Friday, October 26, 2012

The Emergency Insomnia Plan

I had a horrible bout of insomnia the other night.  I woke up at twelve-thirty to the sound of my cat running madly around upstairs, and somehow I didn’t manage to go back to sleep until about five in the morning.  This is not a new problem for me.  I’ve been an insomniac for much of my adult life – I remember having a long run of early-morning insomnia during the 1980s, when I tried to solve the problem by getting out of bed at three or four or whatever time I woke up and going for long walks in my neighborhood.     
My insomnia has actually gotten a lot better since then and I do manage to sleep through most nights. (I always feel like a baby when I say that.)  Still, I do sometimes have times when I wake up in the night, I start thinking about something, and pretty soon my think button is stuck on and I’m lying there for hour after hour thinking, thinking, thinking, though not necessarily bad thoughts – I often solve creative problems, or I think affectionately about the people I love, or I have insights about my own psychology.  It’s actually quite enjoyable, or it could be if I could stop worrying about how awful I’m going to feel the following day, obsessing about how hard whatever I’m supposed to do the following is going to be on so little sleep, and trying to make myself go back to sleep.   Over the years I’ve tried various solutions and other people have suggested various solutions, but the truth is, as I’ve learned over the long run, I’m mostly powerless over my insomnia, and the more I try to manage or control it the worse it is. 
But I’m not powerless over what I do on the day after I’ve had insomnia, when I invariably feel awful as a result of lack of sleep.  I need a lot of sleep compared to most people.  I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I need nine hours but it’s true, and if I get less, even seven hours, which is supposed to be the norm and which some people consider a lot, I feel grumpy, unhappy, and seriously unmotivated.  Even bending over to pick up a paperclip off the floor can feel like an unmanageable chore – it’s not that I can’t do it or think I can’t do it, but that I don’t want to do it.   
In the old days, I tried to push my way through a normal day’s work no matter how little sleep I got the night before, and/or I would feel guilty if I didn’t. This was a bad combination with the I-can’t-even-pick-up-a-paperclip-off-the-floor feeling.   I invariably ended up getting overwhelmed or frustrated or making myself sick or having a fight with my partner or something worse.   Now that I’m harnessing time, I don’t try to make myself have a normal day after I’ve had too little sleep.  I’m a lot more realistic about what I can and can’t do these days, and I work with time to try to feel as good as I possibly can at all times, to be nice to myself instead of mean to myself.  I harness time to get past the feeling that I must hurry all the time, that I should be doing such and such; I harness time to let go of guilt and stress, to get to a place where I can relax and rest, and where I’m super-productive.
So what I do now, on days when I’ve had insomnia the night before, is institute my emergency insomnia plan.  I make the decision to scale way back on what I’m going to do on that day.  I look at my list and ask myself what the bare minimum is that I can get away with doing, and then I plan to do that.  And I postpone everything else.  I plan when I’m going to do whatever I postponed, finding spots when I can fit it in during the rest of the week, and sometimes sending emails or making phone calls to arrange alternative meetings or tell people when I’m going to do what. That way I can rest during my emergency insomnia day without worrying that something’s falling through the cracks, that someone will be mad at me, or that I’m getting hopelessly behind.
Of course, not everyone has as much flexibility in their jobs or their lives as I do, as a self-employed writing coach with no kids.  But I’m convinced that there are ways to create emergency insomnia plans no matter what your situation is.  If you have a full- or part-time job, instituting an emergency insomnia plan may mean calling in sick for a day.  Or it may mean going to work and cutting down on what you expect yourself to accomplish that day, if you have the kind of job where you can do that.  It may seem like you simply can’t afford to call in sick or scale back at work, but that may be your guilt talking to you more than reality.  In my experience, doing less or taking time off when you’re really tired or feeling burned-out can pay off enormously, whereas forcing yourself to keep going under those circumstances can end up costing more than what would’ve been lost if you’d simply taken a bit of time off.  
            There are all sorts of variations on insomnia as the reason for making an emergency insomnia plan.  You may be sick or feeling slightly under the weather, or you may be just plain tired after a long work week, or have guests staying at your house or whatever.  When one has kids the possible reasons for emergency insomnia plan days are endless:  A sick child may be at home needing special attention, or all of your kids may be home for spring break or for a snow day.  When kids are involved, it may be relatively easy to institute an emergency insomnia plan because we have to be there for them, but it may be harder to do when it’s just ourselves who needs extra care and attention.  And the more people who are counting on us to do everything on our list and then some, who might get upset or be inconvenienced if we don’t, the harder it may be. 
Still, I’ve noticed that often all it takes, at least mostly, is making the decision to take a day off or scale back.  It may take a bit of work to arrive at the decision – we may need to struggle a bit with our inner should-saying voice, consider whether any real bad thing will happen if we postpone the items on our to-do list for one day or a few hours – but once we do make the decision most of the work is done.  Now all we have to do stick to the decision and, if it’s appropriate, tell others involved what we’ll be doing or not doing (although not necessarily why).  
And, most importantly, we have to take the time off or scale way back without feeling anxious or guilty, without torturing ourselves with shoulds.  We need to rest our minds as well as our bodies when we’re taking time off.  This too will probably take a conscious decision, a decision to put aside for the moment all thoughts of what we should or could be doing instead of resting.  As with most things in life, what you do or don’t do is less important than how you feel while you’re doing it.  If you let them, emergency insomnia days can turn into lovely opportunities for resting, catching up on your reading, and taking care of yourself in other ways.
That’s what happened to me the other day, the day after I had my twelve-thirty to five a.m. insomnia.  I postponed my two coaching dates (it so happened I had a couple of openings on the following two days and it all worked out perfectly for everyone), and I spent the day resting, reading my novel, raking a few leaves on my lawn, and watching three episodes of Upstairs, Downstairs on my laptop.  I had a thoroughly enjoyable day.  And – since one of the main things that keep me awake at night is the fear of how badly I’m going to feel tomorrow because I’ve gotten so little sleep – I believe I actively decreased my chances of having insomnia in the future.  Next time I’m wide awake in the night I’ll just think about what a good day I’m going to have the next day after I cancel everything I have to do, and then I’ll probably go right back to sleep.
                                                               -- Mary Allen

