Getting Shtuff Done: a Journey in Productivity

I’ve always had a hard time keeping good habits. I have lofty goals and good intentions, but these fall victim to procrastination and apathy. Soon I carry a string of failed attempts and a load of doubt that I could ever be successful again.

If you’ve ever read some of Gretchen Rubin’s research on human nature, specifically her Four Tendencies personality studies, my tendency is to be an Obliger, which means that while I dutifully meet the expectations of other people, I have a hard time keeping promises to myself. This rather self-sabotaging mindset means it’s incredibly difficult for me to stick to my goals, no matter how much I want them.

Writing, I’ve found, is a very risky career choice for someone like myself, because in writing, you have to make yourself write. You have to find that motivation. It’s not a job in which you clock in and out at a certain time and meet a defined list of expectations set by someone you fear and respect. No, it’s just me, and my thoughts, and a string of projects with some loose deadlines. (Loose deadlines, by the way, are Kryptonite to an Obliger).

Rubin’s advice to Obligers is to create external accountability, like deadlines in your work, friends who will join you for a morning run, or reading groups that will incline you to read. While I have found that advice useful, it also left a gnawing feeling that I wasn’t quite getting to the root of the problem. And this was the problem: I am afraid to commit to my personal priorities, because I am afraid they aren’t worthy. I am afraid to stick up for them, to say no to other things, to endure the hard times my priorities require.

Take exercise, for instance. I’ve never been very good at working out, because I’ve always been defeated before I finish. I don’t let myself start at a comfortable pace, my pace, on my terms. I let myself get swept up in someone else’s idea of good exercise, and then I get burnt out. And of course, I spend too much time worrying about how my body looks instead of how I feel.

When a few months ago, Alex and I restarted the habit of going to the gym regularly, I began this new habit differently than I ever approached anything before: I gave myself the freedom to do what I liked. Truth is, I don’t like being overly sweaty and in pain for a whole hour. But I do like running a mile at a time, and I do like lifting weights, and I do like yoga. So that’s what I did. I let myself set low goals, because even those low goals were higher than doing nothing. For a while I waited for the other shoe to drop; I’d started out so well so many other times, only to fail.

But this time was different; this time I actually enjoyed working out, which I’ve never in my whole life been able to say. I enjoyed it because it was my own goals on my own terms, and I was hitting those goals, week by week.

That’s when it dawned on me: I didn’t have to try to trick myself into meeting goals. I had discovered a simple, oft-forgettable truth: getting stuff done feels good.

I think we so often fall into a victim mindset, if even a little. If you’re naturally more inclined to it, like me as an Obliger, it’s even easier. You get used to the feeling of failing yourself. And I’m not sure why, but suddenly I just got fed up with it. I didn’t want to have to have some kind of external structure to do the things I loved and wanted to accomplish: I wanted to accomplish them because it feels good. 

It feels good to have a yoga habit. It feels good to eat salads. It feels good to read. It feels good to floss.

And I don’t mean “feels good” just on the surface level, the physical level. I mean it feels good on a deep, soul level. It nourishes my mind, body, and spirit. It makes me more of who I really want to be.

And I think you have to discover, for yourself, which lofty goals create that kind of soul-level good feeling for you. There are many good habits we keep that might not be the best for us, our specific personhood and calling. There are good habits that feed you on that physical level, but not on the soul level.

Realizing that made me narrow down my daily goals so I can meet my ultimate, long-term ones. It helped me carve out time for prayer and meditation. It helped me write 20,000 words of my graduate manuscript in a month (I still have no idea how that happened).

It’s not a fool safe, one-and-done process; it’s an ongoing one. It takes overcoming laziness and doubt and fear moment by moment by moment. But I’m learning that motivating yourself by fear or frustration, by competition or by other people’s values, is never a sustainable way to build your life. You have to figure out what you value, stick up for it, and run for it with abandon.

So today, what are some things you value? What are some goals you have? Why do you want them, and what has kept you from reaching for them?

And how will it feel to get them done?

Craving Color: Painting the World Orange

This time of year is dangerous driving weather for me.

