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Posts tagged ‘mindfulness’

Unitasking

The aim of life is to live, and to live means to be aware joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware.” – Henry Miller

photo by sethoscope, via  flickr creative commons

photo by sethoscope, via flickr creative commons

I used to think that multitasking — trying to ALWAYS kill two birds with one stone — was the best way to squeeze more into my life.  And in some ways, I still believe this.  I like to to do walking meetings.  I like to listen to podcasts while I work out.  And yes, date night (well, date day) is often a bike ride or a trail run.

But I’ve noticed that there is a stark difference between “combining activities to be efficient” and the dark side of multitasking which feels stressful and chaotic and “one foot out the door” at all times.  We see the latter everywhere these days — the guy at the gym talking on his phone and reading The Economist while he “works out” on the elliptical machine…the colleague who is banging out emails during another colleague’s presentation…the mom catching up with her friends at the park while her kid masters the monkey bars for the first time ever.  I recognize these people because as much as I’d like to think otherwise, I am more like them than I am unlike them.

There’s a ton of data out there about how multitasking impacts our productivity, our creativity, our memory, and our ability to influence others.  A Stanford study found that “people who chronically engage in media-multitasking exhibit certain cognitive deficits: specifically, they have more trouble ignoring distractions, keeping irrelevant memories from interfering in their present task, and switching from one task to another, mostly because they can’t help thinking about the task they’re not doing.”  And if you’re interested in this research, check out this article or a book written a few years ago called The Myth of Multitasking: How “Doing It All” Gets Nothing Done (a few basic google search terms will open up a spigot of related information too).

Despite reading about this for years, I’m only just now beginning to make the shift from multitasking to unitasking (as we know, information does not equal behavior change).  I’m trying out a bunch of practices to see what’s easy and what’s hard…what sticks and what doesn’t.

  • Check email at set intervals (morning, noon, end of workday, end of day)
  • Close tabs when I’m done with them (goodbye, days of last week’s kayak search still being open in my browser)
  • Try a new workspace when starting a new task (mixing up the environment can work wonders)
  • Embrace airplane mode (believe it or not, your phone’s airplane mode works at the park, at dinner, and at parties too!)
  • Clear the table (remove any technology, newspapers, books, magazines, legos, etc from the table and focus on the food and the company)
  • Schedule reading time (save media/blog reading for a structured hour each morning rather than reading all day long)
  • Work on a passion project (like a blog! or an art project!  or building robots in your basement!)
  • Sleep (sleep = unitasking by default!)

How do you feel about multitasking?  When does killing two birds with one stone help you, and when does it hurt you and the people around you?  Do you have any unitasking secrets to share?

Calm Amidst the Storm

photo by: david goehring (via flickr creative commons)

photo by: david goehring (via flickr creative commons)

I came across a compilation yesterday called “The Pace of Modern Life.”  It includes excerpts from articles published between 1871-1915 lamenting feelings of continual acceleration, fears about the deterioration of play, and concerns about the dying art of conversation/long-form thought.  Sound familiar?

Swap “tweet” for “letter” in a few of these excerpts and they could have been written today.  We’re fretting about our 240-character “essays” and steady stream of photos in the same way people 100 years ago worried that the efficiency of the post was reducing the value of a thoughtful letter.  This raises the question — is this a technology issue, or simply one of the complicated realities of the human condition?  Is it about a universal truth that human beings struggle to slow down when the world around us seems to be speeding up?

There’s a lot of talk about slowing down these days (at least in the bubble we call Silicon Valley), and there are lots of questions about whether we’re heading down a road where people think in snapshots, not paragraphs and our memories live in the cloud, not in our hearts.  My answer: we need to look at our own lives, our own routines, our own values, and our own priorities in order to find the balance between the gifts technology gives us and the real-life reflection and connection we need as humans.  Each of our needs…and each of our answers will be different.  But I’d bet that slowing down might actually help most of us speed up in the grand scheme of things.

