On Revisiting Objectives
Back in December I published my Depth Year 2019 post, which set out my goals and hopes for the year. We’re now a whole third of the way through. In February I had managed to follow some rules and achieve some goals, but not others. This post was going to follow the same format as the one for January and February, but it turned out to be really boring. And having spent many hours on a treadmill at the gym staring at myself in the mirror, I know ‘boring’. So, I scrapped that, and decided to go on a slightly confused ramble about motivation, mindset, and future plans. And running. If that hasn’t put you off, then read on. Unless Brechin burns to the ground it’s not like these diaries are going to be studied much in the future anyway, so I’m just going to treat them as a brain dump.
As with the first two months of the year, I’ve stuck to some rules but failed partially or completely with others. This has led me to consider how realistic or otherwise some of the goals were, and whether they were the right goals to set myself. My uncle had remarked, upon reading both Michael and I’s original posts, that his seemed to be about limiting mindless consumption, whereas mine were about productivity. I have done fairly well on that score at least, but I’ve not done anywhere near as well in terms of productivity. Reflecting on it I think I may have set myself an unattainable goal. Or if it’s not unattainable, it might not be healthy.
I know that nobody ever has enough hours in the day, but I’d like to think I’m a reasonably productive individual. In addition to a 4-day-a-week-that-really-takes-full-time-hours-during-term-time job, I also do a manageable but regular amount of contract work, am the CFO of Imaginary Realities (the parent company of Meeple Like Us, and a subsidiary of Sheinhardt Wigs) and regular board game tester and occasional blogger for the site. Additionally, I treat running like a 3rd part-time job, and playing new board games as a 4th. On top of this I manage to write ridiculously long blog posts about running on a fairly regular basis. Oh, and I’m also a landlady- which isn’t quite a set-and-forget type of investment.
All of the above is in addition to all the mindless chores that are required to keep Michael and I alive and relatively healthy rather than living in squalor and eating whatever dying wildlife stumbles unexpectedly into the garden. Yes, I’m probably not as efficient as I could be at food prep, washing dishes and doing laundry. Those chores still need done unless we’re going to go back to living like the university students whose flatmates despaired at our disregard for cleaning the bathroom. Students whose idea of culinary sophistication was super noodles and deep-fried pizza. Actually, Michael would happily still survive largely on cheddar cheese, pasta, Pepsi Max and cornflakes. I need my diet to not be completely antagonistic to my athletic performance goals.
Maybe this all sounds like a massive excuse for reassessing my goals. But as I tell students, goals should be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-based), and not all of mine met the AR part of that acronym. As of the time of writing Michael has not yet won the Euro-Millions, and this means that I don’t have the kind of bank balance that lets me control how I spend large chunks of my time. It’s something most adults have to deal with, and I’m lucky in that I have fewer responsibilities and demands on my time than many others. I genuinely think chores are just tedious things that need to be done, and I just need to change my perspective on how I view them. If you need to spend time doing something there is no point in resenting it: I get a lot of podcasts listened to when I’m doing chores, and sometimes I just do them in silence and consider it a form of meditation.
I’m a very driven individual, and expect too much of myself sometimes. I’ve even kept spreadsheets for the past 2 or 3 summer vacations which detail (in brief, broad terms) how I spent my time each morning, afternoon and evening of the long vacation. That lets me can look back and see that I did something productive every day. And will also be an illuminating piece of evidence for psychiatrists when I eventually snap. Pretty much everyone in whom I’ve confided this information has found it baffling. It makes me feel happier that I have something to point to that shows I haven’t *wasted* my vacation – although I’m sloppier about defining what ‘waste’ means.
You can’t spend all day every day being intensely focused and productive though. We’re just not wired for that. As Laura Vanderkam says, when we don’t take real breaks, our mind makes us take fake ones. That’s when you open up Facebook and all of a sudden 40 minutes have passed and you have no idea what happened to that precious time. It’s much better to plan intentional breaks and have something rejuvenating to do during them. Maybe doing the stretches you’re supposed to do on a daily basis but only get around to occasionally, or going for a short walk. I go for a walk almost every lunchtime at work and it really clears my head. Maybe just reading just a couple of pages of a book you’re reading for fun rather than work. The time at which you schedule tasks is also important. Dan Pink has a new book out: When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. In this book he discusses the importance of identifying whether you are an early bird, an owl, or somewhere in between. If you can identify the times you are most alert and focused, you should plan your deeper work for those periods. (According to Cal Newport, deep work is work that requires the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task). You then schedule the routine tasks for the times when your brain is in more of a slump. For most of us, that means spending a chunk of the morning doing deep work, the mid-afternoon slump doing routine tasks such as not replying to emails, and the early evening doing another chunk of deep work. This is of course all dependent on where you work and how much flexibility you have over your schedule. It can be applied to non-working days too. I definitely do my best work mid-morning and fairly late in the evening (if I’m not too tired), and it boosts my mood for the rest of the day if I manage to get something worthwhile done in the morning. Unfortunately, Michael and I are diametrically opposed as far as biorhythms goes. He is definitely a night owl, right down to hunting mice in the dark of some unholy Scottish night, so work on our mutual project is going to be challenging at times.
