The power of Now and Not

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Photo courtesy of Herbalizer (Creative Commons)

Photo courtesy of Herbalizer (Creative Commons)

I am discovering the power in the two words NOW and NOT when used separately, and how debilitating they can be when used together.

As I work to get my life in control and manage my time and commitments better, I am appreciating the practice of focusing on these two words.

This is my work and mission NOW. This is what I choose to start NOW. I am mindful of the present moment and learning to be less distracted by future or past.

What I choose NOT to pay attention to or commit to is just as important. I can’t do it all, so I can’t be sidetracked by activities that dilute my focus on my mission. It’s time to say NOT or NO to things so that I can be sure I’m doing the right things.

I’ve been thinking lately how counterproductive it is to use the words together – when I say “not now” to something, I’m putting it in a kind of holding pattern, so that it’s still sucking energy from me even though it’s not front and center. It’s still in the back of my mind, or on some kind of “maybe” list that brings it up periodically so that I can’t just let it go.

In his book and methodology of Getting Things Done, David Allen suggests putting some things on a “Someday Maybe” list so that you have captured the desire to pursue them at some point, but there is no next or immediate action attached to them. These are things that would be nice to do at some point in the future, but are not on the horizon just yet. But that list must be realistic or you’ve just delayed a decision that should have been made up front – or NOW.

NOW and NOT need to be used more frequently, and NOT NOW needs to be used more sparingly.

Lost in the moment

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Photo courtesy of Lucas Sherwood (Creative Commons)

Photo courtesy of Lucas Sherwood (Creative Commons)

I got up to get more coffee, and happened to glance at the clock. Nearly 7:00 am. What?

I noticed then that it was light outside. I realized I needed to hustle to get ready for an appointment. And I was in heaven.

I had just lost about 2 hours being completely absorbed in my writing and oblivious to time or anything around me.

I had gotten up early so it was still dark and quiet, and the words just started to flow. What a joy and privilege to be so “in my zone” that I didn’t even notice that it was getting light. Usually I am hyper-vigilent about the time, my schedule, and my lengthy list of things still to do. No matter what I’m doing, my brain is firing off all the other things that are waiting, whether or not they need to be done that minute. Actually, most often they do not need to be done that minute but there my mind is, reminding me constantly.

And honestly, it’s that list of things to do that’s in my head that keeps me from finding my zone very often.

But I’m taking steps to correct that.

As a follower of David Allen and his Getting Things Done methodology, I sporadically do a brain dump, and try to maintain good lists. But more often than not, I do that once, keep it up a day or two and then I’m back to old habits of just trying to remember what I need to get done. And that is just not effective.

Lately, I’ve been trying out a new app on both my computer and phone with better success. It’s called Trello, and it lets me add things to my lists in categories and on the fly – which makes me more likely to use it. That means once I add something, I am more likely to go back to it later to be reminded of what I need to do.

Other things apps that I’ve tried, including plain paper and pen, frustrate me because it takes too long to get to the app, or I don’t have paper in front of me, or if I do, then I stash it somewhere and forget about it, and then I’m back to trying to remember what it was I needed to do.

At any rate, I’ve been getting better about getting things out of my head, and it frees up so much space for other things!

At work, I’m finding myself able to focus better on each project to make better progress. When I’m running, I can practice mindfulness and let go of all the annoying “noise” in my head and just enjoy the run. Having a conversation with someone means I can concentrate on the conversation, and not all the other things I need to be doing.

And I can get lost for two hours in my writing.

How do you keep your head clear so you can be “in the moment”?

Squirrel!

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Photo courtesy of Ed McDonald (Creative Commons)

Photo courtesy of Ed McDonald (Creative Commons)

Ever have those days when you are so scatter brained, you wonder if you can even make it through the day in one piece? Every little distraction pulls you from what you were doing, and before long, you have a trail of unfinished tasks. Ugh.

For me, I find it most often happens after a restless night or a stressful day (or week). I feel like my poor brain is just mush and can’t even hold a thought for 2 seconds. There’s not enough coffee in the world to make this better!

I haven’t found a quick fix for this distraction either. One important thing is to lower my expectations for myself for the day – or at least the morning – because otherwise I will end up sinking into a spiral of negativity that makes the situation worse.

