After managing to leave my computer at my in laws’ house I decided it wasn’t possible to write a blog post yesterday. But as it'll be another day or so before I get the wayward computer back, I have decided to write this post on my phone as I travel in the back of the car, returning from a trip to Ikea. As usual, although we only went for one thing our car is full, along with some other stuff in our friends’ car too. If you saw my previous post about reclaiming time, and how I was moving towards minimalism, you might wonder what this trip was all about. But two-year-olds don’t understand the concept of owning but a few things, and at that age it is entirely possible to outgrow your bed. Tonight will be the first time that she sleeps somewhere other than a cot. It feels like the right time, mainly because she is trying to climb out on a regular basis, but I am aware that it could be a disaster resulting in no sleep for anybody. Is there a way to avoid potential catastrophe? But more to the point, is there a way to know when the right time really is?
I like to think of myself as an organised person, but the truth is that I'm not really that on top of things. I'm better than I used to be, but regularly let things slide, or the the proverbial ball drop. The one place where I usually manage to keep on track is work. As a newly qualified cardiac physiologist in the NHS too many years ago to mention, in order to not mess up, I carried around a little notepad crammed with what I considered essential knowledge; departmental processes, physiological ranges, and from where I might be able to reorder printer toner. Now that I write books full time the biggest challenge is getting words on paper. I like to be ahead of the game in this respect, and when I delivered my edits for Little Wishes, the rough draft manuscript for Hidden Treasures was already written. But my next project is proving a bit more elusive.
This week I was listening to a podcast with Camille Styles, and one of her messages was that she was working on being a better procrastinator. Sounds counterproductive, right? But her point was that leaving a project unfinished kept it alive in your mind, and therefore amenable to change and improvement. This struck a chord with me, as I have two half-written books on my laptop, both seemingly excellent ideas when I began writing them. And yet they remain half-finished. The first I let sit when I came up with the idea for Hidden Treasures, sure that it would be a better follow-up to Little Wishes. The second book is what I have been writing up until last week. I thought it was going well but the separation from it during my recent holiday has made me seriously reconsider it as a project since I came back. I'm not sure I care about the plot or characters enough to spend the next year and a half with them, and therefore have taken a break.
I spent last week brainstorming for a new idea, a distinct cross between the two half-written manuscripts. And what I found is that I returned to an idea that has been with me in some shape or form for as long as I've been writing. But I also know that unless I give myself some room to work on it before actually beginning the process of writing, I'm never going to know whether it's a good idea or not. I've written the first half of two books and they aren’t right, so this time I'm going to sit back and let my thoughts marinate for a while before I commit to writing. For a while I'm going to practice being a better procrastinator and hope that helps me work through the issues.
Whether my new idea is the right idea, I don't know. But I know that if I don't try writing this new book, I will regret it. So, with that in mind, as I pull up outside home and get set to unload the boxes with a new bed inside, I'm preparing for a disrupted night ahead. Sometimes a period of being unsettled, allowing patience to pave the route at its own pace, is necessary. Sometimes, just like with the bed, you have to give in to the process. Will she sleep? Will she stay in the bed at all? Will my new book be the right book? I have no answer to any of these questions, but unless I take a chance on what I think is right, I'll just never know.
I’m always looking for ways to improve my productivity and concentration, and right now I’m working on the implementation of a daily morning routine. It’s born from some degree of necessity, because what I used to like to do after taking my daughter to school is no longer possible. To go for a run in Cyprus at 8 AM in the summer is just too hot and humid. So, despite being less than certain about my ability to stick to it, I started setting my alarm and getting up early.
While I never would have described myself as a morning person before the change in seasons forced my hand, I found I quite liked the reality of getting up before most of the world was awake. There’s a certain peace to be found from being productive when other people are sleeping, at least in my part of the world. I love following Rachael Hollis on her various social platforms, and she always insists we are made for more. I always could get on board with that idea, but felt somewhat certain that I was not made for mornings. But since I’ve been getting up early and running on the regular, I find the idea of getting out of bed is not only no longer a chore, but that I even started waking up without my alarm.
