Back in the day…

Last night I needed to find a quiet place to work, a place where I could absorb literature related to oncology research and therapeutic potential for a certain plant compound. I worked in the morning at home well enough, but in the afternoon, I was unable to get traction on the work.

That sometimes happens to me. I try everything I know how, and still I am so completely distracted that I need to have a change of location (see yesterday’s post. Perhaps it’s why cube life did not suit me.). 

So I put my stuff in my backpack and headed off to the University of MN. Even though it’s been over a dozen years since I finished my master’s degree here, I love being back on a campus. I love the atmosphere of learning and growth. Even though the science library was far too crowded to find a quiet place to work, I walked around campus for an hour or so. 

The humanities library was much less busy. Ahem…

Well, let’s just say I was a science major in undergrad and a liberal studies major in grad school. My grade point was about 0.7 points higher in grad school. Also, my undergrad was at Swarthmore, where the motto was “anywhere else it would have been an A.” ‘Nuff said.

My study hide-away

As I sat in the quiet of the library, around dinner time (that must be the reason it was less busy, perhaps), I felt that familiar sense of focus and calm. I have attention issues (diagnosed late in life while I was working on the grad thesis) so focus and calm are not exactly my strong suits. Unless I’m under deadline, that seems to be a motivator.

There is something about a library, and the unquestionable nature of being here. Working at home, I always see the undone dishes, the piles of laundry overflowing, my cats that do their best to be adorable at the wrong times (like when I have a deadline). 

In the quiet library, in my study cube, there are no distractions. There is just the pile of research articles, my laptop, my water and a snack. 

Perfect environment for being on deadline with a topic that twists my brain in all kinds of fun ways.

What is your perfect environment for working?

cristy@meximinnesotana.com

Wellness Wednesday – plan time for fun

I mean it, schedule fun into each week, each day, maybe even in every hour if that is possible.

It is not optional. Fun feeds your creativity.

I used to take breaks to play and rest only when I had “earned” them through doing enough work. Probably that daughter-of-an-immigrant work ethic that many of us inherited. Work all day and then you can earn your fun.

But what it we turned that on its head?

Play at intervals, rest at intervals. Work deeply, but do so in a focused and paced way. 

Those of us with focus issues might prefer the “sprint/break” approach: work in 45 minute blocks with no interruptions (including email, social media or other distractions) and then get up and move, dance or walk for 15 minutes.

whimsical cat print
Whimsical cat print on Etsy

Others who like to work for longer stretches might work for 90 minutes take a 30 minute break. Most research says that the maximum focus for most humans sitting at one time without moving is about 70-80 minutes. Honor that. In the era of social media, it is likely substantially less, according to Cal Newport.

Knowledge work often requires sitting at a desk for long stretches, or enduring endless teleconferences that sometimes make you want to stab your eye out with a pencil (not speaking personally, of course).

What if you took a playful attitude toward work? You can inject a little creativity and some cartoons or funny videos into your (dreadful) required Powerpoint presentations. (I feel your pain. I have been there.)

One of my favorite wise teachers, Brene Brown says that “Creativity not expressed is not benign. It metastasizes.” Heed that wisdom. Plan some fun and some whimsy into your day. Your work will be re-energized and you will deliver at a higher level.

I dare you.

cristy@meximinnesotana.com

 

Wellness Wednesday – What is essential?

How often do you ask yourself the question in your life:  What is essential? Or a variation: what is essential for me right now? 

I just listened to the audio book (and am re-listening, because it resonated so much) that many of you minimalists out there probably already know, called “Essentialism: the Disciplined Pursuit of Less” by Greg McKeown. It is resonating with me on so many levels. essentialism.JPG

We can find a life of greater meaning, purpose and satisfaction with the mantra “less but better.” McKeown echoes many of the concepts of mindfulness as well as other wisdom I have discovered in other books like Deep Work by Cal Newport and The One Thing by Gary Keller. I find many applications here in how I am thinking about designing my new life and work for the future. The principle of essentialism is deeply connected to our personal wellness so I will focus on that aspect.

We face a plethora of choices every day about what to do and how to spend our time. There are many more options for what we can do in any given day and so many more decisions we are thus privileged (some would say forced) to make. Each hour, each minute, even in one breath, we choose. Do I meditate? Do I listen to a favorite podcast? Read a book? Finish that article I’m working on? Join that online webinar? Attend a yoga class?