Choosing some straightforward things to focus on seems to help too. Starting with a simple task, with a clear result, without a lot of need for decision-making, can help get me back on track. If I’m able, exercise like yoga or running is a good start too, because the physical activity and the deep breathing help clear the cobwebs and scatter the fuzziness in my brain.

Certainly no complicated tasks or projects should be first on the list, as this will just lead to even more confusion.

Another way to combat the squirrel syndrome is to make a list – just write all the things that are coming to mind and get them off my mind as David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, suggests. Just let it flow until you can’t think of anything else, and then later you can go back and process it all. You might find a few simple tasks in the list that can be handled and marked off.That always brings some relief.

Buried in your list, you will likely find the culprit of the squirrel syndrome. You will probably find the one task or project that is most disturbing, most overwhelming, most frightening – and that may be causing all your trouble. Once you can break that down into your first action step and either do it or get it on your calendar, your brain can let go and get back to normal.

How do you combat the distraction of squirrel syndrome?

Can you let go?

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Photo courtesy of Alex&Luiba (Creative Commons)

Photo courtesy of Alex&Luiba (Creative Commons)

Sixty-five degrees and sunny in February. Sounds incredible, doesn’t it? Especially after the winter we have had. But that’s what happened on Saturday, and boy was I ready to soak up that warmth and sunshine.

Thankfully, it happened on a Saturday, so I wasn’t stuck inside at work, and surprisingly, I did not have a single commitment that day that tied me to the clock. Rare, I know.

So I took advantage. I had a nice run without having to bundle up, and I spent a long time during the afternoon sitting on my porch in the sunshine reading. Yes, just reading a spy novel.

But you know why I was able to do that and not feel guilty or like I was shirking duties? Because I’ve been better about making sure my obligations and “stuff to do” was written down, rather than just letting it hang out in my head. I had a plan for what I needed to get done over the weekend, and knew that I could finish what I had to on Sunday.

And that allowed me to live in the MOMENT, which is one of my three focus words for the year (read about that here).

It probably sounds counter-intuitive that I had to plan to be in the moment. Let me explain.

David Allen, productivity guru and author of Getting Things Done (GTD), talks about a state he calls “mind like water” which is achievable if you have gotten everything out of your head and down into logical lists and next action steps. He tells us that your head is an awful place to store things, and will tend to remind you of things you need to do at the wrong time or when you can’t take care of it.

By getting all the things that have your attention out of your head, then you can focus on what you need to at the appropriate time. I have been very guilty lately of not keeping good lists, and having ideas, obligations, and reminders firing off in my mind at totally inappropriate times – like in the middle of a project or other tasks, or when I’m trying to go to sleep. And when I do try to take some time to relax, I can’t fully relax because there’s that annoying idea niggling in the back of my head that there is something else I need to be doing.

So yesterday morning, I spent some time just doing a brain dump – I wrote down everything I’ve had on my mind, from pay bills, create an agenda for a meeting this week and schedule rent – to iron, catch up on email and research wicker porch furniture. All of it.

Once I could see it all, I felt much less overwhelmed. I guess in my head the tasks and obligations were swirling and repeating so they seemed so much worse and due all at once! Seeing it down on paper, I realized that not all of it was due right away, and I could prioritize and make a plan.

And that plan involved getting some things done that morning, leaving the afternoon free, and getting more done on Sunday, when the weather was not forecast to be quite as warm or sunny.

So I could sit on the porch in the sun and read without worrying about what I was not doing or that I was forgetting something. I was truly in the moment, and it felt great.

What do you need to plan so you can live in the moment?

Pacing yourself

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Photo courtesy of Todd Lappin (Creative Commons)

Photo courtesy of Todd Lappin (Creative Commons

If there is a crash or an accident in an auto race, the pace car comes out to slow the cars down, and allow time to clean up the mess. They continue moving, but at a slower rate, and passing is not allowed. Usually after a few laps, the pace car then pulls off the track and the race continues.

It’s like that in life too. I think we sometimes become so out of control and overwhelmed, we don’t realize that we are working way too hard and cramming way too much into a day. Then the wrong things get done, mistakes start to happen, and we are headed for a crash.

Like the pace car in an auto race, we need something in front of us to slow us down so we can find a better balance and regain our awareness of our situation. Then once we get control, the pace car can pull off and we take off running (or racing) again.

