be like the ducks

No, the title of this post is not referring to the Mighty Ducks. {But you can be like them, too.}

I’m talking about literal mallard ducks. Let me explain.

This afternoon, I went on a lovely walk at the lake by our apartment — we are so fortunate to live near an amazingly gorgeous recreation area and I am trying to take full advantage of it before we move! It was a beautiful, sunny, clear winter day. The lake was so still it looked like a sheet of blue-green glass.

As I gazed down at the lake, I noticed some ripples close to the shore. Floating in the water was a cluster of ducks. One was paddling around, looking just like a toy duck floating in the bathtub. But the other two were nothing more than little duck behinds–their entire heads and necks were submerged in the water as they scrounged around for lake grub. It was a pretty adorable sight. I smiled to myself and kept walking.

At first, I thought the ducks were nothing more than a peaceful sight. But, as I walked along, my thoughts kept coming back to them. Nature was reminding me of an important lesson.

Lately, I’ve been feeling more distracted than usual. I came into 2018 feeling a little bit “behind” — I wasn’t planning on undergoing surgery at the end of 2017, and instead of launching into the new year full-throttle I eased into it slowly, letting my body and spirit recover. That was soon followed by an emergency trip to Ventura to visit my Gramps in the hospital, and then a fun trip to NYC to visit my brother. When I returned to my everyday life at the end of January, I felt like I was in full-on “catch up” mode — responding to what felt like an avalanche of emails, unpacking my bags and finally taking down the Christmas decorations, scheduling students and clients, trying to get organized.

The result? Dizzying distraction. My mind has been spinning itself silly as it bounces around a list of tasks I “need” to do or “should” be doing; no matter what I’m working on, it feels like I should be working on something else. My attention zooms from responding to an email to drafting a blog post, but before I finish I jump over to prep for a student appointment I have later, and oh wait I should probably get dinner started…

Does this sound familiar to anyone else?

And when the day is done, I’m left feeling depleted — like I’ve spent all day with my butt in the chair in front of my computer, and I don’t quite know what I have to show for it.

Yesterday as I drove home from work, I listened to an episode of The Minimalists’ podcast where they answered questions from the audience at one of their speaking events. A woman asked for advice on how to make time for priorities. “It seems like I never have time for what I most want to do,” she said. I found myself nodding along.

Joshua and Ryan’s advice was simple yet profound. Their words were exactly what I needed to hear. {Why are the simplest things often the hardest to actually implement?} They advised her to schedule in FIRST — not last — the tasks that are most important to her, that speak to her core values, that relate to her passion projects. Then she can fill the rest of her calendar with other tasks and obligations and desires. But if she leaves her own priorities until the end, they will quite possibly get left out of her day. And then they’re not really priorities, are they?

This advice reminded me of the oft-evoked metaphor of the glass jar. Imagine your day as a glass jar: your important tasks are represented by big stones, while the less-important and niggling everyday tasks are represented by pebbles and sand. If you fill your jar with sand and pebbles first, there is no way you can fit the big stones inside — there’s not enough room. But if you put the big stones in first, and then fill the rest of the jar with tiny pebbles and sand, the smaller stones will fit in around the big ones and you will be able to fill the jar to its fullest.

I need to get back into my routine of doing this. The past couple of weeks, I’ve spent most of my time on the “urgent” tasks and I haven’t been able to nourish my most important projects. In The Minimalists podcast, Joshua gave an example from his life: “Every morning, I exercise, read and write.” My heart soared with recognition: That’s what I want to do, too! That’s important to me, too! So I made a schedule. I’ve found that often my brain likes the idea of an unscheduled day — it sounds so loose, so free! — but when I actually move through my day, not having a plan makes me feel unproductive and unmoored. When I could be doing anything, I feel like I should be doing everything.

So I am tweaking my morning plan to be like this:

  • Wake up and immediately write for thirty minutes.
  • Enjoy a healthy breakfast and read for pleasure.
  • Go through my favorite 15-minute yoga routine.
  • Meditate for 3-5 minutes.
  • Go to the gym or go for a walk.

