Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task. ~William James

Friday, February 26, 2010

Clutter's Little Blessings

Having family living in the New Orleans area for the past nineteen years has enriched my life in many ways.  (And yeah, there's all that other post-Katrina stuff, but we're not going there this morning.)  Not the least of my souvenirs from dozens of trips to the Big Easy are the exotic additions to my vocabulary--like beignet, and cafe au lait, and "Laissez le Bon temp rouler."   Like lagniape.  

Lagniappe is a regular Friday entertainment section in the Times Picayune, New Orleans' main daily newspaper.  It is also a word with a literary pedigree.  One online source reproduced a portion of a scholarly treatise from 1939 which quoted Mark Twain's discourse on the word in his 1883 publication, Life on the Mississippi, which I confess to having missed before today.  Twain's understanding is true to the first of the definitions above, deriving from the practice of shopkeepers demonstrating good will by throwing in something extra.  The proverbial thirteenth donut in a baker's dozen is the most frequently given example of this usage.  

As I have heard it used, its meaning has broadened to include any unexpected good thing.  Life's happy little surprises.  A sunny day in winter.  A chance meeting with an old friend.  The last free seat on the streetcar.  Things that bring a sudden smile, a lightness to our hearts.

Not something you would generally associate with clutter, particularly in this era of clean sweeps and downsizing, where clutter is a dirty word.  But something I have experienced, all the same, as a result of my less-than-orderly housekeeping.

I might also use the word "findings" to describe what I'm talking about.  Not the results of painstaking research efforts.  Not the gold and silver clasps and hooks and jump rings prized by beaders.  But literal locating of things misplaced, thought lost.  Things that surface serendipitously, and change the course of a day, a task, a relationship.  

Examples that come to mind would include letters from my dead father that occasionally drift into sight; a wedding ring from a previous marriage stirred from the bottom of a drawer while looking for something else; a picture of my boys as charming toddlers, left as a bookmark in a seldom-consulted volume.  The kind of things that take us back to old feelings, and remind us of things we meant to remember.  

The items I come across are not limited to the nostalgic.  Sometimes I find something truly useful, or needed, long after I have stopped searching.  Like one of a pair of earrings.  Or a missing screw, a long-overdue library book, or just the very tool to facilitate a repair I'm attempting.  Lagniappe.

It's a little like off-label prescribing, which results when we find therapeutic uses for treatments intended for other ailments.  A beneficial accident.  

I agree that sloppiness is probably not prescribed in any circumstance.  And maybe this is just my way of justifying bad habits, though I am not complacent about the chaos of my surroundings, and continue to intend to do better.  But in the meantime, I appreciate the gifts that come to me from an environment salted with memories and good fortune.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Where Do I Go to Exchange the Gift of Time?

I have had a shaky relationship with time for as far back as I can remember.  I get the basic math of it.  60 seconds in a minute.  60 minutes in an hour.  24 hours in a day.  7 days... and so on.  But for some reason, I am always running out of time.  

A funny expression, when you think about it. As if time were something you could zip over to the neighbors and borrow a cup of.  

When you come right down to it, a funny concept, really.  Why did we think it would be a good idea to measure and apportion our experience, to mark the movement from one moment to the next?  And why are some of us so bad at it?

When I was in college, I went through a phase of refusing to wear a watch.  I believed that strapping time to my wrist would transform me into some kind of automaton.  I was often late to classes and appointments, and I frequently annoyed strangers by parasitically requesting "the time."  Another strange notion, and figure of speech--"do you have the time?"  

As a mature adult, I am surrounded by "the time."  At least one clock in every room of my home, except the bathrooms.  A clock in each car.  A clock on my phones, both landline equipment and cell.  Clocks on my oven and microwave.  A clock on my blood pressure monitor.  A clock on my laptop.  And, of course, the watch I remove only to shower, whose tyranny is nearly constant.  Most of these timepieces maintain their very own version of "the" time, so that I am left to guess which tells the "right" time, i.e., the time that corresponds to the one those expecting me at a certain hour are relying on.

And then there's the difficulty I have in recognizing the limited nature of time.  Clearly, I hold, it is reasonable to plan to shower; dress; finish the dishes; medicate myself, the dog, and one offspring; dash off a few emails; conduct a last-ditch search for relevant notes; call my cell phone so it can tell me where it's hiding; climb into enough outerwear to brave a Midwest winter morning; find my keys; jump into a car left on fumes in the driveway; plow through several inches of snow to the street; stop for gas; contend with traffic slowed by self-same weather events; and make it to a meeting location which is, in the best of times, 20 minutes away--and all in the 25 minutes I allot!  This is the way I typically operate these days.  In between such periods, I stop scheduling outside commitments and stop trying to squeeze much of anything into the 24 hours which are apparently all we are supposed to expect in a day.  These times of shutdown, I guess, could be seen as restorative.

