…18 months later, I am once more only partially employed and finding myself with the time and headspace for writing. As well as for picking up the self-improvement pace, not least because having hit middle age and unexpected health problems in the last couple of years I feel I am running out of time to get somewhere with my life that I’m content to be.

Step one is ‘sort house out’. My issues with all things domestic have stood in my way for too long, have always affected me negatively in multifarious ways, and now need addressing more than ever as downsizing is a key part of my master plan (not least as a measure to make keeping on top of domestic things easier in future).

Sporadic decluttering has happened over the years and the house is better than it’s ever been, but still not ‘normal’ in the sense of somewhere I’d feel comfortable inviting people in without considerable notice (though friends are now OK, which wasn’t the case until early last year).

Possibly the best push so far happened when I used my 45th birthday as an excuse to ask friends to donate an hour of their time to help me with the tasks I found most challenging, which was further evidence that deadlines and accountability are the way to go for me. The idea came from the deepening conviction that I suffer from AD(H)D, and that having someone by my side or looking over my shoulder or depending on my work can help me focus*. Hence being so much more organised / likely to finish things when I am doing work for someone else.

Therefore this year I have started following a page on Facebook called ‘becoming minimalist’ (they don’t even use capital letters in the name, presumably to show how compact they can make life, shame about all the syllables, eh), and enrolled on their 12-week online decluttering course, as I don’t want to keep imposing on friends, and a structured approach by someone who makes a living of this will hopefully be even more effective. The fact that it’s online makes it much less terrifying than having someone come to my house and tell me what to do, it feels introvert-safe and like there’s less danger of counterwill kicking in.

A post published by the page today gave me the impetus to come back to this blog, because it brought up a lot of resistance, some of which may be justified but needs exploring. This is the post, a beautiful image of autumn leaves on the ground with the words ‘Don’t carry what you don’t need in your pockets, in your home, in your heart’**.

Immediately I thought of the little rucksack I take everywhere with me. “but, but, but… what if I might need it later?”. Example: I live in England. It seems sensible to always have an umbrella with me, and I feel smug when people get caught short and I am prepared. However, when I think about it, I very rarely use it. For one thing, I live in the South West, not Manchester – it’s really not all that wet here. For another, these days I cycle everywhere, so don’t spend much time outdoors in a situation that would make an umbrella convenient. On top of that, my winter coat has a perfectly good hood. So perhaps what I should do instead of carrying an umbrella at all times is only have outerwear that is hooded, try to remember to check the weather forecast before going out, and make peace with the possibility of getting wet every now and then.

OK, so now I’ve removed my folding umbrella from my everyday bag. I have hung it on a hook by the front door with another folding umbrella that was there just in case. I have therefore increased the clutter in my house! What to do? And here I am, in typical AD(H)D fashion, getting bogged down in incipient detail instead of focussing on the topic I set for this post – need.

So back to that.

A lot of people commenting on the Facebook post with similar objections to my kneejerk thoughts are parents who carry a lot of stuff that may be needed at some point while being out in the world by their predictably unpredictable offspring. I have a very high-maintenance inner child if no others, so can relate to an extent.

But what defines need? I guess the impact of the thing’s absence. For example, if you’re a city-dweller with a deathly allergy to bee stings, your EpiPen may only be useful once in a blue moon, but if you didn’t have it that day you could die. On the other hand, the roll of dental floss I carry ‘just in case’ (I barely ever floss at home, never mind in the wild)? Now back in the bathroom cabinet where it belongs.

And as a bonus, looking through my ‘essentials’ bag-within-my-bag, I found the long-lost tool that unlocks the front wheel of my bike. Somewhat spooky as just today I had been wringing my hands at having destroyed the front wheel skewer head using a Torx key instead. The proper tool still works. Finding things is one of the most satisfying things about tidying up, and I have just saved whatever it would have cost me to sever the skewer and get a new one!

*see ‘Scattered’ by Gabor Maté. Equally someone being there can be thoroughly distracting, it’s all about context.

**I had to type this out as there didn’t seem to be a text version, bad, ableist webmaster (unless I missed some clever newfangled invisible code in which case clever, clever webmaster).


The Joy of Missing Out

It’s been two weeks now. Two weeks without Facebook.

I switched it off because of the growing realisation that it was slurping away all my free time and hurting my head with excess information and temptations.

I would like to go back to it, I think, because there’s much to like about it. But it may be that I can’t, it may be that Facebook is like white bread to me – I can’t have just little bit of white bread. If I buy a loaf, I eat a loaf. If I open Facebook, I have to scroll until I have seen all of the posts for that day and opened all of the interesting-looking links in a new tab to read later. Then click ‘Home’ to see the new posts that popped up while I was scrolling, then click on the OneTab button because it’s bed time so I can’t read the interesting things and I don’t want my browser to have to open 20 tabs in the morning.

