Category Archives: Better Living

Health, personal development and productivity tips

Pandemic Planning Mindset

Everyone who knows me or reads this site knows that I’m a planner. One of the most relaxing things I can do is sit down with my physical planner, some nice pens and a coffee, and work through what’s coming up and what I want to achieve. This most recent quarterly review really made me consider mindset and much as actions.

I’d actually blocked a time aside in my calendar at the end of June and arranged to not be in charge of the small, loud tornado that is my toddler. I was looking forward to it, but when the day actually arrived I was feeling nothing short of meh. Instead of ploughing on with it, I decided to reschedule. Not once, but twice.

kikki.k planner

Current planner and essential mildliners

This isn’t like me, but given the current situation, it seemed like the most logical choice. It’s so hard to plan and dream when there are so many unknowns. Sure, the UK is coming out of lockdown, but so was Florida and Texas. Coming out of lockdown basically requires people to be sensible and thoughtful of others. I don’t have much faith in other humans at the best of times, but throw alcohol and new-found freedom into the mix and I can’t help but be prepared for a bumpy ride. Going into a planning and dreaming session with such a negative mindset is a recipe for disaster.

Add into the fact I was coming off a month of sleepless nights (my own fault for mentioning that a certain child had started sleeping through at last, thus causing some slapback from the universe), and I was struggling with the reviewing part, let alone the planning for the future.

Just grateful for coffee I guess

Quite simply, mindset matters, much more than the day of the week. It’s easy when you have a perfectionist, upholder streak to do the review at the set time and place because that’s the best way and what you always do. In reality, it won’t matter if your quarterly review isn’t complete until a week into the new quarter (I finally finished the detail of mine this morning). What matters is that you’ve set some goals and plans that you feel enthusiastic about and hopeful for and that are within your control. This isn’t the time for massive stretch goals, not unless you have no family responsibilities and a higher than average autonomy over your surroundings. The pandemic planning mindset is about incremental progress forwards and celebrating the small wins. We’re in this for the long haul.

Work with what you have right now

Anyone who wants a good framework on how to do effective reviews should sign up for Sarah Hart-Unger’s email list and get her free planner download. It’s pretty much exactly what I’ve done for years (although she uses a very interesting quintiles system rather than quarters), but her template looks much nicer than anything I have right now! Her blog is always worth a read, especially her current pandemic blogging streak.

And talking of email lists, it came to my attention that mine had been disabled for a week or so. It should all be sorted now (thanks to mail chimp for the speedy customer service), so if you’ve tried to download a template and it failed, then please try again. If you still have problems, feel free to get in touch and I’ll take a look as soon as I can.

Things I didn’t expect…

As it turns out, there are a few things I didn’t expect to be doing during a pandemic. Yet here I am, having to do them. When you’re in the thick of things, it can be hard to get perspective. As everyone else seems to be learning to bake bread, reading a gazillion books or ‘taking the time to pivot’, I have been engaged in what feels like daily mortal combat with a toddler. Not to mention that when you’re isolated inside, the only break you get from that is to look outside. World in 2020, you are not doing so great right now. There is no light relief to be found.

Big Transitions

There is no doubt that this whole experience has been tough for children, especially young ones like mine who simply aren’t old enough to understand what is going on. Every routine that involved going out or seeing other people simply evaporated overnight. So we’ve made our own new routines and just as they were settling in, everything feels like it is about to change again. I am completely certain that easing lockdown will be harder than entering it. Entering it was black and white. Exiting is more nuanced in so many ways.

But children continue to grow and develop at their own pace and don’t hold off just because the world around them is going to hell in a hand basket. So whilst trying to avoid big changes, we’re still having to transition from a cot to a bed and begin potty training. All the guidebooks out there, all the parenting blogs, none of them know how to do it best in these circumstances. If you’re like us, then this is something everyone else is figuring out for the first time. Throw those grand plans for the ‘best’ way to do it out of the window and give yourself a bit of grace. That’s what I keep telling myself, at least.

