Friday, January 25, 2013
About a year and a half ago, researchers discovered that every time you make a decision, no matter how large or small it is, the decision takes energy. The very act of 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. (So, for example, judges are more likely to make the difficult decision to parole prisoners at the beginning of the day when they’re fresh and have lots of energy than at the end of the day when they’ve already made lots of other decisions.) The researchers coined a phrase to describe what you get when you’ve made a lot of decisions; it’s decision fatigue. I got really excited when I heard about that research, because it confirmed something I’ve been thinking about for a long time.
Many years ago I had a job in a toothbrush factory. I had to scoop up handfuls of toothbrush handles and align the handles so the curves all went the same way and then I had to stuff them into two different hoppers and grab little wads of bristles and stick them in a certain place in the machine and keep an eye on the toothbrushes that were shooting out the side, all at a rate of speed that I couldn’t possibly keep up with. I found it incredibly stressful and boring at the same time and after three weeks I quit; I had taken a semester off from college to live in the real world but three weeks of that kind of real world was plenty for me. But during those three weeks I drove to the factory every day in the middle of the afternoon – the job was second shift, from three-thirty to midnight -- and worked on that machine, grabbing the handles, wrestling with the bristles, et cetera, for eight whole hours -- and then I drove home and went to bed and did it all night long in my dreams. Of course, no toothbrushes appeared in the real world while I was making them in my dreams. But that doesn’t change the fact that I was doing all that work while I was asleep.
And since I’ve been harnessing time, thinking about how to get more peaceful and get everything I have to do done, how to rest and relax in this era of constant busy-ness and constant stress, I’ve been realizing that you can be doing invisible, metaphysical, incorporeal work even when you’re awake. Just like that decision fatigue research shows.
Decisions, yes. They take energy, there’s no doubt about it. While you’re struggling to make decisions, the invisible worker inside you – like the part of me that was making toothbrushes in my sleep -- is struggling to get something off the ground: a thought, a decision. It picks up one alternative and puts it down. Picks up another one and puts it down. And so forth. Over and over. And that takes energy. That’s one reason I plan my day at the start of the day: So I don’t have to keep debating about what to do, don’t have to keep deciding, lifting the little decision weights and putting them down, all day long. Right there I get some relief; the inner part of me gets to rest a little instead of working all the time.
But I like to think the ramifications of decision fatigue go way beyond decisions. If decisions take energy, surely so does worrying, where that tooth-brushing-making factory worker inside you is basically experiencing some potential disaster in the future, having all the feelings you might have when the bad thing happens, and then running around (still on the virtual reality plane -- that is to say, still in your head) trying to find ways to keep it from happening.
Regret or second-guessing -- feeling like you woulda, coulda, shoulda done something, like I saw in an ad that flashed across the TV screen once at the bank (see “Avoiding the Woulda, Coulda, Shouldas,” posted here on July 13, 2012) -- are definitely another heavy lifting job for the interior factory worker. And then there’s feeling like you should do something (instead of should have done something), don’t have enough time for something, or should quit what you’re doing right now to do something else. Plus there’s worrying that someone might get mad at you if you don’t, can’t, or forget to do something. There we’ve got worry fatigue combined with decision fatigue along with guilt and self-beating-up fatigue. And if we blame someone else because they or their needs are keeping us from doing something, we can add in the intense thankless labor of resenting along with all our other psychic exertions. No wonder we’re so exhausted all the time.
So how can we cut down on some of this work, allow our inner workers to take a little time off? Planning is one way, like I already said. It’s easier to make a decision -- a little series of decisions about what you’re going to do today -- once, when you’re fresh in the morning, than it is to have to keep trying to make decisions throughout the day. Planning the day also eliminates most of the shoulds and should haves, because you can be confident you’ll find time – make time, harness time – to do what you should, if not today then tomorrow or some other day, and you can also harness time to do what you should have done before. In addition to eliminating should and should have fatigue, this also cuts down on guilt, fear-of-screwing-up, and worry-that-someone’s-going-to-get-mad-at-you fatigue.