My fractured sense of time, on closer examination, is perhaps a byproduct of my inability to choose, and to prioritize.  Not sure what really has to get done?  No problem.  Just do it all!  Or try to.  And run like a greyhound after a fake rabbit in the process.  Even meditate by putting it on a list, cramming it in between two manic activities, and checking it off.  And when that full-tilt approach isn't working, or the price in mood and energy and dropped balls skyrockets, give up!  Don't do (much of) anything!

Of course, there's a diagnostic category for this type of behavior, one that was applied to my father, which thus I stand to inherit.  But then, there's a diagnostic category for virtually all human variability these days.  I resist these labels for the most part, though I try to learn what I can from their proponents about managing my more troublesome tendencies.  For most such difficulties, I am inclined to believe that the "answer" lies along Buddha's Middle Path.  I aspire to balance, and to equanimity.

Having written this, I will try to do what I can to restore some air in my agenda for today.  Time to breathe.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

I'm Not (Always) in the Mood

I'm going to come out of the closet (no, not that one) and admit to being in the ring with depression over the past few months.  My affliction, if it is that, is of the mild to moderate type, depending on what scale we use, and whose definition we go by.  This should come as no surprise to those perceptive readers who have tracked my book piles and attended to the web places I visit regularly.  Nor to those who see procrastination as a symptom of depression, or as a cause or precursor.  

My struggle with the blues is hardly remarkable for my place and time.  The most common estimates are that 20% of Americans are currently depressed.  (And the rest aren't really paying attention.)  Not yet nine years after 9/11, in the middle of a  severe economic "downturn" that has slowed our progress but not our frantic pace, and still mired in international conflict, it is little wonder that so many of us "just don't feel like it" these days--"it" ranging from parties, to work, and even to sex.  

I have been reading a lot about depression lately, because that's what I do when confronted with the circumstances of my life.  I was talking with a couple of people after church last Sunday, and sharing what I'd learned from reading about troubled offspring when my own were in situations similar to those another mother was bemoaning.  She asked why I would read about such things.  "Why would you put yourself through that?"  "Because that's how I cope," I answered.  I joked that the book piles around my bed, and work chair, and kitchen table could be "read" like tea leaves to reveal the state of my psyche in any given week.   A stack on grief.  One for depression.  Another for launching the post-secondary dyslexic learner.  

In reading about depression, I have been attempting to learn its meaning in my life, the significance of its recurrence after a stretch of years.  I have also been looking for a way out.  Because depression hurts, as anyone who has experienced it--even the squishy potato-like thingy in the Zoloft ads--can tell you.  Some of the sources I have consulted advise, rather, that the way out is into, and through the darkness.  And so I slog on.

But, even as I question the meaning of life, and the meaning of my life, more searchingly than I have for some time--returning to questions I thought I had answered--I still understand the momentary nature of our existence.  In case it matters, I want not to have "wasted" my time here.  So I am making lists, and making changes.  

It helps that I tend to agitated depression, so I can move, fueled as I am by nervous energy.  I have been buoyed by the humor and wisdom and practical guidance of Therese Borchard's blog, Beyond Blue.  (And I am happy to recommend her recently released book Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression & Anxiety and Making the Most of Bad Genes.)  Her journey is more arduous than mine, and her courage an exemplar.   Get it Done When You're Depressed, by Julie Fast, is another useful resource.  As is Broken Open:  How Difficult Times Can Help us Grow, by Elizabeth Lesser.

But in the end (or is it the beginning?), it all comes down to doing the next good thing, day by day, until the light returns.  And remembering to marvel at the miracle of it all, even in the midst of pain. 

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Procrastinating 101: Achieving Behind Our Own Backs

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I am always on the alert for ways to turn my faults into virtues. I was thus enchanted to come across Stanford professor John Perry's notion of "structured procrastination." On his website devoted to the approach, Perry tells us that in practicing structured procrastination 

one is in effect constantly perpetrating a pyramid scheme on oneself.

He goes on to say that 

virtually all procrastinators have excellent self-deceptive skills also.   And what could be more noble than using one character flaw to offset the bad effects of another?
So how exactly does this noble strategy work?  How do we turn our task-avoidance flax into gold?

