Focus in Confusing Times

Tricks in a Bucket

When I was younger I had a magic and circus tricks bucket list. Tricks that I loved and wanted to be able to perform one day. When I first saw others doing them, they looked impossible.

One of them was a straitjacket escape. I used to go down to Covent Garden and watch the street performers thinking, “I could never do that.” And now I do, I learned it in my 20’s.

Another is a one-handed riffle shuffle. I had seen several magicians do it at The Magic Circle over the last couple of years and thought that it looked knuckle-crunchingly impossible. However, after three weeks of lockdown, I could do it.

However, there are other tricks that I could never do.  At one point I dreamed of becoming an aerial artist with Cirque du Soleil. That was never going to happen and certainly isn’t now!

Some things we can achieve, some we can’t. Sometimes it is not obvious which is which, but it is worth spending some time thinking about what is and isn’t possible for us.

All Change

I was reminded recently by Antoinette Dale Henderson at a PSA event of the Kübler-Ross Change Curve. We’re all solidly on this curve at the moment because we have all faced a significant recent change. My guess is that most of us are oscillating between the bottom of the curve and the beginning of the ascent out of it, between Depression/ Confusion through Experiment to Decision. I doubt that many of us have reached Integration yet.

This is fine, this is natural, don’t beat yourself up about it. We all have to find a way up the curve that suits us. 

“I can’t change world, but I can change the world in me” (Bono, U2 in “Rejoice” )

I have long been a fan of Stephen Covey, ever since I read 7 Habits of Highly Successful People (#ad)  years ago.

One of my favourite concepts in that book is the “Circles of Concern and Influence”. You may find this easier to visualise if you picture a toilet roll that you may or may not have hoarded a few weeks ago.

The outer diameter of the toilet roll is your circle of concern. The stuff that worries you. If you spend a lot of time on social media and/ or watching the news, that circle will be quite big. 

The inside circle is your circle of influence. The stuff you can do something about. Areas where you can make a difference. This will be smaller than the circle of concern. 

Find your Inner Space, Man

Whenever we focus on anything, it takes time, energy and mental space.

Covey’s brilliant insight is that we benefit from focussing on our circle of influence and not our circle of concern. Watch the news less, spend less time on social media. This will reduce the size of our circle of concern. Focus on the things we can change. If we focus on our circle of influence we will find that it grows bigger and starts to eat up the inside bit of the circle of concern.

As we do this we should feel more energised and less stressed. Yes, we will have bad days and good days. But we will be starting to climb the curve.

Work out which tricks you might be able to do and focus on learning those.

Predicting the Future

Psst, I can predict the future…

OK, I can only predict the future in certain situations.

One of my favourite magic routines to perform involves predicting the wording of a randomly selected line from a newspaper. Sadly, I don’t get to perform it much at moment, although I did manage to adapt it successfully to perform over Zoom for a business meeting, using a couple of pdf’s emailed to spectators.

But none of can predict the future when it comes to the end of the lockdown. All we can do is guess and hope for the best.

Or is it?

Ready for Anything

One thing is certain in magic – you can never be completely certain about how a trick will work in front of a live audience. Something might go wrong with a prop, you might mess up a move or forget a line, the audience may not react as expected. A skilled magician will imagine possible outcomes and plan for as many of them as is feasible. That way they will be prepared and can carry on seamlessly as if nothing unusual had happened. Most of the time, the audience will not even notice.

Scenario Planning

Big organisations and governments do the same thing. They have whole departments devoted to scenario planning. 

Most of us have probably got through life and work with a plan A and a plan B. But maybe, in the face of uncertainty, it may be useful for all of us to do a little more extensive intentional scenario planning?

I was on business networking call with the wonderful Kate Trafford last week and she voiced a very useful question: “When I look back, what would I have done differently if I had known that this would last 18 months?”

Kate was anxious to point out that this is imagining a worst-case scenario – hopefully the lockdown will be over much sooner, but some businesses may take longer to recover, eg, live entertainment, conferences, sporting events.

