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Are We Wrecking Our Working Lives

2013-05-17 07.11.34We tend to think everything’s improving all the time, and that only grumpy old folks (like me) think things were better in the past. But with problems like information overload, the decline in conversation, obsession with smartphones and lots of other disruptive change it might be worthwhile to look back in time every now and then, to see just how much improvement there really has been. I’m not reporting on any kind of rigorous study in this post, I’m just using my own experience and I’m being intentionally provocative by being a little selective, but here goes, 10 years ago:

  1. I was using a small light weight Windows tablet, that allowed me to change batteries without hibernating it, had a great desktop docking station, a 4:3 format and a Wacom digitizer.  It was attached to a big second screen on my desk, but in my bag everywhere I travelled, of course it had mobile internet.
  2. I was using a fantastic Blackberry that was perfect for ploughing through the emails. With it’s excellent clicky keyboard, large outdoor visible screen, and superb thumb wheel for scrolling and selecting I was never more productive while mobile.
  3. I had an mp3 player for podcasts to keep me entertained
  4. I had a Nokia 6310i mobile phone which still works fine, it lasted for days on a single charge, still gets a better signal than my iPhone today and had an excellent car kit (I still use this phone while travelling so I can make extended free calls to my wife and kids)
  5. My laptop was fast and had an excellent 1400×1050 display that’s better than the laptop I use now.  It ran Windows 2003 which was rock solid and allowed me to run a couple of virtual machines with no problems
  6. I didn’t worry too much about laptop battery life because every desk, meeting room and easy chair had a charging cable built in.  It even let me swap the DVD drive for a second battery.
  7. I didn’t get too much email, because most of my work was done by a focussed collocated team who all new each other and saw each other every day
  8. Everyone in the team could easily share files with each other
  9. Conference calls were something that happened at most once a day and were only for the type of meetings that required discussion and debate with the extended team
  10. We had plenty of meeting rooms and breakout areas so most of the time no one was disturbed by other peoples phone calls
  11. Meetings had associated meeting minutes and action lists, so if you missed a meeting it was easy to catch up
  12. Everyone (including the leaders) in the team wrote a weekly highlight report, so everyone new what everyone else was doing, who was struggling and needed help and our health metrics helped us look after everyone
  13. Our team had members from every disciple working together without any political stove pipes
  14. Our main source of information came in the post in the form of carefully curated magazines, so information overload was much less of a problem
  15. People answered the phone and we actually enjoyed talking to people that way
  16. You could always reach team members by phone, because everyone had a mobile and people weren’t on conference calls all day
  17. Everyone in the team had a laptop, even the admin support staff so we had a fully flexible office
  18. We didn’t need instant messaging most of the time because we could easily glance across the room to see if people were busy and if not pop over for a chat
  19. We still had instant messaging though for keeping in touch with virtual team members and other contacts and in some ways it was better than we have now
  20. All of our meeting rooms had projectors installed and most of the whiteboards supported eBeams which allowed to record the meetings and also allowed virtual participants to see us drawing on them in real time
  21. We could share our screens with other team members with a few clicks using NetMeeting, but not outside the company
  22. Of course we had Wi-Fi thorough the office

We got a lot done, but unfortunately our bags were HEAVIER!

Note: some of the above recollections were drawn from a period 10-12 years ago, but I’ve pooled them all at 10 years just for dramatic affect.

I was mulling over this post while on my evening walk last night, it’s worth noting that 12 years ago I would probably have still been in the office.  I wrote this post in Caffe Nero in an easy chair and it’s also worth noting that we had lots of easy chairs and even a library in the office so that people could chill out throughout the day and we had a great coffee machine. I chose a photo from an evening walk a few months ago.

Practical Daily Simplicity

3d-optical-illusion-sand-art-jamie-harkins-1Even though I only do traditional ‘work’ for 4 hours a day my life is still packed full of activity, often too much activity!  Over the years I’ve gradually created a coping strategy based on simplifying my life and in particular simplifying all the little things in life, with the aim of reducing the number of decisions I have to make.  The more trivial decisions I eliminate, the more willpower I have left over for making sure I do all the little things that improve my health.  It’s important to remember that the big things in life are often built from these small decisions.  Here are a few examples:

