A couple of years ago I attended the very excellent Fast Forward conference in Amsterdam to host a panel on well-being in the music industry. You can watch that panel in full here:
The reception to the panel was good; quite a few people have mentioned it to me since at conferences etc, which is cool. However there was just one small problem: I can barely remember doing the panel, because I was pretty much still black-out drunk from the night before. I’ve always been a fairly high-functioning drunk: I can be massively inebriated and still have a fairly sensible chat about things. That, however, is not a good thing.
After FFWD ended and my hangover subsided — and it isn’t a lie to say the former happened first — I arrived back in the UK thinking it was time to consider my life choices. Then I flew to Dublin about 3 weeks later to watch Run The Jewels blow the roof of the Olympia Theatre, and proceeded to embark on a 14 pint, 10 hour drinks bender that damn-near killed me.
That was the final straw.
For me, 2018 was the year when I finally decided to Get My Shit Together. Too much booze, too little sleep, too much work, no pastimes… the end result of which was me ironically getting back from a holiday at one point and promptly having anxiety attacks about work.
Running a company is a strange thing. It can be all-consuming. But then I’d argue all work in the music industry can be all-consuming, and it is highly, highly toxic.
So, after having my drinks moment and my anxiety moment, I decided it was time to really sort things out. And here’s what I did:
1) Cut drinking right back
I am useless at keeping up with resolutions, so this was never going to be easy. The trick was to find something that could be like alcohol, but not alcohol. In my case, that was Ceder’s, a rather fine gin substitute that tastes amazing — so much so that frankly I began to forget that there was no booze in it. For me, like many I suspect, drinking is a habitual thing. You drink it because it is there… but that means your intake soars to biblical levels with some ease, all the while messing up your sleep cycle and generally affecting you negatively.
By switching to Ceder’s most of the time, I’m sleeping much better and my body doesn’t feel like it is permanently trying to recover from something.
I should point out, btw, that I am not teetotal. I will still have a drink on the odd occasion, but ironically I’ve found that by cutting out the habitual side of boozing, my general inclination to drink has deteriorated, which I’m thankful for.
2) Eat more healthily and lose weight
I’ve lost about 7kg so far and continue to shrink. Again, I am awful at sticking to things, so in this instance me and my colleague Matt came up with a rather ingenious solution. We were both looking to slim down, and in chatting about it realised we both own Withings smart scales — the ones that connect to the internet and other apps etc. We use Slack at Motive Unknown, so we both used IFTTT to rig up our scales such that whenever we weighed ourselves, it would take that weight and message it to the other person. Then we resolved to weigh ourselves every day. I know, it sounds completely ridiculous — and in many respects, it is. But, it has worked; we’ve both stuck to this longer than ever and both now feel that this is more of a long-term lifestyle change than some hardcore diet we’re unlikely to stick to. Less alcohol, more thought about what is being eaten and when, replacing snacks with healthier alternatives… frankly none of it has felt that hard. I’m not in denial either; every now and then I’ll still have a fairly calorific meal, but its about a broader balance, which I think has been achieved.
At the risk of sounding like someone’s Dad (which indeed, I am), I do feel so much better too. Just more energetic, more up for things and just a bit less lethargic all round. That might be the weight loss, it might be the diet change or it could just be the huge booze intake reduction. Any which way, I’ll take it.
3) Making friends with sleep again
I feel it is almost accepted wisdom now that none of us sleep enough. However I’ve been a habitual sleep abuser for so long I’ve forgotten what a proper eight-hour rest feels like. So, what I’ve tried to do is just embrace that Danish ‘Hygge’ vibe and really get into relaxing properly. By which I mean, I change into comfy loafing clothing and just watch some telly with nice a few warm, atmospheric lights on. Which sounds ridiculous, I know, but the point is that I just try to actively relax and that in turn leads me to feel more ready to sleep.
Again, I’m not suddenly some perfect sleeper; I still have bad nights. However there is a cumulative effect at work here, and sleep is the main benefactor of all the other things I have done. For that, I am hugely grateful.
(Sidenote: on the occasions I do drink a couple of pints/gins/whatever, I am amazed at how much it affects my sleep. And not for the better.)
4) Holiday more
I am lucky in that I run my own company, so can take as much holiday as I want to (within reason — I don’t think it right to take loads if everyone else cannot). However I think in the 7+ years to date of running Motive Unknown, I rarely took more than about 2 weeks off in any year. So in 2018, I decided to make up for lost time and made a point of heading to a few places I’d not seen before.
It is only when you return from a holiday that you often realise how much it has affected you. Sometimes that effect has been negative for me (a kind of creeping panic as to what I need to do, having subconsciously ruminated on it) but more often than not, the effect is quite startling: an outpouring of ideas and motivation to make a bunch of changes and really get things done.
So, now I try to take a good volume of holiday, often with some regularity so that I’m rarely working more than about 10 weeks tops without some kind of time away. However along with my fellow Directors Matt and Tom I have also ensured that we encourage all staff to take their holiday and to plan those things out so they always have it in mind.
5) Get a hobby
Now this one is bound to make some people smile, as images of me crocheting jumpers leap to mind or something.
I realised late last year that it has probably been more than a decade since I had any kind of hobby — any kind of pastime to get me away from work and take my mind elsewhere. This may also explain why I burned out a few years back and truly hit the wall in spectacular fashion. So, with that in mind I took a long look at my life through the years and decided to get back into doing something I really loved. In my case, that was making beats again. Many moons ago I used to DJ and produce, as well as host music radio shows, but since I started working in music I kicked all that to the kerb, and the more I reflected on that, the more I realised how much I missed it given all the pleasure it had brought me.
Applying the same logic as the weight loss plan, I set up a scheme with a very longstanding music producer friend, and we resolved to deliver 3 new beats to one another every week. That’s more or less one every other day. I am a strange person in that I need those kind of motivations to keep me focused on things, because otherwise the focus on the pastimes will drift and my work will swallow that time whole. By having a responsibility to stick to something then, I have to get disciplined and ensure I hit my target. And it is working too: I am making more and more beats, and wholly loving the process of doing it. Frankly as a middle-aged man it is also nice to just make these for myself primarily, with no real sense that validation will come through releasing them or whatever. That’s not the end goal: I am doing this for the fun of doing it, as it should be.
In aggregate then, I am feeling much, much better. Happier, healthier, and whilst work can still be stressful at points, I have made a point of working with my colleagues to set a company culture that ensures everyone’s happiness is valued. I know I keep saying it, but this isn’t rocket science: what we do is a creative industry, and creative people work best when they are not constantly encumbered with stress.
Today is Blue Monday; apparently the day when people tend to be at their lowest ebb all year. So, I am posting this only to make a point: change can happen, and it isn’t uncool to prioritise your own needs and well-being. I do think well-being has become something of a buzz-term to throw around, and a lot of businesses pay lip service without really committing to really doing something about it. Change comes from the top down at businesses, and it is plain that many will implement a token nod to well-being via HR, but do not really believe it in as something to entrench into the DNA of the business.
However on the flip side of that, change much also come from you. Yes, bosses need to buy in here and bring that top-down cultural change… but there is also a responsibility to look after yourself, and not to just roll over whilst your working hours creep up and your stress levels hit critical levels.
Prioritise being happy. Do what needs to be done to make that happen. Change isn’t as hard as you might think, and believe me you will be 100 times better for it. I never thought I’d break the cycle of various bad habits I’d picked up over the years, but I have. And, at the risk of sounding horribly cliched, if I can do it, so can you.