Tag Archives: writing

Anxiety and Focus – mortal enemies?

First of all I feel like the title of this post might be a little misleading so maybe I should warn you – if you’re looking for any enlightenment here then I should probably ‘manage expectations’ a bit. I don’t think I necessarily have any answers to the questions that I want to talk about. But then I suppose that’s probably why I want to talk about them.

So here goes. Concentration doesn’t come easily to me. And this means that writing doesn’t come easily. Nor does reading, at least in as much as I struggle to get ‘lost’ in a book the way I used to be able to. If my 10-year-old self could see how slowly I get through a novel these days she’d be horrified. This is no revelation though, we’re probably all familiar with this change as part of being an adult (I’m getting there) and having adult responsibilities (I like to call them distractions).

But for me concentration is often made all the more difficult by my anxiety. Again I’m sure everyone reading this will identify with that at some level. We’re all human, we’re complex, and we worry about things. We all have various every day distractions and longer-term worries from which it’s hard to detach. So the way I see it, anxiety is really a continuum along which we all fluctuate as we pass through days, weeks, months and years. Like the bubble in a spirit level, we’re so rarely on a completely even keel.

After all modern life is so fast-paced. You only have to realise that there’s so much going on that tips and tricks about how to balance all of the elements of your life and still be productive, without being bogged down in the infinite details and opportunities for becoming burnt out, have become currency.

For me the speed with which thoughts run through my head at any given time sits up there at 10,000 miles per hour, plus. I worry about everything. Then I worry about the fact that I worry about everything. Then I worry about the fact that I’m capable of being worried about worrying about everything and whether I should be concerned about that. On rare occasions when I’m momentarily not worrying about anything, I start to worry that I’m forgetting something important that needs worrying about. I run over things in my head until, usually within a few seconds, I find a suitable candidate to commence worrying about.

I often hear people talking about those nights when they can’t sleep because they’re over-thinking. They’re really taking stock of their lives and I can always empathise because I know all too well that can be a scary thing to do, especially if you’re overly critical of yourself. At these times people take a step back from the everday, look inwards and face difficult truths about what they might need to change. They make tough decisions and they do so while over-analysing minute details and beating themselves up for this, that and the other.

I hear people talk about these episodes of over-thinking and I empathise. I also wonder what it’s like to not be thinking like that all of the time. Because reflection isn’t a once-in-a-while, sleepless-night, take-stock-and-see-if-I-need-to-change-direction thing for me. It’s a continual and almost entirely relentless daily, hourly process.

So although on the whole I’m a very motivated person, I want to get things done and I do, and when I do something I do it absolutely to the best of my ability (and then worry that I could have done better); behind all of this is the fact that I often have to work very, very hard on focusing my head on a task. On concentration.

And it’s not the constant nature of this mindset that makes things difficult. It’s the level of minute detail that my head insists on drilling down into.

Now I don’t mean to sound self-absorbed here, I know that by probably the longest shot possible, I’m not the only person that lives this way. That’s at least 80% of the reason that I talk about these things, because I know there are legions of people who will identify with them, the other 20% of my reasoning being wholly selfish –  it helps me figure these things out. So I’m just trying to describe how it is for me because that’s all that I know intimately.

What I’m trying to say is that although I’m thankful for the way I am because it is all of me, as a package, that’s gotten me what I’ve achieved so far and that makes up my potential for the future; nevertheless sometimes I just can’t help thinking, surely it doesn’t have to be quite this difficult.

So I’ve been thinking a lot lately about focus. About working out how to, at will, get into that positive feedback loop of motivation, concentration and productivity that we all experience on our most fruitful days. That focus that overrides the powerful impulse to become distracted by whether I’ve remembered everything I need to factor in before going to pick up my first car next week; whether the conversation I had this morning came across as I meant it to or if I made a bad impression; what meals I’m going to cook next week and what I need to buy for them from Asda; or whether writing this post is what I should be doing with this particular Sunday morning or if there’s something more important that I’m neglecting.

