Keeping work at work: A balancing act

As a recently qualified teacher I am acutely aware of the teacher workload epidemic which is plaguing schools worldwide, threatening teacher retention and causing national teacher shortages. I’ve been trying to find ways to fit my job around my life and move towards a work life balance which works for me. Here’s the things that have added value to my work day and helped to keep work, well…work.

Recognise important emails masquerading as urgent emails

Often importance is mistaken for urgency, we sometimes think that because something is important, it needs to be followed up immediately. This is exacerbated by the use of that tiny passive aggressive orange exclamation mark denoting “high importance” sent by our colleagues. (When do we ever make use of the blue arrow which denotes “low importance”?!) Disconnecting work emails from our phones encourages us to only check emails whilst in work mode, meaning we can dedicate full focus to important tasks and not spend our evenings with them in the back of our minds, or worse, take action at home. If you’re communicating an urgent matter, I would question whether email was the most appropriate form of communication anyway…

Answer “quick queries” on your own schedule

I receive countless questions from students and colleagues which individually take very little time to resolve, “is the homework due Tuesday or Wednesday?” for example. With work emails on my phone it’s very easy to shoot off the answer instantly so I can forget about it. However, this is damaging for two reasons; firstly it allows work to demand my attention not on my terms making me less present and eroding my well being over time. Secondly, it sets expectations for my students and colleagues, if I reply at 6pm on a weekday or at the weekend, they are more likely to email me during these times in the future – it’s a never ending cycle. Disconnecting work emails from my phone is a gentle reminder to both myself and others to only email during work hours. I can normally whizz through these quick queries in 10 minutes or so when I arrive at my desk.

Schedule emails for timely and appropriate delivery

I really can’t understand why this tool isn’t used more widely in any institution which relies on email. If for some reason you find yourself working outside normal working hours, take the courtesy of scheduling emails to be sent the next day at a reasonable time. This simple act boasts the double benefit of taking the pressure off others, but also minimising the chance of your email being read out of hours then forgotten, or lost in the landslide of morning emails we are greeted with when we arrive at work.

Don’t eat “al-desko”

Working lunches are not as productive as you might think, take 20 minutes away from your desk to eat your lunch and chat to others, read a book, or just sit quietly.

Prioritise your tasks and your time

We are stuck with perpetual to do list, no sooner have we ticked an item off then 3 tasks are added. That’s the nature of work and most of us don’t have the luxury of turning work away or delegating. Find a way of deciding which order to complete tasks, this might be by deadline or by order of importance. I used to use a priority matrix but I found it a little complex (though it might work for you), I’ve simplified to a “Someday” and a “Today” list which I spend 2 minutes organising in the morning. “Today” for tasks that are high priority and I think I can reasonably fit into my schedule for that day, “Someday” tasks are those that I won’t have time to do today but will need to make it on to the today list soon. I like this system as I don’t waste time jumping between tasks and when I complete the today list I don’t feel the pressure of the never-ending to do list. If I have more time I’ll look to the someday list to see what else I can work on. (I heard about this method on The Minimalists Podcast).

Ditch the paper trail

There’s no need to hang on to paper unnecessarily, especially “just in case”. I’ve stopped printing spare copies of handouts, I can always print more if I need to. I’ve started distributing digitally if appropriate. Get rid of bits of paper that you are hanging on to as it might be useful one day, instead, get yourself a scanning app on your phone and scan in those things which “might” be useful. I started off using Tiny Scanner but have recently switched to Scannable as it seamlessly integrates with Evernote which I use to organise and back up my personal and work documents. I’ve also started clearing out my bag at the end of the day to free myself from the bits of junk that seem to collect there throughout the day ready for a fresh start the next day.

How about you? What do you do that helps you keep work at work? 

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Books for unstoppable women, tiny ones and grown-up ones

Running out for some last minute gift purchases? Here’s my pick of empowering books for the women in your life, both tiny and grown-up, that you still have time to purchase and wrap before the big day!For little athletes: Women in Sport: Fifty Fearless Athletes Who Played to Win

A beautiful collection of stories about female athletes accompanied by quaint illustrations and inspiring quotes. Featuring a diverse range of athletes including Paralympians and women who have overcome all manner of challenges to chase their dreams – perfect for future Olympians.