Then, once I get home from exercising, I shower and dive into my emails, daily tasks, “urgent” business, etc. I am much more happy and productive, and feel less “behind” on my day, when I have already written, read, exercised, and gotten in some heart habits like yoga and meditation. BUT all of this is easier said than done! I often feel pulled towards my email inbox and my phone throughout this morning routine. I need to force myself to stay true to my plan and to commit to these tasks that are most important to me. Stones first, then pebbles!

I am also trying to get into the habit of “batching” my work instead of jumping around from task to task. For example, I’ll work on a blog post until it is finished. I’ll edit student work for an hour without interruption. I’ll answer email for thirty minutes straight and then take a break, rather than checking my inbox every two minutes. This makes me more productive because I am much more focused.

Which brings me back to the ducks. As I was walking around the lake, I thought of how silly it would look if ducks acted like distracted humans. Imagine a duck diving down under the water, then coming up a second later, then diving down under the water again. A duck would never get anything to eat if it behaved that way!

Just as nature has taught me the wisdom of the seasons — there is a time for harvesting and there is a time for sowing; there are seasons of abundance and seasons of scarcity — nature has also taught me the wisdom of focus. I want to be like the ducks, calmly contemplating the stillness of the lake. I want to be like the ducks, paddling around with my little legs when the weather is sunny and still paddling when the storms encroach. I want to be like the ducks, diving down under the surface to forage for food — not too brief, not too long — then popping back up again to float around with my buddies.

 

Your turn {if you want}:

Grab your journal or open a new document on your computer and use these questions as a jumping-off point:

  • What lessons have you learned from nature?
  • Do you have a morning routine? What does it look like? If not, imagine what would be your dream way to start the day.
  • What are the “large stones” in your jar of life? What are your big passion projects? Are you making the time for these important tasks the way you would like to be? If not, what might you change in your day to put these priorities front-and-center?

taming the excuse-monster in my mind

As I’ve mentioned before, I recently moved to a new apartment. Habits researcher and author Gretchen Rubin writes, in her book Better than Before, that an excellent time to adopt new habits is when undergoing a shift or change in your life: a break-up, a new relationship, a new job, a home renovation, etc. Moving to a new place, it turns out, is actually the #1 time to successfully adopt new habits! So I leaped upon the opportunity to try cementing some new healthy habits that I had been wanting to fully integrate into my life.

{Image source}

One of these habits is going to bed earlier, so I can wake up earlier feeling refreshed and ready to tackle the day. Another is to focus on simplicity; I did a huge purge of clutter and papers before I moved, and I want to keep these nonessentials from slowly re-accumulating in my life, as they so often do. Also, I now begin every morning with two big glasses of water and a green smoothie. I try to write at least a couple hundred words on my creative work-in-progress each morning before I even check my email or work on projects for other people. And I am trying to set in stone a regular routine of going to the gym.

I belonged to a gym close by where I used to live, and I would go there fairly regularly, but it was never something I especially looked forward to. I could never figure out why. It was a nice gym, with lots of classes available and fancy amenities. I realize now that I did not fully feel comfortable there; the atmosphere was a bit competitive and intense, and I prefer my gym time to be low-key and low-stress. This new gym I joined by my new apartment is much less fancy, but much more my vibe: like me, the people who go there seem friendly, a little rag-tag, and much more interested in exercising for good health than for looks.

One of my favorite classes is a Monday morning gentle yoga class. The instructor is funny and upbeat, and the class always flies by and is the perfect way to ease into my week.

Lots of other people must think so, too, because the class is pretty much always filled to capacity. Classes work on a first-come, first-serve basis; when you arrive at the gym, you can ask for a pass to get into the class, and if they have any more available the person working the front desk will hand a pass to you. If not, you’re out of luck!

