My biggest personal productivity shortcoming – and trust me, I have a few – is probably my ability to get easily distracted.  It used be procrastination, but I gradually managed to get that at least a little under control.  But focus is definitely an issue. I guess part of it is that I have something of a butterfly mind,  (oops…just flicked away briefly from here because a Skype message popped up) and I probably do have a low boredom threshold.

There’s a saying ‘Started is half done’ which I think I’ve misunderstood and turned in to ‘Started is finished, it just needs tidying up, and tidying up can wait…’.  The number of half finished projects around here is still pretty big – but again, not as big as it used to be, thank goodness.

I call my moments of lost focus and distractedness ‘Oooh….squirrel’ moments. Let me share the reason for this. Many years ago, our neighbours over the back wall used to have a gigantic tree in their garden. I was huge – thicker than a telegraph pole, visible from a mile and a half away, and as far as I was concerned it was poised to come crashing down through our back bedroom every winter.  When the wind blew, the tree added it’s own ‘Dodgy Horror Film’ sound effects, and it blotted out half the sky.

But the one benefit of this tree was squirrels. Dozens of the times a day we’d see squirrels running up and down it, popping on to the bird table, running around the garden, chasing our cats (Marvin, I’m talking about you….) On at least one occasion one popped up on the back window ledge and looked in whilst I was working at the dining room table.

Whenever one of these little chaps came in to view, I’d take a look.  There were occasions when my wife and I would be talking and the person with the view of the yard would suddenly stop what they were saying and doing and utter the words ‘Oooh….squirrel!’ to indicate that a ‘tree-rat’ was doing something cute.  OK – or to indicate that a squirrel was doing something….squirrelish.

It eventually became something of a code-word in household conversations for when one of us became momentarily distracted and lost the thread.

The tree was eventually removed – I love not having it there but miss the squirrels enormously, although in the last year the odd one has shown up on the edge of the garden near other trees.  But the phrase has stayed with us.

And it’s now become the code word for one of us being distracted, or losing focus. In fact, I now use it deliberately when I can feel my attention slipping – no squirrel in sight; just uttering the words makes me at least aware that I’ve temporarily lost the plot.  It’s become something of a standing joke in Pritchard towers, and I even have a daft expression on my face – a sort of quizzical look.

It’s become a helpful tool in my attempts to stay on focus. As soon as I say ‘Oooh…squirrel’, I tend to stop what I’m attempting to do and deliberately break from it. I look around the room and my head for the squirrel; was it an outside distraction, social media, boredom? When I’ve acknowledged my squirrel I’ll often review what I’m doing to see whether I’ve totally blown it in some way, but more often than not I can soon get back to the planned activity with that ‘mind break’ done.

Just admitting the presence in the room of that virtual squirrel acknowledges that I’ve been distracted, and I’ve dealt with it.

Of course, sometimes the squirrel just sits there being cute and I have to break off what I’m doing altogether – that’s often when I know I’m bored or distracted beyond saving and need to go and mentally watch the cute little bugger do what it will for a while.

And on that note…ooooh….SQUIRREL!

Dandelion Breaks and how to avoid them

I have always been a great fan of Berke Breathed’s cartoon strip ‘Bloom County’. For those of you whose life is as yet incomplete, lacking reporting from the strange world of Bloom County, I refer you to where the current ongoing daily adventures of the characters can be found.

Originally Bloom County stopped being published in 1989 or thereabouts, and was reactivated in 2015, and details the adventures of, amongst other characters, a penguin called Opus, a dodgy, sleazy lawyer called Steve and a monster-packed anxiety closet.

But for me, the most important thing to come from Bloom County was the concept of the ‘Dandelion Break’.  When life became too intense for Opus, he would decamp to the top of a local ‘grassy knoll’ and sit among the dandelions for a while until he gained his composure.  Here’s the strip in which I first saw the concept used…


I doubt a month goes by without me resorting to a virtual dandelion break of some sort.  In fact, with my inability at gardening I can, if needed, indulge in a real life dandelion break for several months of the year by simply going in to my back garden.

What’s lovely about this particular script is that whilst the details in that first panel have changed, the course of Opus to resolve the anxiety is still valid today…turn off the tech.  For those of us old enough to have been around the first time, the list of news stories being broadcast is a litany of anxiety from the 1980s – the old Soviet Union, teh Lebanon, Central America, Northern Ireland, the Falklands – the great Cold War, Post-Imperial, Contra-Irangate hotch-potch of issues that used to give the rolling TV news consuming folks in the world ulcers.