  1. I don’t buy ‘things’ except consumables and experiences, I already have everything that I need and so I’m freed of wondering whether I should buy gadget X, Y and Z
  2. I follow the same basic routine most work days, wake, meditate, walk/cycle, write blog post, read my Instapaper queue in a cafe, walk/cycle, lunch, work, dinner, family time/swim, TV (scan RSS feeds) and supper, read fiction in the bath, sleep
  3. I don’t keep a traditional to do list, so I’m not burdened by all the stuff I never get around to doing, but I do keep a list of objectives and jobs that need doing around the house.  Each night I write down 3-4 things I want to achieve tomorrow
  4. I wear the same clothes every day, or rather I have an office outfit and a home outfit.  I make minor changes depending on the weather, but pretty much I wear the same stuff. 
  5. I get my clothes ready and pack my daily bag last thing at night before I go to bed, and I write my plan for tomorrow so I have no decisions to make when I wake up.  Sometimes a flare forces me to change plans, but on bad days everything changes anyway.
  6. I eat the same thing every day, with minor changes depending on activity level.  Two green smoothies, a large berry salad and a cooked meal with meat and lots of veg, a mini dark chocolate bar, dried pear crisps.  If I’m doing a lot of activity I might add a bowl of oats and nuts, if I’m going out for the day I often pop into a cafe for bacon and eggs
  7. I go on holiday to the same place (Filey) every month, so I don’t spend time trying to decide where to go.  When I go away on a think week I always go to my favourite Premier Inns which I book only when the cheap room offers are on.
  8. I find things that I like and I buy in bulk, for example I like polyester and cotton extremely cheap Puma T shirts (cost £2-3) and I have about 15 (10 in use and 5 spares).  I like Karimor light weight walking shoes and I have 1 pair in the car, one on my feet and 3 in my store room.
  9. I have pre-packed bags for most purposes, for example I go on at least 12, 5 day breaks a year and I keep a bag packed and almost ready to go, I just need to add shorts or hiking trousers and a fleece depending on the weather.  The bags have all the clothes, toiletries, medications, chargers etc that I need.  I have another bag packed ready for swimming and another ready for hiking.  When I return from any of these trips the first thing I do is repack.  One of the reasons for this is to remember all the little things I need to reduce the risks due to the variability of my health, all the emergency gear, the emergency meds etc.
  10. Since I often have to stay a night or two at hospital with zero notice I have an emergency bag packed and ready in the car.  It’s proved very useful on many other occasions and it stops my Brompton from bouncing around the boot.

So on work days everything is very rigid, but it’s also very easy for me to adapt and embrace change.  On non work days, nothing much is planned in advance, but I do pick from about 20 favourite activities. 

It’s also worth noting that I do keep refining my ‘planned’ life, adding a few new favourite activities and places each year and refining my working day plan depending on my health, the season and the demands of my job.

This post was inspired by The 7 Rules That Keep My Life Simple

I’m writing this post in Caffe Nero while suffering from a flare that came on suddenly last night, it’s dull outside but not raining yet so I will soon be up and about and enjoying the beach.  I didn’t take todays photo, but it is of our beach and people having fun so it cheered me up no end.

Scrap The Marketing Department And Employ Visible Experts

2013-01-12 16.31.57I’ve never been particularly impressed by the marketing that most companies do in the area that I work.  It’s generally marketing the obvious, or desperately trying to find an interesting case study that we can polish up.  Personally I’d rather dispense with the traditional marketing budget and let our expertise market us by association.  We would do this by employing true experts and by letting those experts demonstrate their expertise to the world through blogs, white papers, reference architectures, podcasts, social networking and events.  Of course that would mean those experts would be less available for project work, but through their networking with the community they would enhance their expertise.  Visible experts would not only contribute to the global community, but they would lead our internal community of budding experts too, providing coaching and inspiration.

Once visible enough they could also provide a gateway to introduce new experts to the community, to create a pipeline to enhanced visibility in new areas, in the way Brian Madden did for his brother, Jack.  Visible experts are a powerful tool for branding, because they are not only more visible than marketing they are useful and authentic.  There are only a few dozen visible experts in the end-user space so it’s possible with determination to really make a dent and the impact on our company could be profound.

I’ve always been amazed at the impact that Brian Madden has managed to achieve in the desktop field by self promotion, dedication to telling it how it is, always being on the side of the community and being useful and entertaining.  He provides an excellent model for other experts seeking visibility.

Having poked around on the web for evidence supporting this idea I was pleased to come across a bit of data to back up my anti-marketing bias:

In the study, we found that 66% of all Visible Experts exert a major positive influence on their firms in terms of business development and growth. When we dug into this category, we found that Visible Experts bolstered firms’ businesses across a number of areas, with the biggest increases occurring in firm growth, lead generation, and audience reach.