Here are a few simple ways I’m trying to find this harmony (TRYING is the operative word here):

  • Unplugged mornings (running/writing/reading in the mornings instead of typing)
  • Email “blocks” (checking email at set intervals versus constantly)
  • Walking meetings (no urge to check email/phone during the meeting if it’s not available)
  • Tech-free dates (leaving my phone in the car when I’m out with my husband)
  • “Day in review” talks with the kids (lie in bed with the kids at night at talk about their days)

What about you?  Is it hard for you to slow down amidst a fast world outside?  What helps you slow down during the day or week?

Cutting Through the Clutter

I’ve been thinking a lot about all of the “noise” in my life lately.  I’m signed up for a gazillion blogs/e-newsletters, I get the snail mail New York Times, Fast Company, Outside, and Real Simple, I have four email accounts, paper lists, electronic lists, and lists swimming around in my head.  I’m not sure what percentage of this is “media porn” versus substantive information, but I’m guessing the balance could be a whole lot better than it is.  This topic of noise/bombardedness seems to be in the media a lot these days as people are increasingly talking about things like intention and purpose and signal…and how we isolate those things in our information-filled lives.  For example, an author named Douglas Rushkoff recently published a book called Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, which talks about our social adaptation to a present-focused narrative, which can either be energizing or disorienting, depending on how we handle it.

This idea of noise — and how to sift through it — is most interesting to me as it relates to our health.  This was actually the foundation of wellfesto — a belief that if we all could get clearer about what matters to us, based on our individual stage in life and priorities and interests and passions — we’d be able to better focus the information and inspiration we process in order to take care of ourselves.  I love the idea of being clear about what matters to us, and then designing information flow based on that.  Technology writer Doc Searls was quoted talking about this exact thing in yesterday’s New York Times business section: “right now, fitness enthusiasts who use blood pressure monitors, calorie calculators, and movement sensors typically can’t collate the data for a unified view of their wellness…if people could easily integrate their data, they might be able to correlate weight loss to a particular workout routine or diet.”

I’m sure people are frantically scrambling to build a platform that makes sense of not just our physical health, but our overall well-being.  And overall, I think this is a good thing.  Probably a great thing…maybe even a world-changing thing.  But the value of all of this information hinges on what we actually do with it.  What signal are we looking for, why, and what decisions/behavioral changes do we make based on what we learn?  What unique blend of data matters to US?  I have a super rudimentary way of thinking about this, which is a pie graph of what I’m focusing on at any given time.  Here’s the graph I made this morning:

photo(22)

It shows where I’m focusing my effort right now…not necessarily my time (I probably spend more time making and eating food and using my brain than this graph shows)…but my energy.  Once I sketch out how I’m focusing my effort, I think about what I’m looking for in each category.  This usually includes one/some of the following: motivation, information, support, time, focus, inspiration, commitment.  Once I know what I’m working on and what will help propel it forward, I can make clearer use of my time and find signal in noise.  It’s imperfect, but its a good check now and again to try to focus on the things that matter most.

What tools do you use to keep track of your health?  Do they add value or noise?  Do the signals you’re looking for change over time?  If you could design one tool to keep track of your overall well-being, how would it work?  

Unplugged

camping beach

This weekend’s camping trip confirmed my love/hate relationship with camping.

LOVE: sleeping close to the ground, waking up to chirping birds, feeling self-sufficient, making campfires, eating trail mix, relaxing in the late afternoon sunshine, experiencing the independence it brings out in my kids, being around fantastic, like-minded people, having easy access to amazing natural beauty (in this weekend’s case, the beach), wearing bright colors, UNPLUGGING

HATE: eating out of a cooler, finding dirt in my sleeping bag, finding dirt in my pockets, finding dirt in my food, finding dirt behind my ears, shivering in the morning, using communal toilets, seeing one too many raccoons, dealing with SO MUCH GEAR (although Sean deals with it, so this shouldn’t really be on this list)

Thankfully — both because Sean has a love/love relationship with camping and because it’s Earth Day today — the LOVE list is longer than the HATE list.  Yes, we will indeed camp again, and I can now refer to this list whenever I’m feeling cranky about the cold and the dirt.  And while all of the things on the LOVE list are important to me, the one that’s extra special because it’s hardest for me to achieve in my normal (electricity + running water filled) life is the ability to unplug.

