No caffeine

I’m not sure that caffeine actually affects me all that much. I never really notice the difference, anyway. I don’t get any particular buzz, or sense of energy, or lose sleep, even after drinking quite strong coffee or a tank of Coke.

Is how I was going to start this entry. I usually decide on a resolution for the week, and scribble some initial notes, then write it up properly once I’ve finished. This time around I wrote that opening sentence. But the other night I went for dinner at the house of some friends, and had two teeny tiny espressos (Nespressos, if we’re being brand specific) before leaving at around 7:30pm. I didn’t fall asleep as quickly as I usually do, I woke up several times in the night, and I dozed the rest of the time with dreams I still remember (a sign of shallow sleep, I think). So I guess I was wrong about that.

I’m not actually a big coffee drinker. A while back I discovered that coffee was doing things to my insides that I don’t want to talk about. I’ve experimented on myself over the years and discovered that while a few brands are OK – specifically a Starbucks latte is totally fine – everything else, including very similar lattes from other chains, quality coffees from independent coffee houses, and all vending machine coffee, basically makes me seriously I don’t want to talk about it. All over the place. I’ve developed quite a Starbucks habit these days, partly due to the I’m not messing around would you leave it alone, but also because I work from home, and I find sitting in Starbucks in the afternoon ploughing through emails remarkably productive and a nice opportunity to spend time amongst other human people.

I’m a big tea drinker too. My wife and I start every weekend morning with a cup of tea, in bed, with our toddler watching trash truck videos on a tablet between us. It’s a little moment of Britishness we cling to now we live in the USA. Generally it’s extremely difficult to get good tea here, which probably explains why Americans don’t particularly want it. The main brand is Lipton, which is to tea what Bud Light is to beer, and would put anyone off. When you order “hot tea” (because iced tea is the default, in Califiornia at least) in a nice place, you tend to get organic tea in artisanal tea-bags served with a little pot of honey and a slice of fresh lemon, and no milk, and – this is the kicker – luke-warm water. Even when the tea is good, the water is rarely hot enough for it to brew properly, and grey disappointment prevails.

So, I drink British tea imported via friends once or twice a day, and hit up Starbucks maybe three times a week, and that’s my caffeine intake. Oh, and the Diet Coke. Lots of Diet Coke. Thinking about it, I do drink quite a lot of caffeine. So let’s quit it for a week and see what happens.

Not much happened. I kept all my habits intact, just swapping in decaffeinated tea and coffee as required. Dropped Coke because the caffeine free variety is fairly hard to come by. But I don’t think I noticed any difference. This either means that my original supposition, that caffeine doesn’t really affect me, was correct, or that, as I’m getting increasing suspicious, there’s a placebo effect from drinking the decaf version.

I’m going to speculate here and say that many people probably drink more caffeine than me, and that this is still a worthwhile thing to do, particularly for those many people. If you’re one of the people I’ve seen drinking energy drinks on the way to work in the morning, maybe you could stand to give it a little break. As for me, well, no great benefits to report, and only mild inconvenience to suffer through.

Hey ho, on to the next thing.

  • Difficulty: Easy, unless you’re a heavy caffeine drinker
  • Worthwhiliness: Low, unless you’re a heavy caffeine drinker

Header image, which makes me immediately crave coffee, is by jlhopgood


Have a baby

I always imagined I would have children. That’s not quite the same thing as saying I always wanted children, in fact I find it hard to put myself in the position of those who can say that. Having children is such a massive decision, that profoundly affects many aspects of your life. It’s generally accepted that parents report, on average, less “happiness” (whatever that means) than those without, so it’s a bit of a … well, gamble isn’t quite the right word. I think it’s selecting one kind of happiness over another. Sounds a bit overly rational, but I think that’s what I did. You don’t know how it will work out, but you want to give it a shot.

And I’m glad I did. I have a boy already, and he’s working out pretty well so far. He’s two years old, for the next few minutes at least (time travels a lot faster when you have kids), and he’s currently learning the joys of saying “no”, being totally irrational, and resisting my attempts to brush his teeth. He’s really getting the hang of it.

He’s an emotive fellow, and he gets super upset when he learns about major injustices like having to wear pajamas because it’s bed time. Just wait until he hears about income inequality. But even when he beats my shoulders with his little fists because I stopped him running into traffic, or declined his request to use a steak knife, it’s quite endearing. His ineffective punches and lame put-downs remind me how relatively strong and smart I am, which I quite like, so I have to force myself to admonish him for this bad behavior while I can still correct it. And the rest of the time he’s adorable. I rather like being a father.

