Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Harnessing Time With a Little Help From My Friend

They were really onto something when they made you team up with a buddy at camp.  A number of recent studies have shown that doing things with friends reduces stress and helps people exercise, lose weight, live longer, survive cancer, recover more easily from negative experiences, and even see steep hills as less steep.  I’d like to add something to that list:  Teaming up with a friend helps you use your time better, and it makes you happier, less self-critical, and more present and mindful as you go about your day.
            For me, planning the day is a two-part process. Once I’ve come up with my plan, I call my friend – my time partner – and tell her what my plan is.  I tell her how my day went yesterday too – what I did and didn’t do, what kind of successes I had and glitches I ran into as I carried out yesterday’s plan.   Then she tells me the same about her day yesterday and her plan for today.   We give ourselves stars too, as in, “Yesterday I had a four-star day.”   The starred items are things we picked on any given day to give ourselves extra credit for if we did them.
This little exercise, which we call checking-in, has completely changed my life.
Checking in with my friend every morning motivates me to figure out what my plan actually is.  If it weren’t for the daily check-in, I might be tempted to let my planning slide.  The check-in also helps me think out loud about what I’m going to do.  And there are lots of other good things I get from doing it too.
There’s a kind of intimacy that comes with telling someone about my day and hearing about theirs that adds a sense of companionability to my life and deepens my friendship with my check-in partner.  And it makes me more mindful of what I’m doing because I know I’m going to be telling someone else about it; it activates what Eckhart Tolle calls the ‘observer’ part of me and gives me just a little bit of detachment from everything that goes on.  Even when hard things happen, I think about how I’m going to tell my friend about them and somehow that makes them not quite so hard.
  I read somewhere about the power of “bearing witness to your own life and to someone else’s life.”  When I use the checking-in process, my whole day becomes about bearing witness to my own life and to someone else’s life.  It becomes a kind of dialogue, with my friend, with myself, with life.  And because now I have a kind of witness, and in a way have become my own witness as well, I have a stronger, clearer, more definite sense of accomplishment.  When I tell my friend everything I did, I pay attention to it myself – I give myself credit instead of just focusing vaguely on what I perceive as the day’s failures.
Somehow telling my friend what I didn’t do on my previous day’s list is even more satisfying than telling her what I did.  When I say what I didn’t do my friend “forgives” me and I forgive myself, and then I forget about it.  And I love hearing what she didn’t get done, love seeing how someone else’s day can get out of control, how my friend’s best-laid plans could so easily go awry.  I learn from the whole process what’s a realistic amount of work to expect of myself, and that helps me stop beating myself up for not accomplishing goals that weren’t realistic to begin with.  And hearing how my friend decided to give herself a break and rest or do something fun instead of something “productive” that she’d planned, helps me see – truly see, instead of just giving it lip service – that resting and having fun are just as real as anything else and we deserve to spend as much time as we can engaging in them.  My friend and I laugh and joke about what went wrong or about being “bad girls,” congratulate each other on taking care of ourselves instead of working.  Not getting things done starts to feel like something fun and interesting instead of something to feel guilty and bad about.
Anyone can have a time partner – all you have to do is find a friend who feels chronically rushed, anxious, or bad about what she gets done on any given day, and ask her if she wants to try making things better by checking in every day with you.   There are a few things that can make your check-ins go more smoothly.  I’ll talk about those in another post.

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