Time to re-think our values?

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Over the last few years I have watched enormous resources (human, financial, material) thrown at various social and environmental issues. Organisations coordinating the programs all report back with tremendous positivity about the impact they are having. And yet…at a holistic level we don’t seem to be getting anywhere. I recall working on a project attempting to tackle homelessness, and we were told by the experts that homelessness has actually increased, quite remarkably, in parallel with the resources invested in tackling it. Have we really made such great progress in areas like health, education, economy, environment, poverty? There have been many leaps forward (we have met some of the Millennium Development Goals already), and yet personally I do not feel that we are making particularly impressive progress given the resource investment. Perhaps we are tackling the symptoms, and not the cause.

 

I believe to understand where all of humanity’s problems come from we must first accept a most uncomfortable truth:

 

We are the cause of every single one of them.

 

I have learned from my experience of depression as well as my time in social enterprise that we must first accept a problem in its entirety before we attempt to tackle it. Taking responsibility is perhaps also an important step, given how inclined we seem to be individually and collectively to absolve blame and point the finger elsewhere. By taking responsibility for a problem, we can then take responsibility for tackling it.

 

I am not telling you of course to take responsibility yourself for the entire 2 billion people living in poverty. A problem of such scale is not the fault of one individual, or even one nation, but the fault of billions of individuals collectively. Whether you like it or not, you have had a role to play though, as have the people you see around you. By buying materials and produce made by those living in poverty at such a reduced rate you are contributing. We buy from corporations whose greed-driven purpose is to maximise profit, by nature then exploiting those who have so little. On a systems level we are all players in the game of capitalism, which polarises wealth.

 

I see the fault for many problems we face lying within our cultural values. Here are some of the values that define mainstream society today:

Greed

Throwaway culture

Short-term interests maximised at long-term cost

Break down of close-knit communities

Quantity over quality

Demand for constant growth

Consumerism

Lack of respect for environment we wholly rely on

 

Unfortunately many of these values have spread from the ‘dominant’ west which much of the rest of the world aspires to imitate. The west looks impressive on the surface with its big shiny buildings, fancy technology and 2 cars per household, but that conceals the rotten core beneath. Record levels of obesity, stress and mental illness are hardly symbols to me of a flourishing civilization. I can think of few who feel particularly satisfied or purposeful in how they are living their lives. And all this for a lifestyle which is, quite simply, unsustainable.

 

The car crash of our misplaced values is playing out in slow motion, right before our eyes, as our economy wobbles with little sign of recovery, the climate inches ever closer to dangerous levels of warming, and ever more of us find ourselves fighting over ever fewer resources on this planet.

 

Such a state of things has been caused by contemporary approaches and contemporary values. To chart a more sustainable and prosperous course for ourselves going forward requires a new approach. It requires new values.

Two types of confidence

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Here’s why the ego is weak and vulnerable; it depends upon external stimuli to boost it. It goes up and down according to the feedback it gets from the outside world. Thus, when our confidence is tied to the ego, our confidence too depends on the outside world. Our self-esteem is entirely dependent on how people behave towards us. It goes up when we are paid a compliment. Goes down when we hear someone talk ill of us. It is fragile and fickle. It can balloon up, but just easily burst and leave a person in tatters. Think about it, it means that our opinion of ourselves is inexorably tied to the opinion others hold of us. Other people can build us up, or tear us down.

 

I believe there’s another type of confidence. It’s a type I’ve seen in Buddhist monks, such as Thich Nhat Hanh. Sometimes I see it in prominent leaders, who are so self-assured, and yet seem so humble with it. This type of confidence is not dependent on our external world, but on our internal world. It’s a confidence that can only come from self-awareness and self-understanding. From self-acceptance. It is not so easily influenced by others in our external world. I’m sure these people still have ego (I believe it to be a fundamental part of evolutionary human nature), but they do not rely on it for their self-worth. How liberating…to not fear how others judge us. To try to be the best we can be individually, not the best that others think we can be.

 

As such, this confidence grows from deepening our acknowledgement of ourselves. Of accepting and embracing our weaknesses, just as we like to embrace our strengths. It grows as we grow in to ourselves, and try to be the best version of ourselves. When at peace with ourselves, we are not concerned with whether a person ‘likes’ us or not. In fact, some will dislike us for it simply because they envy that way of being. More likely, people will be drawn to it though. For all our differences, I believe at some level we are all looking for that sense of self-acceptance and inner contentment.

