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?

Open Mind, Narrow Focus: Learning to Prioritize with Joy

In the past year, one concept that’s really latched onto me is the importance of prioritizing. We all know that life often feels crazy, beyond our control, that there aren’t enough hours in the day. And it’s so hard to choose those few things we want to focus on in our limited time.

Alex and I got married when we were still in college, so maybe the realization that I had to prioritize my time hit me extra early. I had to choose from the get go that when it came down to it, my relationship and time with him was more important than all the intricacies of a college education.

Of course, this doesn’t mean I totally slacked at my work, or that I considered my personal development not important. If anything, this new arrangement gave me more responsibility for my own priorities. I’m someone who has the tendency to throw aside my own agenda for others, especially people I love or respect. While I truly believe there’s a time and place for that, I came to a sobering realization:  I cannot let other people decide what my priorities are. That is my responsibility.

For me, as a newlywed college student, that meant two discernible things: first, that I could not let the expectations put on me as a student by teachers or coursework dictate the time and attention I spent on my husband; and second, I could not let my desire to be a good partner to my husband detract from the work I had as a student.

This may sound contradictory. How can partner and personal growth both be the most important thing at the same time? I spent the rest of my college career trying to figure out that balance, and I went on to grad school trying to learn the same thing, and every job I’ve had and will have is a challenge in trying to figure it out.

Because for me, prioritizing boils down to the daily questions of: What things are most important to me? and When must I say no to one important thing so I can say yes to another? 

This week, my best friend Jenny and I were chatting about this concept. We noticed how many of the people we meet seem perpetually rushed, with absolutely no time to spare. We noticed how it’s so easy to say, “I don’t have time to work out,” or “I don’t have time for self-care,” or “I wish I could do xyz, but I just can’t.”

Jenny has a full time job, a lengthy commute, various activities that all take time, and her husband has a demanding and time-consuming job as well. But the truth, she said, is that we all do have the time for whatever we want to do. We just don’t always use the resources we have wisely. As she put it, “The way you spend your time shows what your priorities are.” In other words, what we do with our time reflects the things we most value.

In pondering this, I had another thought: what if the priorities that people commonly feel that they should have, say working out or social time or whatever it is, aren’t actually priorities they want to have? But instead of admitting, “hey, that’s not something I value or even want, and I choose to spend my time elsewhere,” we frame ourselves as victims. “I don’t want to” becomes “I would if I could, but I can’t,” and that makes us feel better, more justified, in not doing what we feel pressured to do. But that also ends up making us feel more strained, more stressed, less free to spend our time as we like. And we feel constantly defeated, because we don’t meet those lofty goals we feel we should.

One thing I found helpful in this process of refocusing my priorities was to look big-picture. In my life, what are a handful of things I want to be true? A handful of goals I want to accomplish? For me, it narrowed down to three things: I want to have a good relationship with God (and by extension, everyone else); I want to be physically healthy; and I want to publish a book.

With these big picture ideals in mind, I try to do something every day that cultivates those things. I spend time in prayer or devotional reading. I work out or do yoga. I read and write. Suddenly my days are very simplified; I don’t have to worry that I didn’t do enough or that I’m not succeeding enough. As long as I hit the three big priorities on my list, everything else is a bonus. And suddenly, life feels a lot more victorious, a lot more joyful.

On paper it sounds simple, but it’s not always fun, and it’s not always easy. For example, being physically healthy is one of my life goals, but it’s not a life goal that’s always joyful to pursue. I have to set aside time to work out, I have to endure the moments of pain that come with working out, and I have to be mindful about not stuffing my face with cake at every whim.

What keeps me motivated is realizing that this goal is mine, and no one else’s. I am doing this because I want to, even if in the moment I don’t really “want” to. It also encourages me to make my goals on my own terms. For me, this means I don’t run super fast or participate in insane cardio or go to hot yoga classes, because honestly, I don’t want to. I don’t completely abstain from carbs or sugar or dairy, because I don’t want to. My goal is not to win a bikini contest; my goal is to create sustainable, mindful health. I challenge myself according to my own ability and lifestyle, not someone else’s. As a result, I feel good not only physically, but mentally.

Despite the best of intentions, prioritizing is still a struggle, especially in a society that is perennially rushed and always comparing one person with another. But I keep coming back to that conviction I first put together in college: I cannot let other people decide what my priorities are. That is my responsibility.

