Thoughts

Positivity In A Sickening Online World


It’s pretty bleak out there just now. The news is depressing and scary, between Brexit, Trump, Russia and the everlasting effects of austerity. Often it feels like using social media or browsing the internet is an exercise in endurance as you read one argument after another involving people with unrelentingly aggressive, entrenched viewpoints.

To be honest it’s really starting to wear me down. To the point where part of me just wants to switch off the internet and go back to the 90s, before I was permanently connected to news (especially this last week with the horrible images of young children being taken from their parents at the US border) and other people’s horrible opinions.

Sadly I work in IT, so that’s not really an option. Where does that leave me? Crippled by my impotence as I’m unable to do anything to change the depressing reality of today’s world? That’s not going to do me any good in the long run is it?

If I can’t do anything to stop Brexit, prevent a new cold war, or impeach Trump what can I do to make myself and the world a better place?

In day-to-day life I try not to let things get to me. Often urging others not to worry about things they can’t change or control. So maybe I should start doing the same for the big scary things as well. The first problem though is how to stop worrying about them in the first place?

Use Social Media for Good instead of Evil

I’ve started purging my Twitter of negativity. It’s become a broken tap, leaking a never-ending drip feed of bad shit on my phone, laptop and PC screen. I look at my phone to get a light distraction for a moment and end up being angry and sad for the rest of the day instead. No more. The bad shit must be controlled.

Unfollow media accounts or users who only ever post bad news or retweet conspiracy theories (even if you believe them). Once the drip has slowed down then start filling your feed instead with the things you want to read about and that make you happy. I’ve filled my twitter with tweets from comedians, musicians, artists, DIY makers and other creative and entertainment content creators.

Use social media to find things that inspire you, amuse you and refill your joy tank.

Also follow real people who you actually know. People you’d have a conversation with. Use Twitter for two-way communication.

Now when I go on Twitter it’s a much more enjoyable experience. Some of the bad shit still leaks through (yuck) but it’s much, much more manageable.

Don’t accept every invite to an argument

The other big rule I have now is not to get involved in arguments. There’s absolutely no point to it. Everyone’s opinions on social media are so entrenched that there’s no room for grey areas or rational thought. It’s a terrible platform for reasonable discourse. Abandon the concept and throw it to the wolves. Block and move on instead.

Make Time For Your Own Wellbeing

Clear some time out of your day and do something to improve your health or make you happy. Spend your lunch hour fuming over a sandwich while browsing BBC news? Go for a jog instead, or take a walk to nearby river and sit outside to eat your sandwich. Even just move away from your desk with a good book for the hour.

Make time when you can. Swap sitting on the sofa with your laptop for digging out that guitar you’ve not played for weeks/months/years.

My downtime is important and though it’s difficult to carve out all the time I want with two young kids and a full-time job, I try to make sure I get out for a run or bike ride a few times a week to keep everything on an even keel.

Embrace What You Love

If you like doing something – painting, drawing, writing, making music, board games, video games, bird watching, stamp collecting, crochet, ballroom dancing, making voodoo dolls from the stray hairs of your enemies – then do it (except maybe that last one). Don’t let anyone say you can’t, slag you off, or tell you it’s wrong to enjoy something that’s not harming anyone else. Double down on it if you can. Love what you like.

For a long time in my late twenties and thirties I shied away from some of my geekier hobbies and interests. Now I’ve recently started playing board games and roleplaying again, fiddling with electronics and hobby computing, as well as wearing shamelessly geeky t-shirts in the office. I’m a nerd. These things make me happy. Why should I be bothered if someone else doesn’t like those things?

Take The Pressure Off You

Give yourself permission to make mistakes, not get involved, and to leave it to someone else. The news is horrific just now. It often feels like there’s a lot of pressure to DO SOMETHING. To enlist in the forces of good against evil. It’s overwhelming but fear not! It’s OK. You don’t have to join every fight. Look after yourself first, make sure you’re safe and healthy, then, if you’ve got energy to spare, feel around for what you can do to help others.

When you do jump in, you don’t have to go big. Do what you can, where you can. Donate to charity, local or global. Pick something you care about. It doesn’t matter if it’s the big topic of the day. Make the world better one monthly direct debit at a time. Volunteer to help with a local event you like. Give something back on your terms when you’re able to.