Crystal Balls of Steel

At first the idea of scenario planning is scary. You have to imagine worst-case scenarios. Often it is tempting to bury our heads in the sand. Or Netflix. 

However, like taking foul-tasting medicine, it can only be good for us. It will reduce nasty shocks and surprises down the road. Better to face reality, take stock and then begin the next step of the journey from where we actually are, having a realistic guess at what might possibly lie ahead.

The Next Step is Thinking About the Next Step

Have a think about your work and life.

What might it look like if the lockdown ends in a week’s time or a month’s time? What if it is a staggered ending, eg, with social distancing. What would those scenarios mean for my work life and my personal life? And then do the same exercise for different time frames – 3 months, 6 months, a year.

Then, if the trick doesn’t work like you planned it, you have something up your sleeve. The audience probably won’t even notice.

Productivity-Boosting Wardrobe Strategy

In the last couple of posts we have considered the usefulness of routine, habit and locations. Now, let’s look at how clothes can boost your productivity.

Give me the shoes…

My old mime and physical theatre teacher Desmond Jones was fond of quoting the theatrical adage, “Give me the shoes and I will give you the performance!”

This extends to more than shoes. Hats, jackets, trousers all enable you to get into character.

It is much easier to perform in a certain way if you are wearing the right costume.

As a performer, it dawned on me some time ago that this applies beyond magic performance, it is relevant for the rest of life as well. I am not the first to realise this. In 1975 John T. Molloy published his manual “Dress for Success”, developing the work of sociologist Erving Goffman, who described all the world as a stage. 

But does this apply to working from home?

I certainly think so.

Respect Yourself

What you wear has a huge effect on your self-image, self-worth and self-motivation. Changing your clothes changes your mindset.

This is why the army are so hot on ironing, boot polishing and button shining. It’s about self-respect. And, as the Kane Gang sang in the ‘80s, “If you don’t respect yourself ain’t nobody gonna give two hoots…” 

“Because I’m worth it” has never been so powerful.

Change Your Shirt, Change Your Mind

During lockdown, it can be a real challenge to maintain routine and establish focus.

I have found that changing into different outfits at different times of the day not only changes my attitude and focus, it helps to structure the day. The act of changing clothes also acts as a substitute for travelling between activities, time to mentally re-adjust.

Personally I wake up, exercise at home, change into dog walking clothes.
Walk the dog, come back and shower, change into work shirt, trousers, waistcoat and proper shoes.
At some point around 4pm I might switch the waistcoat for a smart sweater.
Between 5-6pm I decide that the working day is over and I change into jeans, t-shirt and trainers.

It works for me – could it work for you?

Even if no-one else can see your shoes on a Zoom call, polish them anyway.
You can see them.
And you’re worth it.

Location, Location, Location

Who, Where, Why?

When I walk on to a stage as a magician and juggler, I adopt a certain persona. When I walk up to to a small group at a posh reception to perform close-up magic I will adopt a similar, but scaled-down version of that persona. When I am at a church hall for a kids party I will shift character again.

The location of the performance helps the adoption of the persona. Travel time to gigs gives the opportunity to shift from one to another.

All the World’s a Stage

Outside of performing and outside of lockdown this was equally true. In my office my mind switched into admin mode. I walked to the library to switch on my writing setting. I would kayak down the river to become contemplative. And so it went on, different mindsets were associated with trains, coffee shops and club meeting places.

The location of the activity really helps me to adopt the right mindset for the activity in hand.

And now, in lockdown, most of those locations are not available. And there is no travel time to switch modes.

I felt comfortable and safe with my designated locations. Having them snatched away is unsettling.

What to do?

Location Improvisation

All is not lost. Like a magician when a trick goes wrong, you can improvise.

Depending on where you live and the space you have available, you may be able to create a number of different locations at home. You can then establish specific places for certain types of activity and new routines for switching between them.

