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.

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Thoughts

Learning New Skills


One of the reasons I pick up so many different hobbies is that I really love learning new skills. I think it’s the pride I can take in seeing the result of a process of research, learning and then doing something for the first time.

Recently there was an opportunity to create a promo video for a player group in the PC space game Eve Online which I play (too much). I’ve not done a lot of video editing in the past, but there was a considerable reward on offer in game just for submitting something the group’s leadership liked, even if it wasn’t chosen so I thought I’d learn how to do it.

With the internet it’s so easy to find the tools and the know-how to do something like this. Almost always for free or very little cost. I had a look around and tried a few different pieces of production software before eventually settling for Hitfilm 4 Express and using their own tutorials and a bit of time spent in Paint.Net creating and editing graphics I produced this short 15 second clip two days later.

I’m really happy with the end result. It turned out exactly how I wanted it. Hitfilm 4 Express is free, the tutorials are free and Paint.net is free. These tools are available for everyone and it doesn’t take a long time to learn. The video hasn’t been chosen by the group but they’ve requested a new one with some specific direction which I’m going to try working on soon.

Thoughts

Reflections on 2015


The Christmas tree is back in its box. The decorations have been gathered from their vantage points around the house and the first work shirts of 2016 have been ironed ready for the return to the office this week. As I wait out the last few days and hours of the Christmas holidays I’ve been reflecting on the year that’s just passed and what it means for the year to come.

One thing about the year to come… it can only improve from this point! My adorable daughter picked up an awful cold just before Christmas which of course she then passed on to my wife and I. Which means that the first time in about 8 years that I’ve not had to work or be on call for work over the festive period I’ve spent mostly in bed ill. Which was nice. Thanks Chloe. Oh and I’ve just lost a game of Trivial Pursuit to my wife for the first time. 2016 is terrible so far!

However that leads me nicely into the biggest event which happened to us in 2015 and it was back in the middle of January. My daughter Chloe was born in the very early hours of a Thursday morning in Aberdeen. We’d started the process the previous morning by driving to the hospital in Montrose, but we’ll just gloss over that (and the terrifying blue lights transfer in gale force winds). Despite her slightly dramatic entry into the world, she is amazing. Every day we see her beautiful soul shine a little brighter as her personality develops and she grows from baby to toddler.

Adjusting to life with a baby hasn’t been easy, although the rewards are immense. I can’t get enough of hearing her laugh or the feeling when she gives me a hug. Still, at times this year has pushed me to breaking point and beyond.

As well as the arrival of our daughter we were also settling into a new house at the start of 2015, having moved to Stonehaven at the end of 2014. The first half of the year also saw me stuck in a job I had tried to get out of for two years without success and the pressure of that started to take its toll. All this added up to a trip to the doctor’s to seek treatment for depression and chronic anxiety.

It’s never easy admitting to mental health issues. I’ve not made a big deal of it or gone public (until now) as it isn’t really anyone else’s business. However as it has been a massive part of the last year for me I felt I should include it in this post. Thankfully, the GP I saw was superb and very understanding which has meant I’ve been able to get most of my issues firmly under control through the second half of the year. I now feel pretty much back to normal 95% of the time, which is fantastic and makes dealing with the rest of life a lot easier. Perhaps in the future I’ll write-up my experience of mental illness in a bit more detail, but for now I’m just glad I can move on.

I mentioned my job earlier. In the summer I was eventually successful in escaping from my previous role and have finally left the front line of corporate IT support. Albeit I’ve just moved to the vendor side of the relationship. I’m now working as a consultant for a Norwegian software house, but it’s a massive change for me and a hugely positive one. I started in the role in August and the first few months have been very enjoyable so far including an eye-opening trip to our head office in Oslo set in idyllic surroundings on the banks of Oslo fjord.

