Monday, December 9, 2013

Making Space for (Fill in the Blank) in a Crowded Life

Today is my day off -- one of my two days off a week. 
            I make a living as a writing coach.  I coach in hour-and-a-half-long appointments and for the first few years of coaching I did two of those a day, five days a week, and fit writing in around the edges.  I kept sort of hoping that something would come along so I could work less and have more time to write – i.e., that I’d sell a book or find some other magical way of making money and not have to work as much.  Then about four months ago it came to me that I didn’t have to wait for a version of retirement to do what I wanted (i.e., have more time to write):  I could just look at my life as it is now and try to figure out a way to make time, harness time, change some things around, so I could fit in writing now instead of thinking I’d do it some time in the distant future. So that’s what I did.  I looked at my schedule and decided I could consolidate my coaching appointments into three days a week, and I now I have two days off in the middle of my week to focus on writing.
(I sort of hate the idea of out-and-out giving advice; I prefer to share my own experience about what did and didn’t work for me.  But it’s come to my attention that most bloggers do seem to cut to the chase/advice and I’ve heard that people like to read lists, or at least that the people who let you post your blog on their websites like lists, so here’s the beginning of mine):

Harnessing time bullet point number one:  If you think you have to wait till retirement or conditions improve to start doing something you want to do, think again.  Sit down, take a detailed look at how you’re spending your time now, and play with ways to change stuff around.  Do this until you find a painless way to fit in at least some of that thing, now.  Consider:  What’s expendable or flexible in what you’re doing now?  At first you might think the answer to that is nothing, there’s no leeway at all in your current life/schedule, but ignore that thought/feeling.)
Now that I have two days off to write in the middle of the week, I’m getting a lot more writing done, I’m a lot happier, and I’m even enjoying my coaching more because on the days when I’m doing it I feel less pressure to focus on writing too.  Now the main problem I have is the special problem of the day off, something I’ve wrestled with before.  (See The Special Challenge of the Day Off and Another Special Challenge of the Day Off.)
There are two main challenges on the days I’ve set aside for writing:
 1.  Using them for writing instead of filling them up with other stuff I can’t get to on the days when I’m coaching, then squeezing in a little writing around the edges, and
2.  Feeling like I should be writing more than I am (because after all I took the day off for it) and then feeling crabby, rushed, pressured, etc., because of that original should feeling.

Bullet point number two:  After you’ve figure out a way to make time (harness time) to do what you want to do, don’t give that time away if you can possibly help it.  Remember, there’s always time for everything, so there will be time to do what’s threatening to get in the way of your ________ (fill in the blank, for me it’s writing), some other time.  All you have to do is look at your calendar and find another time to ________ (fill in the blank, e.g., catch up with emailing, return some phone calls, take out the garbage and wash the kitchen floor because company is coming, make an appointment with the dog groomer and/or take the dog to the groomer because company is coming), and perhaps write those things down on your daily planner and communicate them to someone else. 

Bullet point number three:  Try to feel good about doing any amount of __________ that you do during the time you’ve set aside for it. Feel good about the very fact that you’ve found space in your life for (harnessed time you can use for)_______, and if for whatever reason you just couldn't use that time today, you can always use it another day.  Try to let go of all guilt, including guilt about not doing enough or any __________, guilt about not doing whatever you could or should be doing instead of ___________, and guilt about feeling guilty. 
                                                            -- Mary Allen

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Harnessing Time with a Puppy

Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time with a blind guy.  He’s been blind since he was five so he’s really good at navigating the world; he can do almost everything a sighted person can, he just has different ways of doing it. 
One thing I’ve noticed about him is how organized he is.  He keeps every single thing in his apartment in its own designated spot:  scissors go in a particular drawer next to the sink, baggies and pens and pencils are kept in another drawer, plastic shopping bags (those ubiquitous bags from Target and Best Buy and every other store in the world) go in a paper bag under the sink, and so forth.  He knows exactly where everything is so he doesn’t have to search around for whatever he needs at any given moment.  Searching is a lot more time-consuming and hit-or-miss for him than it is for most of us because he has to do it with his hands.  But ever since I’ve been hanging around with him I’ve been thinking it would be nice to have all one’s belongings so well organized even if you weren’t blind.  Nice, pleasing, satisfying, restful, because it would eliminate the guesswork, the stress and anxiety and confusion, of not knowing where things are.
            And in the same way, I’ve been thinking, it can only make things better in our lives to eliminate the guesswork about what’s happening with our time.  To know how much time we’ve got on any given day or part of the day and how we’re going to be spending it, to know whether we’re going to have enough time to do all the things we need to or want to do – or not.
            Everybody I know seems to be going through something hectic right now.  It’s like there are hectic vibes in the air.  One of my friends is in the middle of moving to a new house while transferring ownership of her old house.  Another friend is preparing to give a ninety-minute talk she’s never given before on top of all her regular work and busy-life stuff.   I myself got a puppy.   She’s adorable and I adore her but she, like every other puppy in the world, is a little peeing, pooping, biting, playing, pandemonium-creating machine.   I’m sharing her with my friend John, the blind guy, and that takes off some of the pressure – just when I get really overwhelmed she goes to his house -- but there’s a certain amount of hectocity (if that isn’t a word it should be) that goes with transporting her back and forth between us – we have to collect all her toys every time, remember to bring her vitamin paste so she won’t get hypoglycemia, figure out how to get her kennel in the back seat without breaking the car window, etc.
            There too, John’s blindness-necessitated penchant for organization helps; we keep all of her toys, food, and accoutrements in one box that we pass back and forth, for example.  On any given day we know who’s going to have her and when they’re going to hand her over, when she’s going to exercise or has exercised, what we need to get (such as a small pet carrier so we don’t have to transport her in her kennel) to make things easier.  Over and over, I’m struck by how helpful it is to plan, to decide, to know, instead of to leave things to guesswork and hope for the best (or, more likely, fear the worst). 
             And that’s also how and why I harness time.  
            There’s one little thing I do every day to harness my time.  I’ve been doing it for so long now it’s become part of my routine, something I look forward to and miss if I don’t do it.  I might not miss it in the moment when I’m not doing it, but I really, really miss it later when my day is being negatively affected. 
It’s very simple.  Here’s what it is:
Every day, not long after I get up, I sit down and open the little binder- notebook (purchased from Day-Timer) that I keep track of my days in.  My appointment calendar’s in my notebook, and so are some blank sheets of paper (as well as sections for my addresses, my log-in IDs and pin numbers, and a list of books I want to read, but they’re not relevant here).  I look at what appointments I’ve got that day, write them down on today’s blank sheet, then figure out how I’m going to use the time before, after, and between the appointments. 
I don’t just make a list of what I have to do.  I consider how long everything’s probably going to take and I figure out roughly when I’m going to do what (knowing that I have to do this in the spirit of flexibility and positivity instead of rigidity and beating myself up).   That way, at any given time of the day, I know what I’m going to be doing and I know whether I have time to do what I need to do.  I also know that I can and will make space to rest, read, hang out and surf the Internet, or play with my puppy; I write these things down on my plan along with everything else, so when I’m doing them I don’t have to feel guilty, like I’m taking time away from something else. 
Nowadays I feel mindful, present, and purposeful -- instead of rushed, irritable, pressured, and hectic -- pretty much all the time, as long as I’ve done my harnessing time thing that morning.  And if I ever do start to feel hectic I look at my plan and adjust it – maybe I planned too much for the time I had and I can decide to postpone something, or maybe I just need to find out how much time I do have before I should go on to the next thing.
I told my friend who has to prepare for a ninety-minute talk to look at the next two weeks (the talk is two weeks from now) and find some windows of time when she can work on preparing, to write those times down on her calendar, and if she can’t stick to them to find other times.  I told my friend who has to move more or less the same thing.  (I also told her she probably has to put pretty much everything else on hold until she gets to the new house.)  Both of my friends agree that planning is helping them eliminate stress, that consciously harnessing time feels a lot different than leaving everything up to guesswork and feeling terrorized by the enormous loads on their plates.  (Yuck, I hate that expression, as if tasks are food items you’re forced to eat).
There’s one more step in my harnessing time morning routine, and that’s sharing my plan with a friend. Here’s what I’ve said about that already.   Harnessing Time with a Little Help from My Friend.
                                                -- Mary Allen

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Is Life Really Speeding Up?