We all know there are few better feelings than when you’re having a really productive day, when you’re really engaged in what you’re doing and you’re getting loads done. Ticking things off the to-do list. We all know that once you’re in that zone the motivation and therefore the focus and concentration, feeds itself.

From a personal point of view, I don’t think that my anxiety prevents me from achieving anything. I can’t let it because the anxiety about not achieving anything is the kind that I feel most acutely. However, the day to day ‘busy-ness’ in my head can make concentration and focus difficult to maintain. Sometimes trying to concentrate on something can feel like a major conflict of interests involving trying my damnedest to stop thinking (something I spent a long time trying very hard to do while I hauled ass through my teenage years with OCD), in order to make room so that I can engage and guess what, think.

Now I’m always going to have to live with my anxiety. I’ve had two and a half decades to get used to that fact and as scary as it sometimes is to admit it, I’ve accepted that I’ll never ‘master’ it. I also know though, that I wouldn’t have achieved what I have in recent years without it. It pushes me forwards, albeit along a very bumpy track. I know that I can handle it and I plan to never stop learning more about how to live productively and more importantly, happily, alongside it.

So if we can’t remove the distraction that anxiety brings a-knocking, I guess the question is how do we learn to tap in, whenever we need to, to whatever it is that’s spurring us on those days when we’re measuring about 10 feet tall and feeling like we can achieve absolutely anything that we want to, right in that moment. That motivation that can allow us to override the distractions.

Or is that the wrong way to look at it? Is it less about working out what magical factor gets us over that subconscious brick wall on our most productive, focused days; and more about working out what the wall is constructed of and therefore how to empower ourselves to start chipping away at it on the harder days?

In other words what is it that isn’t there on those days when nothing can stop you, rather than what is?

Looking at my struggles with my subconscious through that lense, I think that my own brick wall is strongly founded in the fear of going head-long into things and giving them my all – and failing – and the way I’ll then feel about myself if I do. For me, that’s what’s conspicuously absent on my most productive, most effective, most powerful days. The absence of it is what gets me excited and in turn helps me zone in and focus, enough to distract from the distractions.

So can dismantling the wall be as simple (read terrifying) as just having to keep putting myself out there and learning the hard way that I can do it, whatever the ‘it‘ happens to be at the time?

Will that message continue to stick for longer and longer each time? And is that momentum the tool that I need, to dismantle the wall?

Thank you for listening to my somewhat inconclusive ramblings, if you like this post I’d really appreciate if you would share any comments you have, or any personal perspectives, below.

What’s your brick wall? How can you/do you chip away at it?

6 Things I could Accomplish if I Stopped Falling Asleep on the Bus

I love a nap.

I can be pretty lazy and I’m a world-class procrastinator, so a good afternoon nap is always appreciated. That’s something I certainly didn’t grow out of during 3 years of Uni. In fact I’m quite seriously debating having a quick nap now and finishing this later, but I won’t (or I might have done, how would you know)?

The Uni lifestyle can be an unstructured one, to say the least. There’s no established routine and more worryingly all that work that needs to be done, those thousands and thousands of words – that’s all down to you and you alone. You, your self-motivation and your will-power.

So yeah, lots of naps tend to happen!

In fact I remember clearly, days that more or less consisted of one long nap – often with great remorse that I didn’t bask in their glory more while I had the chance. On these days getting out of bed was done no earlier than 3pm and even then it was for the sole purpose of being sociable, which meant joining the housemates in the living room (duvet in tow, naturally) for a marathon of Jeremy Kyle, Don’t Tell the Bride and Eastenders. The pinnacles of physical excercise for the day consisted of stirring your pot noodle, loo breaks (once they became absolutely essential) and taking turns to reboot the wireless.

