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Sunday, August 21, 2016

Mindfulness - The real problem with time

Nick J Webb, Flickr

"If we worship money, we'll never feel truly abundant. 
If we worship power, recognition, and fame, we'll never feel we have enough. And if we live our lives madly rushing around, trying to find and save time, 
we'll always find ourselves living in a time famine, frazzled and stressed." 
(Ariana Huffington)

Do you find yourself rummaging for time, desperately trying to go through your to-do list, always tired, always frustrated?

I know I do. A few months ago, I even tried to create a detailed weekly plan that would incorporate everything I want (or need) to do; paid work, household chores, quality time with loved ones, running, swimming, going to the gym, practicing the guitar, writing articles for an increasing number of publications. To my great despair, and no matter how I tried to move things around, it simply didn't fit - especially given the fact that I wanted the supreme luxury of also sleeping 8 hours per night. 

There is nothing original about my quest for hours, nor is there with my ongoing frustration with the unfinished state of so many of my ventures: as a working parent of the new millenium, I am in good company.

Not content to simply accept this state of affairs, I decided to dig deeper: Why do we feel so pressed for time while living in comfort and privilege? Does it have to be that way? How can we create for ourselves a schedule that has a more organic pace, while still reaching at least some of our goals?

The more I researched the topic, and the more I experimented with my use of time (this summer, for example, was the first in many years that I did not create a long to-do list for myself), the more I realized that the real problem is not time. Our stressed out and frustrated state originates from a few other factors:


Simply put, many of us tend to underestimate the time it will take to do something. I am definitely guilty of that. The first step toward regaining control over our use of time might be to actually set aside enough time to accomplish the things we want to accomplish. If, like me, you also struggle to remain focused on the task at hand (I can barely empty a dishwasher without researching something on Google halfway through), you may want to plan even more time. Which takes us to the next factor: 


No matter how much time you spend on a task, if you are not focused on it, you are not making progress. It doesn't matter if you are distracted by others (external interruptions) or by yourself (daydreaming, multitasking). A block of time devoted to something must indeed be devoted to it! How to accomplish that? Monotask. Take the necessary steps to avoid being disrupted (There is a sign on my home office door that reads "Keep calm and do not disturb - I am working"). And plan regular breaks.


Time is a finite resource. Energy is not. So what really matters is not how much we work, but how we use our energy. One of the main lessons I have learned from running is to pace myself. That could mean going slower than what comes "naturally", or taking a break before you think you need one. This, I realized, applies to any sort of activity: physical, intellectual, even emotional.

If I try to go too fast, or if I fail to rest when I need it, then I end up being way less efficient, which wastes my time. When we do that on a regular basis, a common consequence is to engage in "numbing activities" to compensate for the unpleasantness - this is how so many of us end up over eating, drinking, shopping, staring at a screen for hours, etc. I'm not okay with wasting my time numbing pain and discomfort with bad habits that most likely have side effects. Instead, I am coming to terms with "unproductive" activity (sleeping, daydreaming, reading, listening to music)  that provides me with rest or pleasure.


"Most people are living at such a furious pace that they rarely stop to ask themselves what they stand for and who they want to be. As a consequence, they let external demands dictate their actions." (Tony Schwartz and Catherine McCarthy) 

I stopped counting the number of times I heard time-starved moms - myself included - apologize for not baking/cooking the dish they were bringing to a party, or for not welcoming their guests into an immaculate house... as if getting something from the grocery store and living in a house that looks, well, lived-in, was a venial sin of some sort. To avoid the guilt - and the ensuing apology - a lot of us will try to cram such extra demands into a schedule that is already bursting at the seams. Enough already! Do those things really matter that much?

Like a teacher sets end goals, then breaks them down in small, incremental steps for her students, we should set life goals, determine the intermediate steps, and ensure that our time is indeed devoted to those goals on a daily basis. Any activity that does not lead to the fulfillment of those main goals can be tossed aside. 

Unfortunately, it is very easy to confuse our own personal goals with those that society imposes on us. Based on the current, mainstream definition of success, for example, I should be spending most of my time trying to impress others by 1) making sure I (and my family, and my house, etc.) look their best and "coolest" at all times, including on social media; 2) becoming famous (or making my kids famous, by extension); 3) making lots of money.

