Cover Page


Get a Life

Title Page

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To Anne for her incredible love, belief and support.

To Jessica for her love, support of the underdog, her tenacity and perceptual paradoxes; Jacob for his love, philosophy, rowing and unfailing appreciation of my cooking; Isaac for his love, humour, air-guitar playing and companionship; Mum for her belief, example and support; Dad for his energy, example and support.

Also to Richard Burton for the initial break and John Moseley for his continued support in challenging times.

Chapter 1

Get a Life?

Get a life!

The desire to get a life, to restore work/life balance, to ‘come alive’ (but without the aid of Pepsi) has never been stronger.

Our lives are pressured: it appears that while anybody and everyone can communicate with us at all times, we rarely have the time to communicate with ourselves or our loved ones. Our lives often appear to be one-dimensional: work, and only work, be that managing the household or managing the team. It’s not, of course, that ours is the first generation to be under pressure, but maybe we truly are the first generation where the pressure is all-pervading, where our coping strategies have reached their natural limits and the ability to think has become the slowest process in the melée of our busy lives. A process which competes poorly against the likes of the internet, globalization, dual-parent working. We are on the critical path. The pressure is thus relentless: even if we are not working 24/7, we certainly think we are. Constant fatigue is kept at bay through the drip-feeding of caffeine, anxiety and fear-induced adrenalin.

Yet deep down we each know that we have more potential: there’s so much more we want to do and be. We have dreams and visions which unfortunately all too often seem to be dependent upon winning the lottery. Perhaps more frustratingly, there seems to be little way out of the chaos of everyday life and no simple way of stepping up to the life we would really like to live. It’s all too easy to lose sight, in the apparent chaos of downsized/rightsized organizations, growing families and work/life balance uncertainties, of what we really want.

That is the reality of life for many people that I meet in my workshops. Certainly there are many, many high points, but too much is only ‘OK’ and some of it, frankly, is just ‘grim’. Of course, compared to the lives of many on this planet these people know, deep down, that their existence is not that bad: compared to some, it is downright fantastic. But unfortunately for them it doesn’t feel that good, in fact it forever feels as if a much better way of running their life is ‘so close’ but out of reach.

There is a way out

There is a way out, though, and it is straightforward. It doesn’t require you to escape to Tuscany, give it all up and retire to Wales, downsize/rightsize (unless you feel those options really will help, of course) or do anything at all complicated. The way out is simply to adjust your way of thinking and act in some very specific ways that you can customize to fit your own situation, and then to follow them through with some reflection and straightforward actions. For many of us, the biggest challenge of the situation in which we find ourselves is the lost ability to use our ‘reflective’ intelligence: that powerful thought process which allows us to resolve many of the challenges in our lives. But before we explore this approach, let’s be clear on a few of the tempting methods that do not work. You may be using one of them at the moment and, as it’s not working, it’s always nice to know that it’s not just you and that now would be a good time to ditch that particular approach.

Crazy, no-return, doomed-to-failure strategies

There are plenty of these. We’ve all tried them (me too, of course). I encounter people using them on my workshops; they are usually mentioned when I’m coaching and I often find that new corporate clients have them embedded into their infrastructure. But the truth is that they simply don’t work. I’ve seen some people try and use them for years; it’s not about lack of persistence with any of these. They are the wrong strategies in the first place.

False strategy number 1: ‘It’s just a stage in my life’

(The one where we tell ourselves ‘it’s just a phase and it’ll get easier’.)

Well, it’s true – of course – that we do have different stages in our lives such as the lots-of-exams stage, the house-full-of-toddlers stage, promotion-on-the-horizon stage, house-purchase stage, just-going-through-a-sticky-patch stage, etc. So perhaps the best thing for you is just to hang on and it will sort itself out … Possibly: a bit of that is fine. But think about it, reflect back over your life to date. Things don’t necessarily seem to be getting any easier, do they? Once you have completed one stage another is on the way. Call it entropy, call it chaos: your life – or perhaps more strictly, the environment around your life – is just becoming more demanding. Now is the time to start managing it a little better. And that is the most important indicator that this strategy of ‘just go with the flow, it’ll work itself through’ is not an ideal one. You know when it’s working and you certainly know when it’s not.

In fact, apart possibly from retirement – when for many perhaps too much grinds to a halt – there are no naturally easy stages; every stage has its particular challenges. That’s the elegance of the approach we are going to look at: it is customizable to you, the situation and your particular challenge. You have to make them easy: I’m going to show you how.

False strategy number 2: ‘I simply need to get more efficient’

(The one where you simply feel there’s a magic technique which you are missing and you only need to discover it for everything to improve.)

A dangerous and commonly employed strategy: this is the ‘I simply need to work longer and/or harder and that will sort the problem’ strategy. This does at least have some historical precedence. There was a time – both historically and for some of us, particularly if we are over thirty, in our own individual careers – when our days were not so loaded and when, therefore, there was some capacity for upping the workload. Consequently, an initial response to the challenges we are discussing was better time management (you’ll have noticed that there is always a new book or new system available on time management) or working harder (getting up half an hour earlier – that’s two and a half hours per week just for doing email) or outsourcing (ironing, children, fun). But thresholds are soon met. There is simply a limit to how much stuff anyone can do, even to how much we can outsource. Can you really cope with three inter-scheduled nannies? (No, honestly – this was cited to me on a recent workshop.)

At the same time too much efficiency, too much working and too much outsourcing all cause their own problems. Too much efficiency means no slack or downtime. Slack is part of the process of being human: it allows us to use our reflective intelligence, to just think ‘how am I doing?’ and enjoy life. Too much working means that we are not playing. Play is a particularly human attribute: it energizes us and allows us to remain authentic. Too much outsourcing means that we lose touch with what is happening: ironically, we often lose touch with those very people that outsourcing was meant to help. Many people are at their efficiency threshold and many hit it a long time ago. Remember there was a time when the rate of delivery of post to the in-tray was a limiting factor? Now, in an ‘instant’ world, we are the slowest factor around.

False strategy number 3: Escapism

(This is the one where we employ rationalization and defensiveness, and are simply not honest with ourselves.)

This is perhaps the most worrying false strategy: simply believing that something is not happening. Drown the pain. Watch more TV, drink more. Change your job. Blame others: the boss, your partner. Enough said. Not a great strategy and certainly one which only leads to more chaos in life. Be very careful about adopting a ‘victim’ mentality, about blaming others. That is not to say that we should let a poorly run organization or a bullying manager off the hook. But, whatever the problem, the first step is to take responsibility for our own life, to decide: victim or volunteer?

A way out of this chaos

Yes, well, stuff happens. And it’s history. Learn and move on.

There really is a way out: to set your ‘personal compass’ or LifeCompass. This alternative response, and the one with which we are concerned, is to examine our lives a little more closely. To reconsider (or consider for the first time) what we really want. And how we are working. Nothing heavy, all very straightforward. But, despite that, to make some fundamental shifts, perhaps break some limiting patterns, such as some ways of working which currently hinder us. Some examples might be:

That, and a whole lot more, is exactly what we are going to be achieving in the rest of this book.

A life unexamined … is a life not fully lived.

The Dalai Lama