Tag Archives: behaviours

Eeek! It’s a bug

Running shoes

Running shoes

I have spent much of the last couple of weeks thinking about running, but this is still strange territory for me. It’s about 18 months since I was encouraged to go outside by Ruth Field’s book ‘Run Fat B!tch Run’ and although there have been frustrating interludes of not running due to the icy roads or muscle strain, it does now seem to be something I do.

To revive my motivation after a break I started the ‘Couch to 5k‘ programme which is thoroughly but steadily building up my fitness and stamina again. I come back in from my run feeling properly exercised but not exhausted. Also recently I’ve come across the website The Running Bug, which actually does relate all abilities. The cheery community on the forums are full of mutual encouragement and I was given a warm welcome when I signed in. The website name has made me realise that running is like a bug. It just gets into your system and whether you’re doing it or not, the run is always there at the back of your mind.

I can see now that although it’s hardly Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky, even my small achievements have a support group. There’s the lovely Alison Hannigan, a McTimoney chiropractor who every so often re-aligns my bones and helps to repair the recalcitrant muscles. And even my hairdresser – no really, he’s an Iron Man competitor and actually did the Decaman in 2012 – is a terrific source of good information about best practice in stretches and so on. The family consistently ask after my progress and that’s another factor which keeps me going – I don’t want to have to admit to lapsing back into lethargy.

So now as I make my way round my chosen 5k circuit I mentally report in and hold conversations with imaginary running buddies. I couldn’t contemplate actually running with someone else because my pace is too snail-like and the real conversation would be distinctly monosyllabic. But this week I have astonished myself by signing up for a ‘Bug Running Day’ on 8 September. At 9:30am bugs all over the country and beyond will be lacing up their trainers and heading out for 20 minutes for a real outing with virtual running mates. I know I’ll be in good company – and I still won’t have to talk to anyone.


numberless clockThe season of Lent generally seems a long haul, all the more so when Easter is early (31 March this year) and you have to turn your thoughts to self-denial and self-improvement in the middle of February. These days there seems to be an expectation that you should take on something new in Lent, rather than give up an indulgence, and indeed one feels there ought to be more to it than not eating chocolate for a few weeks.

So this year I have picked up Abiding by Ben Quash (Professor of Christianity and the Arts at Kings College London) the 2013 Lent book recommended by the Archbishop of Canterbury, with a foreward by his predecessor Rowan Williams. Of course I have only just begun it (the first chapter ‘Abiding in the Body’ looks at the implications of the Benedictine Rule of remaining in one community for life), but even the book’s title made me think of how diminished ‘staying power’ is these days – not least mine.

For one thing it’s obvious that technology is having an impact on our attention spans – although Nicholas Carr’s book on the subject The Shallows: what the internet is doing to our brains aroused some debate a couple of years ago.

I first noticed it in the younger generation – the tendency to have a dozen search engine tabs open, always to have music and Facebook on and to keep up a text conversation with several friends whist doing homework. But as I have caught up with the technological innovations I have to admit that I have become just as guilty of flitting from one thing to another. And no, it’s not multi-tasking, it’s a lack of concentrated effort and focus. It’s insidious, and quickly transfers to other activities: if I’m drawn to a  newspaper article by its headline, I’ll read the first couple of paragraphs and skip to the end to see what the conclusion is. If I then decide the middle is worth reading, I still jump around in it, so the ideas become a jumble and I have to start all over again.

The laptop, smartphone and tablet devices make it all too easy to feed an addiction to doing a lot of things at once and not really concentrating on any of them. You watch the news on TV while checking emails, social media and other news stories at the same time. When there’s a TV drama or big event going on, Twitter is there to let you find out what ‘everyone else’ is thinking about it – just search for ‘#bigevent’ and add your own twopence worth.

If you don’t do it, living with someone who does is highly aggravating, but once you start it just becomes second nature.

Therefore one thing I have given up for Lent is Twitter, initially because it’s a right old timewaster however much you kid yourself that it’s about keeping up with the news and opinion.  Subsequently I realised it’s just one aspect of Flitting Attention Syndrome, and this is only exacerbated by one’s general rush to get things done in the least time.