And for grownup athletes: My Fight Your Fight: The Official Ronda Rousey autobiography

Love her or hate her, Rousey made herself a household name and completely redefined the world of mixed martial arts, and not just for women. Until recently Rousey was undefeated with an impressive fight record. My fight, your fight is a compelling narrative of resilience, insolence and a fiery refusal to accept the status quo.

For tiny stargazers: A Galaxy of Her Own: Amazing Stories of Women in Space
Fifty stories of unsung female heroines to infinity and beyond. Accompanied by striking art work from students at London College of Communication, this book will have little explorers gazing at the stars with the power of possibility behind them.

And for grown-up star gazers: This Book Is a Planetarium: And Other Extraordinary Pop-Up Contraptions

A fantastic example of how the magic of books can infect all of us, this book shows us that what we expect from books is not nearly ambitious enough. Raising the bar for books everywhere, this fully interactive, expertly constructed part book, part art exhibition will have even the most disillusioned space enthusiasts reaching for their coats and heading into the night armed with a newly recaptured sense of wonder.

For tiny girls with big dreams: Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls
100 bedtime stories that ask the question, what would happen if the princess didn’t marry the prince but changed the world instead? Featuring women from throughout history who left their mark on the world from Coco Chanel to Simone Biles. After one the most successful Kickstarter campaigns and critical acclaim, Rebel Girls is back with volume II, a curated collection of stories suggested by the Rebel Girls community from Beyoncé to Amna Al Haddad, a kick ass Emarati weightlifter. A welcome reminder that you can be anything you want to be.

For grownup girls with big dreams: The Female Lead: Women Who Shape Our World

The perfect coffee table book to show the world that you mean business. Created by a non profit led by Edwina Dunn, this book hopes to highlight the lesser know successes of women in industry  in order to encourage others. With research indicating that a lack of successful female role models acts as a barrier to raising aspirations and ambitions, The Female Lead hopes to provide this access and effect change. As if you need any more convincing, the publisher is giving away 1000s of copies of the book to schools in the UK and the USA – nominate a school here.

For tiny trailblazers: Anne of Green Gables: V&A Collector’s Edition

A fictional story of a couple who want to adopt a boy but are sent a girl instead. This story follows the journey of acceptance as her imaginative and fiery personality wins them around while overcoming a lack of self esteem and distaste for her red hair. This children’s classic has been released with a beautiful new cover courtesy of the V&A museum.

And for grown-up trailblazers: The Power: WINNER OF THE 2017 BAILEYS WOMEN’S PRIZE FOR FICTION

This novel challenges perspectives by presenting a dystopian matriarchy instigated by the awakening of electrical energy in young girls. Developing into a dark exploration of power and its potential for abuse, this novel will provoke conversations and debate. With high praise from Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale, Alderman thrusts herself to the forefront of modern feminist literature.

Spot something which would bring joy to a woman in your life? The good news is that all of these books are available for delivery on Amazon prime, and most are available for click and collect at Waterstones. You can still get them in time for Christmas, and if not, why wait for Christmas to gift a great book? Any other favourites? Recommendations welcomed in the comments section.

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Raising the bar

Many of you will know that I have found my new love: Olympic Weightlifting.

3 years ago I was invited to a talent ID event at the British Weight Lifting training centre in Loughborough. The event tested 100s of female athletes between 16 and 25 from a wide range of sports on their ability to generate power, strength, explosiveness, flexibility and their coach-ability, with the top athletes being selected for a fast track training experience to become Olympic hopefuls. I absolutely adored this experience, having never performed any Olympic lifts before I wasn’t the best performer, but I held my own in the explosiveness tests coming 3rd.

I wasn’t selected, but it planted a seed.