 

The ego can provide quick bursts of confidence that feel great. This inner type of confidence takes time, work and a lot of patience. But unlike that of the ego, it is real confidence. It stays with us and enables us to flourish.

Looking after Number One

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As you will see, it is somewhat ironic that I sit here writing this entry at 2am in a Starbucks Cafe in Washington DC, a long way from the place I call home – Sydney. Yet it is oft the absence of something that hammers home its importance to us.

 

I look back on three pivotal events that have defined the last few years of my life; going through depression, catching glandular fever, and finding purpose. The first two taught me the importance of looking after ourselves properly, the latter provided me with a powerful incentive.

 

Now some time ago, I wrote about the investment we can make in ourselves, and that I believe this to be the most valuable investment we make in our lives. It pays back with some serious interest. I’d like to follow up on this.

 

I didn’t learn a great deal from my Neuroscience studies (except that the aroma of formaldehyde should never be combined with a hangover), but what stands out is that the body is at all times a quite remarkable and fine chemical balance. It is so easy to knock our bodies off balance, and we really feel the effects of doing so. I’ve recently been reading Matt Church’s ‘High Life 24/7’, and he mentions that one night of no sleep can affect us for up to six weeks after – that’s how long it takes for our bodies to return to their proper chemical balance. That one night of missed sleep in isolation is not much of a health risk, but it may be the reason why you wake up the odd day feeling lethargic, and your day is worse for it. How that could have been avoided…

 

He refers to give key areas of our lives that have a significant impact on our chemical balance; nutrition, sleep, exercise, thought patterns and how we deal with stress. I’d venture that social connection should be number six, as this has been shown by research to have a significant impact on our neural chemistry. Now I’ve met very, very few people who I believe take good care of each of these areas. Simple habits such as drinking lots of coffee, eating fast food, sleeping in at the weekend, staying up past when we’re tired, missing out on gym sessions and letting stress control them can have negative consequences beyond what we realise. They can knock us off-kilter, leaving us wondering why we feel tired, snappy, uncreative or disillusioned when there seems to be no obvious life circumstance at the cause. This is rather an obstacle to us achieving our goals, whether they be in our working lives or just life satisfaction.

 

However, there is an enormous, gargantuan opportunity within this. The sheer scope of this opportunity has only begun to register in my consciousness since I arrived in Sydney five months ago. The opportunity is that if we can learn to listen to our body chemistry, to understand our needs and develop habits that nourish them, then we are potentially better off for every day of the rest of our lives. If we can understand the ideal sleep pattern for ourselves, eat well, exercise as much as we need, develop great strategies for stress and learn positive thinking habits…then everything in our life benefits; productivity, creativity, contentment, relationships, confidence, learning, purpose, passion…We can do more, better, and we feel more fucking awesome about it. Not bad.

 

So why the heck are so few people developing these habits? There are a few obstacles. Lack of knowledge of what these needs are in ourselves and the habits we should develop. Lack of time or patience to implement them. But I think the biggest obstacle, and I’ve written about this before, is that we’re bloody awful at being self-aware. Whether it be because of the western favouritism of logic over intuition, or the fast pace of modern life, we plain suck at tuning in to our bodies and minds. But this extra time spent on self-reflection means that we get more out of all of the rest of our time.

 

I’m not theorising. I firmly believe in the importance of understanding these needs and habits – and preferably doing so young – because I’ve benefitted enormously from it. At some stages of uni I was sleeping four hours a night, drinking a lot of alcohol, using caffeine to get through the day, not taking the time to cook and eat properly and running off pure adrenaline much of the time. The dips could be extreme, I was frequently getting ill and wasn’t getting anywhere near my own potential. Nowadays I eat really well, drink only water, consume no caffeine most days, cycle every day and get a solid sleep almost every night. The difference is staggering. I feel better, and I’m capable of much more than I previously thought. I also learn and develop much faster than before. It’s very rare that I wake up and don’t feel full of energy/optimism for the day, and I’ve had one day off ill in five months. I feel that embedding these habits now (and continuing to improve them) will allow me to get more from my life for the foreseeable future, and in all likelihood will make my life longer too.

