I have been doing too much and not doing enough.
I have been expending energy but not necessarily in the right ways.
I know about the four quadrants Stephen Covey outlines regarding time management in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. I understand the energy management principles described by Jim Loehr of the Human Performance Institute in The Power of Full Engagement. I have read about managing my attention deficit challenges through diet, exercise, interpersonal interactions, and physical challenges that utilize various segments of my brain in books by Edward M. Hallowell and John J. Ratey.
I used to teach time management skills to college students, and I can be very good at managing my own time – up to a point. As long as I know the length of time my diligence will be required – say, for a semester or until a particularly large project is completed – I am able to remain focused and excel. As soon as that deadline disappears, however, and I am faced with simply having to live an organized, efficient lifestyle every day with no end in sight, all of those skills go out the window.
Of course, anyone who read the preceding paragraphs closely will point out that I said I understand the principles outlined by those various writers–not that I had practiced them with any regularity. As part of my time management counseling, I would tell clients they had to practice time management and study skills for thirty to sixty days before they would begin to feel like habits, so, clearly, I understand the need for practice. In my defense I might argue, as many of my clients did, that I don’t have the time to practice or that I can’t figure out which skills to practice first or that I can’t possibly implement all of these great ideas in my life and I get overwhelmed trying to figure out where to start.
But the truth is, if I am doing what I love, I am focused, effective, and fulfilled.
When I begin to see my focus fade and my energy dwindle, when I start dreading the next day before I go to bed at night, and when I have a hard time dragging myself out of bed in the morning, those are the signs telling me I’ve somehow lost my way.
I discovered several years ago that I am what Barbara Sher calls a Scanner. I am always scanning the horizon for the next interesting thing. I can get intensely interested in something for a period of time and then put that aside, often without warning, and dive with great joy into something completely different. This doesn’t make sense to the people around me and gives me one of the craziest resumes you can imagine – I have to organize it around the skills I’ve used in each job, because people freak out when they see it chronologically. And as crazy as this kind of life looks on the outside, it can be quite confusing and draining from the inside, too.
It takes a LOT of energy to try to remain engaged with work that has lost its ability to excite you. It takes a lot of energy to try to find some small corner in that work that can excite you. It takes a lot of energy to try to convince yourself, as a grown-up with grown-up obligations, that if you only expended a little more energy you would be able to grow your work in a new, exciting direction and your overall passion would return, bringing your focus with it.
Luckily, I have discovered I don’t have to be excited by every aspect of my life, provided I am sufficiently excited by some aspects of my life. Recently, to reenergize my life and recapture my focus, I’ve signed up to race a sprint triathlon. This has reminded me that I am capable of following a training schedule, that I really do love working out (especially swimming and biking, although the running hasn’t completely sucked), and that I am capable of following through on commitments I make to myself. Swimming before work puts me in a great mood and helps me get into an early groove that carries me through the day. It also makes me feel strong and gives me more confidence that shows in how I carry myself.
I have also decided to publish electronic versions of Your Mileage May Vary, the memoir I wrote about the cross-country bike trip I did with the American Lung Association, and have found an editor and had several friends read the manuscript to give me feedback. As soon as I made this decision to do something for myself, to move some small part of my independent, creative life forward, my energy at work went through the roof and I was able to find plenty to keep me interested.
Recently, I’ve had to struggle a bit to maintain that level of engagement, however. When I admitted that I’d lost some steam yesterday to an artist I’m coming to know, she said, “You’ve stopped working on your book, haven’t you?” I was suprised that she nailed it so quickly, but she was absolutely right – I have stopped working on the book, allowing myself to be side-tracked by other things and getting caught up in doubts about whether or not I really should publish the book or whether it will just embarrass me in the long run. I’ve been keeping up the workouts – even increasing the number, intensity, and duration – but I haven’t written anything new or even looked at anything old in several weeks. And this lack of creative exploration, this lack of taking care of myself on what for me is a fundamental level, has taken its toll on the rest of my life. Stress has built up in my body, causing me to feel tight in my shoulders, chest, and back. I’ve actually been angry and antsy, even telling my husband on Thursday night that if I didn’t spend an hour writing sometime this week I was going to go crazy. (He suggested that I spend several hours writing to undo some of the crazy I’ve already gone.)
On the way home from work yesterday in rush hour Friday night traffic (unfortunately, I spend about three hours a day commuting these days), I got the urge to release some of the energy in my upper body vocally. I didn’t scream exactly, I just opened my mouth and “sang” a single, sustained note at very high volume. I was shocked, actually, by what came out of my body. For one thing, I didn’t know I had the lung capacity to make such a loud or long noise. But I was also surprised by what the sound sounded like. It was totally foreign, a part of me I don’t think I’ve ever touched before. For fun, I opened my mouth a second time and sang a different, sustained note to see what that felt like. Amazingly, the tension in my shoulders, chest, and throat melted right away!
When I got home, I walked and fed Kaija, our American Hairless Terrier, and immediately began writing something new. I slept well last night, had no bad dreams, and felt rested this morning when I set off for my thirteen mile bike ride at 8:00 a.m.
What about you? What areas of your life have you been neglecting? What effect does this neglect have on the rest of your life? Can you do one small thing, today, right now, that will bring you back into touch with one fundamental aspect of yourself that you have been ignoring?