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How time and space can improve your mental health

Looking for the meaning of life? Take a trip through time and space to improve your mental health and find a new you…


By Alex Godfrey, GQ

I just need to ask you a couple of strange questions. Because I'm going to see if we can move to the future. Mentally. And to do that I'd like to know how you think about time."

This is not my usual Monday afternoon. I'm not the type to reveal my innermost fears and desires to strangers. And besides, it's hard to forget everything I know about time and space from an office at the back of a house in High Wycombe, but I will try.

"Think about your earliest memories," says professional coach Mike Duckett, as we sit opposite each other. "What springs to mind?" School. Four years old, crying. "I'd like you to put that memory where it belongs, in the past. Now create an image you'd like to happen ten years from now." I do. "With the same clarity as your past memories, imagine what you're going to look like." Right. That's depressing.

He laughs. "Why would you create something depressing? Create something attractive!" But I'm only getting older. "Oh dear. Well, imagine ten years ahead but still looking the same. Now leave that in the future." He asks me where I would physically place my early memories. "Behind, in front, to the side?" Behind seems to make sense. He asks me to look behind me, into the garden, at where my four-year-old self is. "Within this garden? Where those trees are?" I picture myself, age four, standing anxiously in a stranger's garden in High Wycombe.

"Now imagine the flow of future straight in front of you, through the window. I'm going to ask you to walk towards your future. Einstein says space and time are the same thing, so we're going to take you on a journey through time. When you arrive here, allow this to be a point on your timeline when you have achieved your goal. Are you ready? Take a walk through space. Which is the same thing as time..."

Duckett has been a coach since 1996. He works with CEOs, managers, rally drivers, chefs and opera singers, with anyone who wants to improve themselves, to unlock their potential. Heston Blumenthal said Duckett helped him to unscramble his brain, and lord knows my brain needs unscrambling. Yes, I have career goals, but I also need to tackle some smaller problems. My time management is a little lacking - I once had to abandon a one-day time-management course after lunch because I couldn't afford to spend any more time away from work. I'm also very easily distracted, like Homer Simpson when he spies a squirrel, as Duckett notices when he's speaking to me and I see a familiar book on his shelf. "Where have you gone?" he asks. Sorry.

The book is Viktor Frankl's Man's Search For Meaning, about the Holocaust survivor's suggestion that we can find happiness by imagining and immersing ourselves in it. Next to that book sits Bradley Wiggins' autobiography, My Time. The coupling speaks volumes about Duckett, who specialises in coaching psychology. It's not about being taught skills or solving problems, but being a more effective version of yourself. Years ago, he was talking to Paul Weller's drummer, Steve White, he explains. Duckett told White he'd send him an email, but White said he didn't use email because he was too easily distracted by tech. "He said, 'I have to ask myself, has it got anything to do with playing the perfect drum solo? If the answer is no, then I have to ask why I'm doing it.' Email would distract [him] from the perfect drum solo. And that's what Heston means when he mentions 'unscrambling' - reminding people what their priorities are."

Back in our journey through time and space, I walk across the room. I must specifically visualise the new me, ten years in the future. Moving forward helps you to get a clear vision of where you want to be, says Duckett, while looking back at how far you've come gives you a sense of confidence, of movement, development. Coaching, he says, is not just about getting to a certain point - it's about staying on top, replicating success and remaining fulfilled.

Blumenthal said working with Duckett over the years has been like peeling an onion - he helped him to sift through the clutter, to prioritise what mattered. It goes back to the perfect drum solo, says Duckett. "As Heston's got successful, he's had lots more opportunities and temptations to do lots of things. It's my job to say, 'OK, where will they take you? If they take you there, are you happy with that consequence?' People realise that although something sounded tempting, it might not be the good thing to do."

Likewise, he tells me I need to prioritise my time. I recognise that I'm a sucker for instant gratification, often at the expense of long-term goals. He suggests a "thought diary", noting down what happens when I abandon what I've said I should be doing. What was the thinking that got me there? What was my emotional reaction? "Because there's probably a pattern to the way the body reacts."

The afternoon is on its last legs, but he gives me one final scenario, by way of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials books, and the boy who finds a knife that can cut through to parallel universes. "The multiverse theory," explains Duckett. "Whenever we make a choice, the penny comes down both heads and tails - one in one universe, one in another. You make a choice, and in another universe a different choice took place. And if we watch the other you, he does things according to more structured time management. What is he doing differently to you?"

Well, he's not here in High Wycombe at 5pm, I suggest, gingerly. He'd have stayed at home, phoned you, wrapped this up in less time, and then done something else. "He's thinking about the drum solo," says Duckett. "He asked himself how this would help him get what he wanted. And he decided not to come... So what led you to be the way that's different to him? And could we disentangle it?"

It's a leading question, for another time. A lot has occurred in this office today - I've had a three-hour introductory crash course. He's not going to suggest anything further, he says, because it's not his job to engineer solutions. What matters is that we've seeded some thoughts and have focused on them. But remember that vision of my future, he recommends. "Keep your eye on that fella in the other universe - he's a good role model for you."

Like John McClane, old habits die hard, but I'm more aware of what I'm doing, and of how I'm getting in my own way. I haven't yet become the fella in the other universe, but I keep thinking back to my adventures in space and time, keeping myself in check.
Mental Health

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