            This morning when I was lying back in the dentist chair having my teeth cleaned, my dental hygienist said, “Life is speeding up.  Things are going faster than they used to.”  And yesterday one of my coaching clients remarked, “Nowadays everything is ramped up.”  That same client, who does a lot of international traveling, told me recently that not long ago, the guy in front of her in the check-in line in the Amsterdam airport completely lost it because of some minor traveling delay, and the clerk told my client that that’s been happening more and more lately; people really losing it when they get delayed is a notable trend.  (See How I Stopped Hurrying into the Future.)  People are more impatient than they used to be, we’ve all got too much on our plates, and everyone is in a hurry.   
            It’s kind of fun to speculate about whether time really is going faster in some physical or metaphysical way.  I’ve found stuff on the Internet that says it is – it’s got something to do with the Schumann resonances and the earth’s electrical field.  These theories hold a kind of intuitive appeal for me – it really does feel like some basic something having to do with how much time we’ve got to work with has changed, and it’s not just a matter of being older making us perceive it that way (as some other websites say). On the other hand, some of the websites that claim time is physically speeding up also say this was predicted in the Bible and have a slight aura of crackpot-dom.  
            The important question isn’t why things are going faster – why we’re going faster -- anyway, but what we can do about it.   We need to slow down, enjoy life more, take more time out for ourselves, as my dental hygienist also said this morning.   She said the people in her mother’s Florida retirement home do that – they read, sit around and talk, relax. 
I grunted and blinked my assent.   But if I hadn’t been lying there with a pick and a little mirror on a handle in my mouth, I might have said this:  That sounds great, but how do we do it if we’re not retired?   And what if you’re retired and you’re still too busy to take it easy, like some people I know?
            And then I might have said:  The one-word conclusion I’ve come to, the surprising short answer, is this:  boundaries.
            When my dentist came in to check my teeth after the dental hygienist was finished, he told me he needs to start writing and publishing some articles so he can get tenure but he’s not doing that because he just can’t find the time.  His wife works on the weekend and he takes care of their two kids then, and the rest of the time he’s at work himself, seeing patients and doing other stuff. 
I love my dentist; his practice is part of the research division of our university’s dental college, and I really, really want him to get tenure so he can keep his job and I can keep having him for my dentist.  So I asked him if he wanted me to help him figure out when he could find time to work on those articles.  He said, “Sure,” and then he told me that he does have some time during the week at work, about a day and a half, for study and research, but he’s been using it to complete crucial administrative tasks, plus there are too many interruptions for it to work as writing time.   He and I and Pat, the dental hygienist, talked a bit about how easy it is to get overwhelmed by all the little things while the big, important things go by the wayside -- Pat used the phrase “the tyranny of the insignificant” – and then I brought up the boundaries thing.
I said that what I would do if I was him is:  Every week, pick two or possibly three hours during the full day he has for research and study – say, from two to four or ten to one – and – here’s where the boundaries come in – close his office door and put a friendly note on it asking people to come back after the designated time, and/or do whatever else there is to do – maybe notify the receptionist to hold his calls, or send out a group email telling everybody who might be an interrupter that he won’t be available then -- to keep those two or three hours open for research and writing.
I’ve found that the trick to creating boundaries is to do it in a friendly, non-aggressive, and even apologetic way so people won’t get offended.  In my experience, the biggest reason we don’t set boundaries is that we’re worried about hurting people’s feelings, and the way around that is to establish boundaries – i.e., say no to some things, or yes to them only at certain times or under certain conditions -- as nicely and neutrally as possible.  Another reason we don’t create boundaries is that we don’t quite feel like our own needs ought to take precedence over others’; sometimes that feeling makes us defensive – i.e., sound angry and abrupt when we say what we need – which tends to offend people and reinforces our feeling that we’re harming others with our boundaries. 
But most often, feeling like we don’t quite have the right makes us suppress our needs and not establish boundaries at all.  Then things get out of control, we feel rushed, crowded for time, and anxious about the stuff we’re not getting done, and life feels messy and chaotic.  It feels like there’s not enough time for anything, let alone everything, and we go faster to try to get everything done.  And that’s how life speeds up.
Another way that I’ve learned to slow down and stop rushing – to harness time and use it instead of letting it blow me around -- involves putting boundaries around little chunks of time:  Making choices about what I want to do when instead of letting life, what I think other people need from me, my own obsessive urge to do the dishes or surf the Internet, my own procrastination or desire to sit around, make those choices for me.  Putting those little boundaries around chunks of time – like my dentist deciding to write from two to four on Thursday -- is at the heart of what I’ve learned about how to harness time, and it’s another way that slowing down can be achieved through boundaries. 
If you put aside time for something you want or need to do, you have a lot better chance of doing that thing.  Even retirees in Florida might benefit from deciding, say, to start writing the novel they’ve always wanted to write, from three to five every afternoon.

                                    -- Mary Allen


Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Cultivating the Monastery Feeling

