Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Relaxing, Renewing, and Refreshing the Mind

Now we have another good reason to take breaks, to make time to rest and relax.  A number of recent studies show that people who sleep seven plus hours a night, take daytime naps, and go on regular vacations perform significantly better than people who don’t.   It makes sense and shouldn’t surprise us:  Who does well at anything when they’re burned out and exhausted?  Still, as Tony Schwartz points out in a recent New York Times article, “Relax!  You’ll Be Productive”, “When we’re under pressure, most of us experience the impulse to push harder rather than rest.”  Nevertheless, what Schwartz calls “strategic renewal” turns out to be crucial.   It reminds me of how someone I know once spent an entire Saturday sitting on her couch watching TV – she couldn’t make herself do anything else, not even change out of her pajamas – then the next day she had the most productive day of her life. (See Grappling with Procrastination, Or Letting the Monkey Off Its Chain.)
            Like I said, none of that is particularly surprising, though it might be hard to put into action.  What’s more interesting in the article is news of another discovery:  the brain follows a pattern of roughly 90-minute cycles, both when you’re asleep and when you’re awake.  When you’re asleep you move from light to deep sleep and back out again every 90 minutes, and when you’re awake you move from “a state of alertness progressively into physiological fatigue approximately every 90 minutes.”  So your body wants you to take a break every hour and a half, and, according to one study, “the best performers typically practice in uninterrupted sessions that last no more than 90 minutes.”
            Without knowing any of that, I decided, when I started working as a writing coach, to meet with my clients for telephone sessions lasting an hour and a half.   And I’ve found that that little formula works great:  It’s hard to get much done in only an hour, but any longer than an hour and a half and the client and I both start feeling our powers of concentration waning. Tony Schwartz, author of the New York Times article I refer to above, says he wrote two books, each one in less than six months, by writing in three uninterrupted 90-minute writing sessions a day.  He also says he learned that “it’s not how long but how well, you renew that matters most.  Even renewal requires practice.” 
            This is the part of the article that most intrigues me.  It would be great if we could all work in 90-minute sessions and take breaks in between, and I, for one, intend to put this advice into practice even more than I already am, whenever I can.  (So, for example, I think I’ll start writing in hour-and-a-half chunks of time instead of two hour ones.)  But what if you can’t take breaks every hour and a half, or your life is so hectic you can’t even remember you’re supposed to take breaks every hour and a half?
            Maybe we need to start simple and just focus on the idea of strategic renewal.  I think that for many of us, the real stumbling block is feeling like it’s okay to stop working for a while.  Work – not just job work but life work too, the work of running errands, paying bills, catching up on whatever there is to do – is like water:  Wherever there’s an opening, there’s more that can rush in and fill in the gap.  I’ve noticed that on my days off from coaching, I find myself thinking that I should be writing, and if I take a day off from both coaching and writing, I think about all the other stuff I could/should do:  catching up with laundry, cleaning the house, doing my filing, and so forth.  