100 days of productivity: a catch up

This post is part of my 100 Days of (Productive) Summer series. For more about this project, check out the introductory post here.

I’ve been slightly cheating for the last few days, in that:

1. I’ve been scribbling down some ideas for this blog rather than blogging every day

2. On Friday and Sunday I did wake up at 7 and do some emails, but then went back to sleep for a while

& 3. I have been exercising, but in a ‘where I can fit it in’ sort of way – ie walking (with leaflets), crunches (before bed, since I’m lying down anyway) and weightlifting (my godson).

No wonder he looks nervous.
No wonder he looks nervous.

I still think it counts, but I need to up my game. Anyway, here’s my AYOP picks for the last few days:

Fri 4th July – Be mindful of how you spend your time. Constantly check and reflect on how you spend your time (and energy and attention) throughout the day. I often do this by setting an hourly alarm on my phone.

I was quite looking forward to this one, but…events. I ended up taking care of said godson for a few hours on Friday afternoon, and babysitting a four-month-old is not an activity that lends itself to constant reflection – or to having an alarm going off all the damn’ time. Nevertheless I think having a regular prompt that goes: “Yo Grace…are you actually concentrating on this email you’re writing/phone call you’re having/meeting you’re in, or are you thinking about Breaking Bad because I just said ‘Yo’?” would be a positive thing, and so I think I’m going to give that one a better try at a later date.

Sat 5th July – Exercise. In the words of AYOP, “In my opinion, working out is the single best way to get more energy. And it doesn’t just energize you; exercise also combats disease, brightens your mood, and helps you sleep better.”

Now, two years ago I would have been all:

NO to jogging

but now I’m all:


or I would be if I weighed two stone less. And had a stomach like that. And could afford to wear Sweaty Betty‘s beautiful beautiful running clothes from head to toe. And lived near a beach. What I mean is – I run, now. Not as often as I should, but I do, and sometimes I even enjoy it. I love the way I feel after a run (it’s a magical combination of endorphins and smugness), and I love the atmosphere at races, and I love watching myself get ever-so-slowly better at something I never thought I was capable of doing.

Jennifer Lawrence

I hate to risk incurring the wrath of JLaw, but running is amazing. If you’re wondering whether you should try it, the answer is almost certainly yes.

One of my favourite ways to run is as part of the South Manchester Parkrun – a well-organised, well-attended, friendly timed 5k every single Saturday at 9am in beautiful Platt Fields. I don’t go as often as I should – partly because I work most Saturdays now, and partly because, y’know, 9am – but I never regret it when I do. If you’re near Platt Fields you should definitely come along – if not, find a parkrun near you.

I’m also planning on running the Great Birmingham Run this year, which will be my third half-marathon. If you’re also running that one or think you might like to, get in touch and we shall compare training plans and blisters.

Finally, Sun 6th July – Let the air out of your tires every once in a while. AYOP’s Chris took this to extremes with a slob week, but he says a more rewarding way to relax is by ‘creating positive, productive outlets to relieve your stress.’ Appropriately enough, yesterday I discovered the Slap George Osborne game.


Ahh. I feel better already.


Day 25 of 100: quit multitasking

This post is part of my 100 Days of (Productive) Summer series. For more about this project, check out the introductory post here.

Got up at: 7

Exercise: crunches and planks and something called an alligator drag, which I enjoy as part of my lifelong commitment to looking ridiculous.

Writing: not yet, but I have an email and another blogpost that need writing before the end of today.

Today’s productivity tip, courtesy of AYOPstop multitasking.

Ugh. I love multitasking. I draft speeches while I’m running. I drink smoothies while I’m showering. (I also once answered the phone while showering, which turned out to be expensive.) I tweet while holding my godson. I watch The Good Wife while washing up.

tgw gif

I watch The Good Wife while ironing.


I watch The Good Wife while cooking.


I watch The Good Wife while on the phone to my mother.


Actually, I do lots of things while I’m on the phone – probably because I spend most of my life on the phone and I like having something to do with my hands.

In short, me quitting multitasking is like [someone topical] quitting [some thing that they do a lot, although for greater comic effect it should not be the thing that they are primarily meant to do].

