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.