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Making My Health My First Job

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tracking My Health Data

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

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

Reduce The Chance Of Infections

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

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

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

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

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

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

Challenging Chronic Illness

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

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

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

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

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

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

The End Of The Surface Pro Experiment

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

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

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

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

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

Adjusting To Normal Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Opportunities Present Themselves

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

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

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

What’s Going On At Apple?

2014-09-10 12.52.05I’ve been a smartphone user since the Blackberry disrupted the business world over 10 years ago based on the earth shattering observation that people needed access to their email and calendar while travelling and I was one of their most passionate users.  Another disruption was soon to follow though when Palm realised that there was more to the smartphone than email with their Treo range, making me an even happier.  My love affair with the Treo lasted many years until Blackberry caught up and won me back.  I stayed with Blackberry until Apple disrupted the market with the iPhone.  For all Apple’s technical accomplishments their sustaining differentiation seems to me to have come from the rock solid belief that people will pay a LOT of money for a good looking gadget that offers a good experience.  This key observation has served them well in all of their products to date, good design wins.  Surprisingly it’s taken the rest of the “rack em high and sell em cheap” IT industry a lot of time to figure out how to do this too.

Unfortunately for Apple the rest of the world has now figured this out.  Android and Windows Phone both offer excellent experiences and their devices are just as gorgeous as the iPhone and often sell for a lot less.  Of course Apple still have huge margins because their volume/unique device is still industry leading, but Samsung has figured that out too.  Apple though is still holding true to their belief that their good design is the key differentiator required to win in the devices war. But it’s no longer enough.

The whole industry has figured out how to do good design now, granted there’s still plenty of terrible design at the low end, but at the middle and high end good design is everywhere. Good design is now ‘table stakes’, everyone has it, but the Android ecosystem and to a lesser extent Microsoft also has faster innovation.  That’s not to say that there’s no innovation at Apple, but their two breakthrough innovations Siri and Touch ID were both acquisitions and many of their others will struggle (outside the US in particular) in the long term due to their closed nature.  In contract Android is open by design and Microsoft is open by necessity.

Which brings me on to the trigger for this post, the iPhones 6 and the Apple watch.  Both seem to be well designed, but both seem to be playing catch up at a time when the rest of the industry is pulling away.  Apple will be selling a lot of course, because they have such a strong presence among the eco-system invested rich, but in the end open innovation will probably win. 

The passionate focus on design that’s served Apple so well seems to be failing them now, it’s distracting them from the pace of innovation that’s required to complete with Android, it’s distracting them from the need to open up.  Jonny Ive seems to have too much influence in the modern Apple, in a world where design is less important, the geeks need a stronger voice.

Personally I’d like to switch to Android, but I’m one of those early adopters that’s found himself (in fact his whole family) heavily invested in the Apple eco-system.  Unfortunately for Apple though I’m still using a 4S and although I’m tempted to upgrade every year, apart from speed I just don’t see anything life changing enough to be worth the investment.  For speed I have an retina iPad Mini anyway.

So for now I’m sticking with the iPhone 4S, looking dreamily at the phones like the Moto X and hoping that IOS8 delivers some of the benefits the Android guys have been enjoying for years.

I’m writing this post while staying at Filey Bay, one of my favourite places in the world.  The photo I chose for this post I took while walking along Filey Brigg this morning, this is the kind of experience I’m spending my money on at the moment.

Surface Pro 3 – Annotating The Screen While Presenting

06-09-2014 15-56-16Although I don’t do a huge number of presentations, when I do I like to annotate on the screen as I’m talking.  I’m doing this in order to sketch out an idea to promote a more natural discussion, using PowerPoint more as a whiteboard, or I’m scribbling on the screen to draw attention to key points or parts of a diagram.  Even though PowerPoint includes built in annotation support, I find it clumsy to use and constrained because I can’t annotate all apps.  My preference is to use Zoomit instead, a free utility from the Microsoft Sysinternals site.  It’s fast and simple to use and it allows me to annotate on top of any application and the windows desktop.

Unfortunately to use it I need to initiate it with a keystroke, like CONTROL ALT F2 and cancel it by pressing the ESCAPE key.  If I’m using the Surface Pro 3 with the keyboard attached this is fine, but if it’s detached and I’m just using the tablet I’m stuck, well perhaps not.

Fortunately there’s an app in the Windows Store called TouchMe Gesture Studio that allows me to associate these keystrokes with custom gestures.  This works incredibly well, as follows:

If I want to annotate I do a quick swipe down the screen with two fingers.  Then I can scribble away to my hearts content until I’m finished, at which point I do a quick swipe up the screen with two fingers and all my scribbles have gone.

