Thursday, September 4, 2014

Relaxing Into the New School Year

It’s the beginning of September.  School is starting, summer is over, there are hectic vibes in the air.   Even if your life isn’t ramping up right now – even if you and/or your kids aren’t starting a new semester or you’re not picking up where you left off before your summer vacation -- it’s hard to ignore those hectic vibes.  What could be a better time to start harnessing time?
            What do I mean by harnessing time?  For a long time I knew that I wanted to slow down and stop feeling so rushed and busy all the time. But I also knew that I had to continue doing everything I was doing and maybe even become more productive, and that I probably had too much to fit into the time I had.  And then, at some point a few years ago, I figured out how to stop rushing, slow down, and still get done everything I needed to do and then some.  I figured out that time is a resource, sort of like the wind, and I could harness it and use it – I could get it at my back and let it propel me along instead of walking into it, fighting with it.  Instead of feeling like there wasn’t enough time and therefore I had to rush to get everything done, I figured out that I did have enough time:  I just had to consider how much time I actually had – during any given day, morning, hour – and decide how I was going to use that time.  Because, it turns out, the problem isn’t that there isn’t enough time for everything.  The problem is the feeling that there isn’t enough time -- it’s the anxiety, the rushing, the frustration and irritability that comes with the rushing.  That’s the wind you’re walking into, the wind that’s blowing in your face, making everything harder.
            The way I harness time is very simple.   Every day I sit down at the beginning of the day and write down on a piece of paper in the notebook I keep for that purpose, what I’m going to do today and when, roughly, I’m going to do it.  It’s the when that’s most important, because that’s what gives you a sense of how much time you actually have and whether what you have to do can fit into it.  If your to-dos fit into the time you have for them, you can relax and go about your day, feeling peaceful and confident that there’s enough time for everything and you don’t have rush or twist yourself into a pretzel, as my former Czech boyfriend used to say, to get it all done.  If everything you have to do doesn’t fit it into the time you have, you can just make a few quick decisions – to postpone something or things till tomorrow or whenever, to cut out something that’s not absolutely necessary. 
You’ll know you have the right plan for the day when you feel calm, peaceful, and satisfied – and then you can go about your day feeling relaxed and confident that you’re getting what you need to do done.  And if at any point you start to feel rushed and anxious, you can just look at the time you have (say, one to three) and think about whether you can realistically fit what you planned for this part of the day into that amount of time.  If you can you can relax (will relax, automatically) and if you can’t you can make a few decisions about what to postpone to when, et cetera, and then you’ll relax.
There’s a lot more to how I harness time than just that – for example, I have a partner I share my plan with every day, and I work on staying present in the moment, making time for relaxing and having fun, not getting too hung up on what I should have done but didn’t, and a lot more -- but the above are the basic essentials. 
One of my favorite quotes comes from the Roman philosopher Seneca:  “As long as you live, keep learning how to live.”  Harnessing time is helping me learn how to live -- how to get the most out of my days, how live -- really live -- in the time I've got instead of rushing through it, feeling anxious about what I'm not doing, hurrying to get to the next thing.

                                                                             -- Mary Allen 

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Relaxing Instead of Hurrying In Today's ADD World