For example, I have designated our sitting room as a stand-in library. It’s fine as long as I get there earlier than our teenagers in the morning! I have positioned a table and chair facing a bookcase and I go there at the same time each day to write. My mind has been successfully tricked into thinking that I am in the library.

Within my office, I still have my desk for admin in the same place.

However, for business reading, which I used to do in coffee shops, I now turn my chair to face a different direction, get myself a cup of herbal tea and, bingo!, my mind has again been tricked into a different mode.

A friend of mine suggested that another option might be rearranging your office so that you could sit on the other side of your desk for certain activities.

Travelling Without Moving

And what about substituting for the mental shift-time that came with travelling? 

I have found it important to be kind to myself, to give myself space between activities. It would be all-too-easy to rush from one video meeting to another with no break. I have to give myself time to go down tho the kitchen and make a cup of tea, sit in a chair for a few minutes and let my mind reset to the next thing. 

For bigger transitions there are your essential shopping trips and daily exercise outings.

How can you play with different locations to aid your different focus points during the day?

Muscle Memory

Many performers depend on muscle memory: dancers, musicians and certainly magicians.

They have to practice the moves again and again until they can do them automatically, without thinking. This gives them confidence when they are distracted and freedom to focus on the audience and the prevailing conditions.

However, when the unexpected happens, a magician has to be ready to adapt on the spur of the moment. Maybe they will have an alternative ending to the trick up their sleeve. Maybe they will have another trick on standby, just in case. Once the unexpected is dealt with, they can return to their normal routine and the audience will be none the wiser.

Rinse and Repeat, Avoid Defeat

The same is true in life and work. There is immense value in developing habits and routines that then get hard-baked into your mind. They become your muscle memory, your auto-pilot to carry you through when you get distracted, they will allow you to continue to get important things done whilst allowing you the freedom to focus on those around you and the prevailing conditions. 

However, when the unexpected happens, eg, a lockdown, you may need to flex some of your routines. 

But, whatever you do, don’t get rid of them all. They are too valuable for that.

Be Like Grass, Not a Tree

In a strong wind, long grass bends for a while and then returns to upright. A rigid tree risks being blown over.  Flex like grass, don’t be rigid like a tree.

Habit Audit

Have a think about your habits and routines. Which ones can you continue through the lockdown? Which ones could continue in a modified way?

Pre-lockdown, my morning routine was:

Wake up
Put the coffee in the cafétiere
7 minute workout in the front room while the coffee brews
Plunge the coffee
Get changed into walking clothes
Do my bullet-point journal and triage emails and to-do list
Walk the dog Have breakfast
Change into smarter clothes and go to the library to write for an hour or two
Home for lunch

Since then lockdown, most of it has continued, although I can no longer go the library. I have had to flex that bit of my routine but I still write at the same time each day, I just pretend that my front room is the library. It is fine as long as get there early enough, before our teenagers colonise it for their own screen-based activities!  I will write more about the usefulness of different locations in my next post.

What parts of your life/ work routine can carry on and what parts can be adapted?

Think about how you can adapt your existing tricks and routines for your new performing environment.

Let’s Get This Show Off the Road

Maybe you are a little like a magician when it comes to work and productivity?

When the Trick Doesn’t Work Any More

You learn a new trick. You practice it by yourself. You practice it in front of a mirror.

You video yourself doing it. You know you have the moves down. No-one will be able to see how it’s done.

Then you take it out and start performing it real people. You do it again and again. Each time you learn a bit more about how to time it, when to put the pauses in, where you are likely to get reactions.

You’ve got it nailed, it has become one of your signature tricks, something you do really well.

And then you perform it to a different audience and it falls flat. It just doesn’t work, they don’t react, it has lost it’s magic.

Do you give up? No, you flex, you pivot, you try something else: a different trick for that audience, the same trick with a different presentation, or you go and find a different audience.

Lockdown Shakedown

I have spent the last couple of years figuring out how I work best. I have worked out that I am most effective when I have set routines and different locations for different activities and I that there are different times of day when I am more creative.

