Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Power of Deciding Not To, For a While

In the final analysis, what we tell ourselves about life is at least as important – and often a lot more important – than what’s really going on. If we’re telling ourselves we’re doing something different than what we’re actually doing, what we’re secretly doing has a way of getting out of control.  I used to eat low-calorie frozen meals made by Healthy Choice for dinner and tell myself I was on a diet, then eat a bunch of food afterwards because I was still hungry.  Somehow I didn’t pay attention when I was eating that after-dinner food, and when I gained weight I didn’t notice that either. I was completely in denial about it all until I saw a picture of myself standing next to a woman I considered a rival.  She was thin, willowy, and beautiful, and I was fat
Now I write down what I eat and keep track of how many calories are in it.  Keeping track that way might seem like it would be restrictive or oppressive, but I find it’s actually relieving.   And in the same way, I keep track of what I do on any given day.  I tell myself what I’m going to do (when I plan my day), and then I do it and then afterwards I tell myself (I actually tell another person too, but we’ll talk about that in a future blog) that I’ve done it.  If I didn’t or couldn’t do something I planned – which happens all the time -- I pay attention to that too.  Doing all that keeps me present in my own life, gives me a positive, realistic sense of what I’ve accomplished, and is also enormously relieving.  Because, let’s face it, if we’re not telling ourselves anything, our fears tend to step in and do all the talking.
This morning, on the phone, my friend Paul helped me understand something else about what we tell ourselves. Paul is a writer, and this morning he said that he was thinking about taking a week off writing. He really wanted to take the week off, but he had doubts about whether he should.  He said he was worried he was just sabotaging his writing by taking time off and what did I think?
I said I thought he should decide one way or the other whether he was going to write and then stick to the decision.  That the worst thing he could do would be to sit around all week thinking he should be writing but not writing, feeling guilty about not writing.  Because then he’d associate writing with guilt and that would make him not want to write the next time.
I didn’t really think about it all that much before I said it, but afterwards I knew it was true.  And I knew that sometimes, the best thing we can do for ourselves is decide not to do something even if we feel like we should do it.  Decide not to do it for a particular period of time, like next week, or today, or this summer, because then we’re also deciding when we will do it again. Making the decision – declaring our intention to ourselves – is the important part.  Because if we leave it open, even though way down deep we know we’re probably not going to do it, we’ll be feeling the whole time on some level like we should be doing it (should be writing or painting or taking up yoga or whatever), and then we’ll have that negative guilty I-have-failed feeling.  We’ll associate that feeling with the thing itself (the writing, painting, yoga-ing, et cetera) and then we’ll want to do it even less.

