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Office Space Density vs. Productivity

IMG_8754I’ve been helping out with office designs at work over the last few weeks and it’s interesting to watch the challenges raised when I make suggestions that compromise density in the service of increasing productivity. This is a common theme, every time I’ve done an office design the facilities manager has proudly dropped a plan on the desk with the maximum number of desks squeezed into every nook and cranny, with a few token conference rooms thrown in. 

By contrast I like to start by designing the zones that I want to create in an office, zones being regions of the office that are to be associated with different types of work.  Zones might include a library space for people to sit quietly surrounded by books and magazines, comfy chairs where people can take a break from their desks for unscheduled chats, collaboration spaces focused on a variety of types of meetings, sound insulated spaces for conference calls.

A person might occupy space in multiple zones throughout the day.  They might occupy a desk all day, spend 5% of their time in comfy seating, 10% in the library and 20% in meetings spaces (highly simplified analysis).  Once you know how everyone will split their time up based on different types of work you know how big each zone needs to be and therefore what density you can achieve.

The basic message of this post is the density that can be achieved starts with an analysis of the types of work that the office needs to support, not the number of desks that can be squeezed into the space. People are a lot more expensive than floor space in most of our offices!

Interestingly my eldest daughter happens to be very interested in cities and in particular how to optimise the trade-off between density of housing and quality of life through good design.  This seems to be incredibly important given the growth of cities and the huge impact on welfare of we get it wrong.  It’s a shame we don’t see as much focus on our offices.  We’ve had lot of interesting conversations about the similarity between offices and cities and she’s a keen observer of the office designs she’s been exposed to so far.

I wrote this post in Caffe Nero after a misty walk along the sea front.  I’m sitting in the window seat watching the clouds break and the sun start to peak through which should make for a good walk later.  The photo I’ve chosen to decorate this post came from yesterday morning’s walk and shows what remains of St Annes’ original pier which was destroyed by fire in 1974.

The Case For Less

IMG_8760I was up early this morning, excited to get in 30 minutes on my exercise bike watching TED talks before walking on the beach and enjoying the amazing sunrise.  I like to pick TED talks pretty much at random and be ‘pleasantly surprised’.  It’s ironic then that today I got to enjoy one of my all time favourite, thought provoking, talks; The Paradox Of Choice, which summarises the book by the same name. A book that I’ve also read and highly recommend.  The basic thesis for the talk is that we have too much choice in modern life and that choice paralyses us, results in post purchase regret, raises our expectations and when, ultimately, we are disappointed we blame ourselves.  It’s a powerful critique of modern life and one that resonates so powerfully with me.

As so often happens in life I’d popped round to a friends house last night to return a huge stack of walking books he’d lent me, and as I was unpacking them onto his dining room table we were talking about the very same issue.  He asked me whether I’d read and then done any of the thousands of walks or “were you overwhelmed”, and I was embarrassed to say that while I’d flicked through some of the books, they’d largely remained on the bookshelf.  Too many books, too many walks, too much guilt about not reading them and walking them.

I am conscious of this paradox of too much choice though, I have pared down my life and I do walk every day, but I only have about 20 walks in my life, just like I only have basically 5 outfits to wear and 5 places that I holiday each year.  I can’t say that I really live the simple life, because I have way too much stuff, but I do live a tidy life, a life with limits, but within those limits I try to live life to the full.  Without limits living life to the full is a terrifying prospect.

I wrote this post in Caffe Nero, enjoying one of the 7 morning routines that I choose from when I’m at home.  The photo was taken using just my iPhone on the beach where I was in the company of two real photographer, burdened with rucksacks full of gear, tripods and huge lenses.  I think I got the better deal.

I Don’t Want A Standing Desk, I Prefer My Exercise Bike

2014-10-24 15.52.05-1There’s endless talk on the blogs about the dangers of sitting often linked to the benefits of a standing desk.  I agree completely with the former, but the idea of standing still for long stretches of the day fills me with horror.  In my experience there’s nothing worse for me than standing still, humans aren’t designed for standing, we are designed for walking.  Unfortunately you don’t see any where near as much attention to walking desks for good reason, it takes a special kind of concentration and dexterity to be able to walk and use a keyboard at the same time and if you look up the prices of walking desks a special kind of budget! Not my kind of budget that’s for sure!