 

Convinced yet? If not, pick up a copy of one of Matt Church’s books and see for yourself how much more awesome your life could be. And let’s be honest, we’d all rather like that. I see this as building a foundation upon which we can flourish for the rest of our lives. It’s not sexy, but the rewards are phenomenal.

 

So with all this in mind…how much better would this entry have been if I was more well-rested, had been eating better food, exercising more and feeling more settled? I guess we’ll never know for sure, but I would venture it would be a fair bit better…

A fear of the path well-trodden

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On occasion, I feel there’s value in pausing on the path we’re taking through life, turning around and taking a good look at how far we’ve come. It can be quite surprising.

Over the last few days a number of events and conversations have triggered off the realisation in me that I’m further along in my own development than I thought – in terms of my abilities, skills, assuredness –  and in my crazy mission to make the world we live in better.

When I turn around on that path and look at where I was going through school, it’s a very different person I see. I was shy, unconfident and didn’t like groups of people. My self-worth wasn’t great. This is probably true for many teenagers, but there was little evidence of how much that would all change.

During the end of school, through college and early university this changed a little and my fear of judgement receded a little, but I was still terrified of criticism or of appearing foolish. I grew more comfortable in groups, and valued myself more, but remained very cautious. This impacted upon my view of the future. I didn’t see a great deal of adventure or excitement, and didn’t trust in my own ability to engineer these as core components of my life. I wasn’t sure what the future held, but I was sure that the ones I could see – working for the sake of earning money in an office somewhere, living for the weekends, being stuck in a lab doing science – were not ones that appealed to me. In fact, I found them quite depressing.

Oddly though, I appeared to be less worried about my future than many of my classmates. Despite what I’ve written above, my glass was always half-full and I the hope that something extraordinary would emerge remained ever-present. That attitude helped me a lot in getting through depression. And though I wasn’t sure how I wanted Nathaniel’s future to look, I did have some idea of how I wanted future Nathaniel to look. I could see traits in other people that I admired, and could see the amazing things that those traits enabled them to do. Writing, public speaking, enterprise….I wanted to be good at these things.

I was aware that to develop these areas, I needed to just throw myself in with the knowledge that I would be no where near as good as other people or as I wanted to be – and other people would judge me for it. For a long time, that fear of what others might think of me held me back though. Instead of just jumping straight in, it was easier to bask in the envy and make excuses why I was actually better than them or why some other circumstance outside of my control meant that I couldn’t do these things. That it was down to talent perhaps.

And then something happened one Christmas. My sister and her husband bought me a book by Alastair Humphreys. I was hooked not so much by the astonishing fact that he CYCLED AROUND THE ENTIRE WORLD, but more by the huge personal doubt he overcame to do so. That he was just an ordinary guy, with an extraordinary dream. What set him apart was not physical excellence or unshakeable self-belief, but attitude. He dared do something extraordinary, and that made him extraordinary.

And with it my attitude changed. I was inspired beyond belief and decided I would dare do what terrified me. Those areas that I wanted to get better at – that scared me – I started doing them and giving them a go. Put simply, it came down to this: my fear of being judged by others was outweighed by my fear of leaving an ordinary life – of judgement by myself. Living with the knowledge that I didn’t take risks and hadn’t been bold terrified me more than anything else – than getting up in front of 50 people and talking, of jumping out of a crane, of starting something original and letting others judge it.

So I did things like run student groups, start new ones, go bungee jumping, write for the uni paper, take every opportunity to speak in front of people that I could. Risk being wrong. Risk making a mistake. Risk being judged. I recall how I would feel speaking in front of a group, or when I was writing for the paper – I would try to overcome my fear of what others would think of me. All that attention, all those opinions at one time. It wasn’t natural to me.

But those things have turned out pretty well. It’s hard to explain how rewarding it is to see my improvement in those areas; I enjoy talking in front of people and now even have people coming up to me telling me how good I am at it! I write very transparently in my blog and elsewhere. I’ve started up a number of community organisations. And I don’t worry about what people think of me, in fact I tend to belief they will think well of me. And I’m always open to constructive criticism and areas of improvement. The emotion of envy pops along infrequently , and when it does, I pay close attention to its lesson. It means that somebody is able to do something that I can’t and would like to. So I listen, and then get on with changing that. The envy very quickly disappears.