Perry, himself a prolific producer of academic work whose curriculum vitae boasts a long and impressive list of books and articles, parts company with those who would have us eating frogs and beginning with our highest priority tasks.  He advises, instead, that we maintain lists full of useful and important things to do, topped by something we want to put off.  In his words,

the procrastinator can be motivated to do difficult, timely and important tasks, as long as these tasks are a way of not doing something more important.  
The ideal "top priority" task, in Perry's view, is one that seems crucial, but isn't really; and one that appears to have a firm deadline, but doesn't really.  Clearly, we wouldn't want to put "Administer CPR to stricken family member" in that position.  Nothing else we could accomplish while postponing lifesaving measures would yield satisfying results.  Or make us look particularly good (saving face), which is part of the appeal of Perry's method. 

I'm thinking, in my own case, that "finish dissertation" probably functioned in this way for me, for years.  Clearly, "the dreaded d-word" was my frog for much of that time.  In Alan Lakein's schema, outlined in How to Get Control of Your Time and Life (1973), production of the anticipated tome was my "A1" task.  In the words of Ford's retired ad campaign, it was "Job One."

And yet, while not doing my dissertation, I managed to parent three children, become a performance poet, teach college, become a special education paraprofessional, refashion myself as a self-trained low-level healthcare worker, co-author a smattering of important academic articles, rewire my stove, build a backyard fence, plunge countless toilets and unclog legions of sluggish drains, abide by most laws, make and keep friends, join a new religion, participate in endless numbers of protests and rallies and campaigns, take up meditating, and other achievements and milestones "too numerous to mention."  I was obviously not idle.

The problem I have with this style of procrastination--we might call it "Procrastination Lite--is that I still feel so bad about not doing the thing I most wanted to do.  You could say I'm onto myself.  I'm no good at the "man behind the curtains" ruse.  No Madoff, I.  I see through my efforts to dazzle myself with this plethora of feats.  Under it all, I am still A.B.D., and will most likely go to my grave so. (Hopefully, no one will be crass enough to chisel the letters in stone above me.)

Although, if I think about it, my dissertation probably never belonged in the place of "honor" at the top of the list.  As a mother who experienced the arrival of each of my three children as the result of a different form of Himalayan trek, I always valued them above all else.  I have said many times that, when "push came to shove," my kids came first.  And push just kept coming to. . . you guessed it.

It probably makes sense to give myself some credit for having managed to fool myself into doing what mattered most.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Done for the Week: Where Does All the Time Go?

Monday again.  

Unbelievable, when last Monday was about two minutes ago.    If I look at the time counter on this blog page, I see that 2010 is 14% complete.  And yet, I am still congratulating myself on writing the correct year on checks--on those rare occasions when I'm not using plastic, which knows better than I do what month, day and year it is.

14% into the twelve months I have allotted to get my stuff together and start putting it to bed, to revise the habits of a lifetime, and these weekly "done lists" still look and feel paltry, to my self-judging eye.  I probably should have established a baseline, so that the changes I am straining to maintain would be more evident.  Just for the record, items 1, 4, 8 and 12 are pretty big deals, things that represent significant departures from previous behavior.  3 and 11 are things I've done in the past, but that I am working, with mixed results, to make more regular.

Done List--Week of Feb. 15-21, 2010 (See, I got the year right again!)
  1. Completed Week 7 of Couch Potato to 5K Training
  2. Finished Coyote, by Linda Barnes, and Beyond Blue, by Therese Borchard
  3. Walked my grateful dog most days, including 2 trips to the hallowed dog park
  4. Took my blood pressure daily
  5. Went on one college visit with teenager
  6. Survived two part-time jobs for another week
  7. Attended 3 meetings; scheduled 2 more
  8. Published 5 blog posts
  9. Survived best efforts of gym's freebie personal trainer to kill me, again
  10. Baked brownies for church celebration
  11. Meditated 2 times
  12. Met with therapist to work on grief
  13. Completed kamikaze[1] kitchen cleaning
  14. Started new children's book
  15. Revised poem
I don't know if next week's list will be any more amazing, but having put last week to bed, I am ready to begin again.  My intention is to enjoy as many of the hours before me as I can, and to accept my efforts with equanimity. 

[1] common translation: "divine wind"  Note:  no living beings were harmed in either the performing of this task, or the writing of this blog.  

Friday, February 19, 2010

Ten Time-Tested Time Wasters

Wasted time is on my mind this morning.  Could it have something to do with having agreed to spend what turned out to be two full hours last night on the receiving end of a "free" carpet cleaning?  Of course, there's no such thing as a free lunch, or carpet cleaning, or laptop whose lure keeps "popping up" on my computer screen.  A lesson I should have learned long ago, you might think.  