August saw another big challenge – Ride The North. A two day bike ride from Inverness back to Stonehaven via the hilliest road route they could find (or so it seemed). Easily one of the hardest things I have ever done. Possibly the hardest. It was an amazing experience, great fun and I would recommend it to anyone looking for a serious challenge. I also managed to raise over £300 for Home Start UK in the process. I felt very proud of myself as I came down the hill into Stoney. I’ve cycled into the town countless times but it’s rarely been such a relief! That was pretty much it in terms of fitness and adventure for the year as exercise took a back seat to make time for nappy changes!

Although 2015 saw me step back from the blog for a variety of reasons, I carried on writing in other ways. I’ve long been interested in trying more creative forms of writing and had considered an open learning English degree or something similar to stretch myself in that direction. At least I was considering it until I found out how much it was going to cost! Instead I joined the local writers group and have been introduced to a very welcoming and creative bunch of local poets, fiction writers and essayists. Through the group I’ve rekindled an interest in poetry I hadn’t explored since school and have also written a few pieces of short fiction. Some of the work has been published on this blog and I hope to put up a lot more this year.

In terms of other creative work I have pretty much neglected my music. When a baby enters your life it’s inevitable that something has to give and playing, writing and performing music has been the biggest casualty of my hobbies. I might have cut back on running and exercise but I at least can try to make up for that by going to the gym at lunchtime. I’d get some funny looks practicing the mandolin or guitar in the office kitchen…

Music is something I definitely want to pick up again and I have a couple of minor goals for 2016 but I won’t be putting a lot of pressure on myself to get them ticked off. At the moment it’s all about relaxed aims and not forcing myself to do things.

Outside of what I’ve achieved over the last year I’ve had some great trips (Keswick in the summer, Oslo, Aberfeldy for my birthday to see Lau play in a small town hall). Listened to some wonderful music – albums by Lau, Chvrches, Treacherous Orchestra, Olafur Arnalds (collaborating with Nils Frahm and Sarah Ott), Anais Mitchell (just got into her stuff this year) and Rachel Sermanni all stood out for me this year. Star Wars finally got its mojo back with an awesome adventure in The Force Awakens, while on TV Fargo returned for a brilliant second season and I now have a thorough, detailed knowledge of the Cbeebies TV channel.

Other things had a big impact on my year, in particular the awful news in November of the attacks in Paris. While dreadful acts of violence and terror happen all over the world the events in Paris and in particular the assault on the Bataclan concert venue seemed to hit very close to home. I think it’s because Paris is a city I’ve visited in a country I’m incredibly fond of. Also the target of the attack was a rock gig by The Eagles Of Death Metal, a band whose work I have on my iPod, in a venue which one of my favourite bands (Deftones) was due to play the very next day. In fact members of that band were at the gig on the night it was attacked. The victims were my Parisian analogues just out to enjoy a band they liked on a Friday night.

If I have one big theme I want to take out of 2015 it’s that despite some problems I’ve come through it all relatively unscathed and with a fantastic, beautiful family to share it with and support each other. It’s far too easy to put unhealthy amounts of pressure on ourselves these days and while having goals and aims is admirable it should also not be at the detriment of your own health and personal relationships.

The first half of 2015 was a mad, high pressure rush of new baby, mad work situation, cycle training and deteriorating health. While after the summer things calmed down and I was able to step back and find the necessary space to get back on track and enjoy being with my daughter, my new job and being more relaxed about my spare time after Ride The North was over. Hopefully I take that relaxed enjoyment with me into 2016 and beyond.

Happy New Year!

Thoughts

The downside of an always connected lifestyle


I’ve just finished reading an article by Jemima Kiss on the Guardian’s website which really resonated with me. Normally I don’t bother with the comment pieces on the site, skipping to interesting news, sport or the tech, food and culture sections as I spend my lunch time idly catching up on the world. However the title of the piece – Turning off technology is about mental wellbeing – not becoming a digital hermit – fell in line with a thought that’s been in my head for a while now. I used to be happier before the internet.

