Paper Money, Quality Time

The headline made my ears prick up, I had to listen to the bulletin to make sure I heard it right. apparently I did. The newsreader told the listening masses that Bank Holidays cost the nation £2.3bn each. Credit where credit is due, the Centre for Economics and Business Research timed the release of their report perfectly to hit the news desks on a slow news Easter Monday Bank Holiday.  But that is where the praise ends. If the report is to be believed, scraping our bank holidays would boost annual output by £19bn.  Sounds nice, if you are an economist, a government minister or the ghost of Christmas past. The headline actually hides a multitude of sins and misdemeanours.

The idea that Bank Holidays cost the economy assumes that somehow money is removed from the country’s balance sheets. That is a fallacy. The self proclaimed “rough and ready calculations” made by the think tank are based on the assumption that bank holidays are normal working days. That by the nation not being at work it has been robbed of this productivity.  This is simply not the case. It is a paper exercise where figures are imputed for the work which would be done in a normal working day and the value it creates. The value was never created in the first place and so is not lost merely forgone for a better cause.

If bank holidays are so costly, then why have them? For one very simple reason: we all need a break.  If the report’s figures are to be believed, Sundays cost the country on average £119.6bn every year. Saturdays a similar figure. That’s almost £240bn the country could be better off by scrapping weekends. And then there are all of the holidays we are “generously” provided with by our employers each year. But have you tried working everyday without a break.

Let’s look at it this way, whenever you drive along the motorway you are reminded that tiredness can kill, to take a break before doing any serious harm. The same is true of working life. Carrying on, and on, and on only does serious damage. I speak from experience that being a workaholic is not a healthy state of mind. Having spent the last 25 years of my life devoting time to work – be that study, paid work and worrying about it when I’m not doing it – I know the consequences it has had on my health.

Significantly this report identifies factories and construction sites as two of the three main sectors “hit” by bank holidays. Forgoing any reality that many of these continue to work during bank holidays given the practicalities of shutting down completely, these sectors are those which require mental sharpness to ensure quality and to prevent accidents. Here tiredness can definitely kill. And even Victorian industrialists recognised the importance of giving their workers time off. Recharging the batteries is a phrase with real meaning. Remember when you had a tape Walkman and let the batteries run down – the music suddenly didn’t sound so good and you were left disappointed. We’ve moved forward in personal music technology but seem to have moved backwards in the minds of some.

We live in the 21st Century and after years of progress our leisure time is valued and important. On an economic level leisure time has generated it own worth through all the activities we do in our time off from DIY and eating out to outdoor leisure pursuits and weekends away. The report wishes to suggest that these are not as valuable to the economy as industry or construction. It is disingenuous to blame the Bank Holiday for this imbalance and blame is better laid at the door of economic and industrial policy not the provision of Bank Holidays. Unfortunately for the report’s authors, on this the horse bolted sometime long ago and no new lock will save it now.

But all of this discussion of the economics forgets us as humans. Our sole purpose is not to generate economic value it is to make the most of this life.  Whilst part of this involves working, there is so much more that we can enjoy. I was once asked if I lived to work and the truth was I did (and some would say still do!). Some believe they are born to give, some born to make a difference and many who feel they have to do what is right by working.  Through these feelings of obligation their economic contribution to the country, their families or just themselves becomes paramount.  But what does that gain if the individual is unable to enjoy the fruits of their labour which for many of us is the wage or salary we earn.  Bank holidays provide some brief and often shared downtime in an otherwise hectic and difficult to coordinate life. They are precious in this big picture of life even if the economists want to hunt them down. And by the way we enjoy our time off we very often spend money so it is hardly a loss to the economy.

Be it Bank Holidays, parental leave, health and safety, on the job training or there is a ready supply of those who want to put economics before the person. Yet these reports and models are paper exercises usually led by those who believe we live in models. Life is not a model, it is lived and changes by the minute, it is unpredictable, it is fast and frenetic. These are the things to enjoy and the very reasons we need a break.

But there is an elephant in the room in all of this: what is wrong with a day off? As I keep trying to tell myself, nothing! Just enjoy. Economists would do well to take note.


Relentlessly Uphill

Two days on from my latest sportive and I’m feeling human again. Almost.

Saturday saw the first running of the Twining Pro-Am sportive in Salisbury.  I have to admit that my initial reason for riding this was to give a bit of moral support to @leadout though in recent weeks I have been looking forward to it for sporting reasons. And dare I say it, sat here with the benefit of hindsight I can see the positive effect it has on me both physically and, more importantly as I type, mentally.  In all fairness the Twining event was superbly run: low key but effective start and finish, located next to a leisure centre (for showers!) with ample parking (for the support team!) and a goodie bag the quality of which you rarely see at a mass participation sports event. The weather was kind despite it being a British bank holiday and the drivers were as considerate as they ever seem to be in the South of England.  The organisers deserve the praise for delivering such a high quality yet relaxed experience.

