31 Days: Stop! or HALT Have a day off and smile!

This series of articles running through January will explore ways of keeping our head above water in physical, mental, emotional and creative areas. There will be creative challenges, competitions and giveaways. For the full background see here.

I’d planned today to write about negative thoughts including some of the ways that are recommended (and that I’ve found helpful) to talk yourself out of those energy sapping and undermining thoughts. But the negative thinking post is long and I’m tired today so I’m going to take some of my own advice and kick back a little. I’ll cover negative thoughts early next week.

I recently discovered the books of Richard Wiseman. In his latest book Rip it Up, which I haven’t read thus far, he apparently is taking a new approach to self-help, rather than thought stopping or talking yourself out of bad feelings he suggests (I’m getting this from the blurb and reviews) that we should simply do. Rather than analyse, do the things that will make us feel better. The approach is based on psychologist William James’ ideas on the relationship between behaviour and emotion. The James-Lange (Carl Lange also contributed) theory of emotion suggests that events and behaviours provide a stimulus which the mind subsequently interprets. We are not afraid automatically of a bear but if a bear runs after us we feel something and later interpret it as fear. Our mind’s perception of our rapid heart rate etc is the emotion.

Perhaps our primordial instincts and early experiences begin to condition us to react in particular ways and then it becomes difficult to see whether behaviour or emotion comes first. We might get out of bed ‘on the wrong side’. We feel groggy and angry with no obvious cause – we could attribute it to a number of factors.

Very often we might have trouble interpreting signals and there are huge variations between people on how well they can recognise the signs of their own, stress, tiredness, sleep etc. People with children will know how they often fail to see that they are in need of rest. ‘I’m not tired!’ is a very common refrain from a child who is tearful, unco-ordinated, pale and yawning.

When we are feeling stressed or upset our in the case of artists and writers, feeling blocked or unable to create, the HALT acronym is a useful one to check through to see what might be the cause.

H: Are we hungry? Have we forgotten to eat? Perhaps we need a light snack to tied us over to the next meal.

A: Angry. Are we cross or annoyed about something going on in the background of our lives, small or crucial? We might not realise it but

L: Lonely: Do we need a good banter with someone, have we reduce our social lives too much in the cause of our family and creative lives? Are we feeling back about ‘wasting’ our time on social media or going out. But we need to connect.

T: Tired: I must say, coming out of years of tiny babies and toddlers I find it very hard to determine how tired I am. Parents are used to solidering on, those who work full time and then come home to kids or further work just don’t get a chance to stop. The merge of home, social and work life through technology too makes it hard to know when to just rest and take a complete break. I don’t really know the answer to the last one. I’d love to be someone who can intuitively take breaks or relax but I seem to have to organise myself into taking a break. There’s a lot to be said for taking a day of the week and setting it aside for complete relaxation, mini spa day, walking, music, film whatever. But who does? Do you?

Smile or whatever

This morning I had a challenging morning with the children. I felt tired and disappointed over some holiday plans that seem to be falling apart (so long since we’ve been away.) I was cross! I walked to school with the kids with a face like thunder, feeling upset and angry. Two days ago I greeted everyone with a chat and a happy new year, today I avoided eye contact. Then I saw someone I know very well, looked up and gave her a friendly smile and hello. I immediately felt better. We chatted for a moment and then I met further people who I now greeted with smiles rather than silence. Suddenly an epiphany, life was okay! I know it’s not always as straightforward and if you suffer from a serious mental illness it won’t just go away but if it’s the everyday blues then how you act really can change how you feel. William James was right!

There are days when we feel like doing nothing. If you are tired and what you are doing doesn’t have to be done, just stop! If you must soldier on, look out for the first opportunity to give yourself a decent break and put relaxation and happiness at the front of the queue, before ironing, tax returns (or maybe not) and anything else. Of course sometimes if we take the pressure of ourselves we immediately feel energised. Which is why I’ve written a long post when I felt ‘too tired’ to do it. Both rest and action gives energy so see what’s the right one for you today.

Tomorrow: a little writing exercise for those who fancy finding new ways to get your mind whirring.

31 days: Writing Goals, how to achieve them & what if you don’t

This series of articles running through January will explore ways of keeping our head above water in physical, mental, emotional and creative areas. There will be creative challenges, competitions and giveaways. For the full background see here.

To receive all the 31 posts, sign up for email notification on the sidebar. On twitter it’s at @31HAW or @alisonwells. Hashtag  #31haw and #headabovewater.

Aims and intentions – direction but not dictatorship.

There are many blogposts across the internet about setting goals this January but the emphasis I want to put on this post is yes, on achieving goals but not beating yourself up in the process! Speaking from experience I know how we can scupper ourselves by getting frantic, confused and guilty so this is what I’ve done that helps me.

1: Write a desire manifesto
Write what you want to do/achieve most of all. Under that write your lesser aims. You will know what’s most important to you and what you need to put ahead of everything else.

