February 28, 2011

Morning Routines and Cultivating New Habits

When I read Seth Godin's quote, "You don't need more time, you just need to decide," it struck a nerve. Reminding myself that I have choices about how I spend my time seems pretty elementary, but like so many other "simple" things, they're tougher in the doing than in the contemplation.
Recently, after months of trying to figure out how to cram 48 hours of activity into 24, I decided to take Seth's advice. I can't give myself more time, but I can choose to re-shuffle the time I have so that it serves me better. These days, I'm starting my day between 6:15 and 6:30 every morning. It's about an hour earlier than my usual wake-up time.

Since the extra morning time has to come from somewhere, I'm going to bed earlier: 10:30 (10:00 would be better); lights out by 11:00. So much for the days, long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away, when I'd head out with friends at midnight, hit the pillow at 4 am, and be up at 8 for breakfast.

I'm a morning person. I have my best energy in the morning, and I start losing steam in late afternoon. So I know that if I want to get something important done, anything that requires active brain cells, I have to do it in the morning. And there are some things that won't get done at all unless I get to them before my "regular" day starts, which, depending on the day of the week, is usually 8 or 9 am.

These days, my early morning list is all about Morning Pages, meditation, and reading.

I've written Morning Pages on and off over the years. I've found them most useful when I'm trying to think things through, whether it's a specific project or a broader free-floating issue. There's something therapeutic --and freakily effective-- about hitting the Pages with a fresh mind, before it's been assaulted by all those pesky thoughts about the dreaded looming deadline you keep putting off or about taking the car in for an oil change.

Next, I'm aiming for 10 minutes of meditation. I'm a beginner, and this seems the right amount of time for now. And, didn't ya know, there's an app for that! Yoga Moment for Android (I use the Lite version, which is free). Streaming the soothing music from my phone is a pretty simple operation and helps block out distractions.

Reading is the other activity that I've added to my start-of-day agenda. It's hard to find uninterrupted reading time during the day, and the reading I do at night in bed doesn't completely satisfy my reading jones. I love the total absorption of my morning reading, and this aspect has a lot in common with my meditation and Morning Pages. I read between 20-40 pages in a sitting, depending on my schedule that day.

I alternate activities, since I usually don't have time for all three. Some days it's Morning pages and meditation, others it's meditation and reading, sometimes I choose just one.

I'll admit that when I woke up yesterday, Sunday, I wasn't sure at first whether it was Sunday or Monday. It seemed a way-too-early wake-up time for a weekend.  I did get up, but maybe at some point I'll reconsider rules for the weekend. For now, 'though, while I'm setting the habit, I'm going for that 21-day streak.*

Frankly, it's easier to get up earlier than I thought it would be. I didn't say it was EASY, mind you, but EASI-ER.  I think it's because I don't think about it. I just get up, as if don't have a choice. One thing I wasn't expecting is how good I feel once I've stumbled into the kitchen to make my protein shake. Not actually waking up, mind you. That doesn't feel particularly good -- yet.

I think what's happening is that I'm looking forward to how I'll feel once I get started writing/meditating/reading. The pleasure I get from these is a continuing delight. It's joined by the pleasure I feel by honoring myself with time to myself.

It's been two weeks. Enough time to feel hopeful, not enough to see it as a sure thing. I'm focusing on the former, and I'll keep you posted.

So...any advice on sticking with good habits?

 *The identification of this phenomenom is attributed to Dr. Maxwell Maltz, who wrote about it in the late 60s in his best-seller, Psycho-Cybernetics. While working as a plastic surgeon, Maltz observed that it took 21 days for amputees to stop sensing phantom feelings in their amputated limbs. In further research into how the brain works, he found that our brains do not accept new data for a change of habit unless these data are repeated for 21 days in a row. That it takes 21 days to establish a new habit has become an accepted theory since then.

February 21, 2011

We. Here. Now.

Does this sound familiar?  I'll be driving home or planting tulip bulbs or reading the paper, and I'll shift my attention to something I said in a meeting the day before or to a chat I had with a friend on the phone that morning, and I'll find something to dislike or regret.

