Cooking, Walking, Zombies and Morris Dancing with Cathy Brown, Exec Director of Engage for Success
Listen to the Show Below and Here’s What We Recommended:
- Fitbit – for exercise encouragement and an element of, maybe not competition, but interest at least in others to keep it going
- Couch to 5K – to get you running in a gradual, incremental way (and don’t forget the zombies!)
- Google Calendar – for managing a complicated household and work schedule
- Todoist – for managing task lists and keeping up with everything you’ve got to do
- Gallup’s StrengthsFinder – for identifying your strengths to enable you to do more of what you’re good at
- Meditation with John Kabat-Zinn – for meditation and mindfulness
- ‘Better than Before – Mastering the Habits of our Every Day Live‘ – Gretchen Rubin
- ‘The Happiness Project‘ – Gretchen Rubin
- ‘The Road to Character‘ – David Brooks
Routines and Rituals
- Cooking to relax
- Walking with her partner to relax and debrief on the day as well as to get some exercise outdoors
- Listening to podcasts
- Reading to learn, explore and satisfy curiosity
- Listening to live music and perhaps playing and dancing too!
- Not being late
- 3 Rs of routines, rules and rituals – and not forgetting Cathy’s extra R of being a Rebel!
- Cathy and her partner seeing their complicated family eating arrangements of two vegetarians, one gluten free and one who doesn’t eat any vegetables whatsoever, as an opportunity rather than an obstruction
Jo Dodds: I'm really excited to introduce to you today, Cathy Brown. Hello Cathy, thanks for joining us.
Cathy Brown: Hi Jo, pleasure to be here.
Jo: Really good to have you here. Firstly, why don't you start by telling us a bit about you are, and what you do, to put a bit of context around your life?
Cathy: Yeah, absolutely. Again, my name's Cathy Brown. I'm 47 years old. I live in Shrewsbury in Shropshire. But some of the time, I also live in Lichfield in Staffordshire, and that's because, I don't know, in a very modern way, I live across two households these days.
My son, who is 16 and is called Ant, lives with me a week on/a week off, and we live in Shrewsbury. My partner John and his son lives in Lichfield, so I spend lots of time there. I do a job which I absolutely adore. I work for Engagement Success, which is the national movement for employee engagement, and that takes me out and about all over the country, visiting people, visiting organisations, and raising awareness about the benefits of employee engagement.
I also spend a lot of time in cars and on trains. Does that help to set a picture?
Jo: That does. I guess you stay in hotels, as well?
Cathy: Yes, plenty of that.
Jo: Brilliant, excellent. Let's start by thinking about what a typical day is like for you. Obviously, yours changes, because you're in different places at different times.
I'm really interested to find out, first, what you do in the mornings. Do you have a morning routine? What's a typical morning for you?
Cathy: I do. It does vary, depending on where I am. If I'm in a hotel, then everything probably goes by the board, in that there isn't much of my routine that I can hang on to.
When I'm in either Shrewsbury or Lichfield, I do try and keep things reasonably consistent, although that gets changed by the fact that I get up at different times in both houses. If I'm in Shrewsbury, then I will generally try and get up somewhere between half six and seven.
I tend to wake up naturally about 20 past 6 or so. I quite like getting up at that time in the morning. It generally means that I've got half an hour to an hour to pot around and get Ant up for college. These days, him being a bit older, that doesn't involve me having to get him up as much as it used to.
I like that time in the morning. Sometimes, I use that if I'm busy at work, and I want to get a start on the day. Sometimes, I use it just for me. I might actually go outside.
Shrewsbury's a beautiful town for anybody who knows it. I'm very lucky to live right by the river. On a morning like this when it's sunny, I quite like to just be able to go out for half an hour.
The very, very first thing I do when I've got up, potter downstairs, is I like to start my day with a big glass of sparkling water with some lemon juice in it. That just sets me going. One of the things, nutritionally, I do these days is have a little bit of salt in it, as well, some very posh pink Himalayan rock salt.
I like that. I'm not particularly a coffee first thing in the morning person. I don't tend to eat straight away, it will always be a little time after that. I like that lightness of having my big glass of water, looking out on my garden, seeing what the world is looking like.
