Easter is always a good time of year to reflect on starting anew. There is still enough of the year left to work towards the results you want to create. Moreover there is motivation to pause for introspection on why you want to pursue those goals, and how to align your life with your desires and interests.
Self-care is necessary because it allows you to care for others. If you do not take care of yourself, if you do not rest and eat well, and do the things necessary to maintain your sanity, you will not be at your best in any regard, particularly when it comes to caring and interacting with your children.
Years ago, I read Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit, and it was life-changing, if not instructional for me. I found that I was able to isolate the cues or triggers that caused me to engage in certain behaviors. I discovered that if I transformed those practices or routines, I could still receive a reward. I figured out my habit loop, and I tried to use it to modify my habits going forward. It took some practice, but I became immersed in the study of myself.
I also looked at the larger conception of what Duhigg describes as an identity habit. An identity habit acts almost as an alter ego. It says that behavior change is rooted in your identity, and thusly, your actions correspond with your identity. In this respect, if you want to change, influence, or shape your actions, you should change, influence, or shape your identity first. When you look at your identity, you examine yourself as you are today, and then conceive of the self you wish to become. In other words, you should speak things into existence, and believe in who you are becoming, not who you currently are.
Developing the identity habit.
So, I did this for several areas of my life, for years. For my health identity-based habit, I defined myself as someone who valued her health. I conceived of myself as someone who exercised daily and ate the right things. As someone whose grandmother died at sixty-six because of a heart attack, I was becoming a person who placed a large amount of focus on her health. I was an individual who wanted to be around for her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and wanted to live well and take care of myself. While all of these were deserving concepts, I found myself, lingering at the pass. I started off well and was energized, but eventually my enthusiasm waned, and I found myself at my starting point again.
I tried to keep myself accountable, by telling others about who I was becoming and what that meant. I read and researched further, to determine if there were other concepts that I could use to supplement these. I did all that I thought I could to move further along. And when it fizzled out again, I, of course, asked myself if it was just me. I learned that I could accomplish what I wanted, I just had to tap into the most inherent part of myself to find more.
Finding what worked.
My discovery was one that arose from a conversation with my friend’s mom. At her granddaughter’s first birthday party, Ms. Frances and I found ourselves exploring life’s greatest mysteries together. We contemplated being moved by what seemingly worked for others (admiring other people’s green grass, or as Ms. Frances said in most cases, AstroTurf). We talked about regular exercise, and we dove into identity habits. I told her about the concept. I shared that I found myself implementing it regularly to some success, until I stalled, and ultimately fizzled out. Her suggestion was a Eureka moment for me.
On my discussion of my health identity habit, Ms. Frances told me about what it was like to lose her mom at an early age. She said “The world is a tough place without your momma,” and proceeded to tell me, that anything I could do to keep myself here improved my child’s existence. Wow. That was real. Instead of just connecting my identity habit to science-backed research (that made absolute sense to both my laywoman and academic selves), my hope for who I could become, and the loss of my paternal grandmother, I had to find something that additionally affected me viscerally and connected with me deeply.
I’ve read the Stoics, and the great philosophers, passages from centuries-old tomes on meaning. In addition to reading the latest NY Times Bestseller on how and why we do what we do, and listening to all of the podcasts everywhere, I considered myself informed. Ms. Frances’ insight, though, was eye-opening. In it, I found that (a) identity-based habits still had something to offer me, so that I could focus on the self that I was becoming, but I had to have (b) something that connected with my essence, the deepest part of myself. It made complete sense to me.
She told me to walk for myself today and tomorrow, and the day after, because of who I am becoming, but on the following day, if I had to force myself to get out of bed, walk for my son because the world is a harsh place without your momma. Damn. It connected with me. It found the deepest part of my lizard brain, which instinctually wants to protect my young. The non-libido-driven id that only responded to instinct. That part that exists in all of us, that understands how a woman would rip her child from the prying jaws of a predator, or withstand the biting of a rabid dog to free her child.
An important memory.
I remember a time years ago when we were on vacation. I couldn’t have been more than nine or ten because my brother was still a toddler. I was in a pool and waded over into the deeper end. I lost my footing and felt myself go beneath the water. I was fighting to get back up again, legs splashing arms reaching to cut through the water, but was afraid because I wasn’t going anywhere.
I tried to reach for the wall; I had foolishly let go earlier, but I knew it wasn’t far away. I had to get there, but I was panicking and afraid. For as much as I was moving my hands and trying to move my feet, I realized I wasn’t going anywhere but down. Until a hand grabbed me and pulled me up, choking and gasping, but breathing. As I was emerging from the water, I looked up and saw my mother, a Black Madonna, pulling me with one arm, as she held my brother on her hip with the other. The memory has remained with me since. I had an awareness then that I can only articulate now, that a mother’s love is life-saving, especially for her child.
