Monday, December 17, 2012

The Deafening Sound of a Thousand Little Emails

One of the problems I have with email is that little dinging noise the computer makes whenever an email arrives.  No matter what I’m doing, I simply can’t seem to make myself ignore that little ding.  I know you can push a button somewhere in your system preferences and turn the ding off, but I don’t want to turn the ding off, even though it interrupts me all the time.  I feel a little excited every time I hear the ding -- I can hardly wait to open the email to see if it’s something good or if it will make me feel good.  And sometimes, especially after I’ve sent someone an email containing information that might not make them very happy, I feel a little anxious too.  Maybe it’ll be something bad, I think, and then I’m in even more of a hurry to see what the email says.  Every time I hear the ding I feel compelled to stop what I’m doing, open the email it’s announcing, read the email, and then answer the email.  (It goes without saying that the same is true for texts, which arrive with even more fanfare and are even more impossible to ignore.  I have pretty much the same issue with phone messages too.)
I think the real problem with email is that it’s scattered throughout the day and therefore makes us feel scattered.  There’s no sense of having completed a task when we email because just when we send one email another one comes that needs to be responded to.  It arrives in the midst of other tasks, interrupts our concentration, and calls out to us – Pay attention to me!  I might be saying something interesting!  I probably need to be responded to! -- if we try to ignore it. And it takes up time we’ve planned to devote to other things, either by crowding them with little interruptions or by hogging their time all together. How many times have you opened your email first thing in the morning and then found yourself spending much more time on it than you thought you would, or even ended up emailing instead of doing whatever else you had to do?
I know I’m not the only person writing about this, and I’m certainly not the only person struggling with it.  A Pew Research Center survey conducted last spring found that 67 percent of cell phone owners find themselves checking their device even when it’s not ringing or vibrating.   As far as being digitally addicted goes, I’m probably somewhere in the bottom third of the pack.  For me, at least so far, emailing/texting/phone-checking is mostly a problem when I’m supposed to be writing.
The other day when I was sitting at my computer, I was dismayed to find myself checking my email every few minutes.  I also felt pulled by my telephone, which I had turned off for the duration of my writing time, and a few times I actually turned the phone back on and listened to my voicemail.  (There was nothing interesting there, of course.)  Doing something compulsive to get away from the hard work of concentrating on writing isn’t new to me.  I used to eat during my writing time, and a long time before that I used to smoke during it.  Still, there’s something about this emailing and phone-message-listening-to that feels different.  I feel pulled off course by it in a way that’s stressful, somehow, at the same time as it’s compelling.  I’m not alone at my desk with my writing any more, I’m there with an infinite possible number of people who may or may not want or need something from me.   And the quality of my attention, when I’m emailing or worrying about phone messages, is different from the quality of my attention when I’m writing.  It’s scattered and sprinkled with anxiety about other people and their wants and needs.  And it’s watered-down – even when I was eating or smoking there were times when I wasn’t eating or smoking and during those times I could write without fear of interruption, and food and cigarettes didn’t pop out of nowhere to tap me on the shoulder and get my attention, the way email does.
 The obvious solution is to bite the bullet and put emailing (and texting and making phone calls and listening to phone messages and let’s throw in surfing the Internet and looking at Facebook too) in their place.   That is, find some spots for them during the day and do them then instead of doing them all the time along with everything else.  Timothy Ferriss, who wrote The Four-Hour Work Week, says in a recent book that he only checks his email twice a day.  A writer I know says he’s had good luck emailing only after one o’clock in the afternoon.  And a number of experts on time-management have been suggesting more or less the same thing – that you pick a number of times you’ll check and answer emails every day – say, four – turn your email off the rest of the time and let your clients, and whoever else needs to know, know when you are and aren’t going to be reading and responding to your emails.  All of which seems like very good advice. 