I’m coming to the conclusion that the most important thing about a Depth Year is to spend your resources (time, money, willpower, focus, attention) intentionally. I’m definitely a planner, and I think it helps me achieve more, and spend my downtime in a more effective way. This has been boosted of late by blocking Strava notifications. I also had to block Facebook, Messenger and Twitter again as it seems they revert to the default settings whenever there is an update. Blocking the notifications was great as it means I don’t get almost constant micro-interruptions as it dings 40 times in two hours after I’ve uploaded a run. I still check social media multiple times a day, but I do so consciously, not automatically in response to notifications.
On Literary Misadventures
Thanks to planning breaks and being more intentional with down-time, I’m still doing pretty well in terms of carving out time for reading. We’re only a third of the way through the year, and my completed books spreadsheet now has 15 books listed (two are partway through). These books include the hefty IT by Stephen King (which is thoroughly enjoyable, but which Michael refuses to read because he has an irrational fear of clowns, even though very little of it is about clowns…). I’ve also read The Black Swan by Nassim Taleb, which was largely a long discussion about why you can’t apply the bell curve to everything (which nobody has ever really argued) and him being very rude about various economists, journalists and politicians. I also managed a re-read of the excellent Going Postal by Terry Pratchett. I’d remembered enjoying it when I first read it around 15 years ago, but I’d forgotten a lot of the details of the book, and it was thoroughly worth revisiting.
I read an article recently that said people enjoy doing the same things again more than they think they would: it was about movies, but the same findings would likely apply to books. We listen to the same music over and over, so why not do the same with other forms of entertainment? Re-reads are also great because you pick up on things you may have missed the first time around, and can see where the author foreshadowed certain events so subtly that you missed it until 100 pages further in on the first read. Some authors are better at this than others, but Terry Pratchett is one of the best in layering jokes and in-jokes within jokes in the text and footnotes.
Everything else I’ve read over the past couple of months has been new though. I’ve still got a few unread paper books on my shelves, and dozens of unread Kindle books. In spite of this I did get lured into purchasing three books in a Kindle sale earlier this month. I justified this on the grounds that all three are non-fiction and one is by someone whose podcast I listen to but doesn’t have a Patreon. Even if I don’t read it immediately it’s a way of giving a tiny bit of support to their venture. I was also considering prepaying for the 2-books per month annual Audible subscription because I’m getting through at least two books per month and, even sharing books with Michael, I’m down to my last three audiobooks. I can’t go back to listening to the radio. I just can’t. Have you listened to these people? I don’t know how they can stand to hear themselves.
I’ve delayed the purchase though as IT and the other two books I still have to listen to are long books, and I’ll get fewer hours to listen to audiobooks over the summer when I do far less driving. I might retain the buffer until autumn.
On moving my feet quickly
With regards to running, there’s no doubt that I’m still deep-diving. Actually, that’s a bad metaphor. A deep-dive when running would only end up with my nose inserted into my brain.
I started the racing season clearly in poorer form than last year, but I think things might be starting to look up. I’m pretty sure that’s down to consistency of training and following a clear plan. I managed to retain the Footers Cup for the Smokies 10 mile race in early March, but with a much slower time than last year and by a much smaller margin. There were mitigating factors – I was getting over an illness and we were running into 40 – 50 mph winds. That’s still not an excuse for quite how much slower I was but if I had lost I certainly would have found a way to make it so.
I was also 92 seconds slower at the Tay Ten this year compared to 2018. I managed to get some more focus on speed work and interval sessions in late March and April though, and I had a bit of a breakthrough at the Stirling Half Marathon. My Half PB was a rather soft 1:40:07, but that had a good chunk taken out of it at Stirling. My PB now stands at 1:37:24. That included a 10-mile time within the half marathon that was nearly 1 minute faster than my Tay Ten 10 mile race time. It helped that I ran with a friend for the first ten miles (she finished over a minute ahead of me in the end as I still don’t know how to pace this distance well). With that goal smashed only 4 months into the year, I’m hoping to shave a bit more off that time. Charlotte, with whom I was running, said I should be trying to get to 1:35 and aiming for a 3:20 marathon in October. 1:35 is a 7:12 per mile pace though, and most weeks I struggle to maintain that at parkrun. That’s only 5km.