I didn’t open my computer (and minimally used my phone) from noon Friday until this morning, and it felt purifying and empowering.  I know this is a ridiculous thing to be so proud of — 2.5 days sans computer — but the reality is, it rarely happens.  And even in a short time, it’s amazing how connected I felt to my family and how much I didn’t even miss my steady information diet.

I did a bit of research about unplugged weekends this morning, and found out there is actually a National Day of Unplugging.  I’m sure I was surfing some random website during this year’s celebration, but I’m marking my calendar for next year’s shebang, March 7-8, 2014.  I also found a good article published on Huffingtonpost.com making a pretty good case for unplugging.  It’s no surprise, but here are five reasons to steer clear of screens.  They…

  • Limit Ability to Pay Attention: Called “popcorn brain,” chronic Internet users often report having a tougher time focusing and tuning out irrelevant material
  • Increase Stress: This is more for heavy social media users suffering from the evil comparison that social media usage can provoke  
  • Disrupt Sleep: Screens actually emit a blue wavelength of light that tricks the brain into thinking it’s time to be alert…yet 95% of Americans report using some sort of screen in the hour before bed
  • Stunt Creativity: Screen-free time in nature has been shown to boost creativity though.  All the most reason to turn off the screen get outside!
  • Hurt: Yes, sitting is killing us slowly

I opened my trusty MacBook Pro this morning feeling bright-eyed and clear-headed, not anxious or already behind.  Pretty good ROI for just 2.5 days off.  Now the challenge is to make this happen whether I’m sleeping in the wilderness on the weekends or not!

How do you unplug?  Do you notice real emotional and physical changes when you get away from your screens and out into nature?   

Unmoments

I write a lot about ideas for getting the most out of every day – how to fit in workouts and dates and healthy meals and gratitude and self-care amidst crazy and busy and overplanned lives.  So today I thought I’d write about something just as important, and arguably even more meaningful: the moments in between.  The “unmoments.”  These are the moments when our brain has time to wander and rest, to drift from thought to thought and idea to idea. For me, these moments usually happen when I’m running or doing an art project or folding laundry or stirring a soup, when my mind is distracted enough from day-to-day stress to be free to begin to both generate new ideas and connect existing ones in interesting ways.

Most often known as “shower moments,” there is a long history and tons of research about down time and its connection with creativity.  Mihaly Csikszentmihalya, the Hungarian positive psychology guru best known for his work on Flow refers to these moments as “incubation,” of the time away from work itself where our subsconscious minds are free to work on our behalf and deliver ideas back to our conscious minds.  And based on the experience of wildly successful idea people (Steve Jobs reported getting tons of great ideas following meditation), it works.

We all need space to do and space to just be, and we need a healthy balance of both. If we’re spending most of our time “being,” we may not have a lot of material to incubate.  But if we’re spending all of our time doing, we are likely to miss the big ideas and aha moments that come with processing our day-to-day lives.  So, if you’re not already leaving space for these unmoments in your life, here are a few simple things you can do to make room:

  • Observe yourself for a week.  When do you have the most new ideas or even revelations about things that have been leaving you stumped?  When you’re driving?  Swimming?  Doodling?
  • Make time.  Once you identify what activities help your mind drift, try to do those things more often…even every day if you can.  Shift your thinking about this time from one of luxury to one of necessity and block it out on your calendar just as you would an important meeting.
  • Jot down your thoughts.  If you have ideas during your “unmoments,” jot them down (I literally keep a piece of paper taped on my wall…it’s that simple).  You may see patterns in your thoughts that will increase your understanding about something in your day-to-day life.

What works for you?  When do you incubate your best ideas, and how do you make time for it?