I wonder whether I should have expressed a thought differently, or I wish I'd said something I neglected to say (or vice versa).  Sometimes I'll throw in a comparison for good measure: "Geesh, so-and-so explained Einstein's theory of relativity so eloquently that I must have sounded like a total dork when I said... Maybe I'll study up on string theory for the next meeting."

How about the companion habit: the one where I obsess about the future? Is there a part of you that believes that if you lay out all the negative things that might happen when you next visit your mother, pitch that prospective client or gallery owner, take that risk, you'll protect yourself from a bad outcome?
For years, I convinced myself that when I did this I was simply being pro-active and approaching the future with forethought. Yeah. Sure. I now see that I was letting my need for control bleed through a band-aid of worry. As if by summoning every gloomy possibility I could influence the results.

That's not to say that it's not a good practice to plan or to think things through. Just the opposite. The trick is to focus on these when it's truly useful. Considering how to approach a gallery owner who might carry your work or how to handle a conversation with your aging mother about her finances deserve their own time slots. Flashing to them when you're eating dinner doesn't do justice to the topic, to your dinner, or to your digestion.

Berating ourselves for past behavior or anticipating disaster in the future robs us of the present moment, one we'll never get back. Forget whether we're even interpreting the past event accurately, or whether worrying about what may -- or may not -- happen in the future does any good whatsoever. We already know that the most likely responses to these questions are "No" and "No."

This isn't just homespun wisdom. Although it's impossible to imagine my no-nonsense mother telling me to "be here now," I clearly remember her variation, "stop borrowing trouble," when she thought I was catastrophizing about some (usually innocuous) event in the future. She wasn't far off.

A recent scientific study by psychologists at Harvard has similar advice.

The psychologists concluded that "wandering minds" -- thinking about events that happened in the past or that might happen in the future-- are a big cause of unhappiness.

On average, the survey's subjects* spent 46.9 (!) percent of their time thinking about something other than what they were doing.

"A human mind," the researchers said, "is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind."  Gee, tell us what you really think, guys.

And this waker-upper:
"Mind-wandering is an excellent predictor of people’s happiness. In fact, how often our minds leave the present and where they tend to go is a better predictor of our happiness than the activities in which we are engaged.” (my emphasis)
It seems that whether we're tip-toeing through the tulips on a beautiful spring day or cleaning out the sick cat's litter box, we're likely to be happier if we focus on the task at hand than if we drift elsewhere in our minds.

For me, "being present" is a major work in progress, and because "a human mind is a wandering mind," I suspect it will always be so.  I'm hopeful, though, that it gets easier. And that's enough.

* The subjects ranged in age from 18 to 88 and represented a wide variety of occupations and socioeconomic backgrounds. Seventy-four percent of them were American (which, I think, may tell us something about Americans' -- and possibly all Westerners' -- tendencies to live outside the moment).

Image by d.billy, via Flickr, under a Creative Commons License.

February 12, 2011

The Universe Has a Sense of Humor Too

 I"m taking a class in Zen Buddhist meditation. The class meets once a week, on Fridays, and it's an oasis in a busy week. It's what I need most on those days when I tell myself that I have no time to go to a meditation class. (On other days, I practice meditating on my own, and I mean "practice" in its most literal sense.)

I try to reserve Fridays for activities that a Recovering Perfectionist might consider unproductive; sometimes, I actually manage it. I might have tea with a friend, wander the library, make something. Yesterday, I went to a yoga class, then to a bookstore for coffee and a magazine. I was so relaxed and absorbed in my reading that I forgot that I was due at my meditation class. The class would have been half over by the time I arrived, so I decided to skip it.

I'd been reading Shambala Sun, a magazine I'd seen on the shelf but hadn't picked up until now. Does reading a magazine about Buddhist principles constitute an excused absence for a meditation class? Worth a try. At the very least, It'll make my teacher smile, as it did me.

Image by pkize, from Flickr, under a Creative Commons License.

February 10, 2011

Time and Choice


 I've been meaning to write a post about choice (as in "being in"). No, this isn't it. But Seth Godin made such a good point about choice in so few words, that I felt compelled to spend many more words than he used pointing you to it. So, for now, talk and think among yourselves.

Image by Robbert van der Steeg, via Flickr, under a Creative Commons License.