And there’s probably even another wave of could/should do’s in my life beyond that (painting the kitchen, building a website, etc).   So to really take a break – i.e., practice strategic renewal – I have to consciously build a dam to hold back all that work:  I have to pick a time when I’m going to rest and make myself stick to it.   I have to build boundaries around that time by not scheduling appointments during it no matter how urgently I might feel they’re needed (after all, I can put those appointments in some other time slot, it’s not like I’m completely ignoring them); by not caving in and doing something other people want or need me to do; by not allowing my anxiety about everything that’s on my plate (yuck, I hate that expression) to keep me from taking that break.  Of course, there are times when real emergencies or even just important contingencies crop up and it only makes sense to turn my attention to them instead of, say, lying on my daybed reading a novel.  But most of the time that’s not really what’s going on; most of the time I’m just caving in for whatever reason -- changing my mind about, giving up on, or even forgetting about my strategic renewal time before it happens. 
It helps to know that we’re actually doing something good instead of something bad by doing nothing for a while, as we now know from Tony Schwartz’s article – we’re helping ourselves and even others, increasing our productivity, boosting our health, improving our job performances.   Still, it may not be that easy to remember that when the time comes to lie down on the daybed and ignore everything else that’s calling out for your attention.  (If it’s a child that wants your attention maybe you can take a break by watching a movie, playing a game, or doing some other restful mindless thing with them.)  
I have found that practice makes perfect; the more I set aside times for breaks the more able I am to stick to them.   And I’ve found that the more I think, talk, and write about how breaks are important and necessary, for me and everyone else, the more I actually begin to believe it.
So what about resting effectively, renewing well, as Tony Schwartz says he has learned over time to do?  One of his ways of “rapidly and deeply” quieting his mind and relaxing his body is going running.  Running doesn’t sound restful to me, but I’m willing to entertain the possibility that it could be for someone else.  A long time ago I learned that I have the ability to take power naps pretty much at will, where I lie down and sleep for exactly one-half hour and wake up feeling completely refreshed, like I’ve erased my mental blackboard and now there’s room to write on it again.  Lying around reading novels is another way I love to rest, so an ideal break for me involves a power nap followed by some reading.   (It has to be novel-reading, the more compulsively readable the novel the better; non-fiction feels like work.) 
Whatever we do to renew, the most important thing, it seems to me, is to not think obsessively or even at all about what else we should be doing, all the things we have to do, while we’re resting.  It’s our minds more than our bodies that really need to rest.  So we should try to avoid guilt, worry, anxiety, we should cut down on decision fatigue and all the other mental fatigues, by erasing our mental blackboards for a while, maybe by meditating, or reading a novel or watching some dumb movie, by going running, or by going to sleep. 
                                                            -- Mary Allen

