relief and sorrow. I have struggled on some days to find something to write about, and on other days have been able to fire out 500 words without even thinking about it. Today is one of the former days, but then I’m hardly being kind to myself – I literally sat down, opened my text editor, and expected an idea to flow into my mind. I am feeling a little blank today.

I have been splitting my time recently between learning project management principles, learning how to code, working, and looking after my son in the evenings. I have quickly realised that the time I expected to have available to me when Freddie was sleeping in the evenings has utterly failed to materialise. I never realised just how much maintenance a child needs – even one that mainly eats and sleeps.

As I’ve mentioned several times before, I have discovered over the last six months that my energy levels tend to be fixed and do not change, and although my motivation levels should follow the same cycle, they don’t. This results in the strange set of circumstances when I can be incredibly motivated to do something but not have the energy to invest in a new project or able to sort through my poorly organised tasks to give me ease of access to a range of jobs that can be done with low effort. The flip side of that is that I can have lots of energy and no motivation – this usually quickly caves in to blank minded TV watching that erodes my energy levels faster than I could imagine.

I’ve got a strange relationship with energy and motivation levels. I have struggled to find something to boost motivation levels when they are low – albeit in the evening when I am exhausted but I have the most time available to me to do projects outside of the day job. Energy can be manipulated by the judicious application of coffee – which I drink far too much of – and occasional cans of Red Bull, which acts as the proverbial rocket booster and leave me with jangling nerves for hours after the initial burst wears off. I’ve often found that motivation levels are given a juice by the thought of a shiny new project but that feeling wears off after a day or two and the next part is the hard slog; this is where I experience the project with the constant mix of low energy levels and free time.

When I consider what happens over the next few months as I keep on with the 500 word a day project – out of the public eye, most likely – I am less concerned about what I’ll manage to write about. When I don’t have to consider what I write or the impact it may have on others, then I can churn out pages of repeated nonsense and be done for the day. I’ll agree that that wasn’t the point of the task, and admit that despite that frequent occurrence my standards have risen.

I suppose not writing in the public eye may cause my writing standards to lessen. I will have to add regular public posting to keep my quality up. I hope I can maintain that…

Learning

I think about learning a lot. Barely a day goes by when I’m not learning something – even to the point when I’m overwhelming myself with stuff to do and then complaining that I get nothing done. Right now I have five projects on the go, all of which involve learning to some degree, and all of which are progressed to different levels. Some are started, some are not. Some have complex webs of mindmaps that try to set out a huge structure, and others have a text file with a few notes in to explain what I was thinking when I came up with the idea. In all instances, I’m learning something.

I’ve paid a lot of attention to the constant reminder that learning how to code is a skill that should be adopted by everybody. Sure, this is a bit of bias from the type of blogs I read daily, but I have always found that learning to code is something I want to do, just difficult to pursue – to do it properly requires a combination of a good quality guide to follow and the time to invest in uninterrupted learning. One of my projects requires that I pick up a series of skills in coding to make it happen and that’s the one I am trying to spend time on every day.

The adoption of the constantly learning mindset is a reminder that there are always new skills to learn. This has a mixture of good and bad points – I love learning new things, but if I’m not careful I can constantly remind myself that I don’t know everything I want to know.

I’ve broken off there for a moment as I read some feeds and was prompted to read Matt Gemmells’ excellent post What have you tried?. Although it doesn’t directly pertain to the subject at hand (and, I promise, I started writing this post before I even knew he had written that, several years ago), it makes a good observation. I try, as much as possible, to learn about a subject by trying things and experimenting. Indeed, I often beach myself on the shore of no knowledge long before I start asking a question; more often than not endlessly chasing down google links and obscure references before I deem to ask on the relevant forum or website for help. It’s the age old ‘men reading a map’ point – I’d rather drive around and around and around a potential location rather than simply stop and ask for directions.

In doing the ridiculous dance of experimentation – in any subject – the exercise of learning is strengthened. If you are given a solution to a problem then it does nothing to help you learn why that is the right answer, nor does it encourage the learning process – if anything, it simply prompts you to go and find more ready packaged answers to your questions. I’d readily bet that the majority of business owners, entrepreneurs and problem solvers don’t expect others to solve problems for them – they go out and find the answers themselves.

The pursuit of knowledge itself is part of the fun of learning. Often getting to the end goal and understanding something more completely should prompt one to use that information to learn something else, to build on the platform of knowledge they have acquired. To do anything else utterly undermines the point of learning in the first place.