Avoiding making decisions altogether definitely isn’t the way to avoid decision fatigue. On the contrary, we have to make decisions once in order to avoid struggling with making them over and over. And in the same way, we should make definite decisions about when we’re not going to work. Because just thinking you should do something, even could do something, is a kind of work in itself.
So, for example, if you’re going on vacation, you’ll probably enjoy yourself more and get a lot more rest if you decide beforehand that you’re not going to go over that manuscript or … (fill in the blank with some other large task), than if you tell yourself that maybe you’ll go over the manuscript when you’re on vacation because after all you want to do it and you won’t get a chance to do it any other time. Let’s face it, you probably won’t end up doing that work while you’re on vacation anyway – you’ll be to be too tired to do it, that’s why you need a vacation. And if you decide beforehand that you’re not going to do that work on vacation no matter how much you might need to, want to, et cetera, you’ll feel free, relaxed, unburdened, during your time off. But if you think you might do that work, some part of you will keep picking it up and putting it down, holding it in your thoughts, carrying it around. The tooth-brush-making factory worker inside you will never get a break, and eventually it may collapse or run screaming out of the building and never want to go back.
-- Mary Allen
Tuesday, January 15, 2013
The other day one of my coaching clients and I were talking about the problem of minutia. He said dealing with the minutia of daily life was pulling him off course, interrupting the big stuff he wanted to do such as writing his book, and making him feel too busy all the time. He also said the minutia itself was suffering too: paying bills, emailing, keeping track of appointments, passwords, and all the other little things that have to be kept track of in today’s world. Juggling it all was confusing, irritating, and overwhelming, and he was finding himself making little mistakes, and sometimes those little mistakes were turning into bigger problems.
He’s not alone, of course. As far as I can tell, this is pretty much a universal problem these days. Unless you’re a monk living in a monastery you’re probably struggling with minutia to one degree or another, and even if you are a monk you could be struggling with it too. About once a year I go to a monastery an hour and a half away from my house; the monastery has a website and some monk has to keep it updated and answer emails generated by it, and another monk has to keep track of visitors calling day and night arranging times to stay in the guest house, and there’s the running of their enormous farm and their casket-making business and their huge old stone abbey. So not even monks get out of dealing with minutia.
Was there always this much minutia to be dealt with? Maybe so. After all, that monastery has been around since the 1800s, and we’ve all been paying bills and going places and working for livings pretty much since the beginning of civilization as we know it. But still, the minutia, the overall busy-ness, seem a lot more accelerated, almost to the point of being out of control, these days. I’m not sure why that’s the case. Maybe it’s the Internet and emailing and texting and all the other forms of instant communication available to us. Now we have to juggle all those passwords and pin numbers and read and write emails, and we can get sucked into surfing the Internet and posting and tagging and downloading on Facebook, et cetera. On the other hand, as much as our lives have been complicated by all that, they’ve also been simplified by all that: You can shop, communicate with customers and friends, search for jobs, sometimes even do your work at home just by pushing buttons. Surely the time saved and convenience offered by all that make up for the time wasted and energy used by dealing with the details that make it possible. Still, it’s those details that create the problems -- all those slippery little picayune minutia, scattered and spread all over our lives and our days.
In fact, those details are the bedrock of our lives, though we may not realize it until something goes wrong, as I learned recently when I tried to put my telephone/Internet account into my own name and my email and phone service got screwed up to the point where I could barely carry on my coaching business. We need to be able to sign into our accounts on our computers with those stupid passwords, we need to be able to call and be called on reliable telephone numbers.
So what is there to be done about the minutia? I think we have to slow down, plan our days and make space in our days for dealing with all the little things that need to be dealt with – all the little things that can so easily get out of control if we don’t deal with them. We can also develop systems that help us keep track of the minutia in simple reliable ways.
I keep my daily appointments, my addresses and telephone numbers, and a page with all my passwords in a leather four-by-six-inch six-ring planner binder made by a company called Day-Timer. (You can order the binder and all the various inserts – blank pages, appointment calendar pages, pages for addresses, etc., by calling 800-225-5005 or by looking on-line; I realize this isn’t the only system available and there are plenty of others, some electronic, that may seem more up-to-date, but this one works for me and probably will for you too if you don’t already have your own system.)