Missing My Commute

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not looking forward to going back to a 2.5 hour daily commute. But there are things about it that I miss like crazy. That space where I am literally alone for a guaranteed few hours. There is nothing like being unable to be away from people, no matter how much you love them, 24 hours a day. I miss listening to my usual rotation of podcasts. I miss having the time to think and mull over problems. I don’t miss the physical exhaustion it brings, or the usual idiot drivers on my route, but it’s been interesting to see that in the grand scheme of things, it isn’t all bad.

My Routine

I’m not sure I expected to keep quite as much of those essential habits and routines as I actually have. I chose a somewhat ironic selection for my daily journal back at the end of February:

But despite the somewhat amusing quotes about going places that fill the pages for inspiration (now desperation), I have managed to stick to my daily journal and gratitude practice. It has kept me grounded and allowed me to process my thoughts in the hardest and scariest of days. In the future, I’m sure I will be glad that I chose such a chunky notebook. I calculate that it will be finished at the end of June, as the world begins to reopen and emerge. It will be good to one day look back and be able to see this crazy time all in one place, rather than scattered throughout several notebooks.

And as an aside, I am trying to work out how to fill what time remains at home effectively and set myself up for the new normal before it comes and hits me in the face. I’m reading 168 Hours by Laura Vanderkam and thinking about doing a time log again. I’ve done it before and it seemed much easier when I was working full time rather than staying at home. Which probably tells me something in itself….

How are you doing during the apocalypse?

Wow. It’s been over a year since my last post. I think that’s the longest break I’ve taken on this blog since 2014. It’s hardly surprising though, given that since then I’ve:

  • had a toddler who waited until he was 23 months old to sleep through the night without a 2-3 hour stretch awake every night
  • had an office relocation which has added 2 hours to my daily commute
  • experienced a 9 week persistent cough that wiped me out from mid February requiring antibiotics (didn’t work) and a subsequent chest x-ray, but at the time wasn’t a concern because I hadn’t travelled to China or Italy (I still don’t know if it was actually an early case of COVID-19)
  • experienced a pandemic that has changed my role from full-time worker to furloughed main parent while my other half carries on as a key worker

As I write this, we are on day 74 since the UK went into lockdown. Even though restrictions have now been eased, as someone who used to work with healthcare data, I’m overly conscious of the statistics being presented to fit a narrative, so we’ve not really changed things that much. I haven’t been inside a supermarket since the 23rd March. I’ve not filled up the car with petrol since the day before that, so 2020 is doing wonders for my mile to the gallon. I know all of this because I’m keeping a few scribbles about each day for posterity in a specific pocket notebook.

My daily coronavirus notebook. Depressingly far through.

Despite all that, it has been a chance to reset. The first 8 weeks of parenting were the toughest (there’s a reason that this introvert isn’t the full time carer usually), but we’ve both settled into a groove now. It has taken me until the last 10 days to actually feel recovered from the commute and two years of getting by on 5 hours of sleep rather than my usual 8. Now, finally, I have enough mental capacity to step back and think about what life could look like in the future and even – *gasp* – write this post.

Several things have kept me grounded and allowed me to get here. The first is a gift that was technically for my son, but has kept me engaged and invested for hours – butterflies! We set them free today and it was a good reminder that life is both fleeting and fragile, but can also be full of wonder if you let it.

Podcasts have given me perspective, even though the amount of time I can listen has drastically reduced now that I’m not commuting. Favourites have been What Fresh Hell, The Mom Hour and Says Who? In fact, every time I listen to a UK politician right now, I hear Maureen Johnson’s voice: These are not bright guys. Things just got out of hand.

Thankfully, we’ve made our way through the food stuffs that we would never normally have in the house, purchased because, well, there wasn’t a lot of choice and with no guarantee of when we could get the next food delivery in the early days. And there is nothing quite like the fear in a parent’s heart when the nappy shelves are empty day after day, let me tell you. That will stay with me for a long time. But I’ll also be very, very grateful if that was the biggest hardship. Millions out there haven’t been so lucky, and I know it.

Stay sane. Stay safe.

GTD: Getting Started – Quickly

This post is part of my series about mastering productivity from the perspective of a full time working mom of a toddler with a side business. That’s me with the side business, not the toddler. 