Bringing it all together.
My new conception of identity had to connect with my innermost self, stripped of my ego and all of its machinations. It had to make sense to me and my essence, and not just be a well-founded platitude. It had to combine, myself, my mother, my son, and my grandmother. Ms. Frances’ insight bridged the gap. She gave me the words to articulate what I already knew and had already experienced. That I was infinitely better off because of my mother’s love (and rescue), and that I had to do everything in my power, to take care of myself, and give my child the same opportunity.
I found myself walking daily, and doing my stretches, crunches, and push-ups. Instead of a reasoned and eloquent narrative that I constructed for myself that sometimes worked, I made it simple. My identity-based health habit was for me–I was doing it for myself, and the quality of life and abundance of years I desired. Because I want to be here; I feel that I have more to do, say, and contribute. My experiences, loss, and triumphs still informed my reason, and they bolstered my cerebral hope into a natural one. When I don’t feel like conceiving of who I am becoming, I do it for my son, because the world is a harsh place without your momma, and because I owe him an existence of as many years of my love, security, and protection, as possible.
In the early 1990s, MIT researchers conducted an experiment where they placed pieces of chocolate at the end of a maze and released mice to find them. The scientists put devices into the brains of the mice to measure their activity. They made two important discoveries.
The first discovery was one they expected–that the mice completed the maze more rapidly after each successive run. They got better each time they ran through the maze and reached their chocolate more quickly. The second pattern was that as the mice got better at the maze, their brain activity decreased. They began developing a habit so that their brains needed less energy to engage in what they were doing. Habits have that effect: running on autopilot for numerous acts that you participate in while freeing up brain power to take part in making other important decisions. If you are looking for a decision-making framework, or a model to make better decisions, the easiest way to do this, is to develop a habit.
1. Habits take away the need to rely on your will.
Making decisions reflect on our willpower. When we make decisions over and over again, it can often exhaust our will to continue making more decisions. This withering away at our capacity is called ego-depletion. For those of us who have to make many impactful decisions regularly, ego-depletion can be a serious barrier to making decisions that help us achieve our ends. We can become so exhausted from making decisions that have minimal impact on our lives, or from those that do not help us with the big things we want to accomplish, that we have little analysis when it comes to making decisions that actually count. Then, we do not have the room or space enough to do what we should do.
For example, making decisions from the moment we wake up, about the kids’ lunch, our wardrobe, and breakfast, wear us down in ways that we do not automatically recognize. They lessen our capacity to make more and better decisions and may be the reason why we find ourselves spending more time thinking about the color of a bedspread and curtains than we need to. In those moments where we find ourselves asking, “why is this such a hard decision to make,” we should take note that ego-depletion is probably occurring, and we should build habits around those series of decisions. Without a system to make certain decisions effortless, we essentially wear ourselves down and create more work for our brains.
Habits reflect patterns that we do not have to think of, but that come automatically. By making individual decisions automatic, we free our mental capacities from engaging in busy-work. By giving ourselves more mental space, we can use that brain power for reasoning. Thinking about the factors that will bring about the results we desire are necessary for improved decision-making. We must reflect on how to engage those elements efficiently, create situations that make them manifest regularly and use our skills to replicate them.
2. Identifying and improving habit loops coordinately enhances the ability to make decisions.
In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg refers to the three step process that makes up a habit loop, as identified by the MIT researchers–1) Cue 2) Routine 3) Reward.
The cue acts as a trigger to tell us to engage in a particular behavior, the behavior we engage in is the routine, and the feeling we receive as a result is the reward. The reward is solidified in our memory, so that when we receive the cue (signal or trigger), we are automatically thinking of the result while we engage in the behavior. To improve our habits, we must identify the routines that we participate in and replace them, pay attention to and experiment with the rewards, isolate the cues, and create a plan going forward after figuring out our particular habit loop.
For example, if you want to eat more healthily, you can identify the routines you engage in–eating snacks at a given time each day, overloading on carbs at dinner, skipping breakfast, etcetera. Then you would look at the rewards and experiment. Duhigg says that rewards often satisfy cravings. In this case, your body feeling full (and the chemical release it gives you to tell you to thank you for feeding it), might be one reward, spending time with your family or friends could be another (perhaps because you only get to do so while eating a meal). You would adjust your routine, to bring about the same feelings. In this vein, you could endeavor to spend time with your family walking before eating, or drinking a couple of glasses of water before a meal, so that you are still sated, but not overloaded.
Next, you would look to the cue. Maybe every day at 2 pm you walk from your work building to the bakery across the street to eat a slice of coffee cake. You might realize that it is the time of day or the fact that you have a meeting that ends at 2 pm each day. Carefully examining this signal might mean taking account of when and where you are when you are eating poorly, the time of day, how you feel emotionally, who you are with, and anything that happens before you eat (a series of acts or a particular situation). Once you can look at patterns from your signals, you can lay the foundation for making a plan. In this case, you might say, at 2 pm after this work meeting; I will drink a glass of water and take a 10-minute walk for a couple of blocks, instead of indulging in the delicious but not nutritious coffee cake.
