Just when I think I’ve got it all under control…
I started the week creating the template for my daily checklist for starting and ending the day. The things to get done every day, in addition to the things that get done on a particular day.
I was checking them off. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday morning, check, check, check.
Tai Chi practice. Journal. Mediate, breakfast, edit Simon’s blog, review goals of the day… practicing positive intelligence (my newest challenge) and wrapping up, another list, including evening personal blog time, and fitness. Checking things off, getting a sense of calm, feeling centered.
Just when I thought I had it all under control…
Yes, I hear your hysterical laughter all the way to here.
This week I one of my big goals was to tame the to-do list, get it all into one place and start methodically knocking it down.
Well, that didn’t happen. The taming of the list at the end of the week usually takes at least four hours in a week that goes as planned…
…and when was the last time I had a week that went as planned?
Mid-day Thursday, I abandoned my list of “do” for the remainder of the week because a couple of people in my life needed me to be there for them. Looking back, what did I need to actually do? Objectively, nearly nothing: go on a three block walk to pick up a prescription at 6:30 pm, and drive someone to a medical appointment.
“Be there” meant to not be on my phone, but to just sit on the sofa and listen, be fully present, with someone while they made the phone calls they needed to make and figure out what needed to be done. There was nothing I could do, research, write. Nothing. I just needed to be there, awaiting clarity on what needed to happen next — which kept changing — and eventually whether or not there was anything I needed to do.
This felt weird and frustrating and disorienting and jagged all over the place.
I am learning to: (a) let myself feel the feels — they are real and need time and attention; (b) notice “Who’s talking?” Which of my chorus of personal critics and saboteurs has grabbed the mic and what are they saying? (c ) rewrite the script, to figure out what message I need to put in its place? And (d) get curious about “Where’s this coming from? What’s underneath?”
The whole process is massively time-consuming and distracting and I don’t like it at all.
For most of my life, I’ve placed the highest value on “how much can I get accomplished?” I’m not sure why that is, nor what exactly is so wrong about that, but as the years go by it’s clearly an incomplete way of looking at life, the Universe, and everything and everybody in it.
It’s one thing to be physically present. [Massive generalization warning] I’m not at all sure when multi-tasking is the ideal way to tackle almost anything, but I know that the list is always a lot shorter than I’d like to think it is. Laser focus on one thing at a time gets a job done, and gives me a better quality outcome, too.
In this device-distracted world, I have (and am on a long journey of fixing) my bad habit of paying poor attention to what’s going on around me. It’s a lot more work to be fully present. To do that, I need to be organized enough to have the confidence that while I’m doing the ONE THING, I’m not getting hopelessly behind on everything else. If I’m going to focus on one thing, I want that consolidated List of all the other things waiting for me. The Master List (the one I thought I almost had at the beginning of the week) gives me…the grand illusion of control.
I had my week all planned out, and the Universe did its usual job of cancelling things to give me extra time to get the things done that I hadn’t allowed a realistic amount of time to complete. That was going pretty well.
Then things got ragged; I let my Wednesday end-of-day push past 4:30 to 5:15, which meant I couldn’t get to both dinner AND personal blog time, so personal blog wasn’t going to happen because Tai Chi starts at 6:45, and by 8 pm there need to be sofa time before bedtime. Production “do” time frame was over for the day.
I managed to remember that the only person who would notice and even remotely try to pass judgement on me for not publishing a personal blog post was… not even me, but one of the “made up” voices. Nooooooo, I replied. It’s fine. You’re fine. Not only would publishing a blog post tonight have not made me any more worthy person, but I recently learned first-hand that trying to do so would rob my bubble-mate and me of the “be” time together on the sofa that we cherish as nourishing and soulful.
Got through Wednesday.
Thursday had other plans. It was going so well: by 2:55 pm, I had led two intense, two-hour sessions with two client teams and was headed into four more 30-minute calls.
My bubble-mate came downstairs and said, “I need you.”
I said, “I have a call starting in 90 seconds.”
“I need you,” he repeated.
“I’m online until 3:30,” I replied, and all my sensors went off. Wrong answer.
He went upstairs and closed the door.
