I recently met a professional scriptwriter, who told me that the secret was never to work for more than three hours per day on any writing project. I took it as sound advice, and I think he’s sort of right. He’s also very successful at what he does. (No, you will not hear the clanging of a dropped name here, dear readers!)

Of course, now I find myself clock watching about two hours in, thinking, ‘Well, I’m nearly done’. I think the secret is actually to stop when you want to stop, and whether that’s two hours or six and a half hours, you know when you’ve run out of steam.

Whilst this ‘rule’ can happily apply to any of our creative endeavours, imagine if we tried it in the day job! ‘I have applied myself with diligence to this data input for three hours now. My work here is done, I am off down the pub.’

Less a case of ‘Later, Losers!’ than one of ‘Hello, HR!’.

Much has been written lately of Sweden’s experiment with the six hour working day. The bad news for the workers is that it turns out to be too costly to continue the scheme, at least in the care sector.

The irony is that most of us spend a goodly portion of our eight hours making tea, chatting, or having a sneaky peak at Facebook, just to break up the monotony. Our wee brains need a break. In fact, I’m writing this long overdue post because I need a break from doing Powerpoint Slides for my upcoming show ( I mentioned it last time, remember?).What I need to do is plan in my breaks and return to my slides refreshed.

(I once saw my old boss book an entire family skiing holiday during work hours. Took him ages. Of course, if I’d be concentrating on my own tasks, I might not have witnessed the spectacle. But shirking bosses are for another post.)

What I suppose I’m leading up to is the question of how many hours is enough hours, or too many? Or not enough? When it comes to work, I mean.

I am a great believer in 40 hours meaning 40 hours. Not 45, 50 or 60. If your contract says 40 hours, then the expectation must be that your job can be done in that number of hours. Beware any prospective employer who tells you that ‘We’re not a 9-5 organisation’ or ‘You find people here at all times of the night’. That means that anything less than buying into that will be seen as shirking.

Personally, I like the idea of ‘flow’, where you lose yourself in the task so much that you don’t notice the passage of time. Somehow, I fear that ‘flow’ and data entry or cardboard box making might not be entirely compatible. I used to be a vicious opponent of the wearing of headphones whilst working but, now, I say, bring them on. Why not concentrate on Radio 4 Extra and its many classic comedies if they make the 40 hours seem shorter? And, if you’re writing, painting or tinkering with your car, you won’t need the headphones. You’ll know when the flowing has stopped.

Now, where are those slides??







Beyond the Comfort Zone.

Last week, my husband, you know him as Mr Toad, asked me to film his comedy gig. Well, even I can manage to hold my phone in the air for ten minutes, so request duly granted. There are a few wobbles, but nothing I’m ashamed of.

This week, Mr T asks if I might be in a position to edit said video into something shorter for his Facebook page. Heck. Not sure. Never edited video before. But I am willing to give it a try. A year ago, I couldn’t edit sound for a podcast, now look at me! Better yet, listen to me. Ok, I don’t always get it right, sometimes I get it good and properly wrong, sound-quality-wise, but I carry on. I have zero technical skills, usually, but I was, and remain, determined to push myself out of my comfort zone.

Creatively, and in life, I recommend it. Learning doesn’t stop when we leave school, and development doesn’t begin when our companies decide to splash some training budget on an Excel course. The English comic actor, Kenneth Williams,  was famous for learning one new word a day straight from the dictionary, with the result that he had a vast and varied vocabulary. If you ever heard him on Just a Minute, you’ll know that he used it. We need to keep learning and doing things we might not think we can, or we will stagnate and maybe die out as a race. Honest.

The Comfort Zone is called that because it is just like sitting on a heap of fluffy cushions, eating warm chocolate fudge cake whilst listening to The Lark Ascending. It’s comfortable and it’s safe. It’s amazing the number of things that make us feel anxious and unsafe: learning something new,  change at work, exams. I learnt only this week that our response to this kind of threat, fear of change or fear of failure, comes from the same part of our brain that tells us to be scared when we are in a life or death situation.