The Slow Food movement started in Northern Italy in the 1980s as a reaction to over-processed, over-transported junk food. It seems to me that Slow Food has a parallel in lectio divina – divine reading – another element of the Benedictine way of life.  It’s a process of reading and re-reading a short Bible passage so that you can fully appreciate the layers of meaning and take on board what it may be saying to you at that moment. A form of Slow Reading, as it were – easy enough to describe, much harder to do.

It occurs to me that it herein lies another Lenten discipline – to slow down and pay attention. If I pick up an article, to read it properly from start to finish. To focus on one thing at a time for as long as it takes to reach a conclusion or natural break-point. To resist the urge to flit to something else and the siren call of the alternatives offered by that handy attention-seeking computer device.

The cat’s dilemma

Here’s a case study in managing change.

Suppose you are working on a long-term and complicated project with a big team of more than 25 people. You all have a broad understanding about the direction of travel, but within the team there are several, not necessarily compatible, perspectives on the overall aim and how to get there. Your colleagues have a range of skills and experience, and some pretty entrenched views too.  Your predecessors signed up to your involvement some time ago.

The project, as projects do, has a number of fairly intractable issues, and serious inefficiencies have crept in over the years as the team got bigger and bigger. Every now and then you all have to sit down and re-think how you go about your activities. But it’s come to the point where people in your home organisation are saying it’s all too disadvantageous and it’s time to cut your losses and leave. You have to keep these influential people sweet, but you also acknowledge that there are others in your organisation who hold the opposite view just as strongly.

How to respond?

a) give up and go home – thereby losing all the benefits of being in the team in order to gain unspecified advantages through dissociating yourself from the project;

b) stay, make your own entrenched view known and make it clear that you are never going to change this position – it’s not you, it’s them – and hope that (i) the naysayers back home don’t give you too much grief, and (ii) the ensuing stalemate is not entirely detrimental to everyone’s interests;

c) stay, find out more about what your colleagues really think; look for the common ground that’s in everyone’s interest; build alliances and seek out an approach that meets some of everyone’s needs but expects everyone to give something up too; and

d) … get stuck in to streamlining that overblown bureaucracy.

Answers on a post card please, direct to 10 Downing Street, London SW1.

For the next five years the UK public faces the enticing prospect of protracted membership negotiations with our 26 partners in the European Union – or not, I suppose, if they decide not to bother negotiating with us. The Prime Minister has promised a referendum on the results of the negotiations, in other words we’ll get to vote on whether we want to be part of the EU on the agreed new terms. In the meantime we will be subjected to an awful lot of pontificating from all sides in the debate. And even then the question will not be ‘settled’ because whatever the outcome, a large proportion of the population will be unhappy about it.

Quite apart from the eccentricity of this approach to negotiating – the Eurosceptics will say ‘give us more powers back or we’ll vote against’, and the pro-Europeans will say ‘be more committed or we’ll vote against’ so the government can’t guarantee that it will deliver a vote in favour of the new terms, which means they are not in a position to agree terms anyway – how on earth are we the general public supposed to know enough about it to make an informed decision? Statistics, polls and the finer points of EU treaties and legislation will be quoted at us like passages from the Bible, all out of context and less than enlightening. People will just vote on the basis of their instinctive reaction, or faith, as it were.

Already it’s known as an ‘In/Out’ referendum, a phrase which cannot fail to conjure up the image of 27 eurocrats in a solemn circle dancing to the 1940’s song …

In, out, in out,
You shake it all about,
You do the hokey cokey and you turn around,
That’s what it’s all about.’

Or else we’ll be like our cat, who makes a big fuss to be let out if he’s indoors, and after five minutes outside is banging on the back door and meowing to come back into the kitchen. Wherever he ends up, clearly he always thinks he’d be better off on the other side.

There are matters of state to be decided - it's exhausting

There are matters of state to be decided – it’s exhausting

A lovesome thing?

