Category Archives: Busyness

Taking the Lift

Do your work weeks resemble downhill runs on a giant slalom?

Mine did. Thankfully, Monday’s usually started out a little slow. (At worst, they felt like a ski jump — zip-aieee!) Wednesday’s picked up the pace, and I dodged flimsy obstacles disguised as meetings. By Friday I’d be screaming downhill praying not to crash before my deadline and the weekend.

I didn’t feel in control. Every day from morning until bedtime, habits, routines, and obligations, life’s equivalent of gravity, had me in their grip and yanked me downhill until I hit terminal velocity.

Don’t get me wrong; life wasn’t all bad. Actually, the thing is, a part of me kinda liked it.

It was fun to zip headlong through the week. It made me feel important and wanted. When I met my deadlines, got the kids to all their activities, and still had time for Game of Thrones, it made me feel like an Olympian — masterful.

The problem (you see it coming, right?) is that it didn’t go that way often enough. More times than not, I’d end up scrambling after a new deadline, weaving through traffic yelling at my stressed-out kids and the jerk who just cut me off, and wondering, “What am I doing?”

Unlike the Olympics, my downhill lifestyle didn’t end after three runs and ninety seconds of nerve-wracking excitement. It kept going. And even though it’s exciting, I noticed that the days blurred together as much as scenery going by at ninety miles an hour. Life is short enough, and no matter how thrilling, to lose so much of it to speed proved untenable.

Taking the Lift

I needed to change my life to match the way winter athletes preserve their performance. Once a skier speeds across the finish line in her magnificent spray of snow, there’s a built-in break. She has to ride the lift back up.

While taking the lift, review the last run from a new, higher perspective

Downtime is built into the process. While taking the lift, a skier relaxes and takes in the scenery around him. He reviews the track and his last run from a new, higher perspective. He takes the time to rest, reflect, and plan, which is what everyone, not just an athlete, needs in order to perform at their best week after week. What my ragged nerves needed was an opportunity for retreating a little from life’s frenetic pace.

Mindfulness

So, for my “Taking the Lift” I looked into meditation or mindfulness, which is more than just resting. It’s a conscious, nonjudgmental focus on one’s body and surroundings. The practice has grown over the past few years as it has gained scientific backing and become more mainstream. It’s a simple meditation method that can be associated with a spiritual practice, but it doesn’t have to be. There’s no need for a mantra or indoctrination into a religion. All it takes is a little time and some patience.

You really don’t even have to give up the excitement and thrill of working hard or only work half-days. To have a beneficial effect, even a brief, 10-minute daily practice can result in better thinking and anxiety control (Moore, Gruber, Derose, & Malinowski, 2012.) There is one caveat: to reap maximum benefits of mindfulness, it truly needs to be a practice, meaning that it must occur regularly and often. So, it’s not a once a week kind of thing. It’s daily.

Journaling

But what if sitting in dark rooms and simply being aware of your breathing sounds boring because you feed on activity? Perhaps keeping a journal is more your style. Journaling is less touchy-feely method for “taking the lift,” and allows those who enjoy structured, strategic processes to direct their focus on accomplishments, gratitude, and reflect more deeply on what they’re committed to doing better.

Don’t think that this is just another article about being a better worker. Like mindfulness, keeping a journal provides more benefit to practitioners than improved productivity. Personal writing is yet another way to recover from and cope with anxiety and stress. It is another way to “take the lift,” restore your body and mind, plus preserve your physical health.

Everyone knows that athletes need to train their bodies, but what about their emotional side? Annie Hart, an Olympic cross-country skier, uses journaling to work through the mental aspect of high-pressure racing. In an interview for FasterSkier.com, an on-line magazine, she talked about having “a really hard time shaking off bad races, and ended up carrying negative feelings from one weekend to the next. And I can tell you that there is no amount of physical training that can surmount that.”

The magic of daily journaling works for everyone: introverts, extroverts, athletes, or writers. Whenever the gravity of your days has been hurtling you downhill so fast that you feel out of control, take a few minutes to write about what’s bothering you. Shake out your feelings onto the safe privacy of the page and explore some possibilities for improving your life.

