Mindful management for the holidays

Kudos to you! Taking time to read this in the midst of the pre-holiday “make it happen” rush, showing up for a moment for yourself when we’re counting down to the biggest holiday of the year! Give me a minute–that’s all this takes!

You are one big battery, buzzing through the holiday prep. How many activities zap you, drawing energy, as you aim at multi-tasking? Consider this recent research: we only have so much energy. Energy that you direct to goal #1 (wrapping?) takes away from goal #2 (cheerfulness?). You become less efficient. Pretty soon you are drained, and the lights begin to dim as you exhaust your energy. Or you implode in the grocery store line.

The fix is easier than you think. Focus on one task at a time. Ask if you are mindfully putting your energy where it really matters. Is this really the task you want to emphasize? Apply the “when I’m 80” test. When you are 80 years old, is this where you will be glad you poured out your precious energy? If yes, carry on. If not, stop and revise.

To hone your ability to be more mindful in each moment, help your brain develop the mindfulness habit with one of these three focusing-in-the-moment tricks:

1) At every red light, stop and breathe, notice your body, tune into each of your senses in turn.

2) Before you answer the ringing phone, take a breath, count to three, and smile. Your “answering voice” will be transformed.

3) As you reach for any door, pause as you breathe in as you count 1, 2, 3, hold for 1, 2, 3, and breathe out as you count 1, 2, 3.

Pick one. Practice it. In the total scheme of even the busiest days, you have the 60 seconds this might take. We all have daily triggers to remind us to be mindful in the moment. And with each mindful moment, our brains develop the habit, easing into this brief coping respite more smoothly.

It’s a positive spiral, increasing your stress management skills, offering great return on minutes invested. Saving your energy for what matters.

Give yourself a gift

Is your iPhone a permanent part of your anatomy? Glued to your hand, or your hip? Can’t walk by a computer without checking the latest Facebook feed? Have to see if your “Words with Friends” pals have responded? Need your dose of “Angry Birds”? We’ve become slaves to our technology–phones, email, iPads. A psychology journal even exists to study the multitude of effects this ever-present technology has on our behavior and well-being. Benefits abound; last night my critique group could Skype with one member who is on sabbatical in England for a year. Very fun stuff.

But if you’re tired of the energy drain of this instant connecting–always having to keep up with the email or keep the cell phone immediately accessible–consider joining Day to Disconnect this weekend. We worry that we might miss something. The kids or sitter might need us. Catastrophe might befall someone. We might fail to nab a great Groupon deal or a must-have-it freebie on Freecycle. Oh well.

Sounds like the kind of all-or-nothing, black and white thinking that I love to diffuse. You can take an hour–or a day–off from your technology, just to test out the theory that the sky might fall. Turn it off. Leave it alone. Connect with a loved one, or nature, or an old-fashioned book. See if the frantic, always-on pace that makes our nervous systems hover about ten degrees below panic mode relents, just a tiny bit.

I dare me. I dare you. We deserve it.

The Zombie epidemic

You know the experience of mindlessness: you arrive at your destination, with a sudden flash that you simply don’t recall the drive. Or you walk into a room in your home and come up blank on your purpose. Or my personal Achilles’ heel: you are cooking dinner and suddenly realize you’ve polished off half a box of crackers. Multi-tasking, that supposed skill essential to accomplish ALL, feeds right in to mindlessness.

The autopilot mindset that is mindlessness is rampant. Cultural forces (from ever-present technology that fosters work addiction to sleep deprivation) threaten to suck out our brains like so many zombies. You know this is true when the comic strip Doonesbury devotes a whole week to the topic, as it did January 31 through February 4. (Enjoy it by clicking here.)

Why is this a problem? Extra calories and pounds, accident potential, and the frustration of standing in a room wondering what you were going to do next aside, so what? Why not drift through life, oblivious?

The opposite of mindlessness is mindfulness. Mindfulness connotes awareness, attention, and remembering. Implicit in healthy mindfulness is an attitude of acceptance and lack of judgment. It is popularly talked about as ‘being in the now’ or ‘living in the moment.’ Mindfulness directly translates into what Oprah calls “living your best life” or Gretchen Rubin, in The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun, calls “living the right life.”

Mindfulness enables us to:

  • see and accept what is
  • be less self-obsessed
  • experience the richness of life in each moment
  • act more purposely to get what we want
  • smooth interactions with others

Mindfulness makes us less likely to drift through life at the whim of random forces. With mindfulness, we can fully live our lives, the master rather than the servant; the driver, not the driven.

