Buddhify, Happiness at Work, Dealing with the Digital ‘Always On’ Culture and Dealing with Stress with Laura Willis of Shine Offline.
Listen Below and Here’s What We Recommended:
Tools & Apps
Using a Pad to Note Actions – “Every time something came into my head, I got a little pad and then I started writing stuff down. That would become part of my batch working, so I was there a few times a day actioning on those things by going online and dealing with them. That’s what we recommend people, to have a little pad and pen and use that to try and keep their focus whenever they’re working through the day. That’s one of my biggest tools.”
Buddhify – “Buddhify is a good meditation app because they’ve got lots of different lists on meditation depending on what your situation is, how you’re feeling. You can choose from different lists”
HeadSpace – another meditation app
Controlling Tech – “We’ve got some very basic simple tips that we recommend that people try and use if they feel they’re not in control and the tech is running their day.”
Think Productive – “Graeme Cox set it up about eight years ago. His email management is brilliant. He talks about email should be on your list of things to do, like the way that I’m managing my work is, I have a list and I have this sort of sub heading. The first one is email, the second one is calls, the next one admin, and the next one’s decisions. They’re the four that I work on the week and within that email is one of the areas of work I have to deal with so I have to send some emails and deal with some emails. What I plan to do is only go into my inbox to retrieve three times a day. When I get in just before lunch and then right around three o’clock, on the days I’ve done it I felt brilliant but I’ll tell you now, it’s really hard.”
Happiness at Work – “It’s actually a book by a mindfulness teacher called Sharon Salzberg who is American. At my meditation group on a Tuesday night, people joke that I am probably on commission because any chance I get to talk about her, I talk about her because she’s amazing. The book’s really brilliant because it’s all about bringing what is essentially basic principles of compassion and kindness and empathy into the workplace.
Suggestion from Jo – “Organized Mind, Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload“, by Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist.
John Kabat-Zinn – “I was feeling really anxious so I ended up one night googling stress management or something. A Google talk came up by a meditation teacher who’s sort of the godfather of evidence-based mindfulness, meditation in the States. His name is John Kabat-Zinn. I watched the video, he was talking to Google staff at their own little conference, and it was all about living in the moment and the power of now. I was really inspired because I was someone who was always preoccupied with the future, always worrying about when the next project was going to come in, when the next money was going to come in, and this concept was just mind boggling for me. That started me on a journey through some meditation. I did an eight week course and I went to a couple of conferences and I started to meditate using the head space app on my own, and I found it really helpful.”
Dealing with the Digital ‘Always On’ Culture – “Shine Offline has come on the back of me knowing that I have not a problem with it, but I know that it’s a very complex relationship. Now that I’m not working from home, I’m able to leave my laptop in the office every night because if I take it home with me, I’ll turn it off but I’ll probably turn it on three or four times throughout the evening because the anticipation of knowing what’s in the inbox is just so strong for me. I know I’m not unusual in that way.”
Always on Email – “It’s comparative to the slot machine psychology. It’s the randomisation of it. Whenever you play a slot machine, if every time you didn’t win or every time you did win, your behaviour would be different but because it’s random, you keep going. Stuff like mobile text or any ICT, because when you go in to refresh your email, to see what’s there, it’s like who knows? It could be a missing piece of work, it could be a lovely bit of good news, it could be junk but the randomisation of it just encourages you to go into it, it’s like gambling.”
It’s all Individual – “The more people we speak to and the more research we read – It’s such an individual thing. One person’s filter, there’s a filter failure where a lot of us don’t have a good filter anymore and we’re just being bombarded with information. I have a really rubbish filter, whereas my husband has a really good filter. I would be much more extroverted than him, he would be more of an introvert and his ability to be able to cope with information coming in at him, his ability to … For example, if he got an email coming to his inbox from one of his clients about a new piece of work, he could quite happily not … He could see the subject line but quite happily to not click on it. I’m like, “Are you mad?” If that came into mine, I’d be on it straightaway. It’s just different personality types and how people cope with things are very, very different but the flip side of that.”
Some People Can Integrate It – “We heard a piece of research last week that said that there are people who like to be in this culture of being constantly connected. They like work to be infiltrating their personal life, they like blurry edges. That’s fine but we still as human beings, we still need downtime, we still need rest, we still need rejuvenation.“
Creating Barriers – “I have taken it to the nth degree in a sense, but because I find it so challenging working from home and now I’m in a position where I don’t have to, I have created quite a big barrier between the two. When I leave the office to go back and I’m sort of switching off really and when I get home, my husband will be there and he will be finishing off a piece of work, then he’ll be off the computer to go into the kitchen to start the dinner and then going back to it. He’ll jump up and down from the office, but probably once it gets to about half past six, the computer’s off and then it’s home time which works brilliantly for me.”