Making a plan to improve this habit loop will help you create automatic behaviors. You can use these automatic responses to combat the ego-depletion that arises when making choice after choice. Once you have identified areas where you can create habits, it might be useful to, after looking at patterns of your past decisions, figure out systems by which you can save yourself time and energy. This may include a menu for yourself or for your family, which you write out each Friday, purchase ingredients on Saturday, and prepare the several meals on Sunday. This advance preparation takes away the need for you to engage yourself in acts that exhaust your willpower and leave you less able to make decisions when you need to.
Habits are powerful because they can give you back much of the energy required to make decisions, and because a store of healthy practices, can generate a store of good results. Being able to execute without having to expend energy also saves us brain matter for unexpected, difficult decisions we may have to make.
When my cousin Tonya and I were younger, we were crazy about Bobby Brown. We loved his music, his dance moves, his haircuts, absolutely everything to do with him. We loved Whitney Houston in her own right, of course, so we were even more enthusiastic at the thought that when we got older, we would all be married to Bobby (in a weird sister-wives kind of way that you can only conceive of with your best friend/cousin). When a commercial announced that there was a hotline to speak with Bobby directly, our 9 and 8-year-old selves were, of course, ecstatic. We were finally going to get to talk to our dream guy, to tell him how much we loved his fade and how we were so looking forward to one day seeing him in person.
While at our grandparents’ house, we dialed the hotline to speak with Bobby. Of course, we never spoke to the actual Bobby Brown, but our youthful optimism and enthusiasm in making that contact was worth the discipline we received as a result of multiple long-distance charges on our grandmother’s phone bill. Academic studies support the premise that children’s unrealistic optimism affects their judgment. For us, there was no room to conceive of not actually speaking with Bobby Brown, because as a child, you exist in the world of possibility. Possibility gives birth to your imagination and also accounts for the billion-dollar industries that support belief in mythical creatures like the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus.
The persistent hope and unfailing optimism-at-all-odds attitude that we develop in our youth dims as we age. We no longer regard mythical creatures or esteem others in the same way as we did when we were younger. Sometimes, however, old habits die hard. As an adult, this unexamined optimism takes the appearance of overshooting when setting goals. We often use that steadfast optimism we developed in our youth to set standards for ourselves and the aims we wish to achieve, without tempering it with pragmatism or giving regard to our very real circumstances.
Overshooting when setting a goal, can look like aiming to lose 35 pounds in 3 weeks, studying for a standardized exam in 2 weeks, or writing 5,000 words per day with only 1 hour dedicated to writing per day. At times our desires outmatch our capability and the result is a very skewed ideal that has no place in reality. When this happens to me, I find myself doing three things: (1) writing my ideal goal, a really great outcome, and a minimum result I’d like to see, (2) leaning on my support system, and (3) sitting with desire.
- Writing three possible outcomes all of them good.
When I write down three possible outcomes, I allow optimism to engage itself. I create an ideal outcome, which would be the equivalent of the younger me speaking to Bobby Brown. When you establish this ideal goal, it allows you to engage your imagination, and to also be unafraid of admitting (at least to yourself), what would be the best possible result in a particular area. This is the Lil’ Magic (from In Living Color), “Producer’s gonna fly us to Hollywood so Momma can get a new wig,” sort of dream–the highest of heights, putting your heart into everything you hope will happen ideal. When I do this, I don’t hold back–it is still within reason because I would never aim to become an astronaut, as that is not the path that I have chosen, nor is it my true desire. So this isn’t an idle hope for something that is completely unrelated to your goals, but something that is reminiscent of youthful optimism at its peak, and related to the aims you are pursuing.
The second level of possible outcomes, a really great outcome is a reasoned expectation that if everything went well, and I give 110%, do not take a day off, and have a lot of luck on my side, what I can hope to accomplish. This is still a lofty ideal, but not as audacious as a Lil’ Magic dream. It requires a lot of work, and it engages the most reasonable parts of yourself, that pragmatic you.
The third tier, the minimum result, also requires hard work but takes into account your very real circumstances. This is not an attempt at settling. This is you asking yourself, what would I want to walk away with, at the very least, while pursuing this goal. This target is the most pragmatic because each tier of possible outcomes is matched by the work that you are committing yourself to. If you have limits that are imposed by work, family obligations, and other parts of your life, then this minimum goal should reflect you giving your best consistent with the time, energy, and resources you have. While you are working steadily at your goal, the availability of those things may change in your favor, so that a lofty goal does not seem as far away, or after some time, a Lil Magic dream will take a lot less longer than you initially anticipated.