Familiarity

Three years ago last Saturday I was pronounced free of cancer. This post isn’t about the cancer itself – god knows I’ve written enough about that in the past – but it’s about the ease with which memory fades and the things that were important aren’t important any more.

As always, I’m diving into this post once triggered by a decent thought or potential topic. I am stringing my thoughts together as they come, so my apologies for their poor quality.

When I was ill it was my world. Nothing else mattered, but around that time I was well aware that in a few years time it would be just a blip in the past. I thought that this would be in about ten years time, but despite the fact that I still get the occasional heebie jeebies when I go for a checkup with my oncologist, I manage to surprise myself with how easy it is to forget, and get back to business as usual.

This is the usual way of things; regardless of how traumatic the experience, over time it is forgotten. I tend to react to a lot of things this way, possibly supplemented by my useless memory.

There is an old saying – “familiarity breeds contempt”. That’s not entirely accurate for me, as I don’t hold contempt for that with which I am familiar, more a sense of detachment and ignorance. In concert with my memory, which will handily drop anything that doesn’t sound a mental fire alarm every five minutes, I tend to forget about these things.

I’m getting off the topic. I wanted to consider how importance fades, and this is an offshoot of how my memory operates, blended with the relative importance of the memory – while I may well want to consider the anniversary of my being pronounced free of cancer as an important thing that deserves remembrance, my memory has already consigned it to the pile of things soon to be cleared out. The cognitive dissonance I am experiencing is an expression of the relative importance of it between two layers of my mind; the part that handles long term memory (which I have found to be somewhat unreliable) and the lesser known part that seems to modify the relative importance of any memory dependant on how much it may mean to me at any moment.

This might be partly to blame for the sensation of a task being incredibly important to me to start off with, and the associated memories making it very very important – but once the importance has disappeared through familiarity, the quality of that memory and any tasks that go along with it becomes questionable. Added to this is the sensation of disappointment that ties into the cognitive dissonance – I want to remember something because I think it’s important, but at some point in the past it’s relative importance has scaled back and the ability to recall it at will fades.

The ability to then remember it at will is unreliable, and I get disappointed that something so important a few days ago now doesn’t feel as important any more.

This exploration of emotional attachment and how my memory works is clearly a work in progress as the words above are merely a poor quality articulation of how I feel about importance of memories. Doubtless I’ll come back to it, if I think it important enough in a few days to remember to come back to it, that is.

Fitness

I have never been terribly fit. I managed to build a garden office and cycle from London to Brighton without being what I would consider to be particularly fit. In a few days time I’m about to join a gym, which will restore my inner sense of fitness – I’ll be able to justify that extra muffin.

I’m a man in his forties and so I’ve learnt that inexplicable truth of health – as we get older, we expend more energy lifting weights. Sadly, the weights we lift are the tyres that gather around stomachs; attempting to move excess weight from middle to upper body. This is a life long exercise as I’ve just discovered – I have been able to achieve the feat of moving the weight from my middle to my arms and shoulders, only to find that within six months of me stopping, the weight slumps back down again.

It’s an odd sensation; I’m the same weight I was when I was at the gym, but my waist is two inches bigger and the slim fit shirts I used to wear down’t fit me so easily any more.

Like many other men my age I have a strange relationship with fitness. At one point I was committed to doing the road race and rehearsed for months to get ready for it, and now I couldn’t cycle that bike more than a mile around the park without getting out of breath. I used to be addicted to going to the gym and now I haven’t been for more than six months, hence the restarting of the membership this week. I’m one of those blokes who looks in the mirror and more regularly sees a fat stranger looking back at him, so I’ve decided it’s time to do something about it.

I’ve been through this cycle regularly. I will take up a gym membership and think I’m well on the way to the perfect body and well toned abs that any man would like to possess, but after six months a reason to stop arrives and I give up, let my health slide, and start up again elsewhere.

I have several apps on my phone that would give me the exercise that I need to achieve, but I can’t seem to find the time to complete them – despite that fact that I will willingly go all the way to a gym, work hard in there for 45 minutes, and then go into the office. I suppose it’s down to the motivation. If I put on gym gear and get in the car I have made a commitment to go that is not easy to break. If I go downstairs, I have a wealth of things to distract me that will stop me working out. Besides, the tools I use in the gym are far more sophisticated than the ones I could ever have access to at home, so I have a better sense of achievement when I’m flogging myself to death.

So, the gym beckons. Six months to fitness.