If I'm in Lichfield, then quite often I'm getting up and getting off for an early train. I'll be up slightly earlier, but always my glass of water. But everything else tends to be toward leaving the house at half past six, and getting down to the train station.
Jo: How about things like meditation and all the stuff that gurus are telling us we should be doing? Do you do any of that sort of stuff mindfulness and all that?
Cathy: I don't tend to in the morning necessarily. I've been flirting with mindfulness for a long, long time now, since I did a course for responsible business leaders at Henley Business School. That was probably about five years ago, now.
One of the things that they introduced me to there was meditation with John Kabat Zinn, who I do think is wonderful. I've read a number of his books. When I do meditate, it's one of his guided meditations that I tend to use.
Less so in the morning, for me I am far more likely to do that later on in the afternoon to probably de stress after a day. Or particularly if I'm on trains, I'll very, very often do it on a train on the way back home. So, not a morning part of my ritual for me, that one.
Jo: Yeah. What about the evening then? Maybe it will be some of that mindfulness stuff? What other things do you do? Do you have a particular routine for calming down in the evening?
Cathy: Yeah. I love to cook. I find cooking particularly relaxing. I know many people who do not...my own mother [laughs] included.
Cathy: But I do. I like chopping the veg, I like the whole process of cooking. I absolutely love feeding people, which I suspect is probably my Jewish background. My Jewish grandmother was always very much “eat, eat more”, and she would show how much she loved to eat by the fact that she was feeding you, the moment that you walked in the door.
So, it's very much if it's not a day where I've got to cook, then I will really notice that. I haven't ever really done processed food and ready meals. I really enjoy the process of making food for both me, and whoever is around. That's a bit interesting when I'm over in Lichfield, because my partner also loves to cook.
Cathy: We fight in the kitchen about who's going to cook tea.
Jo: Not quite so calming then. [laughs] .
Cathy: Usually it isn't, no, no [laughs] . Usually it depends on which of us has got home first, which is fine. But then the other difference we have between the two households is that my partner, John and his son, Tom, are vegetarian. Proper vegetarian, no fish or anything like that. They have been for many, many years.
My son, Ant and I are not vegetarian, although I enjoy vegetarian food. However, my beloved offspring eats no vegetables [laughs] whatsoever.
Cathy: Eating as a family is always a little interesting, especially as I now eat gluten free. But because John and I actually enjoy food and food preparation and cooking so much, actually we've chosen to look at that as an opportunity rather than an obstruction, if you like.
We explore new ways of cooking, and new foods and all sorts of things that we can eat and enjoy preparing together. Of course, being parents of teenage kids, we've got all sorts of stuff going on in the evenings as well. So, probably less of a routine in the evening because you never know when you're being a mom and dad taxi, some of the evening.
Jo: Yeah. It's interesting about the cooking, because I have read some articles about exactly that, as you describe, using the cooking process for that whole mindfulness piece. That you can really be calm and lost in what you're doing when you're cooking, which is interesting.
I think I have had that sometimes myself, but it's probably not quite in the same way that you do. Although I love the way that you're very positively thinking about the challenges of cooking [laughs] for a family with lots of different...
Jo: ...dietary needs, rather than seeing it as a difficulty. A good way of putting it to your advantage, and making sure it doesn't become a problem, given that it's something that you enjoy so much, I guess?
Cathy: Absolutely. At the moment, John and I are both trying to walk more and be more active. Our evening routine definitely includes a walk together. That's quite nice as well, because we sort of debrief from the day. All those odd bits and pieces that have been in your head can come out, if we can manage to go out and do a couple of miles walk.
Then if I'm here in Shrewsbury, I try and do the same. On occasion I'll manage to drag Ant out with me, but usually if I'm here that will just be by myself. Again that's really useful, because it stops me sitting down in front of the telly and sort of mindlessly flipping between Facebook and Twitter all evening, which I'm perfectly capable of doing if I'm not careful.
Cathy: So, doing something that distracts me from doing that, it makes me feel better about myself. It's obviously healthier for me. When John and I are together it gives us that opportunity to, as I say, debrief from the day and, "I need to do this, you need to do that. We must talk about this at the weekend," all that sort of good stuff.