There is something of a cult around Getting Things Done and that cult is desperate to set the methodology in stone. This ignores that David Allen admits straight away that there is all out or casual implementation. Which is good, given that his ‘Getting Started’ chapter suggests giving yourself two full consecutive days to start the process. Two full days.

In my dim and distant memory, I gave myself most of day when I first decided to give this whole getting organised thing a go. Now, I re-read the recommendation and part of me finds it hysterical to think that I could have anything more than a solid two hours without an interruption. So the first of the so-called golden rules I’m going to outright say you can ignore is that you need two days free in your calendar to even bother trying.

The key isn’t the amount of time, it’s the quality. If you have two hours of focused time, then you can move the needle more than if you have a luxurious day of unfocused, leisurely busywork. So if you have a single room, project or problem that needs dealing with, choose that and give it the attention it deserves. If you haven’t cleaned out your attic for the last ten years and you could go another ten before you actually care enough for it to bother you, then there is nothing to be gained by climbing up there and losing a day to sorting when there are more important things you could be working through.

Another pro-tip: if that attic seems super appealing to you, despite there being no obvious gain in wading through dust and old boxes, then stop and work out what other, genuinely important thing it is you’re procrastinating on that needs to be addressed.

If for some enviable reason you actually have the ability to go through your entire life in one sitting, then there is something very Marie Kondo in this approach. Where she deals with primarily physical things, David Allen associates those physical things with actions and tasks. Both are drains on the psyche when left unmanaged, but having recently read The Life Changing Magic of Tidying, the two books seemed to echo off each other in an unexpected way.

So, the ‘Getting Started’ chapter is all about setting yourself up to begin. Time is clearly one facet and I would argue that it is a factor we feel we have increasingly less of. Space is another – you obviously need to be in a location conducive to collecting and managing things. A dedicated space to sit, think and make decisions doesn’t need to be fancy, but it does need to exist. Even the most technology-savvy people cannot put their entire life in the cloud.

Much of the stress and input we deal with in daily life doesn’t come from our own processes and delivery mechanisms, but those of others. So until the entire world is virtual, then a physical inbox is a lifesaver. Never make the mistake of thinking this is a ‘paperwork tray’. Anything that serves as a physical reminder of something you need to do can get thrown in there. The majority might be cards and papers, but batteries, broken watch straps and cables, they can all go in there until you’ve captured the associated task into your system.

The final piece of the puzzle is the tools you need to begin the process. Here is where another of the golden rules can be broken – you do not need to have all of these items in place to begin.

The original book was clearly written in the days prior to ubiquitous technology. With less paper in our lives, the requirement for a labeller and a filing cabinet with the correct type of hanging files seems quaintly retro. But don’t dismiss analogue altogether. Still keep a small notebook with tear off pages to hand – the act of writing down a quick thought is much easier to manage in the beginning than trying to digitally capture it.

I’ve also managed to do a successful large-scale implementation without the need for rubber bands, binder clips, scotch tape or the required minimum of three paper holding trays. The later version of the book retains all the previously listed tools, but includes any other tools already being used for data capture – a nod to the fact that anyone reading the book most likely has a phone with built-in task management and email – the ‘PDA’ is no longer the preserve of a handful of senior executives as it was in the original.

This overly prescriptive list can act as a barrier to getting started, regardless of whether you’re going for a work, home, or all-out implementation. Don’t let it.

In both editions, the question of an organiser also comes up here. Yes, the question – do you actually need one if all you’re doing is list management? I’m going to go ahead and say yes you do. It doesn’t have to be high-tech, but you definitely need one. If you’re doing this, you already know if you have a digital or analogue preference, or if your workplace is locked down to a certain system. But make the decision now. It’s not necessarily the tool that you’ll stick with forever. You can change it once you’ve played around with it for a few weeks, but don’t gather all your ‘stuff’ into one place, panic when you realise how much there is and then realise you’ve got nowhere to put it.

GTD Golden Rule to break – you don’t need to have a single system that covers work and personal. I use Microsoft Outlook Tasks for work but Toodledo for personal and it has worked fine for years. I don’t want the constraints of either set of circumstances to force themselves on the other. I’ve got a slightly workaholic personality, so if I always have access to work, I’d never stop thinking about it. Having a clean break can actually be better for your mental health than the psychological effort of maintaining two systems.