For me, that means taking time to do a periodic review of the things I have on my plate and that I have said yes to, so I can take stock of all the little actions that need to be taken. Otherwise, I end up barreling ahead in the wrong direction, and forget this other project that I needed to be working on. Suddenly I’m scrambling with extra complications because I neglected to take care of this other project when I should have.

In David Allen Getting Things Done style, I try to do a brain dump of everything in my head – from write business plan to pay bills to schedule appointment for checkup. Then I can determine what steps are next for each thing, and group things together – calls, errands, online, etc. I really need to do this weekly – I’m lucky to stop once a month.

Often I find that there are a few things I need to take care of right away, and by clearing that mental clutter away, I have renewed focus for the big project at hand. What a relief! And why don’t I do that more often?

The start of a new month is a perfect time for a  thorough review. Let’s get that pace car in front of us so we can get back on track.

 

Gaining control of the steering wheel

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Photo courtesy of Jon Rawlinson (Creative Commons)

Photo courtesy of Jon Rawlinson (Creative Commons)

When life gets overwhelming and goals get fuzzy, it’s tempting to want to find a way to wave your magic wand and make all the obligations and clutter go away, or at least check grand things off your list with a flourish.

Sadly, that isn’t how things work, but what I have noticed this week, is that taking care of little things does build momentum and with momentum comes clarity.

Last week, I spent time doing what David Allen, productivity guru and bestselling author of Getting Things Done, calls a brain dump. I wrote down all the things that were floating in my head that needed to be done, from errands to projects to chores. This is basically clearing mental clutter like you do physical clutter. As he recommends, get it all out of your head so you can see the full scope of your “open loops.”

And boy, were there a lot of them! The list went on, and was as comprehensive as listing “iron” and “put WD40 on closet door” to “look into phone plans” and “network more actively on LinkedIn.” I just wrote it all down (well, typed it in Evernote actually).

According to David Allen, there are actually five steps that he promotes for “mastering workflow.” You must:
• Collect everything that has your attention
• Process those things by deciding if an action is needed or not
• Organize by grouping into categories (like lists of errands or things to do when you are online) and designating the next action step
• Review your lists frequently
• Do the things on your lists.

I kind of skipped a few of steps, because the processing and organizing became more overwhelming than the brain dump itself. What I am discovering is that my eyes glaze over after working with the list for very long because I let it get so out of control. My tactic is to whittle down the list in hopes of making more sense of it later. I guess I’m using “Modified GTD Methodology.”

I’m using my calendar heavily, since that seems to be the thing that drives the most productivity for me. I am blocking out time either in the early morning or evenings to work on personal tasks, and putting it on the calendar with a reminder. So far, it’s working like a dream. I’m actually starting to make progress on some of these things and the more I check off, the more energy I have for the next thing on the list.

Using the calendar helps me stay grounded because otherwise, I come home from work, plop down in front of the computer, and get lost in email, blogs or Facebook. The chirp of the appointment reminder gets me refocused, and I can make sure I accomplish something and THEN take a break to catch up.

It’s not ideal, but I am moving in the right direction. I feel like I’m still learning over to share the steering wheel with the “stuff” in my life, but I’m slowing moving over to the driver’s seat and taking control.

With each thing I check off, I feel more settled and less out of control. And more clear-headed, which is a huge part of the goal. I want to clear my head so I can focus on what is really important like finding the mental space to look at life goals, purpose and more lofty ideas.

So now it’s your turn.

When your life gets out of control, how do you clear the clutter and start steering again?

My new “weight” loss plan

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Photo courtesy of John Athayde (Creative Commons)

Photo courtesy of John Athayde (Creative Commons)

The last week has been one filled with distractions and fires to put out, both professionally and personally. Actually, if I’m being honest, it’s not just the last week but the last month or so. Such a constant barrage of things to deal with has left me spent and unfocused.

I suspect part of that distraction stems from a general state of disorder in my head. Rather than having clear goals and action steps to get there, I have been allowing the muck to flow in and obscure that clarity. Rather than stopping to refocus on the land, I’ve allowed myself to be tossed on the waves and make little progress. In fact, I suspect the current has carried me further from the land, and I need to stop, find the shore, and start swimming in the right direction.