These are just the sort of impacts that a marketing department would ‘kill for’ and there’s more:

The research showed that 62% of Visible Experts greatly contribute to building their firms’ brands. Visible Experts help their firms establish trust and market leadership, expand their reputations, and increase overall brand recognition

Very encouraging, but there are some cautions that come to mind from what I’ve observed:

  1. The experts need to be working on the side of the community they are trying to reach, they are not there to promote their employer.  Their employer gets these benefits merely by being associated with the expert
  2. The experts need to be real people who know from doing, not just product managers or product marketing managers, not corporate blogs or twitter feeds
  3. The experts will need time to develop their standing in the community, perhaps averaging 25% of their week, but remember this time will greatly enhance their expertise through community learning
  4. The experts need to be authentic, not just mouth pieces for the company, but being proud of their company is ok.  Some guidelines on where to draw the line here would be useful, because in my personal experience it’s possible to get into trouble by being critical of partners, even when they deserve it!  Experts DO need the freedom to be critical!

It’s also worth noting that the company needs to be prepared to pay it’s experts a lot more based on their success, and this should motivate a lot of experts to come forward from the darkness of the corporate cave:

The research revealed that buyers want Visible Experts, and they are willing to pay more to work with them—a lot more. In fact, buyers will pay 200% over baseline to hire Visible Experts at the lowest level of visibility, and 13X over baseline to work with Visible Experts at the highest level of visibility, as demonstrated in the chart below.

As I mentioned above being a visible expert’s not always plain sailing, one of the posts that I did that caused me some minor trouble at work unpicked Citrix marketing a few years ago, looking back I think I added quite a bit of expert value to their marketing!  I’m reminded of the value that Paul Thurrott adds to Microsoft by cleaning up and explaining their marketing as an outside expert, but also the value that Scott Hanselman provides to Microsoft through his association, even if he’s often authentically critical of them.

The inspiration for this post was a proposal that I made at a corporate innovation event a few years ago, of course it went nowhere, but now It’s on my blog, preserved forever.

Anyone wanting to take this further might be interested in this book that provides a step by step guide to success, by the author of the post I quoted from above.

I wrote this post snuggled up in Caffe Nero on a chilly September morning not far from the beach where I took the photo that decorates this post.  I’m not an expert anymore, although I enjoy dabbling, I’m more focussed now on enjoying the sunsets.

Making My Health My First Job

2014-09-20 18.16.49Most people only have one job, it’s at the centre of their lives, it’s the way they make their living and often the main thing that defines their purpose in life.  My job used to be that for me, I spent 50+ hours at work and mostly loved every minute of it, I had a great team and we made a difference to the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and had fun doing it.  Lot’s of things needed to be sacrificed in the service of my job.  After all I only had so much time and willpower and most of that was used up at the end of the working day.  My life was centred on work.  If I had a second ‘job’ it would have been my family, my wife and four kids took up the rest of my time, it was often wonderful but it wasn’t all perfect family time.  There was a lot of shopping, visits to doctors, being a taxi service, cleaning, washing, homework, fixing stuff.  In the end there wasn’t much time for me.

When I became ill a lot of things changed, I was working from home with a lot of time on my hands.  But I didn’t really understand how to spend that time and so fairly quickly as my health improved a bit work started to dominate my life again. The improvement in my health stalled and remained pretty poor for about 6 years, I felt that I was coping but only with the support of more and more drugs.  I’m not sure exactly what the turning point was but eventually a life propped up with drugs becomes unsustainable, maybe it was when I started to worry about my quality of life in retirement.

I realised that my priorities were all wrong.  I realised that my first job was to be healthy.  I needed a pretty broad definition of health of course, because with three chronic illnesses it’s never going to be perfect, but it could be much better than it was.

Making health my first job was a breakthrough change, it wasn’t as simple as it sounds at first though, here are some of the changes I decided to make:

  1. If health was to be my first JOB, I decided that I had to really WORK at improving my health
  2. I reduced my working hours to the point where I had the time, energy and willpower to look after my health as best I could.  My second job still presented conflicts and challenges, but I spent a lot of time making sure I got the mix right
  3. I directed all of my strategic planning skills at my health challenges, I kept the data, did the analysis, made the plans, defined the objectives.  I identified the areas where I could make most impact, I exploited my strengths, worked on my weaknesses, nurtured my opportunities and mitigated my threats
  4. I made my health my explicit top priority objective in the performance management system that my employer uses.  During my appraisal each year the first thing my boss assesses is how well I’ve managed my health
  5. I wrote a report detailing my strategy for improving my health and had it reviewed by my GP to make sure it was professional, realistic and sensible
  6. I defined about 20 activities that I felt captured my definition of ‘living well’ and tracked them each day, so I had to confront the hard data about how I was living.  When I’m feeling like crap it’s easy to be lazy, get into a rut or develop bad habits, data makes that more difficult to hide.  I also tracked my bad habits. 
  7. Lot’s of these 20 activities involve family and friends too, my definition of health is definitely not just physical.  My personal health comes first though, I can’t be a good husband, Dad, friend or member of the community if I’m lying on the sofa feeling sorry for myself and watching TV all day.
  8. Since I don’t know how bad I’m going to be tomorrow, every morning when I wake up I plan out how to live the best day I can. How I’m going to invest my time, energy and willpower to improve my mental and physical health
  9. When work conflicts with health, most times I choose health.  I’m not striving for perfection though, I’m striving for the right balance
  10. I’m kind to myself, sometimes life isn’t that kind, so someone has to be. Being kind means accepting that I can’t be perfect, that driving myself too hard to be healthy is as bad as driving myself too hard at work.  Being kind also means realising that sometimes I need to be “cruel to be kind” too

