Living Life Live

Continuing on my recent theme of what it means to live mindfully in the moment, I’d like to share with you a few of my thoughts about what it is like to live life live.

Today, while in the car listening to music (my wife was driving) I decided to take a moment to practice mindfulness. I hadn’t had time to sit before leaving the house so I wanted to make sure I was at least a little centred. I closed my eyes and listened to the music with a singular aim: to experience it.

I’ve come to think of the mind as working in three ways:

– Anticipation
– Experience
– Reflection

It seems to me that we can always think about the mind as doing a mixture of these things. We’re anticipating what’s coming, experiencing it happening, or reflecting on what has happened. Most of the time we’re doing all three of these things at once. What I wanted to do was allow the act of experiencing to become my singular activity.

So, as stated, I closed my eyes and listened. I was familiar with the songs playing so I probably began first to anticipate, the upcoming chord progression, the bit I really like in the middle, a particularly clever lyric. I accepted that this was what I was doing and brought my mind back to the music as an experience.

I focused on deepening my experience, being curious about the layers of sound, the harmonies and different instruments. I began to spend more time in experiencing the music.

But, of course, then I began to reflect on what I was doing! Perfectly normal. I accepted that this was what my mind was doing, I smiled to myself and gently nudged my mind back towards the experience. Again, seeking to deepen my clarity by probing the sounds with my mind.

Then a funny thing happened. After a few minutes of doing this I felt something click. For a moment I was entirely in the flow, hearing the music without any brain chatter at all. It was a euphoric feeling. A feeling of being centred, entirely in the moment.

It didn’t last long. After what felt like a second or two I was once again reflecting. But, unfazed, I simply let this pass and moved back to that place. And there it was again, a euphoric sense of stillness and awareness. It seemed that once I had found it I was more able to find it again. More able to settle back into that place of awareness and calm.

This experience stayed with me through the day. I was reminded that mindfulness, presence, experiencing rather than anticipating, reflecting and thinking, was something that could be powerfully applied to so much of life. If listening to some music in a state of mindful presence could be a euphoric experience, what about eating, watching movies, talking with friends? How much of those experiences are we missing out on by simply not being present enough?

Just as distraction is conflict and waiting is a waste of good quality being time, failing to fully experience life is throwing away a wonderful gift. It takes practice and effort to cultivate presence and mindfulness. But, in my experience, it’s worth it.

## What to do

Mediation is Hard Not Complicated. Start off by simply sitting and following your breathing for a few minutes. Feeling the breath, noticing the body rise and fall. You can do that right now. Then, if you’re interested to learn more, there are many excellent guided meditations available online. Personally I love Headspace. Also worth looking at The Mindful Geek if you’re interested in diving more deeply into then science.


About Free Range Work Space

> “We demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty!”
– Vroomfondel
– Douglas Adams writing in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy

Vroomfondel and Majikthise would, I think, be conflicted about what I am about to write. As philosophers or “working thinkers” they were understandably horrified that the supercomputer Deep Thought might deduce the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything. In this I agree with them wholeheartedly, the point of those big questions is to constantly ask them, not actually to know the answer.

Why? Well it’s obvious. Complex, personal questions don’t have simple, universal answers. Facts are simple and universal. Truth isn’t.

Where I disagree with them, however, is on their insistence that the search for the “eternal verities” and the “Quest for Ultimate Truth” should be the exclusive job of working thinkers, or any other kind of specialist. In fact, I think the exact opposite.

Expertise and experience, as wonderful as they are, can also be burdensome. The Curse of Knowledge is a cognitive bias that leads experts to struggle to see things from the point of view of those who are less expert than they. A clear problem for anyone working as an expert dealing with non experts. Then we have then Illusion of Truth bias, linked the the concept of salience, in which people are more likely to believe something is true if they have heard it before. This one is more subtle since we may not notice as experts how we favour what we have previously seen and discount the unexpected. Similar to this is Attention Blindness, if we know what we are looking for we literally can’t see what we don’t expect. A problem that can only affect those with expertise and experience.