There’s one thing I struggle with a bit, which is that it sometimes feels like I’m just occupying him as a way of killing time before dinner and bed. Perhaps we’ve all been coached through adulthood to believe that unstructured playing is a waste of time that could have been spent earning money, reading a text book or learning a new skill. I think we forget that play is a skill, and a really good one. Not that long ago, medicine believed that being playful or silly was an imbalance of the humors, an excess of phlem or whatever it was, that should be corrected. We might have changed the language we use but I think the sentiment remains. So now as parents we have to learn to unlearn what we’ve been encouraged to believe is important and adult. It’s quite hard, but every time I get down on the floor to play with duplo or cars I’m getting better at it. I think my kid is making me a better, more rounded person. Also occasionally a more angry person holding a toothbrush, but you have to take the rough with the smooth I guess.

So this week, my resolution was to have another child.

I should confess, this isn’t a spur of the moment thing. I’ve actually been planning it, in liaison with my wife, for quite a while. This resolution was conceived over nine months ago. There were some indications that this should be the week to try it, and, well, here we are. In the hospital.

Brendan Dodds in hospital scrubs
In my scrubs, waiting to be summoned into the birthing chamber.

So we had the baby. Admittedly, I leaned hard on my wife for the actual work, but I fetched a lot of things and I think that adds up. Son number two is home, in fact I’m jiggling him to sleep in my left arm while I type this with my right, with mixed success at both. He’s spending the bulk of his time experimenting with innovative sleeping patterns including, notably, snoozing while eating. Impressive. He’ll go far.

By the way, if this resolution sounds like a bit of a cop-out, well, it is. I need a week off. Got butts to wipe.

  • Difficulty: Fairly easy to get pregnant, then hard for the rest of your life, then you die.
  • Worthwhiliness: It’s early days, but hopefully high

Header image is Woman Giving Birth, by Travis

Massage my wife’s feet

I put a call out on Facebook for ideas for week-long resolutions, and my wife’s friend Chrissie thoughtfully suggested giving her (my wife, not Chrissie, which would have been been a bold request) a week of daily foot massages. Well, that’s actually a good idea. It’s Valentine’s week (I’m late in writing this up, for reasons that will almost immediately become clear), so there’s the whole romance angle, and she deserves it for putting up with me disrupting our family routine with various weekly diets and lifestyle changes over the year so far. More to the point she’s also heavily pregnant (see previous parentheses) and feeling the extra weight on her feet. And besides all that, I need to keep her on-side for the more ambitious resolutions I’ve got planned for later in the year, which I’ve vaguely hinted at to mild disapprovement.

Feet are gross. Not my wife’s in particular, just all feet. Well, maybe not baby feet, which look delicious. I would munch my way through whole packs of baby feet if there weren’t laws against that kind of thing. But most feet are … you know, “walked on”. I don’t really understand how anyone could get aroused by feet. I did once date a girl who liked getting her toes nibbled, but even then I’m pretty sure she was just testing my commitment to the relationship. It didn’t work out. Happily my wife, Lo, has no such demands. She does love a good foot rub though.

My wife has very small feet. Credit: micagoto
My wife has very small feet. Credit: micagoto

I think it might be worth noting that I am not a classically trained pediatric masseuse. I’d classify myself more as an inventive maverick. So much so that I’m using the word “pediatric” even though I know it means children’s medicine and not feet. Essentially, I don’t know what I’m doing. From time to time, as I set about her feet, Lo helpfully remind me of my skills gap by saying “ow”.

Over the week I find a kind of groove. Start gentle, with soothing lotion, and circular motions. Then some manipulation back and forward to stretch the ankle a little, before getting my thumbs into her arches. That’s when the “ow”s come in. I get a little too enthusiastic from time to time. It’s a good excuse to ease off though because it turns out foot massages are surprisingly hard on the thumb-rotaty bits of my hands. I’m using muscles that I don’t usually use, and which are therefore not perfectly honed like the rest of my body. Despite the effort I’m putting in I’m ultimately suspicious that I’m not very good at foot massages, but Lo says nice things. I assume a mediocre foot massage is better than no foot massage.

After a week the pads on my thumbs are a bit sore, and I don’t know if I would go so far as to say it’s brought us closer together as a couple, but she seemed to like it. So that’s good.