A bit over the top? After all, I’ve only had to learn how to press some buttons, but my brain doesn’t know that. At least not that bit of it. So, it’s important to push through. There is no such thing as failure. As Thomas Edison said: ‘I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.’ Now, there was a man who had no time for comfort zones, and the fact that I’m writing this by the light of a bulb is testament to that.

So, let’s live a life beyond the Comfort Zone and try something new and a tiny bit scary. Ready? Now, editing software, you can run, but you can’t hide.


Bloody Work!

According to my strapline, Squatting Toad provides inspiration and podcasts for people who create in their spare time. And it does. But what if you don’t have spare time? What if your work is so stressful, you’re too worn out at the end of the day even to watch rubbish telly, let alone create anything? As far too many of us know, this happens.

In my last podcast, my interviewee Angharad, made reference to having to put her love of amateur theatre to one side when she had a stressful job. Of all the things we talked about, this haunted me the most. It was just a single comment, almost an aside, but I keep coming back to it in my head. It is why, after all, I started Squatting Toad. I had a stressful job until recently (happily I don’t now and neither does Angharad) and felt bereft as I watched people around me pursue hobbies and make things and do things, whilst I was Googling ‘funny cat videos’ and eating cake.

Now, ‘stress’, when it comes to work, can mean different things. Maybe you work in the kind of profession where any hint of weakness or inadequacy can mean a fast track to car park with a cardboard box full of your desk knick knacks.( Actually, I doubt many City bankers are reading this, but let’s suppose.) Maybe your work is so boring and repetitive and that very lack of stimulation is causing anxiety. Chronic boredom can close down your brain to new and fun ideas, as well as leaving plenty of space for full-on guilt about earning money for, well, nothing.

Mostly, let’s be frank, what causes work stress is other people. Bullying and/ or incompetent bosses head the list. Lord knows, I’ve been there and it hurts. I mean, really hurts to the point where you start to believe you have even no right to enjoy the very things outside of the working day that make life a bit more tolerable. The ‘Sunday Dread’ you feel before the start of each working work kicks in earlier and earlier to the point where Saturday’s breakfast is a depression-riddled write-off. Oh, yes.

I find now that I don’t suffer from the dread, anxiety and misery and I can look back on these times a tad more dispassionately, what is welling up now is anger. I’m angry that I still know people going to work, living the misery, and just about keeping their heads above water. And it needs to stop. Now!

Much has been written about how organisations can improve and make their workers happier and more engaged. Not a lot of what’s written, at least nothing I’ve read yet (and I’m reading a lot about this), tackles the most basic of human needs. By that I mean, respect and kindness. Why does your horrible boss think it’s remiss of him to show these basic courtesies that we are all entitled to? In most cases, it’s because he’s afraid of looking weak. And yes, sorry, I do mostly mean ‘him’, not ‘her’. This need to be ‘in charge’ and be ‘the boss of you’ and make you unhappy in the process conjures up the schoolyard of old and the bullies who nicked your sweets and made you cry. In no other field of adult life, except work, is such behaviour tolerated on such a huge scale.

Nobody, but nobody, neither the CEO or the receptionist, has the right to tote their own emotional baggage into the workplace and use it to corrode the well-being of others.

So, what can we do? Well, I, for one, am going to write about it. It’s a small contribution, but this needs to be out in the open. Why? Because we all need to feel respected and valuable for one thing, and because I want my experience to count for something. Write what you know, they say. I know that work isn’t working like it should, because I’ve lived it. It’s not just me. If you are happy in your job, living without stress, just ask around. You’ll soon see it’s not just me.

All these years in the workplace, all this reading and research I’m doing. It’s opening up something fascinating and, I hope, redemptive, for me and others.

Come on, if we’re not happy, how can we create? And that brings me full circle to what Squatting Toad is here for.