After a brief argument for the start up items he’s listed, in the 2011 edition there is an extensive argument for the importance of good filing. This is all around the physical mechanics of storing paper where it is easily accessible. A few of the principles apply to the world we live in now, but in most businesses and households, this level of attention to paper storage is simply no longer required.

One thing I would take away from this is that physical paper forces something that digital seldom does: the requirement to purge before you simply run out of space. You can upgrade your virtual storage space at the click of a button, leaving most people with an amorphous blob of badly tagged ‘stuff’ with multiple providers. A yearly purge of data can be invaluable. What we do now is the digital equivalent of storing things in the shed in case it comes in handy later, then repeatedly buying bigger sheds until the tin of paint you want is buried so deep inside that when the time finally comes for it to be useful, you just buy a new one anyway.

In summary, getting started with something as complex as GTD should be as simple as possible.

  1. Assess the amount of time you can realistically give your total focus to and find the problem that fits. 
  2. Get yourself a place to physically sort things, preferably where you can repeatedly do a smaller version of this (the weekly or daily review). If you live a mobile lifestyle, then this can be achieved simply by the consistency of your bag set up and storage. It doesn’t need to be complicated. 
  3. Finally, get the basics of pen, paper, post it notes, a physical inbox and your list management tool of choice.

That’s it. You’re good to go.

GTD – Mastering Workflow, Mastering Life

This post is the first in my series about mastering productivity from the perspective of a full time working mom of a toddler with a side business. That’s me with the side business, not the toddler. 

If you’re looking to be more productive, more effective and grow as a person, then there is a bewildering world of self-help business books out there to choose from. Some are fashionable for a year, others stand the test of time. David Allen’s Getting Things Done has been successful enough to warrant a brand new edition in 2015.

It’s always the book I recommend that people start out with. Not because it is a literary masterpiece, but because the methodology he describes allows you to sort out the little things so you then have the mental clarity and space to then deal with the bigger life questions. Books such as The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People start with life purpose and other lofty aspirations. I really don’t recommend that as a starter for anyone. Ever.

Despite saying the GTD method is for everyone (and it really is), the book is nevertheless aimed at business executives, with the secondary motivator of selling consulting services. I’ve never had to worry about forgetting to get flowers for my secretary’s birthday (although in the 2015 version I noted that’s been changed to a less culturally charged ‘assistant’). With that in mind, I want to show you over this series of posts how I’ve implemented it in my work, personal life and side business as a writer, without the requirement for a corner office.

Since 2009, I’ve probably read Getting Things Done at least once a year. That’s what I’ve always believed anyway. When I decided to write this series, it forced me not to just choose the bits I was most interested in, or needed a refresher on, but really read what he was saying like it was the first time I’d come across it. I’m not going to lie: the chapter on Mastering Workflow took effort.

I’ve heard so many people say they found the material ‘dry’ and ‘hard-going’. I’d never really thought that to be the case, but re-reading a chapter like this, so early on, I can see why people got stuck here. In a single chapter, he gives you the entire methodology. The remainder of the book is the detailed ‘how to’. I’m a fan of the big picture, but this is intense stuff.

Luckily, it can all be summed up in a handy flowchart. Get a copy. Put it where you’ll see it. It will be more helpful than constantly going back to this chapter while you’re starting out.

© David Allen

I find it interesting that the flowchart remains unchanged, but the titles for the stages have been updated between the two books.

What next?

“Every decision to act is an intuitive one. The challenge is to migrate from hoping it’s the right choice to trusting it’s the right choice.” – David Allen, 2001 Edition

Instead of being overwhelmed by this chapter, I’d suggest doing a quick assessment of where you are now. Some simple things to consider:

  1. Do you already have an existing tech or analogue system you need to use? There are some great ones out there that are designed with GTD specifically in mind, but learning the methodology can be hard enough without being distracted by a new tool as well.
  2. Are there some things you can do straight away? The 2 minute rule (see flowchart) is easy and doesn’t require any further support structures.
  3. Which area of your life is causing you the most stress? Ignore the work-life balance for now. If you’ve got a single project causing you problems, then decide if you could implement a GTD strategy just for that. If it works, you’ll find the momentum to expand out into other areas.
  4. If you’re like me, you don’t naturally trust other people to do what they’re supposed to. As a result, doing work that isn’t technically yours to complete can be the source of many feelings of overwhelm. Make a master list of things you are waiting for and then hand off those tasks. The list will allow you to control what you’ve delegated and you can check back in with people at any time.

