Making the mundane more interesting

a tree against a stormy skyIf you look up the word ‘mundane’ in the dictionary it means:

lacking interest or excitement; dull.

Lots of activities in most people’s lives could be described this way. It’s the things you have to do, rather than want to do. It’s the routine, and the necessary, the obligatory.

Some people get a great kick out of routine activities. They like the repetition, the process, they find it comforting. Some like some of them – there might be a particular thing that is enjoyable – for me its peeling vegetables, there is something about releasing the fresh new layer under the tired external skin that I find quite thrilling although I’m sure even that would pale if I were doing it more often or with a larger number of veg.

For most of us most of the time mundane activities are just that – mundane. They are the things you might find yourself doing on autopilot, the things when you might use the time to think about something else whilst your body just gets on with the thing that has to be done, the bits you would edit out if you were describing your day to someone else.

So what for you is mundane? What activities do you have to do again and again that you just find dull. What for you is monotonous, repetitive, uninteresting and yet necessary? For me its things like travelling on trains, which I do a lot, doing the washing or the washing up and pairing socks (which I particularly hate). Or you might find there is something that is only sometimes mundane. It might be an activity that is sometimes exciting, fun and engaging, and yet sometimes the dullest seeming thing on earth.

my dog smiling at the cameraDuring my year of doing things differently, one activity kept appearing for me again and again and again. In my case it was walking the dog. I do this twice a day everyday that I am home, for between 20 and 60 minutes each time depending on my schedule, the weather and just how much the dog is bouncing off the walls. Now I love my dog, don’t get me wrong and a lot of the time I love walking him. I’m lucky. I live next to a wood, close to a moor and within walking distance of a waterfall, a stone circle, plenty of fields, pubs, ponds and other stuff. Beautiful places to walk. Most of the time I look forwards to going out, stretching my legs and breathing in fresh air.

Sometimes I don’t.

Sometimes I just want to sit on the sofa watching crap telly. Sometimes I want to stay in bed, hiding under the duvet and pretending to be asleep. Sometimes I want someone else in the family to go and walk the dog so I don’t have to. Basically, sometimes I find dog walking mundane, dull, uninteresting and unexciting. Sometimes I even begin to hate the dog, resenting the time he steals from me with his constant need to be walked.

IMG_0156So how do we react to mundane things we don’t want to do?

Well, this is one way I used to behave. I’d look at the dog, I’d know I had to go and walk him, and I’d sit there beginning to feel miserable about it. I’d think about all the other things that doing this thing stopped me from doing. It might be that I was really in tune with my work and I’d have to break that flow, or that I was really busy with a huge list of things to do and this would put me back, or it might be that I was resting up – maybe watching telly or reading a book – and this would stop me having my time and that wasn’t fair.

Basically I’d feel resentful. And this feeling might seep in an hour or so before I actually took the dog out anyway. An hour of being not in flow, of being unproductive and of interrupted ‘me-time’ anyway – before adding on the time for walk itself. Totally pointless.

Now sometimes I might catch myself and remember I have a choice about how I feel. I’m not enlightened enough to be able to instantly shift my mood simply by recognising it as one thing and then making it be something else, oh no (I don’t think many of us are, that’s why it’s so annoying when someone tells you to ‘cheer up’). But I can sometimes recognise my mood and then take action to shift it. For me, this is when doing something different each day really came into its own. It was the perfect way to mood-shift in relation to mundane activities.

me drinking a gin and tonic whilst dog walkingI couldn’t change the fact I needed to walk the dog, but I could decide to do the dog walk differently.

I could decide to find something new in the way I approached walking the hound which would switch dull into interesting, which would engage me in a new way. Instead of being bored on autopilot I could use the time to shift my mood rather than simply follow my usual pattern of becoming more and more miserable and resentful. And from the moment I started to think about how this walk would be different I felt invigorated, charged with a new sense of excitement rather than of boredom.

Quite a dramatic transformation.