At the other end of this spectrum we have what Buddhist call Beginner Mind. Some characterise this as trying to forget what you already know. This is silly. It’s impossible to forget what you already know intentionally and mindfulness rests not on conflict but on openness. In reality, Beginner Mind is not about forgetting what you know and pretending to be ignorant, it’s about openness to what you don’t know, deepening awareness of the uncertain and allowing new insights to arise.

Think if the mind as being able to anticipate, experience, and reflect but, with limited, shared resources. The more brain juice we splurge on anticipation and reflection the less we have available to experience. The Beginner Mind has nothing to anticipate, nothing to reflect on. The Beginner Mind is entirely available to experience.

The long and short of this? Expertise can get in the way of discovering new truths while a Beginner Mindset could be the path to deeper insight.

This is why I agree that we do need rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty. Without them we could never learn anything! But I don’t agree that we should or even could leave this up to experts to sort out. They know too much!

If you’re a knowledge worker then you are, in that sense, an expert. You’re probably also a client of knowledge workers. The question now, is, what to do about this apparent problem?

That, my friends, is what Free Range Work Space is all about.

I am such a tease. 

Find out more at Clerkenwell Design Week where I, Steve Brewer and Adam Burtt-Jones of Burtt-Jones and Brewer will fill your brains with existential doubt. 

What Is Distraction?

Mindfulness asks us to be present in the moment. Awareness, clarity and acceptance are the cornerstones. But a question I rarely see addressed is a fairly simple one: what is distraction?

Perhaps this is often an unasked question because it at first seems obvious. But look more deeply and the distinction between distraction and focus becomes less clear. For instance, we might say that a father deeply interested in his work is very focused, but from the point of view of his children, he’s distracted. Not present for them, always reading his emails or pouring over some report or other.

Similarly we might say that distraction is anything that takes your attention away from what you are doing but is that really the case? If I’m watching TV and a fire breaks out in my kitchen, would I call that a distraction if it lead to me missing the second half of my show?

All of these ideas are only partially useful because they focus on trying to define distraction in terms of activities and events rather than getting to the essence of it. I claim no overall authority on this issue but I find it easier to think in these terms so, for me, distraction is conflict.

If I’m writing but I feel I should be reading, if I’m relaxing but I feel I should be working, if I’m watching a TV show but part of me thinks perhaps what’s happening on Twitter might be more interesting, then I am distracted. If, on the other hand, I am of one mind, clear that what I am doing is what I wish to be doing, open to experience but not seeking or holding onto it, then I am present.

As if to illustrate my point, just this very moment, I paused and noticed the birdsong in the garden. My attention shifted from these words to the sound I was hearing. Was that a distraction? Not to my mind because I wasn’t in conflict. I chose, at that moment, to give my attention to the sounds I was hearing before choosing to bring it back to my work. Focus and clarity isn’t, therefore, about forcing out sensations, experiences, the present moment, but rather being purposeful in how we respond to those things.

The next obvious questions is how to know when you are distracted.

This one may be a little more personal. Working with the idea of distraction as conflict, I find it easiest to become aware of how distracted I am through embodied emotions. If I notice tension is my shoulders, a knot in my stomach, restlessness in my fingers which want to fiddle with things or hands that won’t sit still, I can usually say with some certainty that I am distracted.

It follows that to bring about presence of mind I have to manage these conflicts. I can’t just push them away, I must deal with them and deal with the elements of my mind that want me to look elsewhere. Maybe they are right! Maybe this conflict is a sign that there is something more pressing that demands my attention. Or maybe it’s simply anxiety, my mind needing reassurance that I will deal with whatever it is I’m presently not thinking about.

Distraction is conflict. Conflict manifests as unease and restlessness and is overcome through negotiation, not force. Being present, being mindful, isn’t an act of forcefully removing distractions. Accept that other things call for you, understand them, deal with them in the appropriate way, and then return. A distraction is only a distraction if you make it so.

Why Wait?

The phrase “I hate waiting” is one we’ve all heard and many of us have muttered. Waiting sucks. It’s pointless. Boring. Waiting is frustration and tension. A waste of time. So why do it?

I’m not advocating that we all demand everything we want this very moment. What I’m advocating is that we make this very moment the focus of our attention, rather than a moment coming in some indeterminate time.

