6 Steps to Master the Art of Workday Evenings

It’s so easy to slip, to get stuck in a rolling, ritual rut that has you grinding your teeth all day at your desk: the annihilation of exhalation. By five o’clock, the manifestation of afternoon lethargy has filtered fully down from your head to your tightly packed toes, and every part of you is ready to buckle.

You grab a couple of beers from the fridge (forward thinking prevents return trips), collapse from a height onto the sofa, put up your sore feet and turn on the TV. Yes, it’s another rectangular screen, but it’s doing all the work for you, so it’s totally different from your desktop computer. Your thumb duly switches between your email inbox and your Facebook feed (at least refreshing is in there somewhere), as you lazily ponder whether the period between Eggheads and the news is enough time to microwave your multi-buy chicken tikka masala.

And why not? Why shouldn’t you be able to cocoon your still suited self in cushions until you and your phone reach a critical level of low battery and need to make the trip upstairs to recharge? After all – you’ve been at work all day.

Except, have you?

Whilst working nine to five is, as we all know, for service and devotion, when you think about it, it is only eight hours. Just one third of your day.

It sounds strange when it’s broken down like that. It did to me, anyway. It just seems like a comparatively small fraction to attribute all your energy, creativity and activity into. There are so many things in life that I feel excited about doing and achieving, but I find myself excused on the understanding that I can’t do anything but collapse once I get in the door from work. At 6pm I find myself going through the motions to live, rather than living for going through the motions.

As a passionate person, realising that, has broken my heart and made me realise that something absolutely has to change.

I had a chat to my boss where he told me I couldn’t just ‘really live, you know’ whilst still getting paid, so I decided to do some research on how to work and live. And here it is, broken down into 6 simple habits, a little manifesto that I call:

The Quest to Feel Alive for More than 9-5

1. Find and Designate a Restorative Place

Mine’s the bath. Yours could be a chair in the garden, the cupboard under the stairs, the dog basket, but it’s got to be somewhere peaceful and comfortable. Not silent necessarily, or dark, but comfortable. Somewhere where you can release the tension of the day one by one from your muscles and feel yourself slowly melt into whatever holds you. Grant your body the opportunity, and your mind the time, to consciously switch off from your working day. And do this every day. It may take five minutes, it may take twenty five, it may change. Allow for that.

2. Pursue Your Natural Interests

These aren’t things that you aspire to achieve, they aren’t things you feel you should have accomplished by now in your life. They are, in fact, the instincts that inspire those things. Instead of timing your run, or measuring it, or critiquing it, just run. Don’t squint and stumble through Rachmaninov, stopping each time you fail to stretch your fingers over an octave and a third, bash out some power chords instead, improvise and see where it takes you. Do what feels natural – and, if that for you is Rachmaninov or the London marathon then congrats, you’re an astounding human.

3. Just Say No

So, it’s the birthday drinks of one of your work friends. They’ve been giggling all week about getting tipsy on a Tuesday night: rebel, rebel. However, they’re not in that 8am meeting on Wednesday, and as you’ve bought a TV this month, Tuesday is your only chance to get cheap Dominos. If you did join them, would you be thinking about garlic and herb dip and Holby City? If so, SAY NO. Take care of yourself that night. Enjoy each and every calorie of that pizza. Breeze into that meeting on Wednesday having had plenty of sleep and send out an email invite for Saturday evening drinks instead.

4. Create a Pre-Sleep Ritual

When you wake up in the mornings, you get in the shower, sing along to the radio, down cups of coffee as if it was a Friday night and your cab to town had arrived early: you work yourself up for the day. But where’s that gradient when it comes to the evenings? Crashing onto your mattress at midnight and half-heartedly hoping that your automatic alarm clock is still automatic by morning isn’t going to do you any favours when it comes to a relaxing and securing a stress-free night’s sleep. Consider, instead, a ‘wind down ritual’. Listen to instrumental music. Read a chapter of a book. Drink a mug of herbal tea. Stretch. Breathe. And then sleep.

5. Turn Your Bedroom into a Sanctuary

Everyday starts and ends here, so make it a place that you want to be at the start and end of your day. Hardwood floors? Put rugs down at the sides of your bed so you’ll have something soft and warm underneath your feet when you get out of bed (yesterday’s damp bath towel doesn’t count). Keep the light low, the clutter down and the electronics out. Distractions are great while you’re waiting for the kettle to boil, or when you’re commuting – but not when you’re in bed. You don’t need distractions there. If you’re mind is fizzy and unable to settle for thoughts and anxieties, tire it out. Keep a journal by your bed and write them away. It’s all about blank spaces: use the blank space in your journal to offload upon. Use the blank space in your bedroom to settle upon. Use the blank space in your mind to sleep upon.