Be Kind, Be Helpful, Understand Others

I’m often amazed by the lack of simple empathy shown on social media. Much of this will stem from the top down, from politicians and the media, who fill us with negative stereotypes and othering of large sections of society. That stuff rubs off, contempt is contagious and it’s no wonder social media is so toxic when minority groups, the sick, disabled, foreign, and the poor become scapegoats for every problem in the country.

Here’s something we can change. I can’t fix the predominantly right-wing media or our populist politicians, but I can make sure that I show the values I want to see represented online. Interact with kindness, don’t post knee-jerk assumptions about people, think the best of others and forgive their mistakes.

Boost the signal when others are being positive. Retweet the voices who are constructive and helpful of others. Ignore the people who are being dicks, make sure good people get heard.

Engage On Your Terms

Look I can write a thousand words telling people what they should do. In reality everyone has to find a way to manage this stuff themselves. Hopefully some of these ideas are useful, they sound obvious when you write it down but the pressure to stay engaged with all the bullshit that’s happening can blind you to the fact that you don’t really have to. Find your own route through the forest fire that is world news and toxic social media, just make sure it works for you and if it doesn’t you can always walk away. I know lots of people that, shocking as it is, aren’t on Facebook or Twitter and they are perfectly functional human beings. It’s always an option.

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Thoughts

Goals for a new year


So 2016 was a year that happened. Frankly it’s developed a pretty bad rep, as well as quite a body count. It would be easy to wallow in all the bad shit that happened last year. Sod that, I want to waltz into 2017 on a cloud of positivity.

We had two fantastic family holidays in 2016, to Mallorca in June then Dornoch in October. I ran (slowly) the fantastic 15 mile Illuminator night race in Glen Tanar in September.  We had some great weekends away and I got to endure the hardship of being sent to Paris for a few days to work. I also celebrated some important birthdays with my extended family, went to some brilliant weddings and received news of some more to come.

Above all else, the year was full of the sound of my daughter and nephew laughing and playing.

Now it comes to the start of a new year and I naturally start thinking about what lies ahead. Hopefully a lot more of my daughter’s laughter, but what else? I toyed with the idea of setting vague resolutions like “Play more music” or “Run more”. However I work best when I have a set goal in mind, like a 15 mile night race to train for without my feet exploding halfway through.

With that in mind here’s a few (achievable) things I would like to accomplish this year:

  1.  Record an EP
  2.  Publish a poem or a short story
  3.  Run a sub-2 hour half marathon
  4.  Get my weight down to 11 stone

A couple of these are a little more difficult than the others but should still be achievable over the course of the year, or at least have significant progress towards them.

Record an EP

I’ve played guitar since I was fourteen and for most of my adult life I’ve written music and played in local bands. I left my last band a few years ago to concentrate on a solo music project I was working on, but once my daughter arrived I slowly played less and less until I pretty much put my instruments down one day last year and never really picked them up again.

Over the last month I’ve made a conscious effort to get back on the horse and pick up either a guitar or mandolin almost every day. The aim is basically to get involved again and start pushing the project I started 4 years ago back into being. Eventually I hope to play some gigs but I think my self-confidence is a long way from that milestone. For now I’d be happy getting my playing and my singing into a good enough condition to record the EP I wrote down a tracklisting for shortly after I left that band.

Publish a poem or short story

As a member of local writing group Mearns Writers, I’ve produced a number of poems and short stories over the last two years. While I’ve submitted a few of these occasionally to some local poetry magazines and the odd competition I’ve not made a serious effort to get anything published (aside from posting a few on this site and the groups own self-published anthology). I need to step up my submission game in 2017 and see if I can at least place in some competitions and get some good feedback.

Run a sub-2 hour half marathon

This is simultaneously the easiest and the hardest of my 2017 goals. I should have a sub-2 hour half in my legs. I’ve ran 2:01 at Skye, which is bloody hilly and there’s no reason I shouldn’t be able to break that barrier. At the same time I’ve not been running nearly as much as I used to and I need to get my routine fixed and stick to it if I’m going to get anywhere close to this goal.

The Great Aberdeen Run is at the end of August and I entered on the day it was announced. That’s the target, though I might try a warm up race at the start of summer to see how I’m getting on.