Friday, February 15, 2013

On Slowing Down through Simplifying

I’ve noticed that I – and some of my friends and clients – have an interesting tendency to get stuck in certain decisions we made earlier, as if our own decisions were set in stone and non-negotiable. Whenever the issue arises we keep coming back to our initial decision and thinking, Well, I have to do that because … I said I would, or because I know I need to, or because such and such will happen if I don’t.  I’ve come to see that often when I feel stressed about how much I’ve got “on my plate,” there’s something on my list I think I have to do just because I decided at some point earlier that I should.  So when I start to feel overwhelmed, it helps me to look at my plan for the day and consider:  Do I really have to do this, and if so do I really have to do it today?  What would happen if I postponed it or didn’t do it at all?  Would anything real, bad happen if I didn’t do it, or am I just telling myself that I have to … have a yard sale, make a website, create a vegetable garden, et cetera, just because I decided at some point that it would be a good idea. 
Of course, there’s something to be said for the value of sticking to plans we’ve made, even when we don’t necessarily feel like it.  I’ve been making myself sit down and write for years, often when I didn’t really feel like it, and have always been glad that I did. But when things we started off wanting to do morph into things we have to do but don’t have time for, it’s a good idea to get quiet for a few minutes and reassess.   
Even though I’ve experienced the truth of this over and over, I still find myself forgetting it.  The other day, in the middle of the afternoon, I found myself looking at what I’d planned and feeling confused.  I definitely needed to do everything on my list – write for an hour, and go to the bank and pay a bill, and do about half an hour’s worth of editing for a client.  I’d also made plans to go to my friend’s house at seven and to bring something simple there for us to have for dinner.  I really wanted to go to my friend’s house and I really needed to do all the other stuff, yet no matter how I moved things around to try to fit it all in I just could not figure out how.  And I was tired.  I didn’t want to be tired, I didn’t feel like I should be tired, but I was. 
And then I remembered, once again, that I could use the magical tool of flexibility; I could sit down and really think about what I wanted to do and the bottom line of what I had to do on that day.  When I thought about it, I saw that nothing bad would happen if I postponed the editing and going to the bank for one day although not indefinitely, and that as long as I wrote most days it was okay if I didn’t write today – that it was perfectly fine to not do those things today and it was only some inflexible part of me – some should-saying inner voice I unconsciously use to motivate myself -- that said I had to do them.  I realized that I had been listening to that voice once again and believing what it said.
Just for today, I decided, I’m going to cross everything off my list that I feel like I have to do and do only what I want to do.  I crossed off the writing, the editing, and the going to the bank.   Instead I wrote down “rest,” “go to the Coop and buy something for dinner,” and “go to Bruce’s at seven.”  And then I lay down on the daybed in my study and read my book and rested.  As I was lying there doing that, I had an uncommonly good feeling, a feeling like what you think you’ll get, maybe even do get temporarily, from falling in love or getting a new job or buying a bigger house or going on antidepressants.  It was such a good feeling I made a note of it for future reference. 
Although it’s not usually that dramatic, I have noticed over and over that if I can cut anything out of my plan once I’ve made it, it’s like getting a little money back from the bank.  I love it when I can think of some way to get out of one or more items on my list by simplifying or consolidating or doing something else instead.   I find that if I just pause and take a few minutes to consider alternatives when there’s something I have to do but can’t find time for, I often come up with some perfect solution that’s easier and just as good or even better.  
For example, once, when a friend was visiting from out of town, we decided to hold a little party at my house.  My friend knew a lot of people in Iowa City because she had lived here for a while, and we decided to gather them all together so she wouldn’t feel like she needed to cram in separate dates with everyone during her relatively short visit.   So the party itself was a time-saving measure.  But as her visit got closer I started to feel anxious about the time it would take to get ready for the party:  There were a number of things that would have to get done – cleaning the house, buying food and possibly paper plates and cups to eat and drink it, taking my old blind dog to the groomer to make him presentable, and on and on.  I kept worrying about how to fit all of that into my busy schedule.  But we really did need to have a party, the party was my idea and I had already invited some people and …   And then, once again, I remembered what to do:  I stopped and asked myself whether there were any easy alternatives to what I had already planned.  It came to me that we could have the party at a public gathering place, and then the perfect place to have it came to me.  I called my friend and proposed the idea to her and she said, “Great!”  I called the people I had already invited and told them what we were doing and they all said “perfect!”  And I was able to relax instead of rushing around in the week before and during my friend’s visit; we had a nice little party in Panera, and the whole thing turned out great.
All of which leads me to insight number two about slowing down:  (For insight number one see On the Beauty and Grace of Slowing Down.)  Sometimes slowing down is a matter of simplifying our lives, not necessarily in any permanent way but just for today.  (If we had to do it for all time we’d probably get bogged down in figuring out how to do that.)  And simplifying may mean stopping, considering everything we’ve got on our plate for today (I hate that expression, as if tasks were food you didn’t want to eat), then deciding:  Do we really have to do/consume/expend energy on all these tasks today?  Or can we postpone some or not do them at all?  
                                                                    -- Mary Allen