Now, in general I am quite a happy person. I’ve got a lot going for me including a nice house, wife and newborn child, friends and family; plus plenty of hobbies to occupy myself with. But I’ve found the last couple of years to be a struggle mentally in many ways, the independence referendum was a long emotional journey with a crashing comedown on the day of the result, my career has gone through a number of recent changes with added pressures and then there’s the big life changes that moving back to my home town and a new baby bring. That’s a lot of load to put on a person.

So where does the internet come into this? Why does it specifically make me unhappy when I can weather (mostly, I have my moments) those other pressures? I think it’s partly my own fault – having all that information constantly at my fingertips is too tempting. During the referendum I would be constantly checking twitter for the latest comment or news from the campaigns and as a result I spent most of last year feeling angry all the time. It’s not a nice feeling. Now with the general election I find myself doing the same thing. At least if I just check into the teatime news on TV I only shout at lying politicians once a day, that’s if the TV even reports what’s happening! There I go again…

The other big downer the internet inflicts is that it sucks time from you. I have a lot of hobbies, probably too many if I’m honest as it’s hard to keep up with them, but I really enjoy trying to things and learning new skills so I keep wanting to do more. The ones which get me outside (cycling, running, hillwalking) aren’t a problem; I’m outside, away from my laptop, tablet and often even away from a mobile signal. It’s the hobbies inside that suffer. I absolutely love playing music, writing and learning new songs, but I never seem to find the time. Or I sit down with the laptop to write something and find myself staring at reddit two hours later with a blank word document in another window. The same thing happens when I try to work on this blog, or some fiction writing.  I recently developed an interest in electronics and spent some time putting together some project ideas. Every time I think about getting the circuit boards out I run out of time, but I find plenty of time to sit on the sofa refreshing facebook and twitter or browsing Amazon for more hobbies to neglect.

It gets really frustrating. I know that spending an hour or two writing something new or making some progress on the Arduino powered baby toy I thought of would make me a lot happier for the rest of the day.  I’ve been a gamer all my life but my Xbox went untouched for almost two months, despite me making frequent comments about playing a game while the baby slept. I just never seemed to find a gap to fire it up, yet I spend literally hours at home aimlessly surfing the web.  That’s time I could be shooting terrorists! Or getting my arse handed to me by dragons in Skyrim. It stresses me out to know that I’m just wasting time like this and neglecting things that I genuinely enjoy doing.

Lastly there’s my friends and family. Now it’s natural that as you get older you grow apart from your friends. Everyone grows up, moves away, families are started, homes are bought and work pressures build. But I hardly ever see friends anymore or talk to them. We seem to be deluded into thinking we’re keeping in touch these days just because we saw some pictures of each other on our respective holidays or wearing a stupid jumper at Christmas. That’s not keeping in touch, it’s just nodding at each other from across the street if you happen to pass. Funnily enough as I write this I am actually going to meet up with friends this weekend for the first time in a while. In some cases it will have been months since I’ve seen them. They all live within an hour of me.

I lied when I said lastly… but lets not delve into the self-defeating acts of workplace procrastination the internet enables for me.

I think part of the problem is a kind of laziness inertia which happens after I get home and sit on the couch. Inevitably the laptop or tablet come out and I sit checking facebook, browsing reddit or other online forums while I have tea, feed the baby etc. Then I stay there. Before I know it most of the evening’s past and I decide there’s no point starting to do something constructive so I sigh and open up another tab in chrome or maybe I’ll get as far as turning off the laptop and watching an episode of Community on Netflix. By the end of the week I’m fully up to speed on which of my casual acquaintances still plays Candy Crush Saga on Facebook but have made no progress on any musical ambitions or finishing any projects.

What’s the solution for all this?  Before I was always connected to the internet I spent all my spare time doing constructive things like playing guitar, going to the pub with friends, playing video games or being terrible at football. I want to spend more time on the things I enjoy doing, rather than feel depressed because I can’t drag my sorry carcass away from twitter long enough to strum a guitar. Ignorance was bliss as I was unaware of all the underhand shit being perpetrated by politicians and other assorted scumbags the world over. Now I’m overloaded with conspiracies both real and imagined which force me to spend my time in a state of permanent outrage at the endless fuckwittery that’s out there. It’s really fucking tiring.