I ensure that I write each of these three possible outcomes down so that I can see what I am working towards regularly, and so that I feel that I have actually given voice to my goals. Sometimes thoughts can lurk in our imagination and become easily forgotten because we have subconsciously talked ourselves out of the very thing we claim to want. It feels a lot less ridiculous when I write it down. I explore avenues of what I would need to do and what would have to happen for those goals to be realized. And surprisingly, in giving voice to, and outlining steps to work towards my goals, they do not seem as far off as I thought.
2. Leaning on support systems
While many of us are very self-sufficient and are loathe to ask for help from those closest to us, our self-care often requires us to reach out. For people who have our best interests at heart, and whose lives are equally bound up with our own, it is less onerous than we think to rely on them, or to ask them for help. This can take the form of telling your spouse you need them to take the kids out for a couple hours while you write, or interview someone, or take a nap, or whatever you need to maintain the equilibrium to pursue your goals.
You can also rely on loved ones to help you add time back to your schedule by taking on tasks that you previously engaged in–cleaning, cooking, doing laundry, doing yardwork, etc. Leaning on your support system can also mean asking a close friend to serve as an accountability partner for your fitness goals, or your spring cleaning, or whatever you have designed as your next objective to tackle. It can take the form of asking your kids stretch their capacities. My two-year-old knows that when Mommy sings the clean-up time song, it is his cue to collect the toys he has scattered everywhere.
Additionally, if you have the resources to outsource certain tasks in order to create more space for yourself, this would be another way of relying on your support system.
3. Sitting with desire
At the core of optimism, is an acknowledgment that we want–that we are human and we have desires. It is useful to take moments to step outside of ourselves and just be. While I am an amateur at meditation, I try to create space each morning (or whenever I can) dedicated to mindfulness. If I have a goal that I want to achieve, and my optimism has overridden my pragmatism, I try to sit with my desire. I don’t ask probing questions about why I want it, or how my life would be better by it, I just accept that I have the desire. I give myself a moment to recognize that it is okay for me to want, and I acknowledge the idea, sit with it, and try to release it. It may sound kind of weird at first (I thought it did too), but actively trying to give my desires space to breathe for themselves, makes me less goal-obsessed. When I do this, I am less anxious about outcomes and more appreciative of the journey I am on, just by taking a moment to sit.
I am the queen of over-analyzing everything, so I force myself not to ask those questions about why in these moments. I just am. This has been a good way for me to acknowledge that I am optimistic and that it is okay, as long as I am present, and do not live in my thoughts and desires, but in the world where I have my family and friends, good books and beautiful sunsets, and a lot to be grateful for already.
Most of us encounter a time in our lives where we are challenged with willpower. Where ego-depletion sets in after having made a ton of critical decisions, and we just lack the ability to make another. We feel frustrated by it and sometimes overwhelmed, and begin to doubt ourselves–to question that after completing some tasks that aren’t exactly arduous, how can I begin to fall apart? What can I do to actually get done the things that I want to accomplish, and become the person I see myself becoming. This has certainly been a question I’ve asked myself multiple times, and recently, after consistently not writing regularly, and not reading with enough focus to identify some solutions to a good deal of the obstacles I was researching.
I realized that I spent so much time planning and idealizing a perfect outcome that I was missing an opportunity to simply do the work that I wanted to do. I became overwhelmed by my first-most desire to create something grand, resonant, and far beyond my skill. I was aiming to eclipse myself even with little time for study, and practice, and found that I hadn’t yet truly accepted that only the passage of time while engaged in steady self-improvement, will make me what I want to become.
I attempt to wrestle with my perfectionism and push back on it regularly. First, by being forthright with myself about my time limits, I acknowledge that I have the ability to perform discrete tasks within a certain allotted time. As a result, I set very straightforward, seemingly simple goals, to the extent that I almost feel like I’m settling, or cheating because I know that I will accomplish them. The difference between this practice and perfectionism is that it keeps me from becoming paralyzed by the grandeur of my imagination, and rooted in all of my possibility. I exercise 80/20 thinking by assessing the one or two major things I can work on that will generate most of the outcomes I desire, and I do them. I step outside of myself and write down what I really want, the whole truth of it, in black and white, and I focus on and outline what I should do in order to realize those desires.
Before engaging in the exercise of focusing on smaller actions that generate larger results, I was trapped by my own anxiety. I desired progress, believed I had all the tools for it, but was simply stuck, and felt it immensely. I would set an audacious goal of a high word count on Monday, and fail on Tuesday because I got up later than usual. I would get up on time Wednesday, but after working late Tuesday night and getting home and to bed later, I would feel too tired to concentrate despite making the effort to show up. I would be excited by setting my lofty goal, however impossible, and focus on the outcome, instead of remembering that I needed to build muscle to eventually be strong enough to bear the success that I desired. I was both overjoyed and overwhelmed at the idea of progress.
