Reimagining my Life

English: Creating a splash

Creating a splash (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As many of you know, I have been teaching at a university in Taiwan for the past four years. During each of the past three summers, I have traveled home to the U.S., and I always have mixed feelings about leaving family and friends to return to Taiwan. This past summer, that all changed.

One day in August, I woke up to the realization that I was actually excited about my return trip.Even though I knew I would face the same workload and stressors I had left behind in June, I felt more hopeful than I’d felt in years. Without a doubt, this was a powerful moment for me. I didn’t need to look far to find an explanation for this dramatic shift. During an extended visit with my friend Joycelyn, I had a chance to more fully explore the materials she was developing for her course, Farther to Go. In the process, I gained several insights that changed the way I looked at my life and at the world around me.

It’s hard to pinpoint the strongest idea or tool of the course. Certainly, being more aware of how the brain really works has been life altering for me, but that’s only the beginning. The tools that help focus that awareness into intentions have held real power. I feel like I can reinvent my life, bit by bit; and those bits are gaining momentum. I’ve already changed long-established habits, and the results are allowing me to move in the direction of what I really want to be doing.

For me, the most important aspect of my work with Farther to Go is that I finally am finding out what it actually is I want to be doing. Until recently, it was hard to imagine what a life of my own would look like. Now I can envision all kinds of possibilities, while trying things out to see if they really fit. I am becoming wide awake to the world around me and more alive than I’ve been in a long time.

Stay tuned as I share notes on the reinvention of my life.

Another Season: Another Keyword

Four Seasons

Four Seasons - Longbridge Road

Four Seasons – Longbridge Road (Photo credit: joiseyshowaa)

Wednesday was the first day of spring, and in keeping with my commitment to seasonal keywords, I am ready to announce my choice for spring. The habit of using seasonal keywords has provided me with a way to visualize my short-term goals in an effort to free-up the future. I want to have more time for pursuing the things that give me meaning, but my schedule has been too hectic, a condition that is a direct result of a lack of awareness. If this practice and focus have done nothing else for me, they have shown me that I have been moving through my life on auto-pilot, responding to distractions without having a solid compass that leads me back to true north, or my authentic self.

For each season, I choose a keyword. Then I look for a visual representation that helps me keep these keyword in sight throughout the season. The picture for each season reminds me of my intention and keeps me focused on the spirit of the keyword. Interestingly, the process also leads from one season to another without a lot of thinking about what keyword is next. In other words, once I came up with the first keyword, the next ones have presented themselves with little conscious effort on my part.

Fall 2012

(photo credit: Gustave Miller)

CLAMOR (photo credit: Gustave Miller)

When my friend recommended that I try this keyword thing, I struggled a little bit to find just the right keyword. Not that I was going for perfection–that’s not my thing. But I wanted something “worthy,” something that was worth focusing on for a whole season. However, I found myself in a state of confusion trying to figure out what keyword could possibly help me focus on what needed to be done. All of my responsibilities were so overwhelming that I felt I was simply rushing from one crisis to another. So whatever activity or project or deadline was clamoring the loudest got my attention. That was how clamor came to be the keyword for fall.

As I struggled to find some way through all of the intense activity and create some kind of path to make the future less chaotic, this picture helped focus my attention on making sense out of all the noise and confusion. I started recognizing how my lack of attention had contributed to my lack of understanding about how I was letting my whole life be hijacked by unexamined requests and projects. Still, I couldn’t just drop everything. So all the clamoring led me to the next season.

Winter 2012

3186629203_bfcf404f50_mFall had taught me that I needed to be more aware, more intentional about what I did. By the time Winter was approaching, I knew that my keyword needed to be clearing. While I could not simply abandon the activities that filled my days and weeks, I knew I had to focus on finishing things up and clearing space for the new. The big difference, however, is that the new would not simply be whatever popped into my line of vision and grabbed my attention. The new had to be the things that would bring meaning to my life. Activities that would make it exciting to get up in the morning and would energize me.

I declared a moratorium on new activities and responsibilities, and tried to focus on completion. I did the moratorium for 30 days. I’ve officially renewed it once, and I’ve unofficially continued it into March. It may be time to tighten up the reins on that one and rededicate myself to it.

The winter keyword has been helpful, but still difficult because I don’t have a good sense of what is next. I’ve been so busy responding to all the distractions (disguised as opportunities) for so long that I don’t really know what I’m clearing for. This is partly explained by my personality type. It’s easier for me to let the needs and desires of others determine my path than for me to choose my own. Yet, I knew that the next step required that I find out what exactly will be meaningful to me, not just something that sounds interesting or something that I do for someone else’s definition of meaning.