Get my weight down to 11 stone

This goal will tie in with the previous one. If I train properly for a sub-2 hour half marathon I should lose weight. Since I started getting into fitness and sorted my weight issues over 10 years ago I’ve been stuck floating around the 12 stone mark. At the peak of my running routine, before my daughter arrived, I did manage to get down to under 11 and a half stone but that didn’t last long. I’m now back up to 12 and a half. That needs to be reversed.

Getting back below 12 stone should be easy. Exercise will fix that. Slimming down to 11 stone will need a bit more determination and willpower but hopefully I can get there by the end of the year.

There are of course plenty of other things I would like to do this year. I would like to worry less, focus at work more, cut out internet habits which reinforce negative thoughts, climb more hills and cycle many miles. Those are all good things to aim for but I think if I concentrate on these four achievable goals then I’ll be well on the way to a memorable year without putting too much pressure on myself.

Health and fitness, Thoughts

On mental health and the importance of talking


Today is World Mental Health Day. These events are designed to encourage people to talk about mental health and reduce the stigma around mental illness. But for all the publicity and the increase in celebrities talking openly about their issues, there is still a stigma around depression, anxiety and other disorders.

Last year that stigma prevented me from going to a doctor and talking about my own problems with anxiety and depression until it had reached a chronic state. This was despite dealing with close family members and colleagues who experienced similar issues in the recent past and understanding how important it is to talk about these problems.

The fact is that I was, and still am, embarrassed to  talk about it. I’m a very logical person and I find it hard to come to terms with the fact that I can be crippled with anxiety and depressed (one usually follows the other with me) for seemingly illogical and mundane reasons. So to turn around and talk about those problems is very difficult. It feels like a weakness, a failing, like I’m screwing up by not being able to cope with problems at work or the little stresses of daily family life.

Yet the logical part of my brain keeps reminding me that it’s normal, it’s an illness, lots of people go through this and it’s all just a physical chemical response to various external pressures over the last 3 years. It’s really infuriating. I understand what is happening to me and I believe I know what the causes are and how I need to improve things. But my body doesn’t seem to listen.

I’ve been taking Sertraline for about a year now. It’s a fairly common anti-depressant which, despite some wacky side effects like incredibly vivid dreams, appears to have levelled out my anxiety to a much more manageable level. So much so that I tried coming off it for a couple of months over the summer, but sadly the symptoms of uncontrolled fear returned after a few weeks and I made the decision to go back on the pills for a bit longer.

Despite the medication I still find that some days I will have a feeling of general anxiety rising in the pit of my stomach. Or I’ll feel a bit down for a day or two. Often this will be followed by a cold or some other physical illness. Almost like my body gets distracted dealing with the early symptoms of a virus and forgets to deal with the long term mental illness for a few days.

I’ve also noticed that despite the improvement in my general mood the illness has robbed me of a lot of my confidence. I’ve always been a bit of an introvert but could blag my way through social situations, presentations at work and even stand on stage with a guitar in front of not very many people (the bands I’ve played in were always under appreciated by local audiences). Now I find myself feeling scared to approach new situations or even attend events like large family gatherings, friend’s parties or music gigs. I manage to force myself to get along to most things and once there I think I bluff my way through well enough, but it’s tiring. Hopefully over time I can recover some of that self-confidence I’d grown over the years.

So things are OK in general, thanks to the medication, some changes in circumstance (moving job helped a lot), an increase in exercise and of course the initial decision to talk to my family and a GP about my problems rather than try to fix things myself and hope it would pass.

If you’re suffering from any kind of mental health issue, no matter how severe, it really does help to talk about it. Even just talking anonymously to other sufferers on the internet can be the first step you need to recovering from the illness. Sites like No More Panic and the depression and anxiety subs on Reddit offer lots of sympathetic ears if your own support network is lacking, or you just don’t want to talk face to face yet.

I guess I just want to say for World Mental Health Day and every day remember, it gets better, it can affect any of us and please try to talk about it.

Thoughts

Hey Internet, stop making me stupid!


Loose. Look at that word. That word makes me very uncomfortable now.  I know it shouldn’t. It can’t help it, after all it’s just a word. Looking at the Oxford English Dictionary the definition is: Loose ~ Not firmly or tightly fixed in place; detached or able to be detached; not held or tied together or contained within something. Plus a few extra definitions relating to sport or clothing.

