Saturday, September 7, 2013

Mastering the Space-Time Continuum

I'm conducting a little experiment this week on the way that I schedule my time, and I've made a few observations. Managing my time so that my life is balanced has always been a struggle for me. As a teacher, my work day did not end when I left the school building and drove home. I routinely put in another 3-4 hours each evening grading papers and planning the next day's lessons. And those chores were a constant. I could not get ahead by putting in extra work over the weekend. And I couldn't put them off or I would not be prepared the next day. Some of my colleagues preferred to stay at work until 6 or 7 pm so that work life would not bleed into their home life. One of my supervising teachers trained herself to grade papers whenever possible throughout the day. In line for the copier? Two papers graded.

I could never develop those habits. My school work expanded to fill whatever time I had. I would literally be grading right up until bedtime. And when I was at home not doing school work, I was thinking about it. Or more accurately, worrying about it and beating myself up for not getting it done earlier. I learned that if I was going out with friends, the only way that I could enjoy myself is if I left my book bag at school. That was the signal that my brain needed to stop nagging me.

Those patterns followed me when I started working for myself. A lot of the writing and creating that I do involves drilling down until I've found the underlying framework that my brain is using to organize thoughts and ideas. It's a bit like chiseling away to find the sculpture in the stone. When I have the time and space to go deep, there are seismic shifts between the drafts that I produce that reflect new levels of understanding and awareness. If I don't give myself that time and space, those re-writes never happen and my work suffers.

Unfortunately, when you are trying to find the sculpture in the stone, the process involves a lot of staring at the stone and very little chiseling, which can feel a lot like procrastination. Learning to trust in my process was a huge breakthrough for me, but it meant giving myself plenty of time to contemplate the stone. Once again, work expanded to fill all the time and space I could give it. The quality and quantity of my output was good — so I was happy — but my home life suffered. My life was out of balance and I wasn't taking care of myself.

I was encouraged to try and restore some of the balance missing from my life after working with Sarah, my coach, for a few weeks. I started cleaning and cooking again, and running on a treadmill. Being healthy, happy, and in balance felt incredible, but I was also getting increasingly worried. The more changes I made, the more I doubted my ability to sustain them. I had deliberately waited until I was in between work projects before bringing up this life stuff with Sarah, giving myself plenty of time to take on new things. What would happen once work resumed?

Together, we designed some systems that might help me sustain things, but I finally bit the bullet and brought up my poor use of time and space. Sarah suggested that I experiment with a schedule. I had always resisted schedules because you can't schedule inspiration. It happens when it happens. The last thing I wanted was to force myself to chisel stone when the stone hadn't spoken to me yet. But I knew that I needed to try something, so I proposed getting up at 11am, taking time for myself, working from 4-9 pm, taking a break, and then working again from 12-3 am, finishing the day with a short bedtime ritual.

I started the schedule on Wednesday and today is Saturday. It was weird at first. I instantly liked giving myself five hours at the start of the day to run, cook, go shopping, and do some cleaning. Those five hours gave me the time and space I needed to utilize the systems I had developed when not working. Forcing myself to work, and nothing else, was hard. I worked from 4-9 pm on Wednesday, probably doing about three hours of actual work in that time. I couldn't force myself to pick up again at midnight, so I took the rest of the night off.

Waking up on Thursday, I had been struck by inspiration during the night, so I was eager to start working right away. But I forced myself to wait until work time started at 4 pm (it wasn't that hard). Again, I cooked, ran, cleaned, and got a lot of life stuff done. It felt fun and productive. Work went a little better. It was still a struggle, but I did both of my shifts this time. The same thing happened on Friday, except work went even better. I actually wanted too continue working past 3 am, but I was too tired from the day and needed some sleep. It felt like I might be coming down with something.

The real revelation was on Saturday (today). I woke up with the whole day in front of me. I was mentally ready to work, but I had decided that I wouldn't work today. Instead, I went through my cleaning checklist to see which weekly chores I hadn't done yet, and which bi-weekly chores I might want to do this week instead of leaving everything for next week. I had actually been good about fitting my weekly cleaning into my daily routine, so the only two things I had left were to clear my entryway (where I tend to let things pile up) and take out the recycling. The bi-weekly chores I wanted to get out of the way were vacuuming and organizing the refrigerator.

I decided to take care of the recycling first and then hit the supermarket and Trader Joe's. While I was gathering the recycling, I organized the refrigerator and took out the kitchen trash at the same time. When I got home from grocery shopping, I cooked lunch and then prepared some stuff for meals later in the week. It was 2 pm by then and there was something that I wanted to do in half an hour. I was feeling pretty good about the day so far, so I went into overdrive and put everything away that had been stacking up in the entryway and then vacuumed the living room and my bedroom. Job done! I may even take on the closet (a quarterly chore) tomorrow.

Deciding not to work today was really liberating. Combined with my cleaning checklist and the other systems I have in place, it let me use the free time wisely and productively, keeping me balanced. The funny thing is, I didn't do any work last weekend either, but I felt terrible about it the whole time and wasn't nearly as energized. Having a schedule isn't about rigidity. It is about establishing an intention for a time and space. By letting work and life bleed together, I wasn't doing justice to either. I may sit down at my computer one day at 4 pm, only to realize that I need to do some deep thinking before I can type anything. And that's okay. I can still give myself permission to go on a walk through the woods to work. What I can't do is put the rest of my life on pause in case I might be ready to work or an idea might come to me.

Last week, I grilled some steak and used the leftovers in lettuce wraps with a side salad of tomato, cucumber, and red onion. I'm thinking that those lettuce wraps will be even better with some pickled vegetables or a herb vinaigrette drizzled on it. If I want to have a balanced life, then I need to carve out time and space for these other parts of me to grow. Now where'd I leave that cook book!

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