Use the twelve days of Christmas for reflecting, relaxing and thinking

As we end 2020, I’m going to use the holiday downtime as a period of reflection and reawakening. The past nine months have taught us unforgettable lessons of our lifetime.

What are the options, you may ask? The answer is simply seeking opportunities in adversity. Opportunity though, is a word often perceived subjectively. It varies in spectrum and perception. To the maths student, an opportunity comprises seeking and finding a solution to a complex equation after extensive reworking; to the book collector, it is the discovery of an antiquarian special edition after a long and patient search.

Let’s turn the learnings of 2020 into opportunities, they should not go in vain. Press pause, look around and reflect. A calm, thoughtful and a logical mind, is the first step on the ladder of new beginnings. Without it, your thoughts convert to random words, decisions and actions. You need to charter the route you choose for 2021 You owe it to yourself, to make correct mindful choices.

After reflection comes reworking, solution-centric, far-sighted approach will make your journey easier. And then reawakening. Reawakening is a broad-based word, but for me, it means a change of mindset, reacting to a situation differently than you typically would.

How we spend our days is how we spend our lives. These words from American author Annie Dillard resonated with me to frame my two-week introspection downtime. Of course, it’s an obvious statement, but reflect upon it, it has a deeper meaning than on first reading.

How we spend our lives is framed by our working day. With stories from successful entrepreneurs working four hours a week (Tim Ferris) to sixteen hours a day (Elon Musk), it’s hard to know if there is an optimum shift. Eight hours a day does it for me, but why do we have eight-hour working days? The answer is from the Industrial Revolution.

In the late C18th, when owners started to maximise the output of their factories, getting to run them 24/7 was key and for workers, ten-to-sixteen-hour days were the norm. These ridiculously long working days weren’t sustainable and Robert Owen, a brave Welsh textile manufacturer, philanthropic social reformer and a founder of the cooperative movement, started a campaign to have no more than eight working hours per day. His slogan was Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest. 

However, it wasn’t until Henry Ford implemented the eight-hour work day, that standards really changed. In 1914 Ford adopted Owen’s philosophy, and productivity off the same workers increased significantly and profits doubled within two years. This encouraged other companies to adopt the shorter working day as standard.

Time, though it makes flower, fruit and vegetables bloom and fade with amazing punctuality, has no such simple effect upon the mind of man. There is an unshakable and discomforting sense that in our obsession with time in terms of optimising our routines and maximising our productivity, we have forgotten how to be truly present and press pause.

As we approach the Christmas holidays, and the humanity and traditions of the festive period. It’s normally a twelve-day period when people matter more than devices, and social connection means real face-to-face conversation replacing the screen for virtual exchanges. But of course, we are living in extraordinary times, and this won’t be possible.

But I’ve still heard The Twelve Days of Christmas everywhere, from radio commercials and shopping centres. You can hear about Three French Hens, Seven Swans-a-Swimming and Eleven Pipers Piping. But what does any of this mean? What does a song about doves, hens and geese have to do with Christmas and how we spend our days?

The carol has its origins in C18th England, as a memory-and-forfeit game sung by children, whereby they had to remember all of the previous verses and add a new verse at the end. Those unable to remember a verse paid a forfeit, in the form of a kiss or a piece of candy to the others. Today, these verses are what we associate with the days from December 25 to the Epiphany on January 6.

But back to Ann Dillard’s quote and how you spend you days. You can use the twelve days of Christmas to stop work, and get on your business, rather than be in it, in a relaxed, constructive way. Take advantage of the downtime for reflection, and map your journey for the twelve months ahead. So, here are my thoughts on how to use the time we have for thinking and reflection in the Twelve Days of Christmas:

Day One: Reframe First and foremost, simply bemoaning your luck for not achieving what you set out to achieve twelve months ago by citing COVID or your competition or lack of customers won’t help. Today’s laurels are tomorrow’s compost, you need to look forward. What are you aiming for? are you going to do differently this time that will create a different set of outcomes? There’s no point in feeling sorry for yourself, reframe your own future.

Day Two: Restart Forget about how you’ve done business in the past, it was good enough then, but it won’t give you the results you want in the future. The balance shifts dramatically is short time frames, so restart with a clean sheet of paper, and ask yourself: Who is my ideal customer? Why should customers buy from me and my competition? Press the restart button and don’t be afraid, take a new bold, fresh approach.

Day Three: Rebalance The results of your endeavours should be freedom and fulfilment, not a feeling of déjà vu. Seek to rebalance your monthly, weekly, daily activities. Specify what you should be doing, working ‘on’ the business, and not simply ‘in’, and rebalance your priorities. What is your North Star for the next twelve months?

