Posted in Personal life

Springing into Action

(First published in the Tetbury Advertiser’s May issue)

Dusters on a shelf with hazard sign
Who knew dusting could be this dangerous?

The unseasonably warm weather after Easter makes me buck up my ideas about housework, a topic  never front-of-mind for me. With spring sunshine streaming through smudgy windows, I can no longer pretend that it’s fairy-dust adorning the piano.

I brace myself to brandish a duster and head for the under-sink cupboard. First task: awaken the cleaning materials from hibernation. Second task: dust the can of polish. Continue reading “Springing into Action”

Posted in Personal life

Why I’ve Given Up Ironing

Photo of rag doll at toy ironing board
The only ironing that gets done in this house these days is toy ironing

(A post that will let you off the hook for housework this Easter holidays)

When you’ve written a lot of blog posts, it’s interesting to see over time which search strings drew most readers into your blog.

I was fascinated to realise recently that “how to cut down on your laundry” – about which I’ve written precisely one post – is one of my most popular search strings of all time.

You’d think by now, having been involved with websites practically since they were invented, that nothing in terms of search strings would surprise me. I certainly had to desensitize myself to cope with managing the online presence of a girls’ boarding school, where searches for “girls in uniform” were not always made by anxious mothers in search of the current kit list.

My reason for getting steamed up about laundry? I’ve just written a piece about how to “Make Time for Family Time” for the April issue of online parenting magazine Kideeko. In my book, that means jettisoning unnecessary housework in order to have fun with your family, as the muddled state of my house will testify.

I’m now wondering whether my piece will bring Kideeko equal SEO bounty in terms of web hits. Not only do I mention cutting down on laundry, but also eliminating ironing and abandoning supermarket shopping. Such recklessness – I know how to live!

So, as the school Easter holidays begin, if your first thought has been the need to catch up on the housework, read my Kideeko article now. It could be just the excuse you need to ditch the laundry and go and have fun with your kids instead. I know I will with mine, albeit in crumpled clothes. Happy Easter!

Click here to read “Make Time For Family Time” on the Kideeko online parenting magazine

And read here “How to Cut Down On Your Laundry”

Posted in Family, Personal life

Stressing The Importance of Gadgets

Stressed cat
Stroke it the right way and it’d just be a pussycat

Years ago, when I was a fresh young executive in the dog-eat-dog world of PR, it was the done thing to complain about your stress levels. Anyone in the office who didn’t was assumed to be not working hard enough.

Our boss Jim*, an ex-hack in his early 40s, was a kind man. Under pressure from the agency owners to maximise profits, he did his best to resolve our anguish, while still appearing to crack the whip. It can’t have been easy to be in sole charge of a bevy of ambitious young women, many of whom were prone to tears when losing a pitch for new business. Always the rebel, I was aghast when I overheard two women senior to me seriously discussing the merits of crying in the workplace: “It’s every professional’s  right to express their true feelings.” I suspect there were days when Jim could have cried himself.

A family man with three lovely children, Jim was married to a former beauty queen. Although she adored him, I suspect she couldn’t offer him much practical help for dealing with women in suits. She’d probably have suggested a manicure to cure our stress. Jim’s solution was to send us on a stress management course.

Managing Stress

Goodness knows how much the firm paid for that course. We were all shipped off to a posh country house hotel where our training session lasted all day. The cost of the coffee break alone must have run into treble figures. Inevitably, when we returned to the office, the training course made not the slightest bit of difference to our stress levels. All it did was salve Jim’s conscience that he was looking after us properly.

At the time, I was the only dissenter. “Cure the cause, not the symptoms!” I implored him. “Just eliminate the stress, instead of managing it.” I never did like wearing a suit.

Avoiding Stress

Now that I’m working mostly from home, stress avoidance, not stress management, is my mantra. So when a nice man from confused.com challenged me to choose a stress-reducing gadget, with the chance of winning one for myself, I jumped at the opportunity.  Jim could never have solved our problems with gadgets: they simply didn’t exist. In those days, the golfball typewriter was considered cutting-edge technology. If we wanted a gadget, we had to improvise. One of my colleagues infamously did so: she lobbed an ashtray at poor Jim in the middle of a difficult meeting. (Yes, it was that long ago: smoking in the office was still considered an acceptable way to manage your stress levels. Jim’s chosen prop was the cigar.)

My own approach to resolving stress is more constructive. I’ve pinpointed the early morning as the greatest source of stress in my day.

The Scream by Edvard Monch
Oh no, not the Today programme at dawn again!