Recently, on a day trip with some of my family, I had to stay behind and wait for my wife who had taken my nephew to the bathroom. As I stood there in the hallway, not knowing quiet how long the little man would take, I realised that I didn’t have to wait. I just had to be there. They would come out eventually. So, instead of waiting, I just stood and was there. I didn’t fiddle with my phone, hoping for a pleasant distraction, I didn’t feel any sense of urgency. I just stood and listened to the sound of the people in the nearby cafe, enjoyed the sunlight coming in through the nearby window, noticed how I felt physically and watched the thoughts in my mind come and go.

This didn’t feel like waiting. This was being.

Over the rest of the day I found myself thinking about what it means to wait as opposed to what it means to be. Waiting, it seems, is predicated on an assumption of incompleteness. Something is going to happen and until it happens I have an open loop, something that needs to be finished off. And while this may be true there’s no reason that this should be an active process. I may have to allow the kettle to boil to make tea but that doesn’t mean that during that time my main focus must be waiting. Waiting, perhaps, should become a background process?

Whatever the endpoint of all this thinking, the insight is the same, if waiting is a future focused activity based on incompleteness, it follows that we can replace it with a present focused activity based on completeness in the moment.

The future will come whether I spend my present thinking about it or not. But the present will be gone by the time that happens. So it’s only logical to spend the mental energy I have to apply my awareness and focus on the present. It’s really all I have.

Healthy Creative Relationships Through Play

Creativity is a really serious thing. I mean proper serious. As I often say, it’s a survival skill. But evolution is a genius (if by genius we mean entirely lacking in any form of intelligence and working through random mutations within a weighted system that favours mutations which infer a survival and/or breeding advantage on the biological entity in question that is) which is why so many things that are vital for our survival are also fun!

Consider some of our favourite childhood games.

– Hide and Seek

It doesn’t take much imagination to see how the capacity to hide would be a boon to survival. The ability to seek things, be those things our friends, food or potential threats, is similarly useful if passing on your genes is something you’re into.

– Tag

Hiding and seeking here too, with the added layer of acting either as lone hunter or prey within a flock. Why is there such a thrill in evading the one who is “it” in a game of tag? It’s essentially training for evading predators!

– Bulldog

Now, instead of being a lone hunter you get the chance to be part of a pack, hunting down your dwindling prey. What better game to practice collaborative hunting skills?

Fast forward to adulthood and we find creativity boosting habits all over the games we play. And, that is to be expected. We are hard wired to enjoy play that simulates survival skills. Creativity is a survival skill, ergo play that simulates it is fun! QED. Case closed. Hast al vista baby… Etc.

But in this way not all games are created equal, so I’ve compiled a quick list of some of the creativity boosting games I’ve come across to help you choose the best ones and pointed out, to a degree, where they relate to different elements of creativity.

– Taboo

Taboo is a game that calls on players to describe a thing without using the sorts of common words that one would normally use. The aim is to get your partner to say the thing on the card without using those band words.

This is a great way to practice oblique, lateral thinking. Anything that provides you with clear constraints and then requires you to find a different path to your conclusion is exercising your lateral thinking muscles. And since this game is fun and light hearted, it lets you do this without feeling under pressure.

Similar: charades, Pictionary.

– Linkee

This game works through both general knowledge and abstract thinking, neatly exercising both recall and creativity. You’re asked a four questions the answers to which all connect or “link” in some way. You can attempt to make the connection even if you only have two or three of the answers. Sometimes the connections are by type (all types of car, for example) but frequently there are more oblique connections based on homophones or synonyms.

We sometimes use a technique in creativity where we try to force connections between seemingly unrelated things. Linkee similarly works our connection finding muscles. The game also rewards both broad knowledge and deep thinking since you need to not only know an answer but have thought enough about the answer to find different ways to use it in combination with other answers.

– Scrabble

Yeah, this is something you probably didn’t expect to see on this list but let me tell you why Scrabble is a creativity boosting brain builder: functional fixedness.