There’s so much going on. The trees are all changing colors, and there are so many different shades within those colors. I can count five different yellows. Not to mention the flaming scarlet, orange tinged with pink, warm browns against ashy browns. And by the time one tree completely drops its leaves, another one’s color deepens, and so any given landscape changes multiple times within a week. It’s dizzying.

I’m usually someone who’s drawn to more cool tones. Blues and grays are my lifeblood. When I do my laundry, all the clothes match each other. So it’s funny that in this season of riotous color, I feel drawn to the burning orange and spicy red and melting yellow. I’ve even—gasp—bought a few pieces of clothing in bright, rich colors that are totally out of my character.

I first noticed this color craving several weeks ago, before the leaves had even begun to turn. I got this insatiable urge to paint everything in my life orange. It was weird; like I said, my belongings are a tidy collection of blues, grays, browns, and off-whites. Sometimes I’ll go crazy and buy something burgundy. But I kept being drawn to orange. I noticed it in everything, my eyes locked onto every scrap of it, and I savored it like I was eating a visual chocolate cake.

Again: weird. Soon I began to wonder if this craving for the color orange was a subconscious craving for something else. I don’t mean to get all metaphysical, but I do know that colors speak to us, across time, across cultures. Color symbolism and color theory are fascinating to me, because while we might all perceive color slightly differently, there is still so much meaning that is shared and universal. For all the things we disagree on as humans, we can all, millions of us, still agree that certain colors mean certain things.

So on a whim I did some research. Orange is commonly thought to symbolize balance, joy,  warmth, energy, and enthusiasm. It’s a fun color, not as aggressive as red but not as calm and laid back as yellow. In some cultures, orange has ties to spirituality and is reserved for monks or priests.

Learning all this was sort of spooky, because my theory that there was something more to being drawn to a color was proven correct. Orange, and all it represents, was what I wanted to be more of. I was coming out of a season of transition, restlessness, confusion, and stagnation. And suddenly I was waking up every morning wanting to feel different, wanting to literally paint my life orange.

With this in mind, I’ve been trying to cultivate more orange-like attitudes in the past few weeks. I want to have balance in my life between enjoying the moment and working for the future. I want to have joy and enthusiasm. I want to be warm in my heart and warm to others. I want to be connected to the spiritual side of things and not merely stay stuck in the mindsets of the physical. I want to burst with creativity, fun, health, and vibrancy. I’ve also been trying to create little pops of orange in my life by adding in new and unfamiliar experiences. This doesn’t come easy to me, but it does reap a lot of joy.

As autumn deepens and the world starts to actually look how I wanted to paint it, I find myself drawn to other colors too. Rich plum, brilliant emerald, and that delicious melting yellow. Perhaps I’ll do some research on those colors as well. Who knows what I could learn from them?

That Time I Went to Yoga With Sweaty Hands

Hello, my name is Hannah, and I have sweaty palms.

Not perpetually or anything; at least I hope not. But at certain times, when it’s very warm or I’m very nervous, I get sweaty palms.

Take on of my first dates with Alex, six years ago. We went to the movie theater to see the first Hunger Games, and in a confused flurry of emotion—hey man, that movie is traumatic—we wound up holding hands. And then a few minutes later my hands started getting warm and damp, and Alex very nonchalantly stopped holding my hand by pretending to check the time or something. Because we’d only been dating a few weeks, I assumed he was trying to maintain healthy physical boundaries.

But deep down we all knew it was because of my sweaty palms.

Of course, now that we’re married, I can insist he get over it and hold my hand anyway. It’s not like I’m unclean or anything. And he can refuse anyway, or make a joke of it, and the issue isn’t in danger of ruining a burgeoning romance. The sweaty hands are more of an annoyance.

Until the other day, when they became nigh unto life-threatening.

We moved this past month, and one thing I lost by leaving our former community was my favorite yoga studio. It made me very sad, because a good public yoga class is akin to a good cup of coffee. You don’t really need it, but you also do. It makes you a better, more peaceful person. And you miss it terribly when you don’t have it. I was in desperate need of some guided zen.

So I did some research and found a new yoga studio. It was thirty-five minutes away, because our little area in the Pennsylvania mountains is still catching up on the hipster trends, but it looked perfect. So I hauled myself through the woods and past cow pastures to make it to class at 4:30 in the afternoon.