            This morning I was talking to my friend Heidi about harnessing time.  We were actually doing a check-in, where we said what happened to us yesterday – what we did and didn’t do that was on the plans we made yesterday – and told each other our plans for today.  This check-in process is something I do every day.
I really love checking in with my time partner every day.  It’s become part of my daily routine and it helps me in many, many ways.  It’s a simple easy thing you can do to change your life and your relationship to time enormously – to stop hurrying and start relaxing, no matter how busy you are -- and I recommend it to anyone.  (For more about how I do check-ins, see
My regular check-in partner, Kathy, is on vacation right now, the kind of vacation where she doesn’t need to think about harnessing time. Heidi, on the other hand, is having the kind of vacation where harnessing time is practically an urgent necessity– i.e., she’s taken a week off work and is mostly at home trying to get stuff accomplished. 
            So I’ve been coaching Heidi to plan her days a la harnessing time and she and I have been checking in with each other this week.  This morning she told me that she’s been learning a lot from doing that.  Mostly what she’s learned is how hard it was to figure out what she wanted and needed to do when it came time to make a plan for the day -- there was just so much to do around her house and she felt overwhelmed when she even thought about where to start, which made her want to just forget about it all and sit on the couch and watch TV.  Also, once she did make a plan, she said, she couldn’t stick to it, because of all the other things that were constantly coming along needing to be taken care of.  She has three kids, a dog, and a husband, and she also has ADD and ADHD.  She feels like she spends her days putting out little fires all the time – stopping what she’s doing and dealing with some little mess or crisis or urgent need related to one of the kids or the dog or her husband, and never getting anything done on her plan.  She said she feels like a failure at harnessing time, like she just can’t do it.   I said I didn’t think so at all.
            I went first during the check-in and I started off, like I always do, saying what I didn’t get done that was on my plan yesterday.   I love to do this; for some reason it gives me pleasure and relief to say what I didn’t do; I even find it a little bit funny to say, I did not do this, I did not do that.  Heidi said hearing that helped her enormously right off the bat, because it made her realize she wasn’t a failure at harnessing time just because she didn’t get some of things that she’d plan to do, done.  Then she told me what she did and didn’t do that she had planned to do yesterday, plus all the things she did that she hadn’t planned, and that made her realize she actually got a lot more done than she thought she did.
            Then we started talking about the issues she mentioned before we did our check-in, starting with the putting-out-little-fires-all-the-time problem – i.e., never making any headway with the things on her plan because she was always having to take care of some immediate issue, problem, or need related to her kids, her dog, or her husband.   Right away we figured out that at least part of the solution there was getting the kids to clean up their own messes instead of jumping in and doing it for them.  Also, figuring out how to tolerate messes, at least for a while, until the kids cleaned them up or, in the absence of that, until time could be harnessed by Heidi to clean them up herself.  Harnessing time to clean them up herself might also mean finding another spot in the day or the week to do whatever got tossed aside when she had to deal with the mess.
Plus, working on boundaries:  Boundaries around messes, so who made it gets to clean it up, even if Heidi has to harness some time to meditate, breathe deeply, go to a shrink, or do whatever needs to be done so she can tolerate waiting for them to do it.  Boundaries around time, so when one of the kids/the dog/the husband needs/wants something, Heidi can look at her plan and say, Not now, but … three o’clock, or tonight before you go to bed, or … some other time later.   (Or never – there’s always that option too.) 
The important thing is remembering there are options, remembering that we/she get to make our own decisions about what we do and how we use our time.  We can always change our mind.  But things really get out of control when we’re just reacting instead of deciding what we want to do and finding time to do it.  (See
            The solution to the feeling-too-overwhelmed-to-know-where-to start-and- giving-up problem was easy:  We were engaging in it right now.  I reminded Heidi that things can only be done one day, one step, one action at a time, and all we have to do – all we can do -- is start somewhere.  We can do that by picking something – at least one thing – and looking at where we can fit it into the time we have today.  We can write that thing down on our plan and then do the best we can to carry out our plan – i.e., do the thing, plus the other things on our plan -- to the best of our ability today, remembering that being flexible about our plan is almost as important as having a plan.  (See on the power of being flexible.)
That works for the ADD thing too.  Heidi told me that when she starts doing one thing, she sees something else she should do instead, drops the first thing and starts the second thing, then sees a third thing… and so forth.  I told her that I used to do that too and that as far as I know I don’t have ADD – but maybe we all have a little bit of ADD in today's world.  I said that now that I’m harnessing time I don’t do that any more, and Heidi said she’s looking forward to harnessing time so she doesn’t do it either.
                                                -- Mary Allen