February 9, 2011

Is 'Good Enough' Good Enough?

My life is full, and I'm stressed. Luckily, most of what my life is full of is good. That should make me feel less stressed, right? Not quite. If, like me, you're a recovering perfectionist (or her best friend, the recovering "good girl"), you understand. Those of you who are neither are luckier than you can imagine.

The RP (or RGG) always, always does her best work. That, in itself, is not the stressful part. What causes the stress is that the RP seems unable to look at the four-hundred-and-fifty-seven items on today's To Do list and decide which require her "best" and those for which "good" is good enough.  What we've got here is a failure to discriminate. (If you haven't watched 'Cool Hand Luke' recently, now's your chance.)

Occasionally, I'd hear -- maybe on a panel at a professional conference, maybe in a self-help book -- that excellence was over-rated, that not all projects need the same level or quality of attention. It sounded reasonable, but in my heart I thought that people who operated that way were slackers. Whether I was planning a conference or cleaning out my closet, "good enough" didn't seem to be an option.

Fast forward, and I'm in a photography class at the local university. I'm taking the class to learn about photography; I'm not taking it for the grade, and it's not something I need to advance my career.

Our assignment each week is to take a set number of photographs that illustrate specific design principles. Last week, the day before my assignment was due, I decided that half the photos I'd taken wouldn't do. They were technically competent, but I wasn't pleased with the content. I re-shot them. It took all afternoon, time that I had committed to friends.

Should I have re-taken the photos (and given up what I'd initially planned)? I never considered the question. If the work needed improvement, didn't I have a responsibility to make it better? It wasn't until after I'd turned in the assignment that I looked at the assumptions I was making.  The answer to my question, which I'd always thought of as "yes," was, in fact, "it depends."

Whether I went with the images I had or shot new photos depended entirely on my purpose. When I'd 86'd those first photos, I saw what I'd done well and what I'd missed. If I'd learned from the process, hadn't I achieved my purpose? True, my instructor wouldn't know that, but is he really my audience?

In the past, I'd have said yes to that question too. Under some circumstances, I still might. But in this situation, here and now, I'm the audience, the only person I'm accountable to. Seeing it in that light, the gathering I'd missed by re-shooting the photos was more important than proving to my teacher that I was a better photographer than my photos showed.  This was a time when my "good enough" should have been good enough.

How many other outdated stories, built on outdated beliefs, am I still telling myself?.  I wonder what other assumptions, learned 20 years ago or maybe yesterday, I need to re-think?

Photo by AJC1 on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons License.

February 5, 2011

What I Really Want, And Why I Can Have It

This week I had a tea date with a new friend. Both of us are women with a fair amount of life experience (translation: we're over 40). Over the course of a couple of hours, we talked about many things, from the blogs we visit and  the books we read to our goals for our work and our personal growth.

 Because we have a fair amount of life experience (translation: ok, so we're over 50), we found ourselves having a variation on a conversation that we probably heard our parents have -- and which we cringed at then, and promised ourselves we would never take part in.  My friend mentioned a pal of a similar age (let's call her Anne) who is enrolled in a university graduate program. The other students in the class are mostly in their early 20s.

Anne notices a difference between herself and her fellow students, and it's not simply age.  They seem to have  an "I can't possibly fail" attitude that she lacks. And that she didn't have when she was their age, either. There's also, she thinks, an attitude of entitlement, as in "all good things should, and will, come to me."

My friend and I agreed that we'd found similar attitudes among 20-somethings we knew.  We thought it might be generational.  After all, even before Tiger Mom, there'd been no shortage of media coverage on the perils of praising children indiscriminately and making life too easy for them. And I can attest that in my own early 20s, prior to the "new permissiveness," I was too tentative and cautious to display any of the bravado that comes naturally to Anne's fellow students.

Of course, my friend and I are both smart enough to know that we were generalizing. I know 20-somethings who don't exhibit a trace of "entitlement," and people much older who do.  But we dished for a few minutes anyway, channeling our parents and bemoaning high expectations that aren't backed up by talent and achievement.

