I’ve struggled my entire adult life to Get Things Done.
It’s not that I’m ever really idle, not really. Even when it looks like I’m doing nothing, I’m in fact a quivering brew of anxiety about things I should be doing right now, should have done, should do tomorrow — and there’s always something more to do.
Am I the only one this happens to or does that sound familiar?
I’ve tried probably every productivity system on the planet, paper and digital, at some point or another. As we speak, I’m trying to figure out a host of integrations between/ among Evernote, ToDoist, Trello, Google Drive (documents and spreadsheets), calendars, time trackers, and I can’t even tell you what else – and that’s just the electronic stuff. I also have, at last count, no fewer than three paper calendar-daytimer-ish books plus a catch-all notebook that I use to list pretty much everything. And with all that, mostly I end up just putting a daily to-do list on a homemade scratch pad that consists of scrap letter paper cut into thirds and stapled together.
Still, too I often find myself at the end of the day thinking, where did the day go and what the hell did I do all day?
It doesn’t help that I may be the slowest person on the planet. I do things really, really well, but it takes me for-EVER. (Just ask my grade 2 teacher, whose beautiful flowing handwriting I can still see in my mind’s eye, in red ink on every single math test I did that year: “Too Slow!”)
And what usually passes for “discipline” doesn’t help either. It just doesn’t work for me. Beating myself over the head to get stuff done just gets me cowering in the corner waiting for the beating to stop, so I can think.
What is helping, however, is a different way of looking at discipline. I was reminded of this yesterday as I listened to a talk by the wonderful Buddhist teacher Susan Piver about discipline, one of the six paramitas (translated variously as “transcendent actions” or sometimes “noble actions” or “perfections”) that are identified in Buddhism as the skills needed to navigate through life’s suffering and be of benefit to yourself and others. The working definition of discipline that I find most helpful is a willingness and ability to keep coming back to the matter at hand, to the commitment I’ve made.
Sound familiar? If you practice mindfulness meditation, it probably does.
This is exactly what we learn to do on the cushion – bring our attention back to our chosen point of focus, again and again and again. It is the returning that is important, not whether you’ve drifted away, drifted off topic. During meditation practice, thoughts and feelings will always come up. This is not considered a problem. In fact, I see it as an opportunity, because noticing that I’m having a thought is the first step in bringing my attention back to the breath… and in learning discipline. Letting go of my thoughts when I realize I’m thinking is the second step, and coming back to my breath, that’s the point of the whole exercise.
Apply this to daily life and work, and what does that look like?
I think it might look something like this: You sit down to work and 20 minutes later you notice you’re not working but you’re actually playing solitaire. Hmm. I notice I’m playing solitaire. I could stop now and turn my attention back to the task at hand. There is discipline at work. Later: Hmm, I notice my thoughts are drifting. Maybe I need a little break, stand up, turn around, sit down, turn back to the task at hand. And so on.
This is so different from the internal conversation I tend towards, which might be more like, “Bad girl! Get back to work! Right now! I’m watching you! I’m not paying you to daydream!”
The gentleness and kindness of simply noticing and returning, noticing and returning, makes all the difference. It’s the difference between being kind to yourself and, well, not.
Another thing that has been helping me get things done in this new venture of mine is the idea of “enoughness,” which I’d heard about before but which circled back to me just the other day through Saundra Goldman’s wonderful article on the topic. I believe the term was coined by Jen Louden, and what it means (briefly — you really should read Jen’s article) is that you decide what will be “enough” — and that what you accomplish doesn’t have to be “perfect” and it doesn’t have to be the completion of a whole big project – it just has to be “enough,” by your own definition. Now understand, I’m a perfectionist and this kind of thing just makes me want to break out in hives.
But it has gotten me to look at my to-do list with new eyes, seeing where I’ve bitten off more than I can accomplish in one day. It’s gotten me to start going through my to-do list one thing at a time, asking myself, what is the one thing I can do next, in the next 10-20 minutes, that will make me feel I’ve taken a step forward? What is “enough” right now? And when I’ve done whatever it is, I celebrate each and every small step. (To do: call for a hair appointment. Done? Yay! I did it!)
What particularly struck me in Jen Louden’s article (“Conditions of Enoughness“) was the instruction to define what is “enough” in terms of what you’re actually capable of on an average day, not a “superhuman” day. In other words, embedded in the idea of enoughness is the kind of kindness I believe everyone needs to be giving themselves. I’m learning how. I deserve my own kindness. And you deserve yours.