At a previously undetermined point during the early evening your conscience would kick in and you’d drag yourself to your room to retrieve the laptop and a couple of books, muttering something vague as you left the room along the lines of “right, I HAVE to do some work, nobody nick my seat.” Then you’d settle yourself back in your carefully sculpted bum-shaped dent in the sofa with the laptop, books and a cuppa – and proceed to google pointless crap, refresh your Facebook timeline and carefully study the IMDB profile of that guy on the TV and figure out which film you know them from. Needless to say the books were usually employed exclusively as a make-shift coffee table and you’d be left wondering as you carried them back upstairs a few hours later, what made you bring them down in the first place.

But anyway, snapping out of reminiscing about the dreamy parallel universe that is UK higher education and getting back to civilised life, where there are jobs to go to and to-do lists to keep on top of, napping is a somewhat dangerous game.

I’ve found the perfect nap length is around half an hour. Have a nice half hour nap and you’ll find yourself refreshed, focussed and raring to start some housework/excercise/job applications/writing (or whatever it is you need to do – these are just a few of the things that I expertly procrastinate from on a daily basis). But go any longer, sleep through the alarm or groan at your designated waker to leave you alone one too many times until they think “sod this” and consent to leave you in your pit to sleep away the afternoon – and it will likely result in a solemn pledge to never nap again.

Have one of the latter kind of naps and with cruel, cruel irony you’ll feel like you haven’t slept a single hour in the last 3 months. You might as well concede defeat and kiss productivity goodbye for the day as it saunters out of the front door, leaving you to stare blinkingly after it in an unparalleled state of groggy, disoriented can’t-be-arsedness.

The problem is my bus journey to work at the moment is about 45 minutes, so take off a few minutes at the beginning for getting sat down, getting my phone or Kindle out and fooling myself that I’m going to read a book/write/find out what’s happening in the world – and you’re left with the perfect nap time. Believe me my body has wised up to this and is taking full advantage. Out of an average 10 bus trips per week I tend to sleep straight through 8 of them, and doze through at least part of the other two. Maybe it doesn’t help that it’s usually dark while I’m travelling at the minute but let’s be honest, it could be like Miami Beach in July out there, and I’d probably still nod off!

The whole ‘I can’t possibly fall asleep in public’ thing deserted me months ago, another thing scratched off the list of things I get embarrassed/ashamed about as I get further into my twenties and simultaneously care less and less about what people think.

Although I will admit that there was a short period some months ago when I was traumatised by witnessing a poor teenage guy fall asleep on the top deck of a (very busy) bus from Newcastle. This wasn’t a problem in itself and it could have turned out to be a great little nap, if the bus hadn’t lurched rather violently, sending the guy hurtling to the floor equally as violently. To make matters worse he woke up half way down and yelped like a little puppy, (except much louder). Needless to say the teenage girls sitting behind him couldn’t stifle their giggles. To be frank they were more like guffaws and there was no real attempt made to hold them in.

I do still have some shame and I would expect that I too would turn something close to the shade of crimson that guy did if that happened to me. In fact I’d probably have gotten off the bus at the next stop and waited for the next one, on which nobody would have known of my humiliation. So anyway I swore off falling asleep on the bus that day, but apparently I got over that quite quickly…

Anyway getting to the point, I’ve been re-evaluating my productiveness (or lack of it) again lately. So here is a list I’ve come up wth to try to motivate myself, of things I could (theoretically, assuming some level of productiveness rather than 45 minutes of staring wistfully out of the window) do with the 7.5 hours that I spend sitting on a bus each week. If only I didn’t spend them sleeping…

  • Read a book or two each week – then I could even think about starting to write a book-review blog, which I’ve wanted to do for a while, only I don’t get through anywhere near enough books!
  • Write a new blog post every day – not that I’m under the illusion that I have enough good ideas to write that often, so the quality/quantity balance would be way off!
  • Watch all of Breaking Bad in 8 weeks – I realise that’s not quick for most people but as things stand it’s taken me 2 years and I’m only up to season 3, episode 4 (no spoilers please). Maybe then I could even make some progress on the many other shows that I seem to have stalled half way through, like Supernatural, Grimm, Game of Thrones, Criminal Minds etc etc
  • Read A LOT more news, and be a bit better informed.
  • Listen to more new music.
  • Speak to a fellow bus dweller – sounds weird I know but people must have done this before the days of mobiles, Kindles, tablets and MP3s!