Jo: Yes, yeah. I use walks to listen to podcasts. Do you do that?
Cathy: I don't tend to. If I'm walking and I'm outside obviously in the open air, then I like to be more present in my surroundings. I do listen to podcasts increasingly these days, but I tend to do it in the car or on a train, rather than walking. Walking particularly, I do really like to feel connected to both the world and the people around me, that sort of thing.
Jo: Yes, yeah. Let's think about how you manage what you do every day. It sounds like you have a really busy life, and a really hectic schedule of at least needing to know where you need to be on a daily basis, never mind what you need to do. How do you do that? What do you use to manage that?
Cathy: The key tool that I use to manage across all of the households if you like because obviously, there's also working out what Ant's doing in the weeks that he's not with me, when he's with his dad. His dad needs to know what's going on.
The same with John and his ex partner, and Tom. Google Calendar is absolutely my saving thing. We manage all of those arrangements for where the boys are, where they need to be, when rugby practice is, all of my meetings on a set of calendars that obviously all of us can see or not see, depending on who needs to see which bit of it.
For years and years, we managed most of that on a spreadsheet which was OK, fine. But doing it on Google where we've all got access to it and John can put in when he's working on a Saturday, and all that sort of stuff, is just absolutely invaluable.
The discipline there is making sure you put everything in. We do try and sit down once a week and just sort of run through the month ahead, and try and remember that we have put everything in that we've talked about. One of the things that John and I do together to our delight it absolutely horrifies both of our children...
Cathy: ...is the fact that we belong to Shrewsbury Morris. I'm a Morris dancer, and John's a musician and plays with the Morris band. At the moment we're right in the middle of dance season, and that means that we've got a programme of dancing that obviously we also have to manage.
All of that has to go in the calendar. That means that when I come over to John's on Sunday for the week, I need to know whether or not I'm bringing Morris kit. Next week for instance, I need to make sure that I've got all of the Morris kit and my passport [laughs] .
Jo: [laughs] Why, pray tell?
Cathy: We have got a nice little weekend in France planned for the two of us, over the bank holiday weekend there.
Jo: Oh, lovely.
Cathy: But it's remembering that obviously I'm an hour's drive away from where everything normally is in my house. Therefore using the Google Calendar and planning ahead properly for where I'm going to be in a week's time, is just paramount. I do it on a Sunday. I've got a block of time on a Sunday afternoon that I use to say, "Right. Where are you next week? Where does everything need to be?"
I've got a checklist of things that I need to take with me, because it's hugely frustrating if I get over to the other house and I've forgotten my chargers, or whatever else it is. Some things you can have in both houses, that works really well. Some things, it's just not practical to do that footwear, for instance [laughs] .
Jo: [laughs] Right.
Cathy: The boots that I'm currently wearing are not the ones that I need with me for the week. I need to think about everything, all my work gear, John's instruments, if they need to be in one house or another. So yeah, absolutely...Google Calendar for me is a joy.
Now that everything's linking all together, I've flirted with a number of productivity and task management type apps over the years, because I'm very tech savvy, I think. I do like a good gadget, and so I haven't done [inaudible 12:13] about that.
But I think Todoist is definitely the one that's working for me best, at the moment. I've tried various others, and because it integrates so well with Google, my work email integrates into it. It works beautifully on my MacBook. That means I can put all my iCal stuff in it as well. For me, I think that one's probably working the best.
Jo: Yes, my current favourite as you know [laughs] .
Cathy: And my favourite.
Jo: You talked about checklists of things to take. Do you use anything in particular for that, or is it just a piece of paper? [laughs] .
Cathy: At the moment, that's a piece of paper. What I tend to find is that I become unfortunately blind to the bits of paper eventually. At the moment it's a bit of paper stuck on the back of my front door, which of course has become absolutely like a piece of furniture.
I am having to be slightly more creative about ways to still see my checklist. This is one of the things about the nature of having a routine, which is good, is that becomes unconscious. But obviously, at certain points in that routine if you need something to be conscious you've got to have a way of bringing it into the forefront of your attention, so that you actually see it.
Jo: Yes, exactly. You talk about being quite techy. Are there any other apps or tools that you use regularly, that you'd recommend people check out?