Dealing with Stress – “How I deal with it and what impact it has are two very different things. My biggest problem really is my sleep. I can become sleepless quite quickly. If there’s stress going on, especially work stress. I went through a CBT reteaching yourself how to sleep, that was a couple of years ago, it was really, really great. You basically have to completely suppress yourself of sleep, work out how much sleep you’re getting. Say you’re only getting, when you total it up, you’re only getting three hours, what you need to do is then …
Say you’re going to bed at eleven o’clock and you’re getting up at seven but you’re only getting three hours of sleep within that time, what you’re meant to do is basically retrain yourself, so only allow yourself the three hours of sleep to stay up until … Do you know what I mean? You have to go through this cleanse in your bedroom and one of the things is no tech in the bedroom.“
Getting to Sleep – “About a year ago, I started to get up and write, just free write which I’ve never done before. I know people talk about the morning pages and stuff, but I’ve never done any of that. I find that if I get up and sit and write for twenty minutes, then I put my head on the pillow, I fall asleep so that’s been really great for me”.
To Contact Laura
On the website, http://www.shineoffline.com, you’ll find all the info about us there and there’s a team page. The four of us have a little profile and there’s a little link into my story, my background, and about why we’re doing what we’re doing. I’m on LinkedIn as well, so if anybody wants to email me, it’s just firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Jo Dodds: Today I'm interviewing Laura Willis of Shine Offline. Welcome Laura. Thanks for joining me.
Laura Willis: Hi Jo. How are you?
Jo Dodds: Good, thank you. I saw some snow outside the window and it's the end of April, but it's stopped now.
Laura Willis: I know. It hasn't reached us yet. It's still sunny here.
Jo Dodds: I know, and we were thinking it was nearly the summer. So, start by telling us a little bit about you, what you do, and where you do it.
Laura Willis: Okay. My name's Laura Willis and I'm originally from Northern Ireland, as you'll hear, my background is that I was a self-employed PR marketing and events consultant working from home for about nine years. Very recently, in January, I launched a new business that has been inspired from my experience of not really being able to manage my work-life balance, working from home and a couple episodes of what you could call burnout that happened to me over the past few years.
I'm now in the fortunate position of working in an office which hasn't happened for a long time, so my life feels quite different. I'm married to a man who works from home. He's a graphic designer and spends all day in front of a screen. He's very good at managing his time. He's the cook in our house, so I get a lovely meal cooked for me every night. He's a graphic designer, so when he's waiting for a sign off from a job, he can step away and go into the kitchen and get the cooking going.
Jo Dodds: Lovely. It doesn't quite work like that in our house. I don't quite get away from the computer in time to do the cooking. I won't play this particular podcast to my husband.
Laura Willis: That's probably a good idea. I think I'm quite rare in that sense.
Jo Dodds: Talk us through, then. You currently don't work from home, having done this a lot in the past, and the reason you don't and your new business are all very intertwined. Tell us a bit more about that journey for you.
Laura Willis: Okay. I went out on my own about nine years ago. I was living in Northern Ireland with my English husband and decided that having been in a PR marketing for many years as an employee, that I wanted to do my own thing. He decided around the same time that he also wanted to go out on his own, so we ended up both working from home and we started as consultants. The great thing was that we were able to collaborate a lot on projects and work together as well, which is cool.
Then, we moved back to Northern Ireland from London where we had met because my father was unwell. He had early onset Alzheimer's and we had gone up back there to help my mum. It was great because we were already self-employed, so we were managing our own schedules and we were there to help mum. They only lived up the road. We were there to help them often when she needed us. The flexibility was super. Dad got ... He was at home the whole time that he was unwell, but he got to the stage where we really weren't really of much use to him and they were having full time carers coming in. At that point, Ben and I decided that we'd really been back for about five years in Northern Ireland and the businesses were going well, but we wanted to move back to London. We really missed all his family and a lot friends from here.
We made the decision to come back and we'd only been back in London about two weeks, and I was actually due to get on a plane to fly back to Northern Ireland and my father died that morning. I happened to be on the plane anyway and got back and was then back in Northern Ireland for a couple of weeks for the funeral and all the rest. But then I was a bit muddled because we'd only been actually back in London and I wasn't sure what to do. I came back to London anyway and then hit a bit of a low. I was all over the place. I'd always been quite anxious about my work and quite stressed and the working from home thing had been a bit of a struggle, but I was finding it really difficult.
I was feeling really anxious so I ended up one night googling stress management or something. A Google talk came up by a meditation teacher who's sort of the godfather of evidence-based mindfulness, meditation in the States. His name is John Kabat-Zinn. I watched the video, he was talking to Google staff at their own little conference, and it was all about living in the moment and the power of now. I was really inspired because I was someone who was always preoccupied with the future, always worrying about when the next project was going to come in, when the next money was going to come in, and this concept was just mind boggling for me. That started me on a journey through some meditation. I did an eight week course and I went to a couple of conferences and I started to meditate using the head space app on my own, and I found it really helpful.
The years passed. The business continued to develop. I was still living in London, but most of my work was in Northern Ireland. I spent a lot of my time working within the arts and culture sectors. There'd been a lot of funding put in to Northern Ireland and they also won UK City of Culture, so I was inundated with projects back and forward like a yo-yo, on a plane. I'm sure a lot of people that work from home can relate to this.
