Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Rediscover your inner sloth

Back in 1931, economist John Maynard Keynes looked past the economic pessimism of the day to a time of abundance, when we would be freed from the relentless demands of work, and able to "pluck the hour virtuously and well". And in 1966, Japanese sociologist Ikutaro Shimizu talked about the "coming of the leisure age".

What happened?

Instead of finding time to stand and stare, in spite of all our labour-saving devices, we have created ways to become busier and busier with less and less leisure time. Now, on top of work, there is no reason to ever stop... No reason not to shop online at midnight, answer emails in the bath, text as we watch a movie, upload our Facebook status when at dinner with friends...

Instead of creating time for leisure, we are abusing time. When you find yourself booking a "speed yoga" session, it's time to pause for thought.

Last week someone told me that if he turns off his email alert/phone/computer in order to concentrate, he feels disconnected (literally) and vulnerable. It no longer feels normal to him to focus unimpeded on one piece of work at a time. What could he do?

If this is how you feel, it's time to take some time to stand and stare. You know no one ever died wishing they'd spent more time at the office.

Embrace life in the slow lane: how to take your foot off the gas

* leave holes in your diary rather than filling every moment with activity, easing the pressure on your time
* set aside some time every day when you turn OFF all electronic connectivity - it's amazing how much more you can get done without interruptions, creating more time to...
* find one activity that is difficult to hurry - t'ai chi, doing the crossword or sudoku, gardening, listening to a whole album of music while doing nothing else - and do it regularly
* eat your meals sitting down at a table at least once a day, without TV, radio or other interruptions
* monitor the speed at which you are doing something - typing, driving, reading, talking - and slow it down

"When it comes to slowing down, it is best to start small," says Carl Honore , author of In Praise of Slow. "Cook a meal from scratch. Take a walk with a friend. Read the newspaper without switching on the TV. Add massage to your lovemaking. Or simply take a few minutes to sit still in a quiet place."

Saturday, 22 January 2011

You can't hurry marmalade...

You can't hurry marmalade... like love, mama said, you just have to wait... (it don't come easy, it's a game of give and take) and like the song says, you have to trust the process. The same goes for marmalade...

First, you have to wait for the briefest of seasons - from mid to late January - when the Seville oranges are available, and if you miss it you have to wait another year... it's about the only fruit that can't be found all year round.

I particularly like the ritual of making marmalade when the days are bleak and spring still feels unlikely, a gap between Christmas excess and January abstemiousness, filling my home with the scent of warm citrus and evoking summer when outside the skies are the colour of old saucepans.

I make my marmalade by boiling the oranges whole for a couple of hours. Then when they're cool they are much easier to handle - scooping out the flesh and pips, finely cutting the softened peel, reserving the original water in which to add all the ingredients and bring it to the boil.

It takes time, methodical time, and it's a process that can't be hurried. From sourcing the seasonal oranges, to checking the recipe, bringing out my preserving pan, boiling the fruit, sharpening my knife, working my way through each of the oranges... Then bringing it all gently to its boiling point - 220 degrees F, 105 degrees C - and maintaining that fast, rolling boil until it works its alchemy and reaches the point at which it sets.

I only make marmalade once a year, so the process hasn't become routine and I have to remind myself of each step, especially what it looks like when it reaches that setting point. I like the way I have to concentrate, watching as the syrup in which the now translucent slices of rind are bubbling, until it changes colour and tempo and shows me it's done.

You can't hurry it, that moment of magic when the combination of oranges, water and sugar becomes marmalade. Just give it time, no matter how long it takes...

Just like love.

Monday, 17 January 2011

How better posture improves concentration

What your posture has to do with your ability to concentrate may not be immediately obvious, but if you have a sedentary job, you may want to consider how you sit when you work.

You may also want to think about sitting on an exercise ball, or add a wobble cushion to your chair, while you work. Experts think that the micro-movements your body needs to make to adjust will do more than just improve your core muscles and posture, it can also make you concentrate better.


When you sit on an exercise ball, you are constantly making tiny, subconscious physical movements to maintain your balance. “Movement awakens and activates many of our mental capacities,” says neurophysiologist Carla Hannaford, who has studied the relationship between movement and learning. “Movement integrates and anchors new information and experience into our neural networks.”

It’s this subconscious mental activity that lies at the core of the science behind the benefit of the exercise balls, which has seen some schools in America replace their hard chairs with them. “The tiny movements kids make while balancing stimulates their brains and helps them focus,” says Dr. John Ratey, a Harvard University professor and author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. Apparently some children with attention disorders have a ‘sleepy cortex’, and exercise combats that mental disengagement. “Just by using their core muscles more, they’re flipping (their cortex) on,” says Ratey. “This causes the prefrontal cortex to get turned on, which does a lot of things, including inhibiting impulses.”

So if you thought that sitting in front of a desk for any length of time just caused poor breathing patterns, restricted circulation, muscular strain and repetitive strain injuries (RSI) – think again. Swapping your chair for a posture ball, or sitting on a wobble cushion, could make all the difference to your concentration levels as well as your aching back.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Plato's concern

‎When was the last time you heard a parent complain about their child reading too much?

400 years BC, this was a concern for Plato. He was as worried about the impact of reading and writing on the brain as we are now about digital technologies.

"For this invention of yours will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn it, by causing them to neglect their memory, inasmuch as, from their confidence in writing, they will recollect by the external aid of foreign symbols, and not by the internal use of their own faculties..."

There is no halting progress but all these new-fangled inventions, from the printed book to the iPhone have their up and down sides. The key is making the most of them without losing sight of the necessity for balance.

Any new technology is a good servant but a bad master, so it's worth teaching ourselves and our children the use of the metaphorical "off" button, too and the benefits of concentrating on one thing at a time rather than perpetual multi-tasking.

Monday, 3 January 2011

A little something I concentrated on earlier...

Ruby the Musical Star, seen here on display at the Royal Opera House shop, London is the follow-up book to Ruby the Ballet Star both written by me, and illustrated by Anne Holt.

Both books tell the story of an indomitable guinea pig called Ruby who refuses to be put off from her aim and who learns that if at first you want to succeed, you have to concentrate on what you what to achieve, and find a way to do it...

Ruby is neither physically nor constitutionally blessed to immediately excel at either ballet dancing, or playing in the orchestra.

In the former she finds practice (10,000 hours anyone?) the route to success. In the latter, she finds that perseverance in finding the right instrument leads her to the triangle, an essential instrument for the playing of Liszt's Piano Concerto No.1 in E flat major - otherwise known as the Triangle Concerto. Such an instrument suits her perfectly, in spite of her short arms and long whiskers, and all is well. Ruby achieves her aim of playing in an orchestra and is a lesson to us all...