The only thing is, I suspect it may be easier to tell somebody to turn off their email (cell phone, et cetera) some of the time than it is to actually do it.  That it might be similar to telling an alcoholic to manage their drinking by only drinking wine from four to six in the afternoon.  That it might have about the same result – that is, it might seem like a solution has been reached but in the long run there won’t be much real change.  I’m not saying that every single one of us is a digital-aholic.  But I do think we – each of us, or at least most of us -- probably have to address or at least consider the compulsive, addictive element of emailing (texting, surfing the Internet, etc.) in our own situations before we can really get a hold of it.  I know I did, and I continue to have to work at it. 
I’ve started turning off my email while I write.  I have to turn it off --  I can’t just decide to ignore it, because I can’t make myself ignore those little dings.  It’s been hard, I admit it, to turn off my email and leave it off.  So far, during my one- or two-hour chunks of writing time, the longest I’ve managed to avoid turning my email back on to check my messages is fifteen minutes.  I’ve noticed that when I’m turning it back on I have a brief feeling of pleasurable anticipation. Getting a nice little email, it turns out, feels to me (and probably everybody else) like a little reward, like eating a cookie or something.  Usually the emails I get are not particularly nice – they’re either totally boring advertisements or humdrum communications about work or something else.  But there’s always a chance that one could be nice -- could make me feel good, accepted, loved, rewarded -- and every so often one does.  So I guess I’m like those research monkeys that kept pushing the bar to try to get an intermittent dose of cocaine.
So what can we do about all of this?  Do we all need to go to twelve-step meetings to deal with our addictions to instant communication?  I don’t think there are any such meetings, but maybe we can take a page from other twelve-step programs.  First of all, we probably need to admit there’s a compulsive element to the whole thing, that it might take a little more than just making a decision to change how and when we email (and text and surf and Facebook, et cetera), to actually make changes.  It might help to try to change, as I did, and then see what happens.  Try turning off your email (or your smartphone) for certain periods of time during the day and see how it feels:  Can you stand it?  Do you have to keep turning it back on just in case?  If you find it’s hard to keep away from instant communicating, then that information in itself may be helpful.  Maybe you can just sit with the feeling, acknowledge and accept it, notice how the compulsion to communicate is taking away from your ability to peacefully stick to one task at a time. (This is similar to step one in the twelve steps:  “Admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable.”)  Maybe that’s all we have to do for a while; maybe doing that in itself -- just recognizing what’s going on and accepting it – will make things better.  It did help, has helped, me.   
It might also be helpful to take a little inventory of whatever we’re getting from constantly checking our email (as in step four:  “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves”).  Or we can make a goal, such as only emailing at certain times of the day, and then picture ourselves accomplishing that goal during our meditation or ask the larger smarter part of ourselves to help us accomplish it.  (Step three:  “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of a power greater than ourselves.”)  Or maybe all we have to do is make a decision to turn our will and our lives over to ourselves and our own lives, instead of turning them over to our computers and our cell phones and other people’s needs and communications.   And if worse comes to worse we can always try taking a digital sabbatical or attending a digital detox retreat, as some people are doing these days.
We can try all of the above, and then keep trying, until we find something that works.  We’ll know when we’ve accomplished what we wanted to achieve, whatever it was, because we’ll feel peaceful and productive – more peaceful than we ever have before, maybe – and we’ll find time – more time, stretches of time, all of our time -- opening up in our lives in ways we never dreamed of.
                                                                 -- Mary Allen