Whether it is a coincidence, or the possibility that my radar has been tuned into the idea of early rising, but since I started this practice I’ve realised that there is some sort of movement towards early rising in the wider population as a tool for improving success. During my recent holiday a friend’s poolside reading was The 5AM Club by leadership expert Robin Sharma, who ‘introduced the concept over twenty years ago, based on a revolutionary morning routine that has helped his clients maximize their productivity, activate their best health and bulletproof their serenity’. That’s no small promise for a 5 AM wake up call. The concept is that you get up early, dedicate an hour to exercise, goal setting, and reading, and you divide your time into twenty-minute time blocks for each activity. If you head over to Robin Sharma’s home page you are instantly reminded that ‘winning starts at the beginning.’ Now if it’s true, that all my dreams are achievable on the other side of an early morning wake up call, you can count me in for running to the tune of the dawn chorus every single day for the rest of my life.
In truth, the holiday I recently took in Rhodes has quite a lot to answer for. Not only did I come back with renewed enthusiasm for following a minimalist lifestyle, but now I’m also planning to start waking up at 5 AM. I did plan to start as soon as I got back, but a few sleepless nights with my poorly two-year-old put paid to that. But with the start of a new week I set my target for today. I decided not to try to wake up at 5 AM from the get-go, and instead I set my alarm for 5.45 AM. That’s half an hour earlier than my usual time, and it did not feel good. For those first few seconds upon hearing the alarm going off I wanted to take the idea of the 5 AM club and stick it somewhere where the sun was only just beginning to shine. But I powered through, and by 6 AM I was on my yoga mat flexing into what is a far from pretty, downward dog. Twenty minutes later, I was meditating. Next was goal setting and planning my day, and finally I snuck in twenty minutes of reading; a book about how to throw away your things which quite frankly left me feeling a little depressed for the person who wrote it. But by the end of that hour I felt awake, ready for the day, and as if I’d already achieved something important for myself.
Tossing my belongings aside, the rest of my day has been pretty productive, and I have approached it with a level of commitment I don’t often manage to muster. It’s coming up to ten in the evening, and still I’m writing the rough draft of this blog post because that’s what I planned to do. I’ve accepted that I want to shake up my manuscript and have done lots of mental planning. I read another two modules for a diploma I am studying. Besides not getting a key cut, I did everything I wanted to do. All in all, it was a great day, and I haven’t even turned on Netflix.
Do I think I can muster the strength for a 5 AM start in the near future? The truth is that I just don’t know. I like seven hours sleep, and my baby doesn’t go to bed until 8 PM. After that I need to eat, and I often have work left over, be it for writing or cardiology analysis, an ongoing responsibility from my previous life. But perhaps if I can do a few days at 5:45 AM, and then a few days at 5.30 AM, maybe I’ll give the 5 AM club a try. I have visions of myself a bit like Bradley Cooper in Limitless, only less attractive with inferior hair. Either that, or maybe just asleep at my desk. But if it really is the key to success, it has to be worth a try.
I remember as a child, growing up in Britain, that each year when it came around my family watched the London Marathon. I’m not sure why we were so keen on it as none of us were that sporty, not at all in fact, but without fail we watched and cheered as people set off, and then again as they crossed the finishing line. I remember, without any real concept of what a marathon was, feeling a sense of wonderment over these people who had been running through the capital, decked out in costumes, looking absolutely shattered as they crossed the finishing line with their arms raised triumphantly in the air. And with the absolute naivety of childhood ambition, and without any clue as to what it might take, I said to myself that one day I would be one of those people.
While I am still to run any kind of marathon, or indeed be anywhere close to being capable of doing so, running has been a part of my life for well over a decade now. From the time I first joined a gym and had my session with the personal trainer I knew that there was only one machine for me. Running, whether it’s outside on the road, or on a treadmill in the gym, is always my exercise of choice. There is something about the structure of a run that lends itself well to my personality, a person who loves competition and yet simultaneously hates to lose. Because with a run, while there is no winning as such, there is also no losing. The battle for the run is fought against oneself, from the moment the alarm goes off at 5:30 am, to the relief of crossing the finish line, whether that’s on The Mall, in Central Park, or through my own front gate. Any competition is found within the mentality I bring to each time I decide to lace up my trainers and head outside. Each corner I turn, each kilometre I track, is a decision in the direction of success. But when it came to hills, that was always a different story.
