This day forward blog

Happiness hacks #8: Put everything in its place

If there’s is something more exciting than festive ham, mulled wine, carols and great company at Christmas it’s the annual sort. 

By sort, I don’t just mean the light-touch shove-it-in-a-drawer type sort that constitutes cleaning for the other 11 months of the year. 

By sort, I mean the emptying of drawers and the reordering of cupboards that are one jar away from spilling out onto the floor.

I mean that kind of sort that sends a message to the world that you are ready for the new year. 

Sorting is the perfect hack to go with Life lesson number seven: Life is too short to save anything for best. How many times have you tucked something at the back of a cupboard, only to find that when you discover it again years later it is either out of date or the wrong size? 

I used to think I was one of those people who liked cleaning. But, what I have come to learn is that I like order (which will amuse many of my colleagues) and to know that everything I want to use has a home of its own that makes it easy for me to use it. The jam jar at the bottom of a stack of four, won’t get used. But, don’t stack them at all and give them space on the cupboard base and you’ll find your toast has many more flavours to play with. 

So, whatever you’re doing this new year, why not carve out some time to stop those plates balancing precariously, those spices going stale and those jumpers getting forgotten? Who knows? You might actually enjoy it. 

I should add, that doesn’t mean a deep cleanse of every drawer. Gretchen Rubin (of Happiness Project fame) has two great tips: 1) have a messy drawer for the bits that don’t have a proper home and 2) keep one shelf empty so you always feel you have room to expand! 

One tip I want to add is to try and develop the habit of taking one thing from a room when you move to another (that is out of place). We even have a stair basket to carry lost items up the stairs and keep the clutter at bay. 

Enjoy! 

Snap happy: the road to recovery

This road is one of the most important roads in my life (not that I rank such things, but you know what I mean).

It was on this road that I went on my first run during chemo, determined as I was then to keep the drug weight off and the dream of a 10k race in my sights. It was on this road that my dad (on the same day) returned to running after a long period of rest due to injury. 

This road gave him the chance to think he could again move forward.

And it was to this road that I returned this November to regain my confidence after four months of injury and pick up the pace once more. I jogged/ran 5km without stopping and if that isn't progress toward the marathon wedding, then I don't know what is. 

This road - and my dad running beside me - gave me the confidence to believe I could make that start line. 

It showed me that fear is often our biggest obstacle. 

And overcoming that fear, the best feeling in the world.

PS: this was my view last Friday morning on a run in to work because I decided to face those fears. And facing those fears was better than I could have ever imagined. Beautiful!

Life lesson number five: There is fun in failure

One of the things I loved most about growing up was gymnastics.

This has nothing to do with skill (I frequently came last in competitions and was a bit clumsy). This has nothing to do with fitness (I remember falling from the asymmetric bars at 8 and breaking my arm so badly I needed two operations).

This has nothing to do with the 80s shell suit (red, white, blue and slippery) or the fact that I once appeared in our local newspaper vaulting in a very ungrateful spread eagled position. (Yes, sadly the photo below is me and not the beautiful lady on the beach.)

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This has everything to do with the fact I could turn up, enjoy the company of friends, get some exercise and never expect too much from myself. People loved it when I entered competitions because they never came last. People cheered when I cleared the vault because I wasn't ever going to make Olympian. To many, I was invisible - and I loved it. Every little bit of success meant so much, because it was so hard won. 

Now, I confess if my life imitated gymnastics I'd probably be less than pleased. But, for a self-confessed perfectionist, not being great - or, more importantly, not needing to be great - was hugely liberating. 

So why not try embracing the things that don't go well? 

Because, when things do go well, you'll appreciate them all the more.

Maybe start with something that doesn't involve a beam, strange hand guards and Lycra though...

Life in a list: The Brighter Life list

There is something quite sobering about lying in a hospital bed before life-saving cancer surgery and wondering if you’ll last the day - let alone the next decade.

In that bed, with just a gown, some paper knickers (if you could call them that) and the tightest stockings you will ever wear for company, I didn’t have an image. It didn’t matter if I had a career or a house or a nice handbag. In that moment, I had just one thing and one thing only: my memories.

Illness really does strip you bare and remind you of all the things that matter. Lying there, I remember thinking about all the times I’d stayed at home to make something for a friend (a cake, a knitted dishcloth, a chutney), when really what I should have been doing was making time for that friend.

So that’s why, when I was discharged from the hospital in my body corset (to help me walk after they used my tummy fat to reconstruct my right breast), I didn’t dig out the knitting needles. I went straight for the notebook. 

And I wrote a list. A long list. 

As far as lists go, the ‘Brighter Life' list – a distillation of all that you want to experience in life – is one of the best lists you will ever write.

This is no bucket list. This isn’t a list about death, but a pledge to live life and make memories as often as you can. 

It’s not a finite list, but a work in progress. It started on my blog smallboobsbigsmiles.com and has evolved in a series of notebooks since then (it amuses me that I like stationery about as much as lists). 

And it’s not an outrageously ambitious list (with Everest scaling and skydiving on the agenda), but one with a good smattering of quick wins and activities within my control as well as hopefully-soon-to-be lifetime achievements. 