Overarching all of these changes though is the rule I live by “everything in moderation, including moderation”, sometimes I will dive headlong into a critical activity at work, accepting that my health might suffer.  A few weeks ago I walked a marathon and paid the price, but I’m still glowing from the achievement.  Every so often I will eat a whole chocolate orange, while watching TV for hours and love every minute of it.  80% of the time though I’m diligently working hard on my health and it’s working.

I wrote this post in Caffe Nero Manchester, Debbie and I are here with two of the kids for the weekend.  It’s noisy, crowded, dirty, vibrant, bold and glamorous, it makes a nice change from sleepy St Annes!  The picture is of a particularly nice building I walked past early on Sunday morning when it was just me and the street cleaners, I helped them out a bit (one of the habits I track is “being of service to others”)

Tracking My Health Data

Steve’s _IMG_2907I’ve been tracking my health data for many years now, using  combination of blood tests every month, tracking in a variety of IOS apps and using a fitbit and Moves apps to track my activity.  It’s trivial in terms of time, taking maybe a few minutes each day, but it’s gradually identifying patterns and trend that are proving very useful.  My long term goal is to increase the level of ‘mastery’ I have over my mind and body, but long before mastery comes understanding and I’m approaching that point now in some areas.  Last week I started writing up my yearly health report which I use to prepare for my 15 minute appointment with my specialist at the hospital and to demonstrate to my employer that I’m meeting my top objective to ‘manage my health effectively’.  As part of that review I used the Chronic Pain Tracker apps to generate a comparison report between the last 12 months and the previous 12 months and the last 6 months and the previous 4 years.  I also generated a number of graphs that plotted the relative mix of good, moderate and bad pain days over the last few years.

This post explores what I’ve learned from this analysis and the tools I used to do it.  Using Chronic Pain Tracker on the iPad it’s possible to compare last years pain distribution to this year’s.  The graph below shows (weakly) that the very worst days have gone, but also the number of good days has reduced significantly.  This is actually a pretty good deal.  Very bad days are something I’d prefer to never have to experience.  Very good days are euphoric, but they also show me what I’m missing, so in a way not experiencing them makes it easier to bear the normal pain days.


If I take a look at the trend data that’s pretty interesting too.  After a long period of improvement due mainly to changes in work and lifestyle tt shows a significant increase in average pain levels starting a few months after I reduced my Methotrexate dose.  Methotrexate is a slow acting drug so this lag affect makes sense and the worsening is only gradual and in the scheme of things, not all that significant.  Of course averages lie, so I needed to big into the data in a bit more detail.


For that I looked at the distribution of low pain days, medium pain days and high pain days for each month of the last year.


This graph is much more interesting because it clearly shows that the average pain trend is actually made up of two trends that are shown weakly in the first comparison graph.  A significant reduction in high pain days and a significant reduction in low pain days.  Result a significant increase in medium pain days.

The ultimate result for me is that I feel like I’m coping better.  I’m not knocked for six by really bad days and I’m not depressed by having a few no pain days that are cruelly taken away every few months.  There is an uptick in low pain days (green line) caused by a few weeks on steroids, but if I average out those days the green line clearly trends down.

This post was inspired by a tweet from Vince who recommended this excellent TEDTalk

I wrote this post in Caffe Nero Manchester, Debbie, Anna, Thom and I are staying here for a night because the kids are going to a concert, we are going to a movie.  The picture is of the Manchester canal that we walked along at a similar time last year.  I’m not up to such a long walk today as I’m still recovering from quite a bad flare triggered ironically by the yearly flu jab.

Reduce The Chance Of Infections

2013-10-30 11.51.46 (x200's conflicted copy 2014-06-19)For me infections (colds, flu …) are one of the major triggers for flares.  Every year I used to get a couple of colds and a couple of sore throats and Tonsillitis which combined would result in 5-6 weeks of pretty bad flares, essentially turning these mild infections into the Flu.  Then I would spend many more weeks trying to rebuild my strength and wean myself off the pain killers that helped me survive the flares.  It was pretty grim.  But I was also lucky, because whilst the flares were bad the sysmptoms of the cold, cough etc were extremely mild.  I only ever got the sniffles or a slightly sore throat or a few spots on my tonsils, but my immune system went wild and knocked me for six.    I put all of these infections down to Methotrexate and it was one of the main reasons that I decided to lower my dose, but at the same time I didn’t want to go back to the full force of a normal infection a few times a year.

