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Stuffocation

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Stuffocation: Living More With Less, is the ‘catchy’ title of  a new book by James Wallman that explores the simple living movement.  Unlike most of the books I’ve read on simple living though the emphasis is on ‘explores’, this is not a passionate call to arms, rather it’s a fairly thorough exploration of the various trends at play and how they might realistically morph into a more general movement that affects society as a whole, from the blurb on Amazon:

Stuffocation is one of the most pressing problems of the twenty-first century. We have more stuff than we could ever need, and it isn’t making us happier. It’s bad for the planet. It’s cluttering up our homes. It’s making us stressed—and it might even be killing us.

I found the book very refreshing in it’s approach and while I didn’t learn much, I did get a more balanced view from it than in other books that I’ve read.  Books that promoted the idea of living out of a suitcase, or in a tiny house not much bigger than a horse box, or being able to count your possessions and still have ‘change’ from a 100.  None of these extreme interpretations of simple living appeal to me, I like my luxuries, my books, my tools and having enough clothes to suit all weather conditions…. 

Jame’s also considers the current trendy idea of substituting experiences for stuff.  In fact his conclusion is that ever richer experiences are the ultimate conclusion of this simplicity trend, for example instead of going to the cinema we will attend a live theatre like experience that immerses us, as full participants, in scenes from the movie.  Other examples of ‘rich experiences’ might be helicopters rides long the Grand Canyon, visiting all of the modern wonders of the world or diving with sharks.  Keeping up with the Jones switches from a greener lawn, a bigger pool, or fancier car to ‘bagging’ ever richer experiences, more from the blurb:

Experientialism does not mean giving up all of our possessions. It is a solution that is less extreme but equally fundamental. It’s about transforming what we value. Stuffocation is a paradigm-shifting look at our habits and an inspiring call for living more with less. It’s the one important book you won’t be able to live without.

Personally these over-the-top experiences don’t appeal to me much, they seem to lead to just the same kind of excesses that too much stuff manifests.  Instead of too much stuff, we just substitute too much experience.  People would end up seeking freedom from the pressure to accumulating ever more overly luxurious experiences, in the same way that a few of us are seeking out freedom from too much stuff today. 

I’m already past that point though, personally my simple living quest is as much about finding satisfaction in simple experiences as it is in rationalising my wardrobe.  It’s also about simplifying my life as a whole, not just my possessions.  For me simple living means means:

  • having high quality, reliable, predictable possessions, in a warm, dry, safe house
  • well designed, effective, dependable, public services
  • a health care system that put’s the emphasis on proactive care, gets to the root causes of problems with staff who have time to get to treat the whole person
  • plenty of well maintained, clean and safe public spaces
  • a population that’s caring, friendly, helpful, generous with it’s time and that takes responsibility for confronting and fixing problems. 

These are the kind of experiences that I want my day to be filled with, friendly, efficient, clean, safe, reliable, predictable.  They will likely be more labour intensive than the experiences that I ‘enjoy’ today, but I’d rather spend my money on these than on more stuff.

Once the basics are taken care of I want to spend my time experiencing nature, cycling, hiking, chilling with friends and family, creating, painting, gardening, immersed in a good book, watching a TV show with the family, going on picnics, playing ball games or watching the sun set.

When it comes to work, I’d be looking for simplicity here too, well scoped projects, with sufficient time and funding to do a good job, a well motivated team to work with, the right tools and less of the back-stabbing and politics. 

Right now the world is obsessed with growth and profit, at every level.  Individuals strive for bigger houses, better cars, more gadgets, more jewellery, shoes, clothes and travel.  Employers focus on profit and growth at the expense of loyal, engaged, motivated, employees and long term satisfied customers.  Governments focus on GDP rather than fairness, sustainability and happiness. 

Everyone is obsessed with accumulating and experiencing more, when we should be focused on living well with what we have.  Mindfulness is the start point in my simple living quest, but it doesn’t get a mention in Stuffocation. Nor does the fact that many experiences that have previously cost thousands, or maybe money can’t even buy today are about to become as cheap as a movie or game download.  Virtual reality is about to sweep over the world, making flying down the Grand Canyon like a bird, just a few clicks away.  Similarly ‘every’ song, book, TV show and movie will be available for a subscription cost, not much much more than a few coffees a week at your favourite cafe. 

We are not going to lack for the availability of experiences.  The challenge is going to be that virtual reality, virtual meetings, online media (books, TV, music …) and online shopping are going to be so easy, so compelling, so cheap, so addictive that the real world might well suffer badly as a result.  When the real world fades away in importance, so does the safety, cleanliness and beauty of the real world.  Why pay for the parks to be maintained, for the Lakeland paths to be resurfaced, for the potholes in the roads to be fixed, for the town centre shops, for the streets to be safe … when people don’t value these things anymore, their home is their castle.

I don’t think the challenge the world faces is stuffocation, I don’t think the solution is ever richer experiences, I think the risk is everyone being sucked into the seductive virtual world.  Gamer’s already know this, some so in the thrall of games that they go days without eating.  What happens when virtual life, a few clicks away for everyone, becomes as seductive as gaming is today for the few.  We won’t be promoting ‘more [virtual] experience’ then, but I will might well still be happy with my definition of simple living.