The only snag was the route, though this should not be seen as a criticism on the part of the organisers. Indeed, looking at this objectively, the route was well conceived. For the most part it was on quiet, good quality roads and with the odd exception well signed.  But its main feature was its unrelenting nature, a constantly undulating route replete with unpredictable wind.  I know that for some this was a major negative and my cycling buddy Dr D was firmly in this camp.  For me it was a ride of two halves: the first 30 miles taken easy with Dr D, the last 30 miles spent on my own catching and passing all the hares who’d overtaken us on the way out.  Those first 30 miles seemed pleasantly rolling when taken easier*, but they never gave up on the return leg.  I finished tired but content in equal measure and looking back this was the tonic that I needed this summer.

As more intuitive readers may have already picked up, I’ve been struggling this summer and at times have felt in a similar place psychologically to where I was 2 years ago. I don’t like to dwell there to long and I’m glad that now I can recognise the symptoms before a catastrophic collapse brings them all to the fore. But it means this summer has been hard work.  Whilst watching yesterday’s Vuelta stage I was intrigued to hear Messrs Harmon and Smith discussing the body’s energy use. To simply exist and function physically (not including exercise) the body uses 15% of its energy. The brain alone uses 16% of the body’s energy.  It goes without saying that the more the brain is asked to do the more energy it requires and so the more exhausted one can feel.  And this is how I have been feeling: boredom with my lot, anxious due to the boredom, stressed due to the anxiety, bored with the stress – a vicious spiral which I have kept in a steady state. In part good, but could be a lot better. Is it any wonder I feel so tired.

And so this is why Saturday’s efforts seemed in a way familiar but also an escape. Relentlessly undulating would make a change from relentlessly uphill. Time to get a bit of perspective back, time for a refocus.


*Apologies to Dr D who found Saturday’s ride anything but enjoyable – she did make it though!

It all adds up

I thought I’d pick up one of the metaphors I used yesterday as there have been a few ideas that I’ve mulled over during the past few weeks.  In my mind they are becoming very closely linked. Realising this has been a difficult journey but I’m now seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.

For a long time in life I’ve been one of those high achievers. From early on in school I was at or near the top of the class. Though this had its benefits, some less obvious than you might at first think, it was where the seeds of the rat race were sown. From this point on there has been an almost constant “need” to perform driving me. I hasten to add that this need is something which I now recognise had taken over my mind with unhealthy abandon.  I felt I was expected to achieve to and by not achieving I was letting people down.  To some extent setting your sights on a level of achievement is helpful. Throughout education it helped me get the most out of my studies.  But heading into adult life the constant gnawing away began to take up precious energy. And without clear targets I set myself overly ambitious and possibly unrealistic targets.  It’s no wonder I got to where I did and it’s with little surprise that I had a huge fall waiting around the corner. You just can’t go on like that.

Which brings me back to yesterday’s post and the link I made to the margins. Those of you familiar with cycling and in particular the coaching philosophy of GB and Team Sky supremo David Brailsford will be familiar with the idea of “the aggregation of marginal gains”. If not, here is what he said about it to the Team Sky website:

“It means taking the 1% from everything you do; finding a 1% margin for improvement in everything you do. That’s what we try to do from the mechanics upwards. If a mechanic sticks a tyre on, and someone comes along and says it could be done better, it’s not an insult – it’s because we are always striving for improvement, for those 1% gains, in absolutely every single thing we do.”

What has this got to do with me, my problems and my outlook on life? At first glance not a lot as I’m never going to be a professional cyclist or Olympic medalist (I gave up pretensions of being Mario Cipollini in the mountains and Marco Pantani in the sprints). But even so life is for god or bad a challenge and its better to face it in a realistic way.  If we take the Brailsford way then we all have room for improvement, we all have something extra to give.  Yet in acknowledging this it is equally important to recognise that that extra bit has to be realistic and measured.  Let’s look at it this way, in his autobiography, Bradley Wiggins explains how Brailsford and Shane Sutton told the GB pursuit team at the Olympics that there was little point in smashing world records in qualifiers when they had to do enough to qualify yet qualify as the fastest team.  This is all about knowing your capacity and realising what the margin is.  In my case it has been realising that changing the world isn’t about a stellar academic input, a groundbreaking social enterprise or political recognition, it is about looking around me and realising what I can do.  In this respect I suppose I am the mechanic in Brailsford’s interview, but where would Tour champions be without these important yet unsung team members.  Whilst I am growing to recognise this importance (and subtle) difference in viewing my contribution, I have to keep reminding myself when things don’t go as well or reach the heights I’d at first anticipated. It gives a new perspective on doing enough rather than giving you’re all – it’s not laziness rather it is knowing what to give to which tasks so there is enough energy to go around in life.