  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Worthwhiliness: High (my wife reads this)

Header image by Jeremy Brooks

Clear my inbox (aka Inbox Zero)

Inbox Zero is the near-mythical state of completely emptying your email inbox, and devotees aim to repeat that on a regular basis (ideally every day).  I’m a devotee of Inbox Zero in the same sense that I’m a devotee of surfing, in that I love the sound of it and I own a board but I’ve only actually managed it a few times and once I got salt water in my sinuses and thought I was going to die.  OK, clumsy analogy.  I’m a devotee in the same way as someone who puts Catholic as their religion on an application form despite not going to church or believing in God or being against contraception.  No, that’s worse.  I think it’s a worthy ideal, and something to strive for, is what I’m trying to say, I just don’t actually get there very often.

You may be sympathetic to my failure.  For some people clearing their inbox might not actually be a laughable prospect, because they don’t get that much email, but I don’t know who those people and I don’t like the sound of them.  Most of us these days are drowning under email, and I know quite a few people with unread emails well into the hundreds.  I once glanced at the iPhone of a friend, who works as a Successful Professional, and noticed the little bubble over his Mail app was in the thousands.  Who knew it even goes that high?  I don’t know how he sleeps at night.  But I bet he’s not the only one.

For my personal email, I manage my Gmail account using the Mailbox app on my iPhone. The two core gimmicks are that from the inbox you swipe left or right to quickly archive, delete or move the email, and you can schedule emails to come back when they’re relevant, sending away the confirmation of a hotel booking until the day you’re due to check in, or something about work until Monday morning.  Since it was released those features have been added into a few other apps, including Inbox (for Gmail) and even the Outlook app, but after trying a few options I’m sticking with Mailbox because it’s simple and effective.  I completely empty my inbox every day, with a minimum of fuss.


At work, it’s a completely different picture.  I don’t have the advantages of Gmail and I’m limited to a prescribed secure app, which is fine but doesn’t have any of those neat features for quick email processing.  I struggle to keep up.  It comes in waves; every year or so I manage to clear my inbox, but it just keeps on coming and if I’m on the road, or take a vacation, or get sick, or just have a busy week, it builds up again before I realize it. It’s not uncommon for me to have more than 500 emails in my inbox, with perhaps 200 of them unread.

I find it sucks all the energy out of me.  It’s definitely inefficient because it prevents you from prioritizing correctly; no matter how carefully I manage my to-do list, there might be dozens of important tasks (and hundreds of unimportant ones) sitting in my inbox that I haven’t even read yet, so I’m not looking at the complete picture.  I’ve also completed a task only to be told it was no longer needed.  “Didn’t you see my follow-up email?”  Gah.

A few years ago I remember seeing lots of articles about declaring “email bankcrupcy”, the idea that you just give up, delete everything in your inbox, and tell people you’re starting over, dealing with the consequences.  I’ve never had the courage to do that but I once, in a previous job, got so underwater that I just moved all the emails that were over a month old from my inbox into a folder marked “old emails I haven’t read”.  I intended to work through those day by day until I cleared them.  A few months later I had managed to stay on top of new incoming emails, but I hadn’t even opened that folder.  I stressed about it, the madwoman in my attic, for a while until I realized that no-one cared.  Aside from a few exceptions where people had simply emailed me again, no-one even noticed.  People in large companies are apparently now so accustomed to the idea that we’re all so busy, and that their email is one of hundreds, that they no longer expect for sure that you’ll get to them.  I’m not actually advocating just deleting everything, and there might well be professional consequences, but it’s probably not as bad as it sounds.

By the way, entreprenurial idea for a company: you give us your work username and password and we log into your inbox and delete everything, then make it look like you were the victim of a computer error.  “I know, Henry, I was just about to action that important deliverable you requested last month but now … *sob* I lost everything, man”.  Now looking for seed money.  Call me, or light the dollar sign bat-signal or whatever Venture Capitalists use to communicate.

These days I struggle, but just about stay afloat.  My inbox stands at around 500 emails, with 150 unread.  This week’s objective then is to get that to zero and zero.

If you too are tempted to attempt this, you’re going to need to accept a few principles.  The first is that your inbox is an inbox, not a holding place, to-do list, or anything else.  You don’t go to your post box, read all your letters, pick out the one you need then put all the rest back (or if you do, you’re probably beyond help).  Because every time you open your mailbox to see what’s new you have to go through the same discovery process you already did for those that remain.

Principle 1: When you open something, you deal with it.  Nothing stays.

