It’s been a busy week here at Imperfect Zen! Not only did we have what I thought was a great post about mixing up your Monday lunches to give you the opportunity to try new foods and meet personal food goals, but we also released our first New Moon Missive! I’m really pleased with it. If you missed it, you can check it out on my new Missive Archives Page, where I’ll be posting links to all newsletters a week after they go out. I’m even more pleased that in response to my request in the New Moon Missive for ideas on what you’d like to hear about, a friend asked for a blog post on how to get things done. This struck me as the perfect topic for our next Relationship post because, whether we like it or not, we all have a very intimate and important relationship with time that dictates, to a large extent, whether or not we live a happy, fulfilled, mindful life!
Now of course in speaking about relationships with time, I can really only speak about my own which is going to be very different from, say, a working mother of two…or a stay-at-home father of three…or a full-time caregiver for a parent. Our relationships with time are very personal, and as with most things in life, we shouldn’t compare ourselves to others. What I’m about to share with regards to time management is what works for me and my life. Still, I’ve really tried to focus on things that I think would apply to any individual, no matter how many life demands they’re juggling…whether they’re keeping two balls, or a dozen, in the air! Also, rather than speaking about the practical tools I use for time management…like to-do lists, color-categorized emails, labeled folders, etc…I want to focus on the mindful techniques I use.
Let’s get started!
I think many people can relate to this: you have so much to do (and this includes good things!) and because you can’t fathom how you’ll possibly get them all done in the time you have, you actually start to have a physical reaction…shortness of breath, racing heart rate, heat & sweat throughout the body. You feel frantic inside and out! It’s taken me a long time to learn that when this feeling strikes, rather than trying to go faster to get more done, what I really need to do is slow down. It seems counterintuitive, right? But it’s actually the best move you can make. That frantic, can’t breath, can’t think, head literally turning every which way, is basically panic. And any survivalist will tell you that the first thing you absolutely must not do if you want to survive is panic! Something in our brain tells us that we can’t even spare a second to stop, take a breath, and get our bearings, but that’s exactly what we must do to know how to move forward in the best possible way.
At work, when panic strikes, I now set the swirling piles of work aside, go make a cup of coffee…literally standing beside the kettle until the water boils…or go for a stroll around campus, and take lots of deep breaths. And at home, before I tackle all the things I want to work on after work, I’ll sit at the kitchen table with a glass of wine and flip through a magazine or read a chapter in whatever book I’m reading. Whether at work or at home, what I’m really doing is just slowing down…my heart rate, my mind, my breathing…to regain some calm.
Taking it One Thing at a Time
Because when you’re calm, you’re better able and more willing to tackle one thing at a time.
I think by now we’ve all heard about the negative effects of multitasking. If you haven’t, just do a quick Google search or read, “10 Real Risks of Multitasking, to Mind and Body”, published by Psychology Today in 2016. That’s not to say that multitasking isn’t sometimes necessary. It absolutely is! But it shouldn’t be the way we get through life on an average day…especially if we’re trying to live a more mindful and joyous life. I can say 100% that when I multitask I’m actually less productive and precise, and more stressed and distracted. And when I’ve done it over long periods of time, I feel less close to myself, others, and even my goals.
So at work, for a long time now, I’ve told people I work vertically, not horizontally. What I mean is that I prioritize my work then put it in a stack, as opposed to laid out across my desk, and work from the top down. The moment my work starts spreading across my desk or I jump from email to task to conversation to another email (without having finished the response to the first email!), my emotional and mental energy start to drain away as if their were a hole in my energy gas tank. Same thing at home. If I’m sitting in the living room, trying to spend time with my husband, maybe watching a documentary together, but at the same time working on my blog, scrolling through Instagram, and texting my mom, I fail at all of it. I have no idea what the documentary was about, much less what my husband said about it, or what my mom relayed about lunch the next day, or what the point of my post is anymore! No, if I want to do anything well I must do them one at a time. The strange thing is, not only do I get more enjoyment out of the process, but I actually get more done! That’s because the distraction caused by multitasking zaps our energy faster than just moving along steadily.