All of which brings me to the bigger picture.  I’d be lying if I said I didn’t embark on my original career choice thinking I could change the world.  Each opportunity to climb the pole was a chance to make a bigger name for myself in the belief I could make a difference.  The fact this didn’t materialise in the way I had envisaged was a major contributory factor for my breakdown.  Therefore I feel quite uneasy at the moment.  Without getting overtly political, there are a lot of issues that get me angry, make me (much to MrsAB’s chagrin) shout at the radio and initially feel I should do something about.  But at the same time I’ve recognised the fact that there are things you can change and things you can’t.  Much as I admire those who are taking the fight to the rulers of the accepted norms, I’m increasingly recognising this is high on energy but low on outcome.  And again this is where the aggregation of marginal gains comes in.  Politically yes I could try and take a stand though how often does that work. Alternatively I could do one thing to make a difference, for example ride my bike to the station rather than getting a lift, refusing to buy the products of certain companies instead of blockading their shops.  I’m not saying people should or shouldn’t do the alternative but for me it is where to place the energy.  Equally for the architects and proponents of some of the alternatives, there is to often a pre-occupation with purity and singularity of form of their chosen alternative rather than how best to make it work.  They seem to want to take over the world in the way the existing order did previously: two wrongs and all that. But here it is at the margins where change can take place.  You will never please all of the people all of the time, but there are those wavering at the edges who can be convinced of your approach who might be able to convince some of the others further along the line.  Sounds like you need a bit less energy doesn’t it?  And whilst it might not change things over night, its a step in the right direction. We know where great leaps forward left people in the past.

So these have been my preoccupying thoughts for the last few weeks.  Some might see it as giving in, others might view it as idleness, laziness or apathy.  But hopefully some of you will see, as I have, the importance of knowing when and what to give and how to avoid the next burn out.  At the end of the day, it all adds up and you might even achieve more than you first thought.


Hide, run or jump?

Whilst I was away last week I spotted this blog entry retweeted and it wasn’t until today that I had chance to read it.  Yet again, it’s another demonstration that “nervous breakdowns” and “burnout” are the stuff of more common occurrence than many of us can or even chose to recognise.  Yet again its a sign that it can happen to anyone.  I recognised the signs and symptoms of the opening paragraph.  Now this blog is written by someone who from the outside might seem like a strong character – an entrepreneur in the throes of starting their own business – and with a drive to succeed.  However, despite recognising the risks that starting their own business might have on their mental health, they chose to gamble and are now paying for it.  Although it seems that Craig knows how to deal with periodic burnout, my impression is that it occurs with a frequency and regularity that looking from the outside in one would question as being unhealthy.  All of which makes me question the logic of the modern world again.  We work for others for hours on end to get the pay so we can live life to the full yet either lack the time or the residual energy to do this. We decide to work for ourselves and we take on risk and responsibility often in the name of lifestyle change meaning the lifestyle has gotten more stressful rather than less.  It makes me wonder what we do these things for – and don’t get me started on the Big Society or this post will never end.  This is an interesting issue for me at the moment. Having emerged from my own period of burnout and breakdown and seeking to answer my own lifestyle concerns the temptation to do something different is burning strong.  But I am held back by the fear not only of failure – and by that I mean financial – but also of making a rod for my own back and unbalancing that fine equilibrium in my mental health.  And all of the time the world carries on revolving around me.  Craig is also a good example as a social entrepreneur. In putting the needs and concerns of others on a par with his own needs it is likely that this adds to rather than takes away from the stresses. I know that feeling all too well.

So the world can often look big and bad. The skies turn grey, the black dogs bark and every silver lining is stalked by a pretty big cloud. The immediate temptation is to hide and pull the covers up. Then there is the strong urge to run in the opposite way. Ultimately the bravest and best decision is to jump. But building up to the jump, no matter how small, takes courage.

Photographers keep things in focus

My mum bought me a mug for my birthday a couple of years ago and this was written on the side.  Pretty self-explanatory really but a salient lesson for life.

The last week and a bit I’ve not just been feeling flat, I’ve been feeling pretty fed up. For the most I’ve lacked energy.  I think this is partly a physical thing and I’ve had an underlying bug which seems resilient to any shaking off.  But then I’ve just reached a point that I’ve been drained of the mental energy that I’ve been devoting to changing my behaviour.  All in all I’ve reached some buffers for this service and need to stop.  The problem is I can’t.

Take the cycling for example, I’ve talked about recovery rides, about pacing and about keeping going.  Really what I need is a complete rest and even though I’ve not been on the bike this last week and a bit I’m mentally beating myself up for not having been out on several rides piling up the miles. Yes, pretty counterproductive as I may have given the legs a rest but the mind is on overdrive.

I need some focus. Anyone who follows my twitter feed will see what a scatter gun it is, firing off thoughts and reactions seemingly at random.  It’s not by happenstance, it’s a reflection of me.  And so trying to develop anything new is suffering from the same problem – no focus on the priorities, no priority on focus.  That’s what I need to do – I know it, I just need to act on it.

But in gathering some focus I think I also need a bit of realism.  Rome wasn’t built in a day and as Mrs AB and I found out last year on our honeymoon they haven’t finished it yet! I’m trying to take on too much,  solve the problems of the world in one go, be a success overnight. Again take the cycling – repeat after me: I am not a professional cyclist. Riding around like a blue arsed fly grinding out high gears and pushing on isn’t getting me anywhere. I’m not going to cover 25-30 miles in an hour. But I can cover a greater distance if I devote a bit more time.  I’ll never make it at a pro level but what is it I cycle for? Enjoyment. There’s the focus for that one and now its time to put into practice properly.

So, time to get life back in focus.