{Photo cred: tricsr4kidz, Flickr Creative Commons}

One week, I was a little late getting out of bed and, even thought I arrived to the gym ten minutes before class was scheduled to begin, they were all out of passes. Rats! I thought, but it was not a big deal. I stashed my yoga mat in the locker room and worked out on the elliptical machine instead.

When I was leaving, about twenty minutes before the class was scheduled to end, another woman was standing by the front desk holding a yoga mat of her own. She spotted my yoga mat and summoned me over. “Were you kicked out of the class, too?” she asked.

“Well, I wasn’t kicked out… there just wasn’t enough room when I arrived.”

This woman shook her head angrily. “It’s not fair! They should have two classes! I got here at the time the class was supposed to start, and I wasn’t able to get into the class! They kicked me out! It’s not fair!” She was like a toddler having a tantrum, blaming everyone else but herself for her predicament.

The manager behind the front desk met my eyes with a helpless expression. I realized this other yogi had probably been angrily complaining to her for the past half hour. And now she was trying to get me to gang up on the manager about the completely fair gym policy.

“It was my fault,” I said, shrugging. “I should have gotten here earlier. But I still had a great workout anyway!” And then I smiled at the manager and headed out the door. I could still hear the other woman sputtering.

This woman, with her countless loud excuses, reminded me of someone familiar: myself, at times. Especially when it comes to my BIG goals. Which, for me, pretty much all center around writing. The truth is, as much as I want to spend my days writing up a storm, on a minute-by-minute level it often feels like writing is the last thing I want to be doing. Because writing is so often difficult! It requires so much thinking and feeling, so much honesty and bravery, and so much willingness to fail, to deal with uncertainty, to feel like you have utterly no idea if what you are creating is going to ever come together at all.

Usually, I find it is especially difficult to begin. To climb back into whatever I am working on. To bridge the gap between the shining potential of the idea in my head and the stark lines of words marching imperfectly across the page. And the act of beginning is often when my excuse-laden self pops up and brightly says:


Oh, you can’t possibly write today! Look how beautiful and sunny it is outside! You don’t want to waste a day like this. Go make a picnic! Go for a hike! Now, now, now!


Oh, look how rainy and dreary it is outside. Why don’t you curl up with that new novel you’ve been wanting to read? Reading a couple chapters will be good for inspiration. Go on, just for a bit. … Oh, why not read for a bit longer? Reading is important for writing, after all.


Oh no, you woke up late! You’re completely behind schedule! No time to write today!


Oh, you woke up early! Aren’t you feeling a little groggy still? Why not get a jump on some other projects, and you can come back to your creative writing once your cup of Earl Grey has kicked in?


Shouldn’t you clean the bathroom? Wash the dishes? Put in a load of laundry? Vacuum the carpet? Your desk is looking quite messy — probably best to organize it first, before you start writing.


Don’t you have a little headache? Your back is feeling kind of sore? Maybe you’re getting sick. You should go back to bed. You should rest. Is that a pain in your gut? Maybe you should eat something. Drink something. Go put on the tea kettle. Go make a sandwich.


Oh, and you should definitely check your email and your cell phone! Can’t miss any messages! It could be something important!


Does this sound familiar to anyone else? I’ve grown to recognize the sabotaging excuse-monster in my head for what she is: afraid. She doesn’t want to sit in the discomfort. She doesn’t want to risk failure. And so she tries to veer me off course. And, on those days (thankfully, becoming rarer and rarer) when I give in and I don’t get the writing done, and I feel guilty and angry for not writing, she always pops up on those days, too. She is filled with those same excuses for why I did not put time into my most meaningful work. She always wants to blame everything else in the world but my own decisions. She is like the other woman who did not get a pass for yoga class.

She has taught me: only by taking responsibility for my own actions, can I change them. Only by recognizing when I am making excuses can I put the brakes on the excuse-train. And only by truthfully assessing my old habits can I build new, better habits.

In a recent podcast with Arch Street Press, Dr. Douglass Jackson, founder of Project C.U.R.E., says, “Figure out what gets you so excited that it gets you up out of bed, puts your feet on the floor, and you just can’t wait to get back to it.”