A lot of that has been challenged because of the lockdown. I can no longer go to the library to write, I am shut in with my family so routines have to dove-tail, I can no longer go out to perform shows.

Maybe you are in a similar position?

What to do?

Do you give up? No you flex, you pivot, you try something else. 

It is worth taking some time to examine your existing habits, routines and work methods. Which of them can you carry through to the new normal and which must be parked for the time-being?

Over the next three posts I will look at how you can stay productive and sane during the lockdown by paying attention to:

  • Habits and routines
  • Locations and journeys
  • Clothing

A lot of it is about tricking yourself into different mind-sets by using the stimuli available to you.

You can find new tricks, you can find new presentations and you can find new audiences.

The magic can continue…

Break, Shake, Remake

Until a few years ago, the finale of my magic and circus act was a rola-bola routine. The rola-bola is a plank of wood and a tube. The plank is laid across the tube like a see-saw and then you step on to it, one foot at each end and maintain your balance by wobbling back and forth. I took it up a level, I used three planks with blocks in between them and I juggled swords on top. It was my finale, after all! 

The extra blocks and planks meant that it was too high to step onto the top plank, so I had to jump. I would lightly hold each end of the top plank to stop everything falling over, then let go, leap and land on top before it all collapsed. I was doing it three or four times a week so I was confident every time. Or nearly every time.

I remember the feeling I had every time I did my first show after coming back from a holiday. I would get to that point in the show and I would be standing ready to leap. But I hadn’t done the jump for two weeks. Would I still be able to nail it? I did, every time, but it still felt like a leap of faith.

We can be nervous about taking time out for many reasons: will I lose my edge, will people forget about me, will I lose momentum?

But that shouldn’t stop us. The benefits of taking time out are too great.

Jumped or Pushed?

Sometimes we choose to take time out, sometimes we have no choice. But whatever the reason, we can still choose to make it a valuable time.

It might be a day off, two weeks of virus-induced self-isolation or a six month sabbatical. They can all be beneficial.

Four benefits of a break are:

  • Rest and recuperation
  • Reflection and evaluation
  • Consolidation and embedding
  • Adventure and growth

Put Your Feet Up

Life in today’s world is exhausting. You can’t run and run without rest. Relax, read a trashy novel (I’m addicted to Jack Reacher at the moment), get some extra sleep.

Mirror Mirror on the Wall, What is the Meaning of it all?

I’m a huge advocate of regular reflection. Why I am doing what I am doing? What for? Is it still working? Could I do it better?

I love useful routines and habits that keep us moving through the tough times and enable us to get things done. But, if you don’t keep your eye on it, a routine can turn into a rut. It is good to evaluate your routines regularly to check whether they are still serving you well. Maybe you have moved on a bit and need to develop new routines and habits for the next bit of your journey?

Taking a break gives you a chance to ask these questions.

Muscle Memory

Anyone who has done any dance, martial arts or indeed magical sleight of hand will attest to the phenomenon of muscle memory after a break.

You spend a couple of hours practicing a new move and you just about learn it. The next day you come back and suddenly you can do the move much more easily. What happened when you were asleep? I don’t know, but I know it works!

The same can be true over a longer break. You can take time to mull over things that you have heard, training you may have taken, books you have read and let them embed themselves before launching yourself back into the world in a more effective way.

Going on an Adventure

You don’t have to climb a mountain or explore a rainforest, unless you want to. But taking time out gives the chance to stretch yourself, get new experiences, meet new people. As a result you can exercise your physical, mental and spiritual muscles. And when you exercise muscles they get stronger.

You can pick up new skills, new material, new relationships. You can develop new perspectives, new vision and new possibilities.

Or, in Four Words…

Breakfast
Breakout
Breakdance
Breakthrough

Weaknesses Into Strengths

“Pardon?”

I grew up in a quiet family. No shouting, no conflict, everything very gentle. It was lovely.