Shake out your feelings onto the safe privacy of the page

However you decide to integrate “taking the lift” into your daily life, whatever method: mindfulness, journaling or something else, it won’t always be easy. No matter what it is you choose, there will be days when you will not want to do it. Days when you’ll be tired, angry, or perhaps in pain. That’s when you fall back on habit and ritual — it’ll get you through the crashes, injuries, or defeats that are sure to come.

Crashes, injuries, or defeats are sure to come

Make your start by identifying with your practices. In the same way you identify with being someone who’s on time for work, or being someone who values family. In your mind, become the kind or person who meditates. Be someone who journals. By identifying yourself with your practice, it will grow to become part of who you are, not something separate. This way, you’re not reliant on anything so fickle as willpower. Just be yourself.

Not everyone can be an Olympic athlete, but all us, even the most sedate desk-jockey, can be under difficult pressures and technological advances have turned many of us in the modern working world into downhill racers. Rather than continually speeding through life, be like those admirable men and women in Pyeong Chang and remember to Take the Lift after each run: relax, reflect, and rejuvenate.

 

Excellence: The Razor’s Edge

Balancing Excellence with Burn-Out is hard

I’m pretty sure it has to do with the type of reading I do, but I’ve noticed the internet is currently flooded with articles about how to achieve excellence: in sports, at productivity, design, even relaxation. Rebel Power Yoga, anyone? (Really) Everyone is all about improvement, and at the top of the heap is where everyone wants to be. That’s where you gain money, recognition, friends, all of those things our culture teaches us to want. Nirvana’s on the peak. Climb up and discover your validation for the hours, the very-life, you traded for it. On one level, I have no problem with this. I’m kind of a perfectionist. It takes real, conscious effort for me to turn away from striving to be excellent, but I do. Why? because I’ve found that turning away, at least on occasion, is healthy.

Excellence is a classic example of “the razor’s edge.” It’s a precarious walk, and while it’s good to excel at what you do, and to be rewarded is fulfilling on many levels, monetarily, emotionally, and even spiritually, there is a darker side to it.

The Dangers of Excellence

There’s an enormous time and energy commitment to excellence.  Superior performance doesn’t just happen; being the best takes crushing effort and sacrifice. I remember striving to maintain a 4.0 GPA and preserve my scholarship in college. My wife and I were newly married, and over the years of my undergraduate teaching program, we had two children. Most of the time, all she saw of me for two semesters a year was the top of my head as it hovered over textbooks and in front of our computer screen. I absorbed tons of information and, besides Pedagogy and Lit Analysis, I learned that if you burn the midnight oil consistently–you end up in the dark.

I charged at perfection, but like the hallucination it is, excellence stepped easily to the side until I lay bloody and gasping in the dirt.

My ultimate dark was the metaphorical one of clinical depression, and it stayed with me for years afterward, and even now, it haunts my mind like some kind of backstage ghost. Long days of little sleep, no play, and pressure to perform killed every happiness in my life like a matador slays a bull. I had kept my head down and charged at perfection, but like the hallucination it is, excellence stepped easily to the side until I lay bloody and gasping in the dirt.

A Pearl of Great Price

While striving for excellence doesn’t always end  with having to take a happy pill for the rest of your life, there are always costs. In the Christian Bible there’s a parable about a merchant who finds a “pearl of great price” and sells all he owns in order to buy it. If you fail to maintain a broader perspective in your pursuits, excellence will demand you trade everything else in life to achieve it. Is that what you want and do you know what you’re really striving for?

You do need to examine and discern the reality of what you’re pursuing. When you’re standing at that pinnacle, what will be the scene  and will you be happy there? For example, as a personal trainer, I know how to ensure someone can attain the fashionable physical peak–washboard abs. But when someone says they want them, I make a point to ensure they are aware of the work and the payoff, and each person’s genetic and lifestyle differences are going to make the level of effort unique to them.

Excellence can be a Pearl of Great Price

The Hyped Possibility

Part of the current misunderstanding about excellence arises from famous entrepreneurs who have turned to writing about their success, and they have all kinds of prescriptions for success: lists, morning routines, meditations. And these impresarios will tell you, “I’ve interviewed dozens of billionaires, and they all have this one secret in common!” Or “Do this morning routine for twenty minutes in the morning and your life will change.” Uh…huh.