And yet choose we must. Decisions are a part of life. We want to “have it all” and indeed many advertisers try to convince us that we can. But this is folly, because by attempting to do everything, we focus on nothing. It all becomes noise, and it is insignificant. It produces no real results, and we become frustrated at a lack of progress.

When we think we *have* to do it all, we are lying to ourselves. When we choose only what is essential to us, and pare down what is extraneous, we are rapidly able to better discern what is important. There are applications in terms of possessions, commitments, activities, memberships, or even new habits we are trying to implement. When we are spread too thin, we devote less attention to what is important. The problem is that many of us believe the illusion that everything is important. It is simply not true.

So to answer the question of what is essential for me, I would boil it down this way: sleep, play/creativity, rest, relationships and work. I was going to put work before play. But I realized I am not technically working (for money) now, and I am doing just fine.  Sleep, play and rest have been essential to my sabbatical. Since I worked and saved, I am able to rest and play now for a period. I know that reflects some privilege. But it also reflects choices I have made in my life about what is essential.

What is essential to you? How can you focus more deeply on that today? 

cristy@meximinnesotana.com

 

 

Reflections from Marion

I just started reading  a book by Marion Woodman and Jill Mellick entitled “Coming Home to Myself: Reflections for Nurturing a Woman’s Body & Soul.”

Some of the verses hit me almost viscerally, they speak so powerfully to truths that have been emerging in my life recently. So I will share a couple of them. Perhaps they will resonate with you as well.

It is easier to try

to be better

than you are

than to be

who you are.

-From a chapter entitled “Beyond Perfection & Duty.” (page 67)

***

The feminine

has slower rhythms,

meanders,

moves in spirals,

turns back on herself,

finds what is meaningful to her,

and plays.

-from a chapter entitled “Conscious Femininity.” (page 147)

coming home

Wow. Mind blown. I am trying not to rush through reading this book, which is designed and written as a series of daily reflections. But it hard not to continue more quickly when I find some deep resonances for me.

This is the power of beautiful writing that has deep resonance with soul. It is like an internal connection is made, a “click” into our inner wholeness that fits things into place.

Hope you have a great week, friends. May you find those words that speak the wisdom you need today.

cristy@meximinnesotana.com

Hours fall off the clock

I may need to reinforce some limits around my writing time, allowing myself just an hour each day. At least while I am still working full time in clinical research. I can lose literally hours off the clock when I am researching or writing on a topic that interests me, and I get to play with words, ideas and stories.

This week I am at a regional work meeting in Belgium and I am called upon social with my colleagues. I enjoy the opportunity to meet 1:1 or in small groups and have face-to-face conversations with those I usually interact with via phone or email. However all of the initial small-talk required when meeting so many new people drains my energy.

It occurs to me that maybe my soul is asking for a more minimalist approach to work networking and people-time, and this is another reason I am bringing this current phase of work to a close by September.

melting clocks
One of my favorite Salvador Dali pieces – photo credit link

I feel at my best when I am doing “deep work” which involves thinking, reading, writing and synthesizing research. I still intend to make time for teaching, offering workshops and facilitating small group meetings. But my best ideas and most productive periods seem to emerge after periods of luxurious solitude and reflection.

This summer I am planning for 4-6 weeks off starting in August/September, if I can make it work between work “ventures.” Let’s see if I can honor that and keep the personal and family budget discipline it will require to make this break happen without undue stress.

I know if I declare this intention in writing, there is a higher likelihood I can make it happen. I am not as good at having accountability to others (it can sometimes cause me to rebel), but I tend to be better at honoring my word to myself.

What makes you lose hours off the clock? Do you have a creative practice or hobby that, when you start working on it, causes you to lose all track of time? 

cristy@meximinnesotana.com

 

What’s your One Thing?

Yesterday I took an opportunity during my monthly operations meeting to present to my team a concept I had discovered that intrigues me, from The One Thing by Gary Keller.

In preparing for the presentation, I realized that I can indulge my love for teaching and training in my current job. It was totally fun to prepare, and I enjoyed challenging my team with a new idea. It was a bit of a risk, and I had not discussed it with my director first. But he has been open to my creative streak, and when I finished (in about 20 minutes) he actually came up with the perfect picture to capture the idea of what we do now, versus what we might prefer to do.

one man band
“One man band” – photo taken in March 2018 by my boss

What is perfect about the photo is that it showed empathy for the struggle of my teammates, and it illustrated the point I had made during the presentation.