I talk about this a lot. It’s the mental phenomenon whereby once you see something as one thing, it’s hard to see it as something else. If I hand you a glass with water in it your brain places the label “water holder” on it. This is what it is. If, from that moment, you can’t see it as a thing to shake dice in, a way to listen through walls, a trap for spiders or any of the other uses you could put it to, then you’re stuck in functional fixedness land. Learning to overcome this self imposed mental limitation allows you to see a tree as something both for growing apples on and for climbing, a stick as something for walking and for play acting a sword fight or a paper clip as both a convenient way to keep paperwork tidy and part of a home made jewellery kit.

What does this have to do with Scrabble? To be great at Scrabble you need to see every combination possible. You need to see all the letters in your hand as well as all the combinations on the board as parts in an ever changing and endlessly complex jigsaw. This requires you to hold lots of competing possibilities in your mind while remaining open to seeing new ones and not fixating, making some letters or some combinations stuck in their current configurations, unable to be used as new opportunities arise.

These are just a handful of examples where popular games hold specific value for the creative brain. Over time I’ll add to this list which will be compiled in the “Resources” section of my website.

Out of Control

I’ve been addicted, for longer than I can recall, to a dangerous and life threatening activity. This post is about how I’m giving it up.

I’m going cold turkey on self control.

I’ve often had a very unhealthy relationship with… myself. That is to say, I’ve seen myself as being at war with myself, letting myself down, beating myself up, trying to make myself be something I’m not. I would force myself to do things I didn’t want to do or, as it may well be, I didn’t want to do things because I was forcing myself to do them.

Agency is a big deal. Humans love to have freedom of choice. We hate to be controlled. Yet time and again we remove agency from others, undermine the personal freedom of those around us. At work we plaster things with the word “mandatory” when a simply please would do. We offer bribes to our children instead of allowing them to choose the right thing. And, worst of all, we do it to ourselves.

I have lots of rules for myself. Lots of shoulds and musts. Lots of alwayses and absolutelys. These have been collected over many years. What does that mean? It seems to suggest that I don’t trust myself. I feel that I need to be bound up with rules or else I’ll make bad choices. But what if I’m wrong. What if I’m taking away my own freedom, my own autonomy, and thus deadening my passions? And is it really working anyway? Honestly… not really.

I haven’t learned to play the piano or taken French lessons. I don’t go running every day. I’m not the perfect person that I would be if I followed all my rules. And, in fact, this failure to be the person I want to force myself to be makes me unhappy, stressed and resentful. This addiction to self control, to rules and the use of force against myself, is not only ineffective but genuinely harmful.

So I have decided to call a ceasefire in this war against myself and, instead, enter into a more constructive relationship. From now on, instead of force, I intend to use diplomacy.

At the weekend, for instance, I sat down with my wife and we discussed the difference between the lives we want to lead and the lives we tend to lead. I’ll post more on this later this week, but the difference is stark. And by laying out clearly what we actually would choose, if we were choosing properly, we were able to make some changes. In the past we have tried to change things by banning ourselves from, for instance, watching too much TV. Force! Now, instead, we have had a proper conversation with ourselves, as it were. I’ve asked myself what I want, offered myself options, made positive choices.

And the most powerful single choice I’ve made is this: I no longer work between 11am and 2pm. Yes, I now take a three hour break in the middle of the day. This one may be a bit strange so I’ll explain.

Ever since I started to work for myself I have had to deal with my distractions during the day without anyone else looking over my shoulder. Instead I became that person. I became my own spy, my own judge. Far from being removed from overbearing bosses, I became the worst boss of all. But what exactly was I fighting against and why did I so often lose?

As it turns out, between 11 and 2 I’m not particularly energetic. During that time I’m more likely to be distracted. Conversely I’m super focused first thing in the morning and later in the afternoon and early evening. So instead of using force, instead of fighting with myself, I have negotiated a solution. There’s a part of me that wants to read a book, go for a walk, play a computer game or whatever else. That part of me gets in the way if I don’t give him what he wants. And those needs and desires are not unreasonable! So rather than fight them, see them as personal failing, I’ve given the part of me that wants that three hours in the middle of the day to do whatever he wants to do.

The amazing thing is that as soon as I did that I felt more focused on my work. Right now I sit happily writing and working and the part of me that wants to listen to that podcast while playing Crash Lands on the iPad is content and quiet. He knows his time is coming.