But years of drift, which might sound like but has little in common with the "flow" we keep hearing so much about, have strengthened some bad habits.  One of these is reflexive agreeability.  Since I haven't always had the clearest idea of what I wanted and needed to be doing with my time, I have been pretty sloppy about allowing others to claim large chunks of it.  Last night may have served as an inoculation.  

The young man who used his amazing machine to pull up disgusting amounts of dog hair and what he discretely referred to as "human ash" from my 30-year-old once-terra-cotta wall-to-wall was doomed from the get-go.  What he was trying to sell me came with a sticker price equivalent to a functional car my teenagers would die for.  Or the medical bills we are struggling to pay as my professor-husband's salary shrinks with involuntary furloughs.  Or the amount  my human-vacuum teenage boys would like to spend on fast food in a month.  No way to squeeze the low, low monthly payments into the household red ink columns.  All in all, an all-around waste of time.

So with this experience fresh, I have jotted down a few things I mean to do less of.  Notice I have not said "avoid entirely."  A certain amount of off-task activity may be needed to keep me sane.  And I've already given up "Countin' flowers on the wall....Smokin' cigarettes and watchin' Captain Kangaroo."

Ten Time-Tested Time Wasters
  1. Agreeing to stuff just to be agreeable.  See above.
  2. Farming on Facebook.  If I don't visit the game page, I don't have to see my withered crops and fallow fields.
  3. Playing Solitaire 'til Dawn.  Yes, it was mentioned in the Statler Brothers' song referenced above.  The addictive computer game borrowed the name, but does at least allow the "user" to play with a full deck, not the song's clearly futile "deck of 51." 
  4. Googling old lost friends and acquaintances.  Not really compatible with the "be here now" maxim I aspire to.
  5. Attending meetings with "time-wasting morons."  Scott Adams had this one right.  I would add that doing so automatically makes me one.
  6. Finishing books I've lost interest in, just because I started reading them.
  7. Surfing the net in general, looking for dread diseases I might have, arcane solutions to household problems, freebies I could pick up from Freecycle, or incredible deals on Craigslist and ebay.
  8. Aimless shopping.  Enough said.
  9. Taking out so many library books that I could never read them all, and renewing them so many times that I end up having to dust them.
  10. Feeling bad about all the time I've wasted in the past.
Having admitted publicly to indulging in such low priority activities may prove antidotal.  It should at least raise the profile of time wasters, so that I am more acutely aware of their cumulative effect.  And increase the squirm factor should I start to slide.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Musings of a Decluttering Agnostic

Does This Clutter Make My Butt Look Fat?   I confess to having spent too much of the past couple of decades immersed in clutter--both actual clutter, and the emerging pop culture fixation on clutter.

From my quick and dirty online search this morning, I learned that, unlike the poor, we have only had "clutter" with us (as a term, anyway) since the 16th century.  In using the word as a noun, we are referring to "a disorderly heap or assemblage; litter."  "Declutter," a verb having to do with the removal of the aforementioned noun, has not yet made it into most dictionaries, despite being ubiquitous on bookshelves, in blogs, in magazines, and on business cards.  

The earliest mention of decluttering that I have come across was in this thirty-year-old book entitled Cleaning and the Meaning of Life : Simple Solutions to Declutter Your Home and Beautify Your Life by Paula Jhung (1980).  Ms. Jhung was way ahead of the pack, predating the voluntary simplicity movement, which a 2008 New York Times article traces to 1980s Seattle.  According to Wikipedia, that movement, with its admonitions of simple living, has roots in Iron Age India (1200-272 B.C.).  Recent years have produced what we might term "a disorderly heap or assemblage" of books and articles and TV programs and experts holding forth in all available forums on clutter and decluttering.  And I have read and watched and listened to more than my share.

I feel spiritually drawn to images of decluttered space.  You know the ones--warm diffuse light washing over clear shiny surfaces, unfurnished spaces, gleaming floors and windows.  And of course, the obligatory single floral stem in a clear vase of water.  But I feel sinful and unredeemed as I gaze at my own surroundings.  Two teenage boys, a work-obsessed spouse and a shedding Labrador/greyhound, along with having lived in the same house through two marriages and three kids, are not exactly conditions for maintaining an uncluttered look.  