Charlie Hebdo, Free Speech and the Wise Man on the Bus

Picture the clichéd image of a bedraggled man or woman sitting in a chair hunched over a typewriter. They appear to have been in the same position for at least three or four days. Every now and then they stop to violently tear the paper out of the machine, ball it up as small as they possibly can, and toss it into an overflowing waste paper basket. Each time they spit forth a tirade of foul-mouthed self abuse as the rejected sheet descends to join the pile of other useless rubbish in the bin – all there is to show for the three or four hours that they have actually been sitting there.

That’s how I write.

All I can say is that I’m thankful for laptops and word processors, especially for the ability they afford me to repeatedly cut out huge portions of my writing and start over, without single-handedly destroying the Amazon. To put it mildly I’m a ‘drafter’ – the writing process for me, as I’m sure it does for many others, involves copious amounts of cutting, pasting, deleting and re-writing – and occasional swearing (out loud, not on the paper). But usually I get there, I end up with something that I think gets across the point that I am trying to make.

What has made that process so much more difficult this afternoon is that, as I’ve just realised, I actually have no idea what the point is that I’m trying to make; or rather what my stance is on the issue that I’m trying to discuss.

I’ve been trying to write about my views on the public reaction to the Charlie Hebdo killings that tragically occurred 11 days ago. Everything surrounding this tragedy is terrifying and I’ve been thinking about it a lot.

Of course this is always going to be a difficult subject to write about. It is a story of inconceivable tragedy that tugs at the heartstrings, not just the political sensitivities, of many nations. It has come at a time when (speaking for a moment of the UK in particular, as this is all that I have personal experience of) many people are becoming increasingly disillusioned with the system of government. I have personally heard people who would never before have dreamt of abstaining from voting in a general election, considering doing just that. Not because they can’t be bothered but because they simply no longer buy that there is any difference between the parties on offer. Many of the people who are considering ‘waiving’ their right to vote don’t see it as that at all, they see it as exercising their right not to do so. In a nutshell (admittedly one inside which the emotional topography of an entire nation is hugely over-simplified and generalised) the population is angry. The “this country is going to the dogs” sentiment abounds and although that idea seems always to have held appeal for the older generations who fondly remember a “better time” that in reality may not have been any better at all; now the younger generations are starting to agree. But how do you fight against an establishment which is so.. well.. established?

In the midst of all this uncertainty is escalating religious tension, and one thing that I am almost sure about (I say almost because I’m less qualified as a politics expert than I am as a zookeeper) is that the aforementioned political parties don’t really mind that tension, not one bit. After all it is not only distracting us from how utterly uninterested they are in the wellbeing and quality of life of anyone below them in the class and power foodchain, but is an ideal basis of useless rhetoric and empty promises with which the various parties can divide the population into comfortable voting categories – then pretend they care who we vote for as they all enjoy remaining in power together, the bestest of buddies living the high life behind closed doors. The escalation of religious tension between Muslims and – it would seem – everyone else, has provided the opportunity for UKIP and Nigel Farage to rise up from the masses (this description requires us to forget for a moment that Farage has basically the same background as the rest of the major players – give or take a few years of make-me-rich banking) and try to convince us that they are the ‘revolution’ that this country so sorely needs. They’re reminiscent of a manufactured pop band and I suspect they’ve been designed by the people in charge to make us think that we do not need to question what’s really going on, we just need to rebel by voting for UKIP in May and everything will change; we’ll all have more money, there will be 0 unemployment for the white man and they’ll find the cure for all cancers, in early June. If UKIP do get into power I imagine it will turn out to be more like the time when Rage Against the Machine stole the christmas number 1 from the X-factor – only if we had found out soon after that the band were in fact managed by Simon Cowell all along, and they’d immediately started covering Leona Lewis songs.