“Basically, everything potentially meaningful to you is already being collected, in the larger sense. If it’s not being directly managed in a trusted external system of yours, then it’s resident somewhere in your mental space.” – David Allen, 2015 Edition

David Allen sets us up in this chapter for doing hard work. Getting through it separates the wheat from the chaff. He wants you to go all in on the method and promises a life of ‘stress free productivity’ and ‘mind like water’ as the end result. He’s also been quoted as expecting it to take the average person two years to really master the system. That’s a lot to ask of anyone, but I believe you can implement an effective enough strategy in a few months or even weeks. If you want to take it further then that solid foundation is one you can build on when you’re ready.

What got you here won’t get you there

As I move deeper into a year focused on doing what matters, the saying ‘what got you here won’t get you there‘ (made popular by Marshall Goldsmith) has begun to resonate more and more. When life changes in some fundamental way, then you have to change too. This applies to career, family and everything that gets wrapped up in those banner labels.

What has got me here, certainly won’t get me there. Why? Because of that other buzz phrase right now, the one about doing things for ‘the season you’re in‘. Now that one resonates even more.

When you have a child in your forties – your first child especially – you suddenly enter a whole new season. The real problem isn’t that you have to adjust, it’s that, if you think about it, your seasons are now out of order. Another spring has followed summer and now it looks like your autumn and winter are probably going to be rolled into one.

I’m fortunate to have done so many amazing things in my life. I’ve lived in several countries and traveled to many more. I’ve had a few fulfilling jobs (and a few less-fulfilling ones). I’ve been employed, self-employed and consciously unemployed. I’ve written a book that received a best-seller tag from Amazon and plenty more that should never see the light of day. I implemented a successful morning routine and got my health in order.

Now I stumble into the bright lights of the office each morning and need to double-check that I really have got dressed. My morning boot up sequence has been cut from an hour to a maximum of fifteen minutes. Journaling has kept me sane – I refuse to sacrifice that. As for my health, I frequently fall into the spiral of no sleep = poor decisions + low energy. I am officially a different person to the one I was a year ago. A person whose spring is just starting and those seeds I’ve planted have yet to sprout into life.

What got me here won’t get me there. It will again one day, but not just yet. Those seeds will become flowers again at some point, but until then, I have to keep moving forwards.

But how?

I need to ask better questions. Create new routines, not just abandon old ones and let chaos reign.

It’s not as hard as it sounds. It’s also not a quick fix, super-easy solution. With my morning routine, there are some things which are sacred and others which were luxurious habit (see my previous post on streamlining my morning using the MD Paper diary notebook). Reading isn’t happening right now, but it will be again. I know that writing 1000 words each morning can be curtailed by sudden wailing, but I’ve become less fixated on the number and more on at least writing something. 400 words might not be as good as 1000, but it’s better than zero because I’m worried the baby might wake up.

This new season – I have to learn to go back to small wins. Small habits. What are the building blocks I used last time to build the castle. Which ones can I re-use? Which ones are the foundation stones.

I don’t have the luxury now of an hour to exercise in the evenings if I want. Not without compromising other things that now suddenly matter more. The lack of sleep means that I tend towards inertia at every moment of calm. The only way out of that is to remove anything that causes friction between myself and an activity. I’ve always advocated for that, but now I need to recognise just how small those barriers might be. I need to monitor and measure things that I’ve long since taken for granted.

So here’s my simple five step plan. I’m doing it and sharing it so that no matter what season of life you’re in, if it’s flowing along nicely or a momentous change has suddenly derailed you, it’s possible to make a change.

Make a conscious choice. Then make changes.

  1. What are the cornerstones you already have?
  2. What are the unconscious habits you need to let go of or change?
  3. What are the small changes – the tweaks – you can make that will have disproportionate results?
  4. What are the friction points stopping you from getting started each day?
  5. What are the goals, dreams and plans that you need to let go of, even if it’s just for now?