My friend made a comment this week that the “weight” in our shared office needed to be lifted, after we had a conversation the day before about the burdens we each have on us. Things like work stresses, of course, but also pressing family issues, concerns, other commitments, and worries.

The only way I see to reduce those burdens, is to identify them. It felt really good to talk about it the other day, but I plan to take it a step further. By writing down all the things I have on my mind, from the errands I need to run to the projects I need to plan to the long-term issues I need to deal with, I can see the full scope of my “weight” and start to make plans to reduce it.

David Allen, productivity guru and bestselling author of Getting Things Done, advocates getting everything out of your head. His GTD methodology involves capturing everything that has your attention, and then deciding what to do with it. What is the next action step necessary to move that “thing” forward?

By identifying all those niggly little things that keep you awake at night, you can start to make progress on either making them happen or letting them go. Once you can see the whole scope of your “open loops,” you can start to manage them instead of letting them manage you.

One of my challenges is that I love lists. But I tend to constantly start new lists, and then forget to look at the old lists. I capture all the things that have my attention and get that instant gratification of having them off my mind for a bit, but then I don’t address them properly. Then they come back roaring in the middle of the night or when I need to be focused on something else. That is why I might have the same item on 3 different lists but still haven’t done it! Not very helpful, is it?

It’s time for that to change! Over the next few days, I intend to do a complete “brain dump” and get all those things in my head down on paper (or typed into Evernote). Then I will honestly assess each one to identify the next step or put it on a someday/maybe list and let go of it.

Once I have the next steps, then I can start digging in to get things done and make progress. I suspect that while it will be completely overwhelming at first, once I identify the “weight,” it will release pent-up worries and allow me to think more clearly about how to start closing some of those loops.

I have no illusions of being free from worries, but I do expect to function more effectively and spend less time frustrated.

How do you lose your mental “weight”?

Don’t leave your goals to chance

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calendarHave you ever noticed how easy it is to put off things that are important to your business or personal life, just because other “fires” need to be put out, or it’s just too much trouble “right now?” And how many times have you gotten to the end of a month, quarter or year and realized you did nothing to move any of your goals forward, and in fact, may not even remember what you had said you wanted to accomplish?

Having had some time off recently, I’ve spent some time getting back on track, and am amazed at how much better it feels to be planning and setting goals. And in 2013, the difference is that I am moving into this new year with more clarity and purpose.

There are four main activities that I plan to manage better so that I reach those goals:

  • Conduct weekly reviews – Productivity guru and bestselling author David Allen suggests this in his Getting Things Done book and methodology, and when I’ve done this in the past, I’ve been more productive. So I will clear my in-boxes (all of them) on a regular basis (weekly or at least every other week), revisit all my open loops on projects, and re-evaluate the agreements I’ve made with myself and with others on what I need to accomplish over the next week and month.
  • Use my calendar – As I go through my weekly reviews, I intend to use my calendar more diligently to block time to accomplish my goals. Instead of leaving it up to chance that I’ll have the time to focus, I will block out time during my week to work on my initiatives. There’s no way to avoid interruptions at my office, but having time blocked on the calendar will help me refocus and stay on task, plus the reminders won’t hurt!
  • Turn off distractions – Oh, there’s an email I should check, and just let me check Facebook for a minute (and then 20 minutes later I’m still reading drivel). When I need to focus, I will turn off social media and email so I can focus on the grind of getting the work done. (If you struggle with this too, just know this will be a huge challenge for me).
  • Review goals regularly – do you write out your goals at the first of the year and then tuck them away until December? Not anymore! I plan to look at my goals daily, if possible, or at least during my weekly review and see what next action steps need to be taken to accomplish those goals.

Bonus activities:

  • Connect with friends – how many times have you said to a long-time friend, “we should get together for coffee or lunch” and then done nothing about it? I plan to schedule coffee or lunch with friends and colleagues at least twice a month.
  • Plan fun activities – one of my three focus words this year is “Delight” – because I want to make sure I’m not spending all my time with my head buried in work. So I will plan a fun outing, activity or experience at least twice a month.

The one thing all these actions have in common is intentionality. This will be the year to be intentional, to make things happen instead of “letting” things happen.

Are you with me? How will you be intentional this year?