I have not sunk to the status of the hoarders we have begun to identify among us, and on whom we have trained the fascination usually reserved for train wrecks.  These individuals are held up as negative examples on shows that document the horrors of their material imprisonment, counsel them to repent and reform, and take them through exorcisms ("purging") designed to cleanse their souls and their environs alike.  Properly shamed and penitent, they vow to do better in the wake of their broadcast interventions.

I suspect that many of us who do not qualify as "The Messiest Home in America" still fall short of the decluttered ideals to which we are so universally exhorted.  And though we are urged to take on massive makeovers of our lives and our habitats, how many of us have the time, or the emotional stamina in this stressful era, to mount this kind of effort?  What are we to do, in the face of this cultural obsession with order and economy, in the midst of a society which proliferates goods and entices us to buy them?

For myself, I have determined to keep decluttering in its place.  I still aspire to the aesthetic.  And I want to continue to give myself and my family the gift of order and spaciousness that results from focusing on straightening one room, one drawer, one corner.  But I don't want to sit in our home, as I eat and talk and play and work and relax with the people I love, and lash myself, or them, for our less-than-perfect state of affairs.  Decluttering as a religious scruple is mental clutter I cannot afford. 

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

My Love/Hate Relationship with Productivity

Productivity makes me edgy.  Being good in general puts me in a nervous state.  Like now I have something to lose, I guess.

Theoretically, and "according to research," we are supposed to feel better when we get more done.  This good feeling translates into more positive energy, and less avoidance of previously shame-inducing tasks, leading to greater productivity, which leads to. . . . You get the picture.

And I admit to experiencing a minor high from finishing things, a feeling that has been more frequent of late.  So why is my anxiety level creeping up as I move further along in my "recovery" from chronic procrastinating?  

I suspect this has to do with two issues, in addition to the "bad angel" one I raised at the outset.  The first problem is that I associate task-oriented effort with somewhat manic states, with growing lists and increasingly feverish activity focused on checking off items.  Kind of like Skinner's randomly rewarded pigeons pecking keys nonstop.  I think of myself as having a cut-rate switch with only two positions--"Off" and "Full-tilt."  I fear both extremes, and the emotional and life fallout associated with them.

The second concern is existential.  What is the meaning of all this newly reclaimed productivity?  Are the things I'm getting done the "right" things, whatever that means?  And whose priorities predominate?  What balance of quantity and significance of accomplishments is best?  How many dog walks and declutterings equal one novel?

I have recently encountered in a couple of places the notion that negative emotional states can represent energy for change, and that instead of attempting to escape them, we should make use of them to propel us forward--again, wherever that is.  Any new situation or surrounding engenders some unease in many of us.  The resultant anxiety focuses us and, if kept at a bearable level, can support new learning.  So I suppose I should feel the edginess, and do it anyway.  And I think I should pay attention to matters of mania and meaning.  I probably need to keep asking myself why I'm putting some things on my to do list, and monitoring my down-time to "work"-focused-time ratio.

And perhaps most importantly, it seems wiser to aim, not to achieve some state of perfect productivity, but to be more productive, and to define productivity according to values that make sense to me.  

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Procrastinating 101: Absolving Ourselves

Timothy Pychyl is something of a procrastination guru.  The Canadian psychology professor writes the procrastination blog Don't Delay for Psychology Today, provides weekly updates to his iProcrastinate Podcasts, co-creates an instructional, but nonetheless entertaining comic strip entitled Carpe Diem, and heads the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University in Ottawa.  (He is also, apparently, a sled dog musher and "Mr. Mum," which, while interesting, is probably off-topic.)  

Pychyl and his team of researchers have much to teach us, including their recently published finding that "self-forgiveness" for procrastination significantly reduces subsequent procrastinating.[1]  In a study of 119 university freshman, using self-report measures of procrastination and self-forgiveness prior to each of two midterms exams, they learned that:

  1. Forgiving oneself for procrastinating on a given task is related to less procrastination on a similar task in the future.
  2. This relationship is mediated by negative affect, such that self-forgiveness reduces procrastination by reducing negative emotions.
  3. The presence of this relationship depends on the extent to which the individual procrastinated on the first task. In our study, only at high levels of procrastination on the first exam was self-forgiveness negatively related to procrastination on the second exam.
Okay.  So what does it mean to forgive ourselves?  According to Pychyl,
There are three essential parts to self-forgiveness. First of all, one must acknowledge the commission of an objective wrong and accept responsibility for that wrong.
Been there, done that. 
Secondly, one must then experience feelings of guilt and regret.
Check, and check. 
Finally, one must overcome these feelings (i.e., self-forgiveness), and, in doing so, experience a motivational change away from self-punishment toward self-acceptance. 
Not so much, yet.

