Seize the day

Good time management can help most of us avoid a lot of stress. Setting goals, planning out the day ahead of time, and working during our most high-energy hours can lead to greater productivity, less time pressure and a calmer life. Sometimes, though, it’s best to let serendipity win out over planning.

Case in point: yesterday was a gorgeous day. It was one of those days where the sky is a completely cloudless, brilliant blue. The day was warm, but the humidity was low. It was the best day we had had, or were going to have, this entire week.

So when my friend said to me after a morning yoga class, “What are you doing today? Let’s get something to eat and then take a long walk – it’s so beautiful today!” I barely hesitated. It’s true that thoughts of my to-do list, and the vague commitments I had for the day did cross my mind. But I quickly realized that there was nothing so pressing that it couldn’t be done later in the day, or even the next day.

The word “serendipity” is a difficult one to define and translate, but it essentially means discovering something by accident while looking for something else, or finding something wonderful when we weren’t looking for it at all.  It’s possible to let serendipity play a role in daily time management, just by being aware of, and open to, the opportunities and beautiful moments that might turn up in the course of the day. Michael Olpin and Margie Hesson, in their text on stress management, suggest ‘split-page scheduling’ – dividing your planner page with a line down the middle, listing your plans, activities and appointments down the left side, and leaving the right side blank until the end of the day. Then you use the right side to record the unpredicted moments that arose during the day, such as “a new acquaintance, a fresh idea, a child’s question, an unexpected opportunity, a friend’s need, a chance meeting, a beautiful sunset.”

By opening ourselves to a certain amount of spontaneity in the day, we have the possibility of becoming more creative, experiencing life more fully, and even choosing to take new directions. We allow ourselves to enjoy the journey more, while not losing sight of the destination.

Yesterday, I spent a few lovely hours with my friend, walking and talking. We learned more about each other, enjoyed the fresh air and exercise, and came home hungry and tired. Even with my sore feet (lesson learned: don’t walk 4 miles in flip-flops), I still felt invigorated when I got home. I was able to get some of my work done, I enjoyed the process of preparing dinner more than usual, and I slept well. It felt like a day well-lived.

Look to this day!

For it is life, the very life of life.

In its brief course

Lie all the verities and realities of your existence:

The bliss of growth;

The glory of action;

The splendor of achievement;

For yesterday is but a dream,

And tomorrow is only a vision;

But today, well lived, makes every yesterday a dream of happiness,

And every tomorrow a vision of hope.

Look well, therefore, to this day!

“Kalidasa,” ancient Sanskrit poem

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5 Intentions for a Happy Thanksgiving

Six days and counting until Thanksgiving…what will your holiday look like? Calm or frantic? Happy or conflicted? Holidays can be stressful, often bringing out the worst in us if we let them. In yoga class, our teacher sometimes asks us to “set an intention” for the practice: something that we would like to focus on or work toward. In that spirit, here are my intentions for the next few days; maybe they will work for you too:

1. Spend time each day planning for the next one.

Time management gurus like Brian Tracy say that each minute spent planning will save 5 to 10 minutes in carrying out the task. This can be accomplished by sitting down each evening for 5 minutes to make lists, check the next day’s calendar, and block out time for priority tasks. Focusing on the most important tasks for each day, dividing them up to correspond with blocks of free time, and eliminating unnecessary tasks will help each day be more productive.

2. Ask for and accept help; take shortcuts when they serve me.

No one can do it all. So let go of the perfectionist tendencies and controlling instincts. Graciously allow others to help with the shopping, cook part of the meal, or set the table. Most likely they will be glad to be asked. Buy some foods already-prepared, especially the ones you don’t excel at or find tedious to prepare (gravy comes to mind!)

3. Take care of myself.

When people feel better, they can be more present for those they care about. During stressful holiday times, it is more important than ever to make health a priority. Exercising will give you more energy. Drinking plenty of water will help fight fatigue and improve appearance. Eating healthy in the days leading up to Thanksgiving feels good and allows for guilt-free splurging on the big day. And if stress catches up with you anyway, take five minutes just to sit and breathe.

4. Have fun each day.

Scheduling time for play or recreation is part of time management too. We all deserve a break to watch a funny movie or play a game with the family. These shared experiences will become part of everyone’s memories of the holiday.

5. Remember to be thankful.

Voltaire once said that “the perfect is the enemy of the good”, and the Thanksgiving holiday is a good time to think about what that means. Don’t strive for a perfect meal worthy of Martha Stewart, but one that will be joyfully eaten with family and friends. If your home isn’t perfectly cleaned and decorated, be glad that it is full of warmth and good cheer. Replace criticism of loved ones with appreciation, even with all of their quirks and imperfections.

As I celebrate Thanksgiving, I will keep these words of Thornton Wilder in mind: “We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.”

Time Zapper

When people are asked about stressors in their lives, one of the most common answers is not having enough time. Yet, we don’t always acknowledge that we can be our own worst enemies when it comes to creating time crunches for ourselves.

