As with Proust and the macaroons that were immortalized in 'A La Recherche du Temps Perdu' (In Search of Lost Times), so the first crisp morning of September, the sun low in the sky, and the sudden increase in traffic take me straight back to my school days and the first few days of the autumn term. A new class, new teachers, new subjects, new pupils; all these created in us a sense of excitement and anticipation. In those early days of term, still rested from the summer, we felt real motivation.
A couple of weeks in and, of course, it was back to normal; stressing about homework, moaning about unsympathetic teachers, despairing over the tedium or difficulty of least-favourite subjects, reluctantly putting summer uniforms away and donning the tweeds and jumpers that were more appropriate to the chilly winds and rain that had replaced the sunshine.
But what if we all used that 'up time' to make some plans? Would it make a difference?
Thomas Harris, in his seminal book 'I'm OK, You're OK', tells a story:
Once, an old farmer, tinkering with a rusty harrow on a country road, was approached by an earnest young man who was making farm-to-farm calls for the purpose of selling a new manual on soil conservation and new farming techniques. After a polite and polished speech the young man asked the farmer if he would like to buy this new book, to which the old man replied,
'Son, I don't farm half as good as I know how already.'
In those days, people probably knew a great deal less than they do today. With libraries of self-help books now available, why is it that we're not all living perfect lives, where we're fulfilled and reaching our potential, effective and efficient, where our friendships are ever-cordial, our marriages ever-sunny, and where we eat well and never drink or smoke or lie around all day watching rubbish on television?
I know for myself, embarrassingly, that on occasions when I need to flick through my very own book, Finding Square Holes, usually because I want to draw a client's attention to a chapter or section, I sometimes find myself reading snippets thinking, 'Hmm, that's really quite useful, why don't I do that?'
Several years ago, I worked through Julia Cameron's book, The Artist's Way, and I came out the other end feeling absolutely fantastic - open, creative, happy, and with a string of enjoyable experiences behind me. Why didn't I keep doing that? Why, when I've tried to repeat it, have I only managed the first three or four weeks?
We all have things that we know work for us, whether it's taking exercise, seeing friends, being nice to our partners, going to bed early, meditating, reading certain books, taking time to think, and yet most of the time we do things that don't work for us!
How perverse is that?
I'm sorry, but I'm afraid I have no magic solutions for this sorry state of affairs, but I just wanted to remind you of those things that work for you, in case you wanted to try them again, and I also wanted to encourage you to do something which really does work, for everyone, and that is setting intentions or goals. And this back to school period is the perfect time for it.
The level at which you set intentions or goals will depend on how much you want to achieve, whether you're at a crucial juncture in your life or happily coasting for the moment, whether you're full of energy or needing a little nudge. If you're planning a big change, or an exciting new venture, or have struck choppy waters in your life and you need to find dry land quickly, then some good structured goal-setting will give you a renewed sense of control as well as getting you moving in productive ways. You can find guidance on how to do this in the chapter called 'Action!' in 'Finding Square Holes'.
But goal-setting doesn't have to be a full-on activity. Taking just a few minutes to ask yourself, what do I want to achieve in this next block of time?, can be extraordinarily powerful.
1. Thinking about your work, or some other part of your life, what three main things would you like to happen or achieve in the next three months? There may be a project you'd like to complete, a change you'd like to make, a relationship you'd like to build, a skill you'd like to learn, an area of work you'd like to drop. You may want to manage your time better, find ways to reduce stress, have a better work-life balance. You may want to find a new job, or new areas of work, or to tweak your job so that you do more of the bits you enjoy and less of those you don't.
2. What obstacles or problems do you face in achieving each of these? eg. People, resources, time, lack of skills, lack of confidence, support issues. Or there may be no obstacles.
3. What first steps would you like to take for each? Eg make contact with particular individual(s), make a plan, search on the internet, look for courses, delegate a task.
4. Finally, in terms of taking care of your well-being, energy and productivity, what things do you know work well for you, and which of these would you like to put in practice this autumn?
5. And that's it. Often just setting the intentions is enough, the rest mysteriously happens on its own....
Have a great week.