Writing has always been that something to me. Now, my habits are reflecting this, too.

Ever since that week when I was too late to get a pass, I arrive to yoga class half an hour early. That early, I always am able to get a pass. I walk into the yoga room and lay out my mat on the smooth wooden floor. I have my pick of places in the room. And then I go ride the exercise bike or run on the elliptical machine until it is time for class to begin. Instead of feeling guilty and upset, I feel empowered.

I think that is one of the best ways to feel in our creative lives and our work lives and our personal lives and our whole lives: empowered.

And the best part of all? It is in our power, every single day, to create that feeling for ourselves.

because I didn’t hit “snooze”

I almost hit “snooze” this morning.

I’ve confessed in this space before that I used to have a problem with hitting snooze. But, thanks to some reflection as part of my year of living simply, I realized that I didn’t like how snooze made me feel. I didn’t really get any extra quality sleep, and I just felt bad about myself when I finally did get out of bed… like I was already “behind” on my day. So I vowed to give up on snooze, and get out of bed when my alarm first goes off in the morning. I usually feel a little groggy when I first wake up, but by the time I’ve washed my face, put my contacts in, and downed two glasses of water, I am wide awake and ready to go!

me glasses

However, old habits can be hard to break. Even when you have some great momentum going, it can be so easy to slip right back into old patterns. Because old patterns are comfortable. They tend to feel good in the moment, even if you know they don’t make you feel your best in the long run.

This morning, I almost hit snooze. My alarm went off and I just wanted to snuggle down into the covers for five more minutes. {Which would likely lead to five more minutes… and five more minutes… and five more minutes…} However, I intentionally set my alarm for as late a time as possible for me to get out of bed and still make it to yoga class without feeling rushed. So, hitting snooze would have meant a snowball decision: five or ten or fifteen extra minutes of half-sleep, and no chance of getting to yoga on time.

In that moment, I didn’t want to go to yoga class.

But I knew that Future Me would *wish* I had gone to that yoga class.

So I threw off the covers, got out of bed, and turned off my alarm. I changed into my yoga clothes that I had laid out on my bedside chair the night before. I drank my two glasses of cold water, ate a banana, and drank some green tea.

tea saying

And I felt awake. And energized. And jazzed for my day.

In fact, I had gotten ready so quickly that I still had about twenty minutes until I needed to leave the house. I remembered a delightful podcast I listened to last week, Real Talk with Nicole Antoinette, where she talked about her realignment to how she views time, particularly small pockets of time — ten minutes, twenty minutes — that she used to think were “not enough time” to get anything worthwhile done, so she would waste them away by surfing the Internet or scrolling through her phone. But ten or twenty minutes ARE enough — for taking a walk, for reading a chapter of a book, for meditating. Inspired by that thought, I used my extra pre-yoga twenty minutes to do some journaling, and it was enough time to get down some great ideas for my novel and for future blog posts. I felt excited to come back later and write more!

I left early enough for yoga class not to feel rushed. Instead of listening to the radio during my five-minute drive, I let silence envelop the car and just listened to my breathing. To my thoughts.

Yoga class was lovely, both relaxing and invigorating. Sometimes I feel shy when I sit down on my mat before class starts, but today I mustered the effort to strike up a conversation with the woman next to me, and we chatted for a few minutes. It was so nice. I was reminded of the ways that little bits of small talk and smiles with strangers make us feel connected to the wider world around us. While I think of myself as a natural introvert — I recharge by spending time alone or with a small group of people I am close to — I still need to feel this connection with the broader world in order to feel my happiest.

If I had hit snooze, I would have been late to yoga class, and would have missed out on this breath of connection. Or, I might have hit snooze a couple times, and decided not to go to class at all.

peaceful ocean

My body felt so good after yoga class that I wanted to keep the momentum going. I stopped by the grocery store on the way home and picked up some organic veggies and frozen fruit and spinach, and I came home and made myself a fresh green smoothie. It was delicious. Instead of ducking my head behind my computer monitor, I chatted with my grandparents in the kitchen while I drank my smoothie. I didn’t feel at all like I was “behind schedule.” I felt overflowing, like there was time enough for everything I needed to do and wanted to do. Certainly there was ten minutes to drink my green smoothie and talk with my loved ones.