Spring 2013

clarityIn my post about choice a few weeks ago, I discovered that when I’m clear about what is really important, the doing of the necessary tasks is not in question. I just do them. Even if they aren’t pleasant. It’s just what I do. As soon as the clarity is gone, as soon as I start thinking it’s time to choose what to do next, I get tangled up and accomplish very little. So my keyword for spring was simple: clarity.

Like the keyword for winter, this one came to me organically out of the experience of the previous season. By the time fall came to an end, I knew that clearing was important. Likewise, as spring approached, I knew that clarity was essential. The keyword of clarity is my attempt to create a sense of space and meaning in my life. To enjoy the day to day experiences of doing activities that reinforce that meaning. It can lead me to know what my next move is. If I have a strong inner compass and know who I am and what I want to create, I won’t be lost. I wilI stop choosing activities and responsibilities that have no connection to meaning. More importantly, I will stop simply responding to the multitude of diversions floating around me. I am looking for my center and will test new ideas and projects before giving them a home in my calendar.

The clearing isn’t finished, but as I continue the process, I now seek clarity as I take the time to know myself better and discover what kind of meaning I really want to create in my life. I have so much Farther to Go!

The Costs of Choosing

Keyword Update

English: A snowy day, not so far from me - Loo...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you know that my keyword for winter is clearing. I have way too many projects and tasks that need to be done. I had a four-week semester break from mid-January to mid-February, and I had planned to make big strides on many of the responsibilities I have and move toward the clearing. And while I got a fair amount done, it fell far below my expectations. During those four weeks, I often found myself just treading water or worse, falling further behind. I found myself getting more and more frustrated. I felt like I was procrastinating, but I made three observations that made me realize there was more going on. Specifically, I noticed three basic ways I approached tasks during the semester break.

  1. With many projects and tasks all clamoring for attention, I tried to juggle things and work a little on many projects. Or at least, I made sure to schedule everything on the calendar. I convinced myself that I could just power my way through. But there was so real focus. I figured as long as I’m making progress on ONE or more of the tasks, things would eventually work out. But then suddenly, a deadline would loom, and I would be in crisis mode. When a specific project was screaming for attention, I would focus on that project, eventually completing it on time. However, the process was usually stressful.
  2. This was a less effective version of #1, in that the pile of tasks was so overwhelming that I gave up on all the separate piles of stuff and stacked up all the tasks in one pile. I started at the top of the pile and moved through whatever showed up next. So the time was filled, some things got done, but it’s terribly inefficient because there is no grouping of tasks, no prioritizing, and no real progress. In the end, I feel like I’m spinning my wheels, with very little to show for it, and the important projects crash in on me as in #1 above.
  3. Sometimes, the pile of tasks is so overwhelming that even taking the top one or two from the pile seems like a waste of time. I start to feel immobilized by the sheer number of projects on my to-do list. I engage in activities to escape, even if that escapism is to rearrange my to-do lists in different ways. I keep trying new ways to schedule the activities, new ideas for organizing, in the hopes that a new method will break the logjam. Rhe problem is that in spite of all my list-making, prioritizing, and shuffling, I can’t seem to find my way to being productive in an ongoing way. I am constantly forced into action by deadlines. 

Freedom and Choice

In the blog, Farther to Go, the concept of choice as freeing is challenged.

The concepts of freedom and choice seem to belong side by side. What is freedom if not freedom to choose? The idea that we could be free, experience freedom, without also having and exercising the ability to choose is difficult to contemplate. But Krishnamurti believed otherwise.

We think that through choice we are free, but choice exists only when the mind is confused. There is no choice when the mind is clear. When you see things very clearly without any distortion, without any illusions, then there is no choice. A mind that is choiceless is a free mind, but a mind that chooses and therefore establishes a series of conflicts and contradictions is never free because it is in itself confused, divided, broken up.

It was the shift from thinking I was free to choose which activity I wanted  to work on next that was causing some of my trouble. It wasn’t just the number of items on the to-do list, it was the illusion of choice. My mind was confused, and I could not move ahead with any kind of clarity.When there are 10-15 or more things competing for my attention, my mind is confused. I have the illusion of choice. All those options and I keep trying to “figure it out.” As soon as I stopped looking at these projects as options from which to choose, it became easier to just complete the tasks that presented themselves. When the mind is clear, the next step doesn’t have to be “figured out.” I had to admit that while planning is important, I was getting caught up in shifting tasks from spot to spot on my calendar and trying a variety of different ways to organize as a way to avoid the actual work–a way of using choice and options as a way to continue the confusion.

