Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Incredible Power of One Day at a Time

For years I’ve known that living one day at a time is a simple, almost magical spiritual tool for solving just about all of life’s problems.  Almost all problems happen mostly on the thinking-feeling level:  Even if you’ve lost your job and are going to run out of money next week, even if you have a debilitating illness that’s going to get worse and worse, even if you’re going to die tomorrow, the real problem is how you feel about that today – it’s the fear, the dread, the projecting, the imagining, the things you tell yourself about how bad it’s going to be.  And almost always, when you ask yourself, Am I okay right now? the answer is yes.   Even when the worst thing that could happen is happening right here in this moment, there’s usually some part of it that’s not as bad as you thought it would be and/or there are usually things you can do to make it better.
That’s why living one day at a time solves almost all of life’s problems: because there are no real problems in this moment, in today.  The only thing is, living one day at a time isn’t that easy to do. I used to think it was something I had to accomplish with my thoughts.  I thought I just had to get my mind situated firmly in the present moment and keep it there.   I kept thinking I should be able to do that, would be able to do that, whenever I remembered I wanted to do that, but I couldn’t. I’d always forget and go right back to living in the future and/or in the past.  I’d go back to thinking I had to do everything all of the time. 
A few weeks ago my friend Bruce said that one of the things he’s gotten out of planning his days a la my harnessing time deal, is that he no longer feels like he has to do everything all the time.  (See “The Doing-Everything-All-the-Time Trap,” November 5, 2012.)  I thought that was brilliant, and that it captured how harnessing time works for me, too, in a nutshell.  Instead of feeling like I have to do everything all the time, and feeling scattered, burdened, anxious, confused, and kind of miserable as a result, now I’m able to focus on one thing at a time:  I know when I’m going to start focusing on it, whatever it is, and when I’m going to stop focusing on it, and as a result I know that I don’t have to focus on everything else.
One thing this has done for me is allow me to live one day, one hour, even one minute, at a time.  I might not be able to get rid of every single thought projected into the future, but I’m much more present in the day and in the moment.  I don’t worry about what I’m going to be doing tomorrow, because I know that I’ll figure out what I’m going to do tomorrow, tomorrow.  And if I need to figure out what I’m going to do tomorrow today – for example, if I need to decide today what I’m going to bring to a Thanksgiving potluck tomorrow – I put time aside to do that today.  Once I’ve put time aside for something, I can let go of it, and if I haven’t put time aside yet I know I will.  So I don’t have to keep worrying about whether I’m going to do it, whatever it is, or when I’m going to do it, whether I’m going to have time to do it, et cetera.  I don’t have to keep doing all that mental work, don’t have to keep doing the thing itself along with everything else in some vague, anxious, rehearsing-stuff-over-and-over way on the mental plane.
It’s the mental stuff that’s the problem, not what’s really going on in the world – I truly believe it.  It’s the mental stuff that makes you tense, anxious, nervous, miserable – or not.  And that’s the good news, because you can work with the mental stuff, even if you can’t change the outside circumstances at all.   And the even better news is that you can change the mental stuff by changing what you do – by taking certain small actions that you do have control over -- within the confines of the outside circumstances.  So you might not be able to change what you have to do, but you can change how you make plans to get done what you have to do, and doing that changes how you think about what you have to do.
There’s another way I’ve used one day a time very successfully with the help of harnessing time.  And that’s working on big, intimidating projects one little piece at a time, one day at a time, and then letting go of the rest.  Big projects like writing a book.  Big projects that might otherwise make me go crazy if I even thought about trying to do them, having to do them, to the point where I’d get so uptight I’d give up after a few days or never even get started.  
I read a story recently about an artist in Italy who was commissioned to create a mosaic in a cathedral, involving millions of tiny different-colored pieces that had to be placed, just so, along the lower part of the cathedral’s entire wall.  It was an enormous backbreaking job, and someone came along and asked him how he had the courage to take on such a difficult task. “It’s easy,” the artist said. “Every day I figure out how much I can do comfortably that day.  I mark the area and I don’t think about how much I have to do beyond that point. Before I know it the whole job will be completed.” 