I arrived at the yoga studio three minutes late. I was anxious about this, but told myself that I was overthinking it and that no one else got as persnickety about time management as me, and that I’d be just in time to sign in and find a spot before class began, and that there was no way the yoga teacher would begin right at 4:30.

Except my fears were all true; the door to the studio was locked, and a little chalkboard sign hung on it, which cheerily informed me that class was in session and I could come back later.

Cue sweaty palms. I stood on the sidewalk in a kind of yoga-deprived daze.

“Wait! I got you!” came a voice. A woman walked up and drew out a ring of keys. “I own the place,” she said. “Go in and enjoy your class.”

Maybe I was assisting in a break-in, but I didn’t care. I thanked her profusely and ducked inside, slipped off my shoes, and sheepishly walked into the big room where a middle-aged yoga trainer was leading a group of six other women in some shoulder rolls. I put down my mat right on a squeaky floorboard, and the sounds it made while I stretched were akin to that of a hundred-year-old barn in a windstorm.

But the yoga class went on pleasantly, and I soon calmed down a bit. The air smelled like essential oils, and mellow music wafted up to the white painted ceiling, settling into the red bricks of the walls.

And then we started Downward Dog, and that’s when I realized that my sweaty palms were still sweaty. It was warm, we were working out, and I had just come off the stressful situation of breaking into a yoga studio. Every time I tried to plant my hands into my mat, they slipped just enough to ruin any stability. Soon it wasn’t just my hands, but my feet too. And this wasn’t even hot yoga.

Ten times we went through the poses of a vinyasa. Ten times we came to Downward Dog, and ten times I clenched my finger tips into my mat and rued my recently-clipped nails. Ten times I feared I would slip out and topple over. Eventually I gave up on Down Dog and just folded into the little face-down ball that is Child’s Pose, feeling like a child myself.

I was so frustrated with myself. I remembered this same thing happening last summer, and I should’ve learned from that. I should’ve brought that yoga towel I bought at Marshall’s, the one that you lay over a yoga mat for such a time as this. It’s meant for hot yoga and any-yoga-with-Hannah-With-the-Sweaty-Palms. This whole episode was so not the way this yoga endeavor was supposed to be. I wasn’t supposed to be three minutes late. I wasn’t supposed to be locked out. I wasn’t supposed to be so rushed and stressed only to have it culminate in help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up! and muscles sore from trying to hold up my body in a levitating inverted V. This was supposed to be a fun, relaxing time. It was supposed to make me feel happy and rested, like my old yoga class.

Eventually, mercifully, we stopped vinyasa-ing and stretched on the floor, cooling down the little by little. There’s this wonderful part of every yoga class: the very end. You lay down in Savasana, which means Corpse Pose, which aside from its morbid name is truly lovely. You just lie there, all stretched out, and you let your body sink into the earth while you close your eyes. Some people fall asleep; I’ve been in classes where people snore. Thank God that’s never been me. I’ll take sweaty palms, thank you very much.

And as we all lay there, our teacher talked in soothing tones about peace or acceptance or love or something, and I realized that this was a lovely class. It wasn’t as familiar or comfortable as the studio I had left, but it had all that I had come there for. It had taken me to the end of myself, to the end of all feeling of control, of anything but frustration. But I think we forget that the end of ourselves isn’t the end. There’s something beyond pain, and it’s strength. It’s peace.

There are many events in my life that have done on a large scale what that yoga class did to me in an hour. There have been so many times life takes me over the edge of my own control and comfort, and I expect to fall into some kind of endless abyss.

But I never really end up falling, because pain is not an abyss. It’s just an edge. And when I get past that edge, I do not fall, but I am suspended. I am held. And I learn that everything does not have to be perfect in order to find enjoyment and peace from a situation. I can have sweaty hands on my first date and still get married; I can have sweaty hands in a yoga class and still have a lovely time.

This week I’m doing some traveling for school, and although I’m super excited in many ways, I can’t ever seem to feel excitement without a corresponding amount of dread. It’s all part of this wonderful world called anxiety. My way to combat it is to always be prepared, to always have things planned out, to always think ahead. This is all well and good, but when life inevitably happens and things don’t go according to plan, I tend to sometimes freak out. The one thing I thought would keep me safe—a well-hatched plan—fails, and I don’t feel safe anymore.