By giving up self control and replacing it with internal cooperation, I’ve released a great deal of stress, removed barriers to my focus and relieved myself of the full time job of self judgement and condemnation. I am finally free of me. It’s wonderful.

The Dirty Old Mirror

Over the next week or so I’ll begin sharing a range of Field Guides that I’ve written, designed for use by individuals and, hopefully, consumable without the need of any additional support, that will guide you through the process of using the Hard Not Complicated approach to creativity in your personal and professional life.

During the process of writing these Field Guides I noticed a tension building in me. There was something I was trying to achieve that I didn’t feel I was reaching. Something unspoken. While meditating yesterday I had a realisation, suddenly I could see what was at the heart of my concerns. I had allowed an assumption to creep in. A belief of sorts. And the statement was this:

“These writings should constitute a complete, one pass solution, from start to finish.”

I had never consciously chosen this goal nor examined this belief. It crept up on me. This goal, this belief, was unachievable. Certainly for me! I concede that there may be a writer out there able to produce a work of such subtle complexity that simply by reading it from start to finish the consumer would come to a complete, life changing and irreversible realisation of absolute truth. Alas I am not that writer.

And besides, my entire approach to change is built on the antithesis of this idea. Change isn’t a one pass activity. Real change happens when we choose, repeatedly, to focus on and work on something.

Armed with this insight I was able to let go of this overwhelming and unreasonable pressure. I felt a lightness and clarity which, on further contemplation, I developed into a visualisation that I’d like to share with you.

Imagine that you’ve just take up residence in a beautiful old country house with wide, open grounds around it, left to you by some wealthy distant relative. On your second day you decide to pause the unpacking and explore some of your new home. In an old outhouse you find some bits and pieces, some old chairs, some pieces of art. And under a pile of dusty, dirty rags, a beautiful old mirror in a brass frame.

You bring the mirror indoors and set it on the kitchen table. It’s covered in layers of grime and dust, you’re probably the first to see it in years. You grab a jiffy cloth and a glass cleaning spray and begin to clean.

At first all the happens is you smear the dirt this way and that. But you don’t give up. Gently you wipe the glass. Time after time, wiping away the layers of dirt. Sometimes you come across a particularly stubborn patch, giving it some extra attention until the crud breaks down and wipes away.

Again, and again you wipe the surface and gradually the shinning mirror finish begins to show through. You see your nose, distorted at first through a smudge, and then clear. Then your eyes and your eyebrows. A few more wipes and you can see your mouth, then your chin. Finally your entire image is clear, beaming back at you from the pristine surface.

This process, cleaning a dirty old mirror, is very much like the process of real change. If you’d taken a chisel to the mirror and tried to crack through the layers of dirt, all the way through to the glass in one go, well that wouldn’t end well.

Real change happens when we focus on a gradual process of learning. Sometimes it won’t feel as if anything is changing. Sometimes parts of the process will happen more slowly than others. Some parts will require more focused attention while other parts will come easily. But all you need to do is keep working away, steadily and with purpose.

When you come to work through the Daily Practice Field Guide for the first time it might be tempting to try to take a chisel and get to the very bottom of it in one go. The pervasive ideal of one shot redemption, the grand, world changing realisation or life altering moment of clarity, makes us yearn for those moments. I don’t know if they exist, and if they do they’re rare and unreliable. Far better to place your faith not in miracles but in your own strength and perseverance.

Begin by finding one authentic insight and follow it with curiosity and and open mind. Then, when you’re ready, come back and repeat the process. As time goes by, with each pass, you’ll see more of yourself, reveal more and understand more. Change is a process. Like cleaning a dirty mirror, every pass, however gentle, brings you closer to seeing the complete picture.

Pinky and the Brain… Wait, No, Exercise. Exercise and the Brain

For anyone who wants some reading to do after my recent podcast with personal trainer and extraordinary geek Chris Warden. [](

This is well worth a look:

### This Is Your Brain on Exercise: Vigorous Exercise Boosts Critical Neurotransmitters, May Help Restore Mental Health — ScienceDaily