2: Be optimistic

There is tremendous energy in intention itself. I talk about intention in this post and how Orna Ross says that aims are not about ‘should’ but come from a more positive position. So set out what you would love to achieve in the coming months. We want to give ourselves parameters within which we can organise our life, we’re not talking sticks and sadness. We want to get away from a vague sense of dissatisfaction and see what kinds of activities and achievements will give us energy and makes us happier. At this stage jot down your wildest dreams.

3: Be realistic and specific

We’ve all heard about making aims SMART, specific, measurable, achieveable, realistic and timebound. Again, we need to set the parameters. It would be marvellous if we could write 3 novels in a month but it probably won’t happen. Subject your wildest dreams and aims to a reality test. Could you finish your novel draft by next month? Do you hope to start your next project by March. Do you need to fit in smaller projects along the way? Can you assign specific time slots to these?

Note: This is not set in stone! Your projects will take longer or less time than you think, family issues will occur. You DO NOT NEED TO FEEL YOU HAVE FAILED OR SHOULD BE GUILTY. So what if you’re 20 years too late to be considered for the 30 under 30 prize, is that really what you wanted anyway? And what would you be happy with instead?

4: Keep a ‘to do’ journal and track progress and achievement (this is magic!)

Get an A4 book into which you write your monthly, weekly and daily aims. Each day or week tick off what you’ve done (a big enthusiastic tick). If something is left undone add it in to the following week. Periodically (monthly, quarterly) write a list of achievements such as submissions made or pieces accepted, words written, ideas gathered. (There’s more on this below!)

What I find so good about this practice is that it gets everything out of my head, my to do list is not circulating in my mind and causing anxiety, I can clearly see what I want to do, what I have done and what I need to do to finish what I set out to do.

3: Regig your schedule regularly.

Based on the information you discover see where you need to add effort, prioritize or take away goals altogether. Again this is a rational and clever thing to do. There is no shame in not achieving everything. (Even superheroes have to send their costumes to the dry cleaners every so often!)

4: Set both tiny goals and marvellous ones

If you set tiny goals you can build on them. If you aim to write 500 words a day you will energise yourself by your success rather than disheartening yourself by your aim to do 2000. The energy of your achievement and it’s confidence will make it more likely that you can achieve 2000 words. Didn’t you know you had wings and could fly?

But equally big goals like the 50,000 word writing challenge Nanowrimo can work. If you see yourself by steady progression scaling the heights of such a challenge (through effort and camaraderie) you will forever know what you are capable of and that is a certainty that cannot be taken away from you.

5: Write an achievement manifesto

When I arrive at the pages where I write my quarterly summary of successes I am always surprised. It’s so easy to forget what you have achieved, even if it’s something quite significant. We often have a tendency to underplay success and focus on what we haven’t done yet. So writing down what we have achieved from solving family squabbles to winning the local poetry competition to writing your first flash fiction to winning the Booker prize is very important. We can take some time to see how these achievements reflect what we set out to do or whether some of the things we did took us in new directions that turned out to be rather wonderful. You can even go a bit crazy and write compliments to yourself on this page. I’ll be talking about Cognitive Behavioural Therapy techniques to help stop negative thoughts more fully in a future post and the positive feedback we can give ourselves in this achievement manifesto is an important part of that. This is our feelgood CV, imagine listing your achievements for a job, you can make yourself sound very impressive!

And what if you don’t succeed?

Psychology and Weiner’s attribution theory tells us that we attribute our own success to our efforts and other people’s success to luck. Failure works round the other way. I’m not so sure that those of us who feel responsible for everything, don’t attribute our success to chance and our failure to ourselves. There are those of us who set such high standards that we are bound to fail.

In the modern day though we have this impression that everyone can succeed if they just try. There is truth to the idea that if we start off more optimistic we’ll be more alert to opportunities and we’ll try things, whether it’s enter competitions or self-publish, become entrepreneurs or apply for a job that’s a little too far out of our reach (or is it?) It’s also true however that even if we’ve written a brilliant book for example or have been writing solidly for 20 years, there is a chance we’ll be unlucky and just won’t make it or perhaps we’re not as good as we hoped.


If we are not getting where we want to we might need to get some constructive criticism. We might have to decide whether the love of writing is enough beyond financial success. We might take joy from other aspects of our lives that can make a rich cloth in its entirety. We can hope for posthumous fame. We need to figure out what aspects of life make it just good enough, what small pleasures add up into a satisfying whole. There has to be balance between making our goals and dreams strong enough and big enough to make us work hard & commit to our own success and also realising that to make one ambition the be all and end all is to set ourselves up for misery.


We need to become good not beating ourselves up about not meeting targets. We need to be clever and reassess, not take it as failure.

What do you think, is there a way to maintain our optimism and intention while not beating ourselves up for the things we don’t manage to do?