Anyone who regularly reads this blog knows that I pay a ridiculous amount of attention to moving, it’s critical to controlling my daily pain levels and keeping flares at bay,  I need moderate exercise like others need food, 3-4 times a day, but I need to avoid intense exercise too.  I’ve got an old exercise bike that’s been stored in my office for many years gathering dust.  After reading about the dangers of sitting in the book Get Up!: Why Your Chair is Killing You and What You Can Do About It it’s presence started to loom ever larger.  Eventually I pulled it out of it’s neglected corner and tried riding it for a few days but was frustrated by the wasted time,  I could use my remote and watch some videos on the office big screen, but all too often I had to stop to use my laptop as something popped into my head, or I wanted to look something up, take notes or respond to a message. 

2014-08-15 14.55.58Then I realised that if I folded the handlebars down horizontal I could balance a kitchen tray on them and put my laptop or iPad there, better! but precarious.  So a month or so ago I took the plunge and fitted a permanent ‘table’  to the bars and I’ve not looked back. 

This is how I have things setup now:

  1. I still store the bike off in a corner out of the way
  2. When I want to use it I carry it (good strength exercise) across the room so it’s facing my big 27” desktop screen
  3. I pop my laptop on the non slip surface of the table, which is cable tied to the handle bars locked in horizontal position
  4. I use Mouse Without Borders (a fantastic app) which allows my laptop to easily control my desktop with it’s big screen.  I can stop and start videos, find new videos, anything I want basically
  5. So I sit on the bike watching company briefings, tech conferences, training videos, entertainment videos, participating in conference calls, watch TV, all on the big screen
  6. My laptop is right in front of me and using Mouse Without Borders I can toggle the keyboard between both computers instantly.  That means on my laptop I can take notes, look things up, scan my email, read my RSS news feeds.  I have my phone and iPad mini on the bike’s table too.
  7. Sometimes I don’t want the distraction of the laptop on the table so I will just sit back and use my iPad or pop the desktop’s Thinkpad Bluetooth keyboard on the table and control things with it’s built in mouse and media keys

It’s been a revelation, I’m moving almost twice as much as I used to on working days, getting natural pain relief, burning more calories which allows me too eat more food.  Eating more food is especially important because I follow The Wahls Protocol, a high nutrient diet, for health reasons and I just can’t get enough nutrients if I’m sitting around all day.

Over the last couple of months I’ve gradually moved closer to a system that works pretty well for me when working from home:

  1. Swim first thing in the morning for 10-15 minutes, this works mostly the upper body joints and the knees
  2. Stretch two or three times a day, mostly focussed on my shoulders, hamstrings and achilles tendons
  3. 5-10,000 steps of walking before lunch listening to podcasts
  4. Then I will sit for an hour or so
  5. Seated Vipassana meditation mid-day, by this time I’m hurting all over so I can really focus on the pain and embrace it
  6. 60+ minutes on the exercise bike during the afternoon
  7. More sitting
  8. The rest of the steps I need to get to 10,000 in the afternoon or early evening
  9. More sitting
  10. Lots of pottering around the house and garden throughout the day while taking breaks from sitting
  11. Sometimes another 30+ minutes on the exercise bike during the evening
  12. More sitting
  13. Floating in the bath
  14. Bed

When I’m sitting I try to change chair types and change position every 45 minutes or so, so that I keep my back moving and challenged.  Of course I still gets flares and when those happen everything has to be scaled back a lot, but I still try to move.

I wrote this post sitting in Caffe Nero after a lovely cycle ride against the wind to Lytham (hence the picture) followed by a quick swim.  My legs are close to perfect today, my arms are horrible, hence the emphasis on ‘quick’ swim

The Power Of Qualitative Team Health Metrics

2014-03-07-14.18.59_thumbI’m seeing a lot more burnout at work for many reasons, all of them very disturbing.  It’s bad for the employer because people become disengaged, productivity suffers, stress increases all around, sickness levels increase and retention suffers.  It’s clearly bad for the individuals and their families and it’s also bad for the team as a whole, burnout spreads.

I’m a strong believer in team working, a good team makes work a joy, but unfortunately many teams fail to achieve their potential mostly because people confuse teams with people who sit together, or do the same type of work, work on the same project, or talk on the phone one a week in a team call.  Even when a team is real it’s often not given the right tools to help spot, manage and prevent the early signs of problems and then to go way beyond problem solving to create a healthy environment where all team members are flourishing.  There are dozens of things that contribute to a great team, but for this blog post I’m just going to pick one, qualitative team health metrics.