The second is that you don’t have to complete the task contained within to deal with the email itself.  You’re just processing, filtering, deciding what the task is.  Doing tasks and processing emails are two different mindsets, so do them seperately.

Principle 2: Emails are not tasks.  Use a to-do list.

The third is that you don’t need to keep everything.  Somewhere between archiving and Gmail we’ve been trained to think that we should keep every little notification and thank you for your purchase and and scrap of information.  Most of it actually has a pretty short shelf life before it becomes useless.  Sure, computer storage is getting bigger and cheaper all the time, but living in a mansion doesn’t mean you should be a hoarder.  It makes it harder to find the stuff you actually need.

Principle 3: Email is not a life-log.  Delete everything you can.

By the way, you know all those emails you get that you might need for a short while but could then delete?  Instead of filing them forever I move them to a folder called “delete after three months”.  Then every so often I go into that folder and delete everything older than three months without looking at them.

OK, let’s do this.  Here’s my strategy for emptying your work inbox:

  1. Block a couple of hours in your calendar.  Turn off your instant messenger and shut down your browser.  Put your phone in another room.
  2. Search your inbox for the word “unsubscribe”.  That will find all the newsletters and notifications.  Sort by sender and, without opening anything, scan the subjects and file or preferably delete.  If you find something that isn’t a newsletter or notification, ignore it for now.
  3. Sort your inbox by date received and move emails that are over three months old to a folder called something like “unread emails from 2014”. Now, sort that folder by sender and move anything from your boss, or their boss, back to your inbox.  We’re not going to worry about those that remain; if no-one has shouted at us by now they’re probably no longer relevant, but we’ll hang on to them in case we need to find something later.
  4. Set your email client to show you the number of emails in the inbox, not the number of unread emails.  This removes the temptation to mark things as read without dealing with them, or to mark things as unread as a reminder to do something.  In Outlook you can do this by right-clicking the inbox folder icon on the left and changing the properties.
  5. Group by conversations.  Gmail does this automatically, and Outlook handles it well too these days.  This lets you deal with a group of related emails at once and helps make sure you’re looking at the latest information.
  6. Start reading. From the top of bottom, doesn’t really matter.  When you’re using conversation view, email chains with a recent response float to the top, but that doesn’t mean they’re the youngest.
  7. If the email doesn’t require a specific action, file or delete it as necessary.  Put non-essential long-reads in a folder called “long-reads” to come back to when you’re on an unnecessary conference call.  Put essential long-reads in a to-do list.
  8. If the email does require a specific action, and you can act on it in 2 minutes or less, do it.  Otherwise, add it to your to-do list and file the request.
  9. If you don’t know the answer someone is looking for, and it’s not really your job to know, then politely reply with “I don’t know” and file the email.
  10. If you can’t clear everything in one go, commit to a significant batch like one month’s worth or 150 emails, and set aside time for the next batch. Do them in as close to one day as you can because those emails are going to keep coming, and there’s nothing more dispiriting than returning to find your progress undermined by a pile of new stuff.  If you can, work all night until it’s done.  Then book a morning off, or whatever you need, but get it done.
Inbox Zero nerd merit badge
Inbox Zero nerd merit badge

It is an amazing feeling when you finally see that empty inbox.  Seriously, even though your to-do list might now be fat with tasks, you’ll feel so much better to know that you have them all in one place.  I know because I actually did clear my emails.  I tried to do it one day, then failed, then got busy in meetings, then found an afternoon I could block out, then worked late, then emptied my inbox.  I was elated.  For a few minutes, before the next email arrived, but that’s OK.  If I can plough through three months, I can handle the new stuff on a daily basis.  Especially now I can think clearly.

  • Difficulty: Hard
  • Worthwhiliness: High

Header image is “Drowning in email” by Xavier Vergés

Eat vegetarian

I’m not opposed to eating meat. That seems to be a natural part of life, whether you subscribe to evolution, creationism, scientology or anything that falls between those three equally valid and rational positions. Food chains, and all that kind of thing. I am concerned about the industrialized nature of modern animal farming though. In fact “nature” is clearly out-of-place in that sentence. Keeping farm animals in tiny cages, in-breeding, pumping them full of hormones and antibiotics, then squeezing eggs and/or sausages out of them until they’re turned back into feed for the rest of their relatives. It is clearly wrong, and it’s also commonplace. Most of our meat and dairy production in the UK and particularly the US is literally dependent on animal suffering to keep the price down.