I seem to get faster the further I run though, so maybe I just need to do a long warm up before the start of parkrun and I’ll get back to faster times. The problem with the marathon is that you can only run one or two a year and a lot about how well you perform comes down to not getting injured and how you feel on the day. It’s a worthy goal though and I’ll get an idea from my training as to how realistic that may or may not be. I’m looking forward to starting marathon training on 10th June.
As I may have mentioned, I like structure. It’s not looking good for shorter distances – I still haven’t managed to get close to sub 22 at parkrun, and this time last year I was aiming for sub 21 (21:15 is my best 5k time on Strava, from May 2018). I haven’t got time though to train specifically for my upcoming 5k and 10k races as that would be a diversion from the training needed for the summer half marathons and autumn marathon. I’ve accepted the need to focus, and realised that I can’t be good at every distance.
This actually connects with what I said above with regards to motivation and meaning.
I’ve been thinking a bit about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, and I suspect this has an impact on how well I follow rules or not. I run because I love it, and will happily put in the miles and sessions required to do reasonably well for a middle-aged woman who doesn’t have the luxury of no other demands on her time. There are extrinsic rewards – not monetary. I’ve won £40 of retail vouchers in the past year, several bottles of wine, and some sports gels. That was fantastic, but doesn’t cover even the cost of one pair of trainers. I’ve also managed to claim Club trophies (I won a couple last year and one this year), Good For Age places in marathon majors, and even just increased kudos on Strava. When I first decided to take running seriously I was largely focused on improving performance. I’ve come to realise there are so many other reasons to run, like trying to catch a bus, and escaping the clutches of zombies. The benefits of running with friends and clubmates might outweigh the slight lactate threshold improvements of a tough interval training session for which nobody wants to join you. I still care about the extrinsic motivators, but they’re nowhere near as important as the intrinsic ones. As such I’ve no intentions of quitting the sport if I have a bad season performance-wise.
I’ve just finished reading Quiet by Susan Cain, and she quoted a research study that said happiness comes from mastery. And you’ve probably heard of the 10,000 hours of deliberate practice required to achieve mastery of a particular skill. Taking a depth year to focus largely on one or two hobbies can really improve your talents in that area. That is once you’ve shed most of the distractions and time-sinks that took away from the time you could spend improving at running, or painting, or writing, or whatever that skill might be. This is all great, but I have very little intrinsic motivation when it comes to household chores. I mean, who does? It takes more willpower to get around to doing them. I’m sure there’s a way to seek more fulfilment from them, but I haven’t found that particular nirvana yet.
Despite it being a really busy time of the academic year, and the start of racing season, I did manage to spend a reasonable amount of time with Michael over the past couple of months. I abandoned him the first Sunday in March for Smokies 10, and the first Sunday in April for the Tay Ten. He knows if I have a race he won’t see me all day. That is except for the bit where I tell him how I got on and he tells me to get out the house because I’m such a loser. He keeps asking why I keep running when I never win any of the races and my times are getting slower. He seems to find it funny to act like he’s expecting me to come first in every race. ‘Do you know what second place is?’, he will say. ‘It’s the first loser’.
This is a man who I don’t think has won a single thing in his life except for a few games of Scrabble. He just doesn’t understand the competitive mindset.
I also immediately write my race report whilst I still have some vague memory of what happened. That means that he’s always a distance second place in my priorities after I come home.
He did look after me well when I was ill though, and we managed to spend a fair bit of time together over Easter break. He doesn’t get the holiday but I scheduled my work and training during the day as much as possible so we could spend evenings and weekends together. We’ve managed to play enough new games to bolster his diminishing buffer of board game reviews and teardowns, though the main new (to us) game that I liked was onefor which he might not write a review. It’s a Discworld game that is out of print and will never be re-released. He’s always a little uneasy about writing reviews of games nobody can get because why bother taunting people with unavailable products?
We also had friends round for a board game evening. We played a mixture of old and new games (the new one was terrible). There’s also a board game club that has started up in a neighbouring village which one of my running buddies attends, and we’ve been along to that a couple of times. It’s great, but the timeslot clashes with a Footers run. It also makes it a long day for Michael coming from working in Aberdeen. We won’t be able to get to it all that frequently but they’re a really nice group of people and it looks like it’s growing in popularity.
