Monday, January 26, 2009

Why slow isn't

Fast.  It's a word that defines the early 21st century.  We want things yesterday.  We want to squeeze more and more into our day, our week, our lives.  We want to be faster at doing things. We want the things we want to arrive quicker.

Other than the slow food movement, there's not much we want to slow down except our Summer Holiday.  Or the treadmill at the gym if we get a bit over-excited.

I sat down recently to plan what I want to achieve with 2009.  I started with looking at what I have achieved over the past 3 years.  I chewed my pencil for a while on that one.  I have achieved a fair bit, in fact, but a lot of it has passed in a blur.

According to Daniel Schachter, in his book The Seven Sins of Memory, one of the reasons we don't remember stuff is we don't notice it in the first place.  Things we haven't noticed don't get stored in our memory. The classic example of this is not remembering where we put down our keys/glasses/wallet.

A lot of my achievements of 2005-2008 turned out to be not-very-memorable.  Which is a shame, because I lose both the joy in doing worthwhile things, and in remembering I have done worthwhile things.  What if the most memorable aspect of 2007 turned out to be that I couldn't remember much about it? I remember a couple of big "chunks" of effort, and the occasional drama, not the daily things that make up most of my year.  I don't remember myself quietly achieving what I set out to do.

We're in love with the heroic. We want to throw a big effort at something - once - and have it sorted thereafter. This explains our ambivalent relationships with dieting, domestic tasks, home renovation, and learning new skills (among other things).  None of these things respond well to a once-and-for-all, speed-based approach.

New skills require frequent practice, and sleep in between.  It's during sleep that our brains "bed down" the new information.  If you are learning something new, have a nap or leave the next bit to the next day and your brain will retain what you've learned better.  It's all part of paying attention in the first place.

Music Logic (tm), the music teaching method I use, says that "Slow is Fast".  It's one of those zen-like sayings that make some people feel impatient. Experience has shown me if I slow down, pay attention, and tackle one thing at a time, and aim to do some work every day, I will make progress.  Progress that's actually 'fast' compared to my other strategy of throwing a large chunk of time at a task, but not thinking much about what I'm doing, then abandoning it in frustration, avoiding it for a day, or three (after all, I just 'wasted' 2 hours on it yesterday and didn't get anywhere much), then chucking a wobbly after a couple of weeks of that, and giving up.  Or just forgetting to ever go back and finish it, because I'm caught up with something else now.

So I vote to slow down (a bit).  When I slow down and notice what is happening while it's happening - rather than chewing my pencil later, or relying on my iPhotos, my iCal and my blog to act as external hard drives. I will achieve my goals.  I might even enjoy the journey.  I will be more aware of my accomplishments.  I will get more satisfaction out of my accomplishments.

And that's why, sometimes slow isn't.

My thanks to John Barton, founder of the Music Logic (tm) method, who introduced me to the concepts 'slow is fast' and 'bite sized pieces'.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

In praise of personal training

These days I have a Personal Trainer. Not because I'm 41, or not directly, but because I was injured in a horseriding accident, and needed help to rehabilitate myself. (One of my first physiotherapists at the hospital told me that as I was "relatively young" I was likely to make a good recovery. I replied that you should never call any woman of 40 'relatively young' even if that's the medically correct category.)

I had a lot of preconceived notions about what personal training would be, based mostly on television: buff, buzz cut, brash young men yelling at a group of 'fatties' and making them cry and run obstacle courses.  So I approached my personal training in a penitential spirit of "grin and bear it".  But it's not like television at all.

You begin with a discussion of your personal goals.

Personal trainers can provide external motivation when yours is lacking, that is one of their functions, but not the most important and certainly not the only one. My personal trainer spends more time stopping me before I hurt myself, than he does egging me on to do "just 10 more".  I've also heard, through the gym grapevine, that paying a trainer to provide all the motivation doesn't work - if you're really unmotivated, you'll just skip sessions and then decide that a personal trainer is "just a waste of money, it did nothing". 

While "lose some weight" probably does head the list for many of us, and "get a six pack" has been heard, the reasons people choose to get personal training varies as much as they do. Sportspeople often need to rehabilitate after injury, or develop a particular muscle group in order to improve their performance. My motivation was to get my right arm as strong as my left, and to increase my general fitness (cardio-vascular, strength and flexibility).

A personal trainer is above all an expert in the function of your muscles and skeleton, and in training them to perform better.  If you had a tricky tax question, you'd go to the accountant with it, even if you are able to navigate your way around a basic tax return.  When the same thing happens with our bodies, we resist the idea.  

When it comes to exercise we think we know what to do.  Which is odd, as visual evidence on a stroll down the street tells me that most of us don't!  We attribute our lack of physical fitness solely to a lack of activity - when in fact many people who do lots of physical exercise still aren't very fit overall.

Some people who go to the gym are wasting their time.  In some cases, they're actually doing themselves harm.  Doing the wrong exercise is either pointless or counter-productive. You need to do the correct exercise, and do it correctly to get much benefit. So even if you can do a hundred ab crunches per day, there's no guarantee that that exercise will get you to your goal.

It turns out that choosing the "right" exercises for my needs is complex and changes regularly. My personal trainer adapts as my body adapts.  He keeps an eagle eye on my muscles as I work - which is quite intimidating to start with, most of us aren't used to people openly staring at our bodies - and then suggests new things.  I can give my all, knowing that he won't let me overdo it.  We experiment together, with him asking a lot of questions about what I'm experiencing.

Is it working? It's early days. So far I've gained in strength and flexibility, and my overall health has improved by doing regular exercise.  I heartily recommend personal training to anyone who has a specific fitness goal.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Something Bad Might Happen: Anxiety vs Fear

What's the difference between fear and anxiety?  Why should you care?