The basic idea of the book is that we need to work on ONE thing at a time, sequentially rather than simultaneously to achieve extraordinary results. When we multi-task or spin in a list of to-do’s that has no main priority, we dilute the focus and the quality of our work. So the book has a number of suggestions for how we drill down from our “someday goal” to a 5-year, then one year, monthly, weekly and daily goal.

We are asked to use a focusing question: “What’s the one thing I can do such that by doing it, everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”

This can be applied to goals at work, in relationships, goals for your physical health, personal life, money and business. You use it both on a temporal level: “what’s the one thing this week, or today or in this moment…” Then you plan time blocks on a daily basis so you get your one thing done first, before you slide off into more shallow work, like answering emails, attending meetings and other tasks.

Nothing should distract you from your one thing until it is done. Those time blocks can be protected. This is similar to the concept of Deep Work, by Cal Newport.

After I concluded, I asked the team: How can we apply the concept of “The One Thing” to the work we do every day? A couple of them had some ideas, and one had a great example. One thought it would be very hard to do this in the world we live in now, which was when my boss pulled out that great photo. We often feel like “one man bands” in our group, serving so many business units.

I believe the concept has merit, and though we a.d.d.-oid folks struggle with doing just one thing at a time, and many need to have shorter “time blocks” than the average person, I know when I do it well, I generate amazing results. I like to think of my one thing right now as my morning writing practice. When I do it, I feel a nice surge of energy, and that makes the rest of my day more productive as well.

What’s your ONE THING? Or if you prefer a more focused question: What’s your One Thing today?

Happy Friday, amigos!

 

Flowing vs Overflowing

Do you ever have a sense of marvelous ease in your day? A sense that you are in a “flow state” and things are proceeding exactly as they should. You just ride along as the current carries you.

You look up hours later and realize you have been so engaged in a task that you have lost awareness of time, and maybe it’s already dark out. Or you suddenly realize you are hungry, but you were absorbed in something so deeply that you did not notice at the time. It is kind of a beautiful experience for someone like me (or maybe you?) who struggle with distractions.

But how often to we achieve this state? How often do we give ourselves the opportunity to do uninterrupted work? How often do we single-task, instead of spreading out our focus?

deep-work-cover.jpg

According to Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, we do not do this nearly enough. When I first read the book summary, presented by my “GetAbstract” subscription at work, I felt immediate resonance with the concept. Then I heard an interview with him on the Hidden Brain podcast last July, and I knew I would need to figure out how to do more deep work in my career.

In the age of social media, overflowing email boxes and communications technologies like WhatsApp and Jabber (my company’s instant messaging platform), it is a challenge indeed. But I like a challenge. And I think the ability to focus deeply and intentionally on things we care about is worth it. Some may argue that this is what makes a happy life.

So how do we make that more possible? For me, it has involved cutting WAY back on my daily consumption of social media. I used to turn on my phone in bed in the morning, read facebook posts and the news from the coziness of my bed (it was -12F when I got up this morning -26F with windchill – ugh). Then I would usually open up the email, first personal and then work to see if there were any urgent items.

This would put me into “reactive” mode, taking in all of this information before even giving myself a chance to truly wake up. Not the best way to start the day. That practice shifted to consuming podcasts rather than FB and news about a year ago. I decided my emotional state was not equipped to consume news in the same way I used to devour it daily. I really love public radio, and I still listen sometimes in the car on the way to or from work.

We all have choices about what we do, and how we engage with the world. It is pretty mind-blowing to realize we have more control over our thoughts and emotions once we learn to separate them out from circumstances. Learning this has helped me understand when my “anger” button has been activated, or in neuroscience terms, the amygdala. Anger can be a useful emotion, when we are fighting injustice, but rage tends to be destructive. Fear can be a useful emotion, when we are outrunning a predator or facing a potentially dangerous situation, but panic is rarely helpful.

So I choose to cut back. I need to keep flowing, keep working toward things I believe in. I work toward more peace, more justice, more access to the rights and freedoms I enjoy for more people. Overflowing with inputs, distractions, material possessions, entertainment, and other “over” indulgences does not serve me. So I make deliberate choices about how to spend my time.

Distractions may always be a factor for me. My mind runs and plays like a puppy, roaming around, picking up random scents and running down those trails. But that is also conditioned behavior, following the urge of distraction. And it can be unlearned with practice, thankfully. My meditation and yoga practices are teaching me that.

May you be clear-headed and focused today. May you engage in whatever deep and important work you are doing right now, with full mind and heart. Thank you for reading, and now go get back to your creative effort. Namaste.