We also managed a trip to the V & A in Dundee to see a videogames exhibition (which was unfortunately somewhat underwhelming) and a trip to Aberdeenshire over the Cairn o Mount. That was one of my grandfather’s favourite drives and correspondingly one of mine too. I also managed to spend a lot more time than usual with a couple of non-running friends over Easter break. During term-time they often disappear off my radar, and I don’t prioritise them enough. It’s nice to get the time to catch up.
On the meaning of life
I like to consider in these posts whether I got anywhere with regards to achieving my longer-term life goals. I did, somewhat.
I contacted our local registry office to ask how we go about planning a wedding and hiring the smallest possible room. It turns out we can get a room for 10 or fewer guests and the total cost of the wedding will be £125. That doesn’t include our outfits, rings etc., but Michael already bought me a wedding ring over 2 years ago (when we thought there may be more hurry due to Brexit), and he doesn’t want any guests. We might ask a couple of folk from Brechin to come through as witnesses if they’re free that day.
We haven’t booked a date yet as Michael hasn’t put in for his summer holidays, but once he does we just need to find our birth certificates and get utility bills sent to us – they’re all electronic at the moment – then we can book a date. That’s the romance of a wedding. Clerical documents and gas bills.
I’ve also paid off a significant chunk of debt since the last update: well, significant in the sense that I made the maximum possible partial redemptions on three loans, but insignificant in that it was less than 10% of my outstanding debt that was paid off. Did I say outstanding debt? I meant mind-boggling debt.
I do have a 7-year plan to pay off everything except our residential mortgage, but that depends on us both staying put in our current house and jobs for the next 7 years. That doesn’t seem all that likely. Although there has been a short extension for Brexit, we’re pretty sure 31st October will be the hard deadline. A No Deal is still looking pretty likely.
I’d love for there to be a deal involving staying in the customs union and single market (so retaining freedom of movement and having less detriment to the economy) but I suspect the results of the EU elections will show little appetite for that. If we want to regain our EU citizenship Michael will need to find employment at an EU27 university and spend 5 years earning back the freedom of movement we’ve unfortunately failed to take advantage of for our entire working lives so far. That may prove difficult given the current Brexodus, particularly in higher education, and due to the fact neither of us is fluent in any language other than English, but we can but try.
Michael also seems keen on the idea of selling everything and buying a boat so we can sail around the world. He decided this after someone sent him to the Sailing La Vagabonde YouTube channel. I suspect it’s probably a lot harder work, and has more disadvantages, than they show you. It’s nice to have dreams. I’ve been watching a lot of Digital Nomad YouTubers (whilst in the kitchen doing chores) and I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t want to sell everything and move to Bali, even in the event of a No Deal Brexit. Being a digital nomad is a nice idea in theory, but in the end you’ll work twice as hard for half the income we have here. Plus you have to move around every 90 days or so with no permanent base, so it’s likely to get exhausting – both physically and psychologically – pretty quickly. In theory we could move to Novi Sad now and live off our contract income and my rental income, but we’d prefer to be in a position whereby we would have a decent enough income that we weren’t confined to countries with a low cost of living, and would have the option of returning to Scotland or any other nation we felt like living in if we wanted to. So either we will stay where we are, or emigrate with at least one full-time, permanent career post to go to. Either that or the Wildlings will simply sweep in and take us in the night after the Brexit apocalypse.
I don’t think then I’ve managed to stick to my rules very rigidly. I’m not sure if that’s the point now that I have a better grasp of what I want from my depth year. I am trying to be more intentional about how I spend my time, and I’ve also realised that I have to just make my peace with the fact that I can’t be productive all the time. That rest and time for reflection are really important. Paula Pant on the Afford Anything podcast was talking about how people spend less time alone with themselves than ever before. You can be alone in a crowd, if you’re not speaking to anyone there, and you can be not alone even on the summit of a hill miles from all other humans. For example if you have your phone and are checking the internet or messaging someone, or even just listening to music. I understand not wanting to constantly look into the abyss, but I’ve always enjoyed my own company (which is probably just as well as it’s an acquired taste and many people don’t). As Bruce Springsteen sang, “it’s a sad man my friend who’s livin’ in his own skin and can’t stand the company”.
It seems surprising to me that a lot of people don’t relish the opportunity to spend some quality time with themselves, but then I suppose that’s the difference between voluntary solitude and enforced isolation. One is restorative. The other is destructive. I never listen to music when I go out running, and though I love running with friends and club mates, I also appreciate long solo runs which give my brain time to process whatever it needs to, even if that is just “it’s less comfortable to run at 7:25 pace than it used to be”.
I’m not sure what any of this means going forward, but summer is fast approaching, and I’m optimistic that it’s going to be both an enjoyable and productive one if I can just get my goals to align with my actual motivations.