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The two best presents you can give this Christmas

“So what do you think mummy?”, my eight year old asked me. “What should I go for?”.

His birthday was coming up and he’d been talking to me about what present to ask for. “I can’t decide”. He persisted, with all the urgency of an 8 year old making a very important decision.

“I think ask for what you want.” I said. “You’ve been talking about a camera for ages, so why not go for that?”

“Yes but which one, mum?”. This time his tone was slightly exasperated.

Divided attention

In truth I hadn’t really been listening, I’d been reading an e-mail from a client and checking my WhatsApp messages.

I turned to him and realised that I hadn’t heard the points he’d just made. I guessed they were something about the pros and cons of each camera option. Guiltily, I replied, “Just run it by me again…”, and we had a conversation.

How often do we do this in our lives? Divide our attention between those we’re with and our smartphone or tablet. The great irony of our modern day communications is that they can make it ever more difficult to stay truly connected to the people we’re actually with. We’re constantly distracted by messages and notifications. It’s just too tempting.

Choose your focus

If any of this resonates, it’s not your fault. That smartphone in your hand was designed to be addictive. And most of us have fallen hook, line and sinker. We can take back control though. We still have the choice of where we put our attention, of how we use our time and energy.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. A friend recently posted this on Facebook:

“Ok people! I’m signing off all social media until Christmas. We have a couple of busy weeks as a family and I want to be super present for my lovely wife and kids. More time to read and reflect and just be!”

Be with who you’re with

When I was a young child we used to go to my Grannie’s house and have Christmas there most years. She was an amazing host and the meal involved multiple courses.

The thing that I remember loving the most though was after lunch when we’d sit around the table pulling crackers, telling jokes and stories and playing silly games. I loved it because it was the only time when we were all sat down as an extended family without anyone disappearing off.

The jokes were usually awful, there was always someone who didn’t get the game and one of us children stormed off because we didn’t win. It didn’t matter though. The point was that we were there, in it together.

Soon enough, there came a point when one of us -usually an adult – would get up and tidy up or watch TV. The truth was they needed some space. And that was OK too because we’d had that time of connecting.

The greatest gift that we can give to someone else is the gift of our time, our presence, our willingness to be with them and not just physically but with our full attention.

It’s also one of the hardest things to do, particularly with close family. Too often we assume we know what they are about to say because we’re so close to them. We don’t make the effort we would with someone we’d never met before.

The two best presents we can give

Most of us arrive at the Christmas break with a genuine need for some down time.

Give yourself the gift of honouring that need by scheduling in some time for yourself. A few hours to do something you really love. This is your first present – to yourself. When your own cup is full you’re much more able to give to your family when you do spend time together.

The second best present is to put that phone out of reach and just be with those you’re with in person.

So, who’s up for joining me in this?

Middle age mature active and healthy Asian woman exercising weight loss body workout jogging running in park path autumn forest. Middle aged lifestyle. Lady in her 50s.

Why routine is key to achieving your goals in 2019

It’s a funny thing at this time of year how many of us automatically go into the mode of setting hugely ambitious goals for the coming year.

I’m sure you know the kind of thing, ‘I will wake up at 5.30am and exercise for 40 minutes every day from now on’. Or is it just me?

One of the questions I had in my mind for years and years was about whether it is more effective to do something for longer – say an hour once a week – or to do something every day for just ten minutes. Take exercise for example. I’m an all or nothing person and I reasoned, surely it would be more effective to go on a really decent run once a week or so, instead of ten or fifteen minutes running each day. This was the approach I adopted for years.

It turns out that I was wrong. The science of behaviour change tells us that the most consistently practiced behaviours are the ones that we do automatically, every day. And the reason is somewhat intriguing.

Research has found that process of decision making takes willpower, and willpower is a limited resource that can quickly get depleted if we rely too heavily on it. Habits, however, use up much less mental energy.

Very little, in fact, because we’re travelling down well worn paths that are familiar and so we barely use any brain power to complete them.