All of them will tell you there’s time, but there really may not be as much as they claim. Often writers say, “Well, if you take eight hours away for sleeping and eight hours away for work, that still leaves you eight hours.” However, once you calculate in necessities of living like, commute time, shopping time, cooking time, religious/spiritual obligations, time to be fully present with your spouse or other committed relationship, school meetings and sporting events, etc, all “extra” time evaporates.

What’s an Achiever to Do?

The call to action? Be excellent at fewer pursuits. Don’t try to be mother of the year and champion chief-executive at the same time. That’s a recipe for years of therapy. Another step to take? Tune into what you want for yourself more and tune out all the “should chatter” from T.V. , magazines, blogs, and news feeds. Those voices do not know you or your unique situation. And sometimes, there’s a level of natural ability involved that is either there or not. Sorry, but it’s true; we’re all different and that sometimes means people are just better at something than we are.

Pursuing excellence is good. But examine closely what you want for yourself. Seek out your deepest reasons for wanting to reach beyond good enough. Remember those who are close and intimate to you. They will be on for the ride. Make sure they want to go. Lastly, and most important–love the process of your pursuit as much as the end product. That way, even the daily work will be something that will make you happy.

Keeping Your Natural Rhythm

I am newborn and slip into the scenery and the silence

Entering the Rhythm

Everyone has a natural rhythm. In my seasonal cycle, mountains rise in me like rivers rise in the spring. When the snow melts off the streets and the trees open their first buds, dreams of walking  through deep valleys and struggling up steep, mountainous slopes flood my sleep, washing away the winter’s months of stillness.  It’s difficult waiting for early summer. I squirm like a kid waiting for Christmas. I make lists of maps and look for places to walk away from empty talk, garish skylines of aluminum, and streets lined with black staves of wire instead of trees.

But, no matter how anxious I am to dive into the first national park I see, when I do go, there’s always a waiting period before I can settle into the trail’s rhythm.  On those initial miles, I feel out of sync with nature, and it’s not until I’m two or three days deep into a long-awaited hike that my body will break through the surface tension holding me captive. My muscles and nerves relax and suddenly, I’m no longer drowning in questions or choices that don’t really belong to me.  From that point, I am newborn and can rise into the scenery and the silence, while the sun’s warmth on my skin laps away the last vestiges of civilization.

Technology and Syncopation

As I slip into every day’s simple cycle, I am reminded of how in the past, for tens of millennia, when the sun went down—the world fell into a darkness we could not see into. What was out there, silent, watching, hungry, was a mystery that no one dared delve into. The night was for taking shelter and sleeping until the sun returned and lit our way again.

We have undone this rhythm with lights on everything. Don’t get me wrong or label me a Luddite; I enjoy having lights to read by, music to listen to, and television to watch, but the fact remains that we have thrown off our natural rhythm, and that exacts a price.

For mostly economic reasons, we have imposed our will on nature’s rhythm, the beat of which has formed us since the beginning of time. This technological syncopation has entered our minds and seriously thrown us off. As an Air Force member, I worked shift work for nearly twenty years, and I remember reading research from the late Seventies that showed the ill effects working night and day had on physical and mental health. Today’s research continues to reinforce those earlier studies.

Paying Modernity’s Price

In 2016, Medical News Today, an international publication for health news, published the results of a meta-analysis that showed shift work posed an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, and a second study indicated that shift work impaired brain functions like: memory, cognitive speed, and overall brain power. Apparently, we cannot throw off the rhythms that have formed us without threatening our health.

Depression is higher among shift workers

 

Carla V. Finkielstein, an associate professor of biological sciences at Virginia Tech, said that ” television, computers and longer hours of social activity also contribute to what is referred to as “social jet lag,” as well as many new diseases and disorders that are more prominent in Western societies.” Depression is higher among shift workers. Plus, many of these disorders occur in those who work longer hours than usual. Even too much overtime throws one’s system into a tailspin.

Natural Healing

And what can set our mental health back on an even flight path? The outdoors. Being surrounded by nature has been shown again and again to reduce people’s stress, increase their cognitive ability and creativity, and strengthen their ability to focus their attention. Putting aside time to be outside in a pleasant environment shifts our attention away from ourselves and away from negative emotions. Even something as simple as a walk in your local park has been shown to increase your attention, calm stress, and lower your blood pressure.

