Once, when negotiating with a boss of mine, I wanted to work fewer hours than she wanted me to work. Her seemingly brilliant idea: “How about we contract you for 32 hours per week, but if you finish everything in 25 hours, you can just go home?” Stake to the heart; she had unearthed my Kryptonite. My creativity and drive can be my curse and burden; I can always figure out something more to do.
“Didn’t you get bored?” asked about my time living in a 100 square mud hut in Africa. My answer, often met with surprise and dismay: “Never.” I actually suffer from the opposite affliction. As a state of mind, I can easily get “too busy.” There are days that I accuse myself of situational adult-onset attention deficit disorder; I can be thinking of so many things I want to cram into this exact second, that it’s hard for me to even sit down to eat lunch.
When I’m with friends who possess the auras of peacefulness, I try to sit as close as possible to soak it in through osmosis.
A psychologist that was teaching “being” on a yoga retreat said to us participants, “In my psychotherapy practice, I work with many geriatric folks who have ‘forgotten their lives.’ Some call this senility. I have concluded that the reason they can’t remember is because they were not really present in the first place.” Body slam. However provocative or controversial this may sound, it hit me like a ton of bricks. How present am I in all I do?
With the average American life expectancy being 77.6 years, I only have 10,950 days left (give or take); I want to make each one matter. I realized that I don’t need organizational tips or tricks, I need to shift my way of thinking.
Road to recovery
So here’s what I do with a goal of being more present.
Metaphor. I remind myself of the rock, pebble, and sand-in-a-jar story. I want to fill my life with rocks (big meaningful things like quality time with family), and if I don’t prioritize and pour the pebbles and sand into the jar first (less fulfilling things like cleaning the bathroom mirror, again), I won’t have room to fill my life with what I value. My mantra has become quality, not quantity. And letting the bathroom mirror be speckled with toothpaste sometimes.
Values. I value connecting with those I love, and showing them how much they mean to me by spending attentive time with them. I value creative expression and learning and being outside and laughing. While I wasn’t watching, I had become a product of our instant-gratification society, and for me that meant attending to the dusty shelf or fingerprints on the oven of-the-moment because I can see an immediate, albeit small, result. For some reason, tiny bits of cleaning can suck me in all day long, and activities that bring me deep satisfaction like gardening and journaling about my kids fall out of sight. Not what I want to be written on my epitaph. I have to be ‘on my game’ and remember to be intentional and fill my life with the rocks first. One way I manifest this is by sitting on the floor with my kids for 20 minutes each night with focused attention, following their lead of what’s fun.
“Meditation helps the brain overcome the urge to automatically respond to external events,” says David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz of The Neuroscience of Leadership. Or as Jon Kabat-Zinn says, meditation means to “pay attention.” I had found my golden ticket to success. But wait. With my ever-present deep-seated belief that efficiency and productivity reign supreme, I balked. Then Eleanor Roosevelt hit me with “We must do the thing we cannot do.” So I try. I sit, in utter silence, doing nothing, for 5 minutes per day. Maybe one day I will up it to 10. I work to embrace the tortoise vs. the hare philosophy: Aesop’s fable that the more haste, the worse speed. I work at not being a tornado bumping around the pinball bumpers. I am a work in progress.
“Scraps of time.” A friend asks “what did you do all week?” I answer, “I’m not sure, but I sure was busy!” As written about in Leadership from the Inside Out, let us remember that what we do with our scraps of time matter. All of those 5 minutes ambling around Facebook or mindlessly watching infomercials or mopping the bathroom floor with a baby wipe because it just looked like it needed it could be better used creating this decades’ best new screenplay or learning Russian (you get the point).
I have urges. Much as the recovering alcoholic with the drink. Knowing this, I can see them sneaking up and have the ammunition to conquer. New to working at home, I can slip into the “this will just take a second and then it will be off my plate” mode and at the end of the day I haven’t accomplished the ‘right’ stuff. Worse yet, the important tasks start to feel daunting because countless other little tasks have been sprinkled in.
Realistic goals. And lastly, I must be realistic about fitting it all in. I find comfort in the pen; writing down what we need to do allows us to not forget what feels so urgent (but actually isn’t) this very second (and I do love to-do lists). Also remembering “why” helps me with this. Why should I shut my computer and be with my family? So that I can live my values and be present with my family. Why should I not run around like a rabid dog frothing at the mouth? So that I will have a more peaceful existence and enjoy life. And that is my goal.
Julie Lancaster has served in the roles of associate professor, career services adviser, career services director, and dean of education at the Flagstaff campus of CollegeAmerica. She is the owner of Lancaster Consulting: helping companies nationwide to develop effective teams and leaders. Find her online at lancasterconsulting.webs.com and www.facebook.com/LivingAuthenticLeadership.
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