I wrote this post sitting in Caffe Nero Lytham, I’m going for a walk to Fairhaven Lake later with a friend of mine.  Starting the day here is an important part of my morning routine, a very valuable part of my morning experience.  I normally go to my local cafe in St Annes though after which I enjoy a walk along the prom and beach, the photo that decorates this post is of a small part of that walk, taken from the Grand Hotel, where the golf course meets the Dunes, just next to the Beach Terrace Cafe (just out of shot on the left).

Has Technology Improved Our Lives?

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At first sight this seems like a strange question to ask, I only need to look around me and I see all the evidence that’s need to answer with a resounding “yes” — the amazing iPhone clipped to my belt, the super efficient boiler that’s at heart of my home, the high tech car on the drive. But then if I dig deeper into the question I start to doubt myself, if I look at the way we adopt technology, it looks more like an addict heedlessly buying more and more, without questioning the seductive marketing and the pressure to conform, assuming that more is always better, never satisfied.  Our approach to technology is brought into sharp contrast when it’s compared to the Amish:

The difference between Amish people and most other Americans is the deliberation that takes place before deciding whether to embrace a new technology. Many Americans assume newer technology is always better, and perhaps even inherently good.

"The Amish don’t buy that," says Donald Kraybill, professor at Elizabethtown College and co-author of The Amish. "They’re more cautious — more suspicious — wondering is this going to be helpful or is it going to be detrimental? Is it going to bolster our life together, as a community, or is it going to somehow tear it down?"

I like the word “deliberation” in the Amish approach to emphasise just how little thought really goes into our rush to adopt technology.

Taking a look at a few examples, starting with my personal perception of how technology has changed knowledge work over the last ten years.  I’m going to deal mostly in generalities (I know the dangers), accepting that some exceptional people have iron discipline.  Using the benchmark of ‘improving our lives” what has technology done for us:

  1. By some metrics it’s made us more productive, but not all of us, because many of us have been made redundant as a result.  One might say it’s made the ‘busy, busier’ and with that increased busyness has come longer working hours and more responsibility, and as a result higher rates of burnout and stress
  2. It’s made us more available, lengthening working hours, intruding into family time, reducing our opportunities to detach and relax
  3. It’s increased the flexibility and utilisation of individuals in general and those with scarce skills in particular, enabled virtual teams and thus broken up the co-located teams most of us prefer, replacing fluid collaboration with endless emails, conference calls and web-conferences.  It seems to me that resource utilisation has become the new metric by which we judge productivity, rather than team effectiveness and real business outputs.
  4. Conference calls have made it easier to fragment accountability and responsibility, allowing many ‘stakeholders’ to dabble with a project they don’t really understand and to dramatically increase the number of ‘status calls’.
  5. Conference calls and web conferences have shifted the focus towards real-time collaboration, instead of quickly scanning meeting minutes and highlight reports when it suits them, stakeholders now all sit at the end of the phone, paying limited attention while they try (and fail) to also pay attention to the torrent of email and instant messages that distract them every minute of the day
  6. The rush to adopt heavily marketed but immature virtual team working environments has fragmented knowledge across many disparate systems, often orphaning that knowledge as one system replaces another in the quest for something that works better than the file system that it tries to replace.  It’s ironic to see that all the ‘new things’ in collaboration are just a direct evolution of the file-system, box, dropbox, onedrive etc.
  7. Virtual team working also allows busy people to be assigned to multiple projects (better utilisation) but these people quickly become distracted, over-worked bottlenecks, reducing the throughput of the project as a whole
  8. It’s provided the ‘lucky’ busy people with more money, but less time and less energy.  As a result it’s easier for us to watch TV and shop for stuff than it is to live a meaningful life, rich with experiences and relationships
  9. In making us all flexible, it’s reduced the value we place on specialists and hence our ability to develop real mastery
  10. Finally it’s allowed companies to tap into a global resource pool at will and to easily on-source or outsource activities to third parties, reducing or perhaps eliminating altogether the feeling of protection that employees used to enjoy when jobs were for ‘for life’

When you look at this list it looks almost as if technology has been used to mount a sustained attack on every one of the foundation elements of motivation, by reducing Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose, Relatedness, Sustainable challenge, Protection the result is reduced engagement, happiness and ultimately I think business has suffered.

Next I will look at the impact of technology on my family life and the direct experiences of friends unfortunately it’s not a particularly pretty picture:

  1. The family has definitely fragmented, instead of coming together to chat, eat, or watch movies and TV shows at night, everyone sit’s alone in their rooms.  I’ve fought to keep us together as much as possible with some success, but the immediate seductiveness of individual freedom too often win’s out over the longer term benefits of connectedness and shared experience
  2. We are all much more distracted, it’s rare that we focus on just one thing anymore.  I walk while listening to books and podcasts, Debbie plays Drop 7 while watching TV, the kids chat with friends while doing their homework.  There’s no space in our lives for fully engaging in the moment, to be mindful, as a result too much in life gets categorised as ‘boring’
  3. We all spend much too long sitting, the need to engage with a screen has tied us to a seat or a bed, with many negative health implications
  4. Most web pages have been carefully designed to deliver information in single screen chunks, our reward systems have been designed to crave the thrill of exploring, click, click click around aimlessly looking for something new and exciting.  As a result time is frittered away and kids and adults alike can no longer concentrate for long enough to read long article, let alone a book
  5. Everyone is addicted to searching for and buying ever more stuff, browsing around the web for bargains, and one click ordering and free delivery has become so addictive that most kids now have jobs just to fund the accumulation of stuff, and almost all adults are working much longer than is required to be warm, dry, well fed and happy.