The Universe being so much smarter than I am, after 7 minutes waiting on zoom for someone to not appear who had confirmed their call two hours earlier, I logged off, sent a “hope you’re okay; I know things happen, let’s circle back next week,” and asked my colleague to contact the other three people on my schedule on my behalf with apologies and request rescheduled appointments.
By 3:15, I had released the remains of the day, and went upstairs to shift from “do” to “be.”
I’m not a nice person, I thought to myself. I am grouchy about this. There is nothing truly more important than being here for this person I care about. If I were doing this right, I’d be all “Hey, so glad I’m here for you,” and I’m really stressed and finding it hard to even put a nice face on this. If I’m gonna be in a bad mood about this, that’s almost worse than not being there at all. The only thing that would be worse would be to sit here looking at my PUT THE PHONE DOWN.
By evening, it was clear that I also needed to reschedule Friday’s calls.
99% of the time, it’s other people whose plans change. I’m always the one who has to move things around and follow up and find out what happened and are they okay or did you really not want to talk to me in the first place and just didn’t want to tell me that, nor tell me why…
I’m grateful that people were as gracious and understanding of me as I manage to be with others. A big thank you to them and The Universe for that. I honestly didn’t feel worried that I was letting anyone down. It just meant that the happy feeling I’d looked forward to having in my week, checking of all the boxes, giving myself a “good girl” pat on the head (as I am my own boss, and know all my own tricks) for getting my work done, wasn’t going to happen.
My friend’s particular situation wasn’t an emergency but did require immediate attention over the next few hours, and he had a number of steps to take and people to talk to in order to figure out the right sequence of events and how and when I could help.
Meditation didn’t get done. Fitness didn’t get done. Journaling didn’t get done.
It wasn’t until after supper, when I was just all kind of fall-apart from the uncertainty and uprooting and stress of the day and the situation that I backed away from all the “didn’t get done” and a took a deep breath and absorbed something important:
Being got done.
And being has value.
There are some people who shine in times of crisis. Their breathing slows, their focus is on the perfect thing, they are an oasis of calm. They know what to say, listen intently, don’t interrupt others, and never offer unsolicited advice. They know how to comfort, how to just be.
If the situation in front of me is something I know something about, I’ll give it my all.
But the average crisis is a crisis because we don’t know what to do. And in that situation, I’m, um, basically not the most helpful person despite desperately wanting to be. My family knows this and I am grateful that they somehow love me anyway.
I have had my share of epic failures to be there, of course and especially for family I love dearly, so my instinctive response to any crisis requiring an emotionally intelligent response is often, “You’re terrible at this. Try not to screw up again.”
Worse, I do like to be helpful and know many things (most of which are almost certainly not required in whatever the crisis of the moment, but why would that stop me from trying?) And if I can’t be helpful, then what on earth am I doing here? So, crisis? How can I manage to not make things worse?
Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield has a wonderful piece of advice in his book, “An Astronaut’s Guide To Life On Earth”: Be A Zero.
It’s a slightly different take on the value of not trying so hard that your efforts have exactly the opposite effect of what you hoped for. I like his explanation, here.
When I was studying to become a pilot, I learned about the concept of dynamic stability. When something gets jolted, does it return to even keel, keep oscillating at the same amplitude as the original jolt, or become progressively more unstable?
I will save a long metaphor in aerodynamics for another day. The thing I need to remind myself for now is that I’m dynamically stable…like the plain, boring, little Cessna 172’s, workhorse of general aviation flight training. I may get pushed off kilter but I am built with good recovery characteristics. I do pop back up straight and level again. If the weather is crummy and the winds are strong, that may take a little longer and require a bit more attention, but things level out.
I will start to mop up this week probably Sunday; I need a relaxed chunk of the time that Organized People use for what author Cal Newport calls “Deep Work” — a concept I would do well to incorporate into my week and have utterly failed at for the past two years. (Oooo, critics, please, please, take a rest. You’re NOT HELPING here. I have not forgotten you. Deep Work is on the list of things to figure out. I promise. Now, breathe and beat it).
The one thing I know for sure is that I have no mental or spiritual acuity left for this week. Taming The List is now at the top of next week’s list. And I know perfectly well that there is nothing, truly nothing, no lives at stake, no zillions of dollars on the line, on my list that’s going to go Tango Uniform between now and Tuesday if I just freaking Let It Go until then.
Right now, I need a nap.