Once I started to think about this, it made sense. I’ve never needed to think ‘when will I brush my teeth today?’, because it’s such an ingrained habit that I’ve been doing – or someone did for me when I was very young – twice a day, morning and evening for as long as I can remember. And even on the nights when I’m totally exhausted and just want to crash into bed, I never miss brushing my teeth because it would feel so wrong. It’s so much part of my routine that I don’t give myself a choice, I just do it. I reasoned that although it’s hard to set up good habits, it’s probably worth it.

So in 2018 after learning this new information I experimented with a very simple idea- do a little of something every day, at the same time each day, in the same order and after some time it will become a habit. 

Even better if I can attach it to a habit I already have in place. Then it is much easier to do that ‘thing’ for longer, whether it is exercising, meditating, cooking from scratch, spending time with a loved one, or whatever.

For some people, this kind of pattern comes very naturally, but for me it didn’t at all. It was a long, hard slog, because on the planning versus spontaneity spectrum I am very firmly at the latter end.

‘Routine’ to me smacked of boredom, lack of novelty and generally something to be avoided.

What I found, though, was a revelation.

For the first time in my life I was consistently achieving the goals that I set myself. By easing myself into new habits ever so gently it was like I was tricking myself into a new behaviour. And this had an extremely motivating effect, a bit like a runner’s high, I wanted more and was able to build on the earlier goals by expanding them. One example – I wanted to do some basic morning strength exercises so I started with setting myself the target of doing these for three minutes immediately after my meditation practice. Five months on and I’m consistently doing twelve minutes of strength training each day.

For years I was down on myself because I never managed to achieve my targets. I would set myself big, visionary goals and then a couple of months on feel really disappointed with myself for not achieving them. I could do well for a few days, sometimes even a couple of weeks, but it would soon start to feel too much, too exhausting.  With this new method I was achieving more and using less energy at the same time.

Which is why I am a convert to the power of establishing habits and making them a part of a daily routine.

These are my mantras for this coming year.

Break it down. Start small. Build a habit.

I’d love to hear from you. What are your top tips to achieve your goals?

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Why you need to be a bit selfish sometimes

As well as running my own business, I am a mother of two young children, a wife, daughter, sister, friend. I have an allotment to tend, a lodger who I cook for half the week and I am part of a spiritual community. It is easy to lose myself in the whirlwind of tasks and responsibilities, but one thing that helps is making sure I have regular slots of time to myself.

This includes daily meditation and walks. Now that both of my children are past the baby/ toddler stage, I am also able to get a decent night of sleep, which makes a huge difference. And for those that are still in that phase, I see you. It’s tough. I’ve been there.

Other things that refresh me are listening to music, dancing, playing the piano, gardening, painting and making cards for people.

But what has this got to do with work?

Everything.

All of my work involves practising and refining my own listening skills, which means putting the other person at the heart of my attention and focus. When I lose touch with myself, I cannot do this fully. It is as if there is a small child within me, shouting “Wait a minute! What about me? Give me some attention now!”. If I am completely honest, I am distracted.

So I have come to the conclusion that it is helpful for all of us to ‘be a bit selfish’ sometimes.

I notice that when I forget to protect ‘me time’ – and I do, often – and instead start focusing on achieving too much, I am less able to listen authentically to others and less able to share who I am. I snap more easily and am less patient with my children. I notice my inner critic rearing its head more frequently and accusing me of being a failure. Because I’ve lost touch with who I really am.

However, when I have maintained my practices and my own tank is full I am able to be present to whatever life throws at me, I am able to set aside my own agenda and to listen wholeheartedly to another’s perspective, to another’s story.

So, I encourage you to please work just a little less and let yourself be a bit ‘selfish’. Let your house be messy or the washing up undone. The e-mails, social media posts and paperwork can wait. They’ll still be there.

I encourage you to listen to that inner child and find out what s/he really needs to be nurtured. Because if you can listen to yourself you’re more likely to be able to genuinely listen to those you love. And even to those you don’t. You might even surprise yourself.

And everyone will be better off for it.

I’d love to hear from you. What are the practices that refill your tank?

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