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Avoiding Decision Fatigue

For years I had the behavior pattern of jumping from task to task whenever I was stressed about how much I had to do.  The behavior added to my stress a lot (or it might’ve even been the cause of the stress).  I’d start something, then remember something else I had to do, put down the first thing and pick up the second thing, then remember a third thing and start working on that.  I could never just sit there and peacefully focus on the task at hand until it was finished, then go on to another thing.
            Now that I plan my day, figuring out (and writing down) roughly what I’m going to do when, I don’t keep hopping from one task to another and back again the way I used to.  I don’t even think about what else I have to do when I’m in the midst of something, because I know that when I’m finished or my allotted time for that a particular task is up, I’ll simply refer to my plan and go on to the next.
For those of us who are time-challenged, planning the day may seem like just one more thing we don’t have time for.  But taking a little time to plan the day actually saves time in the long run.  It takes time to have to keep figuring out what you’re going to do next, and if you don’t have a plan there’s a good chance you’ll forget something so you’ll always be playing catch-up.  And dithering and worrying and feeling anxious all take time in their own ways.  Perhaps even more importantly, they use energy.
An article in a recent issue of the New York Times Sunday magazine cites new research showing that every time you make a decision, no matter how large or small, making the decision itself takes energy.  It turns out that the very act of thinking, deciding, is somehow literally tiring, and it’s cumulative, the more you’ve decided on a given day or spot in time, the less able you are to decide again. (The researchers coined a name for what happens when you have to make a lot of decisions:  it’s decision fatigue.)   It stands to reason that if your energy is being drained by constantly making decisions about what to do, not to mention by worrying and feeling anxious about how productive you’re being and about what you’re not getting done, you’ll have less energy to actually do things.  You won’t be able to make good decisions, or perhaps any decisions at all, about anything. (In the decision fatigue study, judges were less likely to make the difficult decision to give prisoners parole at the end of the day when they’d already made a lot of hard decisions, than early on.)   And you’ll feel stressed, exhausted, and drained.
When I plan my day, I make decisions once and only once – when I’m fresh -- about how to spend the whole day.  I know I can change my mind about those decisions at any time but most of the time I don’t change my mind, and if something comes up during the day that requires a new when-will-I-do-this decision, I usually put that decision off until the following day when I’m planning again. In that way I totally avoid decision fatigue.
I often find myself referring to my plan as the day goes along; when I’ve finished one thing and I’m not sure what to do next I whip out my daily planner and look to see what I’ve got written down.  Then I relax because I know I’m not forgetting anything or leaving some important thing undone.  Once again, I don’t get decision fatigue or – to coin a similar phrase – worry fatigue.  My whole day feels peaceful and productive and at the end of it I have what the Buddha called “the bliss of innocence.”
                                                             -- Mary Allen