Fifteen years ago, I would often bemoan the fact that I didn’t spend as much time as I wanted to doing the gardening, even though I had reasonable control over how I spent my day. I was my own boss and working from home but I would always prioritise client work or other commitments.

Now, here we are at the dawn of 2013, and I have reached the age and station at which women seem to devote themselves to their garden – and, do you know what? – I’m not sure I like gardening that much after all. I have a fairly good theoretical knowledge after years of RHS membership, reading the newspaper gardening sections, listening to Gardeners’ Question Time and watching Gardeners’ World. I’m good at Latin plant names because I have a Classics degree. I know ‘salicifolia’ means ‘with leaves like a willow’, and ‘glaucus’  means ‘grey’. I do like being out in the fresh air, and the smell of the earth, and the biggest thrill of course is to see the snowdrops and spring bulbs pushing through. I like visiting great gardens with their luscious herbaceous borders and atmospheric garden ‘rooms’. But …

… actually ‘doing the gardening’ seems to share the dull relentlessness of housework, made worse by the fact that things are growing all the time. I suspect my sort of gardening is being the lady of the manor who is able to share an intelligent conversation with a callus-handed head gardener, and otherwise just float about soaking up the joys of nature as tamed by years of experienced cultivation.

There is some job satisfaction to be gained from an hour’s weeding on my knees, and spreading the compost around makes the borders look cared for and has definitely improved our heavy clay over the years. But although I know what plants do, I lack the creative horticultural imagination to design a border and more significantly, my experience is that while the weeds are happy to romp away, it’s hard to get the plants you’ve carefully brought home from the nursery to flourish. I’ve also noticed that if I’m writing, no detail is too small to attend to, but in the garden or when I’m cleaning, the prime thought is ‘that’ll do’.

The wider conclusion is that people make time to do what they want to do. However busy you are, if you’re really committed to something, you’ll do it. Good intentions aren’t enough to make things happen. I have become sceptical over the years about the reasons people offer for, say, not coming to a workshop. If it’s actually meaningful to their lives at that point, they’ll be there no matter what other demands they are juggling.

Meanwhile the garden jobs still await, and the best approach I can think of, given the lack of a wise old head gardener, is just to pick a specific and manageable task and get on with it. Then when it’s done, stop for the day and not worry about the unending vista of other jobs I notice as I head back indoors for a celebratory cup of tea.

Helleborus foetidus - self seeded

Helleborus foetidus – self seeded

Changing paces – a lesson in new behaviour

A hero for me of the year so far is Ruth Field, aka The Grit Doctor.  Her achievement has been to help me to realise after 40-odd years of inactivity that it’s good to move.  In fact to go beyond the realisation, because after all everyone knows exercise is good for you, and actually to do it and then keep doing it.

PE at my school was a pretty dispiriting experience if you weren’t inclined or able to shine.  It was netball or hockey in the autumn and winter, tennis or athletics in the summer term.  An occasional alternative if the weather was really bad: climbing bars and ropes in the school hall.  I was one of those always the last to be picked for teams, always uncoordinated and hopeless at everything.  What a relief to get into Sixth Form and leave it all behind forever.

Of course it was not just a matter of saying good-bye to Mrs Chester and Miss Bell, but also to any healthy exercise.  I continued through adult life with a self-image of being useless at any sport/game and, whilst maintaining an acceptable BMI or whatever, probably not what anyone would classify as physically fit.

Enter, in a post-Christmas feature in The Times, Ms Field and her book
‘Run Fat B!tch Run’.  As a result I am more toned, healthier, in touch with the benefits and serotonin arising from regular exercise, and out in the fresh air for a 3.5 mile circuit at 7am at least three times a week, more or less in all weathers.  I miss it and feel ill-at-ease if I don’t go.  It’s a major new behaviour established over a few months and on reflection it’s been an object lesson in bringing about lasting change.

The first step is to tap in to the knowledge or suspicion that the status quo won’t do.  All individuals and organisations know that life isn’t as good as it could be.   Even if it’s buried deep, somewhere there’s a nagging voice that says there’s a different way, and it’s probably a better one.  Then what?