I’ve personally worked very hard to address all of the above in my own family, but the underlying forces are driving us all in this direction and most families don’t have the discipline to resist – a few, like mine, succeed in some areas, maybe resisting for a year, or in one particular area. But without a culture to protect us (like the Amish) technology adoption seems irresistible, and it’s not all good.

When it comes to my personal adoption of technology, I’ve already taken a look at the IT technologies that had really made a breakthrough improvement in my life and I concluded:

That’s about it, a stunning condemnation of IT’s ability to deliver personal productivity improvements in recent years.  Most of the peak experiences having been delivered 10 or more years ago, most of the benefits since then having been delivered by Moore’s law. Many of the ‘improvements’ recently have just danced around the edges of innovations made many years ago, providing eye candy, distraction or all too often degradation.  Maybe I just have selective memory, or am feeling particularly nostalgic today, it would be interesting to see how others remember the same period!

Of course there are many ways in which technology has enhanced my life, at least at first glance, but many of these improvements have their downsides too:

  1. We got a new, very efficient, combi boiler – and as a result everyone used more hot water, so our bill increased
  2. We heavily insulated our home – but everyone got used to being warm all of the time, so we increased the time we had the central heating on
  3. Technology invaded the car, making driving more engaging and entertaining – but that increased the rate of obsolescence, making me lust after a new car with Bluetooth stereo, which I eventually bought
  4. We craved and eventually got high speed internet — but the only new thing that really gave us was the ability for the girls to all watch Netflix in their own rooms concurrently, further fragmenting the family
  5. I have an app on my phone from my energy provider – but now I have to contort myself every month to get into the under-stairs cupboard to take my own energy readings
  6. Everyone in the house now has iPhones – but as a result we are all more distracted, and less connected in as many negative ways as we are more positively connected through social media

In the world in general we can see amazing benefits from technology, but in many ways these advances are supporting the need of corporations, not the lives of individuals:

  1. The developed world is living beyond it’s means, with most growth fuelled by debt
  2. GDP is still the primary driver for policy, often at the expense of improving our lives
  3. As individuals we are constantly seduced into living beyond our means too, interest free credit, buy now pay later, re-mortgage, ever bigger mortgages, growth at the expense of savings
  4. Freedom, leaving the world better than we found it and meaningful experiences are being eroded as values and replaced by accumulated stuff as the evidence of a life well lived
  5. We are living well beyond the natural carrying capacity of the planet – technology has enabled advances like intensive farming, GM crops, hydroponics, deep water extraction, desalination, coal and fracking which have allowed us to keep just ahead of population growth – but as a result we are quickly running out of fresh water, topsoil, phosphorous, potassium and many other resources upon which life depends
  6. Our throw-away, technology infused, energy intensive lives and our obsession with GDP growth are forcing us to use gas, oil and coal with abandon, using ever more sophisticated technologies for extraction, but putting the environment and many natural eco-systems risk

Well, that was a depressing blog post to write, but what was the point?  I think it comes down to us desperately needing a culture that’s more critical of technology, that doesn’t just accept that it can be used for “good or bad” but actively uses research, marketing, education, regulation and incentives to encourage technology adoption in a way that leads to a ‘sustainable good life’ for all, that protects us from ourselves, that nudges us to make the right decisions, whilst still allowing us the freedom to make our own choices and learn from our own mistakes.

This post was inspired by a mini-debate on twitter yesterday, between a passionate advocate for technology and a couple of cynics (me included).  I wrote the post sitting in Caffe Nero using my ageing laptop (that I’m totally satisfied with) enjoying the full Caffe Nero experience and looking forward to a walk in the sun later. But that walk will be accompanied by podcasts, even though deep down I know that if I put in the effort walking mindfully I would benefit from a richer experience — podcasts provide the instant gratification and let me get more work done. 

The photo is of the beach huts I will walk by today, people who buy them are either switched on to the value of experiences, or have more money than they know what to do with, I hope it’s the former!

The Joy Of Anti-fragility

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My family and I suffer from several health conditions, which means that I have to live with a lot of unpredictability in my personal life, so wherever I have control I strive for predictability, or anti-fragility.  I like to sail through life without a care in the world and I’m prepared to invest and to constrain myself to achieve it.

I’ve been consciously reducing the fragility in my life for at least a decade, chipping away at all those little worries and annoyances, balancing investing to reduce my fragility today with saving to reduce it tomorrow.  It’s a strategy that’s worked out very well so far, here’s a short introduction to a few of the steps I’ve taken:

  1. For many years I’ve minimised my spend on insurance policies, often not taking them out at all or taking out moderate cost policies rather than gold plated ones.  I’ve consistently put all the savings I’ve made into an ‘insurance account’ that’s now well stocked!  Whenever something goes wrong that money can fix I don’t think twice about solving it from those savings, which I don’t consider using for any other purpose.
  2. In conflict to the strategy above though I do have home emergency cover because I like the assurance that I can ring a single number and the insurance company will find and marshal all the trades necessary to resolve the emergency.  In an emergency the last thing I want is more responsibility on my shoulders.
  3. I have two laptops that are essentially identical, they have the same applications and data, the same hard disk etc.  If one fails I can pick up the other, or swap the hard drive over and be up and running again.  Each acts as a backup to the other, one I carry with me, the other drives the big media-centre screen on my desk.  One runs Windows 10, the other Windows 8 (just in case Windows 10 breaks).  Of course all the devices in the house are backed up to the ‘house server’ and the cloud and the house server also has an off-site backup.
  4. I have an iPhone and an iPad mini and an emergency phone.  The emergency phone is a Nokia 6310i with ‘all week’ battery life that I take on holiday, bike rides and hikes.  The iPhone and iPad have mostly the same apps and act as backups to each other.  I have an upstairs and a downstairs Kindle!
  5. I have a large garage that’s split into two, the front is a store room and it’s well stocked with all the consumables that we buy in bulk, can’t buy locally, or that we use daily/weekly.  I don’t like to run out of things, nor do I like to shop. 
  6. The back garage is a workshop, full of three generations of tools and LOTS of bits and pieces, accumulated from a lifetime of disassembled furniture and other recycled household ‘rubbish’.  When things break or problems can be resolved by ‘making’ then I almost always have the combination of wood, brackets, screws, bolts, fasteners, wires, junction boxes, glue, sealant … that’s needed.  I love the feeling of confidence in my ability to fix and the glow that comes from recycling.
  7. Everyone in the family has iPhones and we have older spare iPhones, if they break we just fall back to older versions until we get them fixed using the insurance fund, most of us also have ThinkPad Laptops which are also easy to swap and fix.  For swapping iPhones about we also depend heavily on the fact that we all use GiffGaff which provides a fantastic online experience for ordering new SIMs in any size and activating them on our many accounts, automatically and instantly moving phone numbers without losing credit.
  8. Debbie and I have a nice balance of safety-net final-salary pension schemes that kick in at 60 and 65 and money purchase pension schemes that provide near infinite flexibility from 55.
  9. We have an emergency fund and a slush fund, which allows us to take advantage of bargains, or buy in bulk etc.  This saves money when used with restraint, I almost never buy anything that I know for sure I won’t consume within a few months.
  10. I carry my Brompton and my emergency bag (food, clothes, toilet paper, first aid kit, plastic bags …) in the boot of the car.  I’ve used both many times in the last year,  the emergency bag is particularly useful for unplanned trips to the hospital that turn into over-night stays and for unplanned ‘events’ on holiday or day hikes.  Knowing that the bag and bike are in the boot I just relax and sink that bit more into the seat as I drive. 
  11. In my daily use rucksack I carry two small see-though plastic pencil cases, one with a full range of medications (various pain killers, steroids, anti-spasm meds … and spare reading glasses) the other with all those ‘useful things’ (cables, pens, blister plasters, sun screen, chargers ..).  I’m becoming forgetful so the spare glasses get used way too often.  I have a holiday rucksack and a bum bag that are equally stocked, so whichever bag I grab I’m ‘safe’.
  12. When I find something that I really like and use heavily I will often setup a recurring search for it on eBay or Amazon and then buy when on sale.  For example last winter I bought 3 pairs of my favourite summer walking shoes and 4 pairs of summer hiking trousers, both for 1/3 of their normal price and I bought a 12 pack of my aftershave cream at 1/2 price, 4 packs of razor blades at 1/3 price and two boxes of protein bars for 1/2 price.  I spend less than 5 minutes a day shopping, but I make it count.
  13. Finally I have a redundancy of interests to suit my varying health.  I love to exercise outdoors, but when I can’t I have my stationary bike at home.  I love to read, but when I can’t concentrate I have a huge collection of audio books.  I like to create stuff, but when I can’t I can curl up on the sofa and immerse myself in some of the superb long running TV shows.  I like to achieve something each day at work but when I can’t I clean house or tidy the garden.

This is just a small fraction of the redundancies that I’ve built into my life.  As a lover of simplicity though every redundancy has to earn it’s place.  I’m not a hoarder, everything has a purpose, a place to be stored, is used regularly or can be kept without spoiling.  I don’t want redundancies to become a burden, when they are designed to provide ease:

  1. For example keeping two laptops is essentially effortless now because each has a separate purpose and synchronising data is so seamless and installing and updating apps mostly automated, if it ever became a chore I wouldn’t do it. 
  2. I keep a holiday rucksack pre-packed with everything I need for a 4 day break.  On the last day of the break I wash all my clothes and restock it with consumables, so that it’s ready for the next break, effortless!

I like living this way, sailing through life, ready for the unexpected wave or gust of wind, wearing a life jacket just in case, but enjoying the wind in my face and the freedom.

I’m writing this post in Caffe Nero, it’s a miserable rainy morning but it’s going to brighten up later.  By the time I get home after a decent walk my conservatory office will have warmed up nicely from the sun (but I have an electric radiator just n case).  The photo today is of the ‘shell’ on Cleveleys beach which unfortunately wasn’t quite ‘anti-fragile’ enough for the heavy pounding of the winter waves, it’s gradually breaking up, but it’s lovely while it lasts!

Shifting From Intellectual Back To Experiential Life

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The first 40 years of my life were experiential, dominated by doing, innovating, building and learning on the job; but when I became ill, the focus shifted to an intellectual life, one dominated by reading, strategizing, planning, coaching, reviewing.  It’s not as much fun!

The challenge is that at work an experiential life comes with some baggage, the competition for ideas, the organisational politics and the general pressure to deliver short term progress is completely inconsistent with the constraints that I’ve ‘chosen’ to live within.  This means that I need to adjust my life outside of work, and fortunately I have plenty of time to do it, but for some reason I’ve not done a very good job of it so far.