            A couple of weeks ago I went to New Melleray Abbey for a few days for a short unofficial retreat.  I went to New Melleray last summer also, and wrote about what I learned there about harnessing time when I got home that time too.  (See The Power of Real Rest)
New Melleray’s a real working Trappist abbey, with monks who wear robes and celebrate Matins, Lauds, Vespers, Compline and so forth, every day. I’m not Catholic and never have been (when I was a kid I went to the Westhampton Congregational church but I haven’t gone regularly to church since I was given the choice, which I think was when I was in the seventh grade).  But I’ve been going to New Melleray, which is eighty miles from my house, for short retreats in their guesthouse about once a year since the early 1990s. 
            I love going there for the silence and the rest, for the peace and the prayer that seems to linger in the air – monks have been praying there pretty much around the clock since the 1850s -- but most of all I love going there for the time.   When you’re at the monastery, even if you’re only there for three days and nights, it feels like you’re there, like you’re going to be there -- every time you look inside yourself to see if you have the feeling you do – forever, for all the time in the world.  Time stretches out before you like a vast snowy field, because you have nothing to, nothing you have to do, but read, think, sit in the chair and stare out the window, lie on your back on the single bed and stare at the ceiling.   Or maybe it’s something in you that stretches out and expands, some part that starts off the stay like a flattened dehydrated sponge, from which every drop of whatever has been squeezed by all the busy-ness, the things you have to do and the feeling of having to do them, the appointments and errands, the emailing and talking, of daily life in the regular world, and then over a few days and nights in the monastery, the water of whatever is slowly restored to yourself and that part of you is like a puffed-up sponge, hydrated, refreshed, restored, feeling fresh and rested and new.
            What I noticed most this last time I went to the monastery was the grief I felt when it was time to leave.  I started getting the feeling on Wednesday afternoon (we were leaving the monastery on Thursday morning).  Suddenly I didn’t feel like I had all the time in the world any more.  Now my time to have all the time in the world was limited to part of one afternoon and one night, and I’d be sleeping for most of the night.   I felt like I used to feel on Sunday nights when I was a kid and I had to go back to school on Monday morning.  I still remember watching The Wonderful World of Walt Disney and having it spoiled by that feeling, some kind of deep nostalgia for the weekend, a weird loneliness for the freedom to be myself, away from the requirements and the meanness of school.  I felt echoes of that same feeling at the end of my little stay at the monastery, except that I wasn’t going back to school the next day but to my life.  
What’s up with that, I kept wondering.  Does my life really feel to me like being in grade school?  And how can I harness time to get more of the monastery feeling into my life?  The latter was the question I had the last time I left the monastery too (see The Power of Real Rest).  And as I was packing up my stuff to leave this time, and then as I was driving back home with my friend Nancy, who went with me to the monastery, and ever since, I’ve felt a renewed determination to get more of that peaceful open feeling – that sense of spaciousness around time, that feeling that you have all the time in the world – into my regular life.
            Last time I concluded that the way to get more of the monastery feeling into my regular life was to create windows of time in some of my days (a couple of hours here and there) for resting and doing nothing else, and I have been doing that and loving it when I do.  But obviously I need to find more and better ways to hold onto the monastery feeling, since I felt such dread going back to my life when I left the monastery this time.    
My friend Nancy and I talked about it on the drive back to Iowa City:  how each of us could hold onto some of what we got during the retreat now that we were done retreating.  I said that I was going to try to make some monastery days, where I spent whole days reading, writing, and resting, and not doing errands, talking on the phone, emailing, texting, or otherwise instant communicating, et cetera, about once a week (my work life is flexible; I can do as many or as few writing coaching dates as I have the energy for or can afford to cut back to, as I want).  Nancy, who has a huge, crazy-busy, full-time job, said she might be able to fit in a monastery day once a month.  And then we decided that in addition to taking monastery days, there are monastery attitudes that we can try to adopt, especially the feeling that it’s okay to take a whole day off, that we have a right to take time for ourselves, that nothing bad will happen if, say, we don’t respond to someone’s email or everyone’s emails for a day or two.
            So last week I tried having my first monastery day at home.  There was lots of stuff that I could have done, especially writing-career-related stuff, which is different from actually writing (writing is just writing, which I love; writing-career-related writing involves writing stuff like publicity material for an upcoming speaking engagement), and I have to confess that I did do a little of that, and I emailed and talked on the phone some too.   Nevertheless, I managed to have a very peaceful day, a day where I had, pretty much solidly all day long, what I call the monastery feeling.
When I looked inside myself to see what the biggest factor was, what was really creating the monastery feeling, I realized it was all about feeling like I had the freedom to do what I wanted to and to not do what I didn’t want to.  I realized that what makes me so happy when I’m at the monastery is feeling like I own my time, my own self, my own everything, and there’s nobody and nothing around who can take that away (or that I feel compelled to give it away to).  That the discomfort I have in my own busy life is akin to the old, sad, weird loneliness for the freedom to be myself that I used to have on Sunday night when I had to go back to school on Sunday morning.  That the problem lies not in how busy I am or in what I’m doing but in the feeling that there are things – more things than I can keep up with – that I have to do.  That getting the monastery feeling is at least partly about somehow coming to feel like my needs are at least as important as everyone else’s, like I can and will be in charge of my own decisions and choices – like I have the freedom to be myself no matter what I’m doing, and I don’t really have to do anything.  
If that’s true, then I can cultivate the monastery feeling no matter where I am or what I’ve got on my list.  And maybe, if I really work at it, I might even be able to have the monastery feeling all the time, or at least a lot more often than I do now.  And that, as my Czech ex-boyfriend used to say, is a really good news.

                                                    -- Mary Allen