Remember when I said it took two or three days for me to slip into the rhythm of the trail? Meet David Strayer. He is a cognitive psychologist at the University of Utah who specializes in attention, and he talks about something he calls the “three-day effect.” Strayer demonstrated  it with a group of Outward Bound participants, who performed 50 percent better on creative problem-solving tasks after three days of wilderness backpacking. “The three-day effect,” Strayer says, “is a kind of cleaning of the mental windshield that occurs when we’ve been immersed in nature long enough.”

So there’s scientific proof for what the early environmentalist, John Muir intuited. He said, “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks. ” But however beneficial to my health, I will always venture into the wild not because science says I should, but rather how it makes me feel connected to something larger and so very alive.  Entering the rhythm of the natural world resonates within us as humans. Nature restores our spirits, heals our bodies, and soothes  our weary souls.

 

Priorities are Essential

Heading into the backcountry excites me. The draw of serene days and stunning scenery coupled with the physical demands and danger set up an ache that won’t let go until I set my boots on the trail.  My last post, Pilgrimage, recounted important trips I took into the Rockies and Tetons in order to lay claim to who I was and who I wanted to be. The outdoors are where I am most alive, and in my pursuit of natural highs, I find many metaphors for living a good life.

Speaking of which, have you noticed how time, or rather the lack of it, drives how we spend the hours of each day? Don’t the pressures of getting things done cut deeply into our life and rapidly bleed it to death? Yeah, me too. But I have taken some time and bothered to ask, does it have to be that way? And my experience as a traveler has provided me with some metaphorical insight.

One of the first things I do to prepare for a backpacking trip is to determine what to bring. There are certain items: tent, sleeping bag, cook stove, etc., that aren’t really much of a choice. You need these things. I know where to put them in my backpack; they’ve been allotted a place already. In my metaphor, these are eating, sleeping, and making a living. I have to do them in order to live. (Although many people dangerously play with sleep.)

It’s when you start trying to determine the other items where some thought comes into play. Factors like, how long the trip is, what’s the terrain like, and what weather can you expect come into the decision process. If it’s a short trip, I’m not going to pack as much food and may even decide to splurge a little and bring something special, like a pouch of tuna or a tiny bottle of wine. If the terrain is rugged and steep, everything is pared down. No book, music, or fancy food.

Are you seeing some parallels to life yet? When we sit down to “load” our week with events, projects, and work, shouldn’t we enter into a similar process? Are you discerning and careful about what you choose to fill your days with, or are you apt to quickly say, “yes,” to demands on your time out of politeness or some need to meet an imposed standard? Of course you have to be at every game your four children are in! What kind of parent wouldn’t?

Of course you have to be at every game your four children are in! What kind of       parent wouldn’t?

If I packed my backpack to meet some machismo ideal, I might try and carry heavier weight just so I could prove my manliness. However, I’d probably ruin my enjoyment, since at the end of every day’s hike I’d be totally exhausted and weak. I wouldn’t be able to take that quick side trip to the hot spring, or climb up to the valley precipice to look out over the incredible panorama of snow-covered mountains. All I’d be able to do is stagger from camp to camp, growing more tired with every step and that feeling would build each day and every passing mile.

That describe your current life?

Maybe not that bad, but you see the point. So many people today insist on doing everything, stuffing their lives with too many events and projects. I can do it all!  is a modern mantra. The problem is, it’s also a myth.

In Greg McKeown’s book, Essentialism, he reminds us that we can’t do everything, and therefore we shouldn’t try. I can’t fill my backpack with everything; I would literally breakdown and fail to enjoy the trip. Nor can I fill my days with everything–for the exact same reasons. Cramming life with obligations and standards to meet means living a life that is imposed on you and you’ll be miserable while you’re at it. To avoid this scenario, set personal priorities for living; if you don’t, someone will set them for you.

To move in the direction of an essentialist in the backcountry is to actually follow core guidelines for the outdoors, but to follow that direction in mainstream society will be counter to the current flow. There will be push-back and taking charge of your time will require courage and discipline, which everyone has when the stakes are high–and what’s higher than the quality of your life?

Make sure you take the time to enjoy the infinite points of beauty in your life.

In order to wholly enjoy a backpacking trip, I need to pay attention to every step. Between every two end-points are an infinite number of others that await my enjoyment. The same is true for every life, and all of us can politely take control of our own priorities, pare down to those essentials that mean the most to us, and start enjoying life even more. Have a blessed journey.