Episode 299 – A Twixtmas meditation

Twixtmas feet‘We’re designed as cyclical creatures, from the most basic microcycle of breathing in and out to the annual cycle of the seasons, and if the New Year to come is our time for resolutions and purposeful action, the days before it, these Twixtmas days, are a time for gathering our resources quietly, relaxing and massaging our tightly bunched cognitive muscles so that we’re ready to pick up the weight of the year again next week.’

It’s too late to wish you happy Christmas, too early for Happy New Year (what day is it, anyway?), so here are some thoughts on making the most of the odd in-between days of Twixtmas – which might mean not doing very much at all.

There are also 10 fabulous 2021 business book recommendations from listeners, for when you’re ready to pick up a business book again. (Don’t leave it too long.)

AUDIO:


Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky

WriteBrained: A 28-day exploratory writing adventure: https://pi-q.learnworlds.com/course?courseid=writebrainedcourse

The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge January 2022: https://alisonjones.leadpages.co/proposal-challenge/

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/

The Extraordinary Business Book Club bookshop: https://uk.bookshop.org/shop/extraordinarybusinessbooks

Transcript:

Hello and welcome to episode 299 of the Extraordinary Business Book Club, the Twixtmas special! This is going out on 27 December: It’s too late to wish you a happy Christmas, too early to wish you a happy new year, so instead we’re going to spend a little while revelling in the glorious surreal unstructured space between the two, which I think is as much a part of the season as the showstoppers themselves, and maybe thinking a bit differently about what it can give us. But let’s start with business – I’d be letting you down and letting myself down if I didn’t remind you of a few wonderful things you can bring into your life in the new year

First let’s talk about writing:

  • if you just want to do more writing – join me on the WriteBrained 28 days to build an exploratory writing habit which will help you grown as a human and as a leader, and also equip you for more powerful public writing.
  • if you want to write a book specifically, join me no 10 January in the 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge to take it from idea to reality. You could win a publishing deal, and that will change everything in 2022.

And now the reading bit: I promised you some recommendations for business books published in 2021 for you. I obviously didn’t explain this too well, because I got several recommendations for books that people READ in 2021, but they’re so good that I’m going to give them anyway. And of course I want to recommend every book that we published at Practical Inspiration in 2021 but we’d be here all day, so please just take that as read. So in alphabetical order by author, here are 10 recommendations I received from listeners:

  1. The first one really is a 2021 title, it’s John Amaechi’s The Promises of Giants: How YOU can fill the leadership void, which was recommended by Catherine Baker who said it made her more thoughtful. I was actually at school with John Amaechi, the loveliest guy, and I’m determined to get him on the podcast so watch this space.
  2. Mithu Lucraft chose Loon Shots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries by Safi Bahcall, which she first encountered on this show back in episode 205 – it’s actually a 2019 title but still feels fresh.
  3. And Mithu also chose a true 2021 title, Working backwards: Working Backwards: Insights, Stories, and Secrets from Inside Amazon by Bill Carr and Colin Bryer, which sets out the leadership principles and practices that under Amazon’s success.
  4. Next up Time Management Magic: How to Get More Done Every Day: Move from Surviving to Thriving by Lee Cockerell , former Disney executive VIP, was published in 2015– and it was recommended as a 2021 read by Bob Deakin who commented on its ‘nice folksy way of writing’.
  5. Cath Bishop recommended another old one which she’s reread many times and I did this year too: Adam Grant’s Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know. This was also one of Mithu Lucraft’s choices, so it may not strictly qualify as a 2021 title but it was obviously making a big impression this year.
  6. Back with books actually published this year, Debra Mashek recommended Tammy Heermann‘s Reframe Your Story: Real Talk for Women Who Want to Let Go, Do Less, and Be More – Together – apparently she’s been recommending it to all her girlfriends for the last few months.
  7. The next one almost squeaks in as a 2021 title as it was published in December 2020: Jonathan Hemus Crisis Proof: How to prepare for the worst day of your business life, which was recommended by Suzanne Collier, who was one of the judges in the BBA Specialist Business Book category which it won last year. She said it was pertinent when it was published, and sadly it’s likely to stay that way
  8. Catherine Baker also recommended Michelle Moore’s Real Wins: Race, Leadership and How to Redefine Success, one I’ve not read yet, it was published just last month, she described it as nuanced and thorough.
  9. Jonathan Norman recommended The Harvard Business Review Project Management Handbook by Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez, also published just last month, because as he points out the future is increasingly about getting complex things done.
  10. And finally, the lovely Susan Ni Chriodain recommended Freedom to be Happy: The Business Case for Happiness by Matthew Phelan – which came out in 2020, she particularly mentioned that it has a great bibliography – love a good bibliography.