  • approach whoever you are dealing with as one human being to another
  • make it simple and practical
  • make it fit with established preferences or what they are already doing (I have always been a morning person so getting up a 7am isn’t a problem)
  • make it sound achievable, possibly even enjoyable (though the Grit Doctor would never admit this)
  • make the change incrementally
  • get them to try it just enough to begin to see some benefits
  • emphasise that keeping it up is critical (‘if you don’t like re-starting, stop giving up’)
  • be empathetic but not patronising, disclose what you find hard about it too
  • get them to keep on keeping it up by motivating them with the benefits – or with the disbenefits of not doing it
  • be available to answer questions and offer support
  • offer role models, but not those who are so good that they are impossible to emulate
  • have other sources of expertise available so that you don’t have to have all the answers
  • encourage mutual support among those trying it out – social media platforms make this easy
  • set goals
  • let the new behaviour be its own reward, but also celebrate when goals are reached

So far, so straightforward.  But there is another ingredient which can be harder to manage – personal style.  Somehow Ruth’s approach just did it for me, but there are others whom she no doubt rubs up entirely the wrong way.  When you write a book, you just have to write it, send it out into the world and hope for the best.  Some will love it, others really won’t.  But when you’re working in person to make change happen you need to adapt your style to suit the situation, which means: a) getting to know what your personal style is, and b) learning how to be heard by those whose preference is very different.

And that’s another story altogether.

Can you keep a secret?

Of course you can – you’re a professional after all.  But it’s worth pausing occasionally to think about what you mean by ‘everything you tell me will be treated in strict confidence’.   Really??  You won’t be discussing the key facts that came out of the conversation with your colleagues?  The ‘hard’ data and the more interesting stuff about how your interlocutor felt about that time a colleague seemed to take the credit for their idea?   Clearly, unless you are going to work out advice to your client entirely in your own head, it’s not, strictly speaking, confidential, is it?

Trust is the bedrock of every relationship, professional or otherwise, and keeping confidences is one of the behaviours which makes trust happen.  One loose remark and months of relationship building are undermined.  So the confidentiality agreement needs to be more than something hidden in the terms and conditions of your contract, more than taken as read, it’s got to be real, and evolving.

Confidentiality has to be addressed upfront as soon as your interactions begin.  If you omit to say something about it and assume there’s some unwritten norm in the ether of the interview, possible outcomes are that your client (substitute the appropriate word for whatever relates to your role) spills the beans and then regrets it afterwards, or clams up.  In the first case the relationship will be off to a rocky start because the client is already feeling at a disadvantage.  In the second, you will have missed the opportunity to learn anything useful.

It has always seemed to me that the key is to be absolutely clear (and honest, of course) about what will happen to the information you gather in the meeting.  Then whoever you are dealing with can regulate for themselves how much they tell you.  If they know that topics will be analysed in your team meetings, or be part of your feedback to a wider group within the client organisation, they can judge what to share with you.  Which brings me to: ‘of course everything will be treated as non-attributable’.  It’s a mighty elephant trap for the unwary.  Believe me, I’ve been there, and it wasn’t pretty.  People within an organisation can always pinpoint the source of particular opinions.  So when in the ‘feeding back the results of our interviews’ session, an observation goes up on the screen or flipchart, client staff will know that Eric or Fiona said that.  They always know.

Underneath trust is confidentiality and underlying confidentiality are clarity and honesty.  And after being real about it, comes evolution.  Once you have demonstrated in practice that you don’t tell people what you think of someone else (making them wonder what you’re saying about them to others), and you don’t inappropriately share information even from casual conversations, you will get a reputation for not betraying confidences.  Only then is the client likely to share with you the real reasons the new system won’t work, or why that team underperformed.  You move on from a somewhat limited association with someone which operates only with information in the public domain, to a deeper relationship which can genuinely address the issues at hand and develop options with actual traction in the organisation.

So there’s the answer.  Just don’t tell them I said so.