But I developed a very quiet speaking voice. I naturally mumbled and people were always asking me to repeat myself, often more than once. I found it very frustrating. I instinctively started organising life to avoid free-form conversation in noisy environments.

Whereas my contemporaries went down to the pub as teenagers, I never felt the urge. I favoured a more structured extra-curricular life: music lessons, Scouts, gymnastics.

Unless it was highly organised and disciplined, eg, Scouts, I preferred solo endeavours to team sports. And my hobbies were solo as well – juggling, magic and going for walks with the dog.

Shut Up and Dance

In my mid-teens my love of music and gymnastic training happily coincided with the dawn of breakdancing in the UK. My mates and I went to the local youth club, which was basically a disco. It was too loud to talk, so no conversation-induced stress there. I and a couple of others were regularly coaxed into the middle of a large circle and encouraged to explore our breakdancing potential. 

Along with the breakdancing went body-popping and robotics. Consequently, when I went to university and joined a church drama group, I naturally gravitated towards the mime roles. Someone saw me perform and mentioned a mime and physical theatre school, which I then attended a few years later. Truly a happy place for me as a performer anxious and self-conscious about my vocal ability.

Finding My Voice 

Years of solo practice gave me juggling proficiency, and the mime training gave me slapstick, so people started to ask me to perform. 

Once I had done a couple of thousand magic and circus shows I began to realise that maybe, just maybe, I was able to stand in front of a crowd and talk. 

Down the line, I joined Toastmasters and realised that I was actually quite good at public speaking and that I actually quite enjoyed it. I took some voice coaching, entered a national speaking competition and came second. The vocal coaching was hugely affirming: yes, it gave me some techniques to finally conquer my mumbling, but it mainly showed me that my voice was no longer a weakness.

Not the Same, Different

Most entertainers come in to children’s entertainment through magic, drama and/ or storytelling. I did 15 years of shows before I added any magic. My shows have always been unique. I have a mime and physical theatre element that most don’t, because that was my route in. Without my perceived weakness I may never have added that element. 

If you have a characteristic that you perceive as a weakness, take some time to reflect.

You are unique. You have will have a unique path through life. There may be others on a similar path, but none will be exactly the same.

You can only start from where you are. You can’t pretend to be someone else. They have their own journey.

Flip, Flop and Fly 

You may think you have a weakness that is holding you back. Flip it. Reframe it.

Your perceived weakness will impose boundaries on you. Don’t worry about that. Creativity loves a boundary. Your ”weakness”  can drive you down a road less travelled and you will end up with something special to you. As a result, your perceived weakness will end up gifting you a unique strength.

You may well take a different, longer route, but you will have valuable and unique perspectives and experience as a result.

Moonwalking

“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”

This famous quote is spoken by Tancredi in the novel “The Leopard” by Guiseppe Tomasi de Lapadusa (translated by Colquhoun) (#ad).

If you stand still, the world moves on and you will be left behind.

And if you want to move forward, you are going to have be pro-active about it. In order to progress, think about to what you are giving your time.

It is very easy to be very busy without being productive.

The Moonwalk

The moonwalk is a dance move made famous by Michael Jackson in the 1980’s, originally thought to be invented around 50 years earlier by tap dancer Bill Bailey.

I started learning it in my early teens and then perfected it while I was at mime school in my 20’s. These days it forms part of my straitjacket escape to music(!) 

The moonwalk gives the illusion of walking forwards while you are actually moving backwards. 

It is so easy in life and work to appear to be moving forwards while we are actually moving backwards, or at least to be left behind as the world moves on.

How do we avoid this?

The Pause

Reflection is always valuable. 

Spend some time thinking about the activity that fills your life. You will have choice about much of it, if not all of it. Is it moving you forward? Why are you doing it? Maybe some of it was useful once but is now just habit. 

I am a big fan of education – stay curious, keep learning. Much education can move you forward and help you to advance, but some learning is just esoteric. This is fine if it is just for leisure or relaxation, but make sure you know why you are doing it. 
What tactical learning can you engage in to take the next step?