Sometimes time pressures result from genuinely having too much to do. But often they come from either inability to set boundaries for our time, or frequently, from our own unproductive work habits. Probably nothing has had a bigger effect on procrastination and low productivity at work than email, whether it’s our habit of reflexively checking it every five minutes or our expectation that it will be read immediately.

Although we see commercials on TV of people seamlessly and instantaneously completing international business deals with a click of the smart phone, in reality many business and personal transactions take place only after a long string of emails back and forth. The question is, is that the best way to get things done?

Chris Anderson, curator of the TED conference, addressed this topic in last Sunday’s Washington Post. He believes that email volume is getting out of hand in part because email is “easier to create than to respond to”. Someone sends you an email, crosses that off their to-do list, and leaves you with the harder job of formulating an answer. Worst, Anderson says, are the emails with open-ended questions, such as “What are your thoughts?”

Because people have come to expect rapid responses to emails, the recipient is then stuck with deciding whether to drop other (probably more important) work to come up with an adequate answer to that open-ended question, or to leave it in the inbox for a while and let the email pile up.

As long as 20 years ago, some early tech pioneers had already given up email and gone back to using the telephone as a primary tool of communication. Sherry Turkle of MIT may have coined the term “email bankruptcy” after her research showed that people wanted to wipe out all the email in their inboxes. Since then, there have been regular news stories about people who have done just that – deleted all their unanswered emails, and started over with a clean slate.

Stephen Covey, in his books on time management, recommends dividing tasks into a matrix:

  1. Urgent & Important;
  2. Important but Not Urgent;
  3. Urgent but Not Important; and
  4. Not Urgent or Important.

He believes that most time should be spent working in quadrant 2 (important, but not urgent), doing things like planning, relationship building and personal development. The problem might be when you think you are relationship building by sending someone an email, when you’re actually creating a quadrant 3 (urgent, but not important) task for them by expecting them to respond!

With that in mind, Anderson and others at TED have come up with the Email Charter, which is basically a list of principles to abide by when sending email. All the principles are designed to “encourage senders to reduce the time, effort and stress required of responders.” They include points such as “no open-ended questions” and use of the acronym, “NNTR”, which stands for “No need to respond”.

Some other things we might ask ourselves:

  • Is email the best form of communication for this message? Will I be better understood if I call or talk face to face instead?
  • How often do I really need to check my emails? Would once an hour be appropriate? How about every two hours, or three times a day? Figure out what is best for you and try to make it a habit.
  • If you cannot resist checking the email, consider downloading software that will block it for you. Programs such as SelfControl can block email servers and Facebook for a set amount of time, and not let you use them until the timer runs out.
  • Can you declare an email vacation once a week, or once a month? Plan a day without checking or responding to emails. You’d be surprised how much time you have for things like family, friends, reading a book or going for a walk.

Ultimately, we need to figure out if the things that are least important in our lives are getting the most attention. Sherry Turkle has said, “Sometimes we’re too busy communicating to listen to each other.” Can we break the cycle?

Work to live, or live to work?

Earlier this week, a study was reported in the Annals of Internal Medicine, indicating that working 11 or more hours per day may be a risk factor for heart disease. Risk factors for heart disease have been long-established by the Framingham study, a 60+ year project that followed a group of people living in Framingham, Massachusetts. By studying the same people (and later their children) over a life span, researchers were able to learn a great deal about risk factors for heart disease (the study was designed for that purpose).

The new study examined people in the British civil service, first in the early 1990s and through 2004. The researchers wanted to see if working hours could also be a predictor for heart disease, in addition to those factors established by Framingham research. The British civil service provides a desirable population for researchers because everyone has the same access to health care in England. Results showed that those participants working 11 hours or more a day had a 67% higher risk of developing heart disease. (One caveat is that this was a relatively low-risk population to begin with, so there is no way of knowing if the results could be generalized to higher-risk populations.)

How do we tame working hours in an era of being constantly tethered to our work through smart phones and laptops? Forty years ago, people thought that when computers and other technology became universally available, our lives would be easier and include more leisure time. In fact, one could argue that the opposite is true. There is a fun video on YouTube by Philip Zimbardo (Stanford professor famous for the Stanford Prison Experiment), called The Secret Powers of Time. It’s a riff on our attitudes about time, cultural differences related to time and how technological changes have influenced our perceptions of time. One distressing part of the video is when Zimbardo talks about a study that asked people what they would do with an extra day if there were 8 days in the week. In spite of the fact that so many people bemoan not having enough leisure time or time with family, what did most people say they would do? Work more.

I think we all know at some innate level what is good for us and what’s not. We know that more sleep feels good, that being with people who love us feels good, that being in nature nourishes us, and that eating good food and moving our bodies a little (or a lot) feels right. So when are we going to make the choice (for those of us privileged enough to have a choice) to live in a way that brings us that sense of well-being? Maybe it will take a major cultural shift that will be led by a younger generation that rejects the value of live to work. Maybe they will figure out that living a “balanced” life isn’t about finding a way to have and do it all. Balance is about knowing your values and making choices based on them.