And then I washed the blender and my smoothie mug, made a fresh cup of green tea, and came to sit at my computer to type up this blog post. It is 11:00 a.m. and I am just now checking my email, and the world didn’t end. Nothing was so urgent that it couldn’t wait a couple hours.

I feel energized and excited about my plans for the rest of the day. I feel eager to work on my novel, jazzed about my sessions with students later, and connected to the world and to myself. I feel balanced and capable. Most of all, I feel grateful for the gift of this beautiful day and this precious life.

And I feel grateful that I didn’t press “snooze.”

a year of Wooden: week 45

Hi, friends! Hope your week is going great! We are into our final month of this year of Wooden challenge. For December, we’re focusing on my favorite item of Coach John Wooden’s 7-Point Creed: “Make each day your masterpiece.” In other words, we’re tying together all that we’ve learned and all the ways we’ve grown through the past eleven months!

a year of wooden

  • January: Drink deeply from good books
  • February: Make friendship a fine art
  • March: Help others
  • April: Build a shelter against a rainy day {financially}
  • May: Be true to yourself
  • June: Give thanks for your blessings every day
  • July: Love
  • August: Balance
  • September: Drink deeply from good poetry
  • October: Make friendship a fine art {new friends}
  • November: Pray for guidance.
  • December: Make each day your masterpiece.

I believe the foundation of “making each day a masterpiece” is having a true awareness of how you spend your day. Last week’s challenge was to take something you didn’t like about how you spend your day, and fix it. The thing I disliked most about my daily schedule was realizing that I try to multi-task too much! A lot of this is due to checking email throughout the day — yet my inbox still feels overflowing and unmanageable.

This week, I made a few small, simple changes. First, I went through my inbox and ruthlessly unsubscribed to mailers. I realized there were a lot of messages I’d get week after week and just delete them, or not have time to read them, so I took the time to go through and unsubscribe. My inbox immediately felt more manageable.

The second thing I did was try to change how I tackle email. I am a big procrastinator when it comes to my inbox. I’ll receive an email, open it to read it, but then put off replying. So the email sits there, sits there, sits there, with me maybe reading and it and putting it off once or twice more in that span of time, before I finally open it yet again and reply {while feeling bad that it took me that long to reply.} I know, as I type it all out here, it seems like an insanely inefficient system — I don’t really have an answer for WHY I would put off answering emails in this way, other than I didn’t always feel like answering them and it was always easier to just put it off “till later.”

The simple change I am doing now is this: I read an email, and reply to it right then, if at all possible. Occasionally I will need to wait to reply because I will need to do something or research something or write something in order to reply, but I am finding that 80% of the time I can reply right away. Then the email is gone from my inbox, takes up no more of my brain space, and suddenly checking email becomes way more efficient!

workstation

On a related note, I stopped having my email open constantly and instead try to check it only at certain points of the day. In this way, I am trying to turn email into a specific “task” I complete, rather than a constant drain on my time and attention.

I’m not saying my email habits have suddenly morphed into perfect stress-free productiveness, but I have noticed a definite change in the past week with these simple changes.

If any of you have tips on managing email effectively, I would love to hear them!

This week’s challenge is to break down what “happiness” means to you in three specific terms. We all say we want to be “happier” but what does that really mean? It’s different for all of us. For some people, happiness might be associated with feeling strong and capable. Others might associate it with feeling needed. Others might associate it with feeling connected to other people. Brainstorm a list of all the terms that you associate with happiness. Then, place a star next to the three terms that are most important to YOU and your own individual happiness.

We’ll build on this in next week’s challenge!

Question for the day:

  • What is something you disliked about your daily schedule?
  • What small change{s} did you make? What was the effect of these changes?