That’s how capitalism works. I’m not saying that as a conspiracy wielding anti-capitalist Marxist utopian idealist, I mean it is actually how capitalism is supposed to work. The market adjusts until the price is right, taking into account other factors (such as the public’s preference for animal welfare). There’s a balance, and there should be a tolerance for some animal… let’s say “discomfort”. The majority of us tolerate the domestication of farm animals, keeping them and feeding them and so on, all things that wouldn’t happen in the natural world, but we would prefer that they be allowed to live healthy lives, and are given some degree of freedom to roam rather than being cooped up in battery farms.  I’m convinced that’s the balance most of us would actually prefer, if pressed.

But there’s a problem with the modern farming marketplace. Capitalism depends on efficient markets, and efficient markets depend on a degree of transparency. And modern industrialized farming engineers, and depends on, a lack of transparency. I’m not opposed to eating dead animals, but I think it’s important to remember that’s what we are doing. Modern farming allows us to keep a very safe distance from the reality of raising, killing and preparing animals destined for the plate. As an extension of the same thought process, I like the idea of eating every part of the animal, and using other bits and pieces as best we can. Killing a shark just for the fin, or an elephant for the tusks, just seems particularly wasteful and disrespectful of the life lost. It requires you to dismiss animals as thought they were potatoes or paperweights, there only for mashing or shaking to make it look like snow is falling on a famous landmark from your trip to a place. I digress, and tusks have nothing to do with meat anyway; the point is I think most of us meat-eaters would find that if we were truly exposed to the realities of modern industrial animal farming it would really cramp our munching pleasure.

And yet, this is where it falls apart. Most of us know what really goes on. We understand that chickens are crammed into small, dark places and huge spinning sharp things slice through literally millions of throats each year. We choose to ignore that information. We buy meat packaged in containers with pictures of cute little cockerel-on-barn-at-sunrise farmyard scenes, and names to match. Aside: the only place you’ll find Archer Farms is in the trademark office.

I’m the worst offender. Despite all that respect for using every part of the animal I mentioned earlier, I’m also a tremendous wuss. I don’t like stringy bits or blood veins. For quite a while I didn’t like eating chicken wings because they were so clearly chicken wings; bones and skin, and bits of tendon being pretty strong reminders. I like white chicken that bears minimal resemblance to what it used to be. I think that’s why the only shellfish I generally like are scallops. Octopuses and crabs creep me out. It’s a conflict; I don’t practice what I like to hear other people preach, and I feel a bit guilty about it.

So, it’s in the industry’s interest to keep the realities of modern farming under its hat, and we’re complicit through a kind of semiconscious denial. That’s why lots of animal welfare charities throw ugly videos of animal abuse up on social media, to try to shine a spotlight on the worst excesses and thereby introduce some transparency. If we were truly honest with ourselves and faced up to the realities we would almost certainly make different choices at the check-out, picking welfare brands, free range chicken and so on, and the market would correct, with meat processing facilities changing practices to accommodate the public’s new awareness and preferences. Some would eat less meat, or even no meat at all. Such a drift seems to me to be a very positive thing, so more power to those trying to raise awareness.

OK, so a lot more talk of economics and animal welfare in this one than I expected, thanks for staying with me, but the point is there are plenty of good reasons to question my consumption of meat, and there are regular reports of health benefits from cutting back, especially from red meat. Spending a week without meat seems like a good thing to do.

Stir-frying vegetables for a Thaish curry
Stir-frying vegetables for a Thaish curry

It was a good thing to do. I think meat can be an excuse for unimaginative cooking. A big chunk of heated meat is sometimes the center-piece of a dish, with some limp microwaved vegetables to one side as a token gesture to be ignored. It’s a disservice to vegetables that can be so much more varied and delicious, and deserve to be given the spotlight from time to time. Well, most vegetables can be varied and delicious. I’m not a particular fan of aubergine/eggplant, or mushrooms, ironically because I find them a bit meaty. But I respect them, and I know the failure is of my own palate and its poor appreciate for their many obvious qualities.

Brussels sprouts epitomise what I’m talking about here. In Britain at least they are almost uniformly accepted as a Christmas side that kids hate and adults tolerate for tradition or possibly health. But the reason brussels sprouts are miserable is that we do some a pathetic job of cooking them. Take that pan of water off the boil, and instead sprinkle those sprouts with olive oil, some grated parmigiano, perhaps some garlic or lemon juice, toss with pancetta or dip them in duck fat, and roast them for 25mins … and hold the phone it turns out they’re a much tastier addition to the Christmas table than the turkey.