So lots of inspiration there for books to take into 2022 with you, let me know what you think if you read any of those.

And that’s the bibliographic business complete – now back to my Twixtmas meditation: I know these are technically working days, but even if you are actually working – and I will be, on and off – they’re not like normal working days for most people: fewer meetings, fewer emails, a bit less focus, a bit more fun.

If you’re not working, the days can just evaporate in a fug of cheese and chocolate biscuits and box sets. And while that might sound like exactly what you want for yourself, you know and I know that this not the route to our best selves.

So what would it look like to use Twixtmas in a way that works best for us? I mean, you have to make your own mind up, but here are some of my thoughts in the hope they’ll prompt some of your own.

Let me say straight up that I’m not proposing anyone fills these inbetween days with purposeful activity. My life is all about purposeful activity, and I wouldn’t have it any other way, but that’s exactly why Twixtmas is so important: there’s nothing I have to be doing right now. There are no meetings in the diary, no deadlines, no urgent emails to respond to – well, hopefully not, anyway.

You could argue that this makes it the perfect time to focus on your own agenda, making the most of not having to react to other people’s demands: it’s an opportunity to get that website copy written, reevealuate your strategy, create that course, right?

Well, maybe, and if that’s your plan, you go to it.

But maybe there’s something else happening too. I remember those magic eye pictures that were all the rage when I was growing up – you could stare at this weird busy colourful pattern for hours and see nothing, but it wasn’t until you slighty unfocused your eyes that the 3D image hidden within it popped out at you and you couldn’t believe you hadn’t seen it before, and maybe that’s a useful metaphor for Twixtmas. Side note, I did hear about a bloke who specialised in making magic eye pictures that contained absolutely no hidden images just for the fun of watching people go cross-eyed and crazy trying to see what wasn’t there, but that’s not part of this metaphor, it just made me laugh.

I think Twixtmas is the cognitive equivalent of unfocusing your eyes. You can’t do that at Christmas or new year because there are plans: there’s food to cook and people to see and places to be, Christmas and new Year have a defined point that makes it hard to see beyond them. Right now though, in the Twixtmas days, it’s all a bit more fuzzy and diffuse. You can unfocus your inner eye a bit and see what emerges.

My friend Ruth recommended a beautiful book which I’m listening to at the moment: Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May. She’s really talking about metaphorical wintering, the hard times in our lives, but it’s intertwined with actual winter too, the way nature seems to slow down, even to die, but actually under the surface transformation is taking place ready for the spring. And what’s funny is that I’d started writing this podcast script before I got to this point in the text, and then here it was – she talks about her own Twixtmas:

‘…that strange period between Christmas and New Year, when time seems to muddle, and we find ourselves asking again and again, What day is it? What date? I always mean to work on these days, or at least to write, but this year, like every other, I find myself unable to gather up the necessary intent. I used to think that these were wasted days, but I now realise that’s the point. I am doing nothing very much, not even actively being on holiday. I clear out my cupboards, ready for another year’s onslaught of cooking and eating. I take Bert out to play with friends. I go for cold walks that make my ears ache. I am not being lazy. I’m not slacking. I’m just letting my attention shift for a while, away from the direct ambitions of the rest of my year. It’s like revving my engines.’

She has a lot to say about waking up in the small hours too, which I personally found very helpful. It really is a wonderful book.