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Harnessing Time in a Nutshell

Yesterday, my coaching client Wendy told me on the phone that her house was a mess but she felt too overwhelmed to do anything about it.  She said there was just too much to do and she didn’t know where or how to start and she had other things she had to deal with too and the thought of it all just made her want to give up and take a nap.
I suggested she look at the specific amount of time she had available during the rest of the afternoon and then pick a couple of specific things to do that would fit into that time, listening to her intuition about what she most needed or wanted to do. For example, she could decide to put aside from three to four, and she could decide to make the bed, pick up the living room, vacuum, and do the dishes during that time.  If she couldn’t get all that done between three and four she could at least get some of it done. And if she finished it all early, at 3:45, say, she could do one more thing or she could quit early and take a break.  And if things didn’t work out at all – if she got sidetracked with a phone call or a complicated text message or the overwhelming need to take a nap – she could just reboot and do the whole exercise again tomorrow or some other time soon.  I also suggested she call me back when the time she picked was over and tell me how it all went, knowing that doing that would help her – or I would help her -- focus on what she did do instead of what she didn’t.  Because even if she thought taking a nap or catching up with a friend she needed to talk to was wasting time, I’d remind her that it’s not.  (To me resting and doing nothing is a great use of time, and besides who cares if we waste a little time.  The problem isn’t really wasting time anyway, I’ve come to see; it’s feeling like we’re wasting time because we’re not noticing or giving ourselves credit for how we’re spending our time.) 
I realized afterwards that this little exercise captured my harnessing time practices in a nutshell.   For me, harnessing time is about looking at how much time we’ve got – right now or during the whole day today – and making realistic decisions about how we’re going to use it.  It’s also about looking at something we have to do – perhaps something we haven’t been able to get to or are worried we won’t be able to get to -- and picking a time when we can do it (and writing that time down).  It’s about slowing down enough to tap into our intuition so we can make decisions we can live with, decisions about how we truly want to spend our lives on the micro level as well as the macro level.  It’s about simply rebooting, picking a new time and making a new plan, when things don’t work out the way we planned.  And it’s about focusing on what we did do instead of what we didn’t, maybe with the help of a friend.
It all seems so simple, and yet it seems like even I have to keep being reminded over and over to follow my own practices.   I’ve got it down in the morning, when I plan my day – every day I look at the time I’ve got available and I consider what I’m going to do when during that time, and then I call in my plan to my time partner.  But sometimes, when I’m feeling busy or rushed, it takes me a little while to remember this simple formula for getting more peaceful.
For example, this morning I got up knowing I definitely wanted to clean the cat boxes in my basement and wash my kitchen floor.  Those things had been on my plan yesterday but I just didn’t have the energy to do them when the opening for them came.  But they were bothering me.  The cat boxes were grossing me out – they definitely needed to be emptied, washed, and refilled with fresh kitty litter – and the kitchen floor definitely needed to be washed because I had a friend coming over in the late afternoon.  Somehow I thought I should do them before I sat down and made my plan for the day, and I was kind of vaguely worrying they’d take up so much time they’d throw my whole day off at the same time that I was worrying I wouldn’t be able to get to them at all.  Then I realized:  Duh! Use the harnessing time thing.
So I sat down and made my plan for the day, planning to spend an hour first thing dealing with the cat boxes and washing my kitchen floor.  The cat boxes and the floor took less time than I had thought they would, and I felt good about getting them done for the whole rest of the day.
I don’t know why it should be so hard to remember to keep following these simple little practices, but I guess it doesn’t matter.  What matters is that we remember them eventually, and it does seem like the more we keep using them the more quickly we remember.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Time Is the Most Powerful Tool of Them All