I used to get up in the morning and go for a run. I would get back from my run and I would check my email and then I'd get in the shower and I'd come out of the shower and in my towel I'd check my emails. I'd get dried and then I'd get dressed and then I would check ... I was constantly, the break, the movement away from the computer and the constant need for knowing what was happening next, either waiting for a client to confirm something or waiting for a journalist to say they'd write an article or waiting for approval on a piece of artwork. It was just constant. That would have caused a lot of anxiety for me.
That was all going, and then I had my little girl. She's now three and a half. I fortunately met a PR consultant locally who was able to come on board whenever I got really busy and help me out on projects. On maternity cover, I was able to go off four months but it got really busy quite quickly again. Sadie was at home, she was only four months old, but because my husband was working from home as well, we sort of managed to throw her around the house between us. I went back to work at four months and sort of managed it, although I think I had twelve projects all at once. Anna, who was the local consultant who came on board with me, she was brilliant and she's now part of the business. She had worked from home herself for many years and she is now my business partner in Shine Offline, but we'll come on to that later.
I decided I had to go back to work when Sadie was only four months old. I think it was okay looking back, but the meditation had fallen by the wayside and I was flying back and forth to northern Ireland still. I was doing too many projects at once. My husband's very supportive and very available, and that was great. When Sadie was about nine months old, she started to have seizures just out of the blue. Looking back now, I can see that that was the straw that broke the camel's back. At that point, I realised I couldn't do everything. I had a real burnout and hit a real low. I went to the GP and we spoke about ... My sleep was well off track, that was the worst thing, my insomnia got really bad. The GP, we had a chat and we talked about meditation and he said you should maybe join a meditation group to keep the momentum going. A lot of people find that that really helps and [inaudiable] with meditation are quite similar to CBT.
I happened to find a group that was on that night in Twickenham where I live and I went along. I was nervous, but I went. It was two hours long. I'd only meditated for about ten minutes before, but it was brilliant and I've been going ever since. That started to get me back on track, and in the meantime, the whole grey area of working from home and not having my smartphone, which was my work phone and personal phone that was never off ... I remember going on honeymoon and not taking the phone and feeling completely amazing for two weeks because I didn't have the phone with me and always harking back to that, and this constant ... I was called all the time, and especially after my daughter was born, I became much more aware of my own behaviour and the technology in my life and the work and personal, it was all one big clump. It really stressed me out.
I started to make some changes and I got another phone, so I had a work phone and a personal phone, so now I could turn on one off or the other on without the two. I took the email off my phone so if I wanted to access email I had to go onto my laptop. I came off Facebook because I never really enjoyed being on it anyway and, especially being self-employed, I could go online and just be on and end up lost in this Facebook puzzle. Some of these changes started to ... I could really feel the benefits of them.
Over a period of about six months, I had friends and family in conversation either bumping into them on the train or out for dinner. We would get chatting about tech and how prevalent it was and how connected they felt and how they couldn't get a break. I would share some of the stuff I'd do. People were listening to me and really like, "Oh wow, that's a good idea," and taking the ideas on board and then coming back to me to say "I've done that and it's really helped me, thanks so much!" I was thinking that's really good because I've got a background in psychology and I studied social psychology, and I've always had an interest in people and wellbeing. I thought "Oh, I'm starting to help people here," which was great. I was fortunate to win a piece of work for the Guardian so I had to travel in and out of London for business last May, was traveling in and out of London which was lovely because I got to go into an office space and work with other people, which is amazing.
While on the commute, which I’d not done in years, I noticed everybody was on their phone, constantly and because I don't have email on my phone and I'm not on Facebook and I was proactively trying to meditate, I wouldn't necessarily have my phone in my hand. I knew that I was quite unusual in that sense. It just started to really strike me, everywhere I looked, everybody was on their phone and I've not really noticed it before.
One day I was traveling into The Guardian and I was sitting beside this girl who was about my age. She had a wedding ring on, she looked like she probably had kids and she was on her phone. She was just flipping in between Facebook and her calendar and her photos and her email. She wasn't taking any time, it was just constant but there no method to it and it made me feel quite agitated for myself. I thought, "God, how must that make you feel? I'm only watching you doing it." The commute on the way home, I sat beside a bloke who was watching Sherlock Holmes on the iPlayer on his iPad and he was playing Solitaire at the same time on his phone and I just looked at him and in my head I said to myself, "Switch off and slow down"
Then I was like oh, maybe ... I had a sense for a while that there was something, a bit of purpose right there for me, something more that I should be doing. I thought maybe that's what it is I need to be doing. So I became quite interested in the digital detox world in America, it's become quite fashionable for people to disconnect from their technology and go away and have a break, on holiday and there's special camps that have been set up. People go away, you're anonymous, you don't talk about your work. You get given a nickname, it's all very natural. You sleep in huts and you meditate, and you spend time in the open air and I was really inspired by that. I was thinking maybe there's something around the detox space that could be of benefit and the meditation had such a profound impact on me that maybe there was something it.
Within a couple of weeks I had researched it a bit, spoken to a few people who were working in the training and productivity sectors and quite quickly realised that I should probably just go for it. My friend Anna who'd been working with me for years came onboard as a business partner and another couple of guys that I know also came in and they're sort of the business side of things. We piloted what it was initially going to be, an Offline Day. The idea was that we wanted to work with the consumer and the corporate market because we wanted individuals to benefit from it as well.