Day Four: Revisit How can you succeed against a myriad of larger competitors? Thinks David v Goliath. Offering the same thing provides no advantage, and short-term pricing campaigns offer no sustainable long-term gain. Revisit your business strategy and model. Identify what markets and products will work in the next 12 months and redevelop your value proposition.

Day Five: Revitalise Now is the time to revitalise your product offering in terms of features, benefits and customer experience. How can you improve customer attraction and engagement?

Day Six: Refinance Take a hard look at your financial strategy. Prepare a 12-month cashflow, and use this information for strategy, investment and pricing decisions. Refinance your business model and your thinking. This will give you a clear focus. Money from customers is the applause, but without adequate working capital, you won’t be able to get in front of them.

Day Seven: Restructure Most businesses use the same organisation chart for years, simply adding to it without reworking it as their market changes. Perhaps it’s time to take a look at job roles, skills needed, and responsibilities. Start with a blank piece of paper, what does the structure need to be to deliver the success desired? What are the key roles you don’t currently have? Where are the skills and people gaps for the next 12 months?

Day Eight: Refocus Refocus your customer strategy and look for new customers in new markets. We often develop a myopic, inward facing view, spending too much time focused on product not customer, and ignore our marketing and messaging. Are you clear in what your brand stands for?

Day Nine: Replace: When was the last time you checked in on your internal processes? Are there opportunities to execute business routines better? Today it’s about the customer experience, providing convenience – do your systems make you easy to do business with, or are your customer facing systems clunky?

Day Ten: Revamp What do you stand for? Have you called any new plays lately? Your management style must be agile, what have you done to refresh the culture and inspire your people based on vision, purpose and values? Think inside out, think about purpose, and share it again.

Day Eleven: Replatform Upgrade your technology, migrate to cloud-based solutions and platforms, providing scalability. These efforts are rarely quick ‘lift and shift’ and require thinking and analysis, but with the thinking time available now is the time to make it happen.

Day Twelve: Relive Are you loving and living your dream with your business? Why not? Never forget your dream. Write down what you want from your business personally in the next twelve months? That’s only twelve milestones. Make it personal, so your business enables you to work to live, not live to work. Do you work for your business, or does your business work for you?

The most productive entrepreneurs think about what their time will be worth in the future and focus on doing stuff today that is important for tomorrow. Think about it, all that really belongs to us is time in the moment. No use thinking of the past for it’s gone, don’t think of the future because it has yet to come, instead, try your best to shape it.

We live in actions, thoughts, breaths and feelings. Not in figures on a dial, yet it is the hands on the clock that dictate our attention. Time is a very misleading thing. What might have been is an abstraction, whilst time remaining is a perpetual possibility, but both exist only in a world of speculation. As T S Elliot said, Footfalls echo in the memory, down the passage, which we did not take, towards the door we never opened. 

Reflecting, evaluating and analysing your own experience of what you did and how you did it over the past months develops your insight into what you need to do in the twelve months ahead. I would advocate doing nothing over the coming holiday period, other than relaxing, thinking and jotting stuff down as it comes into your head, using the above Twelve Days of Christmas framework.

I’m good at doing nothing and just thinking. Even though I feel an enormous laziness in me, I find after about one afternoon of doing nothing I’m fired up with new ideas. My laziness is somehow connected to my productivity, like they’re two poles, keeping my life’s rope tight enough to walk on. I’m the most ambitious lazy person I know.

Relaxing makes me tense, but it’s making more sense as I get older. I prefer walking to sitting still. What I really like is a break from work with a lowercase ‘w’ – answering emails, scheduling meetings, making deals, etc.

The bookish nerd that I am, I have a small library about doing nothing: Jenny Odell’s How To Do Nothing, which speaks about the importance of interiority, Tom Hodgkinson’s How To Be Idle, which promotes antidotes to our work obsessed culture, Roman Muradov’s On Doing Nothing where he talks about the pleasures and possibilities of slowing down and cultivating idleness. Interestingly, both Oscar Wild and Robert Louis Stevenson did their best work whilst lazing around.

Use the twelve days of Christmas as a time of relaxation and reflection, but also create a sense of urgency. A time to think about your NOW. Let that urgency fuel actions that lead to deeper connections, a higher purpose, and finding your passion and joy to make a difference to yourself and your startup venture next year. Recall the words of Annie Dillard, and use them as your guide : How we spend our days is how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.

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