Ever since I discovered that I was suffering from time anxiety -- ever since I noticed that how busy I was, that what I had to do and was and wasn’t doing on any given day -- was causing me a lot of distress, I’ve been paying close attention to what’s at the bottom of the feeling. Every single time I’ve felt anxious or rushed or too busy, I’ve look closely at what’s going on, considering whether it’s inside me or outside of me or both.  And I’ve learned something sort of surprising:  How busy I feel doesn’t necessarily correlate with how busy I am.   But I’ve also learned – not just recently but over the course of many years -- that it isn’t that easy to change how I feel, although I can change how I act and that will change how I feel.
I’ve evolved a number of practices that have drastically changed the way I feel by changing the ways I use time and look at time.  These practices include planning my day every morning by considering what I’m going to do when; calling my time partner and telling her about my plan for the day as well as what I did and didn’t do yesterday; spending ten minutes every day, usually before I make my plan, sitting quietly listening to my intuition, my higher self, or whatever you want to call it (I call it lovely gracious higher power); consciously setting aside time to rest; watching myself for signs of time anxiety and whenever they come up, getting quiet for a second to check in with myself about what's going on; and more.
I’ve been following these practices faithfully for several years now, and they’ve changed my inner and outer life dramatically:  I hardly ever have time anxiety any more and when I do it doesn’t last for more than a few minutes; I almost never feel rushed, harassed, anxious, tense or too busy.  I’ve gotten way, way more peaceful and happy on a day-today, moment-to-moment basis, and I’ve come to feel a sense of personal power and confidence – confidence that there will be enough time to get everything done, confidence that I have the power to do whatever I need to do in life -- big things as well as small things – confidence that I can change or accomplish whatever I want to. 
I’ve always felt suspicious when people said things like that, in self-help books or elsewhere, because I knew it wasn’t that easy -- for me, at least -- to change.  And I also knew that sometimes I could fool myself into believing that I would change, even had changed, just because I wanted to or planned to.  I’ve got old journals from the 1970s and ’80s in which I filled pages and pages fantasizing about all the writing I was in the process of doing, blabbing on and on about the various screwed-up ways I used to be but that I wasn’t any more. But when I look back at those journals now I see really clearly, and with more than a little embarrassment, that I was still those ways that I said I wasn’t any more and I never did any of that writing.   And sometimes I wonder, when I read self-help books promising certain radical results or I hear people claim that they’ve achieved certain sweeping, permanent, fantastic changes, whether there’s something a little bit similar going on.   Because, as I’ve learned, there’s a long distance to travel between wanting to do something, thinking about doing something, planning to do something, and actually doing it.  And, I’ve learned, the key to bridging that distance is time – finding time, making time, to actually do things, even if it’s just to take a small step toward accomplishing a big goal.
I've heard people say “You can act your way into thinking differently, but you can’t think your way into acting differently.”  I’ve definitely experienced the truth of this, over many years of trying unsuccessfully to think my way into acting differently and eventually acting my way -- imperfectly, through many small daily actions -- into changing my thinking.  What I’ve also learned, ever since I’ve been harnessing time, is that the way to act your way into thinking differently, the way to get yourself to act at all, is to make time for whatever actions there are to be acted.  And that acting your way into changing how busy you feel no matter how busy you are – is a sure-fire way to truly become more happy and peaceful, and to get a lot more done.