Cathy: On the fitness side there are a couple. I use Fitbit and have had Fitbit for several years. I find it reasonably accurate. I quite like the app that goes with it. I've got a number of friends who also use it.
I'm not particularly competitive with it, but I quite like the, "Ooh, Julia's done 72,000 steps over the last week. I need to go out and walk round the block, and then I'll be pretty much on a par." I quite like that aspect of it. If I'm particularly wanting to focus on my health, it gives me all of the ability to track things like weight and blood pressure, and whatever else. I like all that together.
But also I've recently been using again again this effort to improve levels of activity an app that actually I sponsored about three or four years ago on Kickstarter. It was the first Kickstarter that I ever contributed to.
At the time, it wasn't because I was a runner, and it's a running app. It was because I absolutely loved the premise of it, which was a running app that was around a Zombie Apocalypse.
Jo: [laughs] Only you.
Cathy: I love it. You were running from Zombies. It gives you sprints because all of a sudden, these Zombies appear. You've got a whole game thing around collecting stuff for the township, because everybody's holed up obviously, in part of the township, fighting all these Zombies off, so you all run amok.
I just loved it, so I sponsored it on Kickstarter. Then a couple of years later they actually brought out a Couch to 5k, to get people into running. That's what I'm using at the moment. So it's a slightly simplified version of the original App, but there is still zombies and this whole set up. It makes me laugh every time I do it, I think it's wonderful.
Jo: I wonder if it’ll ever get recommended again by anybody else. I think that sounds so funny, so cool. Brilliant.
So what about keeping healthy, relaxing? We've talked a bit already about your diet and exercise and so on. Are there other things that you're doing that you could share with us, that might be useful for other people, or things that haven't worked.
You talked, when we were preparing, about your way of making sure things happen in your life. You've got some sort of
routine, rules if you like, or something you mentioned. Perhaps you could talk a bit about that.
Cathy: Yes, my secrets.
There are the three Rs: routines, rules and rituals. Then there's another R, which is me, because I'm a rebel. Rules are absolutely anathema to me. Even if I think I should be doing something, I will immediately want to rebel against that. Never mind if somebody else thinks I should be doing something, because I would completely rebel against it.
I'm quite careful these days, about how I think about the things that I want to do. That I don't put them to myself in a language, which makes me then want to not do them.
Routines are great, because if I can just get them into my subconscious, then it's fine. If they make my day run better, that's all good. That's more around, sort of automating, and making sure that things are where I need them to be and all of that good stuff.
Simple things, like putting the keys back in the same place, every time I put them down. Because it's amazing how annoying that can be, when you can't find your keys. If you've just got a routine of, when I come in, this is where I always put my keys, great. Everything runs more smoothly.
The things I do on the positive side, to try and reinforce things that I have chosen to do, so that I don't rebel against them, is I tend to make them into rituals. I quite like the sense of presence, consciousness and special ness about making something into a ritual.
That's how I feel about my glass of water in the morning, with my lemon juice and everything else. It's like the pleasure of making a really good gin and tonic.
When you've gone out, got the limes and you just think about that lovely feeling, as you're cutting into a fresh lime, and the smell of it. You've got gin, and you've got the clink of ice cubes. It's that, it's making something special.
Jo: Do you know, we're recording this at nine thirty in the morning, aren't we? I'm quite fancying a gin and tonic now you
Cathy: It's introducing that element of something special. I do that sometimes with meditation as well, if I have got the chance to meditate at home.
I've got a little tiny box, my mediation box, and it's got some lovely rose smelling incense cones. So I'll light one of those. It's got a postcard on the top of the box, with a beautiful picture of a view that I really love.
It's got little special things in the box, so it just becomes a really, really nice thing to do. Rather than, oh god, I've got to do my meditation. Then feeling really annoyed about it and not doing it, because I'm rebelling against it.
It becomes a special thing, and I'm far, far more likely to do it in that case.
Jo: I think that's really interesting and helpful.
We were saying that you've recommended a book to me, that I'm halfway through, by Gretchen Rubin. I can't think what it's called now. What's it called?
Cathy: Is it called, Make Yourself Better? Making Yourself Better?