Prioritizing vs. Choosing

Discovering the best use of my time at a given moment isn’t about choice as much as it is about priority.Once I prioritize, my mind starts to clear. Even though there is still more than I can do, priorities help move me toward the beginning of clarity. With most of the “noise” of endless possibilities removed, I am free to actually start working on the items that have emerged as important. Once my mind is clear, the steps are clear. Without the illusion of choice, I am free to be productive.

The Moratorium Revisited

I stumbled upon how freeing the absence of choice is when I put the moratorium into place at the end of December. Now that it’s March 1st, it’s time to renew for another day. There truly is no choice. I’ve discovered that by already knowing that I need to say “no” to any new responsibilities, projects, or activities that come along, I don’t have to consider the pros and cons of such things. I already know. Moving toward the clearing and having space and time for myself and what’s important to me can only happen if I get out from under the massive to-do list I have. And that can’t happen if I keep adding more things to the list. Now when some “opportunity” comes along, I don’t get sucked in. I am clear about my direction, and the moratorium reminds me to stay on track. It’s freeing to already know the answer to the question when it arrives.

Paradox as Challenge

I now recognize that my procrastination was more about a lack of clarity about what was really important. I kept getting stuck because I confused the tasks to be done with choice, will power, and “figuring it out.” With a clear picture of what I am trying to accomplish, the path is clear. I know what to do next. There are still challenges whenever that illusion of choice tempts me into cloudy thinking, but I will keep reminding myself about the freedom I’ve felt from relinquishing choice and moving toward clarity. It may seem a paradox, but it’s one worth continued exploration.

Related articles

Keyword: Fun (Compliments of my daughter, Kate)

The Non-Quilting Retreat

study time

(Photo credit: calebcherry)

Instead of a quilting retreat last Thursday and Friday, I reframed it into a textbook retreat, which took place Sunday and yesterday. You can read about what led to that decision in the posts listed below, but as a result of that shift, I rediscovered that it wasn’t actually quilting that was missing from my life as much as the experiences of play and fun, regardless of the forms they take. My life has become so crowded with tasks that I forgot to just enjoy the small moments of life. In fact, I didn’t seem to recognize small moments anymore.

Luckily, January was the beginning of my intention to set aside ten small moments a day to work with the exercises of Farther to Go! One day, in my writing, I remembered how I used to make “play” a daily practice, and even kept a journal to track the fun things I did. This memory helped me let go of the need to quilt “no matter what” and just open myself to the experience of quilting as an enjoyable hobby. If Farther to Go! can make a difference in ten minutes a day, so can ten minutes of opening myself to even small pockets of fun. But I didn’t make that connection until I packed away the sewing machine and let the small moments just be. I needed to stop planning everything.

Pinwheel Quilt

Pinwheel Quilt (Photo credit: jenniferworthen)

By letting go of the need to quilt no matter what, I reopened myself to experience the fun and exploration that intrigued me when I first became interested in the craft. So when I needed a little break on the second day of my textbook retreat, I knew instinctively what I wanted to do. I sent my daughter a Facebook message with a few quilt designs to get her opinion of them. She and I are halfway around the world from each other, but we have conversations on Facebook. Sometimes, the conversations aren’t continuous. One or the other of us puts something out there, and then the other answers the next time she is online.

For those of you who don’t know, my daughter, Kate is the youngest of my four children and she is the mother of Mr. Logan, the “not so little” guy you see at the top of the blog. When I gave Logan his quilt last summer, Kate asked me when she would be getting hers. Funny story!

The Little Quilt that Could

Several years ago, Kate showed some interest in having me make her a quilt. She had colors in mind, and I began collecting fabrics in pinks, greens, blues, and purples. Occasionally, I would see a possible pattern. But then, as now, I never had much time for quilting. In fact, when I was making Logan’s quilt two years ago, I actually found myself wondering whether Kate was still interested in having me make her a quilt. If so, would she even want the fabrics I had started collecting.

Well, last night happened to be one of those times when Kate and I were able to carry on a conversation for a bit. It was–dare I say it–FUN! She didn’t really care for the first images I sent her, but she gave me some good clues. For example, while I knew she didn’t want a pattern that was as “random” as the one I used for Logan’s quilt, one of the images I sent her was “too” traditional. That helped narrow the field.

