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.