Thinking about progress in a vacuum is easy. To measure ourselves by how much we “should be accomplishing” in comparison to our peers or our best guesses about our maximum capacity allows us to create easy goals. This does nothing to help us work towards the actual progress we desire. Setting a goal for an objective that we are unlikely to achieve, simply for the sake of saying that we have set the goal, makes no sense. We might be emotionally excited by the commitment, but intellectually, when there is no intention or process to back it up, our subconscious recognizes this and acts accordingly (i.e. it determines that it is not important and we procrastinate or engage in other self-sabotage).
I was recently reminded by a friend of creating consequences for inaction. I scoffed at the idea, because certainly, I thought, if the benefit isn’t enough to motivate me, I have surely set the wrong goal. Perhaps I am unclear about my objective. Maybe I haven’t properly articulated my why. But then I reflect on all of the ways I have failed myself. All of my potential to act on something, however small, and all of my lackluster results. I remember that I expect much of myself, and think, why shouldn’t I, but then I look at my performance objectively, and I take note. And I realize that creating consequences for inaction is part of the equation, but that ultimately, maybe I should expect less and do more.
It might be more useful to envision my success less, and to take the steps, however small, to achieve it. I might come out of this with a greater respect and knowledge for myself if I work on my craft while scared, uncertain, unpolished, and imperfect. Perhaps I am a diamond in the ruff, and realizing and actualizing my best form is eons away. I will never get to the jewels, however, if I don’t dig for them, but stand to the side daydreaming, shovel in hand, because I’m so enamored with the end visual of my achievement. I am as guilty of this as all of us. I distract myself with the future or geek out on the tools designed to help make my journey easier. Or I become so involved in reading about how the experts use these tools to their benefit, or I listen to people talk about carving their own tools with their bare hands, and tapping into the gold mines of their own genius and imagination.
When I have more time, more money, more help, more energy, more success. When I am more I can do better. That’s a given but I will never be more until I force myself to examine why I think myself less, and whether question whether I actually get up and consistently do what I need to, to make manifest the things that I want. Until I put myself in an uncomfortable space and squeeze out as many answers on why I do not challenge myself or how my inability to produce is influenced by this idea of perfectionism, I will be at a standstill.
This very wrong idea of perfectionism “translated,” means that I am so skilled, that nothing less than perfection is acceptable. Perhaps if I take a step back and acknowledge that I’m actually not as dope as I want to be (yet), but that I can be with more time dedicated to my endeavor. Eventually, I can get to a place where my actual skill matches my best-imagined version of an awesomely-supreme self, then I can feel ok. Maybe that moment will never happen but if I work at it enough, perhaps I will have more moments of honesty and greater insights into where and how I can adjust, in order to do better. This is my hope. This is what I strive for daily–identifying the thing that gets me closer to my best version of self, and doing it, consistently, until eventually, I become better.
It is important to capture ourselves, as we are progressing. Recording a moment in time as it happens is one of the most truthful, yet subjective acts that we can commit to. Some people do it through video, others through pictures, yet still, others capture their moments through words. I have a preference for the written word, but engage in all forms of capturing memory.
I was recently reminded of the importance of documenting ourselves, when I listened to a video that I had recorded exactly one year ago. I sounded harried and frantic, and overwhelm was very present as I described how determined I was to be productive, even though I woke up at 7am instead of 5am. I talked about my teething child and the unpredictability of a morning routine when you have a young child, my want to walk away with a victory at the end of the day, regardless of the things I failed to accomplish, and how important it was to adjust in life, or to accomplish tasks in the margins of life (when the big space in the middle is sometimes occupied by the big things in our lives), and it was evident (at least to me) how much I was trying to convince myself, that if I did one thing, if I could accomplish at least something, it would act as a life raft, to keep me from drifting away in a sea of my own challenges.
First, let me acknowledge that I was very intentional last year about documenting myself, and so while I was truly engaging, there was an undertone of studying self-awareness when I went about my tasks. That is to say, that it was almost like editing while I was writing–writing for the sake of itself, and then editing, and also narrating why I was editing. I make this disclosure because I know that as humans, if we are at once conscious of doing a thing, while seeking a specific result from doing it we sometimes find ourselves telling an unknown story, instead of watching it unfold. That is ultimately why I stopped documenting by video and focused more on doing–but more on that later.
When I began documenting myself, I did it as an accountability mechanism, and also one to remove the fear of being transparent with people who did not know me personally, but could judge me anyway. I documented my challenges, the things that I got right and what I thought led me to getting these things right, and what lessons I was learning from all of my challenges, wins, and stagnancy. I also wanted to generally track my time (at least for a period), so that I could make determinations about the tasks I needed to eliminate from my life and schedule, where I could use the most help and who I could identify as the people who would help me, and which tasks, if I could complete them, would bring about the most reward, or get me closer to my goals and accomplishing them.