The Brighter Life list is one of my ‘make it happen’ lists, a group of lists designed to making achieving things a routine activity. You can either read the original list here or read the edit below (not doing too bad bearing in mind I started it two years ago:

Brighter Life list: the things I’ve achieved

  1. Make my own crumpets 
  2. Travel to the Amalfi Coast
  3. Raise £10,000 for breast cancer charities
  4. Do an overnight walk through London 
  5. Walk around Olympic Park (I missed out in 2012)
  6. Swim at the Aquatics Centre (50m of sheer joy)
  7. Get published 
  8. Stand on a cliff with no hair on my head (niche, I appreciate)
  9. Make my own lip balm (stick to the bought stuff)
  10. Buy a new sofa 
  11. Grow my own Gerberas
  12. Fill our garden with alliums
  13. Make a ferment
  14. Enjoy a carol service in the Capital
  15. Take a trip on the Orient Express
  16. Watch Shakespeare at The Globe
  17. Visit the Royal Albert Hall
  18. Win an award for me
  19. Make mulled wine
  20. Make a cake for Test Match Special (yes, but not quite ticked off thanks to a security guard) 
  21. Visit Kew Gardens
  22. Make sausage rolls
  23. Watch Cats
  24. Carve a pumpkin
  25. Visit the HMS Belfast 
  26. Go up The Shard
  27. Run a marathon
  28. Ride the Emirates line
  29. See Mona Lisa at The Louvre in Paris

Unfinished Brighter Life list business includes (won’t exhaust you with the whole list):

  1. Plan a wedding (ongoing)
  2. Make my own wedding cake
  3. Do the three peaks challenge
  4. Stay in a treehouse
  5. Travel to Lapland
  6. Write a book
  7. Make a piece of clothing from scratch
  8. Eat at The Fat Duck
  9. Stay at Center Parcs 
  10. Make proper lemonade
  11. Watch The Lion King and Book of Mormon
  12. Buy a whole salmon at Christmas and fillet it
  13. Visit the Greenwich Planetarium
  14. Visit Wimbledon and watch a game on Centre Court
  15. Make wine
  16. Conquer the macaroon
  17. Learn to pipe icing properly
  18. Make piccalilli
  19. Complete a trek
  20. Gain >2000 Twitter followers
  21. Climb a mountain
  22. Be quoted in an article/on TV
  23. Deliver a TED talk or equivalent inspirational speech
  24. Go skiing
  25. Learn to dive
  26. Make breast screen part of cervical screening test
  27. Go to New York 
  28. Travel business class on a plane 
  29. Help improve data collection for those with secondary breast cancer
  30. Make almond croissants
  31. Spend New Year’s Eve in a different time zone
  32. Encourage young women to do more volunteering 
  33. Plan and execute a big charity fundraiser
  34. Go abroad for lunch/dinner and back in a day
  35. Develop a signature bake
  36. Make jaffa cakes
  37. Wear a size 4 dress (not to be achieved at same time as 36) and 38) 
  38. Make pork pies 
  39. Watch a concert at the 02
  40. Enter poetry competition
  41. Become fluent in a language
  42. Learn chinese
  43. Make own cookbook
  44. Watch a live athletics event 

What’s interesting about this list (other than reminding me I still have A LOT to do) is that if you craft your own and try to spot themes, you can work out what you really love to do. For me that’s:

  • Health and exercise-related challenges
  • Cooking (mainly baking) and eating good food
  • Travel and adventure
  • Learning and creativity (particularly writing)
  • Charity

This interestingly matches my earlier blog about nurturing a hobby. The only thing missing is the people with which I hope to tick them off.

So, get listing and, if you think you can help me achieve any of the above, please do get in touch. 

Let’s raise a toast to the brighter life. May you find yours. 

Life lesson number four: Success needs a new definition

If I asked you to describe the life of a successful thirty-something, you probably wouldn't include cancer scars alongside the list of society-approved achievements.

With a good career, loving family, nice house and engagement ring on my finger, I thought I understood what it was to be successful. 

Turns out, I didn't have a clue.

The greatest piece of advice about success that I have ever received came not from a high-powered executive but from the nurse who cared for me after my mastectomy. That nurse had, herself, suffered great sadness, and had turned to nursing as a way of giving back to the world. 

As I was reaching for my Blackberry just 24 hours after surgery, she turned to me and said: 'What is it you really want your gravestone to say?' Certainly a sobering statement so soon after life-saving surgery, but the right one. That sentence has stuck with me even years later and greets me each morning. 

Working hard shouldn't really make the shortlist for the final words that are chiselled about you in marble. Question is, what should? 

I have just been reading Arianna Huffington's book Thrive, which focuses on her attempts to redefine success. In it, she talks about the idea of the 'Third metric', a third measure that goes beyond the two metrics of money and power, and consists of the four pillars: well-being, wisdom, wonder and giving'. 

I couldn't agree more. 

She goes on to explain that 'the Third Metric is one lived in a way that's mindful of our eventful eulogy... We may not be able to witness our own eulogy, but we're actually writing it all the time, every day. The question is how much we're giving the eulogiser to work with.'

If you asked me now, whether I think I am successful, I would say yes - but not in the way you might think. Success for me now is living every day according to my values. 

I would highly recommend you spend some time identifying and honing your own values. Search online and you will be able to find lists of relevant words to get you started. (The Daily Greatness diary also has an exercise to encourage those values to surface).

The hardest part is narrowing them down.

My values are as follows - set as a daily reminder on my phone to focus my mind each morning:

1) Generosity and purpose: make a difference each day and you'll find that a little bit of kindness can go a very long way

2) Energy and health: only once you have put your oxygen mask on first, are you qualified to look after others

3) Achievement: being able to declare at the end of each day 'I did that'

I genuinely believe I am the sum total of my imperfections - the bits life didn't get right first time. Those imperfections have helped me find my own definition of what it is to be successful.

Let's hope the eulogiser agrees...

Success definitely does need a new definition - yours!