This is a veggie burger. Veggie burgers are good.
Veggie burgers are actually pretty good.

OK, pancetta and duck fat sort of undermine my vegetarian leanings here, but perhaps that’s my point. Meat can maketh the veg, as well as the other way around. And there’s plenty of great food to choose from without eating meat at all.

So obviously I found spending a week without meat pretty easy (you would hope so, as millions of people manage it for a lifetime), and I tried a few new things in the process. I experimented with snow peas and bok choy in a not-very-authentic Thai veggie curry (using a bought lemongrass sauce), which was yum. Even cooked veggie burgers for the family one night because I’ve always been curious how those compared. Turns out, pretty well. Tastier than a cheap hamburger, in fact. All in all, it was easy, cheap and fun to go without meat for a week. Recommended.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention, I accidentally ate cheese made with rennet. Did you know that a lot of cheese is made using an enzyme scooped from the stomachs of newborn calves? I did, but I sort of assumed that it would be listed on the ingredients of the cheese. It is not, in the US, at least (it’s just down as “cheese enzyme” which surely implies it’s a product of cheese not cute baby animals). Transparency, people.

  • Difficulty: Easy (now you know about the cheese thing)
  • Worthwhiliness: High

Declutter clothes

There’s a whole category of useful resolutions that I would loosely term “life laundry”. You know the kind of thing: go through all the stuff that builds up in one area of your life, get rid of what you no longer need, and organize the rest. For this week’s mini-resolution I picked the most literal form of life laundry, and an area I’m particularly bad at keeping organized: clothes.

I struggle with two competing instincts. The first is to be hyper-organized and minimalist; the second is to hoard. It’s a lovely combination that keeps me in a state of perpetual mild irritation with myself. I’m probably on some kind of spectrum, though thankfully on the very mild side.

I think the hoarding instinct comes, indirectly, from my mother, who grew up as part of a generation who were significantly less spoiled than my own, needing to be thrifty and resourceful with what they had. “Make do and mend”. That doesn’t make you a hoarder, but it does mean you don’t throw things away if there’s a chance they might be useful in future. Apparently I’m imaginative when it comes to future use, because I find it very hard to discard anything. Containers, in particular, might be very useful for storing something. For example they would be ideal for storing all these other, smaller, containers.

When it comes to clothes, I don’t like to get rid of something if I can still wear it. That leads me to deliberately wear my oldest, least favourite items of clothing in an attempt to wear them out such that I can get rid of them without feeling guilty. The clothes I actually like take a back seat while I wear that t-shirt that doesn’t really suit me, the shirt with the slightly fraying cuffs, the ripped jeans that aren’t supposed to be ripped quite as ripped as they are but it’s fine as long as you don’t stand up or sit in certain positions, and so on.

And so out they go. This week’s resolution is to go through every wardrobe, closet, cabinet and sock drawer and pull out anything that I shouldn’t be hanging onto. Stuff I like that doesn’t fit, novelty clothes, t-shirts from fun-runs, odd bloody socks I’ve hung onto for years just in case the other one shows up. Those old clothes I pointlessly hold on to for decorating or paintball (I don’t play paintball, and I decorate exclusively in the nude).

I’ve had an idea for a system that I’ve wanted to try for a while now (see probably on some kind of spectrum, above). You find a distinctive hanger, or fold some colored card over one, to make a divider, then put it at one end of your closet. Then, whenever you wear something, you return it to the other side of the divider. After a month, you throw out anything that didn’t make it to the worn side. It’s a way of forcing yourself to face up to the clothes you kid yourself you need, but really don’t wear. It’s like being a captain picking sides at secondary school: once you’re down to the last few days, you’re going to need to make some tough decisions about what to save, and that kid who wets himself when he gets excited is not going to make the team.

Who am I kidding, I was never the captain, and I’m not sure what item of clothing the wets-self kid represents. It’s a weak analogy. Anyway, formal or occasional wear like suits or sports jerseys are exempt. I put my wetsuit to one side because, while I’m for sure a gnarly surfer in the summer months, it’s a bit chilly at this time of year, along with my studden football boots because I will play on real grass again one day dammit. Even so, attempting to arbitrarily cram this process into only a week left me cheating wildly and, one the last day, wearing as many outfits as Eva Longoria presenting an award ceremony for people who wear a lot of outfits.

I am often compared to Eva Longoria. Like her, I didn’t really blossom until my mid teens. I’m just throwing this paragraph in so it’ll be displayed when people share the article on social media. Try it why don’t you.