I hope you’ll join me on this journey. Watch out for posts and podcasts on this very topic, always with an eye to creativity, but also a meditation on work, which takes up so much of our lives and our energy.

In the meantime, do have a listen to my last podcast, if you haven’t already. Why not take up amateur theatre, if you need an outlet? Or listen to previous episodes about all kinds of creative endeavours from music to crafting.



Mel X

I’m Back. And Better than ever (as they say).

Squatting Toad is back! ‘And why have you been away, Mel?’you cry.

Several reasons I’ve been quiet but I have to confess to a crisis of confidence in my project. Who wants to  read about my thoughts, especially on creativity, when so much utter c**p and devestation is being wrought on the world right now? Believe me, that’s not a cry for validation from the blogosphere. I’m just telling you what’s going through my mind for I know that even five minutes spent watching any news channel must make any right-thinking person ask ‘Why? What’s the point?’ about so many aspects of life.

When I think about what’s important to me, one thing stands out – humanity. I want to be treated with humanity, and dignity, and I want to strive to treat others the same. I also want to follow this small dream to create my podcast and introduce talented people to the world. That doesn’t make me Nelson Mandela but it will make me feel I have done some small good for a small community and hopefully for myself.

Whilst in my, thankfully, non-permanent funk, I kept thinking that maybe the arts don’t matter at all, maybe the point is just to get by. But without artistic endeavours what are we?

I am lucky enough to have spent two weeks recently travelling through Namibia. For the first and, hopefully, last time on this blog, I’m going to use the word awesome. Just, truly awesome. One day we walked with cheetahs, in the company of Stefan, our guide. And for those couple of hours, I wanted to be Stefan. Imagine, every day, driving across the African bush, seeing wildlife of great beauty and magnificence and, most importantly, giving other people, like me, the chance to see it too. Added to which, he’s involved in helping to preserve the cheetahs so that future generations may also witness them. What a job! What a life!

SAM_0029There’s a cheetah in there, just look closely.

For all I know, the organisation he works for might be ridden with politics and backbiting and he might yearn for the city and a comfy 9-5. But I don’t believe that we always want exactly that which we haven’t got. So, good luck, Stefan, long may you continue to be the bringer of once-in-a-lifetime experiences for the likes of me, even if they are daily happenings for you.

So, what has all this to do with artistic endeavours? Well, the principle’s the same. You do what you do because you love it, and because it might bring something positive into someone else’s life as well as your own. And, if you can get paid to do it, that’s even nicer, but the important thing is to do it. My hubby, let’s call him Mr Toad, often sits in front of the telly saying ‘ I could have written that’. But the point is, he didn’t. Someone with maybe more hunger did write it and is reaping the rewards, both psychological and financial.

So, now, as I write, Mr Toad, is upstairs teaching himself the chords for McArthur Park on his guitar. And if he cracks that, what next? Well, he and the band (of which, more another post) are planning to launch themselves on the gig circuit in London and Oxford. I fear he may still have to be a solicitor in the meantime, but that shouldn’t diminish the joy of playing. It might yet enhance it. He gets a buzz and the audience will go away happy, at least, assuming they like musical oddities like McArthur Park. It may not be walking with cheetahs with Stefan, but it’s important for all concerned.

The last gig I went to was a couple of weekends ago, and I came away uplifted, but that’s jazz for you. (World’s finest jazz singer, Dianne Reeves, in case you were wondering  – )

So, let’s be uplifted. If work is getting us down, we need to have a full life outside of it, at least until we have a new plan. Let’s talk about our plans next time, but, for now, let me leave you with these thoughts, which are churning around in my own head at the moment:

1) It’s got to be about more than the money.

2) It’s nice to be an expert at something. What might that be?

3) Make sure you can say you treated everyone well.

4) Feel the fear, and do it anyway. (Not my own words, but oh so relevant.)

Until next time.