While in the UK I spent a year training at Barbell Girls and learned the Clean and Jerk, and when we moved to Hong Kong I was over joyed to see that US Olympic Medalist Cheryl Haworth was running a regular barbell club on HK island. As we settled into Hong Kong I managed to drop in a few times, and in January, I made a commitment to give Olympic Weightlifting my full attention. When I began training with Cheryl, I realised I was a complete beginner, but in the last 8 months I have completely exceeded my expectations and it has been truly fulfilling and empowering. I have certainly learnt a lot by raising the bar.

I competed for the first time in April at a competition hosted by our gym, making all six lifts and leaving with a smile. I didn’t lift very much, but the experience lifted me. The feeling of elation you earn when you lift a weight you didn’t think you were capable of was something I had never felt before. In Judo when you beat an opponent, your celebration is their commiseration, and somehow it isn’t so fitting to feel completely overjoyed at their loss.

By the time I returned to the UK for the summer I had an ambitious plan; to qualify for the Senior Irish National Championships in 2018. For my weight class, qualification is achieved by lifting a combined total of 122kg at a competition, and in my first competition I had lifted 83kg. There was certainly a long way to go, but I went ahead and entered two competitions in the summer, I was still too far from the qualification total to qualify at these competitions, but I had my eyes on a stepping stone in October, the u23 British Championships with a 110kg total.

Lifting in an Olympic Weightlifting competition without a coach with you is challenging, especially being new to the sport. Things move forward rapidly, with athletes changing their declared weight last minute meaning your turn can be next with only a minutes notice. In training my best total had been 100kg (40kg snatch, 60kg Clean and Jerk) on a really, really, good day, so I needed the day to be perfect day to have any chance of hitting 110kg. I realised quickly that I would prefer to miss all my lifts trying in earnest to hit 110kg than making all the lifts and falling short of the total, so I set the bar high.

It is customary to set your opening lifts at 85% of your intended maximum as both a mental and physical warm up on the platform. This ensures you feel comfortable in front of the audience and allows for any technique errors caused by nerves. Needing to better both of my lifts at 5kg more than my personal best, I chose to open at 100%. Up until the day before the competition I had felt that I would give it a go, but that it would not work out, however, on the day of the competition I woke up feeling determined.

My snatches flew up and I easily hit 40kg and 45kg. I took a risk and went to 50kg as I was nervous about closing the gap with my clean and jerks later. 50kg snatch wasn’t to be, but the courage it took to set the bar that high made be feel unstoppable.

In the clean and jerk 60kg felt easy, so I went to the 65kg I needed to reach the 110kg. I am always more worried about the clean than the jerk, and I had previously jerked 65kg before, so when I stood up at the top of the clean I was already celebrating. This proved to be a mistake, as a small elbow bend in the jerk meant that my lift was red lighted and counted as a fail. I had 2 minutes to prepare for my final attempt at 65kg but I already felt defeated. When you build yourself up and feel certain you can achieve something, the carpet is pulled from under you when you don’t. Needless to say I missed the second attempt giving me a total of 105kg.

The skill of mental toughness is to build yourself up to that place where you feel like you can achieve anything even when you have just failed to achieve it. I was due to compete in Dublin at a regional competition the next week, though this competition would not be eligible for qualification to the British Nationals. I had one more opportunity to qualify before I returned to Hong Kong, and it was 2 days after the Dublin competition, I would use Dublin as a warm up, only working up to my opening lifts and give things another go at the Atlas Open 2 days later.

Dublin felt perfect, the other lifters were welcoming, as were the officials and coaches. I felt more confident in my warm up and walking out to the platform was less daunting. I worked up to 40kg snatch and 60kg clean and jerk – weights that had been my max not a week ago, but a change in mindset meant they felt light.

When I got to the Atlas Open I felt nervous not because I felt I needed to achieve the impossible, but because I had come so close previously yet still fallen short. Snatches felt heavier here, but I made 40kg and 45kg, missing 47kg. I still needed to make the 65kg clean and jerk for the total. It is hard to remain focused on each individual lift when you are trying to achieve a total, and your brain can’t help but re-visit the maths constantly as you prepare. I wanted so much to hit the heaviest snatch in order to make my clean and jerks easier.