And now I reflect that this turning point in terms of my attitude to self-improvement, is one of the biggest of my life. Because now I’m on this bike, I can’t get off it. Whenever I see something I want to get better at – no matter how ambitious it seems or how far off I am – I immediately work out how to improve and get straight on it. I think this will serve me well for the rest of my life.

The sad thing is, I see is this same fear in many others – held back by a fear of what others may think of them. And yet, if we had that fear when we were toddlers, we would never learn to walk. We look pretty stupid falling over all the time before we finally succeed. I believe that to some extent it is natural that as we become self-conscious, we do develop some fear of judgement.

However, I am firmly of the view that this fear of judgement – of being wrong – is more often than not facilitated by current public education. It’s an education system based on right and wrong, of assessment, of being compared to others. We’re given little numbers that tell us – and everyone else – how good we are and we’re judged on them. We’re pushed to fit in to a system. And yet, there is an opportunity, through education, to encourage people to flourish, to build their self-belief and self-worth. To help young people realise their strengths and improve their weekends. Except in some unconventional schools, this is an opportunity that is wasted.

And here’s a question I won’t waste much time trying to answer, but that is thought-provoking. If I had learned this attitude to self-improvement earlier, and this self-worth at 5 years old, instead of 20 years old, where would I be now?

Fatigue…why are you bothering me?

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These past two days I spent bushwalking at the Royal National Park. I took the famous and popular Coastal Track from Bundeena down to Otford. Prior to beginning on Sunday, I had a feeling that I really needed to do this walk and had been feeling pretty fatigued in the lead up to it. Now a day and a half later, having gotten up at 5:20am on Sunday to begin the 4 hour journey (cycle, train, ferry) to the walk’s start point, and having covered the better part of 30km on foot (over some tough terrain) and 20km on bike whilst spending last night sleeping uncomfortably in a tent, I now find myself feeling distinctly refreshed. I feel incredibly relaxed, my mind is not jumping from one task or decision to the next and I keep laughing at the most unlikely things.

Otford (the walk’s end point) found itself one of the main objects of my amusement. Having seen signposts to it from the beginning, starting at 26km and gradually getting whittled down by our relentless walking, it held this magical allure as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow (the Coastal Walk, of course, being the rainbow in this tenuous analogy). I had rather hoped to find a pub when we reached it, or at the very least a cafe where I could grab the hot chocolate I had been daydreaming of when we set out on pouring rain and harsh winds that morning. To find that it contained little more than three roads, three houses (one was in construction), some signposts (mainly containing the names of Otford’s roads, in case you couldn’t find one of the other two) and a railway station stimulated feelings of disappointment outweighed by feelings of amusement. I found it all very funny, which made me rather happy.

However, this piece of writing is not dedicated to Otford’s charms or lack thereof. In fact, no piece of writing ever should be dedicated to Otford. If it was, I wouldn’t read it (I might out of curiosity when no one was looking).

It’s about Fatigue.

So.

Naturally upon acknowledging my feelings of refreshment upon finishing the walk, the next thought to enter my head was ‘why?’. Indeed. And then I asked myself why we ever feel tired. What causes this?

Our first instinct often is that we need more sleep. Or a holiday. Somehow we summse the lack of sleep and/or holiday is at the root of our feeling worn out. I don’t doubt this can be the case, but I would venture that the roots of fatigue can be complex, and often cumulative. I believe that doing one kind of activity for too long can wear us out, whether it be the same job, the same routine, the same lifestyle. If you don’t change it up, those areas of our brain being utilised by these activities don’t get a break in which to recover.

For instance at the end of my time travelling I was exhausted. It wasn’t a hard lifestyle; I was able to make up each day as I felt, never worried about somewhere to sleep or food to eat. But I felt so fatigued by that lifestyle. Travelling has great variety true, but although the places change and the people too, the conversations you have and the type of things you do in each place become quite repetitive. I was shattered, and yet raring to get in to my new work and new life in Sydney. On the face of it, that sounds more exhausting, but I had so much energy for this different challenge – much more than for travelling.

Reading is a great love of mine as a means of winding down, but in recent times that’s not always helped. If I’ve had a brain-bending day that challenges me to work through problems, then reading a non-fiction book that engages me in a similar way does not help – it just wears me out further. However, reading a novel does help.