For years I avoided the hills. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to improve, but because simply I found it really, really hard. After running my set distance only to be faced with a massive incline before the finish was always my worst nightmare. I always needed to prepare myself for it, and if ever I tried a new route and found an unexpected hill, I would often divert for the easier path. But when I moved to my current house, located in a valley and surrounded by hills, in order to run I had little option but to face a hill both at the beginning and at the end of my run.
For a long time I struggled. It was a problem of both mental and physical fitness. Before that I’d schedule my runs along an easy coastline, so I wasn’t conditioned for the challenge. It took weeks before I could ascend the hill that left my house without having to stop. I hated every one of those runs. Surely there had to be a way to make it easier?
Just like anything, running doesn’t become easier by taking a magic pill or by wishing for it before you go to sleep. I only noticed my abilities improving when I committed to getting out at least every other day. But the physical commitment was only one component. My mental state also needed to change.
At first, I faced every run with a sort of resignation. Kind of, here we go again, almost as if somebody was forcing me into it. I looked at the hill as if it was my enemy, and I was setting myself up to fail each and every time. But halfway through a run a few months ago, when faced with an unexpected hill after deciding to push my distance on a new route, I changed my mentality. It wasn’t a conscious decision, and very much happened organically, as if mentally I’d had enough of being beaten before I’d started. A thought rose within me, and it totally changed the game.
There is no hill.
Now, of course, there was a hill, and I wasn’t suddenly in The Matrix. And the hill in question was a beast. But I told myself it wasn’t there, and I nailed it. I was exhausted, felt sick until I got home, but I did it. And the next time I left my house I told myself the same thing, there is no hill, and no lie that run was easier still.
I was thinking about this today because I am facing a challenge like this in my writing. I have 40,000 words of a new manuscript written, and 17,000 of another story that I’d started before that, which I shelved when I wasn’t sure it was right. And now, after another challenging day writing/editing, I feel like this second, 40,000 word manuscript isn’t right either. I feel like I’m writing for the sake of it, not sure whether I believe in the characters or the story. And yet that 17,000 word manuscript that I shelved keeps calling to me. I just read its prologue, and know that ultimately, it’s better. It tells a story that I care about in a way my newer manuscript does not. Yet is it the right genre? Perhaps not. Could it become the story I want to tell? I think perhaps it could.
Right now I feel like I have a huge hill in front of me, and none of my previous experience feels as if it has conditioned me appropriately to tackle it. I know that somewhere in the words I’ve already written there is the story I want to tell, but perhaps right now, neither of those manuscripts are doing just that. But just like when I was training myself for my running, I have to find a way to where it becomes easier. I guess I’ll just have to keep telling myself the same mantra in order to get the job done; this might go on to become my first marathon, but there is absolutely, definitely, no hill.
The idea of mindfulness is something that I consider most days. As a concept it seems to have gained a certain mystical celebrity over the last few years. It takes only a limited exposure to social media to understand that there is a group of people who seem to have achieved a higher state of awareness that we should all be searching for when we are not working or binging on Netflix. But yet, in a life when we all seem to be striving for more, pushing ourselves at work and in the gym, and making sure our Insta feed is as perfect as we wish our lives were, that same enlightened bunch of people are telling us that living with less is the new more. Some of us, myself included, go out of our way to consume this message, voluntarily filling our feed with images of clear surfaces and capsulated wardrobes. The truth is, I am a fully signed up member of the less is more club. Even now as I sit at my desk, I’m looking at the shelves to my left and wondering which books I can get rid of without too much trouble. But if having less stuff is supposed to make us happy, how are we supposed to know what to replace it with once it’s gone?