I decided that as I lowered my dose I would need to do a whole load of other things to try and reduce my chances of infections, these are the main things:

  1. I dramatically improved my diet, eating much more nutritious foods getting way more than the RDAs for vitamins and minerals and pretty much all from food.
  2. I spent more time in the fresh air
  3. I stopped flying and generally avoided places where there were lots of people, especially children.  For example I stopped going shopping
  4. When I went to cafes, I made sure to sit in quiet corners
  5. I carried a anti-bacterial gel in the car to use when I went into motorway service stations and the like and I paid more attention to carefully washing my hands all the time
  6. I focussed on getting at least 8 hours of sleep
  7. I started to do Yoga Nidra every day

I’m not sure which combination of these things worked, or maybe I’ve just been lucky, but this last year I’ve had only one mild bout of Tonsillitis and not a single cold.  As a result most of these bad infection triggered flares have gone from my life.  Unfortunately they’ve been replaced by other milder flares, and I have less pain free days.

Given the option though I think it’s a good trade.  I’d rather skip the high pain days where I’m fit for nothing but lying on the sofa feeling sorry for myself, than have a few euphoric pain free days that remind me of what I’m missing and all to quickly get cruelly taken away. 

I’m sitting in Caffe Nero today, I’ve hobbled here very slowly to write this post, get myself out of the house and enjoy a walk along the sea front in the fresh air.  I’m struggling today because I had the Flu jab yesterday and that always triggers a nasty short flare, but then I think, if I flare like this after that jab, what would the Flu do to me!!  The photo is of the beach I enjoyed this morning.

Challenging Chronic Illness

2013-06-03 10.19.35I’m making some progress in challenging my chronic migraines, Adult Onset Stills Disease and Fibromyalgia.  It’s been a 12 year battle and it’s far from over, but I’m still moving forward and that’s been one of the keys to success, trying to wake up each morning and live the best day I can.  I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have great emotional and financial support from my employer in my fight, but I’ve also put a lot of effort in myself. I wish I could say I’ve had great support from my doctors, but unfortunately they’ve created as many problems as they’ve improved. This post is my attempt to summarise the approach that I’ve taken and it will link to articles that go into each area in greater depth, some of these articles already exist and others I will be writing as part of the series that this post serves as the introduction to.

Many blog posts of this sort cover only the good side of the challenge, the progress, the motivation and inspiration.  I’ve decided to also cover the dark side too, some of which still lingers in the background ready to creep back into my life at the next flare.  So enough of the introduction and on to how I’ve approached the challenge.

Important — this article summarises my personal approach, it might be of interest to others, but it’s certainly not a prescription for success and I’m not qualified to provide medical advice to others, so read with that in mind.

What follows is a rough draft of topics that I want to write about, with links to existing blog posts that are relevant.  Over the next few weeks I will be working through each topic, writing new posts and adding content to old ones and tidying up the content of this post.