I think the idea of doing nothing, of letting the focus drift, is actually quite scary for most of us. A few years ago there was an experiment run by Virginia and Harvard Universities where they left people alone in a room with nothing – no phone, no book, nothing to write with, no means of distracting themselves, just their own company and their own thoughts. Nearly every single subject in the study hated it. In fact when they were given the option of giving themselves a painful electric shock rather than just sitting and thinking for 15 minutes, most of the men and a significant proportion of the women opted to shock themselves.

Which seems bonkers, but really, when was the last time you were completely alone with your thoughts for 15 minutes without reaching for your phone or some other distraction?

When I was 18 and a first-year student I won a holiday to the States, an Outward Bound course, paddling a Canadian canoe in the boundary water canoe area, the northern wilderness of Minnesota. It was absolutely magical, in fact it probably changed my life in a thousand ways. But one of the most profound wasn’t the paddling itself or the teamwork stuff, it was the 24 hours that each of us spent entirely alone. We were given a water bottle, a bag of trail mix, a rollmat, sleeping bag and tarp, and a notebook and pencil, and that was it. And then we were each dropped off, one by one, along the shore of the lake and left entirely to our own devices for 24 hours. This was before mobile phones, so we didn’t have to cope with withdrawal symptoms from not being able to check our social feeds every other minute, but it was weird enough being alone with nothing to do except hunker down, eat frugally, sleep, and think. My boyfriend hated every minute of it, he told me afterwards. I – completely unexpectedly – loved it. I’d never had 24 hours completely alone before, in fact I don’t know if I’ve ever had it since, certainly not with nothing at all to do, except the invitation to write a letter to future me, which they would post on in 6 months’ time.

I guess that was my first experience of exploratory writing too, so you could say this really was one of the most profound experiences of my life.

One of the strange things about the pandemic has been the polarisation: if you live with other people, you probably haven’t had 15 minutes, let alone 24 hours, completely on your own for nearly 2 years now. If you live alone, you’ve probably been starved of company. I think this has been one of the most profound but unacknowledged stresses: most of us need to ebb and flow. We need time with others for stimulation and energy and belonging, but we also need time alone for just being, for synthesising and recuperating. We’re designed as cyclical creatures, from the most basic microcycle of breathing in and out to the annual cycle of the seasons, and if the New Year to come is our time for resolutions and purposeful action, the days before it, these Twixtmas days, are a time for gathering our resources quietly, relaxing and massaging our tightly bunched cognitive muscles so that we’re ready to pick up the weight of the year again next week. And I hesitate to say it, but it’s also a reminder that our own individual cycles aren’t forever, that we are finite beings. I often think this when I don’t want to go for a run: I’m on day 1,305 right now, and I don’t know how long this goldenyear streak will last, but I know it’ll have to end one day, and I say to myself, today is not that day. One Christmas, one New Year, will be our last, and we probably won’t know it.. All we can know it’s now one year closer. So whatever it is we’re here to do, let’s do it while we still can, and be grateful.

So what are we to do with all of that? If you know me at all, you’ll know I’m a great one for the ‘so what’: I’m all about the practical inspiration. That was the whole point behind the name of the publishing house I founded nearly 8 years ago: I want the ideas I bring into my life, the books we publish, to be inspiring, yes, but also practical, I want to know how to apply them to make life or work or ideally both better.

Maybe today is the day to let go of that. Maybe just thinking the thoughts is enough – let them in, play with them, see what emerges for you.

If that sounds good, leave it there. If you have the same impulse as me – what do I do with this? –  I’ll just suggest one thing: find some space over the next few days and find some solitude, but instead of your phone, take a pad and a pen with you, and write if you want. Don’t if you don’t, no pressure. I find it helpful, you might too.

And if you want even more direction, try this prompt: ‘What brought me life and energy this year, and how can I build on that next year?’

And that’s it for this week, and indeed for this year. There’s no virtual campfire this week but I’ll be back next week with episode 300, what a way to start 2022. In the meantime, enjoy the rest of Twixtmas, and I hope your new year is everything you’re hoping for. I’m looking forward to 2022 – I’ll be working on some very exciting projects and of course publishing more fantastic business books. But right now I’m going to go and do pretty much nothing, very, very happily.  Goodbye for now!

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