But why does it matter if we forgive ourselves for putting things off?  Pychyl articulates the reasoning behind his team's investigation in this way:

[W]e argue that self-forgiveness for procrastinating may play a role in helping people overcome the negative effects of procrastination and encourage a change in behavior. If procrastination is viewed as a transgression against the self and results in negative feelings such as guilt, forgiving oneself for procrastinating should reduce this feeling. By reducing emotional distress associated with procrastination, the individual becomes less likely to avoid the stimulus associated with the feelings in the first place (i.e., studying for an exam). Moreover, because self-forgiveness is typically accompanied by a vow to change one's behavior in the future, this encourages the individual to engage in approach behaviors rather than behaviors motivated by avoidance. Thus self-forgiving for procrastinating may make it less likely that the individual will be motivated to avoid unpleasant tasks like studying and more likely that he or she will approach success by procrastinating less in the future.

In a conversation on NPR's Talk of the Nation in June of 2008, Dr. Pychyl further indicated a gender component to the self-forgiveness/procrastination connection, discussed in more detail in an earlier Don't Delay blog.  Basically, females tended to feel worse about having procrastinated in the first instance; and the effect of self-forgiveness was strongest for those who reported moderate or high levels of procrastination.  Pychyl speculates about why this would be so:
Based on previous research we've done, we think it may be explained by self-worth. Procrastination is related to self-worth or self-esteem for females but not males. So, to the extent that procrastination threatens sense of self, there is more of a transgression against self, more need for self-forgiveness and more of what I'm loosely calling "redemption."

So, basically, I'm in good shape here.  I'm a woman.  I feel lousy about procrastinating.  I have procrastinated at least moderately, have admitted my sins and experienced guilt and regret.  Now all I have to do is  "get over it."  I'm working on it.  Without delay. 

[1] Wohl, M. J. A., Pychyl, T.A., & Bennett, S.H. (2010) I forgive myself, now I can study: How self-forgiveness for procrastinating can reduce future procrastination. Personality and Individual Differences (2010), doi:10.1016/j.paid.2010.01.029

Monday, February 15, 2010

Done for the Week: So Many Hours, So Little to Show for Them

Last week was not fun.  I had started dreading it days before it began.  

For many years, the best thing about my unambitious personal plans was the amount of down-time in between crises--kind of like the stereotypical cop shift of donut stops and shoot-outs.  Maybe I'm spoiled, but I seem to need blocks of unscheduled time --or at least time to sandwich in scheduled relaxation.  Each morning last week began early, with an alarm.  Each day featured an overflowing list of necessary tasks, and required racing from one appointment to the next.  A sizable snow storm cancelled only my meditation group.  My hurried, harried state cancelled my individual meditation.  My dog walks were fast and short.  Meals were on the run, or snatched from the meager pickings at evening meetings.  And trust me, woman cannot live on Doritos alone!  

And after all this "effort," mostly in the service of the more miniscule of my part-time jobs,  volunteer activities, and my children, I can't point to much in the way of results.  My blood pressure is up, and I'm no picnic to be around.  The coming week threatens more of the same.  Here's the week's results:
  1. Completed Week 6 of Couch Potato to 5K Training
  2. Finished A Trouble of Fools, by Linda Barnes; Writing in an Age of Silence, by Sara Paretsky
  3. Walked my grateful dog most days, despite blizzard and crazy week
  4. Took my blood pressure daily
  5. Went on one college visit with teenager; set up another
  6. Worked disproportionately hard at two part-time jobs
  7. Attended 7 meetings; scheduled three more
  8. Published 5 blog posts
  9. Survived best efforts of gym's freebie personal trainer to kill me
  10. Bought plane tickets for New Orleans trip
  11. Celebrated teenager's birthday
  12. Began working on submitting children's book for publication
  13. Provided 3 a.m. mothering to distressed teenager
As I negotiate the coming week's commitments and surprises, I will try to keep in mind the hamster wheel effect, and leave some time to breathe.  

Friday, February 12, 2010

To Do or Not To Do

On this final day of a jam-packed week, I am thinking about to do lists.  I have been maintaining a daily list since beginning this blog, and initiating this recovery tale. My new calendar has a built-in space for listing tasks, with the little check boxes I have been drawing on my lists for years.  I am working to recast "the list" more as tool than tyrant.  But, as I suspect is the case for many of us procrastinators, I retain some ambivalence about the practice of "order-ing" myself to do things.  (This post will now be briefly interrupted while I rush over to my calendar and record the urgent tasks just phoned in by my boss.)