The realisation that I think I’m coming to from this rather anecdotal blog, is that when we look at how much energy we are using, we should not look just at the activities we’re doing, but how they work our brains. My long walk refreshed me, because the parts of my brain usually utilised by the work I do were able to go on holiday. In fact, trying to access them actually required a lot of effort. Instead I had been thinking about my environment, watching for the terrain, taking in the sounds, picturing Otford…

In recent weeks I’ve not been bouncing out of bed in the usual energetic manner, ideas and connections weren’t flowing like I’m used to and physically I hadn’t been feeling too well. Yet, I had changed little in my lifestyle (if anything getting more sleep and downtime) and this presented physically. I find it fascinating that this can be so; that mental fatigue presents in a physical way. I feel that mental health and physical health are so intricately connected, and as society begins to accept and discuss mental health, the depth and extent of this connection will only increase in our consciousness.

It also demonstrates the value of building in to our lifestyles activities that work different parts of our brain. Activities that require such focus that you don’t reflect on work. Perhaps sport or creative hobbies.

I’m certainly going to take that lesson on board, and reflect a little more in this subject in the mean time.

And next time I feel tired, I might just take another long walk. To Otford.

P.S. One more thing. If there’s one takeaway action, it’s this: spend a day without turning on and using your phone or computer (or tablet). Acknowledge how uncomfortable feels, and how remarkable it is that this was probably the norm a few decades ago. What I found, is that it is also very relaxing. Your stress levels noticeably drop.

The most simple and powerful ‘cure’ for mental illness: Looking after ourselves

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Last week I was invited to speak at Vibewire’s FastBREAK event; a monthly breakfast event in which five speakers blitz five-minute presentations on a particular topic, this month’s topic being cure. My background over the last few years having been mental health, I had one or two thoughts on this one. The great thing about these sorts of opportunities, is they force you to consider your own views on the topic, and articulate those thoughts in to something coherent and with a message behind it.

I think modern society’s obsession with fixing things and finding a ‘cure’ is not an altogether healthy one, and in the mental health sector I’ve seen evidence of that. The medical model takes the view that mental illness is a physical malfunction of the brain that needs to be corrected. As a starting point for how we view mental illness, I think this is bullshit and can do more harm than good.

Sure, the evidence is solid that many psychological disorders (to varying extents) have a genetic component, and some people are more predisposed to them than others. I don’t dispute that. But it nonetheless needs a life trigger to happen, and that comes down to personal circumstances. This model in isolation does not explore the life circumstances that triggered the problem in the first place. It’s like giving someone who is obese weight-reduction pills, and ignoring the fact that they spend all day on the couch eating fast food. You’re treating symptoms, not the cause, and as long as that’s the case then the problem will repeat.

The other major gripe I have with this model, is that it waits until there is a problem before looking for a solution. What has become increasingly apparent to me over the years, is that the best solution is ‘prevention’. The smartest investment may not actually be in finding the best drug treatments, but in showing people how they can better look after themselves in the first place.

Now I’m not saying here that the medical model has no value, not at all. Research in to mental health increases our understanding, and helps us to see where the triggers lie and what aspects of our life might have caused the problem. And in some cases, the mental illness is so debilitating (and long-term), that drug treatment is the only way in which to give that person decent quality of life, or to get them to a stage where they can start looking at more holistic techniques to better understand what triggered the problem and the life changes they can make. But I want to use this blog to demonstrate why I think simply taking better of ourselves is the most obvious, and underused, ‘cure’ for mental illness out there. Heck, it’s probably the best ‘cure’ for physical illness too. You’ll see that mental health and physical health are so inexorably linked that when it comes to maintaining them, it’s little use to differentiate.

The positive effects on our bodies and minds of exercise are incredibly profound. Other basics such as our diet and getting enough sleep are also tremendously impactful on our wellbeing. Lack of sleep is correlated with all manner of psychological disorders, and I’m sure we’ve all experienced feeling crap when sleep deprived.

From a more psychological point of view, I think enormous value should be placed on our social relationships with others – family, friends, colleagues. The drive to be accepted, appreciated and part of a community is at the core of humans. We’re fundamentally social creatures. Also having purpose, feeling like we’re contributing something positive, learning are all deeply important to our mental health.

The New Economics Foundation put together a ‘Five Ways to Well-being’ project, which is nicely presented and based on the strength of research. It’s worth a look.