As time passed, the more research we did, we realised it would probably be more beneficial for teams to experience the learning so we did an Offline Day where we invited about twenty PR consultants and we worked for a couple of agencies, and they checked their phones in. They have a day of workshopping, the relationship they have with tech in their lives, starting to appreciate the impact that it's having on their wellbeing, productivity, the work, life balance. Some introduction to meditation because with the rise in all this distraction and connectivity all over the place, there's also this rise in mindfulness and that’s no coincidence because people are creating focus and clarity. We did an introduction to mindfulness.
The rest of the day is essentially spent ... Phones were checked in, laptops were checked in and people were allowed basically to remember what it's like to just live without those distractions all the time. We created a quick session, we had a session in the forest. It was just before Christmas so people made Christmas decorations out of stuff they found in the forest floor. We had time for reflection, we lit a bonfire and we met back at the end of the day, and people said back how they felt. It was really really positive. Since then we have ... That was in December, we've now developed it on the back of feedback where we are tailoring shorter sessions between one and a half hours to sort of a half day and so far, so good. Things are really positive and we're delivering some stuff for Disney at the moment and business and community. We've had meetings with lots of big companies, but obviously processes take longer in large corporate organisations so we're sort of sitting on our hands waiting for ... I'm trying to check my inbox every two minutes because I am offline, but ...
Jo Dodds: I was going to say, is the request for shorter sessions because they don't want to go too long between checking their email?
Laura Willis: No, that's actually very interesting. No, it's not although we'll see if that comes into it. It's more the HR department and company said people don't want ... Whether or not it's senior management or whether or not it's going to be individuals, but people don't want to be out of the day, out of the office for too long. They want to learn in short sessions, so we've managed to be able to put something really tight together. It's basically what's the relationship that you have at the moment, what impact do you think it's having.
There's so much research and evidence now. We were at a conference last week in London about e-resilience and there are lots of academics researching the impact that ... This is so important as well for people who are working from home because there's quite a lot of isolation that can go if you're sitting on your own all day. Whenever email becomes your main form of communication and the emotional and psychological impact that that can have, a, if you're inundated or b, if you're waiting around for people to get back to you. People are talking about it and from a personal point of view, I know this.
Shine Offline has come on the back of me knowing that I have not a problem with it, but I know that it's a very complex relationship. Now that I'm not working from home, I'm able to leave my laptop in the office every night because if I take it home with me, I'll turn it off but I'll probably turn it on three or four times throughout the evening because the anticipation of knowing what's in the inbox is just so strong for me. I know I'm not unusual in that way.
Jo Dodds: No, there has been lots of research of dopamine hits of emails and messages on social media and so on that's in your brain. The dopamine comes in, I'm not technical enough to explain how it all works but that's the sort of hormone that is about gratification isn't it? You open your emails and you get that hit of dopamine. That encourages you in a physiological way to keep doing it. It's not just about thinking about it or not thinking about it or whatever, it's actually physiologically things are happening to you that you can't control, isn't it?
Laura Willis: It's compared to this ... Sorry, go ahead.
Jo Dodds: No, you can go.
Laura Willis: I was just going to say it's comparative to the slot machine psychology. It's the randomisation of it. Whenever you play a slot machine, if every time you did't win or every time you did win, your behaviour would be different but because it's random, you keep going. Stuff like mobile text or any ICT, because when you go in to refresh your email, to see what's there, it's like who knows? It could be a missing piece of work, it could be a lovely bit of good news, it could be junk but the randomisation of it just encourages you to go into it, it's like gambling.
There's a guy, he's sort of like the godfather of the digital detoxing within the states. He came from the Silicon Valley and had a breakdown and he ended up having internal bleeding, he didn't realise because he was busy on Twitter and ending up changing his whole life and went on a retreat to India for six months, and all the rest of it. He talked about being kind to yourself when it comes to the relationships that you have with your smartphone or your inbox because the people who are now working for Google and Microsoft and all the other big companies are the people who use to cure cancer. They're the smartest people in the world and their job is to make us distracted, make us want to connect all the time. It's no wonder everybody's sitting with their phones in their hands because it's somebody's job to make us do that.
Jo Dodds: It's interesting. I do a lot of stuff with technology, I use my phone a lot and I believe a smartphone is actually one of the tools that is really important around things like organisation, productivity, and so on, if used in the right way. It's interesting, a lot of people who know me, probably family, would probably say that I spend far too much time on my phone and that I'm addicted to it and all these other things. It's interesting, through all the social and digital transformation, I've always talked about social and digital tools as being just that, that they are tools to do the things you need to do. If you're using them in the right way for the right reasons and managing that if you like, it's different to doing stuff just because, as you said, because it's sort of ingrained, it's subconscious or whatever.