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Power of Ten Minutes

The longer I work with harnessing my time, the more I appreciate the power of time – power as a tool, as something you can use -- to accomplish just about anything and transform your whole life.  Today I was thinking about it in terms of blocks of ten minutes. 
            I meditate every day for ten minutes.  During those ten minutes I try to quiet my thoughts and focus on the sounds around me.  It’s not always easy to do; in fact, it’s often just about impossible.  But every day, I put in those ten minutes and eventually during that little window of time I do stop thinking, if even for a few moments.  And during those moments my entire being feels infused by something lighter, happier, sweeter, than anything I ever normally feel.  It’s like I manage to plug into some power source, and that power shines a little light and a little clarity into my psychic being.  And then, having done that, a trace of that light and clarity stays with me all day long; my whole day is changed by that little ten-minute meditation.  The change is so subtle I hardly notice it.  But when I don’t do the meditation – that’s when I really notice it:  I feel crabbier, more rushed and confused and irritable, more crowded by the world and by my own and by other people’s needs.
 I could go on and on about what I get from my little meditation, but the point I’m making here is about time – the power of time.  Time isn’t a power like the power I plug into when I do the meditation.  The power of time is the power of a practical tool that you use to get something done.  But time is an important tool, maybe the most important tool, because it makes everything else, all other tool-using, possible.  Without it I wouldn’t be doing that little meditation everyday; time gives me the socket to plug into, the means or the chance or the opening or whatever to turn on the light.  We all have time in our living tool-boxes, but mostly we ignore it or forget that we have it – most of the time we don’t know how to use it or know that we can use it.   If we can pick it up and use it consciously, it will give us the power to do anything.  I’ve learned that through my own experience. 
But I started off talking about blocks of ten minutes.  Ten minutes is a nice manageable amount of time.  Everybody has ten minutes to spare; it’s the amount of time it takes to go to the bathroom if you include staring at yourself in the mirror, the amount of time it takes to make a cup of coffee or glance at the newspaper or do some other throwaway thing.  Nothing else will be lost or harmed or missed out on if you spend ten minutes doing something; no one’s too busy to fit something in for ten minutes.  It was that idea that helped me start meditating regularly.
For a long time I wanted to meditate a little bit every day but I just could not find time to do it.  Every once in a while I’d remember that I wanted to meditate, but then in the next moment the very idea of meditating, not to mention meditating itself, would get swept away by all the everyday stuff I had to do.  Then one day it came to me – like a little gift from somewhere, perhaps the same power I plug into during the meditation -- many of my best ideas show up this way – that nothing would be lost if I spent ten minutes meditating in a certain spot in my day.   And so I did, and I’ve been doing it ever since.
Then it came to me that nothing would be lost if I spent ten minutes exercising on the Nordic Track I have upstairs in my house – exercising is another thing I have a hard time fitting into my days.  So I started doing that almost every day too.
I know ten minutes isn’t very long to exercise, the way ten minutes isn’t very long to meditate.  I know the experts and therefore the voices in my head all say you should do both longer to get the maximum benefit. But ten minutes each of meditating and exercising is better than nothing, especially because when I try to fit longer periods of both into my days, I usually end up not meditating or exercising at all.  And ten minutes every day adds up.  In ten minutes I can plug into that power source; in ten minutes I can get my heart rate going and break into a little sweat.  And I can always add another ten minutes somewhere else in my day. 
Recently it came to me that I’d like to start exercising for another ten minutes on top of the ten minutes I spend at it every morning, maybe in the afternoon in the spare moments between one coaching session and another.  (I make a living as a writing coach.)  And then I decided I’d like to start opening that little window inside me through meditation three times a day, maybe once before every meal.   I love that idea, because I love the feeling I get when I meditate, and I’d like to be getting more exercise too.  But so far I haven’t done either.  I just keep forgetting, the way I kept forgetting to meditate at all before I came up with my current routine.
Still, I’m optimistic that, having had the idea and the desire, someday soon I will put the plan into action.  Maybe I’ll get some extra power from my power source to do it.  Then again, maybe all I have to do is write those extra ten minutes down on my daily plan every day when I make it, and then when those times come, those extra ten-minute windows, I’ll remember to stop, sit down – or in the case of the Nordic Tracking, stand up, go upstairs, and get on the exercise machine – and turn my plan -- my wishes, my desires -- into action. 
All I have to do is put aside a little time, harness a little of the power that magical tool, time, and then I can do whatever I want to.
                                                         -- Mary Allen

P.S.  I welcome your comments!