When I read that story, I thought about harnessing time – how harnessing time is my way of figuring out what I can do comfortably every day, marking the area, not thinking beyond that point.  I’ve been doing that for years with writing too – in fact, it was writing that helped me come up with the rest of my harnessing time practices.  Every day I write for a certain amount of time and when that time is over I put my writing aside and don’t even think about it until tomorrow.  And, with the help of my harnessing time tools, I do that now with many other big goals too.  I don’t let myself think about how far I have to go, how little I got done today, how much there is left to do, how I have to hurry up if I’m going to reach the deadline I’ve set for myself.  I just do what I’ve set aside to do today and then I stop, feeling happy and peaceful because I’ve made some progress toward the goal.
I haven’t written the whole book, haven’t gotten into perfect shape physically, haven’t decluttered my whole house or accomplished whatever other big goals I’ve got.  But I know that I will.  I will because I’ll harness time to keep at it, doing a little bit every day.  And so I relax and feel good about myself.  Good enough to keep going, to tackle my big project tomorrow and every day after that, until it’s done.   And that’s what counts.
                                                           -- Mary Allen

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The People-Pleasing Trap

Last time, I wrote about how time anxiety is at least partly caused by feeling like you have to do everything all the time, and how one solution to that is to consciously put time aside for whatever you need to do.   This time I’m going to write about something else that makes us feel crazy-busy no matter how much we’ve got to do.   It’s what we call people-pleasing in the twelve-step program I belong to.
When I agreed recently to do an extra hour of editing that I didn’t have time for (see my post, The Doing-Everything-All-the-Time Trap, November 5, 2012), I was thinking of my client’s needs and wants more than my own.  Of course, since my client and I have a business relationship, it could be said that everything I do to help him with his writing is about his needs and not my own – my need is for the money he pays me for my services.  But I wasn’t going to be making much money for that one hour of editing and if I had been thinking about my own needs instead of his I would have passed.  But I thought the client wanted me to do it and I wanted to make him happy so I agreed. 
Because I hadn’t fully taken my own needs and wants into consideration when I agreed to do that one hour of editing (or when I agree to anything, really; I’m just using the one hour of editing as a simple example, the way I’m using my own experience as an example of what can happen to anyone), I had mixed feelings about it.  It wasn’t clear to me that I wanted to do it, but I felt like I had to do it. Right there, those mixed feelings, that little inner conflict, added some weight, however slight, to my time anxiety.  I felt guilty too – somehow, I was worried about what that guy was going to feel if I didn’t do the editing (or maybe I was worried about that when I initially agreed to do it and I just continued worrying), and I felt a little resentful too.  All those feelings added up and caused stress and used energy, in the same way having to make decisions (remember that study about decision fatigue; see my post Avoiding Decision Fatigue, October 17, 2012) uses energy.   I kept putting the thought of that editing out of my mind (after all, it was just one hour), but every time I remembered that I was supposed to do it, all those feelings came back along with a little stab of guilt and anxiety – time anxiety, that nuts, I’m-too-busy, I-don’t-have-enough-time-for-everything feeling.  A good portion of my time anxiety, I realized, was actually all those other, mostly unconscious feelings I was having because I was people-pleasing. 
Plus, it was true – I was too busy.  I was too busy because I had all the regular things that were scheduled on my list every day -- and that one extra thing that was making everything else feel crowded.  Once again, I felt like I had to do everything all the time – or at least I felt like I had to all my regular work and that one hour of editing all the time, which added up to the same thing. 
But the people-pleasing trap made me feel like I had to do everything all the time on a much deeper level.  I felt like I had to worry about that other person and his needs and wants and feelings at the same time as my own.  I couldn’t do what I wanted to do because I had to do what I thought he wanted me to do, but I couldn’t do what he wanted me to do because I had to do what I needed to do.  My needs and wants were crowded in with his needs and wants, and there wasn’t enough time and room for both.  And it all added up to a lot of work – thinking work, feeling work, on top of regular work.  All because of that one stupid little hour. 
Of course, for most of us, it’s never just about one hour or one person.  And if just one hour for one person can make you feel that busy, just think what you feel like when it’s all your time and your whole family and three or four friends plus your employer and who knows who or what else.