I can still see I do do that. There are times I check Facebook and I know there's no need to, I could have just not. I do think when people see me using the phone, think I'm using it because I'm addicted to it. A lot of time I explain to them if there's a bit of downtime somewhere, I’d rather just sort out a few bits and pieces while there's nothing else to do than spend another half an hour later in the day catching up on emails that I could have dealt with when I was in the queue for the bank or something. The thing is you don't know when you look at people using technology, like you gave that example of that lady flicking between her applications. It sounded like that was completely random and it was probably of no use and it was probably quite stressful for her. It certainly was for you watching it. Maybe she did have a strategy to it, it doesn't sound like she did.
Laura Willis: I think you've touched on such an important point which is something that we are learning and appreciating more, the more people we speak to and the more research we read. It's such an individual thing. One person's filter, there's a filter failure where a lot of us don't have a good filter anymore and we're just being bombarded with information. I have a really rubbish filter, whereas my husband has a really good filter. I would be much more extroverted than him, he would be more of an introvert and his ability to be able to cope with information coming in at him, his ability to ... For example, if he got an email coming to his inbox from one of his clients about a new piece of work, he could quite happily not ... He could see the subject line but quite happily to not click on it. I'm like, "Are you mad?" If that came into mine, I'd be on it straightaway. It's just different personality types and how people cope with things are very, very different but the flip side of that.
We heard a piece of research last week that said that there are people who like to be in this culture of being constantly connected. They like work to be infiltrating their personal life, they like blurry edges. That's fine but we still as human beings, we still need downtime, we still need rest, we still need rejuvenation. As long as we're getting those ... For me, I felt that the lack of calm and the lack of space and the lack of just boredom, this is ... Sadie is three and a half years now and she's at that age where she loves to watch her TV and she loves to watch her Disney movies and all the rest of it, but for me, I like to make sure that stimulation isn't constant. I think it's really important for the brain and for patience, and for lots of different personality traits and discipline for us to have, time that isn't constant entertainment and constant interaction.
I think that's where the meditation comes into it as well because taking that time out, that ten minutes out where you're in the doctor's surgery and you're waiting an hour and a half for the appointment, it'd be very easy to sit on your phone. Whereas I've made a conscious decision because I know that if I do that, it won't give me the downtime that I know that I need, it's just on a personal level. I make a conscious decision, not necessarily to meditate but I might sit and look around me, not doing anything. I think there is past judgement on people as you say, friends or family of yours might look at you and make assumptions but it's to do with your own conscious mindful managed approach.
Jo Dodds: To give my example of that, I might do the same as you, I probably wouldn't. What I might do is practise my French vocabulary using the app I've got on my phone, I might read some articles that I've saved to read when I have an opportunity to do it. I might do my emails, I might go on Facebook, I might do my brain training app that's on my phone. Some of those things are things that I try and do as a routine for certain reasons and it's not because I can't stop myself using my phone, it's because I've chosen to use it as a tool to learn French, for example.
Laura Willis: Yeah.
Jo Dodds: It's very individual. I'm really interested in what you now do then from a routine point of view at home. Bearing in mind, you used to work from home, now you don't and as you said, you don't bring stuff home with you as such but with your husband working at home, I guess there's sort of potential muddying of waters as well sort of things. How do you run that now, do you have certain things you specifically do at home and then work is very much at the office? Do you sometimes do things at home? You can't stop yourself thinking about work at home, I guess, how does that all play out?
Laura Willis: I have taken it to the nth degree in a sense, but because I find it so challenging working from home and now I'm in a position where I don't have to, I have created quite a big barrier between the two. When I leave the office to go back and I’m sort of switching off really and when I get home, my husband will be there and he will be finishing off a piece of work, then he’ll be off the computer to go into the kitchen to start the dinner and then going back to it. He'll jump up and down from the office, but probably once it gets to about half past six, the computer's off and then it's home time which works brilliantly for me.
In the mornings, one of the things that I was a big victim of was checking the email the minute I woke up. Whenever I would of have it on the phone and we've got some very basic simple tips that we recommend that people try and use if they feel they're not in control and the tech is running their day. Now I don't have email on my phone, but what I do now is I turn my phone off at night time and I do find myself turning it on probably around eight o'clock in the morning to see if I've gotten a text message, if anybody's written back. It's never really work related, it's more personal things. I try to be quite strict with myself and keep it all quite separate.
Jo Dodds: As you say, that is actually what people need to do if that works for them as well as the people who say perhaps don't do that. It's funny, I listen to a lot of that stuff around sort of miracle morning and getting up early and having routines and some people say never check your email until ten o'clock. Some people say I do for this, that, and the other reason. It's interesting, the more you hear about people's routines and hear what people do, the more you realise as we've said, it is very much needing to shape something that suits you.
Laura Willis: Exactly. One of the people who came on our pilot session, got in contact the other day to say that she ... One of the things we suggested is that people ... People are using their phones as their alarm clock, their watch, their everything so we suggest that people get an alarm clock so that that wakes them up in the morning as opposed to having to have their phone beside their bed because the temptation to look at your email or your Facebook before you even stepped through the door was really high and she sent me an email to say she's gotten an alarm clock and it's totally changed her sleep, and she feels really productive as a result. That's the sort of stuff I'm trying to do for myself as well because I just know how much better my head feels as a result.