So what advice does A Year of Productivity have for me? You can read the full article here, but this is how I see the highlights:

– if you can do it without hands, you can do it while washing up

– you can do pretty much anything while listening to music

– but switch off all the social media alerts that distract you

– keep meditating (ack) to help you learn to focus

– and remember that your brain really can only do one thing at once.

In other words:

ron swanson

Day 24 of 100: take more breaks

My renewed 100 Days commitment is going OK so far. I’ve been up at 7 every day this week so far; exercised today (ran a mile) and yesterday (crunches); wrote a speech yesterday and a diary entry of sorts today.

Yesterday, as you might recall from the last blog post, I also attended a meditation class, at the Manchester Buddhist Centre. It was…odd.

I tried guided meditation a few years ago, when I was learning about Buddhism for RS A-Level (bet Michael Gove has put paid to that sort of thing by now), and loved it – afterwards I felt calmer, happier and more creative. Yesterday was more of a mixed experience.

I loved being in the Buddhist Centre – I always do – with its beautiful Northern Quarter building, the gentle smell of incense, the abundance of hippies, the general vibe of finding the zen within the city centre. But once we started on the body mindfulness meditation I found myself having an uncontrollably negative reaction.

I think the problem, sadly, is that I don’t especially like being mindful of my body. For me, right now, it means being mindful of feeling fat, of having bad posture, of sniffling with hay-fever while everyone else in the room is trying to meditate, of never knowing what to do with my hands. With every new area of the body I tried to focus on, rather than a deepening calm, I felt a rising panic.

None of this is unique to me, of course, and the whole point of meditation is being able to accept these things so that you can live with them. So while it wasn’t what I’d call a positive experience on this occasion, I will try again.

Today, meanwhile, was about taking more breaks – and since I wasn’t at work today, I was able to embrace this particular tip wholeheartedly.  I’d recommend you read the article in that last link: there are some really useful tips in there, the best of which, I think, is that breaks are preventative. It reminds me of some advice I came across back when I was studying for my GCSEs – take breaks when revision is going well, not when you’re stuck. The ideas will keep flowing while you’re away from your desk, and when break time is over it’ll be easier to jump back in.

I’m off now for a sleep break – more productivity tomorrow. Night all…

Day 23 of 100: commencing De-Stress Week

I’m back! Sorry for the blogging hiatus but I got so caught up in the World Cup…ha, imagine if I was actually like that.

I’ve not been entirely unproductive for the last few weeks – in fact I feel like I’ve been busier than [insert some topical simile here. Probably something about either Coulson or Suarez] – but sadly, apart from daily exercise, I have let most of my #100days pledges slip. I kept hoping I could do some retrospective blogging and catch up, but at this point it seems easier to restart the 100 Days from roughly where I left off, and extend the project to finish at the end of September. (As well as giving myself time off for Latitude and Pride I’m now also including Labour Party Conference and my sister’s wedding.)

I’ve committed to GFDI again for another 10-day stretch, so if I don’t:

– get up at 7am

– exercise

– write something

– try an AYOP productivity tip

– and blog about it

…every day for the next ten days, I will lose £100. (GFDI lets you set prices in £s now. No longer can I hide behind the exchange rate!)



You might remember that I was tackling some of AYOP’s productivity tips in themed batches – the last time I blogged it was Sleep Week. So yesterday I was trying to find a theme for this week, when one jumped out at me.
I should explain first that I was in the worst kind of irritable mood yesterday. Everything was annoying me. Everyone at work, everyone on Facebook, everyone on the bus. My computer was too slow, my earphones were too tangled, my jeans were uncomfortable. I tried listening to an album of calming nature sounds on Spotify and the birds got on my nerves. It was one of those days – and with a lot of rushing around between work and meetings, I was worried it was going to be one of those weeks. But no longer! I hereby declare this:

De-stress week.

Yesterday’s tip was “Invest in stress relief strategies that actually work, like: exercising, reading, listening to music, spending time with friends and family, getting a massage, going for a nature walk, meditating, and spending time on a creative hobby. And today’s is meditate. Yes, really. So I shall be going to a meditation for beginners class in between a run and a Labour group meeting, and I shall update you all later on my progress toward enlightenment.