Now sometimes, at work but especially after a long day at work, even though I’m already moving slowly, and I already know what I want to tackle one thing at a time, I suddenly feel total apathy about everything on my to-do list…even the things that earlier in the day I couldn’t wait to do! The source of apathy is a post of its own somewhere down the road. Here I’ll just talk about how I move through it.
Last Wednesday night is a perfect example. I got home and there was paperwork to do, dishes to wash, dinner to make, posts to write, podcasts to listen to, and I didn’t want to do any of it. The first step? Getting out of my head and back into my body. The second step. Getting totally present. That meant ignoring the apathetic talk in my head, and just starting to go through the motions. How do I do this, by focusing all my thoughts on every action my body is taking. Putting on my apron. Pouring a glass of wine. Turning on the burner or the faucet. It’s like meditation in motion. Instead of thinking, “I don’t want to do this. And ugh, I hate myself for not wanting to do anything. And what’s my problem?!”, I’m thinking, “Right now, I am washing the dishes. It doesn’t matter how long it takes. This is what I’m doing. This is the feel of the water and soap on my hands … Now I’m unfolding papers and this is their texture and colors. This is the taste of the wine I’m drinking as I do it. This is how the pen flows over the paper.” And as I see myself getting things done, the apathy dissipates and momentum gains, and those nights end up being some of my most productive, where I go to bed feeling fulfilled and good about all things I got done. The key is not giving into that temporary feeling of apathy…not believing it’s set in stone…and shifting your attention from it to the moment and your body.
Doing Nothing, Period
My final method to getting things done? Doing nothing. Well nothing on my to-do list. This can seem counterintuitive, but it’s not really. Sometimes, while the things that are on your to-do list are necessary and important to you, they’re not what you need to do that day. When you start to listen to yourself, you’ll understand. It’s not like the apathetic thoughts you should push through. It’s different. It’s your inner self telling you that you’re doing too much, you’re on overload, and you need a break.
A lot of us, in this goal-oriented, success-driven society, ignore the inner voice. But we really should listen to it because by doing so…by taking care of ourselves and recharging our batteries, we are actually more productive in the long run. Of course, doing nothing isn’t exactly something you can do at work because that would be unethical…you’ve made a contract with someone to show up and do specific things for a specific amount of time in exchange for money. But, if I have a day when my body and mind rebel at doing another single thing on my ambitious to-do list, I opt for the easier, more mindless tasks. And at home, I may literally stay in pajamas all day on a Sunday and do whatever strikes my fancy, whether that’s reading, napping, or watching an entire Netflix series. Because in both scenarios, by giving myself that day of rest, without guilt or judgement, I’m recharged for the next day and far more productive. At work, I’ll dive into those complex, in-depth projects with focus and concentration, and at home I’ll get errands & chores done, call family and friends, and work on creative projects, all with more joy and energy.
Other Thoughts & Resources
When it comes down to it, the art of getting things done starts with knowing what is valuable to you and who you want to be. If you start to fill your days with work, relationships, projects that are in line with your values, you will not only be more apt to work on your to-do lists, but you’ll find you have more time to do so because you have shed all the things you were spending time on that weren’t getting you closer to your values or who you want to be. Then it’s even easier to follow the techniques I’ve noted.
I’ll leave you with three additional resources on time management that have really resonated with me recently:
- A brief video by inspirational speaker, storyteller, and former monk Jay Shetty called “Before you Waste your Time”
- A podcast from The Melissa Ambrosini Show: “Do Less and Achieve More with Erin Falconer”
- The book, The Art of Stopping Time: Practical Mindfulness for Busy People, by Pedram Shojai
Now slow down, be present, stop…and tell me how it goes!