Thursday, August 23, 2012


For a long time I had a hard time understanding the concept of boundaries.
A therapist introduced me to the idea of boundaries a long time ago.  She said that boundaries are the psychological lines that separate you from other people, and if the boundaries between you and other people are blurry, which she said mine were, then you have trouble knowing where other people stop and you begin, knowing what their needs and problems and jobs to do in life are and what your own needs and imperatives are, separate from theirs.  So you take on other people’s stuff and then struggle and suffer under the burden of it.  I knew she was right about me and my blurry boundaries – what she said felt so true it was almost embarrassing – but the problem in itself somehow felt too close to me, too much a part of me with no boundaries between me and it, for me to know what to do about it.
Later, in the twelve-step program I started attending, I heard people talking about boundaries in a slightly different but related way.  Those people talked about “setting boundaries” and letting other people know what their boundaries were, and sometimes setting boundaries for themselves.  By then I had a better idea of what boundaries were than when my therapist introduced me to the notion, but I was still a little foggy about what they meant in my own life.  My Czech boyfriend, Viktor, said to me once that he had no idea what people were talking about when they talked about boundaries and when I tried to explain boundaries to him I couldn’t.  
Maybe the problem is that if you don’t have good boundaries it’s hard to get a fix on them -- that in order to understand boundaries we have to have them.  But I also think that “boundaries” might be one of those pop psychology words and concepts that are a little bit squishy and blurry themselves.  We may need to think about what boundaries really are in order to get somewhere with using and improving boundaries in our own lives.  I know I had to.
My dictionary defines boundaries as “something that indicates bounds or limits.”  After I had been working with harnessing time for a while, I realized that I was, without really thinking about it, putting boundaries around small chunks of time. It was the planning -- the knowing what I was going to do when -- that seemed to be giving me the most relief and relaxation, and the same is still true.  If I don’t plan and everything is just vague and open-ended, I may get things done, I may even get everything I need to do done, but somehow I’m not totally, consciously aware of what I’m accomplishing.  I feel anxious the whole time about whether I’m doing what I need to, whether there are things that I’m forgetting, and about all the things I should be doing that I’m not.  And often I don’t accomplish very much.  I try to do everything at once and end up doing nothing, or I can’t decide what to do and end up doing nothing.  Or I may go from one task to another, touching on each one but not completing it, like a butterfly lighting on one flower and then flitting to the next flower it notices.
When I do that I feel scattered and discombobulated; I keep rehearsing all the tasks “on my plate” (I hate that expression, as if work was food that you have to eat whether you want to or not) and worrying about whether I can get them all finished when I have to.  Whereas, when I know what I’m going to do and when, when there are boundaries around the tasks in my day and the time they’re going to take, I feel much better.  I feel in control of my day, I feel like I’m making choices about what I do and when I do it instead of having those choices made for me by default or not made at all.  
The boundaries I put around the different parts of my day are flexible – I don’t have to stick to them if I can’t or don’t want to because they’re mine.  I made them and I can choose to break them if I want to.  I can’t always stick to them perfectly, either; some days things just don’t work out the way I planned.  But the most important thing, I’ve learned, is that I have them, these little boundaries -- that I know what they are.  Instead of making me feel over-scheduled or confined, they make me feel amazingly happy, light, free.   Happy because they free me of worry, guilt, and free-floating anxiety about everything outside the boundaries of where I am and what I’m doing right now.
One day, when I was feeling relaxed and noticing that the little boundaries around what I was going to do when were making me feel that way, it occurred to me that this might be how and why boundaries in general – all kinds of boundaries, personal boundaries -- work.  And it occurred to me that if you have boundaries in one area of your life – boundaries around your time, say – then you may naturally start putting boundaries around other things too.  And I also realized that not having very good boundaries can make you feel crazy, irritable, out of control, anxious, and depressed, and that if you are any or all of those things, you might want to look at your boundaries and see if they could use some work.  In particular, I realized that often when we feel crazy busy, it has at least as much to do with boundaries as it does with what we’ve actually got on our plates (ugh).
We might need to work on our boundaries with other people (I know I did and will probably continue to keep working on them for the rest of my life).  But an easier place to begin could be putting boundaries between the tasks we’ve got on our plates today (so they’re not all mushed together in one big, unmanageable, inedible mess.)   I do this myself by sitting down at the beginning of every day and planning in writing what I’m going to do and when, during the day, I’m probably going to do it.