  1. Name and embrace the illness.  For the first few years of Still’s Disease I had no diagnosis, it was a very difficult time.  Then many years later I developed a set of chronic symptoms that had no real diagnosis, so they called them Fibromyalgia, again this proved helpful.  Once I had a diagnosis and accepted the realities of being ill I could have a sensible discussion with my doctors and employer and start to move forward.
  2. Keeping working.  I found it very difficult to keep working at first and I still have a few days a month when I’m ready to quit.  No matter how hard it it though work provides purpose, social contact and finances that are hard to obtain in other ways.  I’m pleased that I kept working.
  3. Work with my employer.  I was very fortunate to have two things going for me, some great friends and supporters at work who worked with me to design a series of new jobs and bring them into existence and a lot of career capital built up over 20 years that allowed me to negotiate good terms.  Key to this discussion is the fact that the number of hours you work and the value add are not strongly correlated
  4. Make health my first job.  For most of the last 12 years I considered work to be my primary job and this was an endless struggle.  I felt like I was walking a tightrope every day, always ready to fall.  Then I realised that I needed to make my health my primary job and work became an important but secondary activity.  Most times now when a conflict arises I will choose health.  This was a real breakthrough.
  5. Keep motivated. Keeping motivated can be difficult for people at the best of times, but when your whole body hurts, you can’t remember what you did yesterday and you are fighting crushing fatigue you need some tips.  My basic approach was to maximise autonomy (work when and where I wanted to) mastery (develop specialist skills that kept me useful) purpose (keep making a difference at work, in my coaching activities and via this blog)
  6. Making progress.  With my kind of health challenges making progress is tricky.  I can work for months to loose weight and put it all back on in a weeks flare, I can work every day to develop my fitness for a year and find myself worse than a sedentary colleague. My approach is just to wake up every day and try and live the best day I can.  That might involve walking a mile, when the day before I could walk 5, or swimming 5 lengths when the day before I could swim 50.  It doesn’t matter, it’s not about goals, it’s about moving in the right direction.
  7. Manage vicious and virtuous cycles.  Recognising what contributes to vicious cycles of decline and to virtuous cycles of improvement was a key insight for me.  Once I had those lists I worked to systematically reduce the bad and promote the good.  Once a vicious cycle of decline starts, it’s very hard to break, so I’m hyper vigilant now as soon as I start moving on the wrong direction I pounce on the cause and try and fix it
  8. Break over reliance on medication.  A lot of my chronic problems I now attribute to the medications I took early on.  All those antibiotics, steroids, PPIs, NSAIDs and Codeine seriously messed up my gut, then all the pain meds led to chronic migraines, the years of steroids messed up my memory, the list goes on.  It’s taken many years to gradually reduce the meds and rebuild my health from the ground up, using the approach detailed later in this guide.
  9. Dealing with the stress.  Just dealing day to day with the pain, fatigue and uncertainty is stressful enough, but add on work and worries about the future and I’ve needed to develop some serious stress management tools.  Exercise, mindfulness, sleep, Yoga Nidra and meditation have all played an important part.
  10. Dealing with the pain. Daily pain saps my energy, and willpower, both key to driving improvement.  Resorting to pain killers creates more problems than it solves.  After many years I’ve found a few things that work.  Distraction, movement, mindfulness meditation, hot baths, acceptance and medications to help me get to sleep.
  11. Dealing with the fatigue. The greater the level of fatigue the more important it is to move and rest, in equal measure, it’s as simple as that.
  12. Dealing with the migraines. Oh the migraines, the worst of all my problems, it’s  so easy to pop a pill today, but then they will be worse tomorrow.  Having the discipline to not take the pill and to find another way through has been a multi-year challenge that’s not yet won.
  13. Dealing with the bad days.  Waking up and realising it’s going to be a bad day can be crushing, but even on bad days I live the best day I can.  I open up my list of all the things that trigger cycles of decline and improvement and I try to not do too much of the bad stuff and as much of the good as I can.  No matter how badly I do, I’m moving in the right direction every day.  Of course some days I do just watch TV and each chocolate, but being kind to myself on the bad days has its place too.  Everything in moderation including moderation.
  14. Dealing with the good days.  Some days I’m pain free, occasionally some weeks, and once every few years a month.  These good spells can be a real challenge.  I’m euphoric, every simple thing in life is such a joy, I have so much pent up ambition and energy that I go crazy at work, over-committing left right and centre, I pay less attention to living well.  It never lasts, I come crashing down.  It’s taken a long time for me to live the good days the same way I live the bad ones, focussed on my primary job of living the best day I can, living well, building up my resilience, my reserves, ready for the next bad spell.
  15. Dealing with uncertainty. Not knowing how well I will be in a few hours time, when I wake up tomorrow, when I’m going on holiday has been so difficult for me.  Not knowing how I will support my family in a few years time, how I will survive if I’m made redundant and can never find another job.  I’ve been caught out hundreds of times, out walking and unable to get home, travelling and then stuck in a flare, struggling through an important presentation with a migraine, running a week long workshop and hardly able to walk from room to room.  Every time I was caught out the stress and anxiety about it happening again built up until it was too much for me.  Now I’ve developed three main strategies, stop doing customer facing work because the risk of a bad day is too great,  only do time critical work related activities in exceptional circumstances, travel to places I know well and try and go with other people.  I still take some risks, like hiking, but I know I can push through the pain for a few hours if needed and I take emergency gear.
  16. Building my resilience.  The need to build resilience up during the good days has been a key strategy.  I do a lot of research on the good days, so that I’m well prepared for challenges at work.  I do a lot of exercise and eat an exceptionally nutritious diet.  When the bad days strike I’m prepared.  I also work hard to minimise infections, which eliminates one of the major triggers for flares and I try to prepare my mind.
  17. Reduce the chance of infections.  No one wants infections, like the cold or flu, but for me at least they always trigger a nasty flare, so I’ve worked to reduce their frequency quite successfully
  18. The power of sleep.  Sleeping well is both the most elusive and important area for me.  If I don’t sleep well even for a single night, I’m nudged in the direction of a vicious cycle of decline, but with the pain and migraines it’s always a struggle to sleep so in the end I relented and take meds to help me.
  19. The power of nutrition. I’ve come to believe that only the highest levels of nutrition, combined with a focus on eliminating toxins are appropriate for a body that’s under the daily pressure that mine is from stress, pain and all the exercise that I try to do to manage both.
  20. The power of movement. After sleep moving is of critical importance to me.  For every hour I spend sitting I try and spend an hour moving, spread as evenly as possible throughout the day.  Even better is a 1 hour sitting, 2 hours moving pattern but I can’t do that on work days.  Even when I’m flaring I try and keep moving, even if it’s only 10 minutes in every hour.
  21. The power of the mind. We are what we think, so it’s important to train the mind to be resilient, relaxed and positive.  It’s hard to be positive all the time of course and that’s where the resilience comes in.
  22. Long term planning.  Although there’s a lot of variability in my life I’ve found it very comforting to have a long term plan, to know where I’m going and move in that direction every day.  Some days I’m pushed backward, but I’m still pointing in the right direction.
  23. Short term living.  Living with chronic illness I’ve found it most useful to live mostly in the moment, finding joy in the small things in life, focussed on living the best day I can, and planning for the week.  However I have a few anchor events in my diary, for example I take a weeks holiday every month and I work hard to make sure I’m well that week, by paying more attention to resting the week before and recovering the week after.
  24. Keeping records.
  25. Working with my GP
  26. Working with my specialist
  27. Getting professional support

