A to do about To Do lists

Last week, as part of the Oxford Literary Festival, I was invited by Blackwells bookshop to talk about my new book ‘Do – Pause’. For me, it doesn’t get any better than that. Oxford has been a special place for me since I was four years old and is now my home in England. Blackwells is my favourite bookshop in the world (though Powells in Portland, Oregon would run it a close second).

The night before the Oxford event I hosted a launch party in London, using the book as a pretext to gather a fabulous and fascinating group of friends and colleagues. It was a wonderful evening and a good warm up, but venturing out in public, in the august surroundings of Oxford, with the Bodleian library next door looking over my shoulder, was a different prospect altogether.

It was a cold, blustery, English day and there was a heavy shower just before I began, which helped drive people into the marquee. By the time I got up to talk, there was a big crowd, about half of them standing. And what a wonderful crowd they were! When an audience is attentive and curious, you can feel it. Instead of stumbling over words, or worrying about what to say next, they hold you, giving you time, willing to wait while you find your words, or feel your way forwards. In short, they invite you to pause. Which was sweet.

They also asked great questions. One that made me laugh was: “how do you avoid making ‘pause’ another thing on your ‘to do’ list?”. The sign of a good question is that it makes you think, and this one did precisely that. In fact I am still thinking about it now.

The ‘to do’ list is a forcing function. It creates a sense of obligation, as well as a reminder. That is its purpose and it is very useful. But a pause isn’t like that. Pauses don’t force things, they allow them. You don’t tick them off but sink into them. A pause is, as Gary Hirsch puts it “a quality of stopping”. And yet “pause is an active presence, not so much an absence of thought and action as an integral part of it” (‘Do Pause’ page 17).

So rather than forcing it onto your to do list, my strong feeling is that you should pay attention to where pauses happen already, or could happen, or want to happen. Just hold the idea and see what occurs. Simply paying attention in this way will start to create them, as the act of noticing is, in itself, a micro pause. But beyond that, developing this sensibility brings a contrasting, expansive, opening attitude and energy to bear, which is very different to the forcing, obliging function of a ‘to do’ list.

You can still plan pauses, they don’t have to be spontaneous. For example, in the process of writing the book I planned in a number of substantial pauses in advance. I also adopted a deliberately structured way of writing that involved measured pauses (called the ‘Darwin Lubbock’ method – which I will write about another time) but both of these came from careful consideration of my needs. They emerged from thinking about design not from a box-ticking mentality, that races against the clock or the calendar.

Finally, it is also important to remember to be patient and compassionate with yourself. Sometimes there is nothing worse than enthusiasm (and I say this as someone who easily becomes enthusiastic). You can always pause on the idea of pause. Which is absolutely fine. It will be there for you to pick up, or play around with some other time, when it does feel right.




Since ‘Do Pause’ was finished I have started using Instagram, for the first time. As a result I look at things with a different eye and find myself thinking in pictures, which I quite enjoy. So there’s something in it, but even so, I can already feel the insidious creep of ever more frequent connections.

But rejoining Twitter, after months if not years away, made me I realise that I haven’t missed it at all. Nor do I feel I have missed out. My heart leapt to realise that I can choose not concern myself with any of that (with apologies to Miranda of the Do Book Co).

The same goes for media not just social media. I can choose not to read about the recent calamities of the teams I support (Real Madrid and England rugby, for those who are curious). I can decide not to pick over the twitching corpse of their performances, I don’t have to linger on it, or devour every or any analysis.

Blimey, I can even do the same for Brexit. I can choose to miss out, to ignore the absurd twists and turns of political infighting that I don’t understand and cannot change.

The only material effect of this ignorance, will be to limit my capacity to join in conversations about these subjects, but most of those are nothing more than a gesture of dismay (if you will pardon the pun).

In all this, I realised that FOMO has a cousin, JOMO - The Joy of Missing Out. It is a delightful counterpoint. You are not obliged to be up to date. You don’t have to let distant events affect you. There is great joy in not knowing, disconnecting, pausing. JOMO  is just as real as FOMO and in one way, more powerful. What I fear I might miss is imagined. But the joy is something I experience directly. The time and attention I get back, I can lavish on people and experiences that nourish me.