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Power of Flexibility

About fifteen years ago, I was launching on a big writing project and suddenly found myself with a lot more time to write than I'd ever had before. I also found myself struggling with writing.  Even though I knew that writing in general, and writing that book in particular, was what I wanted to do more than anything in the world, when it came time to write on any given day I didn’t want to.  I really, really didn’t want to.  I kept finding other things I had to do instead, things I thought I needed to do more than I needed to write, like clean the house or go grocery shopping – this is something all writers and lots of other people too will be familiar with.  When I did sit down to write I felt anxious, irritable, and uncomfortable. (Mostly, I think, I was afraid – afraid of not being able to write, afraid that what I wrote wouldn’t be good, afraid of the feelings that might rise up in me when I opened myself to let the writing come).  And so instead of sticking with the writing, I’d get back up and go to the refrigerator and eat something or I’d suddenly feel so tired I had to take a nap and so forth.  My writing time would pass for the day and I wouldn’t get anything done.
Then I read something that helped me make a change that has allowed me to stick with writing on any given day ever since:  If you tie a monkey to a tree it will try to get away, but if you let it stand free next to the tree it’ll get interested and go toward the tree.
As soon as I read that I knew I could use it to help me with my writing -- that I was the monkey and my writing was the tree.  It also came to me that the way to untie the monkey from the tree but set the monkey next to the tree, was to tell myself that I didn’t have to write anything on any given day, but I did have to spend a certain amount of time, five days a week, sitting in front of my computer.  My writing had to be on the screen and I couldn’t do anything else on the computer, but I didn’t have to write:  I could stare around the room, look out the window, think, sing, pet the cat, and generally avoid my writing for as long as I wanted to.   But I had to sit there in front of the writing, like the monkey standing near the tree.
That formula has worked for me for years.  It helps me when I’m resisting my writing because I tell myself I don’t have to write a thing, I just have to sit there for X amount of time.  That gets me to the computer.  And then, once I’m at the computer, boredom, if nothing else, eventually -- usually after about ten minutes -- gets me interested in and involved in the writing.  I’m not forcing myself to do anything – I read somewhere that whenever you try to force yourself or someone else toward something, it automatically results in resistance.  And because I’m not forcing anything I’m able to do the writing.  Occasionally I just sit there for the whole two hours and not write a word, but to me that’s still a successful writing session.  Maybe an even an especially successful writing session because it teaches me that I really mean it, just sitting there is all I need to do.
So what does this have to do harnessing time?  I’ve come to believe that flexibility is one of the most important tools in the harnessing time toolbox. Planning is another important tool, of course.   I’ve learned that the key to getting anything done is planning when I’m going to do it during the day.  I sort of look at my day as a puzzle, one of those wooden ones with different-size pieces you fit together to make a square, and I look at my day’s activities as the pieces.  When I’m making my plan I puzzle over how to fit all the pieces of the day together.
Once I’ve got my plan I relax and head into the day feeling happy and confident.  But sometimes the day doesn’t go according to plan.  I may end up doing things completely differently than the way I planned them; the day may even completely unravel with various problems or contingencies cropping up all over the place. Sometimes that just happens – we can’t know when we’re planning how long things will end up taking, and we can’t predict whether or what new developments are going to present themselves.  When things do turn out differently than we’d planned there’s no need to get frustrated or to feel like we’ve somehow screwed up – we can just employ our flexibility, look at the plan and change it.   (The goal of harnessing time is to get rid of guilt, definitely not to create or add more guilt, which is one reason being flexible is almost as important as planning.) 
And so what do the monkey and tree have to do with flexibility?  Maybe our plan – what we want to do on any given day – is the tree and we’re the monkey.  We set ourselves beside the tree by making the plan for the day.  But we know that we’re not going to make ourselves follow the plan no matter what -- if we don’t feel like doing something or if something better or more efficient presents itself we can happily do that instead.  We do whatever’s on the plan that we feel called to do, want to do – after all, if we didn’t want or need or feel called to do it we wouldn’t have written it down to begin with – but if in the course of the day we decide we don’t want to do something, can’t do something, on our list, not today anyway, we can shrug, laugh, and let go of that thing.  Maybe tomorrow we will want to do that thing, since we didn’t chain ourselves to the tree of it today.  Or maybe we’ll decide we never needed to do it at all, or we can postpone doing it for a few weeks, or ask ourselves if there’s some better way to get it done that we haven’t thought of before.    Maybe we need to start thinking about what we really do want to do instead of chaining ourselves to trees, maybe we need to stop thinking about ourselves as bad little monkeys. 
Maybe all we have to do to get unchained is observe ourselves, shrug, laugh, and share with a friend.