Two things occurred to me while viewing this video of myself: (1) how important it is to document our lives, so that we can see our path to growth, and make corrections and adjustments as necessary, and (2) why the written word is more powerful at times, then documenting this process through other mediums. With the former, I had taken for granted that there was a process to accomplishment. For so long, I had become used to setting a goal, and then whittling away until I accomplished it. With this frame of thinking I oftentimes repeated mistakes, and failed to really see the nuances in learning experiences because I had a singular vision to accomplish that particular goal. In documenting my life, I don’t just have the ability to speak in the past tense about something I did or completed, but the memory of traversing through unknown forest and how my fortitude was shaped by particular experiences and people and insights.
With the latter, I recognized exactly how important it is to engage regularly by writing. While technological advancements allow us to grab moments of time and watch them and repeat them exactly as they occurred, we sometimes lose a sense of the first person experience. In other words, with a picture or a video, we get the third person experience and we view an event taking place or people stilled in time in certain dress, with particular expressions, bearing as much as we can determine, a sentiment about the activity they were engaged in. With writing, however, we can remember how the thing unfolded, how we felt as it happened, what we heard, what we tasted, what we smelled, and all of these things contribute to a memory sometimes more powerfully, than a clear, crisp, non-pixellated image.
The benefit of writing down a moment in a journal–describing how we feel about a particular circumstance, what we saw, even what we tasted and smelled–is that it evokes such a sense of place and memory, that when we re-read it, we are in that place and time again, re-living and understanding that particular position. A picture cannot remind you of the air you tasted, or the feel of the sun on your skin, or how wonderfully ripe a fruit was, and how the memory of that smell still lingers with you–no a picture or a video shows, and then you make inference. While this inference is sometimes necessary, and an exciting part of viewing a film, when we are cataloguing our lives, it seems more useful to have a guide that gives brief insights into our sensory selves, captured at the height of these moments.
When I decided to stop video-journaling and capturing my moments through video, it was because I found myself narrating more than I did acting on my own behalf. As I was tracking my time, I saw that I spent a good deal of it on preparation and talking about doing or working on “the thing” (in this case writing), and less time actually writing, or studying writing, or improving upon my own. I was a test subject in my experiment on becoming better, and I found that I was succeeding at documenting my journey, but failing at pursuing my goal. When the documentation was getting in the way of the work, I had to step aside to evaluate what I really wanted, and what I needed to do to get what I wanted. It was especially useful, then, to look at the notes of my life, the things that I had scribbled “in the margins” to inform myself of what I wanted, but to also remember, and to use that memory to bookmark a particular point in my journey.
Don’t get me wrong, I still take video of moments, and I take pictures, but I try to engage. I don’t want to be the person that tries to capture every moment through a lens instead of actually living it. This applies to capturing moments with my children and husband, and also capturing myself. I believe it a useful exercise to document through writing and to use pictures and video as a supplement. For the importance of my own journey I want to be the protagonist, not the narrator. I think journaling is important in helping make that distinction.
One of the greatest challenges to productivity, is creating time to work on the things that matter most. While it makes sense to make the time that you have count, it is also imperative to create pockets of opportunities to get things done. While it would be great to wait for opportunities to arise, or for the stars to align in order to tackle some of our largest projects, we often are not gifted with the perfect set of circumstances that give us the time and space to work on our goals. This is why we have to be proactive and create those spaces where there appear to be no opportunities to do so.
One of the keys to finding time when it is scarce, is to conduct an audit of your schedule to determine where there is waste of time, or where is an excess amount of time spent on activities with low returns. For example, if you watch more than 5 hours of television daily, perhaps you can shave off 30 minutes during each weekday, for a total of 2.5 extra hours each week to complete on a task that has a larger return or benefit in your life. Additionally, while auditing your schedule, you might determine that beneficial and necessary tasks, may not need to take as long as they take you at present. If you could shave off 15 minutes from dinner preparation by preparing the ingredients the day before, or preparing all of your meals for the week on Sunday, and only cooking on certain days, you could save up to an hour daily, which you could use towards working on writing, or exercising, or working on videos for your YouTube cooking channel.
Think of a schedule audit as very similar to a budget. When creating a budget, you allocate spending amounts for certain categories, and similarly, with a schedule audit, you must allocate time in the same way. By dedicating certain amounts of time for certain activities, on a regular basis, you can produce work on a more regular basis, or create time to do the things that matter most to you, with greater frequency. In the same way that a budget overtime produces larger gains by collective savings, a schedule audit produces similar productivity benefits.