An experiential life requires more effort, it’s harder than the passive intellectual life that it’s been all too easy for me to default to living.  It’s easy to ‘passively’ read from the the internet’s fire hose each day, to watch the endless seasons of TV shows, to idly walk the same coastal paths while listening to the same podcasts.  At the same time my art kit gathers dust, the books that will challenge me outside my comfort zone sit on the shelves, 99% of the UK’s coastline remains a mystery to me as do most of the Lake Districts fells and lakes.

The shift I’m looking for isn’t from habit to novelty though, I’m not suddenly embarking on a quest to travel the world; what I’m looking for is to spend more time actively experiencing the world around me, not just in a mindful way either, in an active way that requires me to engage in creative activities, in building and improving things.  I need to move sufficiently outside my comfort zone that I’m open to more options in life, not so habit bound.

Here are a few examples of changes that I’m making:

  1. At the beginning of the year I planned out my non-fiction reading list and filled it with a wide range of books that I wouldn’t normally read, books designed to expand my horizons, to introduce me to whole genres so far unexplored
  2. I’ve committed to growing a lot more of my own food, which means learning much more about intensive gardening and the joys of tending it daily
  3. I’m still spending 6 weeks on holiday in Filey, but I’ve reserved many weeks for opportunistic day trips and overnight breaks in B&B’s to new places.  For some of these trips I’m going to leave my car behind
  4. I’m learning to travel light, in stark contrast to my tendency to travel with everything but the kitchen sink.  I’ve already done two trial runs with just a small rucksack (albeit with a car)
  5. Even though I love the two hours I spend in St Annes Caffe Nero most mornings, I’m mixing it up a bit by spending time at any of the many other ‘morning cafes’.  More variety makes me appreciate what I have on the doorstep even more, but it also breaks a solid habit, making me think more consciously about my plan for the day
  6. I’m changing my diet for the better, introducing ‘super-foods’ (veg, nuts, seeds, organ meats) that I’ve disliked for 50 years and gradually adjusting to them, maybe even enjoying some of them! 
  7. I’m spending more time outdoors, more time moving, more quality time with people
  8. When I do watch TV we are doing it more as a family, making it into an event.  When I watch on my own I’m also riding my exercise bike, so at least I’m moving

I’ve got a lot more ideas to pursue, but I need to be careful with my reserves of energy and willpower, my health challenges consume most of what’s available,  I have a very limited supply available for other changes.

I’m writing this post in Caffe Nero Lytham,  I walked for an hour to get here this morning on a glorious sunny spring day.  I could have stayed in bed for an extra hour and gone to the local in St Annes, but in the spirit of this post I decided to opt for variety and the wonderful experience of a crisp spring Sunday morning walk.  I really wanted to go hiking in the Lakes, but I’m just recovering from a 6 week flare and need to balance my enthusiasm against the risk of triggering a relapse.   Today’s photo was taken in Scarborough last year, I will be back there in a few weeks, enjoying the perfect bays and the traditional seaside vibe.

Temptation Bundling

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I listen to a lot of podcasts, they provide a great combination of education, entertainment and company when I’m out walking or cycling alone (I reserve listening to audio books for holidays).  Yesterday I listened to a particularly interesting podcast that described the concept of Temptation Bundling:

the idea of tying together two activities — one you should do but may avoid; and one you love to do but isn’t necessarily productive. Or, as Milkman describes it in a research paper (co-authored with Julia Minson and Kevin Volpp), “a method for simultaneously tackling two types of self-control problems by harnessing consumption complementarities

The idea is simple, link two activities together; in the research study that inspired the podcast they linked listening to an audio book to working out at the gym.  In my case as I walked through a Still’s disease flare yesterday, I was combining a difficult, painful, therapeutic activity – walking – with something I loved – podcasts.

In fact I only listen to podcasts when I’m moving, and since moving is critical to my health, I want to do more of it, and I have a long backlog of podcasts to listen to so I’m constantly reminded throughout the day as a new podcast notification pops up on my phone, keep moving Steve!

As I listened I realised that I use this technique constantly:

  1. I reserve watching movies for when I need to do the ironing
  2. I have a folder on my Media Centre called ‘Steve’s TV’ with all my favourite shows, I only allow myself to watch them while riding my exercise bike (unless I’m really poorly, in which case I’m lying on the sofa and I give myself a break)
  3. Every morning I sit in Caffe Nero enjoying the music, vibe and an ice cold coke while working through my daily computing chores and working through my Instapaper reading queue, activities that I somehow never get around to doing if I stay at home
  4. I don’t eat meat – which I love — unless it’s combined with something I don’t like, but’s good for me — vegetables, egg yolks, salmon

Seems to me like this is the most powerful habit forming trick that’s out there, follow the links above if you want to learn more.

It’s a lovely sunny day today, I’ve a long list of podcasts to listen to and I’m still in plenty of pain (mostly in my arms and ankles) so I need to get in a long walk.  I will be heading south along the beach towards Lytham, the picture is from yesterday’s similar walk, from the half way point just before I arrived at Fairhaven Lake.

Spontaneous Tears

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I’ve been in a severe flare for the last 37 days, a traumatic experience that’s required quite a lot of resilience to get through.  Every day I’ve had to fight with myself to overcome my natural tendency to curl up in a ball and instead force myself to keep moving, reading, stretching, cleaning house and generally stay in good spirits.  But I’ve still been gradually worn down, the willpower reserve has been sorely depleted and I’ve become ever weaker and fatigued. 