Day 18 of 100: download f.lux

I have to say, I did some great sleeping last night. Some of my best work.



After I posted last night’s blog a friend tweeted to suggest I download f.lux to help deal with the blue light from screens. So guess what today’s productivity tip is?

Computer screens, according to f.lux’s website, are designed to emulate sunlight – which is one reason why looking at screens at night can mess with you. So f.lux “makes the colour of your computer’s display adapt to the time of day, warm at night and like sunlight during the day.”

Seems worth a try – I’ve downloaded it and I’ll update you when it kicks in this evening!

I’m not in work until after eleven today, but I’ve got quite a to-do list, including finishing off a short story for a competition that closes tomorrow. See y’all later.



Day 17 of 100: limit your exposure to blue light before bed

Progress today: overslept; wrote a blog post which I’ve scheduled for tomorrow lunchtime; did some crunches.

This week is Sleep Week, in which I use all the sleep-themed tips I can find in A Year of Productivity’s ‘100 time, energy and attention hacks’, in the hope that more sensible sleeping will make for more effective getting up.

The first of such tips was set your thermostat to 65ºF (18.5ºC) overnight. “Think of your bedroom as a cave,” says AYOP, “cool, dark, and quiet.” Thermostat schmermostat. My bedroom temperature is regulated by windows or by blankets. I have been sleeping with my window open this week, but that has rather put paid to the quietness of my cave.

Next: stop drinking caffeine four to six hours before you sleep, and also say no to that nightcap. No tea or wine before bed?

I’m not actually drinking green tea. I’m just hiding behind the box.

And today’s tip is about cutting down blue light at bedtime – that is, the kind of light you get from smartphones, tablets and computers. Time to start putting the internet to sleep a little earlier.


Now, why would I bother trying to get better at sleeping? Apologies to any insomniacs reading this, but I excel at sleeping. I can sleep through anything, anywhere. I’ve slept through minor earthquakes. Yesterday I got in a solid half-hour nap on the bus. That last article I linked to refers to participants in a study reporting changes in ‘the quality of their sleep’ – is there a bad kind of sleep? I’ve never had the wrong kind of sleep, ever. My worst sleep was right on the money.

But one of the many things I’m not good at is getting into a routine. Everything I’ve ever read about writing, and everything I’ve ever read about running, says that the secret to doing either regularly is to fit them into your daily routine. What routine? I usually wake up at home, but at least once a week I’m in a friend’s spare room or on their sofa. I might have to leave the house at 7.30am or 8.15 or noon. I might go straight from work to three back-to-back meetings, or leave the office at 8.30 and come straight home to bed.

It’s never boring, but it’s not necessarily sustainable in every area of my life. So for the rest of the 100 Days, as far as possible, I’m going to follow a night-time routine, as recommended in the Sea Change Wake Early module. Here’s my new routine, step by step – we’ll see if it works/lasts.

1. Decide what time you want to get up. (Sea Change suggests waking up 10 minutes earlier than you usually do. Since I don’t have a ‘usual’, I’m aiming for 7.30am.)

2. Use sleepyti.me to work out what time to go to bed (11.45pm in my case)

3. Set an alarm to remind you to start getting ready for bed (I’ve set mine for 11.30.)

4. Switch off all ‘screens’ when the alarm goes off

5. Pack bag for tomorrow and put tomorrow’s clothes/running clothes somewhere obvious

6. Tidy up a bit

7. Clean teeth, get into bed, read for a bit if it’s not 11.45 yet



100 days of Productivity: catching up and forming new habits

As you might have gathered from my last post – or as you’ll know if you actually know me – I suffer from depression sometimes.

Like this, but less adorable.
Like this, but less furry and adorable.


It’s actually one of the reasons I started this 100 Days project: I want to make the most of the time when I’m able to be productive, to make up for the days when the only things I might be able to cross off my to-do list are ‘get dressed, go to work’ and maybe ‘force self to speak in meeting’. Exercising and writing both make me feel better, and forcing myself to get up early – or at least consistently – will, I hope, prevent the occasional weekend everyone-leave-me-alone-to-watch-The-Good-Wife-under-this-blanket-athons.