Something with structure, but not too traditional. And something that when I get to it, I would enjoy making it. I’ve been wanting to play around with log cabin blocks. Maybe that would work. So I sent her some in pink blocks–not exactly like the ones shown here. Actually, I didn’t ask her about the “wonky” aspect, but my sense is she would like the straight line kind. Here is some of the conversation that followed:

wonky log cabin

wonky log cabin (Photo credit: MissMessie)

ME: ok, here’s another. If I did this log cabin pattern, I would incorporate purple, green, and blue as well, unless you want just pinks.

K: If you want to roll with that you can. And if you do, you should do each block a separate color.

ME: ok 🙂

K: or whatever you want 😛

ME: When I start playing with some blocks, I’ll send you pictures and you can tell me which you like best 🙂  It will be a while, but I like to at least think about quilting, and yours is the next big project I want to do

K: Do an all blue one, and one that includes all four colors.

ME: ok 🙂 that will be fun:

K: keyword: fun. don’t make it a job! if it’s a present for my 30th birthday so be it.

ME: 30th birthday present! Crap! I only have 4 years! LOL

Full Circle

Kate’s quilt won’t happen soon, but now when I do have some time for quilting, I have a pattern and a motivation. Even though I have to wait to cut and sew, I’m excited about it. Obviously, the colors are still a go. Best of all, I’m already having fun: the chat with my daughter, thinking about variations on the log cabin theme, and looking at the colors in my fabric stash. It feels so much better than those days when I was planning to quilt no matter what. And she’s got me focusing on the right keywords.

Thanks, Kate! And maybe you won’t have to wait until your 30th birthday for the quilt. But no promises. The keyword is fun!

What Can I Do in 20 Minutes?

Setting the Scene

I had a few contenders for tonight’s blog and I was going to write a post called Timers and Dice to discuss strategies that help when motivation is low. I had already been thinking about this post when another blogger asked what people did when they had trouble staying with their writing. I suggested setting a timer for ten minutes, a trick that she appreciated. After all, how can I protest doing something for just ten minutes? If the ten minutes gets the momentum going, great! If not, I can still stop after ten minutes, but movement will have occurred in those ten minutes. While this idea has shown up in many time management books and articles. I like to think that experimenting with the idea and combining it with other elements (like casting a die) provides an effective strategy that goes beyond the basics.

Setting the TImer

English: A mechanical kitchen timer

timer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m going to demonstrate what I mean by doing it as I write about it. I’m using a timer to get myself going on the blog entry as a way to get more in control of the process of posting. I’m giving myself 20 minutes to write the draft. I suspect it will take me a little longer than that to finish the draft, but in 20 minutes, I’ll be much further along than I would have been without the timer. Besides, if I gave myself “enough” time, the job would definitely expand to fill the allotted time. This blog is a perfect example. If I let it, I can just play around with the post and not really do my planning and prewriting. Soon, I will be pushing the deadline again. So by using the timer, I create an artificial deadline, something to push for. I make it into a challenging game of “Beat the Clock,” knowing that I can’t finish in 20 minutes, but interested in finding out how far I can get.

Take housecleaning as an example. If things have gotten out of hand–which they do on occasion, setting a timer for ten minutes per room can result in good progress in even 30 minutes, resulting in good momentum to keep the project going. Even if time runs out, it can be picked up again later without having to start from scratch. Besides, ten minutes while I’m challenging myself to see how much I can accomplish, often takes me further than I had thought it would. And I accomplish much more than I would if I gave myself the day to clean the house. I’d let myself get distracted by other things because I “had all day.” The focused drive of the timer running keeps me on task. When my children were young, I’d get them involved with the “just five minutes” or “just put away five items” thing. No one minded doing just five–ok, at least not much.

Sometimes, it’s just a matter of getting started. One foot in front of the other.

Two Hours to Departure

I used the timer yesterday. With two hours left before we had to be out the door to head out to catch a bus for a wedding and our follow-up getaway, I needed to pack a couple last-minute items and give three projects at least some attention. I decided to give each project 20 minutes to start, and see how it went.

To-do list book.

To-do list book. (Photo credit: koalazymonkey)

I chose my first project–a paper that has a lot of problems. I’d broken it down to steps, and one of the tasks with it was to write several notes in the document to the other author so that we can move ahead on this draft. Of course, this step was dependent on a couple other things. Over the last few days, with one thing leading to another, it has felt like just too much.