I’ll also jump back to a blog I wrote a while ago on acceptance, and why this is so important. As Seema Duggal explained in her talk, somehow we have developed a culture in which we expect to feel happy – it is deemed the ‘norm’. This is ridiculous and unrealistic. The whole premise behind the evolution of emotion is for the adaptive advantage it gives us. The ability to recognise whether something is good for us or not. Inevitably, there will be some of the latter. It’s healthy to feel sad when we experience loss or disappointment, and there are valuable lessons in the painful emotions too. Accepting our emotions, whatever they may be, is an important aspect of taking care of ourselves.

We all have mental health so let’s take proper care of it; doing so has a huge impact on every day of our lives. I learned this lesson the hard way when I went through depression, however my life has been so much richer since then because of the care I’ve given to acknowledging and building my own mental health. It’s been tough, and I have to be proactive with my mental health. I take time out every day for activities such as meditation, walking, cooking/eating good food, cycling, time with friends and view these as essential parts of my day.

My final thought is on how we might teach people the importance of and techniques that assist us to look after our mental health? Should this be part of public education as we grow up? It has such enormous consequences, and if we could learn these things early…

So a final question. What will you start doing every day to look after your own mental health better? You can’t use the excuse of being short of ideas – there are about ten in this blog alone! Good luck with it, and enjoy the rewards.

Why investing in ourselves is pretty important…

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As it so happens, I’ve been reading a lot of pop psychology recently on how to become a more effective, productive, world-conquering superperson. Some of it’s been pretty insightful, some…less so. And well, it’s driven me to take a punt at producing some myself, hopefully of at least average quality. Just to ensure it doesn’t become a cheesy pop psych post, I’ve added a completely irrelevant off-topic picture to the blog. Aww the kitten is kinda cute though right?

Anyway, there happens to be one topic that has been especially on my mind recently, and came up in conversation with Vibewire’s Omar Samad earlier today. So…

Now take a moment to immerse yourself in this masterfully constructed scenario – I came up with this all by myself. It’s a Sunday evening, you’ve just looked in your diary and you’ve got a really busy week ahead. Your heart starts pounding away and you’re probably thinking, “Ah…*expletive*, how the heck am I going to survive this?” – or thoughts to a similar effect. Nice.

Well the default answer is probably to see what you can cancel (that tennis game with Bob can wait right? And Sandra will still want to go out for a movie with you next week…), sleep less and drink more caffeine, buy meals rather than cook them, trim down on some more sleep, drink some more caffeine. Awesome, ready to boss it.

I’ve noticed that when our schedules fill up, the first things that go are the activities such as exercise, getting fresh air, time with friends/family, meditation, reading… and that anything deemed fun or relaxing is UNNECESSARY AND MUST BE DESTROYED IMMEDIATELY. It seems that we lose the ability to look after ourselves properly when we know we’ve got a lot to get on with, or just forget the importance of doing so.

We don’t make time for the simple things that keep us going. But it’s these that help us tick over and allow us to work at a high level. We need to make that personal investment in order to then give out. I mean this on a daily basis (keeping yourself topped up) and also on a long-term basis (giving time to your own personal development).

Scientific and anecdotal evidence has suggested that we only have so much capacity each day for decision-making and producing high quality, creative work. You know that feeling when you run out of focus and mental energy, and wind up browsing Facebook? Yeah that’s actually entirely natural and happens to everyone. Or when you look at some caffeine-powered writing forced out at 2am and reflect that it reads like bullshit? Again, it’s down to the way our brains are wired – so don’t be too hard on yourself.

The wonderful news is that there are intelligent people out there researching how our mighty brains work (and don’t work), and how we can get more out of them each day. I suggest having a read of this article. However, I do take objection to any suggestions that every person MUST DO THINGS EXACTLY THIS WAY because…well we’re all wired differently. I look at articles like this more as inspiration and suggestions. Often I learn a new way of working as a consequence – even if it’s a little different to what is outlined. Fitting in some walks every day and soaking up some sunshine, being creative through music or cooking, meditating in the morning.

Most of all, find your own way of working best and keep exploring. Oh, and when you have that crazy week of work, see what bits of work (not non-work) you can shift around, as the investment in yourself is probably more valuable than you realise.

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