Mindfulness, while seemingly not innate given cultural pressures, isn’t hard. It doesn’t take much time–but it does take practice to develop the skill. In the words of John Teasdale, founder of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy: “mindfulness isn’t difficult. What’s difficult is to remember to be mindful.” Your grandmother was talking about mindfulness when she said “stop and smell the roses.”

To develop this skill, just truly notice. Check in with your five senses: touch, taste, smell, sight, hearing. Where are you? What is your body doing? What are you feeling? What are your thoughts? If you sense your sixth sense, trust that intuition as well. Let these perceptions register–remember that just 20 or 30 seconds at a time can enable your brain to develop this skill.

Here’s the hard part: offer yourself acceptance, not judgment about where you are, what you are feeling in each moment. Speak to yourself as nicely as you would a loved one. Acknowledge that we are always doing the best that we can do. Embrace your humanity. It’s just what is. Take a deep breath and move forward with change, if needed, ever mindful of controlling what you can and letting go of the rest.

Best way I know to forestall the Zombie apocalypse.

A little P.S. with a midweek LOL

I so appreciate the rousing response to my post on less is more, dear readers! Funny, too, how collective consciousness weaves through our lives. Consider this Mutts comic stripfrom May 23rd’s Sunday paper, two days after my post.

The tyranny of one more and the accompanying distraction appears to be a common problem, too–as this Pearls Before Swine strip shows. And if you find you simply cannot resist the habit of ‘just one more task,’ at least make limit yourself to thirty second tasks–less likely to throw you off schedule. Check out this list courtesy of about.com.

On final P.S. Here’s the actual piece that inspired my comments about every day is the best day, for a dog.

Dog Experiences Best Day of His Life for 400th Consecutive Day.

Santee, CA–
Family dog Loki experienced the best day of his life for the 400th straight day, Monday, the black Labrador retriever reported. “I got to go outside! I go to sniff the bush!” Loki said, wagging excitedly. “I saw a squirrel and I barked at it and it ran up the tree! Then I came back inside, and the smoky-smelling tall man let me have a little piece of bacon and then I drank from the toilet!” Loki will experience the best day of his life once again tomorrow, when he digs a hole, chews on a slipper, and almost catches his tail.”

From The Onion 10/13/04, courtesy of my dear sister, Mary Dunnewold. Thanks, Mary!

May you all have the best day, ever–every day!

Aim for less

Aim for less sounds so unAmerican, so unprogressive. After all, we are a nation founded on always striving to achieve more. No one pines for a smaller house, fewer cars, or a reduction in income. As a culture, we’re heavily invested in the concept of “more is better,” applying that to material acquisitions, experiences, choices. Psychological research is clear that, as Barry Schwartz summarizes in his book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, more can simply paralyze us and cause us to second-guess our decisions. More clutter, excess, busyness–whether in our homes, on our “to do” lists, or in our psyches–simply overwhelms us.

One case of “more” that really illustrates this concept is what I call “the tyranny of one more.” Familiar scenario for most of us: this is the endless effort we make to sneak in one more task, one more item crossed off the list before we head out the door, pick up the kids, or climb into bed at night. The “tyranny of one more” makes me late more often than not and keeps me working past when I need to relax and unwind. It’s a direct route to being overtired and overstressed.

My younger daughter, perhaps showing her old soul, has been in touch with “less is more” since she was a tiny child. When she was approaching her third birthday, we were talking about the guest list for her party. I began naming friends, listing them on a tablet, while she played nearby. I was really writing this list for me, until I heard what she was muttering. “Too many friends, too many friends. No, no, too many friends.” I listened. We reverted to the time-honored rule of one guest per birthday year celebrated, and invited just three little girls as guests. It was an ideal party, with no melt downs! Another life lesson learned from a child–because I listened.

“Voluntary simplicity means going fewer places in one day rather than more, seeing less so I can see more, doing less so I can do more, acquiring less so I can have more.” These words are by Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor emeritus of medicine at University of Massachusetts Medical School and prolific writer on mindfulness meditation as a stress reduction tool. Cut yourself some slack this week and practice the wisdom of “less is more.” Decline one invitation. Make dinner out of canned soup and fresh fruit. Sit down and breathe in your backyard. Embrace ways in which less truly is more: guilt yourself less, affirm yourself more; spend less, save more; worry less, relax more; compete less, connect more.

The Pearl Illusion

Time to tear off those pesky June Cleaver masks. Women work day in and day out to put up a good front. Not only is it exhausting to appear decked out in our pearls as we vacuum, but a new study shows that we’ll be happier through honest connection, engaging in depth with others, than when we chatter on at only surface level.