But yesterday, I found the documents I needed and even started working before I hit the start button, This is significant in its own right because of the overall sluggishness of this project. This time, with the timer running, my fingers started flying. I was able to revise the introduction, move some things around from some three-day-old editing notes, and start writing the various comments that were necessary. Things were going so well, in fact, that when the timer went off 20 minutes later, I decided to go another 20 before switching to another project. By the time THAT 20 minutes was over, I had the project far enough along that I could write the email and send it off.

I moved ahead some on the other two projects, but eventually, I did have to stop. Even though I wouldn’t have given up the outing for anything, I did find myself thinking that my productivity was so high that it would be great to continue working. It’s been quite a while since I was actually excited about working.

Taking a Break

For out outing, I decided to leave most of my work behind, and in fact, the work I did bring, I didn’t even touch. What I did spent time on was something else I had brought along. Farther to Go! is something that Joycelyn is creating to help people who are in middle age unearth what is really important in their lives so that they can create a life that has the meaning and purpose they choose. The idea of discovering what has meaning for me makes my clearing project even more significant. I am making room for the things that are meaningful, not just the things that I can do.

I am currently working on Farther to Go! tasks that include setting a timer for ten minutes a day to make lists with specific prompts. A couple weeks ago, I decided I wanted to create a bag with the working items for the process, including a timer specifically dedicated to it, so that it was always available when I wanted to take the bag somewhere. I have my lists, my journal, a few different colored pens, and a die, which I’ll talk more about in a few minutes. When Dave and I went to breakfast at the hotel today, my Farther to Go! task was to make a list for ten minutes about what I enjoy. Interestingly, one of the things I’m finding is that I enjoy doing the Farther to Go! activities, and that I think about things I could add to my lists at other times of the day. It has me thinking about both what is important to me and what has been important in the past.

Rolling the Dice

English: Four coloured 6 sided dice arranged i...

Four dice. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Finally, the trusty die can be a nice addition to this system. Choose up to six projects that need your attention. Cast a die to determine which project gets the first 10, 15, or 20 minutes. Ten minutes is often enough for many projects, but I’ve found that 20 is a good amount for me for the kinds of projects I’m working on.My friend Joycelyn introduces an element of chance into what she does next in a variety of ways by rolling a die. Click to see her post on the subject. When I read the post back in August, I hadn’t started my blog yet, but I posted the following comment on hers.

I tried it using “what chore am I going to do next?” I took six items from my to do list, since I was having a hard time choosing one to start with. I know myself well enough to know if I don’t make some kind of decision, I may fritter away a good chunk of the day with meaningless activity.My list: 1) work on class hand-outs; 2) work on blog entries; 3) move forward on an editing project; 4) decide on my next quilting project; 5) finish sorting the last container of fabric; 6) work on sorting papers and books. I told myself that whatever the choice, I would spend 30 minutes on that project, and then move on to something else. The winner: sorting paper and books.

An interesting thing happened. I ended up (over the course of the day) making this organizational task the focal point of my day. I spent two hours in the first part of the morning, including setting up a filing system to organize the papers. I filed, recycled, and generally remade my workspace. It cleared some physical surfaces and also some mental cobwebs.

When I “took a break” after two hours, I made good progress on the editing, and the course preparations; but interestingly, I kept returning to 15-30 minute chunks of the organizational activity. I was aware that the part of me that wants to do some quilting was not totally happy, but the good news for that part is that there is now plenty of physical space to start playing with that activity, and it’s on the agenda for tomorrow–even without rolling the die.

This experience, combined with what I know about how the use of the timer works for me, provides a way to keep me motivated or to find a new source of energy when needed. Sure, it’s a little gimmicky, but I’m not going to argue with something that works.


My morning Coffee-1=

(Photo credit: Sheba_Also)

As I was working on this post, I remember I used a version of this timer thing when I first started my blog almost three months ago. I just let my husband be the one who set the timer. I would ask him to check on me in ten minutes to see how I was doing. That whole accountability thing. But now that I know the timer can serve that purpose, I’m going to put my husband out of that job and focus on using the timer as a tool. In fact, the timer, along with a couple of dice are going to be part of my clearing project for the rest of this semester break. I will use them to both be more productive and to build in some more break time. A 20-minute container holds lots of possibility for getting things done, whether it be a project that’s been nagging for a while, recharging one’s batteries, or just spending some time with a spouse, a puppy, and a cup of coffee.

Oh, and for the record, it turns out I can draft approximately 500 words in 20 minutes. Now we know.