Today it’s Trump, ISIS, the Middle East, the Baltic region, Brexit, climate change, fascism, xenophobia, homophobia…you get the picture.  But today we’re equally – if not more – likely to get our drip-feed of anxiety inducing horror through our social media feed as we are through Sky News or CNN. We tool rolling news and rolled it up and put it in our pocket on our phones.

I was again reminded of this in recent months when I’ve felt the urge for the Dandelion Break growing – not particularly in me, but in lots of people around me and people I know through social media. I recently saw a comment on my Facebook feed to the effect that the person concerned was incredibly depressed to the point of crippling anxiety by the state of the world, and another comment from a gentleman being interviewed:

“When I look to the past I get depressed, when I look to the future I get scared.”

I think I’ll be returning to that particular story on another occasion.

There is certainly enough to make so many people take dandelion breaks that the whole of Bloom County’s grassy knolls would be full of anxiety crippled folks sitting and meditating on the beauty of nature. Everyone has to find their own version of the Dandelion Break to save their sanity…or do we?

Whilst loving the concept, I’ve managed to cut down my need for Dandelion Breaks caused by the external events in the world by simply not immersing myself in the day to day stream of ‘world news’ stories that buffet us.

I turn off the tech.

I’ve chosen instead to put myself on a strict diet of ‘catch the headlines if they’re passing by’ and focus on things closer to home – family, cats, friends, work, church. I strengthen my relationships with people around me; I look after my own community and my job and my church. I guard my soul, and hopefully support the souls of others.

As I said on Facebook the other day:

“I catch the headlines online and then that’s it. If WW3 breaks out I’ll know when I see a big flash of light and hear the local ‘Comic Book Guy’ say ‘I have wasted my life.’

Being aware of the weight and tumult of the world when we’re unable to prevent it is a form of torture; I prefer to work locally and try to make things better that I can make better.”

We all have circles of action – the world around us in which our doing or not doing something has immediate and lasting action.  The part of our lives where we can do something to reduce our anxieties in a practical manner.  Then we have circles of influence – we might argue a point, make a decision and communicate and delegate action to be done – the part of the world where we don’t necessarily have that direct impact on the world but we stand a fair to middling chance of influencing it.  Then we have the circle of concern – stuff ‘out there’ that we can’t realistically impact.

Right now, I’m pulling back in to my circle of action. My circles of influence and concern can, for the moment, go screw themselves.  I am not going to cripple myself and by extension my family, cats, friends, work and spiritual life by gaining sleepless night worrying myself stupid about issues I cannot influence.

I know that people will accuse me of being isolationist, uncaring, selfish – please fill in your own words here.  But I can do nothing for the world if I’m broken; and the constant, daily – no, hourly – forcing of the issues of the world over which we have so little influence in our day to day actions simply kills us.

One day, I’ll be strong enough to grow my circle of action further in to my circle of influence – to extend the area around my life where I can do things that have a direct impact on reducing my anxieties.  Until then I intend to push my existential anxieties in the my equivalent of the Bloom County anxiety closet, and use my energy on DOING stuff that benefits me and those around me – family, friends, community – rather than getting in to the depths of ‘The world sucks, it’s all pointless.’

I like having the fallback of a Dandelion Break if needed, but it will be down to earth, practical worries that sends me there.





To Peace….

…and before everyone leaps up, glasses and coffee mugs in hands, and shouts ‘To Peace’ back to me, I’m not offering a toast here! I’m thinking that it’s about time we made ‘peace’ a verb.

Henri Nouwens had this to say :

“Did I offer peace today? Did I bring a smile to someone’s face? Did I say words of healing? Did I let go of my anger and resentment? Did I forgive? Did I love?’ These are the real questions. I must trust that the little bit of love that I sow now will be many fruits, here in this world and the life to come.”

I read this as saying that all those things – smiles, healing, letting go of anger and resentment, forgiving and loving are all wrapped up in some way in that first phrase ‘Did I offer peace today’.

We often define peace in terms of the absence of other things. Peace is what we have when we don’t have war or conflict; it’s when there is no noise or tumult, when there is nothing to disturb us.  Sure, we have ‘peace conferences’ designed to create peace, but even these are really about resolving the issues that lead to conflict.

The word ‘Shalom’ – a Jewish word – is often thought to mean peace, but actually has a deeper and richer meaning.  According to Strong’s Biblical concordance,

“Shalom means completeness, wholeness, health, peace, welfare, safety, soundness, tranquility, prosperity, perfectness, fullness, rest, harmony, the absence of agitation or discord.”

Some of that fits with peace, but there’s an awful lot there besides!

When Jewish people wish each other ‘Shalom’ they are packing an awful lot of good stuff in to that single word.  And it’s a word defined in things that are present, as well as things that are absent.