Staying In the Now

handsI read an essay last night called “Suddenly, They’re All Gone” (published in Tuesday’s New York Times Science section).  Written by a journalist reflecting on her years caring for her elderly relatives (her mother, mother-in-law, father-in-law, and aunt), it quickly pulled me in and ultimately made me cry.  I was teary for a few reasons…she wrote it with so much love and care and honesty…it made me think about the inevitable aging process that we (thankfully) don’t think of on a regular basis…in a lot of ways, I feared being her some day…and it reminded me of the many, many people my own parents have cared for in their later years, sacrificing their own lives to bring loved ones moments of brightness and joy amidst long days often spent alone.

The essay’s main point is this: when you’re “in it” (or “drowning,” as the author calls it) — dealing with the doctors and the caregivers and the appointments and the logistics of caring for another person — all you can think about sometimes is getting out of it…moving past it…what life might be like when it’s over.  But unlike other challenging times (like the terrible two’s, for example), when you’re dealing with someone nearing the end of their life, “getting out of it” doesn’t mean entering a new and beautiful phase that makes it all worth it.  It means the end.  Rather than growing and expanding, the closing of this chapter leaves a hole.

The author talks about what she misses — namely, being in the moment with the people she cared for.  She talks about the joy of bringing simple, physical comfort — similar to cradling a fussy child.  She talks about knowing what small things will make someone smile, and doing those things often.  And she talks about listening to the stories about the past that seem to come rushing out in people’s later years.

It was this talk of missing that made me cry, both thinking about the people I miss who are no longer with us, but also, the things I miss in my everyday life as my brain darts between past and future, rarely pausing in the present long enough for me to soak it all in.  I often find myself in the “when we get through this (i.e., the terrible two’s or a rough patch at work or a tense time in my relationship), it will be better and worth it” mindset.  And while admittedly this thinking keeps me sane, it also gets me out of the present…out of the “now.”  So this article was a timely reminder that as Jon Kabat-Zinn put it in his talk about Wisdom 2.0, “there will never be another now.”  It was the jolt I needed last night to remind to me soak it all up — the beautiful moments and the challenging moments and everything in between.

When is it hard for you to be in the “now,” and what helps you stay in the present moment?  

Wisdom 2.0

photo(10)Who would have ever thought the Chairman of Ford would share the stage with Buddhist monk and spiritual guru Jack Kornfield?  Or a leader from Twitter would interview Jon Kabat-Zinn about the role mindfulness plays in modern day work and life?  Or a start-up leader would stand in front of a few thousand people, share photos of his communal living space, and lead a short, guided meditation about smiling at the bus stop?  Or a technologist turned artist would comfortably strut barefoot across a stage at a “business” conference and talk about her journey as a human being? Read more

Draw Your Life in Five Years

Slide1During my first work experience after college – an internship at the Women’s Sports Foundation in New York – an art therapist came to talk with the intern cohort about personal and professional development.  She gave us all blank sheets of paper and crayons and asked us to “draw our lives in five years.” There was no other direction – she didn’t ask us specifically to draw our work or our families or our houses…just “our lives.” Read more

Living Life on Purpose

purposePeople are talking about purpose a lot these days, as bloggers and academics and coaches debate whether it’s better to actively “find your purpose” versus do things that “help your purpose find you.”  A quick web search for the term “purpose” returns an endless stream of results, including one website where I can apparently find out “how to discover my life’s purpose in about 20 minutes.”

Although it would be awesome if the purpose question could be answered in 20 short minutes on the Internet, I actually think that figuring this out – what your purpose is, what to do to find it/let it find you, and how it should and can realistically direct your life – is extraordinarily difficult and requires time and effort (I wrote a post about the early stages of my personal purpose journey a few months ago).  But there is something I think is related, yet much easier to wrap your head around and practice: living life on purpose.

In my mind, there is a significant difference between living a purpose-driven life and living life on purpose.  The former comes from a very deep place that touches the core of our being; this is my deep, deep aspiration and my individual journey, but not yet my current reality.  The latter, however, relates to things that are easier to grasp – things like reason and deliberation and goal-directedness and the ability to hold both the near-term and the long-term at the same time.  This definitely isn’t easy, but to me, it seems doable.