A week later, and my bedroom floor is host to a big pile of clothes. It includes an unpleasant pale yellow shirt I don’t remember buying (and through which you can clearly see my nipples), a really nice and expensive dress shirt that I optimistically bought in Extra Slim, and an old university rugby top from more than a decade ago that still annoyingly fits me and refuses to fade.

The total haul:

  • 9 t-shirts.
  • 1 corporate branded sports coat
  • 2 pairs of jeans
  • 1 belt
  • 2 pairs socks
  • 3 pairs underwear
  • 3 bloody odd socks
  • 2 pairs of shoes
  • 2 work shirts
  • 1 rugby top
  • 2 ties
All the Instagram filters in the world couldn't make this picture interesting
All the Instagram filters in the world couldn’t make this picture interesting

I listed the really nice work shirt I’ve never worn on the share-cycle-app-thing Yerdle, everything else that is sale-able goes to the local Salvation Army charity shop, and the rest goes in a plastic bag into our recycle bin because apparently they can do something with the fabric.

My drawers, closet and co are a bit more relaxed, as am I. Sincerely, I actually feel a little bit less stressed. I can find things, and I never have to wear that nippley yellow shirt again. That’s something we can all get behind.

  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Worthwhiliness: High
Ah no, that is actually a bit more interesting
Ah no, that is actually a bit more interesting

Get more sleep

I’m a night owl, by default. Always have been. When I was at high school I would lie awake late into the night watching whatever was on TV, surfing back and forth between the channels. That took a certain commitment back in the 90s in the UK, when there were only four channels, and at least one of them would go dark at a surprisingly early hour. I wasn’t choosy; I would watch a documentary on Channel 4 about the industrialization of the loom industry in the Cotswolds, then whatever imported comedy was on (Friends or Kids In The Hall were highlights) then enjoy Open University geology programming that was intended for people to tape on VHS recorders rather than watch live. Actually I think this might explain my later fascination with sketch comedy, varied academic subjects and weaving. But the point is I would regularly stay up late, sometimes beyond 2am, then get up in the morning for an early paper-round before school. I once played Fantastic Dizzy on the Amiga CD32 until 3am, because back then you couldn’t save your game, before hitting the rounds with bleary eyes at 6am. I’d like to say that this was cool, and I could handle it, but I was tired all the time at school, and I’m sure my educasions suffered.

When I got to University that pretty much continued, except that everyone else was doing it too and, ironically enough, we were much less likely to be watching university programming. There was definitely more late night drinking. I find it hard to imagine student parties here in the US, where you don’t get to drink until you’re 21. What do you do, soberly enjoy the company of friends? Play board games? Study?! Ridiculous.

When I graduated I worked for a while as both a waiter in a nice restaurant and behind a hotel bar, which pretty much suited my schedule perfectly. I’d be wiping tables on Saturday nights in the restaurant until around midnight, and mid-week in the hotel you were at the mercy of the current residents. If there were people in town for a work conference they didn’t care about, who wanted to drink until 2am, then you were working until 2:15am. Not that I’m complaining; it enabled my late night habit.

Jump forward to my first “proper” job, and I’m working in the City of London as a high-flying, pin-stripe-suit-wearing, professional executive temp (junior). I’ve finally made it. I did pretty well at re-orienting my sleep habits at first, partly because I was living with a teacher with a long commute. But then we got broadband internet, the great absorber of time. Where do all the productive hours, sucked into aimless surfing, go? Perhaps Mark Zuckerberg will live on in indefinite youth, while an old computer clunks and whirs in his attic, LEDs blinking as it feeds him the minutes stolen from people like me, who lost them tending to virtual crops or reading about insomnia on Wikipedia at 2am. The web-server of Dorian Gray. (For any Millennials reading, that’s the guy from the philosophical literary novel by Oscar Wilde, not the Twilight fan fiction 50 Shades of Grey. Which has probably sold many more copies. Mankind is doomed.)

I fixed my habits eventually. Four years ago I took a job working with people spread all around the world, and simultaneously moved to Southern California. That meant being available early in the morning to speak to Western Europe (9 hours ahead) and sometimes in the evening for Oceania (who are basically already previewing tomorrow, I think; I still get confused about it, and to make matters worse they refuse to tell me what lottery numbers are coming up). Quite a few people in LA timezones work early to sync up with the East Coast (3 hours ahead), so I’m not unique, though I probably do it more than most. Once or twice I’ve done a 4am meeting, and I regularly do 6am. So the really late nights inevitably stopped pretty quickly.