5 Tips to survive sugar free February

Dry January (or Veganuary) is behind us. For some people, they fell by the wayside after day three. For others, they will have begun to instil the habits that could lead to a complete change of life. Sugar Free February is not just the health kick fad of calendar month 2, it’s also a great way to raise money for Cancer Research.

Copyright Cancer Research

Ready to take the plunge? Most people are surprised by how difficult it is to go sugar free. The reality that you have to do  more than simply cut out chocolate sets in pretty quickly. So how do you make sure you survive for a whole 28 days?

Before we get to specific tips, you have to define what you mean by ‘no sugar’. Are you eliminating any kind of sugar? Are you focused on fructose specifically? Or do you just want to avoid any food products with added sugars? The chances are that whatever you decide, it will still be a big improvement from where you are now. If you’re a complete newbie and only intend to do it for a month then I’d recommend simply avoiding food with added sugar (there’s lots of label reading in your future, sorry).

So what are the 5 keys to success and staying (relatively) sane throughout February?

1. Remove temptation

Your willpower is not as strong as you think it is. Having to consciously choose not to eat those delicious tasty treats every time you open the cupboard is both exhausting and likely to trip you up the very first time you come home late after a bad day. If you don’t want to throw perfectly good food away, then donate it to a friend or family member. If you’re planning to devour it in March, then lock it away in the garage or attic (or any other place you don’t habitually scour for snacks) until then.

2. Find Support

If you can’t convince anyone in your real life to come on the journey with you, then join an online group, browse forums, read blogs. Feeling you are not alone in those moments when you question your sanity about this whole thing can stop you from ramming a whole packet of cookies into your face in one sitting. A lot of people are shocked to discover how hard this is to begin with, even for a month. See the next point.

3. Be aware of the physical response to addiction

Urgh. My least favourite part.

Sugar is addictive. Combine it with fat in a treat and you’ve got an instant brain high that leaves you wanting more. That chemical reaction is something your body misses within a few days. The physical effects of sugar withdrawal are the same as any other addictive substance and people don’t talk about it enough. So go into this being prepared. Irritability, headaches, lack of concentration and sometimes feeling like you have the flu are all possible short term side effects of quitting sugar. My advice: be prepared.

Oh, and apologise in advance.

4. Plan your social life

Just because you’re quitting sugar for the month doesn’t mean you need to quit life. It does mean you need to plan in advance. If you have any say in the location, then choose somewhere that has tasty but low sugar foods on the menu (a sauce can ambiguously contain a multitude of sins). If you don’t have any control, then check out the menu in advance. There is usually something that’s allowed. Find it, make the decision in advance and then do not look at the menu again when you get there. Trust me, we’re always weaker in the moment, especially in those places that have actual pictures of the desserts to tempt you.

5. Remember why you’re doing it at all times

If you’re committing to this month to raise funds, then I salute you. Remember to salute yourself too. When you’re in the middle of a terrible day and your colleague brings in birthday cakes, remind yourself that you can say no because you are doing something awesome.

If you’re doing it because you hope it’s the start of a new way of eating, then avoid thinking about being deprived and think instead of the long-term outcome. Sure you’re missing that slice of cake now, but soon your clothes will fit better, your energy levels will be higher and your body will have had chance to clear out the processed gunk you’ve been filling it with for years. Keep your eyes on the prize.

And remember, if you don’t want to commit to a whole month without sugar, then you can still make a one-off donation to a great cause. Imagine if we could eradicate cancer mortality in our lifetime.

The Realist’s Guide To Sugar Free

How to quit sugar and stay sane in the real world.

Sugar cubes, pudding tax, ‘New Year New You’ marketing and simplification

The first full week of each new year is when I actually begin any planned improvements. I’m such an introvert that I need time after the holidays to process and set my focus. For those starting their resolutions on New Year’s Day, this is the tough week. This is where it gets real. I’m just starting out and there is something nice about that, even if it means tough is still lying ahead, waiting for me.

It’s no surprise that the first week of the new year has been filled with health related stories designed to tap into people feeling guilty for their holiday gluttony and determined (again) that this is the year they’re going to turn everything around. 