I think most of us in the 21st century are getting confused between the two.  With so much information available to us - in fact, thrust upon us - our brains can overload trying to protect us.

Having a paranoid brain was likely a good survival trait when we were living on the savannah with lots of meat-loving predators about, and a host of attractive red berries that could give you more than just a tummy-ache if you ate them.  In a modern city, in the midst of a global cyber-village, the same paranoia can seriously diminish your joy in life.

I read a number of different definitions in articles online. They seemed too limited in defnition or too technical (trying to define different brain chemicals!) to me. So I offer this handy differential guide, with the caveat that I'm not a trained psychologist, just an opinionated childless woman, who might have a weenie bit of an issue with anxiety at times.

Fear is specific, it has an object, a limited duration, it's motivating and it can be satisfied.
  • Fear is specific:  you know what - exactly - you are afraid of, whether it is the spider on your dashboard, or failing your next test.
  • Fear has an object:  there is a basis, a reason for your fear - you fear this spider because it is about to jump on you and it has a red stripe on its back, or because you have a spider phobia. You fear failing your next test because you know you haven't studied all the relevant material.
  • Fear has a limited duration:  you are afraid while the thing you fear is around or in potential.  Even arachnaphobics don't spend all their time thinking about spiders. (Quite the reverse, I suspect.)  If you fear failing this test, taking the test will resolve the fear one way or another. You won't continue to be afraid of failing after the test results are posted.
  • Fear is motivating:  it gets us moving and doing.  Fight or flight.  We run away from spiders, or hit them with the broom from 5ft away.  We do extra study for the test, or become busy cleaning our desk/office/house as an avoidance strategy.
  • Fear can be satisfied: the fear goes away - either because we found a way to make ourselves less afraid, or because the moment is passed and the fear goes with it.  So you ran away from the spider and your fear ebbed.  Or you studied for the test and your fear ebbed.  You don't continue to be afraid after the source of your fears is removed.
Anxiety is pervasive, it is generalised, it is enduring, it is never satisfied, and it is dis-motivating.
  • Anxiety is pervasive: we don't need a reason to be anxious.  Or we can find every reason to be anxious.
  • Anxiety is generalised: we're anxious about "failing", not merely this test.  Or of "being unloveable" rather than that this person no longer loves us.
  • Anxiety is enduring: we can temporarily ease this particular anxiety, but another one will pop right up to take its place.  Or we'll just continue to be anxious about this particular thing long after its use-by date.
  • Anxiety is never satisfied:  we can study as hard and as long as we like.  We can ace as many tests as we like, and anxiety will still whisper that we're going to fail.
  • Anxiety is dis-motivating:  anxiety encourages us to stay stuck.  It tells us to NOT do things. It says "something bad might happen". With its endless litany of what could go wrong, it suggests that sitting here frozen is the best option available.
Fear deserves our respect.  We can and should do a 'risk assessment' and then we can either run away or feel the fear and do it anyway.

Anxiety doesn't deserve much respect*. It has a limited usefulness, in small doses it can get our strategic thinking going.  Anxiety always sees the negative.  Sometimes it does show us something we're not afraid of, but maybe we should be!

When you hear the voice in your head that says, "This might not be a good idea...", ask it for specifics, "Oh yeah? Why not?"  

If the answer is, "Something... something baaaad might happen..." you're probably dealing with anxiety.  

If the answer is, "If your hand shakes at all while throwing that dart, you'll impale the lady in blue who is standing too close to the dartboard," then you might want to listen.

*I'm not talking about anxiety disorders here.  Those deserve respect, as do the people suffering through them.  I'm just talking about garden-variety 21st century anxiety.

Monday, January 5, 2009


Well, that was my shortest New Year's Resolution ever!  My apologies to you for missing my first deadline.  (I guess the editors of the TLS and the NYT won't be calling after all.)

The best way to overcome a fear of failure is to "fail early and fail well", so they say.  Having missed my first deadline, I have done that, and now have no reason to miss any others throughout the year.

In retrospect, my birthday was not the most auspicious day for writing an article - even a short one! Between the well-wishers, the partying, and the search for a gift for my twin (whose birthday it was too, naturally) I didn't leave enough time.

What I won't do, is say, "Oh look, you've failed.  You mucked it up.  Why did you even begin to think you could do this?"  I don't know about you, but that's the little voice of criticism that whispers in my ear any time I do something new.  I know it's not just me, because many of my students suffer from this nasty little internal voice too.

Whenever we start something new, we face a barrage (well, a trickle, at least) of nay-sayers. We're too old, too young, too busy, to immature, too flighty, too ambitious, too over-confident, too lazy, or too thick to succeed in our new enterprise.  Sometimes the nay-saying is from our nearest and dearest, and is done out of love and concern.  Our loved-ones don't want to see us hurt.  Most of the negative vibes come from inside ourselves.

It can be very liberating to keep going in spite of this.  Take stock of the risks, decide if it is worth it, then try.  I don't like the phrase, "Failure is not an option".  In most of everyday life, that doesn't come up.  Being willing to fail is the only way to get from here to there.

Beyond failure, when it comes to creative endeavours, we have to be willing to be average... or even 'no good'... at something.  Before good art or craft (music, writing, painting, woodwork, you name it) there is always a stage of bad art.  Sometimes that is the highest stage we'll get to.  For myself, I would rather make 'bad' art with joy than no art at all.

So, as we emerge into 2009, my question is, what would you do if you were willing to fail or be "no good" at it?

Let's all get cracking.