Likewise, think about the societies you belong to, the meetings you attend, the hobbies that you do. Do you know why you are doing them? Again, if they are good for your social life, relaxation and/ or recreation, that is great. But, again, know why you are doing them. If they have run their course, move on to something else that will help you take the next step forwards.

It is very easy to get stuck in old routines and carry on regardless. Suddenly you can find yourself very busy while the world moves on ahead of you,

The Shuffle

If you reflect and realise that you have unproductive busyness in your life or work, have the courage to change. Maybe it is time to end one chapter in the book of your life and start another one. That is fine. 

Mix it up and deal the cards in a new order.

Look at how the world is dancing around you.

Ask yourself: “Am I moonwalking?”

Minimum Effective Dose

Bill Gates said:

“I choose a lazy person to do a hard job because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it.”

I am not so sure about the virtues of being lazy, but I am all for finding the easiest ways to get things done.

Minimum Effective Dose

The more you do something the better you get. Therefore it makes sense to do things as much as possible. This is true of magic tricks, this is true of juggling, this is true of most business tasks.

The less time, energy and resources it takes to do something, the more often you will be able to do it. Therefore it makes sense to work out how little you can get away with while still doing something properly.

This is the concept of Minimum Effective Dose (MED), a term borrowed from the pharmaceutical industry.

Any More is a Waste

You may wish to take vitamin C supplements to boost your immune system. Up to a point, this will increase the level of vitamin C in your system and you will benefit from it. However, beyond a certain point you will have absorbed as much vitamin C as you can for the day. Any extra that you take will merely end up going down the toilet! You will have exceeded the MED.

At sea level, water needs to be heated to 100 Celsius to boil. You can add more heat after that, but it is a waste of time and energy. It won’t be any more boiling.

Efficient Circus

As part of my entertainment offering I run circus skills workshops at children’s parties. Juggling, plate spinning, diabolo. And that’s it. Maybe occasionally some poi twirling. I know other entertainers who run much bigger circus skills workshops for corporate fun and training days. They involve tightrope, unicycling and walking on stilts. Much bigger props. 

Why have I gone simple and small?

Well, my aim at a kids party is to get maximum participation, maximum engagement and maximum opportunities for parents to take photos. I have found that I can get all the kids and many of the parents involved and smiling with lots of colourful props flying around with only juggling balls and scarves, diabolos and spinning plates. 

The beauty is that I can carry all this in three shoulder bags. I can wheel my show case in at the same time. Only one trip to the car. Why do more? Big props would need me to have a van, take multiple loading trips and carry more injury risk. No, thank you. I don’t need all that to meet my objectives.

I have discovered the Minimum Effective Dose.

How much is “Effective”?

When do you go minimum and when not? The key is in the word “effective”.

If your aim is to be the best athlete there is, then there is no minimum level of fitness to achieve this.

If your aim is to be a recognised expert in your field then there is no limit to the amount of study and preparation that you need to do.

If you are building a bridge, you don’t build it so that it is only just strong enough, you engineer in a hefty safety factor.

However, given such exceptions, with most things you do not need to achieve 100% every time. If 70% will achieve the desired or expected result then go for that and then do it again. Achieving the extra 30% will take extra time, effort and resources that could be used to repeat the exercise, thus building more results, experience and expertise.

Perfection is rarely required for effectiveness.

Admin

As an example, think about how you respond to enquires: 

  • You could spend a lot of time getting to speak to the enquirer on the phone, having a lengthy phone call, transcribing what they say.
  • You could respond by email, typing everything out longhand.
  • Or you could use an email template, warmed up with a little personalisation.

How much would the prospect notice the difference? In many cases, not much, if at all. But the template approach could save you hours. Minimum effort, but still effective.

Consider Your Dosing

Have a look at your processes and business activities, Are you exceeding the MED anywhere?

Once the water is boiling, use the heat source to do something else.