It’s interesting to see that sugar has largely replaced fat as the demon in the headlines. When I first began looking into the benefits of a sugar-free lifestyle in 2015, saturated fat – indeed any fat – was still public enemy number one. The change has been swift and is getting less subtle. 

That Public Health England are now focused on reducing sugar intake as one of the key ways of reducing the obesity epidemic is the main driver behind this. I’m under no illusions that this is an altruistic gesture. Obesity simply correlates to more occurrences of diabetes and heart disease (amongst many things), all of which cost the NHS money to treat. Regardless of the motivation, it’s good to see that finally people are starting to be told the truth about how much sugar is added to our foods by manufacturers.

Of course, depending on the media outlet involved, the presentation is different. Nanny state and tax threats drive some clickbait headlines, others provide a more balanced view. But the truth behind the message is the same across the board – we need to reduce the amount of sugar in our diets.

What none of it seems to want to focus on is how hard it is to actually make that happen. A few foods get targeted here and there as extreme examples,  but that doesn’t really help people with the everyday foods that have sugars added to them. The unexpected ones – those often labelled as ‘diet’ and ‘low fat’ – that catch people out.

More importantly, none of them seem to offer any insight on the simple fact that there is something addictive about sugar. Something that makes it hard to cut out sweets and chocolate, no matter how much information we have or how good our intentions are. This is the element that trips people up time and time again, myself included. Just one little taste, one bad day, can get us reaching for a sugar-based snack before we’ve even had chance to think about what we’re doing. Time and time again I’ve done this since the baby was born, eating in some sleep-deprived haze and having very little memory of when or how. This lack of intentionality is something I absolutely must address this year, hopefully with the addition of an extra hour or two asleep each night.

I’ll be experimenting with general simplification of my life to do this and if it works well, that will be something I share throughout the year. There is a certain attraction to achieving more by doing less, but it will be interesting to see if the promise lives up to the theory.

So below are some of my favourite headlines of 2019 blitzing those with resolutions to think about. Where there isn’t a link it’s because I simply refuse to give clicks to certain sources. That’s another 2019 resolution for all of us. Let’s not feed the trolls.

Children are getting targeted in the blitz, with the story that children have already exceeded their entire childhood quota of sugar by the age of 10. That’s 8 whole sugar free years they then need to do just to break even. A scary thought. But I loved Matthew’s sugar experiment with his family – this is the kind of visualisation that you don’t get from simply reading the labels and doing the calculations in your head.

Are we going to get a pudding tax? Some progress has been made with other foods but I think a pudding tax is silly. Target the misleading foods and the everyday foods first.

And of course, the thought that our government would be together enough to order anyone to do anything is implied by the Sun’s headline ‘KIDS will be ordered not to eat Frosties and Coco Pops under tough new government guidelines’. The actual story is about a set of simple recommendations, but why not get people in a defiant and self-destructive mood instead? See earlier comment re: trolls.

If you’re more interested in the information behind the headlines, including some practical and actionable tips on how to eliminate sugar from your life, then my book is a steal at only 99p on kindle. It won’t break the bank and may change your approach to diet and healthy living forever. I’m re-reading it now to remember my own lessons!

 

Not interested in changing your diet but itching to make other improvements this year? Then take a look at my book on Resolutions instead. Goal setting doesn’t need to begin January 1st. Why wait for tomorrow to become a better version of yourself? Not just for the next week, but with a strategy that lasts.

Sugar bans and freakshakes – consciously cutting down on sugar

Last week it hit the news that Action On Sugar was calling for a ban on milkshakes that had an obscenely high amount of sugar. The Unicorn Freakshake on sale at Toby outlets was highlighted in particular due to it’s 39 – yes 39! – teaspoons of sugar per shake.

Image from Toby Carvery

Whilst banning a treat that contains over six times the amount of sugar recommended for seven to 10-year-olds seems like a good idea, it of course prompted reactions along the lines of ‘nanny state telling us what to do’ amongst many. There will always be people who will deliberately do something rather than have someone else tell them they can’t. But is an outright ban a good idea anyway?

To ban or not to ban?