Friday, June 20, 2014

Time: There Really Is Enough of It

A few months ago I made a decision to temporarily harness time to write about things other than harnessing time.  But a few days ago I had such a wonderful harnessing time moment – a moment when I went from feeling hurried, crabby, cramped for time, to feeling calm, spacious, and peaceful, with just a simple little application of my own harnessing time principles – that I knew I had to write about it.
            I was standing in my kitchen, dithering, worrying about how I was going to get everything I needed to do done.  I felt rushed, which is a feeling I hate and which I basically created harnessing time to avoid.  I had to eat breakfast, take my little dog to doggie day care, meditate for ten minutes, and do a little yoga, and I didn’t think I was going to have enough time to do all of that before my first coaching date.  (I make my living as a writing coach, mostly coaching on the phone in hour and a half increments.)
I had already written out my harnessing time plan for the day, which was how I knew what I wanted to do during this particular time slot.   But then, standing in my kitchen, I started getting the feeling that I wouldn’t be able to do what I needed to do and about what would happen if I didn’t – if I don’t do the yoga my back will start hurting and then I’ll have a back spasm and then I won’t be able to work, et cetera – and then I started trying to do things fast, faster than I could, and practically shaking with the effort (wasted effort, of course, because that’s what you get when you’re trying to do things faster than you can).  Then my cat started meowing at me in a loud, irritating, food-demanding voice and I actually had the urge, which I suppressed, of course -- I would never, ever do something like that -- to smack her on the head.
This is the moment, I realized, when you might yell at your kid if you had one or start a fight with your husband or do some other minor interpersonal or self-inflicted damage.  And it was at this moment, motivated by that thought and the realization that I was hurrying and it was unpleasant, that I remembered one of my basic harnessing time rules: 
If you feel like you don’t have enough time to get everything you need to do done, stop and figure out whether you actually do have enough time.  (You’ll probably have to look at a clock and see what time it is; think about when your next appointment or whatever is; and think about how long, realistically, each thing you have to do, between now and then, is going to take.  Then you’ll have to decide if everything you have to do will realistically fit into the window you have to do it.)  If you do have enough time, relax.  If you don’t, figure out where to move something you think you need to do now, to some later time in the day or week.  Or decide to skip it all together. 
It takes a little time to stop and think all that through, maybe twenty or thirty seconds, and it might be tempting to think you don’t have time to take the time to do it.  But believe me, you do, and it’s worth it.
I had an hour and a half yesterday to fit in everything in my morning routine:  the trip to doggie day care, the yoga, the meditation, the breakfast.   When I thought about it, I decided that I didn’t have enough time for everything and that I needed to make a harnessing time decision about what could be let go of or postponed.  I did a quick mental scan of all my options.  I couldn’t put off taking the puppy to day care and I probably shouldn’t put off eating breakfast.   Finally I decided that nothing would happen to my back if I postponed the yoga for a few hours, whereas something would definitely happen to my mood – it had actually started happening already, when I felt rushed in my kitchen -- if I postponed the meditation. (Interestingly enough, since I started doing ten minutes of meditation a day a few years ago, meditating has steadily moved up my list of priorities – I’ve come to see it as even more important than eating breakfast.  The same thing has happened with planning my day a la harnessing time – I hate how I feel on days when I somehow end up skipping it and I’ve come to enjoy it, rely on it, look forward to it as one of my favorite parts of the day.) 
I got my plan back out and moved the yoga to follow my hour-and-a-half-long coaching date, when I had plenty of time to do it.   Then I collected my little dog Alice, put her on the leash, and drove her over to the doggy day care place.  In the car I felt my mood getting better by the minute, and it came to me in a happy rush that in the few years since I’ve been harnessing time, time really has come to feel like something I can use, like a tool or a magic wand, to do whatever I need to.  That I don’t have to feel hurried or harried, I don’t have to exist in a time-poverty-stricken condition, any more.  Because there really is time enough for everything. 

-- Mary Allen

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