Jo Dodds: It's interesting, I did a podcast interview right near the beginning with Jason Buckner and we were talking about wanting to have your email so you can work in it without it actually having new emails dropping in. At the time, I said, "There must be a way to do that," and I went off and researched it. I use Gmail and I found an app called Inbox Pause and that's what I actually use throughout the day so that I don't have any emails coming in. I can still work in my email, still find things, do things, send emails, but I can't actually see the emails that are coming in until I specifically decide that now is the time to deal with those. I found that so helpful, so good.
Laura Willis: I knew a company called Think Productive they're based in Brighton and Graeme Cox set it up about eight years ago in the back of his- Do you know them?
Jo Dodds: I know Grace Marshall, he works with him. I've read his book and stuff, so yeah, I'm aware of them.
Laura Willis: With stuff that he's been around, email management is brilliant. He talks about email should be on your list of things to do, like the way that I'm managing my work is a, I have a list and I have this sort of sub heading. The first one is email, the second one is calls, the next one admin, and the next one's decisions. They're the four that I work on the week and within that email is one of the areas of work I have to deal with so I have to send some emails and deal with some emails. What I plan to do is only go into my inbox to retrieve three times a day. When I get in just before lunch and then right around three o'clock, on the days I've done it I felt brilliant but I'll tell you now, it's really hard.
Jo Dodds: It's hard, isn't it?
Laura Willis: Oh my god, when you're waiting for people to come back to you as well, I'm refresh, refresh, refresh. It's such discipline and it's such ... I've actually had to stick pieces of paper on the walls to remind myself these are the times you're meant to be checking your email because it's just this constant flow of distraction that moves you away where you're meant to be. I do the same, I put my mailbox offline because I'm working on the Mac and you can't get on with stuff not constantly looking up to see if another window has popped up or a little envelope has popped up.
Jo Dodds: I think it's the single biggest thing that's made a difference to me in the last few months and I've read about it all the time. I knew logically that it was a good thing to do, but I never bothered doing it because I thought it wasn't going to work for me. Actually now having done it, I realize not only can you do it and does it work, I can see how powerful it is. I've always worked on inbox zero and that helped me to do it. Things would get out of hand if I was really busy or if I had a particular day out of the office or whatever, it would all get out of hand. I'm no further than a day away from sorting emails out all the time. That's not because I spend all my time doing it, it's because of the fact that there's a process and a system including, as you said, just checking it certain times.
I'm interested in your list of four things to do. Is that how you manage your to-do list every day?
Laura Willis: At the moment it is, yeah.
Jo Dodds: How does that connect up with projects? The thing I find as a challenge quite often is you've got big stuff that needs to get done and then lots of little things that need to get done and it's that whole important and urgent debate when you're prioritising. How does your system work with that?
Laura Willis: I still find that if I break it down into the type of tasks I have to do and work in sort of that batchworking way, it's just a more effective way for me to work. If I had, underneath admin, that's really research, reading, writing, anything that doesn't really involve communication. I'll definitely find, regardless of what project’s it to do with, if I batch it all together and say that I'm going to spend the next hour on the admin section, it just feels like I can get into flow a bit better.
We've only launched in January so we're not being pulled by different clients and different directions. We've got a number of sessions that we're running next month and we're actually in a preparatory state at the moment based on a lot of the research that we came across on the conference last week. Once I have ten clients needing service, whether this will work effectively I think. It's that basic time management thing that's backtracking. I've just got to try to keep doing it and hopefully it will just be the way that I work.
Jo Dodds: What about tools and apps that you use to help you? We'll say that smartphones aren't on that list!
Laura Willis: To be honest, most of my tools are tools that I use to encourage me to step away from the screen. We now integrate those into what we recommend people can try out themselves. An example would be I find myself, every time something came into my head that required me to go online like I can be sitting, working on a project, on the computer and remember I've got to pay the childminder or remember I've got to make a doctor's appointment, or remember I've got to get my mum's birthday present or whatever. It could be, "Oh, I've got to email that guy back about ..." I felt that I was constantly jumping away from what I was doing to go online to action something.
I decided to start, every time something came into my head, I got a little pad and then I started writing stuff down. That would become part of my batch working, so I was there a few times a day actioning on those things by going online and dealing with them. That's what we recommend people, to have a little pad and pen and use that to try and keep their focus whenever they're working through the day. That's one of my biggest tools.
On the app side of things, I have used meditation apps in the past which again, helped me when I find myself especially feeling overwhelmed or like my head was buzzing or I couldn't concentrate anymore. There was some Buddhify is a good meditation app because they've got lots of different lists on meditation depending on what your situation is, how you're feeling. You can choose from different lists and Head Space was another one that I would have used before.
On the work management and how I schedule myself and stuff like that, I don't really have any apps that I would use in that sense.
Jo Dodds: Pen and paper, that's the one coming up most often.
Laura Willis: Exactly. Is it?
Jo Dodds: It is, yeah.
Laura Willis: Are you finding that's what people are saying.