For me, living life on purpose is about being intentional about my actions and decisions (I’ve heard this described as disambiguation, which sounds robotic, but makes good sense to me).  Living with intention involves things like actively making trade-offs, aiming to always understand how your time is being spent and why, and putting guardrails in place to ensure you stay on track.  For example, in my wellfesto, I’ve made commitments like “I exercise as much as my time and body allow because it gives me energy and de-clutters my mind and helps me stay in the present and helps me feel like myself;” and “I prioritize my relationships with my husband, kids, family, and friends even when it means sacrifice in other areas of my life.”  These statements have very little to do with my deep, core purpose in life….but they have everything to do with living life on purpose.

I had a professor in graduate school who shared a story about how she and her partner sat down every January 1 and talked about various aspects of their lives that were going well versus not.  Something she said really stuck with me (paraphrasing here): “We know it’s impossible to optimize for everything we’d like in our lives, so we work to find a comfortable balance between things that are great and things that aren’t.  For example, we’d like to live in a warmer climate, but we love our jobs…so living in Chicago trumps moving to a warmer place.  We’d like to make more money, but we value autonomy, so we’re OK with a simpler lifestyle.”  She had incredible clarity about the trade-offs she was making and why. She was (and still is, I hope) living life on purpose.

Different people likely thrive with varying levels of intentionality about the way they live their lives.  Some may float through life happily, letting things come into and go out of their lives with little though…and that’s fine.  But others may benefit from greater attention and intention, in everyday moments, phases of their life (i.e., the roaring 20s or the mid-thirties parenting fog), or their whole life.  If you’re interested in applying the idea of intention, here are a few strategies that have worked for me:

  • Be clear about what matters most to you: Be honest with yourself and the people around you about what’s most important to you….and then design your life to maximize time around those things.
  • Actively make trade-offs: Take stock now and again of what’s going on in your life and why.  If there are things that aren’t ideal, think about them in the context of everything else.  Can you make peace with renting instead of buying a house because you don’t have the risk profile to carry a huge mortgage?  Can you live with a career plateau so you can see your kids grow up?  Or are you OK with finding someone amazing to take care of your kids so you can make a meaningful impact in your work?
  • Focus on the present: I posted earlier this week that “the way we spend our days is the way we spend our life.”  Think about where your time is going every day, and work toward a place where the way you spend most of your days reflects the way you see yourself spending your life.  I think there is a lot of value in the saying “we become what we do all day long.”
  • Ask for feedback: Talk to good friends and family now and again about whether they believe you’re walking the walk and not just talking the talk about what matters most.  Our best friends are often our most honest mirrors.
  • Be thankful.  Being able to live life on purpose is easier for some people than it is for others.  If you’re lucky enough to have the structural support, time and autonomy to be intentional about your minutes and hours and days and years, don’t lose sight of what a luxury that is.  A simple gratitude practice may push you one step further…

With or without an omnipresent purpose, not everything in life can be bright and shiny all the time.  But it’s a lot easier to accept the things that aren’t when they have been actively chosen versus decided for us.  To me, this peace of mind and clarity of thought is the greatest value of living life on purpose.

How do you feel about living your life on purpose?  Does it matter to you, or does it feel constraining?  If intention is important to you, what do you do to make sure you’re living the way you want to be living?    

Flowers and Bubbles

zoe flowersI arrived at my son’s preschool for my volunteering shift a few weeks ago to find 18 rosy-cheeked, sweaty, and INSANELY HYPER 4-yr-olds frantically trying to assemble themselves into a circle before lunchtime.  When they were all finally seated, the teacher asked them to take a few minutes to “smell the flowers and blow the bubbles.”  Immediately, each child clasped his/her hands together as if gripping a freshly picked bouquet and proceeded to take a deep breath in through their nose (smelling the flowers) and a deep breath out through their mouth (blowing the bubbles).  Within a few minutes, the kids were calm and quiet and able to move on to lunch. Read more

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