The stress kicks off when  the radio-alarm wakes me up, ensuring that the first voices I hear every day are not those of my loved ones,  but Messrs Humphreys and Naughtie on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. Much as I admire these fine broadcasters, being woken by the news headlines is about as soothing as fingernails running down a blackboard. It’s less jarring when their gentler colleagues, Justin Webb and Evan Davies, are on duty, but even my favourite radio voice of all time, David Attenborough, could not make those news stories less than stressful.

The Antidote to Stress

Instead, what I really need to sound the alarm is an iPhone, loaded with soothing tunes, in an iPod dock on my bedside table.  Music, not news, would wake me up: so that’s one  source of stress that would bite the dust.

Another stress factor is checking the weather, so that I can put out the right school clothes for my daughter. Summer dress or winter pinafore? Light cardigan or sweatshirt? Boots or shoes? Socks or tights?  I’d therefore also download a local weather app on to my iPhone.  Then, each night before bed, I could  check the forecast and lay out the appropriate clothes, leaving one less thing to worry about in the morning.

Knowing the weather forecast, I’d be able to ensure that it wasn’t just any old soothing music that woke me up in the mornings, but music chosen to put the most positive spin on the weather. (Ah, you see, all those years in PR were not wasted.) Whatever weather we woke up to, its accompanying tune would be a pleasure to hear. For sunshine, the choice would be easy: “Here Comes The Sun” by George Harrison. In case of rain, “It’s Raining Men” by The Weathergirls would never fail to lift my mood. For exceptionally bad storms, I’d pick “Greased Lightning”, from the movie Grease. Snow would provide the perfect excuse to play “I’m Walking in the Air” from The Snowman. If the weather ever got too depressing, I might cheat and load ELO’s “Mr Blue Sky”, a song that my daughter and I had on permanent repeat in the car last summer to raise our spirits while driving through pouring rain. But you get the general picture.

Less Stress For All

The word music, annotated
Has charms to soothe the savage breast (William Congreve)

My system would be endlessly adaptable to suit all tastes in music. For those of classical bent, there’d be Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”, although to reflect the impact of global warming and its ever-weirder weather systems, you might want to play the Summer movement in Winter, and vice versa.

You could also use the system to herald landmark days and events. “Get Me To The Church On Time” from My Fair Lady would signal a wedding. My daughter would not be the only one looking forward to hearing Alice Cooper sing “School’s Out”.

I’d even use it on days when I didn’t have to get up. I’ve thought of the perfect song for a lie-in, by possibly the most melodious duo  of all time:  Simon and Garfunkel. I bet you can guess what it would be: “The Sound of Silence”.

Soothed.com? That’ll be me.

This post was written for confused.com’s New Year Revolution Competition.

*not his real name

Posted in Personal life

A Study in Tidiness

Entrance to my study
Before: enter at your peril – and yes, that IS a spinning wheel in the corner

I don’t know what it is about this time of year, but in the last week or so I’ve been hurtling about the house in a frenzy, clearing out cupboards, rationalising bookshelves, streamlining wardrobes. My home is looking as much like a showhouse as a Victorian cottage is ever likely to be.

On Wednesday, I spent about three hours sorting out my nine-year-old daughter’s bookshelves, alphabetizing the novels by author and sorting the non-fiction into classifications, as if her bedroom was a library.  (You can call me Dewey.)

Today, I’ve spent best part of the afternoon clearing up my study – no mean feat by anybody’s standards, as you can see by the “before” photos here.

My untidy desk
Before…

Though hard work at the time, it’s definitely worth the effort. I’ve long been a believer in the basic principles of Feng Shui (well, the lazy person’s version, that is – I don’t go in for all that purist business of deflecting poison arrows and hanging octagonal mirrors). It’s common sense that if you  surround yourself with order rather than chaos, you will feel calmer and more in control of your life.

I’ve also always been fond of rearranging furniture and am constantly in pursuit of the perfect layout. A little bit too fond: I recently googled it to see whether it is a clinically labelled condition. (I didn’t find one – yet.)

Messy corner of my study
Rookie mistake here: that’s a chair, not a bookshelf

I wonder whether my current urge for order stems partly from the new neighbours who are renovating the formerly derelict house adjacent to mine.  They have transformed the place. Its shiny glowing newness puts my house to shabby shame. My previous next door neighbour was a recluse with a profound antipathy to DIY. He had a broken window at the back of the house that another elderly neighbour swore had not been repaired since the Second World War. He elevated procrastination to an art form. And he set a very low bar for any aspirations we might have had to keep up with the Joneses.

