March 15th, 2018

Making room for my happy voice

Like most people (I think) I have a pretty constant stream of stuff that runs around my head. When things are busy at home or at work, I’d say 80% of the stuff is logistical and proceedural — mostly internal to do lists. “Get this child here, help this child with their homework, take the dog for a walk, figure out why this child is still in their pyjamas five minutes before we need to leave for school!”

Then when I’m tired or in a bad place, there’s the mean voice in my head who seems to pop up when I least need it. “Oh you’re looking a bit fat today. Blimey look at all those grey hairs! You really need to spend some more time with your family/friends/husband/children. Oh, did you really mean to say that to that person? They probably hate you now!”

There’s also the happy voice that isn’t always as loud but is definitely there. The happy voice is often stimulated by my senses, “What a beautiful bird I can hear. Mmmmmm this food is delicious. I’m cold but exhilarated because I’m outside loving nature. Oh look at my gorgeous child/dog/husband, I love them so much.” You know, the mushy stuff you see all over Facebook and Instagram.

I’ve been spending a lot of time on my own, with my own thoughts of late. I recently left my job and went freelance. Before accepting any new paid work, I decided to take some time off. I was feeling a little burnt out after a pretty intensive few years of work and knew that I needed a break to refresh and recharge myself. I needed to address the balance of that 80% logistical/procedural stuff and give myself some more head space.

I needed a focus for this time off so I signed up for a picture book writing course and organised some voluntary work at the primary school our children go to. I love children’s literature and writing for children is an itch I wanted to scratch. If nothing else, I thought it would improve my research writing (being able to explain complex research findings to an executive is probably a similar job to writing a children’s picture book).

It’s pretty difficult to uncouple yourself from something that has become ingrained. I’ve been working on the web since the birth of our eldest daughter 10 years ago. I found it pretty hard to switch off from ‘work’ during the initial few weeks and ended up refreshing and updating research articles I had published on my blog and pulling them into Medium. In the first two weeks of ‘freelancing’ (when I was actually supposed to be writing children’s stories) I published 7 stories on Medium. An industry friend sent me a text to say,

“Absolutely loving all your posts. Our research channel on Slack at work is mainly all you, all the time. I dunno, you wait all these years for a blog post and then…”

Thankfully for everyone on that Slack channel I went on holiday after that ☺️

Snowboarding in the French Alps was the complete break I needed and I could literally feel myself unwind and switch off. I spent a lot of time outdoors walking and snowboarding, I read books, I wrote some stories. My brain started to feel less logistical. I had more head space for the happy voice but I also felt I could give the mean voice room, observe what it had to say and decide whether I agreed or not (yes I definitely did need to get those grey hairs sorted out).

Since then my thoughts have periodically turned back to the web and work but I’ve mostly got into a groove and there has been a better balance. I’m learning a lot about how to write, when to write and what to write but mostly I’m listening.

I’m listening to the voice that tells me to spend an hour doing a jigsaw puzzle. I’m listening to the voice that tells me to stop and listen to the birds singing in the trees. I’m listening to the voice that whispers to me to tell a joke to my daughter and give her a kiss instead of telling her off for still being in her pyjamas five minutes before we have to leave. Sometimes when I listen like this, an idea for a story pops in my head.

The crazy thing about this is that none of this is revolutionary or new to me. I know the theory of this stuff and I’ve known it for a long time. I’ve worked within creative teams for 20 years, I trained as a Creative Facilitator 15 years ago, I have read books about creativity and I’ve spent a lot of time doing ‘creative’ things! I’ve just been too focused on my logistical voice and let myself be too busy to put it into practice.

When Mark needed to hire our first designer, Benn and Mark Boulton Design became a studio, we added a little benefit to the package we offered him. It was called ‘The Happy Space Fund’. We offered it to all our employees after that. Once a quarter, we would give everyone some money (I forget how much) towards something to improve their creativity — to give them head space, to improve the physical space in the office or help inspire them in their work.

People used it to buy books, attend conferences, have a massage or buy nice stuff for their desks. After a time, we also let people work on their own projects on Friday mornings and gave them Friday afternoons off. We knew how important it was for people to have time away from ‘doing’ to be able to just ‘be’. Despite offering this to our employees, Mark and I didn’t really take advantage of the benefit ourselves. We were both really focused on giving our team what they needed and didn’t really take our own needs into account. It was a similar story working at Monotype. I always put my colleagues needs before my own. So finally, years later, I’m giving myself permission to just ‘be’ and I’m really enjoying it.

I read a very famous quote from the late Professor Stephen Hawking again yesterday and it really resonated with me. I think it’s a lovely way of thinking about your inner voice and a much better end than I could write myself:

‘Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious.’

Making room and giving myself head space is absolutely letting me do this. You should try it too.

Previously : Creating the right research environment
Recently : Working with the research funnel