Because I’m often presenting in PowerPoint there are a few other gestures that make sense.  A quick three finger swipe right will go into presenter mode, to get out of presenter mode you press ESCAPE and I already have a gesture for that, a quick swipe up with two fingers.

The possibilities are endless and the developer has provided a whole host of their favourites gestures, pre-defined out of the box.  For now I’m just sticking with a couple of them, the three finger swipe up, to show the on screen keyboard and three finger swipe down to hide it again.

Using a different tool it’s also possible to redefine the function of the volume up and down keys and even the window key, but I’m saving that experiment for another day.

I’m writing a series of posts about my experiences with the Surface Pro 3 which can be found here

The photo shows the TouchMe App with my gestures defined.

The Entropy Effect, Everything Tends To Disorder

535652_10151720083215828_2090534131_nLast week I was taking Steph on a walk around Hull, exploring the area where Debbie and I started our married life.  Our first home was in a fairly deprived area that was being radically upgraded by the council and developers to create a street full of low cost flats and houses.  We started out in one of these flats and moved to a new house across the street after about a year.   I’ve been back there every few years and each time I visit I see it degrading just a little more.  The degradation started with street litter, then moved to the gardens and is now impacting the fabric of some of the houses.  Slow incremental decay.

I’ve seen this environmental decay in lots of places and it almost always starts with litter.  At first it doesn’t seem like much of a problem, but people adapt to seeing the litter, kids see it and think it’s acceptable so they start dropping more.  Bin bags get left outside, they split and the wind blows the litter everywhere, no one bothers to clear it up.  People start to adapt to this new state, the subliminal message they see every day tells them that they don’t need to care about their environment.  Pretty soon they stop caring about their gardens, about painting their windows, about graffiti, about anti-social behaviour.  It’s a slow insidious process of decay.  As I walk around the streets and beach back home I always stop to pick up litter, quite a few local residents do too, we have regular beach cleans, our streets are almost litter free.  Walking around the streets in Hull, I did the same, but when I got to my old stomping ground I didn’t bother, no point, too much to make an impact.  Within 5 minutes I’d given up the habit of a lifetime.

The same process is at work everywhere.  I particularly noticed it with my attitude to my own health.  Each day I got a little worse, but I adapted to it.  The worse I got the less motivated I was to do anything about it, it seemed pointless, too much of a challenge, for too little impact.  Then everything changed for me, I discovered Kaizen, a philosophy that emphasised the value of making small changes, in fact the smallest change you can imagine, in the right direction, every day.  I started to do this, a few more steps, another portion of vegetables, a few minutes meditation.  Gradually I improved, my mind became more disciplined, I was more conscious of bad habits and the difference between my sub-conscious and my own will.  My physical health gradually improved, it’s still very variable, but each day I try to nudge it in the right direction.  More importantly though my mental health, resilience, discipline, focus, mindfulness have all improved dramatically.  Each day I pick up the litter in my mind and body and bin it.  I’m reminded of this story:

A young girl was walking along a beach upon which thousands of starfish had been washed up during a terrible storm. When she came to each starfish, she would pick it up, and throw it back into the ocean. People watched her with amusement.

She had been doing this for some time when a man approached her and said, “Little girl, why are you doing this? Look at this beach! You can’t save all these starfish. You can’t begin to make a difference!”

The girl seemed crushed, suddenly deflated. But after a few moments, she bent down, picked up another starfish, and hurled it as far as she could into the ocean. Then she looked up at the man and replied, “Well, I made a difference to that one!”

The old man looked at the girl inquisitively and thought about what she had done and said. Inspired, he joined the little girl in throwing starfish back into the sea. Soon others joined, and all the starfish were saved.

Fresh back from this mini break in Hull with these thoughts bubbling away in the back of my mind I went into work yesterday, for a long series of heated debates.  One of the topics that kept rearing it’s head was the slow degradation of complex IT systems.  Just like the litter problem, everything decays to disorder unless energy is injected into the system.  Little errors creep in, small lapses in discipline pile up, people might not even notice, but even if they do they adapt, and they keep adapting until it’s too late.  

The situation on the streets of Hull has got pretty bad, a dysfunctional culture has been allowed to develop.  It’s going to take a great deal of energy to fix it.  A passionate, resilient, inspirational community organiser will be required and it will take years to turn around, someone who take accountability, hard to find, but it can be done.  We need to make sure that we keep/find people like this at work too.

The photo shows what you get to enjoy when you clean the beach.  Just imagine this though cluttered with plastic bags, hundreds of plastic bottles, old clothes and so much more.  Without the community beach clean that’s what we would have!