Mindfulness for Time Management
Can you experience true happiness when there is so much to do?
Continuing with the theme from my last post - I have too many things on the go! All of them are wonderful, incredible opportunities that I don’t feel I can say no to. Talking with other grad students this seems to be a pretty constant theme.
I once heard a Dharma talk on the topic of “shiny items” given by Sr.Annabelle (the first western monastic ordained by Thích Nhat Hanh). She discussed the dangers of “shiny objects”, defined as tasks or life opportunities that are shiny because of how meaningful, inspirational or exciting they are. These shiny items can be dangerous. Because of how much we value them we will compromise our own wellbeing in order to attain or experience them.
I have many shiny things in my life right now. The fact that they are shiny doesn’t make them “bad”. They are all truly wonderful gifts and opportunities for learning and growing. But their importance to my life means I need to be extra mindful and skillful with how I navigate them.
So, here is the big question: if we aren’t going to say no to the opportunities, what choices are we left with other than feeling overwhelmed and overworked? Below is my current answer...
The other day I found myself again waking up to another week of what I would describe as robot work. This means that I need to be 150% efficient for the entire week and stick to my carefully planned out schedule of tasks.
As I mixed my morning smoothie (because I have to get vitamins sometime...) I noticed that the narrative in my mind was not positive. It was not overly negative, but there was no sense of excitement or joy towards the work I would be doing that day. I was simply planning what needed to happen and resigning myself to getting through it.
But this was all wrong! Every task on my plate that week was connected to a shiny thing - something I applied to do or said yes to because of how exciting and meaningful it is to the life and the work. In that moment I realized something fundamental: if I couldn’t find a way to do the work with joy then I shouldn’t do it. As the wonderful interpesonal neurobiologist Dan Siegel would say “simple, not easy”.
Once I had this insight I took some time for further reflection. I knew I wouldn’t necessarily be able to fix or change things right away, but wanted to give myself the opportunity to look a little more deeply at my own current narrative to see how I might better support myself.
Some of the questions I found it helpful to reflect on were:
Are the projects/tasks I have said yes to actually bringing me happiness and joy?
If the majority of the time they are causing me suffering, what choices/structures can I put in place to better support myself?
How much can my awareness of my own narrative shift my perspective in order to help me reframe the situation?
If I am unable to make practical or mental adjustments to alleviate my suffering, should I find a way to put one of my shiny things down?
If I am unable to put anything down, how can I best care for myself within the business and make healthier choices in the future?
For myself this week, I found that just having this mindful insight and choosing to reframe my thoughts was enough to bring back the joy. A major part of this setting an intention to cultivate a sense of appreciation for each task I was engaged in. I also focused on treating each task as a mindfulness exercise, trying to keep my mind on the present moment and not wander to thoughts of other tasks outside of the one I was currently completing. This helped my mind to slow down and appreciate what I was doing.
I am truly grateful for the work that I get to engage with in my life right now. It is all work that I have chosen to do. So in the end, if it isn’t bringing my happiness to do it, I think my responsibility towards myself is to re-examine and adjust. Because my life and my choices are all mine, and I choose happiness over suffering.
Suggested Practice: Mindful Dance Break!
At the heart of engaged mindfulness is the intention to transform suffering. But why do we want to transform suffering? The simple answer is to touch happiness and joy. All of this takes practice, from being able to notice and name our suffering, to having the strength to transform it and then the capacity to touch happiness.
Setting the theory aside for a moment, here is a little something I like to do to embody joy/happiness in the middle of an intense workday!
Prep: pick a time an hour or two into your work schedule and set an alarm to remind you to take a break (if this activity is not possible to do in your place of work, set an alarm for when you arrive at home as a way to transition from the workday). Select a song that you enjoy dancing to. Be aware of what seeds are watered in you (anger, sadness, happiness, joy etc. ) by listening to this song and be mindful to pick something that will be fun/healthy for you on this particular day.
Set up: When the alarm goes off, stop whatever work you are doing (if you need to take a few more minutes to wrap something up that is not an issue). Close your computer or task. Stand up and find a spot where you have a little space to move around (if you are in a public place you might want to choose a bathroom stall or walk outside). You will be listening to the song next, so if you need to put on headphones for the space you are in go ahead and do this.
Practice: Once you are ready, close your eyes or pick a point to focus on. Intentionally follow a few in and out breaths. Take a moment to notice how your mind and body are doing today. Set an intention to not ruminate on your work for the next few minutes. It is only a break if you actually stop doing the task both physically and mentally. Before you start the song, you might like to imagine how you would dance as a five year old child, without judgment or fear - and maybe even with some silliness. If you are a hesitant dancer, you can start slow by just bouncing your legs in time to the rhythm - but if you can - I highly encourage you to just go for it with your entire body. The intention is to be playful and touch joy. Now, start the song and dance!!!
Afterwards: How do you feel now? As I like to say, mindfulness is a choose your own adventure, so this might totally work for you, or it might not. The point is to experiment and see what works. For me, a little dance break always brings some insta-happiness.