Jo: Something like that.
Cathy: The first was The Happiness Project and the second one is about habits, how we form habits and how all of that works.
Jo: I was saying I found it really interesting, and I'll be doing some work around some of the content with it and sharing it on the blog and so on. She sort of identified different types of people and it's really interesting as you read it through to think, "Ah, am I one of those or am I one of those."
When you talk about being a rebel, that was one of her four types of people when it relates to getting things done. I think it's really interesting to hear that you're so aware of your own self sabotage, so you create processes and systems to stop that happening. I think that's a real key point for everybody.
Cathy: Definitely. That's relatively recent in my life and it was a proper light bulb moment of, "Ah, that's why I always feel like I'm fighting myself."
Jo: I just found it, it's ‘Better Than Before - Mastering the Habits of Our Every Day Lives’ - Gretchen Rubin. What do you do to learn and improve yourself and move things forward? Clearly you do a lot of that, I can tell from the things that you're sharing with us. How do you do that?
Cathy: Yeah, I do. For anybody who's familiar with Gallup and StrengthsFinder, learning, exploration, curiosity, all of that is right at the top for me. So, I am, one of my personal values is curiosity. I do. I love to learn. I'll very often...My first response to anything unknown is to go and buy a book, because I do enjoy a book. I will quite often read extensively around a subject when I got a particular thing in mind. I like to know everything about that particular topic.
Also, I enjoy connecting with people about things as well so it's not only a process of learning for myself, it's a process of finding out what other people think. Being, I would hope, quite open minded, I think that there are very few absolute truths in this world and that we all see things differently. Through perception and our experience, we'll bring a different point of view to a particular situation and neither of those things are right or wrong. They're just simply how we see the world.
That's how I tend to approach things is go and learn what I can possibly learn and then talk to people to understand what thinking is going on around here. I also think that I'm always open to that learning and to thinking that something is never finished. Our thinking is never finished. Things always move on. You might think "Yep, well OK. I've got a handle on that situation or that topic or that subject." These things are not static. They are always, always moving, and I find that really exciting.
Jo: What books would you recommend? You talk about that being a real key part of your learning. Are there any particular books that you think our listeners would really benefit from investigating?
Cathy: Well, certainly Gretchen Rubin I think is excellent and both books are well worth a read ‘The Happiness Project’ and ‘Better Than Before’. I'm currently reading one at the moment. Talking about this slightly deeper side of understanding who we are and what we want out of life, itself. He talks very powerfully. "The Road To Character," it's called. I've gone and tried to download it now and I can't see the chap's name, David something.
It talks about our life is so governed these days by ratings. Trip Advisor and Amazon rate everything. For any of us in work we tend to be rated at work as well in some sort of performance management way. He's talking about that's all very well on a superficial level. We talk about success and our lives and jobs as being around money and status and all of that sort of thing.
That's very common, but as I've got older, I'm starting to look more inside myself and say, "Well, I want to do, I want to do work with meaning and I want to be growing myself so that I am the person when somebody is speaking at my funeral, it's not my work achievements they're talking about, it's the fact that hopefully I was wise and I was able to help other people and I was able to be very much a part of the world and not just an observer." David Brooks, his name is.
I would certainly recommend that one to anybody who's looking at personal development and improvement. Working on that deeper side of you that is so, so easy in the hurly burly of having a family, keeping a job and all the rest of it, it's so easy to actually let that slightly deeper bit go. Then you look at 20 years down the line and think, "Well, well, what am I? Who am I? How do I contribute to the world?" Just starting to think about that now, really.
Jo: So, that's books. We haven't mentioned films or music, particularly, although obviously as a Morris dancer, I guess music is important to you. Are there any other films or music or something that you would recommend for people?
Cathy: The absolute delight of live music, whether you play or whether you're listening, whatever it is, it's something I couldn't do without. Certainly, as a family, we're pretty musical. Right the way back through my parents, but certainly my partner, John and the two boys. Dan plays, John plays, Tom used to play trombone, and I flirt with all sorts of musical instruments, but, obviously the rebel side of me doesn't like practising.