6. Look Forward

Every day, make sure you have something to look forward to that evening. Have a focal point whilst you’re at work, that just thinking about reminds you that from 5pm you’ll have it good. Indulge, once a day, in something. A long walk, an expensive milkshake, a scalding bath with a new trio of tranquil Tesco tealights. Do something ludicrous, do something simple, but every evening, do something.

When you return from work this evening, take a minute. Let yourself into the house, lean back against the front door and take sixty seconds to consider the course of your evening.

Are you looking for something more tonight?

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Rejection Perfection: A Guide to Getting Back Up

No matter how many times people tell you that you’re special, that you’re too good for them at that job, that ‘I’d hire you!’, having your job application rejected is crushing. When you’re applying for a job, you mentally put yourself in that role to decide whether or not it’s for you. From there it’s cover-letters and a CV polish and face-to-face interviews, trying all the way to decide what the company wants and how you can become it. It’s a contortion act – and when you’ve strained your back and twisted your ankle and pulled a muscle in your neck from all that vigorous nodding; to get rejected leaves you on the floor.

1. Take a Day

Cry. I’m giving you permission. Punch a pillow. Turn up Beck’s ‘Loser’ (I’m a loser, baby, so why don’t you kill me, that one) and sing along as loud as you can without annoying the neighbours (or annoy them if you like, but make a note to apologise later – they’ll understand because they’ve been rejected before, too). Binge watch TV and put three frozen pizzas in the oven (you can’t afford Domino’s).

But for goodness sake, only do it for one day.

2. Pick Yourself Up

Set an alarm, make some strong coffee and sit back down in front of your computer. Email the company and ask for some feedback (you can do this even if you haven’t had a face-to-face interview). This is a win-win.

Win 1: If they give you a list of reasons, a few pointers, some advice for improved interview skills – fantastic. You won’t make those mistakes again – moreover – you’re now going to be aware of these weak spots and be able to give them the time and attention they need to be turned into skills.

Win 2: If the response you get is that you just weren’t the best suited for the job then that’s great, too. Nobody wants a job they’re not suited to – and nobody wants a boss who also thinks that.

3. Dust Yourself Off

The Japanese have an art form called Kintsugi. It involves putting back together broken pottery and painting the cracks with gold lacquer. As a philosophy, it treats breakage and repair as something beautiful, something admirable and individually unique. Being broken isn’t something to be ashamed of – quite the contrary – it’s an opportunity for a whole new creation.

Look at your weaknesses and see if you can find a way to make them work for you. For example if you’re shy, anxious, lacking in confidence; sell yourself as an introvert. If you feel like you’re an outsider then sell yourself as one. You have an outsider’s point of view, your constant seat on the fence has given you the observational skills of a hawk. You know what needs to happen – and they need to know that.

4. Start All Over Again

So, you’re back on your feet (however wobbly). Wonderful. What’s next?

Revision Time.

Write a to-do list and (this is the best piece of advice I’ve ever been given) make the first thing on the list ‘write to-do list’. That way by the end of the list, you’re already one task down with one big fat tick.

There are thousands of advice articles out there from people who know what they’re talking about on how to improve your professional profile. Look them up, look lots up, get some ideas, and work on your next approach. View this as a fresh slate, a new and exciting opportunity to once again start the journey to where you want to be.

At the end of the day, the more times you write a cover letter, the better writer you’ll be. The more times you’re interviewed, the better you’ll be at professional interaction.

And the more times you pick yourself up off of the floor – the stronger and more future-proof you’re bound to become.

Why Do We Need Stories?

As a writer, and as a human, my interest lies in people’s stories – their relationships, their interactions and their reactions to the people around them and to themselves.

Studying non-fiction at university led me to an epiphany that has inspired my own creative work – the fact that so many people’s lives, adventures, thoughts have gone totally unrecorded. In researching accounts of the Ellis Island immigrants from the early 20th century, I discovered an audio interview with a Ukrainian woman who, when she was a little girl, would build glass cages for ants from discarded camera lenses and watch these captive insects burn and die in the sun. What did her mother make of that? Did the girl recount her past-time to her first love? These are all stories that I want to know about.