The problem is, those endeavors often prove exhausting, and may fail to provide the fulfillment we are looking for. I have written about how, when my translation business was at its height (and with it my income), I felt more fatigue, stress and frustration than any happiness I might have been looking for. I have since then decided to slow down on the career front, and I genuinely feel much better for it.

Meanwhile, other activities that seemed far less glamorous than a lucrative start-up, and which had fell through the cracks, regained importance in my eyes as I realized they actually fit some of my main priorities. Walking in nature and listening to the rain or birds, or spending time washing and cutting up veggies, seems rather banal and, again, unproductive. But when setting my priorities, eating (and feeding my family) healthy, and making sure I engage in peaceful, meditative activities on a daily basis, made it to the top 10 - meaning those activities should indeed be part of my daily life - even if that means sacrificing other activities. 

Less is more

The fear of missing out is a potent feeling, exacerbated by the plethora of choices modern life offers. Is it because my father passed away suddenly at 50, long before he could enjoy any bit of retirement, making it all so clear that the clock is ticking? I have felt an intense pressure to "make the most of life". When left unattended, that pressure can suck enjoyment out of life, which is the last thing we want to happen. I now know that what I need is not to do more things in general, but to strive and be in the moment, whatever I am doing (or not doing).

And so, counterintuitive as it may seem, in order to feel at peace with our use of time, we might need to do less, not more. To learn to sit or walk in silence, to stare into space, without guilt.

Which is exactly what I practiced this summer. There is no endless list of activities on my fridge, with little checkmarks all over it. This summer I took life day by day. Consequently, I spent more time on "unproductive" activities such as reading, chatting with friends and family, and even sleeping. It wasn't always comfortable, but I got used to that slower, more organic, pace. Interestingly, the top priorities still got done (e.g. repainting the decks, organizing the basement). Was this summer better or worse than the previous ones? Neither. But it was certainly less stressful. Will I have regrets? Probably not.

Mindfulness this Week

Have you changed your relationship with time?
How do you make sure you respect your pace, energy levels and priorities?
Do you find it hard to set realistic expectations, and to maintain your focus?

Be part of the process: 

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Friday, July 22, 2016

Mindfulness - It will change your life

Cea, Flickr

Once upon a time, tired of lugging around extra weight from my pregnancies, and unable to lose it no matter how hard I tried, I opted for a time-consuming method I had put all my remaining hopes in: journaling my food intake (each and every bite), journaling my exercise (each and every workout), and finding someone to hold me accountable of it all (a personal trainer - but it could have been a friend or family member). In one word, I forced myself to be mindful of my caloric input and output. Guess what? It worked. By the end of the year (I like to make my projects last a year), not only had I lost the weight, I had also improved my strength, flexibility and cardio, enough to run half-marathons and participate in Spartan races. I felt amazing.

In 2015, I decided to tackle another goal, which was to regain control of my relationship with money and stuff. I was NOT drowning in debt. I was NOT a hoarder. I had NO intention of making a vow of poverty. I DID like my job. But I felt the need to shed some light on my spending and owning habits. My hope was that this new awareness would enable me to tailor my use of money and ownership of goods to my true needs (as opposed to the needs advertisement tells us we have), which would hopefully have a positive impact on my wallet, the environment, and my peace of mind. To make sure the change was significant, I committed to a form of minimalism: buying absolutely nothing but necessities (e.g. food) for a year. During that non-spending year I also got rid (mostly by donating) of a lot of objects I wasn't using. It ended up being easier and more enjoyable than I had imagined. I felt like I was no longer falling for the false needs put forward in advertisement: I became acutely aware of how marketing preys on us. Being surrounded by less things through decluttering also made me feel lighter. The process made my spending and owning intentional. Even if the "no spending year" is over, I remain very mindful of my relationship to money and stuff. In stores I act as if I was in a museum: if I see something beautiful, I admire it, then walk away from it. The fact that I love an object and/or that its "price is right" is no reason to purchase it. I don't bring anything in the house unless it fulfills a true need.