In research at the University of Arizona, the happiest people engaged in only one-third as much small talk as the unhappiest participants. Happy people engaged in twice as many substantive conversations, and spent 25 percent less time alone, than unhappy people. The link is well-documented between loneliness and depression. Even when I was in grad school thirty years ago, research was clear that feeling connected to others was a key factor for happiness and for health.

Women often battle the urge to conceal their troubles, rather than speak honestly about the challenging, tedious parts of their lives. Why invest so much energy in projecting the image that we’ve “got it all together?”

1) We secretly suspect that we’re the only one for whom it’s hard. Everyone else has twenty balls in the air and a smile on her face. We think “there must be something the matter with me,” as another ball goes careening out of reach. “If I were only stronger, smarter, more organized, a better multitasker. If everyone else’s life is smooth, it must be me who is defective, weak, or less than.”
2) We are certain others don’t want to hear us kvetch. Complaining is not attractive. People will tire of it, shy away, judge, or label the complainer as a downer or even a bitch.

Straight thinking is helpful. Is everyone else truly surfing breezily through the stresses in their lives? Are you the only woman out of 82.8 million who forgot her pearls today? Really? Are you accurately judging the ratio of calm versus chaos that you are expressing? Is 100% of your conversation constantly stewed in negativity?

Aim for moderation and middle ground. Yes, perhaps, if all you ever do is bitch, others might tune you out. I believe most women err on the side of minimizing life’s thorns, blocking honest communication and connection, than on spewing complaints 168 hours a week. Besides, it’s not the complaining that drives others away. Listeners shy away if they feel uncomfortable with the topic, or when the complainer doesn’t listen to suggestions, can’t be consoled, or goes on like a CD on repeat, ignoring possible remedies. If a friend is interested and listens, we need to honor her efforts with action on our problems.

I find that a simple expression of “poor baby” is incredibly helpful. When we kvetch, we validate each other. We empower our friends by saying “I get it, I know where you’re coming from.” We feel less alone and less defective.

Remember, June Cleaver only had to parent 20 minutes per week. She had no carpools to drive and no boss-imposed deadlines for her pies or her dusting. We feel better when we acknowledge that life is hard for women in this century–maybe the challenges are different than in previous generations, but hard nevertheless. None of us is perfect. All of us have trials. There’s nothing the matter with me–I’m just part of the whole race of women, tromping through the overkill of daily demands. When we connect through honesty, we feel happier, less alone, and healthier, too.

Queen of Multitasking?

Fold a basket of clothes, wipe a small child’s drippy nose, text your sister, with phone tucked into your shoulder so you can listen to a key conference call or your BFF’s tale of woe? Pay the bills as you watch your favorite show, chatting on Facebook with your college roomie? We women are expert multitaskers, priding ourselves on the dozens of balls we keep in the air, hours on end.  Most women I know (myself included) are heavily invested in this as the secret to our success: parallel tracks to accomplishment perfected through hours of practice. We know we can juggle more than the guys. One look at the toy-strewn family room and sticky kitchen counters after dad is left with two kids all day suggests his ability to multitask. And we certainly don’t want to enter that camp. No more multitasking would equal imminent “to do” list catastrophe, dropped balls ping-ponging all around us.

Recent research by psychologists at Stanford University is bursting this bubble of pride about the value of our multitasking skills. These researchers compared high tech jugglers, college students who email, text, research online, and IM while studying. The researchers looked at three tasks: filtering out irrelevant information, organizing data in memory, and switching between tasks. The psychologists were certain the heavy multitaskers would excel at some, if not all, of these skills.

They were dead wrong. The multitaskers failed abysmally at screening out information they didn’t need, their memories were overloaded, and the speed at switching gears was tortoise-esque compared to the students doing only one or two tasks at a time. The researchers concluded that heavy multitasking resulted in lesser accomplishment, in quality and quantity, over time.

Our brains are more like computers than we want to admit. If I’m running several internet windows, downloading photos from my camera to send to my mom while I edit a PDF document of the next book, not only does my brain drag, but my hard drive does too. Shut down a few programs and my computer resumes a speed that makes me sigh and harrumph less.

Why stress ourselves to instant, simultaneous accomplishment, when the juggling hinders the outcome? This is an excellent place to cut ourselves some slack and expect less. Let’s give singular attention to one task at a time. Or if we must stretch it–two. The facts are clear: increased efficiency will be the reward. By doing less, we just might accomplish more — quality and quantity. And we can take pride in that, rather than burning out our brains with information (or task) overload.

And I’m betting we’ll still get more done than those guys distracted by football.