So I’m going to keep enjoying freedom from FOMO for now, and keep enjoying the things I’m doing instead of scouring Facebook for passive edutainment. I’ve already done a lot of tidying, a lot of writing (more on that if I keep it going), a lot of exploring other ways to do things that I normally rely on Facebook for such as connecting with people and finding information.

I have not only made time and headspace, I am fostering habits of making active choices instead of RSVPing.

Back to the future

It occurred to me today that one of the difficulties of giving up old habits is how much they are your identity. Even if they’re not a part of it you like, the possibility of no longer ‘being you’ is frightening. It helps to be able to think of yourself as becoming a better version of yourself – you.2.

New year more blog

Yikes! Where did January go? Just one day left to meet my new target of at least one post a month this year.

Obvious January entry: self-improvement round-up of the silent last 6 months. The main items were various job applications and interviews over the summer, followed by starting a new job in September. The bad news: no running since July, after I lost my momentum, no pun intended, due to a few weeks’ unwellness. But still cycling, even all through this month in spite of fearing a repeat of last January’s tumbles.

July: ‘Character Strengths’ workshop by Lightbox – the Happiness Project. Extremely valuable. My main character strengths are (in that order):

  1. Judgment, critical thinking, and open-mindedness
  2. Appreciation of beauty and excellence
  3. Fairness, equity, and justice
  4. Honesty, authenticity, and genuineness
  5. Humour and playfulness

Take the test

August: Made a few extra pennies proofreading and teaching people to use WordPress.  Took a maths test at my local college to determine where I should start in order to become a well-oiled statistics-churning machine. I had decided this would be a good idea thanks to the character strengths reflection, my previous MBTI dabblings and the fact I enjoy working with data at work but feel stunted by my limited mathematical skills/knowledge.

September: Attended a work conference in Cork and took a few nice photos there. Started my new job – another part-time one on top of my existing one, bringing me back up to 33.5 hours. Exhibited as part of the St Werburghs Arts Trail. Started a maths course at my local college. Wrote an article for a local magazine.

October: Watched some wonderful Photoshop webinars, which were free at the time of broadcast from the US East coast, meaning 5pm to midnight my time. They not only taught me tons of things about Photoshop but also opened my eyes to the value of learning and using keyboard shortcuts beyond Ctrl+a/x/c/p and customised tool layouts in whatever application I use. Also worked out, thanks to my challenging new job, how crucial it is to me to feel competent and useful.

November: Kept giving my all to the new job’s raised-game requirements, including super-strict lifestyle discipline to keep my energy levels and alertness up – no gluten, no potatoes, no refined sugar, plenty of sleep etc. Fixed a puncture all by myself for the first time.

December: ‘Goals’ workshop by Lightbox – the Happiness Project. More reinforcement than new material, but did re-focus my mind on the importance of having goals in the first place, separating them out from aimless daydreams, breaking things down into smaller achievable components, and committing, even through something as simple as putting goals in writing. Started using Habits RPG as a result of this, tidying up bookmarks and recalling the success of a similar approach to dieting. Took test to get into fast-track maths GCSE class starting in January; only one in my class to pass. Became an official Twitterer as part of paid work for the first time. Finally got round to reading my book on speed-reading and Cordelia Fine’s ‘Delusions of Gender‘.

So that was the second half of 2014 – pretty busy. 2015 is starting out no different, not least as there are now not one but two evening  maths class a week, art group meetings once a fortnight and various new items on Habits RPG to keep up with!

Back in the saddle

It’s been nice to take a break from the daily accountability of 30 Days of Biking, but, not unpredictably, the removal of this straightforward, externally imposed structure also left a vacuum I now need to fill with my own routine (until the next 30-day challenge anyway).

It’s not as if the last ten days have been devoid of self-improvement.

photo of pannier next to tools

Poorly pannier awaiting stitching expert next to electrician/carpenter tools

If it’s broke…

On 3 May there was the Bristol Repairs Cafe, where I watched Hilary stitch my poorly pannier back to some semblance of togetherness. As she didn’t have strong thread to hand I may have to have a go myself in the near future, but at least now I know it can be done. I’m aiming to make a habit out of attending these monthly as I have a large box full of things that need mending at home and never the confidence or motivation to do anything with them on my own.

