Safe and Sane
John Bittleston
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Being confined and kept away from other people can be very tiresome, sometimes even damaging to the mind. But it is the only way we can be kept safe from this dreaded virus. Even then it doesn’t always work. We can exercise the body if we are disciplined enough. Sedentary cycling is my form of torture, about 15 Km on a medium uphill gradient every morning. I feel like death at the end of it but that is more than offset by my feelings of righteousness and self-congratulation. Nothing to equal feeling pompously pleased with yourself to start the day.
But it's the mind that needs most attention. As long as aged fingers can scramble like disorientated crabs onto the keyboard and hit more than 50% of the right letters, creativity has an outlet. Get your mind to help you. As long as you can think, you are very much still in the game. But thinking is not some exercise you do, like peeling potatoes or watching paint dry. It requires an effort, for sure, but actually not that big a one. It is more like the mental version of forcing yourself to get up and go for a run. You know that once you get going you will enjoy it - or, at worst, be committed to finishing it, in order to have those disgraceful feelings I referred to earlier.
Here’s a simple way of getting your thinking going.
Take a mental walk from your front door to, say, a supermarket (or some noticeable place) any distance away, but probably about half a mile to two miles. Don’t (mentally) walk fast. Rather, observe the landmarks, the places you know, road junctions, shops whose windows you might glance at, gardens, the countryside, even parked cars. Choose every fifth thing you notice as you pass and ask yourself ‘How could that be improved?’ No, I won’t define ‘improved’ because that is part of the game. The only unacceptable answer is ‘It couldn’t be’. You will be astonished at the vast number of things you could improve.
Now you are designing an environment, a village, town or city that you would like to live in. If you can draw, make a rough sketch of it. If you can’t, write a description of it. You are thinking. Well done! But how will you extend this simple exercise? Try to improve everything you see, all the systems you work with, all the meals you enjoy, all the people you meet. Improving people is a particular art and great fun.
Take it a stage further. Call a friend or family member and discuss your improvements with them. Conversation is the oil of the brain, chatter, the exercising of the cogs. It works by asking questions. And that is precisely what we are doing .”How can we improve?” A lot of your ideas will turn out to be too expensive. Don’t give up on them, try to find a cheaper version, or some alternative way of dealing with the problem. Or validate the extra cost with a smart marketing idea or a powerful strapline. Treat your idea as a dog would treat a bone. Worry it, play with it, turn it upside down. Sooner or later you will find an idea that could be viable.
Here’s another way to stimulate your brain. Sign up for McKinsey’s online publications. They are free, very thoughtful, usually research based and extremely readable. You won't want to read them all but you will find plenty there to stimulate you. Alternatively, subscribe (it’s free) to Aeon Magazine.  It will stimulate you to think a little philosophically. That’s a good way to get the brain working. Whatever you do, aim to think a bit more than you usually do. Just as with physical exercise, you need to press yourself a bit further than you have in the past.
These are difficult times. The news has become a horror story and one that is true, and right on our doorsteps. The tragedies are counted in numbers but the pain is individual. Like all wars, we think it will be over quickly and like all wars, it won’t. The medical people, the frontline troops, are making huge sacrifices to keep people safe. Those of us asked to stay at home and keep clear of infection must back them up by keeping safe and keeping sane.
May your mind games be positive. May you come through coronavirus with better thinking and clearer purpose.
That is our prayer for you.
Good morning
John Bittleston

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