During the year, as I said, I kept coming back to the dog walking. I did simple things like changing my route – I discovered new places to walk to even just starting at my own front door, tried walking my usual routes the other way round, tried not using paths at all but hacked through the undergrowth (not really recommended). One day I walked up the stream – actually in the stream – which is great fun providing you don’t have a hole in your wellingtons. I took a gin and tonic with me too on one memorable occasion…

dog in the woods in the snowMy favourite was going out in January one lunch time after a heavy snowfall the night before. I decided to myself that I wasn’t allowed to cross other people’s footprint trails so had to make each step into new virgin snow at all times, making my own unique trail that never cut across another. This started off quite easily, but lead me to some rather intricate dances as I backtracked or tried to find new ways of getting from A to B without crossing the lines. It was also compounded by the tracks the dog was making – I had to be sure he didn’t run around me in a complete ring, or his tracks would have needed crossing! At one point the only option was to slide off a bank into a snowdrift and I can remember it now – the sense of excitement at sitting down in the snow (I did have waterproof trousers on so there was no real risk to my clothing) and pushing myself off to drop 5 foot into a mound of snow covered bracken. The wood was so still and silent, no one else was around and I found myself laughing out loud at what I was doing. I remember that my laughter echoed slightly so I experienced that slightly odd disconnect when you catch yourself as others might see you – or in this case, hear what others might here.

Remember this was a day I didn’t want to walk the dog. When the jaw dropping beauty of the woods in winter had failed to seduce me, and instead where I had felt fed up and resentful of the fact I needed to suit and boot up and get outside. I’d probably inwardly moaned for an hour or so before going out about the general unfairness of life, specifically that I had to waste my time going out and doing this thing. And yet twenty minutes later I can be standing waist deep in a snow drift laughing my head off – invigorated, fresh and alive. How? Simply by approaching the walk differently and finding something new in it or even not having a route at all (the day I let the dog decide where we went and simply followed him).

my dogs arse as he jumps off a rock in the woodsSometimes I focused on trying to get the dog to do new things (I particularly remember my none too successful attempt at creating a rural dog agility course).

And sometimes I wouldn’t be on my own but with the kids and I’d get them to join in (like the day we took pictures of each other ‘sleeping’ in trees, on paths, in bushes to make funny photos). If I was alone, it might just be about me doing new things (trying to take photos of my hair blowing in the wind, or the way the light seems to fall across the land).

Basically, I recognised that there are an infinite number of ways in which I can make taking the dog for a walk more interesting for myself. I might start out feeling down, but if I choose to do something different, I can just as easily end up laughing out loud.

my hair blowing in a strong windI don’t think there is an option to eradicate all things lacking interest or excitement from our lives. The banking still needs to be done, the washing up won’t sort itself and the dog just needs to be walked. But we don’t have to settle for dull – honest.

And it’s tiny.

It’s a tiny, tiny, weenie shift. A shift in the head. A decision to look for the new, the different, the as yet undone.

Try it the next time you are faced with the mundane – what could you do differently?

Doing different daily: better than wearing robes and having constant sex

red boots and crossed legsI reckon on the whole self help books promise you the world – want to make more of your life? Get happy? Get thin? Get over yourself? Then they disappoint. A week or so after reading them I’ve forgotten the new shiny principles I promised to follow and the inertia of life has returned. Basically I’m back to doing the same old thing – and making no more of life than before.

Last year I decided to do something really, really simple. I did something different. Rather than reading endless self-help books and still feeling stuck I decided to do something practical instead to shove myself out of a rut.

So in 2013 I spent a year where each day I did something new or different. Sometimes it was something completely new, sometimes it was doing something I always did but just in a new way, and sometimes the new thing was not doing something I would usually do in a particular situation. I wanted to explain what made me start. Why did I begin doing different daily?

I remember the first time I heard the idea that you could choose how you felt about things, that our emotional state was a choice and not a given. I thought it was crap. Rubbish. How on earth could that be the case? If someone was mean to me, I was angry and upset – and that was their fault, not mine. Course I could be happy – if something nice had happened to me or I’d got lucky in some way. The idea that I had a role to play in how I felt was not only ridiculous, but seemed almost offensive.

Five years on and not only do I believe it, I’m the one spouting these words at others. And not only those words, loads of words.

Here’s another sentence I struggled with initially  – ‘you have infinite choice at every moment’. If you are anything like I was, you’ll be laughing out loud now, and you’ll certainly be wondering if you did the right thing in looking at this blog. But yes you did, and yes, it’s true.

However limited your options might seem to you, you have an infinite number of choices in front of you at each and every moment. That means it’s entirely up to you both what you do at any moment of the day or night. It’s also up to you how you feel at any moment of the day or night too. I know it may not be what you want to hear, let alone want to accept (it took me five years to get my head around it). But it is true. Everything is entirely down to you.

It was doing something different each day that finally made me understand this. The thing is, as humans we are massive creatures of habit. We quickly find a set of things to do and a set ways to do those things. Then we just do that, full stop. We don’t really think about stuff, we just follow routines. Sometimes we inherit these routines, or they are shaped by the society we live in and the people around us. Often we create them ourselves.