However there’s also a single line, listed under the usage heading on the definition page, which refers directly to what makes me so uncomfortable about this word: The words loose and lose are different and should not be confused.

Someone should tell that to the Internet.

I don’t think a day goes by where I don’t come across the word lose spelled, er, loosely. I think I can understand why, the word is pronounced with a long O sound like pool or food. But then there are plenty of words which are pronounced similarly that only have a single O like prove or lose. Which is great until you remember that English is an anarchic mess of a language which contains the following words: croup, shrewd, suit, ewe, you, fucking luge, cue, queue, shoe, and rue. The long oo sound is not consistent in its spelling.

All this is starting to have a strange effect on me. I’m a pedantic sod at the best of times. A total grammar fascist the rest of the time. Seriously. The amount of restraint it takes to stop me screaming on the Internet at people for not proofreading blogs, news articles or even twitter posts is heroic. Most of the time I can just about forget the grammatical horrors I’ve seen, but the lose/loose error is starting to haunt my mind.

I can’t read the word now. So many people (most natural English speakers so they’ve no fucking excuse) are spelling it wrong that I’m now second guessing the word when I see it. If I read loose in a sentence I’m hearing lose in my head.  Mentally correcting this seemingly small error is ruining my online experience. It’s so common now that even when loose is used correctly I just assume it’s a mistake. It’s an effect so strong it often takes me a sentence or two to pick up the correct context again and reset to the correct definition.

I don’t want to accept this. I shouldn’t have to.

So this is my plea to the Internet. Stop making me dumb. Take some pride in your spelling. Read what you write before you hit post (seriously, most tools and web platforms even proofread for you) and above all fix these simple mistakes:

Lose is not Loose.
Your is not the same as you’re.
Lego doesn’t have an s on the end under any circumstances.
But maths does (as it’s short for mathematics).
Affect changes something, effect is the result of the change itself.

Thoughts

How to stay focused and be productive


I get distracted a lot. For example I was doing something for work just now and in the middle of it I got distracted, opened a new tab and started writing this post. I should get back to what I was doing and come back to this over lunch…

…right. Where was I? Ah yes writing a poem… nope that’s in another tab. Oh yeah, getting distracted.

I’ve always been a bit of a daydreamer, inclined to stop halfway through a task and just stare into space with my thoughts. It used to drive my friends nuts when I was at school if they sat behind me at an exam. From their perspective I spent half the allotted time staring at the ceiling, counting the tiles, but still finished with plenty of time and managed to pass.

My mind tends to jump from subject to subject and I get very easily sidetracked by whatever shiny thing I’m obsessed with this week (snorkeling at the moment if you’re wondering). However I do somehow manage to function as a human being despite this, so I thought it would be useful to share some tips on how I manage to keep my productivity roughly on track.

Some of these ideas are apps either on your phone, on your PC or both. Some of them are simply mental exercises or can be achieved using good old pen and paper. They all help me stay on track throughout the day and hopefully most of you will find them useful too.

Wunderlist
wunderlist
To do lists are one of the best tools for staying on top of your day-to-day tasks. A few years ago I started making a point of writing out a list every morning when I got to the office which made it a lot easier to plan my day and order my work into manageable chunks. Sometimes having a list written out can be a little daunting, especially if that list doesn’t change much from one day to the next, but if you embrace the positives it can help you identify quick wins and you’ll learn to love the feeling of ticking off task after task.

I made the switch to electronic to do lists recently and Wunderlist is a brilliant example. It gives you multiple folders and lists, recurring tasks, the option to mark important or urgent tasks and it syncs across multiple devices. All for free.

Outlook Tasks
If, like me, you spend most of your day in an office hooked up to a corporate email server then you’re probably familiar with Microsoft Outlook. It’s array of meetings, appointments and tasks which can be configured on your calendar with various reminders and alerts are great for popping up a detailed reminder on your screen when you need to do something. I use it all the time for reminding myself about work tasks like catching up with a client to mundane household tasks like booking my car service.

These days with many large companies moving to Office 365 and cloud solutions it’s likely that you can access all your reminders on the move as well.

