Volume I: Autumn 2021
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My (current!) Top 5 Resources for Transitional Seasons
written by our Director, Dr Mel Francis, 15th October 2021
Over the past few years, autumn has gone from being a time of year that I dread to one that I cherish. Previously, as soon as the leaves would begin to fall, so too would my energy, often my hair, and most of my productivity, as I would scrabble about trying to stay on top of anxiety-induced illnesses, fevers, and usually cave in to an overall feeling of chaos that would endure until late winter.
At the peak of one of these crises, I turned to Ayurvedic philosophy, yoga, and any other resource I could find that helped me keep my feet on the ground when it felt as though everything around me was coming loose. This is still very much work in progress (to testify: this article was intended to be published in early September…) but the main thing I continue to take from these disciplines is that, like many other people, I’m physically predisposed towards dryness and cold, and autumn, as a predominantly dry and cool season, can ramp up these qualities.
To stay calm, I need to do everything in my power to counter those things: stay warm, nourish myself and keep to routines. Like so many things in life, this is always evolving, but by learning what I need to adapt to physically, I’ve also begun introducing a few tools into my work that help keep me on the ground during transitional seasons – especially autumn, but also spring for those on the southern hemisphere. So I thought, what better topic for the first instalment of The Index than a bit of reflection on the tools I used most while Menegva was sprouting into being? What resources have I been leaning on heavily, during this tricky stage of development from tiny seed toward (just about) fully fledged business?
Working as closely with software and data as I do, I understand that the concept of a seamlessly integrated, future-proof workflow is a fairly mystical one. Like the seasons, things are always changing and evolving. Running a support platform that specialises in organising media, people might imagine a zen office space, with not much in it apart from neat computers all carrying out their seamless workflows. I admit I wouldn’t be in this position if I didn’t enjoy minimalism and a general sense of order. But I’m also very accepting of the chaos happening around us, and rather than fight for extreme organisation (which rarely wins) I prefer to strike a balance. The same can be said for my toolkit. I’ve had phases where I’ve tried numerous different bits of software, all of which seem to be over-promising to transform my life into a seamless string of positive tasks, before realising that I’m either using them as: (a) an excuse not to deal with something at the root (i.e. procrastination), or (b), something I’ve read about and been influenced by, which I think I need, but in reality doesn’t fit with how I work.
The same goes for working with collections – it’s very easy to think that finding the right system is all it takes to make the most of them – to preserve, share, and be able to work well with them. While it may be true that we are closer than ever to automating just about everything, a lot of the ‘real’ work behind these innovations still has to happen behind the scenes, and can be a lot more… mundane. So I’ve been thinking, what tools do I call upon to help me manage these more methodical tasks? What were my favourite tools when I was busy setting up Menegva? And which of those might have staying power? What they all seem to have in common is simplicity. They’re not one system trying to do everything, but smaller nuggets that make up my own unique digital ecosystem. They no doubt will also evolve in years to come, as I change, through each season that passes. But for now, the following 5 resources have been helping me keep my own mental, physical and digital health in check, while I’m busy providing support to others:
Mood & Mental Health
1. Anxiety Slayer (podcast, free to use)
I’m listing this first because if I’d never addressed the root of my ‘autumn anxiety’, I wouldn’t have gotten into the position where I could regularly provide support for other people and organisations. Whenever I reach ‘peak’ anxiety, this resource helps me to see the wood for the trees. I can listen to an episode of this after work in the evenings, drinking in all of the useful tips on Ayurvedic medicine (this full episode on autumn was a revelation for me). I also have an audiobook of Walden by David Henry Thoreau, and listening to a chapter immediately after an episode of Anxiety Slayer seems to provide a near-perfect cocktail for a decent night’s sleep. Something about listening to Thoreau’s experience of solitude in the woods, while nice to read, becomes even more comforting while sitting down in a dark room!
Using a completely digital journal isn’t for everyone. But Stoic is really well structured, and lends itself well to checking in frequently throughout a busy day, to prevent getting lost in a whirlwind of deadlines or an overload of information. You don’t have to commit to a long ‘session’ in order to feel like you’ve achieved something. And it doesn’t pertain to be more than it is – I don’t feel a need to write everything in there. It’s also very slick in its monochrome, minimalist appearance, so that even having it open in the background makes you feel a bit more organised.. But if you do get as far as actually using it, all the better, as the non-patronising guided breathing and writing exercises, along with Stoic pearls of wisdom, can be really helpful at busy times where you might find yourself wishing for a ‘reset’ button.
Productivity & Time Management
Over the years, I think I might have tried every single productivity and time management application that’s ever been released. A lot of the data work I do is methodical and just can’t be done for longer than half an hour at a time. If your eyes don’t stop working after spending that long working on a spreadsheet, no doubt something else will! This is probably the only app that I keep coming back to every single day. It’s a simple clock that sits in the menu bar of your computer. Using the Pomodoro technique, it counts down intervals for ‘flow’ i.e. work sessions, followed by 5-minute breaks. I use the default settings, because I think these are the best-researched (I often think there’s a reason why defaults exist.) There are lots of alternatives for Windows users too, including browser versions, but Flow is the best iteration I’ve tried on a Mac. I find it really helpful for structuring long days when I’m concentrating on a single task, which for me is quite often. You can also override it easily, if you’re in the middle of something and need to skip a break, or get interrupted by something beyond your control and need to pause a work session. Probably not everyone needs this much structure in their life, but in my line of work, it’s a real game-changer and I really notice the difference when I use it (versus when I let it lapse, and realise four hours have passed and wonder why I feel tired, stiff, hungry, and have sore eyes…)
4. Timeless (Mac only, £4.49 one-off purchase)
This multi-alarm app is also extremely simple, and there are plenty of similar products that do the same job, even built-in alarms can be set up to do this. But incorporating daily routines onto my desktop via this particular one has been extremely helpful for two reasons: 1. using a desktop app means I don’t have to have my phone anywhere near my desk unless I’m expecting calls, and 2. it’s nice to look at and the colours change to suit the time of day.
5. Notebook (ideally with Pen)
I could go on and on listing software that’s helped and is helping me stay well and productive whilst, inevitably, spending a lot of time at the computer. And I did start choosing a final application to add to the list… but then I realised that really the ultimate thing for my digital, physical and mental health is still a pen and notebook. Most of the foundations for building Menegva were developed via a combination of notebooks and sticky notes. Not all nice ones either – although good stationery is something I endorse – but I’m talking about anything that was lying around at the time. The notebook pictured is from a few years ago and had just been blessed by a small bird in the park. It’s not that I don’t love computers – I wouldn’t work with data and software if I didn’t – but without taking the time to sit, ideally outside, with a notebook and pen (give or take the bird droppings) this particular seedling definitely wouldn’t be sprouting.