Every day, one of the very first things I do is look in my planner to see what appointments I’ve got that day, and then I plan the day accordingly, considering and writing down, on a blank page in my planning notebook, what I want to do and roughly when I want to do it; I start with my appointments and fill in the rest. And if I’ve got a lot of minutia to handle on any given day – a bunch of appointments to make or emails to send – I pick a spot to do them, all at the same time, during the day – from one to two o’clock, say. I combine my errands and appointments out of the house too, so I only have to leave the house once instead of over and over, at some time and on some day when the errands/appointments fit with everything else I’m doing. (So, for example, I decided to go to the grocery store and the bank tomorrow, after I have a doctor’s appointment.) I think about what’s going to be convenient for me before I make appointments too, if I have any leeway at all or if there’s any on the other end; usually there’s more leeway than it seems like there would be, if you stop to ask the receptionist or ask yourself (instead of, for instance, accepting the first appointment you’re offered). Doing this makes it so I don’t end up having too many appointments in any given week to get anything else done. And before I sign up for anything like a class, or agree to a trip or a lengthy visit from friends or relatives, I take some time to think about how whatever it is is going to fit with everything else I’ve got going on, and I consider all the alternatives. (So, for example, when I signed up recently for a yoga class, I thought long and hard about whether I really wanted to take it – I decided I did – and debated which class time would work the best for me. I made myself consider how I would feel at nine in the morning versus six o’clock at night, and when I did that I knew that even though I’d be fresher in the mornings, I would hate having to worry about being up and dressed on time every Thursday morning. Now that the yoga class is going, I know I made the right decision.)
Doing all that is the easy part, especially now that I’ve got a system where everything – all my appointments and telephone numbers and other minutia -- are together in one place, close at hand at all times – i.e., in that daily planner.
Slowing down is the hard part. Slowing down is a beautiful, noble goal – in fact it’s the most important goal I’ve got as we move into this new year – and I’ve got a lot to say about how I’m working on it, but I’m going to save that for another blog post. What I want say here is that, no matter how well we plan or how good our planning system is, there’s a pretty good chance that something somewhere is going to fall through the cracks. And when that happens, what we’ve got left to work with is our attitude.
We can kick ourselves for screwing up or get enraged at the company, the password, the whatever. We can tell ourselves that we’re too old or scattered or forgetful, or we can blame our husbands for messing up the papers on the table or our kids for not giving us the phone message or the dog for chewing up the appointment book. In the long run and even in the short fun, none of those things probably help very much, and some of them may actually harm us. Maybe rage at the company is a reasonable response, maybe it really is someone’s fault, maybe we can’t help blaming ourselves. I’m not saying we should start trying to control our reactions. But I have learned that if I can tell myself it’s not my fault, if I can let life off the hook instead of blaming someone or something, if I can just keep calmly looking for solutions, it all goes just a little bit easier.
-- Mary Allen
Monday, January 7, 2013
The other day I had a whole day off. There was nothing I had to do: I didn’t have to work or socialize or do errands or even talk on the phone. I was going out at six-thirty to a New Year’s Eve event, but that was so late in the day it didn’t count. (In fact it gave me something to look forward to at the end of the day without interrupting the day.)
I’d made a point of keeping the whole day clear because I knew I needed it, for two reasons: One, there were some things I wanted to do in my house and I also wanted to spend more time than usual with my writing. And two, I needed a stretch of time – I could feel this somewhere deep inside my body – where I didn’t have to do anything, time where some part of me that feels crunched and rushed and obligated could stretch out and lollygag and expand.
So I took the day off, and I had high hopes for it. Mostly my hopes were attached to having that open, spacious, there’s-more-than-enough-time-for-everything feeling. (This is what harnessing time is all about for me. It’s about feeling at least as much as doing: I want to feel calm, spacious, peaceful, and present in the moment, and I don’t want to feel anxious, rushed, overwhelmed, and crowded with stuff I have to do and thoughts about stuff I have to do -- no matter how much I do or don’t have to do. And I also want to harness my time to do whatever I need to do. I find that it’s an endlessly fascinating pursuit, because there’s always something that can get in the way of that peaceful spacious feeling, and therefore there are always things to learn.)