I don’t have to be a victim to other people’s values. I don’t have to be a victim to society’s values. If each of us took back those reins a little bit, if we chose our priorities with mindfulness, I wonder how much society, big bad wolf that it is, might change little by little. I wonder if eventually, we might become more peaceful, more joyful, as a whole.

And it’s not something we can achieve with a snap. It’s a daily practice, one that will change with each season of life. I am still learning the balance between being married and following my personal callings, and I’m realizing its a daily mindfulness more than a one-and-done decision. But it’s a mindfulness we can each practice in little ways, little baby steps.

At first it might seem really hard, and it is! For the first time we’re going against the current; there’s bound to be some resistance. Ultimately, though, I am convinced that setting priorities leads to a more joyful heart, open mind, and narrow focus. It leads to more intentionally enjoying life, not just for our own sake, but so we can take the newfound peace we have and pour into others.

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.

 

Weekend Pith: Namaste to You

Yoga is my hobby.

I’ve made this one of my life rules, because quite frankly I need it to be true.

I’m not a particularly sporty person, but I’ve always loved the idea of being one. However, by the time I had the freedom and resources to commit to something, I was literally out of the game. I’d spent too many years reading books and playing the piano. I married an athlete, this is true, but athletic skills don’t necessarily transmit themselves as soon as you change your name and merge bank accounts.

It’s one of my biggest struggles and disappointments.

When I was in high school, exercise was a chore I had to get done for gym class. Also, I was homeschooled. So it was a solitary activity. And not really that fun. As I got older and started college and dated my very very (like obnoxiously) athletic Russian (like we met at a basketball game he was playing in), I tried many forms of athletic activity in turn.

But I soon ran into a very stupid conundrum as I tried basketball and running and lifting and golf: I hated when people made me exercise, and yet I couldn’t make myself do it. I liked how I felt afterward, but in the tough moments, the moments that counted, I was totally disgusted with myself and everything else. It sucked because I was out of shape, but I was out of shape because it sucked too much for me to do it.

It became a vicious cycle: go exercise, struggle, cry, get home, feel better after a shower, be in pain, put off exercising, finally force self to go, etc. The biggest struggle was not the physical discomfort but the mental pain. I wanted to be better than this. I wanted to run and lift and play and love it. But I couldn’t. I just couldn’t make myself love it.

“That’s the point of exercise,” people say. “It’s those hard moments where you hate it but you push through and emerge victorious on the other side. That’s what makes it so good. No pain, no gain.”

Nope. Not me. Doesn’t work. I have to enjoy it. I have to inherently love every minute of it or I won’t do it. Sorry. Won’t.

And I realize this is rather babyish, but because apparently I am a baby about it, I must take baby steps. The only other option, I’ve realized, is doing nothing at all.

The first step is accepting that this is how I am. The second step is tricking myself into exercising anyway. The third step is becoming the kind of person who golfs before breakfast, lifts before lunch, runs before dinner, and plays pickup soccer after dinner.

(Those people do exist. I’m married to one.)

That last step will take a while. But the second step is what I’m working on. Yoga is my hobby, I tell myself. And I believe it, because I love it.

Even though yoga really is hard as hell, and you shouldn’t believe anyone who tries to pass it off as a bunch of Stretching for Pansies, I love every minute of it. Because yoga by its very nature makes you aware of yourself. It makes you accept the sucky moments and enjoy the lovely ones. It’s a mindset and a lifestyle, and to me that’s so much more rewarding. I don’t hate myself every time I think about exercising, and I definitely don’t hate myself while I’m doing it. And that’s a long way from where I used to be.

And someday I’ll take up running or the golf my husband tells me I’m good at. I look forward to these things as a goal to savor when I get to them. For now, I’m just happy that yoga is my hobby.

So namaste to you.

 

 

Morning Yoga

I’ve overstayed my bed’s welcome.

The snooze is perturbed.

Move a bit. Neck cracks.

I bend in half, forward fold.

Like a plastic fork I nearly snap.

Mm, let’s try a half lift instead.

Down to plank. Elbows crack.

Chaturanga.

Ha! No.

Child’s pose. I could fall asleep again.

Roll like a ball. Vertebrae crack.

Butterfly pose, soft and gentle.

Makes me feel I’m working hard without having to.

Hedgehog, nose to knees.

Up to a lotus. Knees crack.

Let’s try touching the toes again.

Ah! It’s a beautiful morning.