I had a couple of bad days last week which threw me off track a little, so I haven’t been keeping up with any of my 5 things (and I had to give $100 to Go F**king Do It – that hurt). But I hadn’t forgotten that last week was all about learning how to form new habits, and hopefully applying this to the most important habit I need to develop, namely Waking Up Early, Or At Least At A Reasonable Hour, Dammit Grace, I Mean Seriously.

I’ve been reading The Power of Habit, which goes into a lot of detail about habit formation (including how it applies to organisations and groups, as well as individuals, which is interesting stuff at a time when local government is well into behaviour change).

A ‘habit’ as described in Duhigg’s book is, at the most simple level, a routine you do in response to a cue to get a reward that you crave. So, if you smoke, it goes like this:

Cue: whatever usually prompts you to have a cigarette, like drinking coffee, being around other smokers, being awake, etc.

Routine: have a cigarette

Reward: a hit of delicious nicotine.

And you can’t get rid of habits, only replace them with a new routine: so if you’re trying to quit smoking, you have to react to the cue by slapping on a nicotine patch, or going for a run to reward yourself with delicious endorphins and smugness.

My current habit goes like this:

Cue: Alarm goes off

Routine: Get up, switch alarm off, get back into bed.

Reward: Mmm, bed. So snuggly and warm.

mmm bed

And I need to replace it with a habit that goes something like this:

Cue: Alarm goes off

Routine: Get up, stay up, do some things.

Reward: Something else nice. Like breakfast. Or a book. Or breakfast and a book!


So how do I do that? Back to AYOP for habit-forming tips:

Start very small. One of the reasons I’m struggling with 100 Days is that I’m trying to change a lot of things at once. It would be much more effective to start with waking up early, focus on that, and then work on more habits over time. (But I’ve started this whole ‘5 things every day’ now, so YOLO.)

Shrink how long you’ll do something until you no longer feel resistance to it. The example used on AYOP is meditation, but over on Sea Change it’s applied to early rising:

“Change your sleep patterns very slowly, and the habit will be much better. Wake just 10 minutes earlier at first, then another 10 minutes. You’ll adjust each time you make a small change, and then eventually the small changes will add up to big ones.”

Make bad habits more expensive. I have GFDI for that.

Anticipate obstacles to new habits. I think this is similar to an earlier tip about rehearsing how you’re going to resist temptation. Sea Change also has a webinar on this, which I plan to watch while I’m washing up tomorrow.

Reward yourself. It’s an essential part of the habit loop. When it comes to waking up early, Sea Change suggests making the reward itself what you wake up for:

“Have something important to do in the morning. Something you’re looking forward to. Something that will make a great use of the 10 minutes of quiet morning time you’re going to have. I like to write. If you know what you’re going to do the night before, then when you wake up, you can move into doing it.”

This week I’m going to keep working on waking up early, with more help from Sea Change and from AYOP tips that are themed around sleep. More posts to follow!

Day 8 of 100: make changes automatic through habits

I’m still struggling with the ‘getting up early’ bit. I’ve done everything else I needed to do today…sort of. I did some crunches this morning, because I didn’t have time to go for a run. I’ve written a little more for that story I’ve been working on, but not much. I’ve read my papers for a meeting tomorrow, but I was hoping to do some background reading too. Because I overslept – again – there just haven’t been enough hours in today. So I’ve stayed up late. And thus the cycle continues.

On Saturday I wrote about how waking up early is a ‘keystone habit’, and it’s clearly one I need to work on. So for this week, I’m concentrating on tips from AYOP that are all about forming new habits. I’m also reading The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, and I’ve signed up for Leo Babauta’s Sea Change programme. Sea Change is all about forming a new habit every month, and June’s habit is…waking up early! Lucky me. We’ll see how this goes.

Day 7 of 100: start a maintenance day

Got up: 5.30am

Exercise: crunches

Writing: 136 words on a short story for a competition.

Today’s tactic is start a maintenance day, and if I’m honest I’ve been a little too excited about this one.