I think it’s a great idea for a team to get together and design a set of qualitative metrics that they think are important to helping them flourish as individuals and as a team. In a company with many teams it’s best to start out with a template, and then let individual teams innovate from there.

So lets get started with considering what might be included in a template, keeping it simple we might ask all team members to score how they feel week each week in a number of areas on a scale of 1-5 :

  1. How stressed are you feeling?
  2. How is your health?
  3. How frustrated are you?
  4. How over worked are you?
  5. How under worked are you?
  6. Is work improving?
  7. Do others in the team support you?
  8. Do you know what’s expected of you?
  9. Do you need more skills/training?
  10. Are you happy with your working environment?
  11. Are you happy with your IT/phone equipment?
  12. Are you unhappy with quality of the service you are able to provide to your customers?

It’s important that the team takes ownership of this list, it’s the things they feel are important for them to thrive and the team to succeed.  When I’ve instigated reporting on similar areas weekly the individuals have generally found it very useful and leaders even more so.  You can make the reports actionable by saying:

  1. A score of 3 or less can be managed by the individual/team or during routine reviews
  2. A score of 4 needs proactive in the next few weeks 
  3. A score of 5 needs action this week

This sort of reporting starts to get incredibly valuable when it’s aggregated into a spread sheet so that you can see everyone’s results at a glance and see trends.  You can then see issues developing in the team long before you see them reflected in other metrics or being surfaced in discussions.  For example:

  1. At the start of a project you might expect to see low scores for question 8 but if this persists for more than a few weeks, or worse increases then you have a project with poor requirements, architecture or design
  2. If you see high scores for question 7 then your culture needs work 
  3. If you see stress levels and frustration increasing then watch out

Managers often claim that they know their teams, unfortunately they often miss the soft issues and people don’t like talking about them.  Providing them with a quick and simple way of quantifying their satisfaction and providing them with a way to cry for help makes a difference.

image_thumbAlso important is the insight that senior leaders can get with a single glance into the ‘health’ of a function or project, using the people as a lens.  They can see a project manager putting a team under too much pressure, they can see a team start to worry that quality is slipping, they can see one team progressing at the expense of another.

In all the big teams I’ve run have tacked these indicators onto the end of a traditional weekly highlight report, everyone in the team sends a copy to their peers and to their team leader.  Team leaders send aggregated reports to other team leads.  A business administrator updates the master spread sheet each week, the results get pinned to the wall.  Of course a web site might be more efficient, but regardless of the way the metrics are captured they take less than a couple of minutes a week.

Depending on the culture aggregated reports might need to be anonymised.  The spread sheet for a team within a project going off the rails would look like this, something is very wrong in Team A.

I wrote the first version of this post in Caffe Nero in Kendal, the picture at the top right is of the bridge over the river Kent.  I took the picture from my bike as I was returning from a week long break in the North Lake District and reminiscing about how to manage big teams well.  This is a new version of the post, updated and refocused a little so that it’s relevant to all types of teams, not just project teams.

Another Way To Look At Individual Performance Metrics

2013-02-21 14.44.25Unfortunately most of us have come across metrics that are used to measure individual performance, to provide a quantified ‘stick’ with which to beat the under-performing individual, I hate them with a passion.  Whilst they might have some validity in an assembly line, they have no place where I work, with knowledge workers.

There’s another way to think about metrics though, as a way for people to understand the work they are doing better to provide insights into how they are doing it, so that they can take ownership of and improve, their own performance.  Managers then have a very different discussion with their staff, it’s no longer do more, it understand more.  Once the focus switches to knowledge about work and how work gets done, improvement flows naturally.

By refocusing metrics in this way we help people understand why some jobs take a long time, while others are quicker.  Provide the team with insights into why some people do the same job faster than others, without the assumption that speed is always better.

Metrics need to become more like the fitbit that I wear on my belt, my wife doesn’t check up on my daily step count and use that to decide whether I get dinner or not, instead it’s a tool to help me improve my fitness, one of many inputs that provide me with more understanding of how I move each day, to give me with insights, to encourage me to move more.  It’s a tool for self improvement.