When our talk turned to how much more easily we might have moved through our lives if we, too, had been spiked with feelings of entitlement, I noticed that my disapproval was tinged with envy. Then I realized that it wasn't the students' sense of entitlement that I envied, it was their confidence, specifically their confidence in their future. Hey, who doesn't want to believe that she can vaporize any hairy monster that stands in her way, or know that she can learn whatever she needs to know to reach her goal? And surely, we all want the assurance that while we may not know the answer this instant, we'll be able to figure IT all out (as in "who the heck am I, anyway, and what am I supposed to be doing in the world?).

As we get older, it's harder to ramp up our excitement and damp down our skepticism about what's possible in our lives, but that's when we most need to do it.

I feel lucky to have lived long enough to know that I can survive disappointments and misfortunes and that I'm stronger than I ever thought I'd need to be. I've learned much over the years, including knowing what it is that I don't know.  And I'm old enough to certify that life can deliver ginormous joys and mondo satisfaction. So who better than me (or you) to trust that I'll (or you'll) have the skills and the gumption to deal successfully with whatever comes next?  I'm thinking that, maybe, I don't have much reason to envy those students after all; still, I'm thankful for the reminder.

Photo by hojusaram, on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons License.

February 2, 2011

Word(s) for the Year: One is Not Enough

Last year, I climbed tentatively aboard the "word-of-the-year" train that seemed to be making the rounds of the blogosphere. I'd always felt compelled to make resolutions for each new year, but like 99.9% of the people who make them (I may be exaggerating the number, but I suspect it's not by much), I wasn't very good at keeping them.

To be honest, I didn't have high hopes for the Word Project either. But -- zounds! -- it worked! More accurately, it made a noticeable difference in how I made my way through the year.

If you know me, or if you continue to read this blog, you'll soon learn that I'm a sucker for structure and process. I never met a list I didn't like, and that includes the much maligned "To Do" list. So I took seriously my responsibility to choose the right word for the year.  Here's how I approached the process in 2010 (and repeated it for 2011).

First I tried Christine Kane's Word-of-the-Year Discovery Tool, which she kindly makes available as a free download on her web site. While this was useful, what ultimately was most helpful was free-writing about what I wanted most to introduce into or reinforce in my life in 2011.

I should have known that the recovering perfectionist in me wouldn't be able to settle for just ONE word, though. As I proceeded with my assignment, I quickly concluded that...

1. Clearly, I had more lessons to learn in my new year than my less encumbered one-word colleagues;
2. I seemed to need to hedge my bets in case one of my words dropped by the wayside;
3. The over-achieving multi-tasker in me needed more than a single concept to chew on.

Boy, do  I admire -- not to mention envy -- those brilliantly focused souls who zero in on the perfect overarching theme for their next year: "Expansion!" "Balance!" "Creativity!"  But not for me, putting all my eggs into one intentional basket.

Instead of arguing with myself about this (a not atypical trait in an only child, I've discovered), I accepted the fact that one word simply wouldn't do, and got on with it.

Once I'd settled on my three -- yes, THREE -- words, I wrote them often. I put them on a whiteboard in my studio and at the top of each page in my journal; I incorporated them into the wallpaper on the screen of my laptop;  I repeated the words as I relaxed in Shavasana pose in my yoga class; I shared them with my friends.  This repetition didn't give the words themselves power, but it did serve to keep my intent front and center in my consciousness, By doing this, I hoped to influence my thoughts and behavior for the better.

One of my three words for 2010, for example, was "gratitude."  As the year progressed, I found it easier to notice habits that got in the way of being grateful and of enjoying the benefits of gratitude, such as complaining about small things that I couldn't control (long, slow grocery store lines, anyone?).  Even better were the times when I found myself spontaneously giving thanks for any one of the small joys that I can so easily take for granted, like a phone call with a friend or a good cup of cocoa at a favorite cafe.

At the risk of sounding a little like a Pollyanna which, trust me, I am not, I surprised myself with my enthusiasm for the word(s)-of-the-year idea. Did I become a paragon of "clarity," "serenity," and "gratitude" in 2010? Far from it. But I raised my awareness of unhealthy patterns, and I gained more of what I'd hoped for than I've gotten from any New Year's resolution. So I'm embracing it again for 2011. More to come.

Photo by procsilas, on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons License.