But thinking about the sweaty palms helps. Discomfort and frustration are a part of getting stronger, and everything doesn’t have to be perfect for everything to be wonderful.

Which anyone who’s taken a yoga class knows.

 

Quintessential New Year’s Post

It’s inevitable. Any blog post I write will be the first of the new year, and so it must naturally be rife with sentiments like, “Oh my gosh! 2018? Already? New year new me! As the world turns, so we mark the passing of the seasons with contentment and burgeoning joy.”

There it is. Bask in it.

Like most people, I made some resolutions. They aren’t your stereotypical change-my-whole-nature-and-body-and-being-in-365-days resolutions; they’re more like tiny tweaks, little realignments for what I really want to be doing anyway. I’ve always liked having the new year to do this, cliche as it can get. Yes, time is relative, and no, we don’t need to depend on a calendar date to change. But something about the new year, a new calendar of blank, unfilled-up months, a fresh slate to draw upon, makes it fitting.

I am going to share my new year’s resolutions, and not just because all the kids are doing it. My reason is twofold: one, putting them out in public is an accountability builder, even if none of you email me and ask how I did (please don’t). Two, I have a hard time remembering what any life resolutions are at any given time, so I feel like putting them on a blog will give me, at the very least, a place to refer to.

Luckily, I made my resolutions simple. In the past I’ve made some grand aspirations. I will work out every day! I will eat only vegetables and ancient grains! I will suddenly change inherent qualities about myself and take up activities I previously had no interest in! I figured that the best strategy, this time, would be to start small, to do things I know I can and will do, and to build from there.

One, I’m going to do yoga every day in January. I follow a YouTuber yogi who does a yearly January challenge, and I’ve never faithfully followed it along. So I’m going to try it.

Two, for the month of January I’m not eating sugar and sweets. My husband has a problem with eating too many sweets, and I love him but it really has come to a point where public shame is the way to go (he gave his permission to be so shamed). I am a classic sympathy eater, so if he eats sweets, I eat sweets. And for thirty-one days, I put my foot down. (February will be a free for all.)

Three, in 2018 I’m going to take my vitamins. I don’t eat super well (see point two), but I’m not the most unhealthy person either (see husband comment). I try to eat mindfully and intuitively, but I know I still have a few gaps in my diet, because while I enjoy healthy eating, I also refuse to do any kind of “diet.” I will never go gluten-free, dairy-free, or heaven forbid, vegan. When I was a child, I was a sick child, I ate as a sick child, I had many food restrictions as a sick child. When I became a woman, I put away sick child food restrictions. For better or worse. All this to say, vitamins.

Four, I’m going to wear more blue. It’s my favorite color. It’s pretty. It makes me happy. And blue always matches other blue.

I have a few other floating resolutions, but these are the biggies. I have plans to update the list month-by-month, throwing out some ideas and incorporating others. I got a lot of candy for Christmas, and there’s no way I’m saving it all for months on end.

So far, in the cliche, quintessential way, I’m very hopeful for 2018. I’ve been working through a lot of life stuff lately. Some of these things I have power over, and others I have none. The latter group often seems larger than the former. But for the most part I am hopeful. Little glimmers of light shine through the cracks as the old year shatters to reveal the new, and I can mark the passing of the seasons with contentment and burgeoning joy.

 

 

Springing

At the beginning of the year, I shared my plan to take joy in daily life. So far that’s been going well. There was a rough patch in February where I had a few meltdowns per week, but hey, it’s February. There’s not much you can do.

Spring is here, taking its first tentative steps.

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I’ve been taking joy in the warmer weather (and in the pretty clothes I can wear in it!). The trees are just about to bud, and little flowers are popping up everywhere.

With the new season I find new determination in being healthier, too. I’ve learned and practiced ways to stay more active and to eat better. The former wasn’t always my strong point; I’m not someone who finds exercise inherently fun (sorry). But I’ve found activities I enjoy and I reason myself to stick to them, and soon the feeling of accomplishment keeps me going. I sort of have muscles now.

So this spring I encourage you to find ways to take joy, whether it’s in exercise, in weather, in food, or in other people. What are some of your favorite ways?