Monday, December 3, 2012

On the Pleasure of Not Feeling Guilty

If you ever wondered why you feel guilty taking time off, even when you’re sick, you have no farther to look than the wrapper on your Hall’s cough drop. “A pep talk in every drop” is printed in small blue capital letters on the reverse side of each wrapper along with little “pep talks.”  Each cough drop has a different set of admonitions, the way fortune cookies have different fortunes:  “Be unstoppable,” my most recent cough drop said, as well as, “Turn ‘can do’ into ‘can did.’” And, worst of all:  “Push on!”
It’s easy to make fun of Hall’s cough drops, but of course they’re just mirroring the good old Protestant work ethic and what the whole society, from your bossy mother-in-law on down, has to say.  And I’m sure the people who came up with this promotion strategy think they’re helping people, the way your mother-in-law (not to blame mother-in-laws, but I have to pick somebody to use as an example) thinks she’s helping you when she tells you how to raise your kids, clean your house, or ask your boss for a raise. 
But still.  Do we really want or need to tell ourselves, “Push on!” when we’re coughing so much we need to open and eat a Hall’s menthol cough drop?  What we probably really need are cough drops that say, “Relax, take it easy,” or “Stop!  Go back to bed.”  Or, “You’re sick!  Don’t you dare go to work.”
A couple of weeks ago I spent the weekend hanging out with my friend’s nine-year-old son while my friend and her husband went out of town.  From three o’clock on Friday afternoon to ten o’clock on Monday morning (I was supposed to go home on Sunday evening but my friends’ flight was delayed), I did nothing but play games, read kids’ books, watch Phineas and Ferb episodes, eat, and go to bed early.  My friend’s son is normally allowed forty-five minutes of screen time a day but we asked for and received the special dispensation that he could spend as much time playing video games as he wanted that weekend if he was playing the game with me.  This was my idea.  It was also my idea to go to the video game store and buy a copy of Pacman, the original game, for two or more people, since that’s the only video game I know how to play or have ever enjoyed.  We played game after game of it, alternately shrieking with fear and joy, depending on whether our Pacman was getting away from or getting squashed by the red, pink, turquoise, and orange ghosts.  We also played Donkey Kong, Super Mario, and 2012 Olympic table tennis on Nintendo Wii.  I laughed so hard when we were playing virtual table tennis I almost peed my pants, because the ball that I was trying to virtually serve kept falling to the ground at my virtual feet while the virtual crowd in the cartoon Olympic audience stands roared. “I’m glad those people aren’t real so I don’t have to be embarrassed,” I said to my friend’s son and that made us laugh even more.
I rested and had more fun than I’ve had for years.  But at the same time I kept noticing myself feeling a kind of low-level discomfort over the fact that I wasn’t being productive.  I kept getting this queasy naughty anxious feeling and when I examined it I found it was about stuff I should have been, could have been, doing just then instead of what I was doing:  I actually found myself at one point feeling bad that I wasn’t sewing buttons on a fall jacket (which has been missing some buttons for years and for which I recently bought buttons and a little sewing kit).  I kept feeling guilty. 
So there it is.  Guilt.  In this case it was my guilt, but all of us have it to one degree or another.  It gets in the way of us resting, it ruins our fun, it makes us take on more than we can do.  It causes us to make promises we kill ourselves trying to keep.  It might be what makes us feel like we have to be busy all the time in order to justify our existences. Where does it come from?  It probably doesn’t really matter.  It comes from everywhere and nowhere.  It comes from the messages we received as kids, from TV ads and our role models and the Protestant work ethic; it can even come from the inside of our Hall’s menthol cough drop wrappers.
I’m not suggesting we should try to make ourselves stop feeling guilty.  We probably couldn’t even if we tried, so let’s not feel guilty about feeling guilty.  But we can harness our time so that we don’t have to feel guilty about squandering our time, so that rest becomes something we do instead of everything we’re not doing, so that we pay attention to what we’re actually getting done instead of thinking we’re not doing anything, not doing enough, and then feeling more and more guilty.
                                                                         -- Mary Allen