I think we need to start bringing some Shalom in to our own lives and the lives of people around us. We need to start ‘peacing’ – doing peace in our day to day lives.

For me, ‘peacing’ would be about the things from Nouwen’s quote above and the definition of Shalom. When we ‘peace’ we would be looking to bring love, healing, smiles and forgiveness.  We’d be looking to carry out actions or say words that bring about a sense of wholeness and completeness, welfare and safety.  We’d be wanting a sense of harmony and the absence of agitation or discord or conflict in relationships. And we’d be looking to do all we can to bring about a sense of peace and restfulness in a person’s life and relationships.

As a Christian, the start of the Holy Communion part of a service is that we all give one another ‘a sign of peace’, with words along the line of ‘Peace be with you’.

In Islam, the greeting “As-Salam-u-Alaikum” is used – (Peace be unto you”.  This is pronounced as “us-saa-laam-muu-ah-lay-kum”, if you ever want to use it.

The world seems to get nastier and more spiteful and small minded with each passing day; perhaps we all need to start peacing – and if we can’t do it with words (after all, it might seem a bit formal to say ‘Peace be with you’ to the mail man) maybe we need to start doing it with actions.

When we meet people, speak with people, pass people by – carry in our hearts and minds an attitude of peace and shalom.  Bear in mind whether we can give them any of the gifts listed above. And try to peace everyday.

After all, practice makes perfect, which is itself one of those traits of Shalom.


You’ve not walked in my shoes but we use the same shoe-shop

There’s an old story that goes something like “Never judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes; you’ll have his shoes and you’re a mile away from him!”

OK, that’s not the real version – the original stops at the semi-colon and is a call to empathy with others. Don’t judge until you’re where they are.

I used to be quite a believer in this saying, but in recent years I’ve come to the conclusion that the world and the people in it – even my patch of the UK, here in Sheffield – is so diverse that this saying can come come over as a bit patronising and platitudinous even if it means well.

The recent US election and the previous Brexit referendum have brought this to my thoughts. In each case the ‘blame’ for the outcome has been placed squarely on (depending upon who you listen to) racists, xenophobes and bigots or the classic ‘blue collar’ working class who feel increasingly alienated and disenfranchised form the modern world, the political process,  and those who run it.

I was born and raised in a small town in Nottinghamshire called Warsop. I left to go to university when I was 18, returned for a few months when I was 21, and haven’t been back for longer than a few hours at a time in the last 30 years.  My initial world view was moulded there; when I was a child I could see 5 collieries from my bedroom window, and the career prospects for most young men seemed to be ‘go down the pit – there are plenty to choose from’.

Of course, that all changed in the 1980s and I saw Warsop change like many small villages and towns; the pits closed, to be replaced (nowadays) by large warehousing or light industrial or agri-business at a minimum wage.  The recent furore over the Shirebook facility of JB Sports (just a couple of miles form Warsop) sums up a lot of what’s happened in such places.

Closer to home there are places like the Dearne Valley, where the steel works and collieries are now closed, and again a similar pattern of low skill, low wage business has taken root, with a larger number of unskilled and semi-skilled workers coming in from the EU to do some of the work.

In the Brexit vote, Mansfield, the nearest town to Warsop, voted 70% for Brexit.   The ‘Dearne Valley’ has parts that border on Barnsley, Doncaster and Rotherham – all of which voted for Brexit with an ‘out’ vote of above 65% in each place.

This is one of those very unscientific analyses that would get me kicked out of the political statisticians club, but would seem to reflect that feeling that those who feel that they’ve been let down in recent years voted for Brexit.  Whether as a slap in the face to the political elites, a wish for change or a genuine feeling that the EU was to blame for their predicament isn’t so certain.  And in the US, people in the ‘rust belt’ states supported Trump because he offered the prospect of change. I remember years ago hearing many states away from either coast and the Chicago area referred to as the ‘flyover states’ by people who’d probably describe themselves as liberals.  They were the states you flew over when you were going to somewhere that mattered.

I’m a middle class professional but have seen rates in my line of work ‘chased to the bottom’ as people cut their rates to win business away from low price contract bids from places like India, Eastern Europe and Russia and China. The true impact of globalization is not just that Christmas comes on 3 container ships from China; it’s that a lot of our jobs in manufacturing and increasingly service based businesses go to other parts of the world as well.

I’ve not walked a mile in the shoes of someone I grew up with in Warsop, but I have been shod in the same shoe-shop. I know what it’s like to feel your way of life and professional life threatened by ‘market forces’ that you can’t compete with, and that the major political parties seem unable or unwilling to acknowledge such fears and changes.