Bookshelf
That’s more like it: books on shelves- oh, and in a laundry basket. Oops.

But the new neighbour’s renovations had been going on for some months before my latest round of compulsive tidying took hold. So maybe it was more a natural  reaction to Christmas and a coping mechanism for absorbing the influx of Christmas presents into an already overflowing household.

There again, the imminence of my birthday (5 days to go and counting) may be a trigger. Do I need to prove to myself that I must make a difference to my environment before I get another year older?

But there’s another annual occurrence that I suspect is the trump card: the arrival of a certain green printed letter on my doormat. No, it’s not an early birthday card from the Wizard of Oz, nor a John Lewis credit card statement. It’s a reminder from the HMRC that self-assessment tax returns are due by the end of this month.  And I really hate filling in my tax return.

This is no tidying bug – it’s tax evasion, Jim, but not as we know it.

Tidy study
Now all I need to get in order is my tax return.
Posted in Family, Personal life

My New Approach to New Year’s Resolutions

English: New Year's Resolutions postcard
Gosh, what a list to remember – no wonder the Bishop had to write it down (New Year Postcard – Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I love new beginnings. I love the opportunity they bring for replacing bad habits with good ones. I feel just as excited about the approach of New Year as I do about Christmas. Because for me, New Year’s Eve is inextricably linked with making New Year’s Resolutions.

That’s not the only time that I look forward to making resolutions. With the single-mindedness of a heat-seeking missile, I find other opportunities to contemplate reform all year round: the beginning of each school term, the summer solstice, the spring and autumn equinoxes.  My birthday on 18th January is perfectly timed to jump-start any stalled New Year’s resolutions before I’ve had time to forget what they were.

If I still find myself in need of prompts to change, I can always fall back on that old mantra beloved by the manufacturers of fridge magnets and bookmarks:

Today is the first day of the rest of your life

But there is such a thing as trying too hard. We could probably all come up with a huge list of things we’d like to change about ourselves: lose weight, get more exercise, eat better, drink less, keep the house/car/offspring cleaner/tidier,  keep on top of the gardening/ironing/housework, read more books/better books/less trash.

When Did Your New Year’s Resolution Last All Year?

One of the the reasons these things crop up every year on most people’s lists is that every year they fail. I can’t remember anyone ever telling me on New Year’s Eve that they’ve had to find a new resolution because they’ve kept the one they made last year.

So for 2013,  I’m going to make just one New Year’s Resolution. That way, I reckon I’ll have a greater chance of success. By choosing this resolution very carefully, I’ve stumbled on a great strategy. If I manage to keep this one, I reckon I’ll end up reforming in lots of other ways without even trying. What is this powerful resolution? It is TO GET MORE SLEEP.

Lately, I’ve got into the bad habit of burning the midnight oil. I lead a very busy lifestyle: I go out to work, I run my own business, I have family commitments including school and PTA volunteering, I’m the trustee of a local diabetes-related charity, I blog, I write books. Sometimes the only way I can come close to doing everything I need to do is to cut down on my sleep.

English: Margaret Thatcher, former UK PM. Fran...
“The lady’s not for sleeping.”  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Who Needs Sleep Anyway?

Unfortunately, I’m no Margaret Thatcher. No, hang on, make that fortunately. What I mean is, I need more than the four hours of sleep per night on which our former Prime Minister governed the country. (Well, that explains a lot.) To be fully functional, I need at least 8 hours in winter and 7 hours in summer. Don’t ask me why there’s a difference but there very definitely is. When sleep-deprived, I do everything less well/less frequently/less enthusiastically/late.

An Ingenious (Re)Solution

My theory is that if I focus on getting my full quota of sleep, everything else about me will improve. I’ll be much more likely to have the energy to cook meals from scratch instead of resorting to ready-meals. With more physical energy, I’ll be more likely to go for a run. With my wits fully about me, I’ll be more productive and focused in my work. Rising earlier, fresher, in the morning, I’ll be less likely to be late for work. Going to bed earlier, I’ll find  more time to read in bed: that ‘to-read’ pile will diminish in no time.. It may seem counter-intuitive to get more done by doing nothing, i.e. sleeping, but I truly believe it could work.

So if in 2013, you see me taking forty winks at my desk or nodding off in School Assembly,  please don’t wake me up. I’d hate to break my New Year’s Resolution.

Happy New Year!

What’s your attitude to New Year’s Resolutions? Do tell!