Let’s take the example of a service desk environment where people are traditionally managed based on their ability to meet or exceed a target number of tickets.  Throughput is easy to measure, but difficult to correlate with good performance:

  1. Tickets associated with one service might be more complex than tickets for another
  2. One person might more reliably diagnose the problem than another, he gets less tickets done, but the customer is much happier with the result
  3. Another might document the resolution better, so he’s slower too, but the next person trying to solve the same problem will be quicker
  4. Another might solve a problem in a way that takes a few minutes longer, but minimises the disruption for the customer
  5. Yet another might capture more useful meta-data resulting in more accurate reports and improved analysis of trends
  6. The last example might be the person who calms down the frantic, angry customer and turns them into a fan

These additional dimensions of good performance are lost when throughput if the primary criteria.  Of course defocussing on throughput and re-focussing on a broader definition of quality might result in less throughput in the short term, or more variability, but variability is inherent in most systems anyway.  The way to deal with that is by building slack into a system.  Instead of dividing 1000 tickets a day by 10 tickets per person and so having 100 staff, you have 105.  This might seem crazy at first sight but take a read of the book Slack and you will seen see that companies with slack consistently outperform companies that don’t.  Queues don’t build up, teams have the ability to cope with unexpected peaks, staff don’t burn out, sickness levels reduce, innovation increases, improvements can be sustained and customers are happier.

I’m no expert in service desk in particular, but here are a few random ideas that might be better than the throughput stick:

  1. Group people into teams of 4-8 and give the team a target ticket volume.  Encourage the team to discuss how to tackle the challenge together.  Maybe 5 people will cover the sixth person while she does some cross training.  Maybe 2 of the people are better at complex tickets than the others.  Maybe one member of the team seems consistently slower and the team can work together to figure out why and provide some coaching.
  2. Provide the team with more insightful metrics, metrics that really help them do their job better.  Make it possible for them to compare throughput when solving different types of tickets (problems, requests, how do I questions).  Let them see whether their throughput is affected by the time of day, because the team’s not managing their energy well.  The possibilities are endless.
  3. Set-up competitions between teams, to see who can clear the most tickets each week and then get the winning team to share as many hints and tips as they can think of as to how they did it.  For each tip they provide give the team £10

The point of this list isn’t to provide really good ideas, it’s to change the mindset away from measuring individual performance in a crude way and then using it as a stick, instead use metrics to help individuals, or even better teams, take ownership of improving their own performance.

Critically assume people want to do a good job, but to be motivated to do a good job your need to find ways to give them autonomy over the way that they do it and some control over what ‘good’ means to them.  They want to improve their performance, not simply their throughput, they want to become craftsmen/masters of their trade.  They want to understand and engage with a higher purpose than clearing 10 tickets a day:

  1. giving the customer a good first impression
  2. reliably diagnosing the customers problem
  3. fixing that problem quickly
  4. minimising disruption to the customer
  5. minimising the chance of the same problem happening again
  6. explaining to the customer how to help themselves
  7. capturing information that can be used to analyse and spot trends
  8. capturing knowledge so that if the same problem happens again others will be able to do everything better
  9. leaving the customer calm, confident and happy
  10. keeping their energy levels high so they do a great job all day
  11. not getting burnt out to the point where they go off sick
  12. enjoying their work and their team so much that they want to stay
  13. making sure they do the follow up research that arises from some incidents
  14. helping out a team member who who didn’t get much sleep because of a sick child

You can’t easily measure all of these things in a quantified way, but you can in a subjective way, but that’s the subject of another post.

I wrote this post with my legs up on the sofa in my conservatory office.  I don’t normally work on a Friday but I started discussing this topic with a friend of mine on the phone this morning and I wanted to clear my mind of the resulting swirling thoughts.  I’ve one more blog post to write and then I’m off to walk on the sea front, so this post’s picture is to remind me of what I’m missing.

More On Waking Up And The Humanist Community

2014-10-22 09.37.23A few days ago I read the book Waking Up after also reading about a new kind of Christianity.  Both books started me on a journey of self discovery.  I’ve always been an atheist, so hearing others describe atheism is interesting but not mind expanding.  What’s really interesting is discovering how atheists can also experience spirituality (Waking Up) also live a good life based on a rational moral code (Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe) and that inquiring Christians are really struggling to make sense of their faith (A New Kind of Christian).  I also read the excellent 10% happier that made it abundantly clear that secular spirituality is just as hard work as religion would be (for me).