I believe there is a fundamental difference here in the approach required to many other foods. Firstly, I don’t agree with an outright ban (which may surprise you), but I do believe that menus with this type of item should be very clearly labelled. The news presentation is different to a standard menu presentation, for example. 163g of sugar on a menu is hard for someone to visualise (other than ‘a lot’), whereas 39 teaspoons is much easier. That’s why newspaper outlets use the latter to sell their story.

More importantly, whether or not you label a freakshake with all the information available, people know they’re having something unhealthy when they choose it. Admittedly, they might not realise just how unhealthy, but they’re not confusing it with a side salad. It’s a conscious decision to ‘have a treat’.

Unconscious vs conscious eating

In my opinion, it would be better to focus on those foods that are significantly more ambiguous. The foods that people eat because they’re labelled as diet foods, simply because they’re lower in fat. The foods that catch people out.

I know countless people who have gone on a diet so have stopped adding a spoon of sugar to their tea or coffee, oblivious that the low fat yoghurt they’ve started to include with their lunch (must be healthy!) contains 3 teaspoons of the stuff – a net gain of 2 teaspoons for the swap. And you all know where I stand on children’s cereals – if you want to get anything banned there’s plenty out there that should be. Over the course of a week’s breakfast, people give their kids a freakshake plus in terms of sugar, often without even realising it.

So yes, we need to label better and maybe even ban or tax certain foods, but we need to choose our targets carefully. Bigger isn’t always better. The road to obesity and all its associated health risks isn’t a single freakshake every now and again, it’s all the other meals in between, eaten without awareness until it’s too late.

 

You can find out more about how to make more informed sugar choices in  The Realist’s Guide To Sugar Free

5 steps to sugar free – but do they actually work?

You may have noticed the distinct lack of posts lately. That’s because a new baby has descended upon my household and whilst it is wonderful, my carefully orchestrated and productive life now lies in tatters around me.

One of the biggest struggles of all? My physical health. Even with all the knowledge, tricks and tips at my disposal, I’ve struggled to maintain the sugar-free lifestyle. A week spent consuming hospital foyer snack food and sleeping in a fold-out bed broke down my habits and routines.

I’m sharing this because I know so many of you have struggled to maintain a healthy lifestyle, regardless of the food plan you’ve chosen. After three years, I’m back to testing my own strategies to see if they still work.

Here are the five key elements that I’ll be working on.

Plan meals

Honestly, I think this is a must for any new parents trying to stay sane, but if you’re trying to stick to a specific plan, then it’s the only way. Plan out the meals for the week in advance and then when it comes to dinner, there’s no decision making required.

Remove temptation

When you have something to celebrate, people buy you chocolate. A lot of chocolate. Do you know what’s hard to resist when you’ve had 4 hours of fractured sleep? You guessed it, that big mountain of chocolate. Declutter the cupboard, give away anything left over (there’s always someone willing to take treats off your hands) and get rid of the easy dopamine hit.

Drink more water

I’ve been consuming coffee as my main liquid for the past two months. It’s a false sense of security and I know it. If I want to get my body back to a normal state, I know I need to cut down on the stimulants and up my intake of plain old water.

Sleep

I know, I know, this one is out of my control right now. Except that it isn’t, not entirely. I can still choose to prioritise an early night over getting distracted with busy work. I can make sure I prepare better so those middle of the night feeds are as seamless as possible. I’ve always believed that rest is the best thing you can do for yourself, your health and your productivity, but I’ve come to appreciate it in a whole new way.

Keep it simple

When it comes to doing anything difficult, the key is to make things as easy as possible. For a sugar free diet, I intend to do that in a few ways. Firstly, breakfast each morning needs to be quick, easy and consistent. Now is not the time for fancy or for variety. It has to be the quick, nutritious fuel I need to start my day. The same goes for lunch. Yes it might be boring, but I can live with dull for a few weeks if it gets me back on track.

Finally, dinner doesn’t need to be an hour-long preparation affair. Meat, vegetables and digging out the spices from the cupboard can still equal tasty in under 20 minutes.

Will it all work? I hope so, even under these new and uncertain circumstances. If it doesn’t, then it might be time to revise The Realist’s Guide To Sugar Free with a parent specific edition!