The photo that accompanies this post is one of my favourite walking spots in the local area, the Rivington reservoir system.  walking has been the foundation upon which I’ve rebuilt my life following the onset of the chronic illness’ that are the ‘inspiration’ for this post.

The End Of The Surface Pro Experiment

2014-09-02 11.55.29-2A couple of weeks ago I broke my ‘buying fast’ and purchased a Surface Pro 3.  Last night I decided that it was better suited to my artistic daughter than it was to me, so I’m handing it on to her and getting back on my buying fast.  In this post I explain why I made this decision and why it was actually really easy and rewarding.  I was already mentally prepared to not like the Surface Pro 3, having already used a Surface Pro for a few days last year and sold it on eBay, but I was excited and ready prepared to give it a try.  So in priority order, here’s what went wrong:

  1. I wanted to stop buying things again and in fact wanted to cancel out buying the Surface Pro.  I’ve been very happy this year and in a large part this is because I’ve not bought anything.  Over the last two weeks after buying the Surface pro 3 I’ve been gradually drawn into buying more and more stuff and the Amazon wish list’s been growing at a pace.  I needed an SD card, a case, a bag, maybe a bigger SD card, a spare stylus, a dock, some cables, a spare power supply, a few Windows Store apps and on it goes, buying addiction in action.
  2. I bought the Surface Pro 3 mainly for reading, writing and reviewing.  Unfortunately for writing it pales in comparison to the ThinkPad x230 that I already have.  For almost all reading it can’t compare to the iPad Mini.  For reviewing it’s great, but I will have to get over that, or wait for work to buy me another Tablet with a stylus. 
  3. The battery life is terrible for me, because I work in bright spaces I need the brightness up high, result, about 3 hours before it dies.  I could just about cope with that if I was just using it as a laptop, but it’s not enough for a multi-use device.  My Thinkpad lasts 4-5 hours and I have a spare battery.
  4. I thought I would really like reading magazines on the Surface Pro 3, I used to love reading paper magazines years ago.  Unfortunately after a few trials with Zinio I realised that I now hate reading magazines and their complex, advert dominated layouts. Every time I tried reading a magazine I was dreaming of getting back to Instapaper.
  5. The Surface Pro 3 screen is glorious, but Windows on high dpi screens is just a constant challenge for the apps that I use.  I could cope, but I don’t want to spend 3 hours a day coping when I can use my Thinkpad x230 instead, which has the perfect resolution for it’s screen size.  I did try reducing the resolution and it looked ok, but not good enough
  6. I learned that I can just about cope with a track pad (rather than the ThinkPad’s track point) but I really do like the dedicated ThinkPad mouse buttons.  Dedicated buttons work 100% of the time, the track pad taps and double taps worked about 80% of the time, resulting in a constant stream of little annoyances I can live without.
  7. There were a few other niggles about the form factor that I could have coped with, but for those I’ve listed above.  One of the funny ones was that I was keen to read more white papers and A4 reports.  I thought the Surface Pro would be great for this, and it was, but in the end I found that the reason I didn’t read them before was not because I lacked the perfect device for the job, but because they are boring.  Suffice it to say that after the novelty wore off I stopped reading them again.