My atheist life though has always been lonely, I’ve mostly grown up surrounded by Christians, most social gatherings I attend are Christian, the school my kids went to was a church school and they all attended Christian clubs.  The self discovery though is that there are others like me, a billion apparently, maybe intellectually I already knew this, but until I actually discovered the Humanist movement it never seemed real. 

All of a sudden I’ve discovered groups all over who think like me.  People who want to do good in the world, who want to improve themselves, but don’t expect God to help out, it’s liberating.

I strongly recommend this 100 minute video that explores many of the topics I’ve touched on in this post, it’s really excellent.

Sam Harris and Greg Epstein

The photo today is what I woke up to.  I have almost no ability to recall memories from my childhood now, but as I drifted out of sleep this morning I remembered my very laid back high school RE teacher telling me “you’re a humanist Steve”, it’s taken me nearly 40 years to understand what he was talking about!

Just One Of Those Days

2013-01-27 10.31.38Yesterday was one of those so very rare days, when everything in the world seems to line up and progress becomes effortless.  I woke up mostly free of pain, dodged the showers on my walk to Caffe Nero, had a great time reading before heading home just before 10am.  The plumber arrived on time to fit the new fire in the living room, which is rare enough, but he was a great guy jovial and full of stories.  While he worked I worked, energised by his example to fix a half dozen nagging jobs around the house that had been waiting for months.

In the afternoon, glowing from all these accomplishments and well fed with smoothies I spent the afternoon writing a strategy paper for work and then jumped on the exercise bike to catch up on my Instapaper ‘videos to watch’ queue.

The day finished off with a family dinner and TV around our new glowing fire.  Perfect.

Progress is so hard at work now days that I sometimes forget how wonderful it feels, especially when it’s framed by good food, good company, relaxation and meditation.  Of course it didn’t last, today has been a trial.  I’ve had a migraine most of the day which I’ve tried to battle, with only limited success, in order to let me finish the document that started with so much promise yesterday.  Still there’s always tomorrow.

the photo today is of the bleak windy sand dunes that decorated this mornings walk, as I was trying to listen to a podcast by the overpowering Tony Robbins who I’m sure has important things to say, but he’s an extroverted extrovert and too much for my introverts ears to cope with.

Awesome Evernote

2013-10-09 09.10.53I’m exposed to a lot of start-ups, flooded with VC money and trying to make their mark on the world, or get bought.  Evernote rises above them all, it’s been the foundation of my personal knowledge management system for many years, but more than that it’s been an inspiration to watch as a company.  From the beginning Evernote seemed different, it was so centred around my long term needs, not some social networking addiction, but a deep investment in making me more productive in the long term.  It’s saved me dozens of times when we’ve lost an important document, bill or receipt and a scan of it has just been a few clicks away, it’s kept me organised, it’s kept my life simpler and easier.

This post isn’t really about Evernote the product though, it’s about Evernote the company.  Lead by a leader who’s deeply committed to the Evernote mission, a CEO who appears to be there for life.  A management team prepared to create a podcast that let me listen from the side lines as the team described both product and company and who shared their excitement about both. It’s a team that from the outside seem to have executed their strategy flawlessly:

  1. Create a geeky service and give it away for free
  2. Embrace the cloud, long before it had that name
  3. Engage with their power users, to create a deep bond of trust, essential for a product that’s meant to store your life, your memories.
  4. Find a few features that these power users will pay for, but won’t cripple the product for everyone else
  5. Create a community around the product, leverage passionate users as ambassadors for the product and give them a platform to share that passion.
  6. Develop best in class mobile apps better than anyone else, make sure those apps really exploit each mobile platform’s strengths
  7. Once the geeks have helped you refine the service, grow like crazy
  8. Make Evernote a platform and integrate with IFTTT and Zapier
  9. Buy and develop apps that plug into that platform and encourage developers to do the same
  10. Create a business version of the same product, an easy sell because so many of your users are already using it at work anyway
  11. Extend the eco system to co-designed and co-branded best in class physical goods that Evernote users will love and can buy with confidence
  12. Don’t focus on the competition, focus on the needs of your users
  13. …..

I’m so excited to see what they do next as they try to move from personal knowledge management into knowledge creation!

As a place to work Evernote seems to be as innovative, well thought through, and flexible as it’s products.  Great offices, great benefits, retained start-up culture. 