This reminds me of a lovely old story, I heard from my friend Suzy Bolt, many years ago. It goes like this:

An old man said to his grandson, 'Son, I have two tigers caged within me.  One is love and compassion.  The other is fear and anger'.   The young boy asked 'Which one will win, grandfather'.  The old man replied 'The one I feed'.   

Feed your JOMO not your FOMO.






Nothing Doing

Yesterday I decided to do nothing. On purpose.

I found this surprisingly hard and quite illuminating.

It had been an unsatisfying week. I was a bit jet lagged, having been in South Korea on a business trip the week before, but it wasn’t really that. For once, I had no looming deadlines. There were no imminent trips to prepare for, no client calls, no upcoming programmes to design and with ‘Do – Pause’ complete, no book to write. I had plenty of interesting things to do but none of it was pressing and no-one (but me) would notice if I didn’t do it.

As a result I didn’t feel I spent my week very well. I fiddled around busily but without finishing anything. I neither got things done, nor was able to relax. My mind was agitated, finding a hundred and one little worries to latch on to, without doing anything to resolve them.

My automatic response was to chastise myself (of course!). An insistent inner voice berated me, advocating that I knuckle down and get my act together. But it was Sunday and I was weary (I had woken up at 330am to take one of my sons to the airport which is a two hour drive away).

So I did something that I rarely, if ever, do. I decided as far as possible, to doing nothing at all. This was immediately fascinating. In the very act of committing to it, I realised how unusual this is for me. I saw how, even at the weekend, I have a mental list (if not an actual list) of things to do. The weekend list has different kinds of things on it from the weekday list (changing the oil in the generator rather than writing a proposal for example) but there is still a list, which governs, in large measure, how I spend my time and more importantly, how I feel.

Of course, just because I have this list doesn’t mean I actually do the things on it, but it does mean that I feel I ought to. This is something that the Spanish, amongst whom I live, seem much less prone to, so there may be a cultural factor involved as well, but for me personally it is a very strong tendency.

Given that the subtitle of the book I have just written (‘Do – Pause’) has the subtitle – “You are not a to do list”- this was rather sobering. It was also fantastically liberating. Having made a conscious and deliberate decision to pause, I had a point of reference. As my mind drifted off into the ‘ought’ space (“I ought to do this, I ought to do that etc. etc.”) which I inhabit a large proportion of the time, I now had a touchstone to go back to - the decision to do nothing - so I could fix on that, instead of a list of tasks.  

This day of deliberately doing nothing was an application, albeit an unconscious one, of the ideas I explored in the book. A pause of this kind, casts a positive forward shadow, like a rock that shelters you from the prevailing wind. By not doing things yesterday, I reasoned, I would be more motivated (and more rested) to do things today. As indeed has proved to be the case (it is only 10am and I have written two different pieces already).

It reminds me of a ‘Pump storage’ power station, where water is pumped to the top of a mountain when demand for electricity is low, so that it can be released immediately when demand spikes. Deliberately not doing anything yesterday, or not even allowing myself to think about doing, refreshed me. This isn’t just about rest and energy but about mental decisiveness. By making no decisions or choices, or only trivial ones, it wiped the slate clean and I am more able to make them quickly and easily today. This feels very different from what I normally do, which is just to switch one set of activities (work) for another (domestic).

So obviously, whilst the book might be finished, the learning process about how to use pauses to live a more fruitful and enjoyable life continues. I must do nothing more often.




Walking is Working

Yesterday, in the middle of the morning, I went out for a walk. Through the fruit orchard, down the hill under the oaks and pines to the stream, across the river by the waterfall, past the reservoir and back up the hill along the track. It was slippery underfoot, the carpet of leaves damp with melting frost.

It was  beautiful and energising, and, as if that weren’t enough, I had a hatful of ideas along the way. Forgotten projects came back to me in detail, the next steps as clear as my own tracks on the frosty grass. New ideas arose and my priorities for the week became as clear as the cold December sky under which I walked.  

Yet I nearly didn’t go.

This often happens. When I was writing ‘Do – Improvise’ I knew from experience that a walk would probably get me unstuck but even so, I would sit and struggle at my computer, resisting the urge to get out. It would take the patient and endless enthusiasm of my black labrador, Cosmo, to get me out on the path, where I would discover, yet again, that with movement, the blocks started to dissolve and the ideas to flow. I often joke that I should have dedicated the book to my dog.