Okay.  I'm back.  Now where was I?  Oh, yes.  The subject was not roses, but the much ballyhooed to do list.  That centerpiece of nearly every organizational approach I've ever consulted in my previous attempts to get it together. That source of indigestion littered with empty boxes indicating non-completion.  That destroyer of spontaneity.  That scourge of modern civilization. . . . Oops!  Am I being a wee bit negative here? 

My intention this morning, before I return to the fold of compliant list-followers, is to present the following list of ways to deal with the to do list.  I have purposely intermixed serious and ridiculous ideas without judgment, as in the very best brainstorming.  I leave it for the reader to decide which are which.

How to Deal With To Do Lists:  14 Possible Strategies 
  1. Maintain a running list, and leave items on until they are moot. For example, keep "Send get well card" on until the intended recipient has recovered or died.
  2. Cheat and pretend you did it
  3. Loosely define "completed;" feel the shame and check it off anyway
  4. Close your eyes, hold your nose, screw up your courage and DO IT!
  5. Maintain a "to don't" list 
  6. Do as Therese Borchard recommends in her Beyond Blue blog, making the list in pencil and moving things to another day when feeling stressed
  7. Take some days off, daring to dispense with "the list"
  8. Salt the list with easily checked-off items, such as "breathe" and "drink coffee"
  9. Lose the list. Literally. When it surfaces years later, you will be amazed at how many of the things on the list ultimately got done. I call this the time capsule solution.
  10. Ball it up and throw it 
  11. Mount the list on a dartboard. Use darts to determine which tasks to attempt. If you're bad at darts, like I am, you may get lucky and miss them all.
  12. Think of the list as a guideline and short-term memory substitute--not a report card.
  13. Try to keep the list realistic. Pass up the temptation to include heroic achievements, like "cure cancer" or "attain Nirvana" among a day's targets.
  14. Write the list in disappearing ink.
Hopefully, some or all of these suggested strategies will prove useful in our never-ending quest for truth, justice and a "productive day."  And now, it's back to the salt mines, er, I mean my list.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Thtuck! (and Unthtuck)

Remember Ralphie's friend Flick in the movie A Christmas Story? He was "triple-dog-dared" to put his tongue on an icy flagpole in the schoolyard, and eventually needed the fire department to free him.  My blog title attempts to spell his plaintive cry, pronunciation compromised by the situation.

I have been struck (not stuck) recently by the multiplicity of book titles coming to my attention which feature the word "stuck." Recently published examples include these:

Stuck: Why We Can't (or Won't) Move On by Anneli S. Rufus (2008); Stuck! Break Out of Your Emotional Prison and Get on With Your Life by John Volkmar (2006); Why We Stay Stuck by Tom Joseph (2007); the especially intriguing If the Buddha Got Stuck: A Handbook for Change on a Spiritual Path by Charlotte Sophia Kasl (2005); and the stripped-down Stuck! by Terry Walling (2008) and Stuck by Elisabeth Rose (2009).

Others approach the subject more from the fire department perspective, focusing on "unstuck," as in:    Unstuck: Your Guide to the Seven-Stage Journey Out of Depression by James S. Gordon (2009); Unstuck: A Supportive and Practical Guide to Working Through Writer's Block by Jane Anne Staw (2004); Getting Unstuck by Don Kerson (2008); Simple Acts of Moving Forward: 60 Suggestions for Getting Unstuck by Vinita Hampton Wright (2009);  Getting Unstuck: Breaking Your Habitual Patterns & Encountering Naked Reality [With Earbuds] by Pema Chodron (2009) (a "Preloaded Digital Audio Player"); Getting Unstuck Without Coming Unglued: Restoring Work-Life Balance by Sharon Teitelbaum (2005), and also apparently concerned with remaining intact in the process, Getting Unstuck Without Coming Unglued: A Woman's Guide to Unblocking Creativity by Susan O'Doherty (2007).

I have already read or am reading a few of these works.  I probably won't be able to resist several others.  Pooh Gets Stuck (Isabel Gaines, 1999) remains one of my favorite children's books (despite one Amazon reviewer's insistence that it is really about constipation, and not metaphysically).  You might say I'm stuck on "stuck" and "unstuck."

But why do so many of us want to read and write about being stuck?  Is this moment in our cultural history particularly characterized by the sense of being mired?  The book titles imply the experience of having broken down on the way to some destination, like the Isuzu Trooper that either was or wasn't "stuck in the mud"--I could never remember which, though the phrase "stuck" in my head.  But where is it we are trying to go?