Three free workshops

  1. Local food – Pollyanna or Panacea?“, an event organised by the University of Bristol as part of the Food Connections Festival. I’m not entirely sure whether I learned anything there other than the phrase “you can’t cross an abyss in two steps” (from one of my fellow participants), an interesting image though as with all metaphors, its application to other situations is debatable.
  2. Appreciation of Beauty” run by Light Box – the Happiness Project“). I’m pretty good at finding beauty around me already, as I think my obsession with taking close-up photos of rust demonstrate. Mostly I had been intrigued by the prospect of “making camera lenses from vibrant acetate” (by which they of course meant filters; mine unfortunately fell apart in my bag before I got round to taking a photo through it). We were told that beauty has measurable physical benefits (patients heal faster when they have a room with a view – I’m sorry, I don’t have a link to the peer-reviewed medical research this no doubt comes from).
  3. Smartphone journalism“, run by the Bristol Cable. This, unlike what I had vaguely expected (opportunistic use of phone camera for snap-and-tell), turned out to be a largely technical course on recording video interviews and vox pops. Out of my comfort zone in a number of ways, even though I had done similar things in a work context, but was not un-fun and I’ve been idly thinking about some real-life applications (watch this space). Even though the first thing we were told was that we’d have to invest in some kit because camera shake and bad inbuilt microphones.
photo of sign outside St Philip's recycling centre prohibiting walking in

Mixed messages? Be green, recycle – but always do it in a car. Mind you, says nothing about cycling in.

Feel the FOMO and don’t do it anyway.

The main area of self-improvement of this period, however, has been in all the things I have NOT partaken in – Bristol is teeming with free activities of all kinds this time of year, and will be so for months, to the point where I was getting a bit stressed from all the rushing around and also not getting anything done, be it writing, photo-editing, job-hunting or even just loading the dishwasher. So I’ve had to develop a similar attitude to these things as my budgetary “if it’s not essential, don’t spend money on it“. This means I have yet to attend anything to do with the Bristol Festival of Photography, but I did among other things

  • pull out the Virginia creeper from my back wall before it was all leafy again (not only was I told it was bad for the house, but last summer it attracted so many wasps I thought there was a nest in it), and took the cuts to the tip on the same day (knowing from past experience that disposing of garden waste becomes even more of a chore once it’s been rained on).
  • register to vote – cut it a bit fine and had to hand-deliver my form on the day of the deadline. I learned that the reason I found no letter boxes on City Hall to drop it into over the week-end was that they had all been removed in the 80s after poll tax protesters got into the habit of slipping excrement through them.
  • got the ball rolling for my Easton Arts Trail stall and inventoried my photo archive, making sure everything exists in at least two functioning and ordered locations. The next step will be to make sure all the ones that are important to me are in at least one cloud location, which can hopefully be both a backup and an online portfolio. Much as I dislike Flickr for various reasons, it’s probably the pragmatic choice.


  • Took squeaky bike to Women’s Night, it was quickly diagnosed as needing a good oiling in the chain. One more basic bike thing under my belt.
  • Got round to downloading Endomondo last week. It does the job. Signing up/signing in seemed slightly more complicated than with the other apps, but once past that hurdle, I found the app easy to use and reliable. I’m not sure about the voice that says “Go” once you press play. On the plus side, she sounds vaguely like Helena Bonham Carter telling Ed Norton to slide in one of my (many) favourite Fight Club scenes.  But it’s also annoying, as pressing play is not necessarily the last thing I do before actually starting. It would probably go away if I turned the Audio Coach setting off, but I quite like the little updates every ten minutes when I’m running, telling me how far I’ve gone and what speed I’m clocking – a definite bonus compared to Sports Tracker. Even though I’ve also been using ‘Round and Workout Timer‘ to tell me whenever I’ve done five minutes. With the latter, by the way, I really didn’t like the built-in sound, so used the facility to record my own; I found I had to shout at a high pitch for the sample to be heard over the music that keeps me going, so it’s a pretty silly sample, but I still like hearing it, telling me I’m that much closer to the end.
Animated gif of Marla Singer in Fight Club saying "Slide"

Yes, I am fully aware of the irony of quoting Fight club in relation to self-improvement.

30 Days of Biking #27

Really didn’t feel like cycling yesterday. The rain, a few days’ worth of vague sore throat, a week’s manic flurry of activity and stiff long-underused muscles from Friday night’s kickboxing class all conspired to make this a perfect day for groggy wounds-licking reclusiveness in the warm and dry. But a pledge is a pledge, so I grumpily interrupted my “convalescence” to take a short trip to the Better Food Company for some treats (to add insult to injury, the item I really wanted was out of stock). In spite of the weather, almost all of the Sheffield hoops outside the shop were in full use. Go hardcore Bristolian cycling hippies.

Not that the day was entirely without self-improvement – I used my urge for stillness to read, sort and tidy away the ridiculous amount of Chrome tabs that open on my laptop every time I start the browser and had been slowing my digital life considerably.