I could take the nuclear option. Delete the Facebook and Twitter apps from my phone, and most of my bookmarks from Chrome. The problem with that is that I do derive some value from the interactions I have online and the internet is of some use as a tool for organising holidays, buying stuff and for learning about things.

I think the answer, like with so many things, is to impose strict moderation. I need to stop reaching for the tablet every time I sit down and push myself to live a life with more interaction in the real world instead of spending it online. Unless I have a good reason to turn on my laptop it needs to stay off.  Ah, but what about writing? I have to use my laptop for that (even I struggle to read my handwriting).  Damn. Maybe I need to dig out an old laptop and never configure it’s WiFi connection so it remains offline. Apparently George RR Martin does that. A Song Of Ice and Fire is written in Wordstar 4.0 on Dos…

If anyone has any better ideas, let me know.

Thoughts

What’s next?


After the low of the referendum defeat many Yes campaigners are picking themselves up, dusting themselves down and asking “What’s next?”. Those that voted for a fairer, independent future and who lit up the campaign with energy, creativity and fire are now starting to wonder what they can do to continue the fight. Some of the groups that fought under the Yes banner have raised their standards again and posted statements of intent like National Collective or Robin McAlpine from the Common Weal, whose powerful piece sums up the thoughts of many now aching to push forward after coming so close:

We lost. Get over it. Every second we spend licking our wounds is a second we lose for the fight. And fight we must. And fight we will. We made much of this land our Scotland, not theirs. So now we hold our territory. Then we take theirs.

Wipe your eyes. On your feet. Grab your stuff. Let’s get started.

Continue reading “What’s next?”

Thoughts

Why I’m Voting Yes


I’ve held back quite a bit from the independence debate. Not because I wasn’t sure of my opinion or confident in the argument, but just because with a baby on the way, looking for a new house and a lot of pressure at work I’ve had more than enough on my plate without launching headlong into the campaign as well. However with just days to go to the biggest political vote in my lifetime I thought I should at least write down my thoughts on the referendum.

When it comes to independence, I’ve always been a yes voter really. Since I was old enough to participate in the democratic process I’ve only ever voted for parties that advocate an independent Scotland (which doesn’t mean I’ve only ever voted for the SNP). Up until now I guess you could say that was a romantic ideal, I felt very strongly that Scotland should be independent but until 2011 it was something I never thought I’d see. My belief in independence didn’t stem from Hollywood nonsense like Braveheart (as much as I enjoyed it at the time) or kilts and shortbread imagery. It’s simply that I believe Scotland is a country, distinct in its own right and as such should be run as a country by those who are best placed to make the decisions on behalf of that country – the people living in it.
Continue reading “Why I’m Voting Yes”

Snapshots, Thoughts

A few days in Copenhagen


While the country (and Europe) were busy having a political fit and lurching to the polling station for a collective game of “who can elect the most racists to Europe?” we headed off to Copenhagen for a few days of rest and relaxation.

Now I realise that a bit of sunshine can hide a multitude of ills but Copenhagen is amazing. Just an utterly brilliant city. Beautiful buildings and parks full of friendly, welcoming residents who are more than happy to speak excellent English and not put up with visitor’s terrible Danish (didn’t help that despite being assured I could, I wasn’t able to roam onto 3 Denmark’s network so was without phone signal and unable to refer to the Danish phrases site I’d bookmarked on my phone). We spent a great 4 days walking through the city centre, enjoying wonderful food from Smørrebrød, a Danish open sandwich typically served with herring or other local fish, contemporary Italian food from the restaurant under our apartment, sushi, all the way to high-end Danish cuisine from Radio – a restaurant opened by some Noma alumni. Oh and a few Danish pastries as well! Continue reading “A few days in Copenhagen”