This fascinates me. I know that walking works. I have read many wonderful books about its power from Robert Macfarlane’s ‘The Old Ways’ to the exquisite ‘Book of Mindful Walking’ by Adam Ford. In ‘The Philosophy of Walking’ Frederic Gros talks of the great thinkers who were also great walkers. And I understand enough of the science to know that this isn’t just a fanciful romantic notion, there is a biochemical reality underlying it. Move your body, move your mind. 

So why do I resist?

I think it's a mixture of things. Being steeped in the protestant work ethic. A sense of unworthiness (‘Am I allowed to enjoy myself?'). A lack of imagination – I don’t think about what might change if I do something else. And a disregard of memory - I simply ignore past experience. A heady cocktail indeed.

How often do we do this I wonder? Not just with walking, but with anything. Blunder on in blind insistence, doing what we are doing, because we simply don’t pause to allow ourselves to consider doing something different that we know has worked before! 

So I am going to try something new. On the walk, one of the ideas I came up with was the title of this blog - ‘Walking is working’.

I am going to try using this as a heuristic or rule of thumb, to shortcut the mental sidetracking that stops me putting one foot in front of the other. ‘It’s ok, I will tell my guilty conscience… “walking IS working”…..’

Walk the Line - A different kind of path dependency

Most of us think of our lives as a line, much like a path or road, where events happen one after another in a single, linear, sequence. The past lies behind us and the future stretches out ahead.

We frequently use the language of paths – whether it is career paths, spiritual paths or ‘bumps in the road’. Our calendars and diaries picture time in a similar, linear way. Thus the idea of a ‘time-line’ is both echoed, and reinforced.

This way of thinking can become so natural that we forget it is just a way of framing things - an interpretation. And, like any interpretation, it shapes how we think, drawing attention towards some things and away from others.

For young people in particular, this linear way of thinking about the future, where one thing leads to another in sequence can cause confusion, difficulty and stress. The metaphor of a path carries with it a subtle series of associations that aren’t necessarily helpful.

It can be a corset, one that stops you thinking in the round about the wealth of different possibilities that lie before you. It pays more attention to where a step leads, than exploring that experience for its own sake. A linear interpretation encourages you to think in narrow terms of qualifications and stepping stones towards a pre-determined goal – it quite literally ‘channels’ your thought. It also creates the pressure to take the ‘right’ step. In defining a path it simultaneously cuts off (or casts doubt on) possibilities that lie off the path, implying that if you take them, you will become ‘side-tracked’ or lost. The emphasis is more on progress than discovery or enjoyment. Overall it implies that you ought to know where you want to go, and that the task is working out how to get there, rather than encouraging you to explore.

What would happen then, if we chose a different interpretation, a different metaphor. That of the field, rather than the path?

The idea of a field adds dimension. It can also add depth and texture. There are many ways to explore a space or a territory. There is no one path - no forward, no back. One might explore a section, then return to a central point, then head off in another direction. Or, go all around the perimeter. Or hop about. Or go back, repeatedly, to the same place, approaching from different directions at different seasons, or in different moods.

Using the metaphor of a field changes how you think (and feel) about your future and how you develop yourself to meet it.   

(Hat tip to Juan Albanell of Olivo Rojo, who first brought my attention to this whilst on a Parenthesis at La Serna). 

A knowledge worker needs a good body

A knowledge worker needs a good body

What does it means to be a ‘knowledge worker’. The term conjures up an image of cerebral, nerdy, cleverness – of academics, geeks or intellectuals, steeped in learning of a bookish kind. And it suggests, that to stay employable, you need to be studying, acquiring more information, and qualifications, constantly. Which creates a huge amount of pressure and stress, particularly on young people who trying to make their way in an ultra-competitive world.

Moving towards difficulty

Moving towards difficulty

It’s a filthy day. The rain has been coming at us, all day long. Horizontally. People don’t associate this weather with Spain, but here in the Gredos Mountains, when it rains, it really rains. It looks implausible, like bad movie rain, with exaggerated sheets of water coming at us hour after hour.