A maintenance day is the one day a week you use to get all your boring-but-necessary personal stuff done, instead of spreading it out through the week (or not getting around to it at all). It’s a simple idea. It’s also another one of those ‘hacks’ that only works if you have a certain kind of lifestyle – imagine only cleaning one day a week if you have kids? But, well, I do have the right kind of lifestyle – apart from having to clean up after the cats every day hour four and a half minutes – and I’m very, very bad at staying on top of housework and the like (have you seen my kitchen lately? No, me neither). So this can only be a good thing, and AYOP is very enthusiastic about the benefits. Also, it gives me the opportunity to make a list, and you know how I love lists. I’ve pasted said below in case you want to copy it and do something similar (mine’s pretty idiosyncratic to my cat-dominated flat and my lack of a vacuum cleaner), or if you just want to know what I’ve been doing all day…

To do on maintenance day

– laundry (including handwashing)

– replace any batteries that need replacing (I have five wall clocks and none of them are currently showing the right time…)

– sweep and mop office floor

– brush down sofas

– brush stair carpet

– sweep everywhere else

– clean bathroom

– tidy everywhere

– other cleaning (like I’ve mentioned before, I use UfYH to store my lists of what needs cleaning and prompt me to do it)

– make meal plan and shopping lists for the week

– Aldi shop

– online shop (once a month)

– go to pharmacy (every other week)

– choose and iron clothes for the week

– chuck old receipts and stuff out of my wallet.

Chris at AYOP also mentions ‘cut my nails’ in his list, and there are probably a lot more ‘self-maintenance’ tasks you could include. As for me, I’ve decided maintenance day is a good opportunity to use some of the cosmetic miscellany that tends to accumulate in my bathroom cupboard and never gets used. (What is argan oil? Do I need to use it regularly or only when my argans start squeaking?)


Update, much later: done! It did take me most of the day, but that includes time for cooking, eating and general faffing. Mmm, my flat is so clean and there is so much food in my fridge. I feel quite well set up for the weekzzzzzzzzzzz

Day 6 of 100: fail.

Confession time:

On Thursday I overslept and didn’t get any writing or blogging done.

Friday I overslept and didn’t get any writing or blogging done or try a new AYOP tip.

And today I overslept.

I’ve managed to get some exercise done every day, but still: this is suboptimal progress. I’m going to have to pay for this, but more on that next week. Right now, I need to work out what went wrong and what to do about it.

So I had a look through AYOP’s list for a couple of tips – one for today and one to make up for missing yesterday – to help get back on track. First:

Resist any temptation by rehearsing how you’ll act ahead of timeOne of the things that went wrong on Thursday was not following Monday’s rule #1: “say no to anything that will involve throwing my to-do list out of the window”. Instead, I went to a Labour group meeting and very much said yes to the pub afterwards. I should have seen that coming and planned to say no – in fact I’ve written about something very similar before, for Dry Times.

I’ve got lots to get done tomorrow, so I’ve rehearsed 1. what I’m going to do when my alarm goes off (get up), and 2. what I’m going to say if someone asks me to go for a drink (“I’m free after six – maybe a bit earlier if I can get this stuff done.”) We’ll see if this works.

Next tip: Identify your keystone habits. In simpler terms, these are habits that make the other habits easier. It’s an idea AYOP borrows from Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit (more on that here), and waking up early is a pretty obvious keystone habit. Or it will be, once I’ve figured out how to do it.

Oh, and before I forget – on Thursday I did try a new tactic, although I didn’t get around to blogging about it at the time: keep all of your emails 5 sentences or less. (AYOP also suggests making a note of this in your email signature, but nah, I’m not doing that.) Now:

1. To be honest I suspect most of my emails already are – the vast majority of emails I send are from my phone, which encourages brevity, and generally all I need to say is some variation on ‘Thanks’, ‘Have you seen this?’, ‘When are you free to meet up?’ or ‘X resident has contacted me about x problem on X Street, can we sort this please?’.

2. But, as it happened, on Thursday I wanted to send an email supporting a funding bid for a local project (more on this soon, I hope).

3. So I wrote out the email in the form of numbered bullet points – one point for each sentence. Just like I’m doing here.

4. And I found it actually helped me structure what I wanted to say, as well as keeping the email down to a manageable length.

5. Don’t worry, I deleted the numbered bullets before I sent the email.


I think this one’s definitely worth a try if you spend a lot of time dealing with emails. You can see more details and email-related ideas here.