Jo Dodds: Yeah, there's very little overlap in something like twenty-two interviews, there's been very little overlap. Google calendar gets a mention regularly. The meditation apps do and you mentioned John Kabat-Zinn at the beginning, Cathy mentioned that in the very first podcast we did. There's quite a bit of that mindfulness, meditation, but pen and paper, that's probably been mentioned the most.
Laura Willis: Well that's good because I thought I was going to be really weird and like 1982. That's good, that makes me feel fine.
Jo Dodds: It's just retro, it's very modern you know.
Laura Willis: Yeah.
Jo Dodds: We talked about meditation which is helping you with your relaxation and you say a lot of the things that you do are about bringing you away from work. How else do you look after yourself? How else do you keep healthy, assuming you do?
Laura Willis: Well, yes. I'm actually seven months pregnant, so prior to this, I ran. I would have never gone, my colleague has just run a marathon, I would never have run for more than forty-five minutes but I use to try to get out where we live. We're very lucky, we're by the river, we've got lots of lovely parks and things so I would have tried to run. I walk every day, it's twenty minutes to the office and twenty minutes back so that definitely helps keep me sane. If I wasn't doing that, I just need to be in the fresh air and that really helps set me up for the day. As I said, I'm married to a man who loves to cook so we eat very well which is brilliant. Apart from anybody out there who's ever had pregnancy nauseous, I've never eaten so many doughnuts in my life. By four months, I was doughnut dolly.
Meditation is really important. I still go to a group on a Tuesday night for a couple of hours and that's really great. I suppose because I'm quite heavily pregnant and we do have a three and a half year old, recreation time is really limited but Ben and I still if we get the chance, try and maybe drop Sadie to nursery on a Monday morning and go for a quick coffee by the river if we can and make sure that we have time together. It's not necessarily watching Games of Thrones, as anybody has seen it, we saw last night back on series 6. I'm very aware of trying to keep that balance in there and I'm so glad that the sun's shining and we can be outside a bit more.
Jo Dodds: Yes, exactly. What about learning and doing things better? You've talked about going to conferences with work, so there's a focus at the moment on research as far as that's concerned but sort of generally, what do you do to keep up and learn the things that you want and need to learn?
Laura Willis: Well I suppose the good thing for me at the moment is that because this topic of this switched-on culture is so in the zeitgeist at the moment and a lot of people are talking about it and writing about it. There's been quite a lot of news coverage around it in the press and on TV and radio. We've actually started to pull together a research folder that's from the press because there's so much stuff coming out so there's a really good variety. The thing for me though is how the hell do you focus through it all because there's so much of it, so that informal just reading, I've joined a couple of LinkedIn groups. There's one for mindfulness at work and they're really great. People post up articles and comments and research papers, probably on a daily basis so I try to take time to read up on that.
As regards formal learning, nothing at the moment. I would quite like to get back into that maybe at some stage, but for now it's just keeping my finger on the pulse by reading as much as I can. When there's something that's really quite good – radio 4’s quite good - on a lot of stuff that we do, just listening out. Oh and quite a lot of podcasts that are relevant to our sector as well, just squeezing in when I get the chance.
Jo Dodds: Interesting when you say formal learning. I've interviewed a lady called Michelle Parry Slater on a different podcast I do for Engage to Success. Recently we were talking about social learning and the more informal learning and how important that is for organisations and yet we sort of tend to assume that you have to do a specific course or as you said, something more formal but actually the things that you're doing are the real key ways of learning in this information era. There's just information available everywhere whereas preps thirty, forty years ago, to get the real cutting edge information, you had to go do a degree or a vocational training course. Whereas now, it's all out there. It's just about, as you said, trying to wade through and work out and find the best stuff, and do what you need to.
When we talked about at the beginning, sort of recommendations for books, film, music and you said there's a book you'd recommend. I'm wondering if it's the one that sprung to mind when we were talking earlier to me, so go ahead.
Laura Willis: It's actually a book by a mindfulness teacher called Sharon Salzberg who is American. At my meditation group on a Tuesday night, people joke that I am probably on commission because any chance I get to talk about her, I talk about her because she's amazing. She has written a book called "Happiness at Work," and it's really brilliant because it's all about bringing what is essentially basic principles of compassion and kindness and empathy into the workplace. She has done a lot of training with companies around these issues and within the book, she just case studies the whole time so literally within one page, she might talk about two concepts but she's backed them up with six people that she's met through these workshops that she's running. What they have found or what they've done in their work lives as a result.
The book also comes with loads of meditation so when I go off for maternity leave ... I've actually bought myself the audio book because she's American and I quite like her voice so I've only listened to about the first two chapters but when I go on maternity leave, my aim is to listen to the whole thing because it seems to be going back to the learning thing. Now that I'm working in a completely different factor, I'm working in well-being which I've never did before and I'm attending events and I'm sitting in the room and I love, I'm so engaged and it's interesting and it's so great to be sitting in a lecture theatre, a conference because there's so many great stuff, I can't write it down quick enough.