Cathy: [laughs] Playing live with other people is an absolutely amazing experience, but even being in the audience and watching a great band absolutely lifts me, inspires me, all of that sort of thing. I like a huge range of music from choral and classical, right the way through to big hair '80s rock and Def Leppard. Music, absolutely, in whatever form, I think is a huge influence for me.
Jo: I agree. I love music generally, as you say, with a particularly eclectic interest as people who know me will know, so I completely get that.
What about when all this doesn't work? To me, I think, "Wow. You sound like you've got it really sussed". I'm sure there are days where it doesn't quite work and you don't feel quite so energized and calm and everything else. When does it go wrong? What happens? How do you deal with it?
Cathy: Yeah. It goes all wrong all the time, obviously. It's rare that the day ever runs to plan and mostly I'm able to deal with it because I'm fairly flexible anyway. I don't have a plan that is so rigid that I then get upset that it's not being followed. Something that does annoy me, and that I try and work on being less annoyed, is being late. I hate being late.
I really, really dislike it and, obviously, doing a lot of train travel, I've had to try and get used to the fact that [laughs] unfortunately sometimes, train travel will make me late. That's just something to be aware of, of how I personally react to things, but mostly...
Jo: ...Can I just ask as well...Ooh just interrupting there. Can I just ask with that, how that sits with the rebel bit, because clearly there's a mechanism going on in your brain about probably not letting people down or it being an external thing, which means that that's different to how you've described yourself up to now as far as the sort of rebellion bit of things?
Cathy: The thing about a rebel, Jo, is we're never consistent, obviously.
Cathy: There are always going to be things that come from a different place. Actually, I don't know where my being late thing comes from but my feeling about it is that it's disrespectful, it inconveniences other people and, absolutely, that's not a traditional rebel thing. Oddly, I don't feel that way about myself, so somebody else is late to meet with me and, particularly, if it's due to travel problems or whatever, I don't assume that they are being disrespectful.
It is purely something that I apply to myself internally and, therefore, it's [laughs] probably something deeply rooted in my childhood somewhere. I wish I can blame my mother.
Jo: Yes [laughs] . How do you deal with the things that don't go right, going back to the original question before I interrupted you? [laughs]
Cathy: Ideally, I think with grace. Grace is a word that I aspire to. It's like wisdom. If I'm thinking about what I would like somebody to say about me at my funeral, it would be that she was able to live with grace and not descending to tears and frustration and stomping and getting crabby with everybody around me because things aren't going as I intended them to be.
Just being able to say, "I accept the world as it is. This is what's happening now. Let's deal with what's happening now and not worry about the fact that it's gone wrong and isn't what I planned it to be. It is what it is." People say "It is what it is" sometimes when they want you to accept something, perhaps, less than ideal. It's actually a really good phrase to use and if you just concentrate on dealing with the here and now in general, I find that things will be a lot calmer.
Jo: There's that whole reset thing, that tomorrow's another day so it might be all a nightmare today, but tomorrow you can get back on the glass of water and the calming walk by the river and that sort of thing...
Cathy: Absolutely. The Gretchen Rubin book is very good on that, about making that point.
Jo: To finish on a positive. On a day when you end the day, knowing that you've had the chance to live more, you've had all that time to do the things that you want to do and you've done the routines that make you happy and that sort of thing. What have you done? What's one of those really good days where you've finished the day knowing you've lived more?
Cathy: I will have felt a real sense of presence in the world again. I won't have been sat or rather stood currently at my cool, new standing desk...
Jo: Oh, you're showing off, now. I'm sitting down. I need to stand up now.
Cathy: Unfortunately, I've put my standing desk next to an armchair and a number of times I keep finding myself having sat down without realizing that...
Cathy: ...It's that thing with connectedness. Not only online, but in person. I've done something during the day, whether it's get out for a walk, talk to strangers in the street, talk to people on trains, had a great interaction with my son, been to morris dancing. Whatever it is, something that roots me in the reality of just being a human being on this planet. That's what I like.
Jo: Brilliant answer. That's so cool. Well, I've really enjoyed speaking to you today, Cathy. Some really good ideas, thoughts, apps, tools and just some really good life lessons in there that I'm sure people listening will have lots to take out from the interview, so really, really appreciate you joining us today.
Cathy: My pleasure.