These issues slowly worked their way through my brain and after two weeks I’d fully conquered the gadget lust.  I’d promised myself that I would use the Surface Pro 3 as my only PC for 2 weeks, so yesterday, two weeks on, I opened up the Thinkpad and it felt like coming home.  The decision was easy.  Particularly easy because I think Anna will really like it, she’s young and adaptable to new things in a way that I’m not.  She’s likely to make much more use of Windows Store apps than I do and hopefully she will get to make a lot of use of the pen and the magical OneNote integration (I’m not a note taker).

In conclusion — Yay, I’m back on my buying fast and focussing on only buying experiences Smile

I wrote this post sitting in Caffe Nero tapping away on my ThinkPad, it’s dramatically more enjoyable to type on in the comfy chairs that I prefer and my typing accuracy is considerably higher.  I’m going to miss the keyboard backlight though!  The photo above was taken with my eldest daughter, who is soon to be enjoying the gadget capital of the world for a year, it was on this break hiking around Hull that the Surface Pro 3 was tested out as a travelling companion and it failed.

Adjusting To Normal Life

2014-09-11 12.07.38-1For most of this year I’ve taken a weeks holiday every month in the peace and tranquility of the Lake District or the East Coast, normally Filey.  I’ve stayed in pristine, high quality, cheap, out of season, apartments or caravans and it’s been wonderful.  Some of those weeks have been on my own and some with one or other of the kids or with Debbie.  I’ve managed to take so much holiday because my company allows me to buy extra and because I only work a 4 day week, but the underlying reason is because I need these breaks for health reasons.

I’ve learnt something important on the breaks though, I’ve learned that I need very little to be brimming with happiness, to the point that I feel about to fly.  I need someone to chat to for a few minutes every day, but I don’t need constant company.  I need my pain levels to be low enough to allow me to move around.  Most important of all though I need to be able to be able to walk the amazing hills, cliffs and beaches, I need to be able to soak up the crashing waves, the crystal clean air, and the views in order to be fully alive.  But I also need plenty of rest, so I also need something to read and ideally something to listen to if I’m on my own while walking or cycling.  I love to have a destination while walking so I need some friendly cafes and ideally people to meet along the way for a friendly “morning” and the occasional chat.

If I have these things and comfort and shelter then the less of everything else the better.  Holiday homes provide that lack of everything else, by design they provide only the minimum stuff needed for a fairly comfortable life.  Lack of stuff means everything is tidy and there’s nothing fix, nothing to clean, nothing to loose, nothing to worry about, no problems finding space to put things away, everything matches, no choices to make, except which way to walk and what to read.

When I go on these holidays it’s my preference not to drive, this provides another radical simplification, have you ever thought about how many decisions driving introduces.  Contrast that with the sublime simplicity of only having to remember to step onto a train at 5:30 and step off 15 minutes later.

I eat exceptionally well when I’m on holiday too.  I take almost nothing with me and buy only what I’m going to eat that week.  Most of it is fresh so everything is right there in the fridge.  So making decisions about what to east involves little more than opening the fridge door and making sure that nothings left when I leave. 

When I get back home it’s always a bitter sweet experience,  I’m back with my wonderful family, but I’m also returning to all the complexities to real life.  All those little complexities add up, they chip away at my time and willpower, both essential ingredients to keeping me motivated on the bad days, they keep me sitting down which keeps me hurting.  When Debbie and I decided on this years holiday experiment I expected to get bored after all these weeks away in sleepy seaside towns and mountains, but it’s not turned out that way.

It seems that the simple life was designed with me in mind!  I need to invest my creativity in finding more of it in the rest of my life.

The photo is of one of those wonderful cliff top walks, on the path from Filey to Scarborough,  one of the worlds perfect places.

When Opportunities Present Themselves

2014-09-09 14.54.07-2For much of my life I’ve been a planner, but as I’ve grown older I’ve become more comfortable with becoming opportunistic.  Over the last few years this has become ever more important because my chronic health challenges have introduced a lot of variability into my life.   A few weeks ago I was struggling to walk a couple of miles,  I was hobbling around on sore feet, inflamed tendons and throbbing joints, this week I walked a marathon.  As I was feeling good this week I’d taken a few days break in Filey, yesterday I’d planned to do the 8 mile walk from the country park at Filey to Scarborough after a nice rest there I was going to get the bus back.  As it happened, although my feet were playing up a little I was feeling pretty great, no pain or fatigue so I decided to go for it and walk back to Filey and then take an evening walk as well.  All in all I did 27 miles, 7 miles longer than I’d ever walked before.  I was thrilled!

I’ve decided that I really have only two options, progressively retreat from many of the aspects of my life I love or wake up each morning and try to find opportunities to live the best day I can.  After a few years taking the first option, I’m gradually adjusting to the latter.  This week presented one of those opportunities.

The photo in this post is from the cliff top walk, I took it not long after I’d decided to walk a marathon, but quite a few hours before I completed it!  I strongly recommend the walk.