Of course, we have obligations to other people, to our children, our friends, our spouses, our employers and clients, to our parents and our community.  It’s normal, sane, and ordinary to put our own needs aside sometimes and do things for others, and everybody, unless they’re a narcissist or a sociopath, does and should do a certain amount of people-pleasing.  The problem comes in when we’re doing it in a compulsive knee-jerk way; when we’re doing it more often than not; when we’re taking care of other people’s needs so much we’re not even paying attention to our own. 
So what’s the solution to that kind of people-pleasing?  I can only share what I’ve learned over the years about what works for me.
First of all, I try to stop and think before I agree to something.  I ask myself:  Do I really want to do this, or do I just think so-and-so wants or needs me to do it?  Am I really just wanting to make so-and-so happy, or maybe even trying to keep so-and-so from getting mad at me?  I try to say things to the person like, “Let me think about that and get back to you.”  
And then I do think about it:  I listen to what my intuition is telling me about whether I want to do the thing or not.  I ask myself what I would do if there was nobody else in the picture (this is a good way to get disentangled mentally from other people’s wants and needs); I look at my time and consider whether I can fit the thing into my plan and still feel relaxed and sane or whether it’ll make me feel crazy-busy.  And then I make a decision and communicate it. 
If I’m going to say no to something I say it as nicely as I possibly can.  I used to be afraid that people would get mad at me when I said no to something – hence, the urge to say yes even when way down deep I wanted to say no; sometimes I even convinced myself I did want to do something just so I wouldn’t have to say no to it.  But I’ve learned that what people react to isn’t whether you say yes or no.  It’s how you say whatever you say.   If you say no in an abrupt, rude-sounding way – which you might do if you’re not comfortable saying no – they’re likely to get a little offended.  But if you’re really nice about it, if you offer an explanation and perhaps suggest an alternative, people are always really nice.
I don’t always do all of the above.  I’m always nice when I have to say no – I even work on that a little, think about what I’m going to say beforehand, or maybe talk to a friend who helps me figure out what to say.  But I don’t always figure out right away whether I do actually want to say yes to something, and I often seem to forget to take time instead of rushing my decisions.  Even though I’ve worked on this issue for years, there’s still a part of me that wants to jump in and solve everyone’s problems and make everyone happy – and that part still sometimes succumbs to people-pleasing.  Invariably, when that happens, I end up getting time anxiety – I end up feeling too busy, like I’ve got too much on my plate.  (Yuck.)  
As soon as I’ve figured out that that’s happened, I employ the magical harnessing time tool of flexibility, and change my mind.  I call the person up (or send him or her an email) and say, as nicely as I possibly can, in a friendly tone of voice, that it turns out I can’t do what I said I would.  I apologize profusely, I offer a reasonable explanation, and often I offer an alternative suggestion or two – a different time when I could do it (whatever it is), or another person who might be able to do it instead of me.  The person on the other end is always absolutely fine with my changing my mind, and somehow everything always works out, often better than it was going to before.
And I go back to feeling peaceful, to harnessing my time in all the ways I do on a day-to-day basis.
                                                            -- Mary Allen

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Doing-Everything-All-the-Time Trap

Lately I’ve been realizing that how busy I feel isn’t necessarily a reflection of how busy I am.   
            Of course, I am truly busy.  We all are.  I might not be quite as busy as some people; if all of the busy people were in a pack I’d probably be somewhere toward the middle, a six-and-a-half or seven on a scale of one to ten -- but that’s busy enough, busy enough to know all about busy. 
When I was in college and felt overwhelmed by all the exams I had to study for and papers I had to write at the end of the semester, I used to go around asking my friends what they had to do, and if they had more to do than I did I felt a little bit better and if they had less to do I felt a little bit worse.  And maybe now I’m worried that someone else is going to be doing that with me – looking at what I’ve got to do every day and saying, enviously and maybe a little bit rancorously, that’s easy for you to say, you don’t have as nearly much to do as I do. If that’s how you feel I don’t blame you – when I look back on my college days, and, to be truthful, some other times since then, I know exactly how you feel. 