This year, as I keep striving to increase my overall levels of mindfulness (in the hope that it will make me a happier AND more responsible citizen), I started meditating daily, which led to both good and "bad" outcomes (for more on that, see my article on Tiny Buddha). In the process, I put new issues under the magnifying glass. One example: in the first few months of 2016, I tracked my moods and physical states and made adjustments accordingly. This has led me to increase my sleep intake while I practically eliminated caffeine intake, among other things. It also changed my approach to the media, relationships, work, self-worth, and a panoply of other issues. One important discovery was that more often than not, I need to slow down and put less pressure on myself. It may seem counter-intuitive, but adopting a slower pace and practicing self-care and awareness has actually helped me accomplish more, or more of what really matters (feeling better in the process, too). Which leads me to the area I want to tackle now: my use of time. As aware as I am of my eating and spending habits, I realize that I am still often mindless in my use of what probably constitutes my most precious resource. My to-do lists fill up with new items faster than I can actually check off items. There always seems to be too much to do, with too little time to get it done.

Or so I thought. Just like any budget and the food/exercise equation, there is nothing mysterious about time management: put some in, take some out - numbers don't lie. With the difference that we all are granted the same amount of time: 24 hours per day. If you eat too much, you can always exercise more to burn the extra calories. If you want to spend more, you can always try and increase your income. But the 24 hours a day is a fixed number. The only component of the equation we have power over is our use of time. We need to be honest about 1) the time we need to do things - many of us tend to underestimate it and 2) which things really need to be done, as opposed to the ones that are optional. 

My quest for a better use of time is far from being over. I hope to come back with insights. In the meantime, please don't hesitate to share your wisdom in the comments below!

Mindfulness this Week

How do you manage your time?

Be part of the process: 

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Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Mindfulness - Perspective

 NancyNance, Flickr

When stuck in a rut, having a hard time experiencing gratitude, unable to find clear answers to our questions, confused about what should take priority in our lives, a simple change in perspective can help.

It struck me as I was sitting in a corner of the house I almost never "visit", on a chair I almost never use. From that standpoint, I had a completely different view of the room and of the garden outside the window. It wasn't anything I hadn't seen before, but the angle was new. It wasn't any better than my usual view, and it wasn't particularly exciting, but somehow it made me feel refreshed and serene.

Opportunities to "refresh and reframe" are everywhere if we are willing to get out of our comfort zone, or simply to slow down and notice. Trying something different and new can work wonders. So does taking the time to actually feel what is going on inside and outside of ourselves. For example, lately I have been allowing myself to stop and observe nature. If there is a pleasant sight, sound or smell, instead of going on with my day, I fully immerse myself in it, for as long as it takes to reach a state of inner joy.

In the past few weeks I had many other opportunities to reframe, ranging from the very mundane to the very distressing, and everything in between. For example:

  • The various house and car problems I mentioned in my last post, which entailed both hassle and expenses.
  • Being stuck on the tarmac for 2 hours waiting for the plane to be refuelled before take-off... and then experiencing a rather bumpy flight that left me with sweaty palms, numb fingertips and other manifestations of a fight or flight response.
  • Learning about friends' financial and/or relationship and/or health-related problems.

All those issues helped me put other issues into perspective - suddenly it didn't matter so much if a huge pile of laundry was accumulating, or that I hadn't found the time to practice my guitar, or even that my career was kind of stalled. More urgent issues, or bigger problems, were happening around me, and all my attention was on them.

But the most important - and awakening - event was the passing of my maternal grandmother. Because she was old (98 years minus 2 days to be exact), one could assume that it was easy to accept. But it wasn't. As I said to a cousin who came to the funeral, "You're never ready to lose someone you love". It didn't matter how old she was - she was amazing, and I will miss her tremendously. 

This event forced me into a new perspective - when a loved one dies, what matters more than your sorrow? Other sources of negative emotions suddenly seemed so trivial. I had no time or energy to sweat the small stuff. What mattered was to be around friends and family, and to fully appreciate their presence. My grandmother would have approved of this reframing - if I had to list her best qualities, the number one would be her bright outlook on life. She found the positive in every situation, and got back on her feet after each setback.

I know that I will keep learning from her even if she isn't here anymore. Her unique perspective will stay with me and with everyone who had the chance to know her.

Mindfulness this Week

What event(s) have changed your perspective? Was it a good or a bad thing?

Be part of the process: 

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