Other images come to mind, from Flick and his icy pole to pinned entomological specimens--though now that I think about it, I believe (and hope) that insects are dead before being mounted.  But the core of the stuckness with which we are so concerned appears to be the inability to move.  This especially interests me, since the first thing I think of in response to that observation comes from my training in meditation--the advice to "Be here now," to sit (literally) with whatever is, without struggling. And yet Buddhists and mindfulness meditators are also speaking and writing in the language of "stuck."

For whatever it's worth, I am very recently engaged in a process that feels like getting unstuck.  I am moving into new places and ways of being.  I may not know where I'm going; may, in fact, not be going anywhere.  But I am breaking free of some old inertia.  And movement is at the core of what distinguishes the living from the unliving.  I am no longer quite so "thtuck!"

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

When Plans Go Awry

One of my favorite coffee mugs was given to me by one of my children.  It was black, with white lettering declaring that "Shit Happens."  I used to drink from it daily, to remind myself--as if I needed reminding--of life's vicissitudes.  Of course, after a relatively brief reign of intact splendor, "shit happened" to my cup.  It was repurposed as a miscellaneous container and lived in deeply chipped glory on my bathroom vanity, beverageless--until some more shit happened.  The cup is gone, but the shit continues.

I'm not sure why so many of us seem to rely on life being routine and predictable.  Between hurricanes and earthquakes and terrorist attacks, you'd think we'd get the message.  And how about all those mugs, t-shirts, bumper stickers and bestsellers marching across our consciousness, driving home the same point?  WE ARE NOT IN CONTROL!  But damn, we want to be.  And none more than me.

And yet the free spirit in me frequently contrives with the evil genie of life to place myself square in the center of the action.  I'm the one adopting as a single parent; taking the insanely demanding job; dating and then marrying the passionately work-obsessed world-changer with three kids; commuting to New Orleans; woman-ing the barricades.  Giving myself no quarter.

But this seemingly brave self is a front.  I definitely "Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway," as the popular self-help book advises.  And then here I am, shaking in my boots, when the you-know-what starts rolling in.

I've managed over the years to ride some pretty big waves, if not with alacrity than at least with aplomb.  But it's the little stuff that threatens my composure and, more to the point, my recurring efforts to reform. It's the first day missed of a new exercise regimen, or the first bite of forbidden dessert, or the bed once unmade, or the dishes left undone that undoes me.  Perfectionism raises its ugly little head and tries to take me down with its venom.

I've been holding my breath the last few weeks, waiting for the shoe of the unexpected to drop.  And frankly, I'm surprised it's taken this long.  Although, looking back, I see that I've been looking ahead for routine-busters and planning my moves around them.  Early morning meetings?  Get up earlier to blog.  Scheduled 5K training time encroached upon?  Reschedule for later in the day.  Sick kids?  Scale back the to-do list, make the chicken soup run or the doctor's appointment, and keep going.

But I didn't see yesterday coming.  All my adroitness in shushing around the moguls of an early meeting, followed by back-to-back commitments, a much-heralded snowstorm, getting plowed in at one job and having to dig out, rescheduling my workout--and thinking I'd dodged a bullet when at least the gym stayed open--couldn't save my scheduled training session.  A friend from the job that didn't plow me in  called as I was heading out, needing a long confidential talk I'd promised earlier and forgotten.  When I got off the phone, it was too late to get to the gym.  And jogging in a blizzard would clearly not do.  And by then literally "off track," I didn't walk the dog.  And I didn't substitute meditating at home for my snowed out meditation group.  At the end of a busy, crazy day, I had expended lots of energy but accomplished very few of my own core tasks, the ones that signal to me that I'm trying to do things differently.

So I wake up this morning dreading "the slide."  You know, that downward drift set in motion by some unplanned interruption and the small resulting "failure," and the sense that we can't hold back the tide of that substance celebrated by my luckless cup.  And really, why bother trying?

But platitudes and maxims swim in my head.  I need to "just do it," "get back on the horse," and "keep going" though the going will probably get tough.  I can squeeze yesterday's workout into today.  My dog will get his walk.  I can meditate before work.  I can continue scanning the daily horizon for bummers and surprises, and coming up with midcourse corrections.  And I can try to keep enough air in my schedule that I can implement hastily crafted Plan B, or C, or L, or even Z if it comes to that.

And I can stop fooling myself about the amount of control I can expect in this crap shoot, and stop aiming for 10's.