But I truly believe that it doesn’t really matter how busy you actually are.  I’m convinced that you can feel anxious and stressed about how busy you are even when you don’t have that much to do, and you can be super-busy and still feel peaceful and serene. And that if you are chronically anxious and stressed about how busy you are, there are easy ways to get more peaceful without changing how busy you are.
So what makes us feel busy and what can we do about it?   Last night when I was having dinner with my friend Bruce, he said, “I used to feel like I had to do everything all the time.”  I introduced Bruce to my harnessing time practices and now he, like me, plans his day most mornings by considering what he’s going to do during the day as well as roughly when.  Last night we were talking about how much we like planning our days this way, and that was when he said what he said about how he used to feel like he had to do everything all the time.  And I thought, that’s exactly it – that’s exactly what makes you feel busy no matter how busy you are.
Like Bruce, I used to feel like I had to do everything all the time.  I could never just settle down and do one thing at a time without obsessively focusing on everything else that was on my plate (yuck, I hate that expression).  But I don’t do that any more.  Nowadays, I don’t feel like I have to do everything all the time, because I know (and so does Bruce and everyone else who’s harnessing time) when I’m going to be doing what and I also know that during that time I’m not going to be doing everything else.  I know that all the other everything elses will get done when their times come, and that until then I don’t have to worry or even think about doing them.
One of the areas of my life where I can see this working really well is in my writing coaching business.  I have a lot of clients and I’ve learned that the way to carry on my business sanely -- the way to keep on top of what I need to do with and for my clients and the way to keep myself from spending all my time on other people’s writing and never doing my own – is to do everything I do with and for my clients in chunks of time that I plan in advance.  During a typical weekday I coach in two one-and-a-half-hour sessions, and I write every single bit of coaching work down on my appointment calendar, even when I’m not actually meeting with somebody but just editing their work.
I learned a lot about how much this system was helping me not feel overly busy when I didn’t stick to it recently.  I have a client who meets with me twice a month.  This client asked me to spend an hour editing some of his work in between his two regular meetings and I said I would. I didn’t bother to find a spot for that one little hour of editing because I figured it was no big deal.   But somehow I never found time to do it, and as my next meeting with this client approached I found myself getting grumpy and anxious, feeling sort of guilty and even overwhelmed by the fact that I had to do that one hour of editing and I just couldn’t find time to fit it in.  I started getting that old time anxiety, that I’m-too-busy, there-isn’t-enough-time-for-everything feeling; I started to feel a little bit nuts, a little bit out of control – all because of that one stupid hour.  I decided that in the future, whenever anyone asked me to do a little extra work (especially editing, where I’m not meeting with someone in person so I have more wiggle room about when I’m going to do it and it’s more tempting not to pin myself down), I would make myself pick a time on my calendar when I could do it.  I would put time aside for it, because if I didn’t put time aside I’d end up not having time for it, and then I’d get the rushed, I’m-too-busy, time anxiety feeling.
It’s amazing to me that just one little hour of editing could result in so much time anxiety, but it did.  To me it said a lot about how the real problem isn’t everything we’ve got to do – it’s the fact that we feel like we have to do everything at once.   In that case I just felt like I had to do two things at once – the stuff I had scheduled on the days when I needed to do the editing, and the one hour of editing itself.  I was surprised by how strong and unpleasant my feeling of time anxiety was -- that feeling of not having enough time to do what I had to do.  Maybe it was just that I hardly ever have that feeling any more, so I really noticed it when I did.  But still – if just one little thing that takes one hour can make you that miserable, just think of how miserable you can be if it’s everything in your life all the time.
I learned a few things from the whole experience:  One, it really isn’t just about stuff you have no control over, about the fact that you have too much to do and not enough time to do it; it really is mostly what goes on in your head and how you work with that. 
Two, you can change what goes on in your head by doing a few simple things, like picking a spot in your week where you can do one hour of editing and doing the editing during that hour. 
And three, my harnessing time practices are really working. 
I think there’s at least a four and a five too, on the topic of why we feel like we have to do everything all the time, why that makes us feel crazy-busy, and what we can do about it.  But I’ll cover those in other posts.
                                                            -- Mary Allen