Lots of folks are drawing comparisons with the years of the great Depression and the rise of Fascism in Europe; I beg to differ; the EU already has many aspects of a corporatist state and it may well be that isolationism may be the best way for the UK to actually avoid being drawn closer in to it.

I can empathise with those who feel disenfranchised and alienated. I can empathise with the desire for change. It’s now up to politicians of all colours to realise that the model of the last 30 years is now broken here in the west, and that we need new solutions – a few new shoe-shops, please.

Due Diligence….

My reading habits – OK, I tend to read everything that’s put in front of me, from books to the backs of toothpaste tubes – lead me in to all sorts of places.  As part of my daily spiritual development I often read essays / blog posts from a number of Christian websites, and today encountered the following phrase:

a diligent person must learn to be neglectful

If you’re interested, the article it came from is here.  It’s quite an eye-opener, isn’t it?  I have to say that when I read it I did a little re-take and then started thinking.

What does the word diligence mean? It’s probably one of those words which we all have a similar but slightly different meaning for.  It’s one of those old words which carries with it a hint of adult responsibility and legalism.  We speak of being diligent in our duties and responsibilities; we have phrases like ‘due diligence’ that have special meaning in law and business.  But what does the word actually mean?

The best (to me) definition I found was :

constant and earnest effort to accomplish what is undertaken; persistent exertion of body or mind.

I also learned that diligence is one of the seven heavenly virtues.

I should also point out that in much of what I do I am probably less than diligent. I can be diligent when I want to be or need to be, but let’s say it’s one of those aspects of my character that is still under development and, given that I’m now 55 years old, is likely to continue to be a work in progress.

To some degree I guess that if we do what we plan to do we’re all capable of being diligent.  Constant and genuine effort, exerting the body and mind over time and repeatedly.  The ‘persistent’ part of that definition is probably where I fall down – I’m usually capable of being diligent for a while but then what I call the ‘Oooh….squirrel’ moment occurs when I get distracted. Within this definition is also the idea of ‘focus’ – keeping at it, not being distracted by those squirrels or your phone or your social media feeds.

And then we have that phrase I found earlier this morning :

a diligent person must learn to be neglectful

How does this all gel together?

I need to be neglectful of my social media when I’m being diligent about doing something else.  I need to be neglectful of those distractions. I need to be neglectful of the niggling worries and anxieties that I may have brought to the desk with me when I started to write this piece so that I may be best able to exercise that ‘constant and earnest effort to accomplish what is undertaken’.

I’m currently attempting to be diligent with my writing – I’ve sent a time in my diary for each day at which point I will do 30 minutes of writing.  It’s a test of my own self-discipline and a desire to get creating again after some years of neglect. The diligence I’m exhibiting has positive behaviours for me to engage in – a set time, set place, stay there writing until the 30 minutes is up.  And it has things to ignore – or neglect – no social media, no faffing about getting tea or going to the loo, ignore the day job, ignore the money worries.

I think that being diligent involves a picking up and a laying down of things. The word diligence has a weight about it – perhaps it’s worth regarding it as a habit that can be practiced for and hopefully attained, at least to start with in small doses around certain aspects of our lives.  Being diligent in all we do would be great but I think for me, right now, un-achievable.  But if I can exhibit diligence in 30 minutes of writing here at my desk, I can also exhibit diligence in how I answer my emails at work, how I approach my daily errands, how I find new work. As the article I read pointed out, there’s a scriptural take on diligence which I also need to take on board!

Maybe ‘neglectful diligence’ is something we can all practice under a less loaded name.  Perhaps it’s the same as ‘focus’.

And on that, I need to diligently save this article and write for another 10 minutes.




As always, late to the picnic, but I recently encountered the acronymn FOMO. It’s not a new type of washing powder, but short for Fear Of Missing Out.  It’s defined in Wikipedia as :

Fear of missing out or FoMO is “a pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent”. This social angst is characterized by “a desire to stay continually connected with what others are doing”.

Some commentators and researchers have laid the blame for FOMO firmly at the door of social media – – and I think that they’re probably spot on the money. I know from my own experiences that it’s easy to portray a totally different lifestyle on Facebook than actually happens.  One gets to be able to interpret the status posts you sometimes see : “Another Saturday evening partying hard.” translates to “After watching Strictly I went out but couldn’t get in any clubs. I ended up drowning my sorrows sitting on the kerb outside the cheap off-license”

I’ve been lucky – I think I’ve a bunch of friends on facebook who put over quite an accurate view of the world they inhabit.  Maybe they’re all as ‘stay at home’ as I am, or maybe they’re mature enough to not have to post every aspect of their lives online to try and create envy.