Whenever I have pain burning throughout my body I try to remind myself that pain is just a signal, that’s in my control to interpret, similar pain might just be the result of a crazily over-enthusiastic workout at the gym for example, a positive event.  Although pain is the headline symptom, taken on it’s own it’s easy to cope with, but combined with fever, fatigue and brain fog it’s altogether different, there’s no faculty available to me to fight back with.  I can’t distract myself with work (brain fog), combat the pain with endorphin inducing exercise (fatigue), kick back and relax (shooting spasms) or even get comfortable (fever, shivers).  Add in the unpredictability of not knowing whether I will be able to walk or use my arms from one hour to the next and making plans becomes impossible (or risky).  The only option is to live hour by hour opportunistically doing what I can to make the best of a bad job.

Today though, although I’m still sore and achy, while walking along the southern dunes it gradually dawned on me that the most crippling of my symptoms had gone, the brain fog had lifted, I could think!  I spontaneously burst into tears, a mix of joy at getting my brain back and suppressed anger, frustration and fear at having been deprived of a fully functioning one for so long. 

One of the particularly bitter sweet characteristics of my condition is that I’m blessed with roughly 25% of my time symptom free, which is also a curse, because most months I get a short reminder of what live is meant to be like and just as I’m adjusting to normal life it’s cruelly taken away again.

Of all of the challenges I live with brain fog is the worst and almost completely ignored by the doctors that support me and the researchers who support them.

Ironically this lifting brain fog happened on one of the rare days that St Anne’s experiences mist, it had mostly burned away when I took today’s picture from the top of one of the dunes and looking down on Fairhaven Lake, it felt just like my own brain fog had been burnt away by the sunshine.

Living Well Through A Flare

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On this blog I’m always going on about living the best day I can, every day, not living like every day is my last – which seems to extreme – but consciously planning to live well; to avoid going through life on autopilot; to avoid accepting a gradual decline in my health; to feel grateful and to make a difference.

Flare’s present a particular challenge, when it’s too painful to move, my brain’s too fogged to read, my finger tips hurt to much to type and my throats so sore it makes eating a chore; what’s left to make up a day that I can look back on as a ‘day well lived’?  Over the years I’ve struggled with this, sometimes declining into depression, sometimes anger, all too often feeling sorry for myself.  For several years now and over a dozen flares, I think I have a pattern that works pretty well.

I keep to my morning routine, spending a few hours at Caffe Nero, I can’t read much but I can still process my emails, browse for books, scan my news feeds for things to read later and be around the regular customers that I know well.  It might require hobbling there on crutches or begging a lift from Debbie or Jennie, but I almost always make it.  Being in town means I get to shop each morning, I can’t say that I only shop for the very healthiest foods, but I try to strike a good balance between excellent nutrition and comfort.

When I get home I’m generally exhausted, and good for nothing, but this is where TV comes in.  I love to watch a single long running TV series during a flare, over the years these essential companions have been 24, Battlestar Galactica, Prison Break and so many others.  During this flare my treasured companion has been House of Cards and I’ve watched the first two series, over a period of 5 days, and it’s been a rollercoaster ride.

A compelling TV series, great food, a loving family and 3 cats makes a pretty good day out of a dismal one; but it’s not quite enough.  In between each episode I try and do something constructive, I will stretch, try and climb the stairs, wash the clothes, feed the cats, wash the pots, strip the beds; anything that gets me out of the chair, forces me to move and leaves me at the end of the day with a sense of accomplishment.

Of course that’s not the only component in managing a flare, the Prednisolone, the Diazepam, the Co-codamol and the Pregabalin play their part too, but they don’t keep me positive, they don’t keep me moving, they don’t make me feel loved and they don’t give me a sense of achievement; all things that I think speed my recovery just as much.

I’m writing this post in Caffe Nero, it’s a lovely sunny day and my flares is definitely on the wane, my throats much improved and apart from a few joints and some residual aches I’m feeling pretty good.  My brain fog has mostly cleared and I’m feeling positive.  Unfortunately yesterday I wasn’t well enough to enjoy the sunset with Debbie, part of our valentines day plans, so I’ve decorated this post with one instead.

More On Time Distortion

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Further to my post earlier in the week,  I’ve been reducing my Pregabalin dose gradually over the last few days.  I’m much sharper in the mornings and the evenings now.  I’ve been going through my normal Caffe Nero ‘work’ routine and I can’t believe how much time I have.  Only a few days ago I was struggling to get everything done in three hours and couldn’t believe how fast time was flowing; now I’m finished in less than two hours and trying to find things to do to fill the time I have.  Today I was amazed when I looked at my laptop clock and saw that it was 8:30am when I expected it to be closer to 10am. 

Unfortunately as expected whilst I get some time back, the quality of that time has changed,  I’m not as relaxed and my pain levels are gradually increasing.  I expected the pain to come back quicker than it has, but there’s no question that it’s returning.  I am being very careful to keep my stress levels low and my mobility high to minimise it’s return, but after weeks of being pain free, the constant pain in my arms and shoulders is quite upsetting. The sleep disruption caused by withdrawal is also making things harder, lack of sleep really does sap the joy from life, but there’s always a cost to making progress.

As usual, for this week, I’m writing this post in Caffe Nero, in Nottingham.  This is my last day here, it’s been long enough, perhaps too long away from my family and my small town life.  The buzz of the city is nice for a while, but I’m missing the wide open spaces, the views, the sunsets and soon the wonderful sunrises.  Today’s photo celebrates those sunrises, not long now!