When I sat down to plan my day, on this day I had off, I felt my mood starting to slip a little. I started debating: How much time should I put into the writing? How much time should I spend puttering in my house? Would I have enough time to do both as well as time to lollygag around. I also remembered a few little things that I did need to do, on top of focusing on my writing and working in my house – I’ve been wanting to research a natural health issue on the internet for somebody I love, there’s something I need to read for a new coaching client, et cetera. Right away I started losing that feeling of spaciousness that I wanted and that I had imagined having on this day off.
I planned my day the way I always do, and that helped quite a lot. I decided to clean up the house, do yoga, put together a standing desk I’d bought from Office Depot, and do some other puttering as well upstairs in my study (I thought that putting the desk together would be a form of puttering), from ten to one. Then I would eat lunch and write (and maybe research that stuff on the internet) from one to four. I gave myself extra time for everything (so, for instance, instead of giving myself an hour to putter I gave myself two and a half hours), which I thought would increase my sense of spaciousness. And it did increase my sense of spaciousness when I was making the plan.
I ran into trouble when I started trying to put together the desk that I had bought from Office Depot. What I had imagined as a fun, satisfying home project if only I had enough time for it, turned out to be a frustrating, irritating, and futile time-eating pit. (Of course – I should have known that would happen.) I managed to screw on one caster but could have spent infinity turning the screw to attach the second caster without the screw tightening. I decided to bring the desk (it’s actually called a laptop stand – I want to do some of my work standing up because new research shows that the less you sit for long stretches of time the healthier you’re likely to be) back to the store and have them put it together there for a small fee, which I knew they did with furniture. But when I called to ask them what they would charge and how late they were open, the guy said that they only put together chairs at the store and that to put together a desk – even a cheap flimsy little laptop stand like what I had bought – I would have to bring the receipt to the store, arrange to have someone come to my house, and pay to have them assemble the thing at my house. They couldn’t tell me how much it was going to cost until I brought my receipt to the store, but I could tell it wasn’t going to be cheap. By then I felt really annoyed, and I said, “So it’s going to cost more than I paid for the &*(^%ing desk to get it put together,” and the guy at the store told me in a bawling-out tone of voice that there was no need to use bad language. I hung up in a thoroughly foul mood. Then I spent at least an hour looking at standing desks on Amazon – I wanted one that didn’t have to be assembled, and I certainly wasn’t going to give any more money to Office Depot. I finally ordered something, then went back on-line to try to figure out if what I had just ordered was going to be the right height, and then, as if that wasn’t bad enough, I went back on-line again, searched for and eventually ordered a floor mat that makes it easier on your feet and back to work standing up. So much for feeling like there’s enough time for everything, for expanding into emptiness, silence, and spaciousness.
Finally I sat down at my desk and wrote. It felt good to be doing that, and afterwards I made my potluck salad and went to my New Year’s Eve event. I didn’t have very high hopes for it – I went to the same thing last year and it wasn’t much fun. But this year it was fun, even though two people I’d been looking forward to seeing there had called during the day to say they weren’t going to go. I had no expectations at all and perhaps for that reason I was pleasantly surprised. I even ended up having a nice long talk with someone I probably wouldn’t have spoken to much if my two friends had been there.
So what is there to learn from all of this about harnessing time? I suppose it’s that life happens, things get in the way of our best-laid plans, and maybe sometimes that’s not such a bad thing. And even if it is a bad thing, there’s always tomorrow. If we ended up feeling irritated instead of spacious, we can always take another whack at spaciousness -- tomorrow, or next week, or even right now. And there’s always today, as imperfect as it may be. There’s always this moment, and the moment after this one, and all the moments after that. Here at the beginning of this new year, we are rich in moments – to use or not use, to revel in or rush through, to notice or not see at all. It’s up to us to decide how we want to use our time and spend our lives, and if we screw something up, if life comes along and screws it up for us, we can always go back to the standing desk and give it another try.
-- Mary Allen