Sharon Salzberg, from a learning point of view has been absolutely brilliant and I would recommend anybody to buy that book because there's definitely a sea change. I was at an event last week with the organised CBI and it was all about happy employees equal a happy, healthy business and it was an awful lot being said about wellbeing, but not being the importance of the bottom line and about business leaders starting to just trust their gut instinct. Stress is a problem, we don't need facts and figures, we just need to recognise that it's an issue, we know it in our hearts. It's not always about profit, it's about hearts and minds, and that's a lot of what Sharon talks about. It's about being more compassionate at work, being kind to yourself and thinking about how your colleagues are dealing with things. That's my current top tip although I haven't actually managed to read the whole thing.
Jo Dodds: I never finish any of my business books, I always read the beginning, think they're amazing though. I do occasionally finish them. It's a really good recommendation, thank you and I'll go and check that one out. I was trying to remember the one I thought you might have been saying. I've been laughing to myself that I have got it on my Kindle list but I haven't actually read it yet.
Laura Willis: What is it?
Jo Dodds: Called the "Organized Mind, Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload," by a guy called Daniel Levitin and he's a neuroscientist.
Laura Willis: Oh.
Jo Dodds: It's all about the overwhelm of society with technology.
Laura Willis: Oh lovely.
Jo Dodds: How to sort of find your way through that if you understand what it's doing to us and things like, multi-tasking isn't actually a thing, it's just switching quickly between lots of different things. It sort of loads some of those myths and it talks about why email is addictive, which we were talking about at the beginning so it might be worth checking that one out.
Laura Willis: Definitely.
Jo Dodds: I have to read it, having bought it and not got that far. I didn't even read the first two chapters.
Laura Willis: Is it the Organized Mind?
Jo Dodds: Yeah, the "Organized Mind, Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload," Daniel Levitin.
Laura Willis: Okay, I'll check that out, definitely. Thank you.
Jo Dodds: What about if things don't go right then, if you had a bad day. You talked at the beginning about two fairly traumatic times in your life, one of which spawned a new business but what about if you just have a day that hasn't gone so well? How do you deal with that?
Laura Willis: How I deal with it and what impact it has are two very different things. My biggest problem really is my sleep. I can become sleepless quite quickly. If there's stress going on, especially work stress. I went through a CBT reteaching yourself how to sleep, that was a couple of years ago, it was really, really great. You basically have to completely suppress yourself of sleep, work out how much sleep you're getting. Say you're only getting, when you total it up, you're only getting three hours, what you need to do is then ...
Say you're going to bed at eleven o'clock and you're getting up at seven but you're only getting three hours of sleep within that time, what you're meant to do is basically retrain yourself, so only allow yourself the three hours of sleep to stay up until ... Do you know what I mean? You have to go through this cleanse in your bedroom and one of the things is no tech in the bedroom. I went through all of that and I thought I was cured and that was a couple years ago, but now with being pregnant it doesn't really help, but now I found if stuff is on my mind or not necessarily where I lie down and I'm constantly aware of thoughts, it's more I just can't settle.
About a year ago, I started to get up and write, just free write which I've never done before. I know people talk about the morning pages and stuff, but I've never done any of that. I find that if I get up and sit and write for twenty minutes, the minute I put my head on the pillow, I fall asleep so that's been really great for me as a massive thing, although sometimes I do lie there going, "I don't want to get up and write." That happens more often than all the other ones.
Generally, I suppose again because I'm in this situation where I'm seven months pregnant, if I had a bad day maybe a year ago I might have gone home and gone for a short run or try to do something physical, where at the moment I can't in the same sense. I definitely find speaking to friends on the phone a good thing because we don't talk in the same way that we use to and especially I've got a lot of old school friends, but I find a good hour and a half on the phone definitely puts things back into perspective and sharing stories, and what we've been up to. Apart from that ...
Jo Dodds: That's a lot. You've got stuff to do. What about on a day, knowing you had the chance to live more, so that's where I say it's about doing the stuff that you want to do rather than the stuff that you have to do or should do. What have you done, what does a day look like when you've lived more?
Laura Willis: Probably finished early because I felt that I've completed what I needed to for the day and collected Sadie from nursery and gone to the park. There's a lot of ice cream in our house, we eat a lot of ice cream and just had some time outside with her. That’s probably for me the biggest thing at the moment especially as the weather improved so nice to not have to get home and shut the door and put the telly on. We went through a jigsaw phase recently which is lovely as well, but yeah, spend a bit more time with her.
Jo Dodds: It's amazing what spending time with a three-year-old does for your being in the moment, especially when you go for a walk. It gives you a whole new perspective on walks, doesn't it if you take her?
Laura Willis: Yeah.
Jo Dodds: Lovely. It's been great talking to you, it's been a little bit longer than normal because we've gone into a bit more depth on some areas which I think is really helpful, so really appreciate you spending the time with me Laura. How can people find out more about you and connect with you?
Laura Willis: On the website, shineoffline.com, you'll find all the info about us there and there's a team page. The four of us have a little profile and there's a little link into my story, my background, and about why we're doing what we're doing. I'm on LinkedIn as well, so if anybody wants to email me, it's just email@example.com.
Jo Dodds: Lovely, thank you. Really appreciate you joining me.
Laura Willis: Thanks Jo, take care of yourself.