All the same, I’ll still push it. After 10pm the house becomes pretty much mine, so it’s precious video game time. As anyone with a Playstation or Xbox knows, an hour is really the bare minimum time to play real games.  It would be common for me to turn in somewhere between 11:30pm and midnight, and later on weekends.

I’m not blaming video games though. This might be scientifically naive, but I’m suspicious that my natural body-clock actually runs to roughly 25hours. I always want the day to last a little longer than it does, but still want the same amount of sleep (a conflict that sleep loses). I’ve come close to testing the theory, by which I mean I went to University, but who knows for sure.

So this week’s challenge, the third mini-resolution in my series of 52, is simple: go to bed by 10pm. That means in bed, lights off. Not slyly looking at Flipboard or Twitter on my phone with the screen brightness turned down, but lying there, marinading in my own sleepless thoughts. 10pm probably doesn’t seem particularly late to a lot of people, but it’s an extra 1:30hrs per night for me. If I can actually get to sleep.

A couple of years ago my wife bought me a Lark for Christmas. It’s an alarm clock you put around your wrist like a watch, set via your phone, and which wakes you with a quiet vibration. The idea is that I could get up for my early calls without disturbing the rest of the household. It’s supposed to be a nicer way to wake up, but I find my wrist being shaken to be more alarming than a noise. My instant reaction is some variation on “HOW LONG HAS THE FIRE BEEN BURNING?” On the other hand, a cool benefit is that the Lark tracks your movement throughout the night, then syncs with your phone to give you a view of how well you actually slept. Whether you tossed and turned all night, or slept deeply. It has a weird effect on me: sometimes I find myself checking the stats to decide how I feel on a given day. Like, “oh good, I slept well last night, then I must not be feeling tired”. It tracks you throughout the week, then gives you a scorecard. So I can see how well this week has gone.

I set the alarm on the Lark on night 1, which informed me it would wake me in 9 hours, surely enough sleep to develop some kind of super-power. Of course falling asleep isn’t quite so easy in practice, and going to bed that much earlier than normal was like the first night on a trip to a different timezone. I obviously wasn’t tired, so I took a sleeping tablet. I have a pack in the drawer by my bed for those frustrating times when you’re lying awake, and the knowledge that you should be asleep, and that you’re running out of potential sleep hours, wakes you up more and more with each passing minute. The effect is particularly acute when you have an important early start the next day, I find. It only happens when my mind is highly occupied, perhaps once a month on average; hardly a problem, but nice to be able to take a capsule and break the anxiety/sleeplessness cycle. It might even be a placebo, or some kind of attribution effect, but I’m not going to dwell on that in case it stops it working. Ignorance is blissful sleep.

I took three sleeping pills during this week of, as is convention, 7 nights. I don’t really mind that. The net result was that I got probably an extra hour of sleep, on average. I think, despite the sleeping tablets, that it was better quality sleep too. On a normal night, if not tired, I might break out my phone and look at Twitter or Facebook. It’s well documented that the blue light emitted by just about everything these days inhibits the production of melatonin, or otherwise messes with circadian rhythm. By forcing myself to lie awake in the dark I avoided those ill-effects and when I did eventually fall asleep, according to the Lark, I slept a little more deeply.

But mainly I slept longer, averaging about 7:30hrs of real sleep per night (disregarding the time the Lark decided I was merely dozing lightly) and felt better the next day. Not super-powered better, and I’m pretty functional on 6-7hrs, but it made a difference. Easier to wake up, obviously, and perhaps a little sharper during the day. I felt like I got more done.

Actually, the biggest benefit was unrelated to sleep. By going to bed earlier, I gave myself time to talk to my wife. Normally I’d either slide under the duvet in the dark, trying not to disturb her, or we’d immediately turn the lights off so as to not waste precious sleep time. Suddenly we could comfortable talk for 10mins without feeling like we were spending tomorrow’s time.

By the end of the week, I noticed that I was getting drowsy around 10pm. The week had definitely reset my body clock, in a helpful way. I missed the extra time in the evenings to watch a TV show or play a game, maybe even read a book, so I plan to move it back to 10:30pm, when I can go to bed feeling tired and ready for sleep. That’s a big benefit. The extra 30mins sleep per night is a keeper.

  • Difficulty: Low-Moderate
    (easy to turn the lights out, but not so simple to fall asleep)
  • Worthwhiliness: High