Monday, February 4, 2013

On the Beauty and Grace of Slowing Down

About a month ago, around the time of the new year, I decided I wanted to work on slowing down. For me, hurrying is mostly a state of mind.  When I’m hurrying, I keep thinking about the next thing I have to do instead of what I’m doing now.  I keep worrying that I’ll be late, that I won’t have time to do what I need to do, that I should be doing something else.  I feel like I have to do everything all at once instead of one thing at a time.  Those thoughts make me tense; they lead to an anxious, slightly irritable, unpleasant body feeling.  I hate that feeling and I want to slow down and stop feeling it as much as I can.
I have to say I’ve already made a lot of progress with slowing down by using my own harnessing time tools.  Still, sometimes lately I’ve noticed myself feeling rushed no matter what was going on, as if the feeling had a life of its own, or had become a habit I was unconsciously holding onto in my body.  So I decided to see if I could come up with some reliable ways to slow down.
            Just those words -- slow down -- give me a taste of what I want.  When I slow down I feel notably more peaceful, restful, expansive. It’s like something in me -- some tense tightly held thing, like a big energetic clenched fist -- relaxes, releases, opens up.  It takes energy to clench a fist, and it takes energy – a lot of energy – to be constantly straining, rushing, worrying, hurrying.  Slowing down is a way to conserve energy, to rest your mind and your body – your inner energetic self -- while you’re awake no matter what you’re doing.
            One way to slow down is to plan to do less on any given day.  We can make fewer appointments, take whole days off where we don’t do anything but rest or schedule time for resting among our other regular stuff.  We can simplify our lives.  Those are all beautiful and even necessary ways to slow down.  But I wanted to find a way to slow down that wouldn’t depend on changing something on the outside; I wanted to see if I could slow down all the time.   I wanted to see if I could slow down in my head.
            Since I started working on this, I’ve noticed that one thing that helps me slow down is to be consciously aware of how much time I’ve actually got.  This helps me stop focusing on how much time I don’t have, how much I have to cram into the little time there is, et cetera.  When I plan my day every day, I write down what I have to do, but I also – and here’s the important part – think about from what time to what time I’m going to do each thing.  Doing this can work as an emergency measure at any time during any day.  So if you’re feeling rushed or like you’ve got too much to do and there isn’t enough time to do it and/or you don’t know where to start and/or your day just isn’t going well because you can’t get any traction with all those things you’ve got to do, here’s what I suggest:  Sit down, consider how much time you’ve actually got to work with – so, say, maybe two hours, from two to four in the afternoon – and then budget that time, considering realistically what you can do during it and how much time each thing is going to take.  So you might decide to clean your kitchen from two to two-thirty, fill out two job applications on-line from two-thirty to three, and work on the article you’re writing from three to four.  Making the plan forces you to be realistic about what you can get done (and let go of what you can’t) and it also forces you to set some priorities.  Once you’ve made the plan you can peacefully work your way through it and at the end of the day you can feel good because, even if you didn’t get everything done, you got something done.
I’ve gotten into the habit of planning my whole day that way every day and I absolutely love it.  And when I start to feel rushed, I make myself stop and look at the clock to see what time it is.  Then I look at my plan to see what I’m supposed to be doing now and what time I have to start doing the next thing on my list.  I might see, for example, that I have a coaching appointment (I make my living as a writing coach) at nine-thirty a.m., and it’s nine o’clock now.  Maybe I wanted to do yoga but had started to feel like there wasn’t time and then I started to rush, to speed up on the inside and/or the outside.  But now that I’ve looked at the time I realize I have a whole half hour and that I can do my yoga – or as much of it as I can get done – in that half hour.  In that moment I stop rushing and slow down:  I’ve got enough time to do yoga.  Or maybe I look at the clock and see that it’s nine-twenty-five and there isn’t time to do yoga before my coaching appointment.  I make a decision – I won’t do yoga today, or I’ll do it later, between three and three-thirty this afternoon – I let go of feeling like I have to rush to do it now, and I slow down. 
So, slowing-down insight number one:  Feeling rushed is a by-product of living unconsciously, of being unconscious about time.  Slowing down is about being conscious of how much time there actually is – in the moment, in today.  It’s about planning how we’re going to use our time; it’s about thinking about how much time things take, how much time we have; it’s even about knowing what time it actually is.  This may seem counter-intuitive – slowing down seems like it should be about something light, free, airy, not about nailing things down and looking at clocks and so forth. But it makes sense when you think about it. It makes sense because what you know is a lot less scary than what you don’t know.  When you’re rushing you’re living in the fear thoughts inside your head – there’s not enough time, I can’t get anything done, etc.  But when you look at the clock and think about how much time you have and how you’re going to use that time, then you can relax, slow down, and live in the real world where things are actually a lot less frightening.
                                                                         -- Mary Allen