As I was lifting the heaviest clean and jerks of the session, I was the last competitor to lift.  I completed my warm up perhaps a little to early, but I knew it would be wrong to lift again before my turn. I felt focused but timid, and when I raised the bar above my head to see three white lights of approval, I felt like a Lion. I had qualified for the u23 British Nationals after only 7 months of training. I had 1 more lift left and the bar was set for 66kg. Knowing I didn’t need to lift it I heard myself thinking “Well you don’t even need this” but the Lion shouted back that I should do it anyway. 66kg flew up. The release of pressure had allowed me to hit my rhythm and I had set not 1, but 2 personal bests within a 3 minute period.

So here I am training 5 times a week under an Olympic medallist in preparation for my first National competition in a months time. I cannot believe how far I’ve come, but I’m so excited to see how far I can go. Can I hit 122kg? I’m still a long way off, but I’m moving steadily forwards. Perhaps qualifying for the Irish Nationals is too ambitious this time around, but perhaps I’d be further away if I hadn’t set the bar so high.

Anyway, who ever achieved greatness by being realistic about what they could achieve?




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A year in the Orient: Lessons Learned

  1. It is possible to sweat from your shins. And your knee caps. And your elbows. Just about anywhere you can think of has the ability to sweat, when it’s 35 degrees at 7am and you’re walking, you just have to accept “sweaty” as your permanent state of being.
  2. Jet lag sucks. I can cope with being tired, I can cope with being awake, but I can’t cope with being starving hungry for lunch at 4am. Set your watch when you hit the plane, sleep as much as possible and avoid caffeine!
  3. Silence is a virtue. Not until we arrived in Japan did I realise that I hadn’t heard nothing for a long time. The constant noise of Hong Kong quickly turns into white noise and it doesn’t bother me at all. Tokyo is a sprawling city meaning that the suburbs are quiet, I couldn’t believe how silent it was and how fresh the air felt. I don’t miss silence when I’m in Hong Kong, but I sure do appreciate it when I’m not.
  4. Take the back alley. The busyness of Hong Kong means that a 5 minute walk can easily turn into 15 just because of footpath congestion and the zombie like pace of 300 people looking at their phones. If you don’t mind the smell, the back alleys can turn a 10 minute walk into a 3 minute walk, and they provide the most authentic Hong Kong experience – you never know what you might find!

    Back Alley Barber Shop
    A barber’s shop built into a back alley in Mong Kok.
  5. The weather doesn’t mess around. Usually sunny and bright, Hong Kong weather can turn in an instant and the T8 signal (Typhoon signal) can be hoisted at short notice. This weekend we have had a record breaking T10 causing several deaths, shortly followed by a T8. Don’t ignore the signals just because it looks safe outside, the streets are full of unsecured debris.
  6. People will fly 6,000 miles to come and see you. It’s true and we’re very lucky to feel so loved.
  7. Cantonese is the hardest language known to man. We lived in our first apartment for a whole year and still only had a 1 in 5 success rate trying to communicate our address to taxi drivers before having to show it written down. In Mandarin Chinese each phonetic sound has 4 different intonations possible which change the meaning completely. In Cantonese, there are 9. Suffice to say I won’t be fluent any time soon.
  8. The view doesn’t get old. I just can’t help being wowed crossing from Lantau to Kowloon or taking the star ferry across to Hong Kong island. You can’t get bored of the sights.
  9. Connecting in Beijing is a terrible idea. Book a connecting flight through Beijing with extreme caution, you may have to change terminals, go through security again and customs, and immigration without a visa. Best avoid it.
  10. Democracy is precious. For all the complaining we do about politicians in the UK, we are highly protected. Hong Kong is approaching a period of turmoil as the handover to China marches ever closer and injustice is happening. While relatively safe, Hong Kong is experiencing gradual eroding of autonomy and without intervention and protest, the future looks bleak for Hong Kong citizens.

Read about the difficulties faces by Hong Kong here. Thinking about coming to visit…? Search for flights here.

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