Think about your average morning. Do you have a routine? A time you usually get up? Do you wash and do your teeth straight away or wait until after your breakfast, the paper, catching up on your computer or phone, watching the news? Do you eat the same kind of things each morning, go to the gym, fit in a visit to the loo all in the same kind of order each day? If you do, then you are not alone. We need routines. They mean we get stuff done. They remove the huge range of mind blowing choice that’s out there so we can manage ourselves and actually make it out the house in an hour, 30 minutes, 10 minutes, whatever our personal routine dictates.

The problem is routines also have a downside. We get stuck. We forget we ever had a choice and instead we think the routine is there forever.

When you order a takeaway, do you usually order the same dishes? Probably. And you order those ones because you like them best, right? But how do you know you like them best unless you’ve tried more of the items on the menu? How do you know you prefer that type of takeaway if you’ve not tried all the other cuisines that are on offer?

In your living room or at your table or around your house, do you have a chair that you usually sit in? Probably. And you sit there because it’s the most comfortable or has the best view. But how do you know it’s the best place to sit unless you’ve tried all the others? Maybe the time of day matters, and a different place would be better in the morning light? Maybe a different type of seat would be better for some tasks? Maybe a new view, a new perspective is just what you need to see things from a different angle.

Do something for me – cross your arms. Ok, now uncross them and cross them the other way, so that the other arm is on top. Now how does that feel? Most people find it a bit awkward, unnatural. Doesn’t feel quite right. Yet there is no real reason for us to have a preference. There isn’t a tendency for right handed people to cross one way and left handers another. We simply do what we have always done and it feels right. It’s just a comfortable habit we have got into. Our bodies like the comfort of routine. Crossing our arms one-way or the other doesn’t really matter. It makes no difference which side your habit prefers. Nothing radically changes when you break that habit (I know – both sides now feel equally comfortable to me, and the world is pretty much just the same).

But when we challenge other habits, it’s different. Breaking some routines, changing the ways in which we do some things can be transformational. Like stopping drinking alcohol, smoking, incessant negative thoughts – the dead obvious ones for sure, but also a whole host of much, much smaller things that hold sway over our daily lives. What we eat, what we read, what we consume in all ways. How we talk to people, how we relate to bosses and those we work with, how we are with our friends and families.

Doing something different everyday can help shift us out of our routines and make us more aware of what we are doing and why we are doing it. At it’s most basic level is just about having an excuse to push yourself a little. In a more fundamental way, it’s about becoming more mindful – making deliberate choices rather than living life on autopilot.

Remember, doing something different daily is not about big, huge things that mean you have to completely change your life. It’s mainly tiny little things that all us normal people can do. In the early days of my year of doing different daily I was criticized a lot for some of my choices (thanks, various members of my immediate family). They felt some of my choices were too small, too insignificant, too pathetic to count.

Bollocks.

Doing different daily isn’t about size or scale, it’s simply about waking up a bit, moment by moment, and pushing yourself an insy winsy tiny bit each day.

It’s not about being radical – you don’t have to spend each day living according to the actual rules in the Bible (see A J Jacobs The Year of Living Biblically) or having sex everyday for a year (see Charla Muller 365 Nights: A Memoir of Intimacy). All power to the people who can do such stuff, but I’m not one of them. I’m way too lazy and anyway, I have a family, work and a whole load of other stuff to be getting on with that wearing long flowing robes, giving sermons on the mount and having constant sex would interfere with.

Doing something small but different each day isn’t a radical act, but you just might find it has radical results. You don’t have to change your life to do this, but it by doing this you’ll certainly change how you feel about your life. Oh, and doing different daily isn’t about you following a list of things of the things I’ve done either.

You have to make your own choices each day about what you do differently. I hope this blog will give you a heap of ideas of where to start looking for the elements you can start to shift and change.

Over the next 12 months I’m going to blog my way through the different things I found out through my year – the science behind doing stuff differently, how to make the mundane more interesting, pushing productivity and much, much more.

Why not come along for the ride?

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Five things I have learnt so far from Doing Different Daily – and five things I need to push more

red bootsI’ve been doing differently each day for three months now. What am I learning? What has made a difference to how I do stuff every day?

1.   I do not need to plan things in such detail

I am a planner, a ‘to do’ list junkie. It’s not necessary. A list when I need it maybe, but a list each and everyday means living in a straitjacket. Continue reading