When I embarked on the research for this topic I fully intended to write about why we need fiction. Before I move on I’d just like to say that I absolutely believe that we do need fiction. The operation by which an intravenous tube is connected from under the skin of a character to under the skin of a reader is one of endless, unspoken enchantment.

However, the more I thought about this topic, the more I found myself not thinking about fiction at all. In my opinion, creation is the most wonderful thing in the world and the second most valuable thing; just behind preservation. Here’s the thing: preservation is the foundation off of which creativity can be launched. Creativity is the poem; preservation is the poet who knows that in order to mend their broken heart they need to write, they need to go out and purchase a new notebook and a bottle of merlot. I suppose what I am trying to say is before we discuss the poem we should discuss the poet, the novelist, the bank manager, the Tesco check-out assistant – because this is where our much needed stories begin.

Stories enable stuff that happens to mean something instead of floating around for a bit and then dissolving. That’s how it happens, through dissolution. It’s not a switch, that when flicked consumes our stories, our memories in front of our helpless eyes. It’s a gradual fade – and the slowness is what makes it so tragic. Whatever that thing that happened was; it could help us in the future, help us cope with something similar, help us build a level of immunity for when something worse happens – but then again it might not – and there’s washing up do to, and three reports to write and a phone-call that needs to be made to O2 because once again they’ve overcharged you on your monthly bill. And your thing, your memory, your story is dissolved and forgotten.

And just like that your lesson is lost. Oh well, maybe you wouldn’t have needed it anyway. Maybe.

We need stories because they make us. They completely determine our identities. It doesn’t even serve to imagine how little of ourselves we would be if somebody took away our stories. Because of our stories, we are unblind. We are criticized for an inability (and often, a reluctance) to ‘forgive and forget’ but what if, by adhering to that rule, we are compromising our self-preservation and our owner’s right to that experience, that story? If, rather, than forget we can hold on tightly to that lesson, possibly even tighter than happier lessons, then there is a chance that one day we can use it to save ourselves or someone else.

For me, it’s worth it.

Things like these will challenge us, test our morals, our limits, our judgements. In a world of ever developing intelligence and technology we need to embrace our vulnerability as humans. I believe that as humans, stories – and the emotions we attach to them – are our best asset. I’ve talked a lot about needing stories for lessons and preservation and combat and cures and coping but I’d like to finish with a word about what our stories are really best at.

Stories are our hopes: all the daydreaming we do, the people we aspire to be. They are things that we’ve told ourselves we can achieve. They are things we know we can achieve because of the ever-improving recipe built on our past experiences.

Stories are our hearts: they tell us why we love the people we love. They remind us what those people did to make us one hundred percent certain that we need them in our lives to hold close for as long as is physically possible.

Stories are our souls: they are everything we are, so don’t let them go, because never losing those stories may mean that on the day where you feel everything else is falling apart, you will never lose yourself.

The Importance of Self-Preservation

A few years ago I read a book in which the protagonist insisted that you should always keep enough money in your bank account to run away. No matter how secure your situation may seem, how happy you are with you at whichever moment in time – make sure you have that money. Nothing says security like that. That struck me at the time and has always stayed with me as a wonderfully sensible thing to do. However, that’s impossibility for most people – to sustain a runaway mission – that’s got to be at least a thousand pounds.

So, I came up with my own rule. Always make sure you have four pounds. Whether there are four pound coins tucked away in the receipts section (that you have been meaning to empty for six months) in your purse, or a couple of coins wedged into that useless little pocket that sits inside the useful pocket of your jeans, make sure it’s there. Four pounds will buy you whatever coffee/hot chocolate/elderflower tea you choose at a coffee shop.

I really love staying in – and I also really love going out. However, I have one of those personalities that makes up its mind very quickly and is unforgiving from then onwards. Let me give you an example: sometimes when I’m working on a piece of writing, I will stay in the house for days. It takes me a very long time to finish and be satisfied with a project because I like things to be a certain standard. The problem is, I live in a fairly small and messy house with five other people and in situations like this I can very suddenly feel trapped.

That’s when my four pound self-preservation rule comes in. I’ll put down whatever I’m doing, put my coat and boots on, on top of whatever I’m wearing and go to costa coffee. For the first half an hour or so I’ll just concentrate on breathing. I’ll breathe whilst I’m sipping my mint hot chocolate, I’ll breathe whilst I listen to the heating up of the hot water machine and the sound of porcelain cups on wood.

