Category Archives: Something else

Saying goodbye

On Sunday we heard the sad news that Iain Banks had died. When he announced his terminal illness in April, I’d hoped we’d have him around at least until the autumn, but it wasn’t to be.

As a sci-fi geek (and in particular a lover of his Culture novels), I enjoyed this comment he made in a blog post a couple of weeks ago.

“An ex-neighbour of ours recalled (in an otherwise entirely kind and welcome comment) me telling him, years ago, that my SF novels effectively subsidised the mainstream works. I think he’s just misremembered, as this has never been the case. Until the last few years or so, when the SF novels started to achieve something approaching parity in sales, the mainstream always out-sold the SF – on average, if my memory isn’t letting me down, by a ratio of about three or four to one. I think a lot of people have assumed that the SF was the trashy but high-selling stuff I had to churn out in order to keep a roof over my head while I wrote the important, serious, non-genre literary novels. Never been the case, and I can’t imagine that I’d have lied about this sort of thing, least of all as some sort of joke. The SF novels have always mattered deeply to me – the Culture series in particular – and while it might not be what people want to hear (academics especially), the mainstream subsidised the SF, not the other way round.”

My grandmother died on the same day as Banks. She was 88 and had been in poor health for some time, so it was not unexpected, but it was a sad day nonetheless for the family. She moved to Australia when I was about ten but I was able to visit three times over the last decade, most recently two years ago, so I was able to get to know her a little as an adult.

She had been a successful business woman when she was younger, owning two clothing boutiques whilst raising four children. She loved painting and dabbled in a wide range of craft hobbies, a predilection we certainly share! From leather-work to teddy bears to embroidery – I often received handmade gifts for birthdays and Xmas.

With my grandmother and uncle, March 2011

With my grandmother and uncle, March 2011

To morning or not to morning….that is the question

Since I’ve been back working full-time I’ve been experimenting with various strategies for getting the most out of my, now reduced, free time. Those novels aren’t going to write themselves. Many self-improvement gurus promote the idea of waking up an hour earlier each day.  This gives you an extra hour of time to work on your own projects before everyone else is up and, on the face of it, sounds fairly sensible.

But of course you’re not actually getting an extra hour. You’re just losing an hour from the evening and, if you’re anything like me, this is not necessarily a good exchange. I’ve long found the hours between about 10pm and 1am a very productive and creative time for me. The concept of waking earlier seems to be built on an inherent belief that it’s more virtuous to get up early than stay up late. Probably something the Puritans brought in.

However, in the interests of scientific fairness, this morning I decided to try getting up 45 mins earlier (6.30am) so I could go for a run. I didn’t find it too difficult to get out of bed but once I was out running I was lethargic and unfocused. I kept thinking about stopping which I would never normally do on a run of that length. I was dehydrated (I didn’t want to have more than once glass of water sloshing around in my stomach), I got mild stomach cramp and had a peculiar taste in my mouth for hours afterwards. After the run I still felt tired, had leaden legs and ended up eating a bacon sandwich and two mini chocolate brownies for breakfast. I can safely say I will not be repeating this experiment any time soon and will stick to evening runs during the week.

Recently I’ve been reading a bit about sleep strategies, such as Steve Pavlina’s experiments with polyphasic sleep (sleeping for just 30 minutes, six times in each 24 hour period. Not very practical unless you’re self-employed but, bizarrely, it doesn’t actually send you stark raving mad.) Something else I’ve started looking into is napping, which has been shown to have physical and mental health benefits by several scientific studies.

Apparently human beings naturally have two dips during a 24 hour cycle. One is 2.00-4.00am (not going to be an issue) and the other is around 1.00pm (if you’re a morning person – or ‘lark’) or 2.30pm in you’re an ‘owl’.  I became well acquainted with this afternoon slump not long after I started working full-time in my early twenties. It didn’t take long to realise that, after a lunch high in refined carbohydrate (e.g. a ciabatta sandwich and bit of cake), I’d end up in a coma for two hours. These days I try to lay off the white flour and eat more protein and vegetables.

Trying to find a comfy bed somewhere at work for a midday nap is a bit impractical (although I am currently working in a hospital…) but I also find I’m very tired when I first get home from work, around 6pm.  What if a short nap then would leave me more awake for the rest of the evening (the main time I’m likely to be writing) and also give me time in the sleep bank, hence allowing me to access more of that creative late-evening period?

We sleep in cycles of 90-mins, and this cycle encompasses several different types of sleep. According to research, timing the length of your naps to certain points on that sleep cycle can give different effects on waking. Get it wrong and wake at the wrong point of the cycle and you can end up with the grogginess of ‘sleep inertia’. 45 mins seems to be a good length of time to improve alertness and creative thinking, so I got home from work, set my alarm and got into bed.

I’ve only had one crack at this so far and I didn’t actually manage to fall asleep properly – I’m going to have to work on that bit – but I did feel more alert on getting up. Unlike the early morning running experiment, I think there might be something to this one and I’ll try it again.

Keeping my goals on track

I’ve now been back working full time for two weeks and living in London, with all its attractions and distractions. It’s not surprising then, that I’m finding my time squeezed. I was out five nights out of seven this week, socialising, playing football, following up job opportunities and fulfilling other responsiblities. I’m not complaining – this is precisely why I moved back to London – but it means I have to be much more focussed to achieve my goals.

At the end of last year I set seven goals for 2012. They encompass writing, health and fitness, relationships and career. They’re all achievable but require a sustained effort. I removed one shortly after moving back to London because a) I had substantially achieved it b)achieving it fully was outside my control and c) I realised it was less important the the others. It would also kind of take care of itself. Six goals for 2012 is still plenty.

As it’s so easy to get distracted by day-to-day life, I’m tracking daily progess on all my goals in a log book. This has been scientifically proven to help you achieve them.

I’m using this lovely notebook my friend sent me a couple of weeks ago.

Google supplied a couple of bird-themed inspirational quotes that I wrote out inside the front cover.

I’ve numbered my goals 1-6 and at the end of each day I write a line to say whether I have done anything that day to work towards that goal. I also make notes on any other personal develeopment activities and life in general.

For each week I print out a little grid where I tick whether I did anything towards that goal. This means I can see at a glance how productive I’ve been and what areas are being neglected. I can also tot up the figures and give myself a score, allowing me to compare weeks. Yeah, it’s a bit nerdy and it’s been less than a week, but I think it’s helping to focus my mind.

What I’m still trying to work out is just how much activity earns me a tick in the box. Fifteen minutes thinking and making notes for my novel? Three hours volunteering for a charity, when it’s not my career but will probably help my cv? Five minutes discussing the physics of my short story with a scientist? I’ll probably include the first two. Probably not the last. I don’t want to make it too hard – I want to use this log to encourage any and all action towards my goals – but it has to be a decent amount.