There are lot’s of great companies out there, Google, Apple, Microsoft, but in my view Evernote leads the pack, it’s truly been a joy to watch the strategy unfold.

I wrote this post in Caffe Nero where I’m spending a few hours before work.  My Mum is joining me soon.  When I’m 71, like her, I’m hoping that Evernote will still be with me, along with all my tweets, blog posts, everything I’ve read, every document I’ve scanned, photo I’ve saved.  The photo that illustrates this post celebrates ‘memories’ and this is one that I treasure, watching a seal pup scamper across Filey beach for the safety of the sea as I walked past.

Exploring The Evolution Of Christianity

Steve’s _IMG_8107As an atheist Christian books are not often on my reading list, in fact I’ve probably not read more than a handful of religious books in my life.  This month though I’ve been tempted into reading one, A New Kind of Christian which was recommended by Debbie’s pastor as one of the top ten books that changed his life.  It’s not great literature, but that’s not it’s purpose, it’s designed to challenge much of the baggage that’s grown up around the teachings of Jesus in the last 2000 years and get back to his core message.  It recognises the bible as a book of it’s time, that needs to be interpreted for the modern world, but also read through the filter of Jesus’s teachings. 

As soon as you accept these things many of my concerns about Christianity fall away:

  1. Christianity’s inability to accept and embrace what we learn about the world if it’s inconsistent with the bible (evolution, age of the planet etc)
  2. The Christian concept of heaven and hell as distinct future destinations, rather than ways of living today.  Living according to Jesus’s moral code is ‘heaven’ the further we depart from that code the closer our lives approach ‘hell’.  To my mind the core of what Jesus teaches is about how we live now, how we act, not so much about what myths we believe. 
  3. The idea that everyone in the world who’s unfortunate enough not to discover Christianity is damned, an idea that is so far removed from Jesus’s teachings as to be abhorrent to me
  4. The inability to see some of the parables and other sections of the bible for the powerful moral stories that they are, rather than as factual accounts.  Once stripped of the supernatural I think they are more inspiring not less
  5. Cultural baggage can be disentangled from the moral code, for example attitude towards women, gays, other religions, non-believers
  6. The fatalism “it’s Gods will” that Christianity encourages, rather than promoting self responsibility to fix our own problems, deal with our own challenges

The book doesn’t prescribe a new Christianity, it sketches out a new kind of Christian and points such a Christian in a direction that will result in a new kind of Christianity that’s more fluid in how it evolves over time, but also grounded on a smaller consistent core philosophy.  It presents a vision for Christianity that would be much easier to live with than a version that somehow has to reconcile all of the contradictions that exist within the bible as a whole.

There’s another side to the book though that’s just as interesting.  It provides a glimpse into the life of a pastor trying to reconcile the need to drive change with the need to keep his congregation on side.  Many people who have the ‘religious gene’ get deeply attached to their beliefs to the point where they become inseparable from their sense of self.  Challenges to these beliefs must shake such people to their foundation.  These deeply held beliefs must be a great comfort to people at times, but their need to defend them against pervasive and mounting evidence that contradicts them must make them tremble inside.  It’s no wonder that this internal turmoil spills over into negative behaviours and worse (love thy neighbour quickly being forgotten). 

I’ve considerable experience of driving change at work so I know how hard it is, even when challenging weakly held beliefs. In fact just moving people outside their comfort zone is hard work. So I have renewed respect for religious leaders who have the strength to make much needed change.

As an atheist I found the book mostly satisfying.  It de-emphasised religiousism, challenges myths, promoted rational Christian philosophy, encouraged respect and the search for common ground between faiths.  It placed more emphasis on right action on this life, rather than focussing on life after death.  It also made me realise though just how wonderful being an atheist is:

  1. I’m able to live a life guided by the best thinkers in the world rather than being constrained to a single source of truth
  2. I don’t have to deal with all of the inconsistencies presented in the bible, I’m able shape my own consistent code for living and adapt it to circumstances
  3. I’m able to embrace the wonders of the universe without fear that those wonders might conflict with some ancient belief
  4. I’m able to change or refine what I believe as new information presents itself.  It’s exciting to always be learning, rather than for key beliefs to be locked in the past
  5. I’ve no fear of going to hell, I never worry about God striking me down
  6. I never get disappointed when God doesn’t answer my prayers, I have to take personal responsibility for sorting out my own problems, I know where I stand

I’m a little sad though that the wonderful community that common religious beliefs promote isn’t available to me without me being forced into living a life of hypocrisy.