Sometimes, I think for everyone and for seemingly no reason, things can get overwhelming. I can become overwhelmed simply by a series of underwhelming things. You sort of feel like there’s nothing you can do, there’s nothing you want to do. But as long as there’s four pounds in my purse, I know what I must do.

Here are my top five rules for self-preservation:

 

Write a list of next steps:

After you’ve got breathing down, help yourself by creating a plan of action. Bring a piece of paper and a pencil and tell yourself what to do (take a bath/ shower, read a chapter of Harry Potter, make some toast, keep warm). That way when you’ve finished the list, you don’t have to think anymore – just blindly do what you’re told.

Take things at your own pace:

 

No-one knows what you need now except you – and because of that you are the only one that can help yourself. If someone wants you to go out, say no. At this point you need to be your own best friend, don’t listen to anyone else.

Do not beat yourself up or harbour anger towards yourself:

There’s just no point. You might counter with, “well if I don’t punish myself, how will I learn?” You’ll definitely still learn, don’t worry.

Do not think ‘what if?’:

 

Similarly, you’re the only one who’s going to protect you here. I honestly know and totally appreciate how important self-discipline is – but you need someone on your side. Channel your ‘good-cop’.

Don’t worry – you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be:

 

This is a Chris Martin quotation that I learned a few years ago and you might think it’s a load of rubbish coming from a rich and successful musician (it is) but it’s worked for me on a lot of occasions. It goes without saying that this one needs to be taken with a generous handful of salt – but it won’t hurt to bear it in mind.

 

I can imagine people reading this article and thinking I’m pretty lame. And I can understand that. I was in two minds as to whether or not to write about this subject but I decided to in the end because abiding by this advice has brought so much happiness and comfort to an otherwise demanding disciplinarian.

And if only one person takes only one percent more mindfulness or well-being from it, then it’s worth it, I reckon.

 

 

Image courtesy of: https://www.twolittlefleas.co.uk/

 

Lesson by Lesson

For one of my modules for university this year, we are being assessed on a lesson plan. Well, I’ve been creating lesson plans since I was six years old. I used to coerce my younger brother into being a pupil in my class – drawing up maths and spelling questions and gifting him my soft toys as a ‘well done’. I’ve lead drama and music groups, I’ve loved the preparation, supervising the rewards schemes – when I was eight I promised myself I would become a teacher because there was nothing that I could imagine that gave me excitement in my gut like that did. So what changed? Because now I’m twelve weeks away from finishing my degree and and the thought of teaching as a career does so little for me.

I’ve undertaken a module entitled ‘Creativity: Writing and Teaching’ just to keep my options open, just to make absolutely sure my burning passion isn’t just being very very shy. I have come up with a successful lesson plan focusing on creative writing as therapy for young adults with depression and I enjoyed running it and seeing the positive results it achieved. I have a part-time job running taster sessions for 15/16 year olds in journalism and creative writing. It’s the most obvious career choice – everything points to it. But then I see the look in the faces of some of my close friends who actively want to pursue this in the future and I simply don’t have that passion. I truly believe a teacher must have passion. How demotivating must it be to be taught by someone who doesn’t want to be there?

I have never wanted to work harder in my life than when I have a teacher who inspires me. I’ve had one great French teacher, two fantastic maths teachers and three amazing English teachers. I imagine if I’d have had four super duper science teachers, I’d probably be hunched over a page full of ridiculous equations right now. Those English teachers shaped me entirely and I will never forget that inspiration that made me who I am. Those three people combined grew me a passion. I certainly wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for them – and I know that I’d never have the work ethic that I do now had they not been my teacher.

I can’t imagine somebody saying that about me.

I don’t mean to offend anyone who’s goal is to come out of university and go straight into teaching (in fact I admire that beyond anything – the motivation to take what you’ve learned and give it straight back), but for me, to do that would mean that I’ve given up on myself. I’ve accepted a career in which I’m encouraging the making of young people having not made anything of myself. Everyone who knows me tells me I should be in teaching and the response I always give is ‘how can I teach when I’m nowhere near finished learning myself?’ They tell me that it will come with time; they say if I want to write a book I can do that in the school holidays. ‘It’s okay for your £27,000 degree to just be a hobby.’

I think I do have a career in teaching. And when I’ve reached the peak of my writing career I’ll be first in the ‘give me a PGCE’ queue. I think giving someone inspiration must be the most wonderful thing in the world, but I think being able to inspire yourself is something entirely as important – and for me at twenty-two years old, it’s a priority.

All I can do until I get there is keep writing; because for the time being, there is absolutely nothing I love more.