It started me thinking about whether a similar phenomenon existed when I was a teenager and a young adult, and I THINK that it probably did.

It was the Monday morning debrief, when you got together with friends and colleagues and actually talked about the weekend just gone.

It was the stories you told when you met friends about what you did the last time you were out without them – often exaggerated, frequently for comic effect, occasionally to big yourself up.  The concept of ‘what happens in Vegas (or more likely Skegness) stays in Vegas was not stated; discretion (at least amongst my friends) seemed to be expected.

I think it’s safe to say that FOMO doesn’t bother me anymore; I think it did once upon a time, and even now there are the occasional times when I see a social media post and think ‘You could have invited me’ or ‘I wish I’d been there’. I have seen posts where people are doing something of a ‘party hop’ to ensure that they get to multiple events that are taking place at the same time – definitely the ultimate in FOMO generated behaviour!

No, I think as an older man I’ve noticed a new source of angst in recent years, but one that I think I can keep under control.  And it’s probably as old as the hills, in one form or another – FOHMO.

Fear Of Having Missed Out – that feeling you get when you see younger folks that you know taking part in social activities that are now past you due to your age, or that you’d have loved to have done when you were that age but that didn’t actually exist!  I think it’s related to the things that lead to mid-life crises, which are never good to have.

FOMO and FOHMO are both polite ways of saying ‘envy’ – the difference is that FOHMO is you being envious of things and situations you can never have; FOMO has within it the possibility that by keeping in touch, keeping watching the statuses, hopping from event to event you can become one of the ‘in crowd’, the social elite of your world.  FOHMO has within it the past tense; it’s gone, that’s it. You can break yourself against it but the bottom line is that if you suffer from FOHMO you’re on a hiding to nothing as you’re basically railing against lost time – and hence your age.

My name is Joe; I’m an occasional sufferer from FOHMO; I hope to soon grow out of it!

The girl with the parasol

I’m a bit of a film buff – probably not as much as I once was but I love old films, and unsurprisingly Citizen Kane is up there in my list of favourites.

There’s a scene in there which I’ve always loved – it’s between the reporter researching the life of Charles Foster Kane and Mr Bernstein, one of Kane’s business colleagues. Of much more importance than the sparse information that Bernstein gives about Kane, is the following monologue:

“A fellow will remember a lot of things you wouldn’t think he’d remember. You take me. One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry, and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in, and on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn’t see me at all, but I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since that I haven’t thought of that girl.”

I used this as the start of a sermon recently (I’m a lay Reader in the Church of England – you might like to take a look  here…) about the importance of memory.  I’m often staggered by the way in which tiny incidents seem to stick in our minds – I’m one of these folks who can barely remember my own phone number, but a tiny event from 40 years ago will often spring in to my thoughts as if it had happened 5 minutes ago.  Maybe it’s the onset of dementia – I don’t know.  But I expect ALL of us have our own ‘girl with the parasol’ –  a person that may have engaged us for but a few moments but that we remember for decades afterwards with such strong memories that they can generate powerful emotions.

I wonder whether these moments are some sort of pivot point in our lives? A point at which we came to a significant fork in the path and had a split second to make a decision. And somehow, our sub-conscious mind, or God’s grace, or the collective unconscious of the world puts a marker in the page of our lives and says ‘Well, you might not have realised it, but THIS moment was very significant”

Would Bernstein’s life have been different had he somehow managed to leap back to shore and catch up with the girl? Could he have come back at the same time over several days to see whether she showed up again? Or does that way lead to obsession?

Or when we have these moments, are we getting some sort of insight in to how important this person would have been to us had a different path been taken prior to that split second?

I have no idea. Maybe our desire for control over our lives stretched backwards in time as well.  Perhaps we look through our life and try to spot those moments when our future would be defined by a few seconds of at the time apparently chance and subtle events. Science Fiction writers are keen to take us to those BIG moments in time and say ‘What if…’ – What if Kennedy had survived the assassination attempt (take a look at Stephen King’s 11/22/63 as an interesting take on this idea) or if Hitler had not invaded Russia? I guess that we can easily see that such events might have a massive impact across the world and on lives, but what about the ‘small stuff’?

I think that it might be the small stuff of our lives – things like the meetings and near misses indicated by our ‘girl with the parasol’ moments – that are often the most influential. Like steering a massive container ship, a small tweak might not seem like much when it happens, but 40 years later a whole life pattern has been changed.

Maybe when we remember those split seconds, we’re getting to see the highlights of our journey.

Just don’t get any ideas about building time machines and fixing things differently – we don’t know where we’ll end up!