My Personal Work Style

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Companies like mine would like to think that there are only a handful of work styles that they need to support and that they can easily categorise the way people work.  Normally this is achieved using a classification that is focused on the type of work that a person does, for example: process, task, knowledge, management etc.  While I think this is better than nothing, I don’t think the type of work defines a persons work style, it just describes the work type.  A persons work style depends on more more factors being considered, as a minimum the mobility type and the work type.  Take for example a project manager who sits at a desk all day and one who is constantly mobile, their work styles would be very different, even though their work type would be the same.

Re-thinking work styles is a rich and rewarding area requiring a lot more discussion, it’s too much to cover in this post.  I’ve decided instead to try and deconstruct my personal work style, to try and figure out the key factors that influence me and their implications.  The type of work that I do would fall squarely into the category of ‘knowledge worker’ although in some classification schemes I would have some characteristics of an ‘innovator’.  So taking an industry generic definition of knowledge worker we find this:

A knowledge worker is anyone who works for a living at the tasks of developing or using knowledge. For example, a knowledge worker might be someone who works at any of the tasks of planning, acquiring, searching, analyzing, organizing, storing, programming, distributing, marketing, or otherwise contributing to the transformation and commerce of information and those (often the same people) who work at using the knowledge so produced. A term first used by Peter Drucker in his 1959 book, Landmarks of Tomorrow, the knowledge worker includes those in the information technology fields, such as programmers, systems analysts, technical writers, academic professionals, researchers, and so forth. The term is also frequently used to include people outside of information technology, such as lawyers, teachers, scientists of all kinds, and also students of all kinds

Useful though this description is it doesn’t really say much about such a persons real needs in terms of IT services.  If I take a look at what I do, it matches fairly well with the above description, but it’s a little more specific, I:

  1. Spend a lot of time scanning and filtering data sources for information
  2. Read, listen to and watch a subset of this information and try to make sense of and share what I find
  3. Curate the information into various types of knowledge base
  4. Develop new ideas and positions and test them through discussion and debate
  5. Create new knowledge, based to a large part on what I learn from the above
  6. Review new knowledge created by others
  7. Convince and cajole others into adopting my ideas
  8. Coach others to help them refine their ideas

As I look at this list though it still provides a very poor definition of what I actually do, especially in terms of the IT services that I need to help me do it.  For example it doesn’t say anything about what the sources of data are, how I share information, curate and store it; it doesn’t say whether the data sources are company systems, or external sources; whether I share information with my peers, with management, or with partners; what form the new knowledge that I create takes, is it video, audio, office documents, or verbal discussion; whether I do all this with a co-located team, via virtual meetings or using asynchronous collaboration tools; it doesn’t provide any sense of how my time is distributed across these activities. 

In fact it doesn’t reveal any of the factors that really drive my work style, which are:

  1. I only work an average of 8 hours a week
  2. I need to keep my body moving throughout the day
  3. I can’t reliably predict when I will be available to work
  4. I am only in the office for an average of 4 days a month
  5. Most of my information sources are external to the company

How is my work style driven by these factors:

I only work an average of 8 hours a week

  1. It’s rare for me to be able to attend scheduled events like conference calls, web conferences or in person meetings, so I depend on recordings of these sessions, transcripts, meeting minutes and in person ‘catch-ups’ for my information
  2. I need tools that are optimised for scanning huge volumes of information and extracting the nuggets rapidly, so I scan a carefully created stream of RSS feeds, listen to podcasts, follow a few people on twitter and have face to face meetings whenever possible
  3. I share information with others automatically using twitter and IFTTT
  4. I write my review comments rather than attend slow and ineffective review meetings
  5. I prefer to write blog posts (rather than emails) and record presentations as videos (rather than deliver them face to face) so that I don’t have to repeat myself
  6. I need to blend my work and personal life intimately, one task list, one calendar, one email account for both, because I context switch between the two so many times during a typical day

I need to keep my body moving throughout the day

  1. I listen to podcasts and audiobooks wile walking and cycling
  2. I download company briefings as MP3s and listen to them as podcasts
  3. I watch content and attend virtual meetings while on my stationary bike
  4. I carry my laptop on my back or my iPad mini in my bum bag where-ever I go
  5. I need 3G/4G connectivity because WIFI is not always available

I can’t reliably predict when I will be available to work

  1. I prefer status reports, rather than status meetings
  2. I depend on asynchronous collaboration tools
  3. I like to be able to record presentations in advance
  4. I need to be able to sketch and annotate on documents, to improve the richness and efficiency of capturing ideas or reviewing the ideas of others

I am only in the office for 4 days a month

  1. I highly value this limited face to face time
  2. I can only work with a small number of people
  3. When I’m in the office all I do is meet people

Most of my information sources are external to the company

  1. Most of what I do, I am able to do in public
  2. Most of my working practices are optimised around public information sources, exposed via RSS, so I want company information to also be exposed that way too
  3. Toggling between information outside and within the firewall reduces my productivity considerably, I want that to be more seamless
  4. Toggling between public data and data that needs to be secured is difficult to manage, I want company data to be seamlessly protected, using for example IRM

Here are some practical examples of how my work style affects the IT services, these are the kind of things that I need:

  1. a phone with more storage than the company provides, for all of those podcasts, audio books and videos
  2. more 3G/4G data than the company provides and I need tethering for my notebook and tablet
  3. a laptop with excellent battery life or a second battery, and it needs to be light enough to carry everywhere
  4. a way to protect company data and applications living on a personal laptop, because connectivity isn’t reliable enough for remote desktops (I know this because I use remote desktops every day for specific purposes and it’s painful)
  5. company information sources to be easily accessible via RSS feeds
  6. company recorded events to be easily accessible via podcast feeds
  7. people to take meeting minutes
  8. people to include attachments in emails, so that those of us who work offline can easily access them
  9. systems that support offline use, offline authoring, replication and caching of information
  10. redundancy in my devices and the ability to support them myself because accessing field services is so difficult and devices break

I’ve written this post in Caffe Nero, Nottingham, using my Thinkpad x230 laptop which I’ve upgraded to 8GB of memory so I can run virtual machines and a 512GB SSD so that I can carry everything I need with me offline, it’s small and light.  I’m using my personal Three data contract on my iPad for connectivity because the WIFI is down.  For the photo that illustrates this post I’ve chosen Cleveleys beach, one of my favourite remote working locations, I sit in the car with my laptop and the view!

Lessons Learned From Trying Windows Phone

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I spent an interesting few days trialling Windows Phone recently, I chose the the highly recommended Lumia 930 hardware to give it the very best chance to wow me into keeping it.  It didn’t stick, in fact while there were a few design features I liked and the hardware was vastly more powerful than my ageing iPhone 4S, I decided pretty quickly that it wasn’t for me.  Deep down I realised that my smartphone is a tool, I’m not seeking a gadget fix, something to occupy me for day while I tinker around with it, tuning it to my life.  I just want the apps that I’ve woven into my life and be done with it.  Windows Phone failed to deliver those apps, so it failed to weave its way into my life, it felt like an annoyance, a glossy, heavy, gadget that rubbed me up the wrong way.

Here’s what I liked about Windows Phone: I loved the deep linking into apps, the ability to put the current book I’m reading right there on my home screen, or my shopping list in Evernote front and centre; and the hardware camera button … but I’m afraid that’s all I really liked.  Here’s what I didn’t like:

  1. The distracting, flickering tiles that tried to grab my attention all the time.  I want peace and calm in my life, I don’t want my phone to remind me of a fun-fair
  2. The lack of an easy way to find apps, Windows 8 lets has simple type down searching (press the Windows key and type), the iPhone has it too, I use it many times a day to get the specific app I need from hundreds
  3. The terrible reliability of the apps that I did find, especially those that needed to sync a lot of data in the background, which invariably didn’t arrive or too ages to sync new data
  4. The poor functionality of the apps that I managed to find. Apps that I love on iOS that really share only the same name, having just a small subset of the functionality (often provided by a wrapped HTML 5 web app).  Many of the apps that I found were clearly abandoned, with no updates for many months, apps that had stopped working, or stopped syncing and not been fixed.
  5. All too often the apps stored data on the phone, not in a cross platform cloud service.  I will rarely use an app now that’s not cross platform and complemented by a cloud service
  6. Apps that exist on Windows Phone but don’t have a companion apps that’s also compelling on WinRT, ie on a Windows tablet.
  7. The horrible shortage of apps, too many of my favourites missing, with no alternatives at all

Here are a sample of the important app gaps for me:

  1. Moves, which automatically tracks where I go throughout the day and then syncs seamlessly into …
  2. Memento, which merges data from Moves, Twitter and Instagram into a surprisingly rich diary with superb searching
  3. MyFitnessPal, which I use to track what I eat.  There is a Windows Phone version of the app, but it’s so slowwww
  4. Tweet Library, which keeps a local searchable archive of all of my Twitter accounts, tweets, favorites, and retweets so that you I find important tweets later. It adds collections and includes custom filters to automatically group or hide tweets – it provides the best interface to my @steveisreading and @steveiswriting accounts and my @steverichards diary account
  5. Overcast, which is my podcast client of choice now.  I did buy and try to use the ‘best’ most highly recommended podcast app on Windows Phone, but it’s just not the same and I listen to a lot of podcasts
  6. GB and Parks, Outdoors app which provides me with a full off-line version of the ordnance survey maps, with excellent GPS support
  7. Instapaper, that I use for all of my reading.  There is a third party app, but it’s very dated
  8. Evernote, which is an extension of my brain, everything that might be important to me goes in there.  There is a Windows Phone version of the app, but really, there’s no comparison
  9. Coach.me that I use for habit tracking, it’s got years of trend data in it that I value a lot

Then of course there are the hundreds of other apps that I use only when I need them, the app to submit my gas and electricity readings, to check the sunrise time, to find out when the next high tide is, to track my walks and cycle rides, to access my bank, to check the train times, to manage my blog, to track my pain levels, and on and on and on, death by a thousand cuts.

The vibrancy of the Apple eco-system is just not present, the buzz and excitement that developers have when they can reach hundreds of millions of potential customers.  I’m hoping that Microsoft has a plan, that they are working hard in the background on developer tools and platform changes that will allow them to fully embrace Android apps on Windows 10, all form-factors, within a year.  As Apple found to it’s cost many years ago, people go where the apps are, developers go where the apps are selling.

I wrote this post sitting in my favourite Caffe Nero in Nottingham,  it opens at 7am and has two excellent clusters of window seats, I got the best one, and watched the city come to life as I typed.  For the picture I chose the beautiful Haweswater, in the eastern lake district, I never consider going hiking without my maps and that means without my iPhone and iPad.