But that’s a subject I could write about all day. What I find so much harder to do is form a solid opinion on the human issues surrounding the tragedy of 12 people murdered in their office as they went about their day and how this can come to happen, in the midst of so much more hatred than I ever want my future children to be surrounded by.

Like everyone else, I’ve read a lot of opinion pieces about this tragedy over the last 11 days but I’ve honestly found myself more confused after reading each one.

In trying to form an opinion I have considered writer Mehdi Hasan’s assertion that Charlie Hebdo has never published cartoons about the holocaust or 9/11 as this would be offensive; and that this destroys the idea that they believe in freedom of speech without limits?

But hang on a minute, while Charlie Hebdo have indeed never published either of the above (thankfully!) but to the best of my knowledge, nor have they ever published jokes about thousands, or millions, of Muslim men, women and children being massacred. Surely their Muhammad cartoons are all about denying extremism that’s based on the belief that people deserve to die for refusing to follow a prophet? Surely that’s their reasoning for ridiculing Muhammad? Not racism, not hatred of Muslims?

But then there is a lot of discussion around whether it as seen as acceptable for other religions, in particular Judaism, to be mocked in the same fashion as we are expecting the followers of Islam to accept. This seems to centre mainly around the reported sacking of Maurice Sinet in 2009 for allegations that he made anti-semitic remarks in his work.

In my view, all religions should be allowed to be mocked and need to be mocked, if we are to ever come to understand that they are flawed human creations, not divine catch-alls for whatever monstrous behaviour we as flawed human beings want to get away with at any one time (which they have served as across all religions for centuries). But of course that has to apply to all of them.

A question that I have seen asked by many, after first being posed by Professor Brian Klug, which has caused a lot of debate, is mentioned in the Mehdi Hasan article and which did really make me think, was this: would someone joining the unity rally held in Paris in reaction to the shootings, holding a placard showing that they support the gunmen and their ’cause’, have made it out of that situation unharmed? I don’t think I can answer that question confidently. So does this prove the hypocrisy of the idea of free speech without consequences?

Then I read another article just today, that has been written in response to the first one, and this too made a lot of sense. In it, among many other good points, the writer argued that none of those defending Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons “have or would advocate (government-sanctioned) suppression of Holocaust jokes, however repulsive they might find them,” because they believe in free speech.

But wait, the question posed is not about Government-sanctioned judgement. This still leaves the question of whether all of those attending that rally really would have been able to allow the man with that placard his right to free speech without violent consequence, given how deeply offended they would have been by what he was saying?

Indeed, many of the sickeningly racist comments that I read attached to a video (LINK) of a radical Muslim being attacked by two British men for preaching on an British high street, certainly did not reflect the opinion that voicing their views (no matter what they are) should not put a person in danger.

As I write this I realise that of course, trying to work out what would have happened in Brian Klug’s scenario is all conjecture and nobody can really say what would have happened in that situation. I suppose the point I’m making is just that I am confused about what I think here.

So all I can do is go back to the things that are easy and are facts in my mind – because sometimes it helps to take things back to basics for a minute and look at what we really believe:
1. What happened to those journalists is not OK. It can never, in any way, be justified.
2. Mass persecution of people of any (or no) faith, can also never, in any way, be justified.
3. For as long as we keep allowing our governments and press to guide our opinions of each other, we’re screwed.

That’s it as far as things that I am sure of on this subject goes, that’s all I’ve got and I’m aware that it isn’t very useful at all. In fact it’s probably nothing more than common sense, but the problem is that amidst the bombardment of information that we all receive on a daily, hourly, minute-by-minute basis, maybe our view of common sense has gotten a little lost in the white noise?

An elderly gentleman on my bus the other day, who smelled quite bad and talked loudly to himself for the whole journey – soliciting more than eye-rolls and sniggering then I would have hoped to see in 2015 – at one point said something that I think maybe we all need to stop and remember. He said “we’re not all the same though are we, whether you’re a man or a woman or whatever, we’re all different from each other, every one of us.”