One of the phrases that captures well the idea of creating time when there is a general scarcity, is writer Jeff Goins’ idea of living life in the margins. Goins’ compares life as the stuff in the middle of a piece of paper (wide or college ruled–your preference really), and the margins, where in grade school we were told to never write, as the empty, unused space that people rarely venture into. Life, similarly has immovable tasks like work, school, or family obligations that are placed in the middle, that occupy most of our time (justifiably so). Completing tasks in the margin, require that we employ strategies outlined above (auditing to determine where you can borrow from the larger tasks, or cut from unnecessary ones), in order to budget even smaller pockets of time to work on your larger objectives.
For example, an extra 15 minutes each day may not seem like much, but waking up 15 minutes earlier to exercise, or to journal, or meditate, or paint, or write, over a period of 30 days, you’ve gained 7.5 hours. In the span of a year, this expands to 90 extra hours. In combination with taking time away from other activities with a lower rate of return (with respect to the goals you’ve outlined for your life), you can create time where it was previously scarce, and create opportunities to engage in the work that matters most to you.
Obstacles. Challenges. Hurdles. We all have them. And when they present themselves in our lives, our first instinct is usually to fret. Before we can make an assessment about the gravity of the situation, before we can remind ourselves that we’ve been here, and we’ve seen this before in some respect, worry is typically our go-to. When we feel stress, particularly an overwhelming amount, our fight-or-flight mechanism conditions many of us to choose the latter–but that’s because there is a myopic view of stress that says that it can only be extremely harmful. There is, however, an upside to stress.
The other side of stress is that it pressures us to take action on items we have to, forces us to contemplate situations we’d rather forget, and provides us with enough information and input to make better decisions and to navigate difficult circumstances. We have the power to train ourselves on how to react to obstacles; in other words we all have the ability to use stress as a vaccine. Psychologists call it stress inoculation. While it may seem a high ideal, many of us have had incidents where, a looming deadline forced us to complete something we were lollygagging on, or a relative asked for help on something that needed to be done immediately and we couldn’t say no, but we managed to produce something pretty high quality in a relatively short period of time. This is not to encourage procrastination, but just to remind ourselves that stress can be good, but also to develop a mind that looks for opportunities in seeming challenges, because once you begin to do so, a challenge will never look the same again.
Stress is ultimately a response to a circumstance or situation that we find so challenging that we label it an obstacle. Obstacles are designed to disallow passage through a course. If our automatic response then, to what we perceive as a limit to achieving a goal, is to recede within ourselves and forget about our own capacity to resolve a situation, or remember a time where we flawlessly executed during a difficult set of circumstances, we lose the game before it is even played. Stress can affect people differently, so my intention is not to limit the intimidation or the physical responses one may have from it. Rather I hope that we can all begin to use this biological sensor, to help us achieve more.
If we can find it within ourselves to pay close enough attention to the pre-cursors to the challenges that we face, we can create a dynamic where our responses can tell us what we need to do first. For example, if a stressful situation causes you to block everything else out, and disregard your responsibilities, instead of allowing the overwhelm to set in first, do something that de-stresses you. Since stress is a response to a feeling of overwhelm, perhaps you can take a 10-minute walk to calm yourself, or take five minutes to articulate what possible solutions exist aside from the obvious, or use other techniques that are tailored particularly to you. This is so that, when a difficult circumstance arises, your automatic response is to address the situation at hand, even in some small way.
In this regard, stress can serve as a reminder of our ability to hand out butt-whoopings, to situations that try to stand in the way of our senses of tranquility or the path to our grind. It is up to us, ultimately to determine how we deal, and which tools we use to reveal to ourselves, how much stuff we are made of.
NOTES: Two books have worked to expand my ability to accept challenges and understand my capacity to withstand them. They are: The War of Art and The Obstacle is the Way.
My varsity basketball coach used to call us out for lollygagging and being lackadaisical, so those two words are forever embedded in my memory, and show themselves often–my apologies if you find its usage absurd.
Sometimes we get into huge knock-down, drag-out arguments with people we care about, or have simple (later resolved as complex) misunderstandings with people we are in relationship with, that change the nature and dynamic of that relationship. It happens. Sometimes these moments allow us to forge a deeper understanding of ourselves, and sometimes they force us to retreat deeper into our emotional selves rationalizing for once and all, that “this is why I don’t open up to people like this.”
It is inevitable in the human experience that someone will get something wrong about you. That someone who you think should know better, will make you two-dimensional. Their understanding of your particular actions or your statement in a moment will be construed to a deeply flawed assessment of who they think you are and what you represent. And sometimes in those moments our words fail us.
In the brittle seconds that pass before relationships are completely destroyed, we think of all of the things we could have said. Later we remember all of the interactions that they’ve had with us that deny who they claim us to be, but at the end of the day, it feels for naught because everyone truly is entitled to their own opinion. They feel as strongly about their position of who you are as you do. They are as deeply hurt or passionate about the events that form the past interaction as you are. Sometimes you cross the Rubicon never to return again to a place of understanding or of what you thought was an intact relationship. And sometimes that’s okay.