It’s been a long time since I took what I would call a proper holiday. And by that, I mean a good seven nights in a nice hotel, where somebody cooks a selection of breakfasts and pops in before you sleep to turn down your sheets. Last year, with a small daughter who had a penchant for eating sand, we didn’t take a relaxing holiday. So this year, joined by friends, we checked into a nice place with a decent buffet, sun-loungers a plenty, and a programme for aqua gym with some very enthusiastic entertainers. Beforehand I had that true holiday feeling, that excitement the night before of an impending trip that I had been anticipating for months. Now, sitting at my desk on my first day back at work, I really do feel ready to go. Because on that holiday, without any of life’s daily interruptions, I did find something in that space created once material possessions and daily routine were left behind. When I took this photo, waiting for Leli to wake up in the car, I was parked on a beach with no phone or 4G signal. Not even any WiFi. It was an alien feeling, used as I am to being connected. What was it that I was missing out on for that half an hour? Nothing, not really. It felt good to be there, alone, and totally quiet from the rest of the world. So instead of what I was missing out on, the question should really be, what was it that I found?
My love affair with minimalism has long been a feature in my life. Even before I moved into my first home I was certain that a space without things or door handles was the way I wanted to live. And yet throughout my twenties and soon-to-depart thirties, I lost my way a number of times. Six months, maybe even a year could go by without buying any new clothes, and then I would find myself at the mall in a fug of reaction spending. I’d be lured by sales, gadgets, and essential equipment for activities I was unlikely to stick with. It is almost as if I was uncomfortable in the place I had chosen for myself, uncertain whether a minimalist lifestyle was actually right for me. And these boomerang behaviours occurred in various other parts of my life too, like organising my clothes and cleaning my house as if I was practicing a religion, only for a single object left on the side to begin a decline into a mess that could have got me onto TLC. Reading ten books in a month and then nothing for three. Last year I built a capsule wardrobe, only to spend most of this year spending to replace things I’d thrown out. It seems that although I know what I want, I have never yet quite found the balance. So is that perhaps what I’m supposed to be searching for in the place of things?
Returning from my holiday I would say that balance is the closest way of describing what I feel. I feel realigned with the things I want, my hopes, and plan for the future. With all the things I need to do for work. And so I suppose by definition what I am also saying is that before my holiday I must have felt, if not unbalanced, the absence of it. In fact, a couple of months ago I secured a new book deal, and two foreign rights’ deals, and yet somehow didn’t find the time to celebrate that. I didn’t even write about it on my blog, even though it was what I had been working towards professionally for the best part of twelve months. If there isn’t the time, or space in life to celebrate those sorts of achievements, what is it that I’m doing with my time?
And so, perhaps in all my efforts to be mindful and clutter free, that is what I’m really searching for; not balance as such, but the time to find it. When I look around my house and see piles of stuff, what I see are demands on my time to clear them away and organise them. When I look in my wardrobe and feel overwhelmed by a choice of what to wear, it’s time that I’m losing while I try on ten different things. Time that I could have spent doing something that is important to me. When I don’t manage to celebrate a new book deal, it’s not the will or excitement I’m lacking, but time that has been lost elsewhere, eaten up by a task that I care about less. After my daughter arrived in my life, I used to think she was the reason that I no longer had time for the other things that mattered to me. Although that might have been true in the first instance, because let’s face it, first time parenthood is a task no human is ever truly prepared for, I don’t think it counts as an excuse anymore. I’m the adult, and I make the rules, at least fifty percent of the time. So surely it’s up to me to organise us in a way that makes us both happy and that leaves space for the things we truly enjoy.
As I move forward with the new book deal, and the process of writing another as yet uncontracted manuscript, I’m going to try to remember this idea when I think of what it means to me to be mindful. When all the clutter is gone, what I’m left with is time. And instead of trying to fill this reclaimed time with new things and expansive to-do lists, or load my daughter’s programme up with new activities to keep her entertained, perhaps what I should be doing instead is simply enjoying the time we have together. Surely, minimalist or not, there can be no better way to live my life than that.