My spiritual life comes from appreciating the awe inspiring wonders of our universe, being in nature, surrounded by my family and friends, helping others.  When I walk along the beach I often close my eyes and listen to the surf as I walk, the feeling of being one with the world is all the ‘worship’ I need.  The picture I picked to illustrate today’s post is a great example of what I see when I open my eyes.

Meditation (experiences, progress, promise and books)

2013-05-31 10.17.46I’ve been meditating in one form or another for 40 years, I first discovered it as a kid through yoga and I didn’t think of it as meditation then, just conscious breathing.  Fifteen years ago this occasional anonymous practice became more systematic and got a name, Vipassana Meditation, now a few years on I prefer to just call it meditation.  I don’t want my meditation practice to have any hint of religious affiliation. Even though I think religions have much to teach us as codes for living, they have even more to avoid (religious people by contrast are generally great).

For me Meditation is both easy to describe (focus on the breath, watch thoughts arise and return to the breath) and practice (sit still and breathe), but fiendishly difficult to sustain.  Sitting for 30 minutes a day seems hard to justify at first, there seems to be little progress, what progress there is appears to be invisible and all those bubbling thoughts that keep drawing my attention away from the breath are frustrating!  Fast forward a decade and I now see significant progress though, my autistic brain is more empathic, I find it much easier to calmly see situations from other people’s perspective, I can relax myself with a breath or two. 

Most important of all though meditation has allowed me to separate ‘me’ from my physical pain, to experience the pain but not react to it, to be an impartial observer.  This separation allows me to do physical activities that hurt a lot, to the point at which natural endorphins (pain killers) kick in and give me temporary peace.  These natural endorphins are important because I can only do this separation ‘trick’ when I’m single tasking,  I’m not yet able to separate myself when I’m trying to read, watch TV, focus on work, or sleep, so I need chemical help.

In the last ten years science has embraced the study of meditation and studies abound with evidence of benefits:

Meditation improves immune function, lowers blood pressure, and cortisol levels; it reduces anxiety, depression, neuroticism, and emotional reactivity. It also leads to greater behavioural regulation and has shown promise in the treatment of addiction and eating disorders. Unsurprisingly, the practice is associated with increased subjective well-being. Training in compassion meditation increases empathy, as measured by the ability to accurately judge the emotions of others, as well as positive affect in the presence of suffering.

Pretty impressive.  Gradually as I’ve practiced meditation I’ve become more interested in understanding my mind and the minds of others, in finding a kind of secular spirituality.  I’ve been reading more books on religion and trying to understand the religious perspective which for decades has mystified me.  I’ve been following the work of Sam Harris (brave guy) the author and campaigner who’s challenging the worst of religion and digging deep into the secular nature of humanity, to find the best of ourselves.

I’ve been progressing from one session of meditation a day to two sessions, one 20 minute session of Yoga Nidra focussed on relaxation and the mind/body connection and 20 minutes of mindfulness meditation focussed on compassion and understanding the nature of self.  I’ve been loving it and seeing progress (the great motivator) I’m planning some DIY meditation retreats next year.

I’m now at the point where I can unreservedly recommend meditation, but I’ve struggled to find a book to recommend.  Most of the books are written from the perspective of a master meditator, providing vague advice to a struggling pupil.  Last week though I discovered a book that really captured my reality of meditation, the ups and downs, the promise and the challenge.  It’s written with a mix of humour and respect (and a little swearing).  I chose to listen to the audiobook, read by the author, it was fantastic.  I highly recommend 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works.

Here’s a video by Dan Harris summarising the experiences he delves into deeply in his book, which is worth a watch, even if you’re not interested in reading the book or even meditating.

If you want more intellectual rigour and don’t mind religious ideas being challenged then Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion by Sam Harris is also excellent.

I wrote this post sitting in Caffe Nero, I’m mid flare at the moment suffering from pain, fatigue and fever but I dragged myself out of bed and to my favourite writing spot for ice cold coke and a slice of chocolate.  I’m looking forward to meditating when I get home and ‘bathing’ in the pain.  I chose a picture of the path to Watch Wood in Lytham, one of my favourite local walking routes.