That familiarity that you crave, that understanding between humans probably wasn’t as resolute as you thought it was to begin with. They probably didn’t understand you–nor you them–as much as you thought you had. Sometimes as clichéd as this sounds and I know it is clichéd, people truly are in our lives for a season. Sometimes we evolve, and people from the past no longer enter the next realm with us.
We should give ourselves the space to lament or grieve or bemoan that loss, depending upon how close we were with that person. We should also grow from the experience by using that information to make better decisions about engagement with that person in the future, and with all individuals in general, afterwards.
For example, the interaction in the entirety of this relationship or friendship, and the disappointing incident specifically should both me learning opportunities. You should use it to determine how much of yourself you share with whom. You should also use this information to determine how much access that person has to you no matter their position and history in your life, thereby evaluating how you need them and on what terms. It’s easy to write people off, but it’s much harder and a more bitter pill to swallow to try to understand their perspective and to determine truly how their presence affects your life. It is up to you to make a decision about how necessary that connection is for your growth, flourishing, and survival.
Surely it hurts to get cut out of someone’s life with no explanation, or what feels like no regard. Sometimes, however, it is for the best. Perhaps the break is for their growth and for your own. Sometimes it’s just as hard for the cutter as the cuttee to make removals. Sometimes things will never ever be the same and there is no need to lament that fact. That is just life, and growth.
And at the end of the day, if everything in you tells you that this feels wrong, listen to your intuition. If the engagement and the interaction with that person feels off, then there is a reason. Stop doubting yourself if things are never on equal footing, never in a way that suits you and is true to who you are. If the friendship with that person consistently disrespects how you stand in your life, it may signal that you should love them from a distance. It may be healthier for you to invest less emotionally, interact without as much care, and engage in a way that is much healthier for you and truer to your growth.
It has taken some disappointing experiences to learn that truth but it is my own nonetheless.
When you feel disappointed with others and you analyze and over-analyze and reverse-analyze that first analysis, you don’t walk away with a sense of deep introspection but one of deep hurt and disappointment. People do that. Regularly. We disappoint one another. But it’s only because we had that much esteem for the other person to begin with.
It is our job then, afterwards to do the work of determining whether that esteem was deserved or misplaced. We have to figure out how, or if we want to continue our connectedness to those people. If so, we must develop a concrete way of engaging with them going forward, that does not open us up for more hurt, disappointment, and destruction.
Because sometimes some people ain’t shit. Or at least they aren’t when it comes to you. And it’s up to you to acknowledge that and determine whether you think their poor treatment of you is ok (hopefully you don’t). Then, remove yourself from that friendship, romantic relationship, family connection. It hurts and may perpetually suck. But you owe it to yourself to engage in ways that add to you, not ways that consistently detract from you. And it is stupid to justify bad treatment just because someone said else said you were supposed to allow an individual or group of individuals to engage to behave recklessly and not take you into consideration. You should never allow ill treatment simply because they’ve done it for so long. Life is too short to be in bad relationship for too long.
That’s a waste. For everyone involved. It takes too much energy to maintain that level of contempt or disdain. And maybe some people thrive off of bad juice. If you’re one of them, go get professional help. That’s not good. But if you’re not, remove yourself from a constantly draining, consistently negative, always misunderstanding dynamic and free yourself. It’s not your job to be someone else’s punching bag. Or to withstand their derision, or to always be at fault for their failure to see you as a three-dimensional person. That’s not a good place to be in.
If they are a person that has persistent flaws like all of us, it is important to be generous with your grace because you don’t know how much you might need it later. You can correct someone and still be in relationship. You can share your hurt and work through it. You can have a huge misunderstanding or argument and outline how each of you understood the other to mean exactly that or something else. These can be extremely difficult extremely emotional and uniquely challenging ongoing discussions to have. But if they are worth it, and the bond is worth it, as disappointing as it all is, it makes sense to save and reinvest in that connection in a way that promotes growth.
If they are not worth it then figure that out too and come up with a system that helps you easily identify how that interaction was destructive for you. Determine how much you lost of yourself and your time because of it. Recognize the pattern and traits of another person who may come into your life later, who behaves in the same way early on, so that you can distance yourself and not repeat the same mistakes.
Receive instruction from previous interactions. Don’t be plagued by the same inability to both allow people to consistently hurt and misjudge you, and believe that you are not worthy. Free yourself. Don’t think that just because you endured a difficult situation that you don’t have the capacity to learn how to have something in your life that is completely different. Work towards having something that is rewarding. Look for something that allows you to be at peace with yourself. Believe that your well-being and happiness matters, even if that means hurting someone else.