Google Calendar
If you don’t use Outlook or you want a calendar environment which syncs seamlessly with your mobile experience then Google’s offering is perfect, at least if you’re an Android phone user.

Like Outlook, you can use this to remind yourself about appointments, deadlines and anything else you might want your phone to prod you about throughout the day. Plus being a cloud service means it will sync across your phone, desktop and tablet devices wherever you go.

Forest
Forest
I find it hard to stay focused for long periods. My brain flits between subjects every few minutes and I often find my hand creeping towards the web browser any time my concentration dips. However recently I’ve had some success at improving my concentration using a simple program on my phone called Forest.

The idea is you plant a tree in the app, which will slowly grow over your chosen time period. Any attempt to do anything else on your phone – check twitter, open email or play a game will result in a tree that’s withered and dead. If you can resist playing with your phone for the set time then you end up with a fully grown tree which gets added to your personal forest.

Continued success gives you points that can be turned into different species of tree to add to your forest and there’s various paid extras (e.g. no ads) that can also be purchased.

The only drawback for me is that while it acts as a decent mental reminder that I should be doing something other than browsing the web, a lot of the time my phone isn’t my problem. I need to find a similar app that works on my laptop at home and prevents me from checking YouTube or logging into Eve Online.

Google Drive
drive
I use Google Drive a lot. I use it for financial management (the ability to jointly edit spreadsheets between myself and my wife is great), sharing photos and other files, and I use it a lot for planning.

Whether I’m thinking about a poem, story, article or even home improvements and hobby projects, often the first step for me is to open Google Drive and get a file saved with a few details about what it is I’m planning. If it’s a story this could just be a couple of sentences of synopsis, for a poem it will be a title and maybe one verse (or often a whole first draft, I write poems quickly) and for hobby projects it could be a parts list or just a description of the concept and a high level overview.

Once that’s done I know the idea is safe. I won’t forget it. I can go back and flesh it out at a later date or pick through them during moments of writer’s block. The important thing is that I have the idea and get it down somewhere safe and accessible from anywhere so I can work on it and keep track of its progress.

I find this really helpful for me to see things through to a successful completion and again because it’s in the cloud I can update it on my phone, laptop or tablet wherever I am.

Mindfulness
Now I know what you’re thinking but hear me out! Mindfulness might be the hippy technique du jour at the moment with lots of press coverage over the last few years as it gains traction with the alternative therapy community. But even a stopped clock is right twice a day and mindfulness is being adopted in a big way by the NHS and clinical psychologists to treat a host of mental disorders including depression and anxiety.

Basically mindfulness is a type of meditation which trains you to focus on the present moment and your state of mind now, instead of worrying about the future or regretting the past. It can be very powerful and enlightening for practitioners.

Personally I find that anything which forces you to take a few minutes time out to gather your thoughts in peace and settle your mind is definitely worth trying.

There are many courses you can take on mindfulness but to be honest I’d recommend just buying a book with an included CD of meditation examples. Then once you’ve gone through that you can use a timer on your phone or a specialist meditation app to track your times and take you through different types of meditation.

Listen to music
music
I’m often at my most productive in the office when I’m sat with headphones on and listening to some tunes from my phone. Drowning out the background noise of colleagues having heated discussions, the traffic to the communal kitchen nearby or the bus station outside our office window really helps me focus on the piece of work in front of me and I seem to get distracted a lot less.

A few months ago my ageing iPod classic finally bit the dust to my great dismay, meaning I no longer have access to my entire music collection on the move. For now I’ve replaced this with connecting my phone to the office Wi-Fi and using Amazon’s cloud music app to at least have access to the large number of albums I’ve purchased there over the years. But I think soon I’ll need to see if I can set up a streaming service on my backup server at home, so I can make sure I still have access to all those 80s and 90s metal albums I grew up with!

Get outside
SavedPicture-2013529203653.jpg
One of the most powerful tools to clear and focus your mind is fresh air and exercise. Even if you just take the opportunity to go for a walk at lunch time or if you go a bit more gung-ho and use your lunch times like I do to fit in some running or gym sessions then I guarantee you’ll see a big benefit in your focus levels.

Plus if you’ve stared at the same piece of work all morning just getting away from it for half an hour so you can sit down feeling fresh and maybe approach it from a new perspective on your return can work wonders.