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Archive for the ‘Work/Life Balance’ Category

Following My Bliss…On the Bus

In Meditation, Work/Life Balance on January 25, 2013 at 8:00 am
Fresh sprinkling of snow - perfect for a morning walk.

Fresh sprinkling of snow – perfect for a morning walk.

It’s a blustery day, with light snow disrupting commutes and making people grumpy. I’m combating the cold by thinking of the many things I’m grateful for: my warm socks and boots, a thick coat, and fairly reliable public transit. Above all, I’m just trying to be mindful.

It’s so easy to shift into “auto drive” mode each day on my commute. The sounds and movements on the crowded bus can be hypnotic, a dull hum that I easily drown out by diving into the columns of emails piled in my work inbox. But I don’t want to drown it out, at least not today, so I try to focus on the present moment.

Mindfulness on the bus can take a lot of shapes. Being aware of my emotions as I encounter strangers, being aware of the people sitting near me – the way they sit, the things they say to one another, embracing the simple pleasure of the commute itself, which is an island of (relative) peace before I enter the perpetual busyness of the day.

Having just finished Don Lattin’s book, Following Our Bliss, I can’t help but wonder at the roots of my quest for mindfulness. Lattin attributes much of today’s fascination with meditation and mindfulness to the LSD-inspired experiences of the 1960s hippies, who were trying to connect to a broader global consciousness.

I would argue, however, that my motivations for seeking mindfulness are somewhat different. Unlike the 1960s, today we take for granted the inherently global nature of our interactions. Technological breakthroughs have spurred communication. It doesn’t matter what message you’re trying to spread – you can find a venue and an audience for it in the digital world.

The interaction is non-stop. The internet, in fact, seems to stand almost apart from time.  Our lives have expanded past the traditional bounds of nine-to-five, workplace and home. We’ve transcended, but we’re not certain what it really means. It’s a new infinite, one of our own creation, which makes it all the more puzzling.

In the midst of this, mindfulness provides a mental refuge. Taking a deep breath and focusing on the moment can help center us and remind us of what is real. Mindfulness challenges us to let go of the ceaseless wave of our digital lives and competing workplace demands and instead appreciate the value inherent in simply being alive. This is why I turn to mindfulness: to help remind me that even a crowded rush hour ride on a creaky, muddy city bus can be something special, because it means that I’m here.

Deep Breaths: Meditation and the (Tricky) Art of Letting Go

In Meditation, Work/Life Balance on January 19, 2013 at 11:45 am
The serenity we see in nature is not always as easy to capture in our own minds.

The serenity we see in nature is not always as easy to capture in our own minds.

You’ve probably heard about the recent lipservice paid to the physical and mental benefits of meditation. Better focus, renewed energy, calm, and peace of mind. All of this great press reinforces my NYE resolution to meditate daily. For me, meditation is about grounding myself, reflecting on my core values, and increasing deliberate mindfulness. You could say that meditation is my way of savoring life (thanks, Leo), although it can never replace my daily chocolate addiction. Thankfully, I’m pretty certain that you can savor more than one thing, otherwise I’d be in trouble.

My first, brief flirtation with meditation was back in my college days. I was freshly arrived on the East Coast and waved around my California suntan and Santa Barbara beach stories like some kind of protective flag. A friend, convinced by my hippie/surfer charade, told me about a flyer they’d seen advertising a meditation group. Afraid to dispel my carefree image, I declared that I would go. After all, don’t all Californians meditate? Needless to say, I arrived at the class wholly unprepared for what was about to happen.

The room was bare, bathed in gloomy light and suffused with the spicy, make-your-throat-itch smell of incense. Myself and the other newbies uneasily circled the instructor, a thin, grey-haired man in his late fifties, who was calmly seated cross-legged in the center of the room. He invited us to join him, and we awkwardly plopped to the ground, the wiser of us landing on the sad-looking pillows we’d brought from our dorm beds. The instructor briefly explained the concept and then we closed our eyes. Therein ensued some of the longest, most drawn-out minutes of my life.

For those who have never meditated before, allow me to shed some light. We spend our days wrapped up in a frenzy of mental and emotional activity. We’re hardwired to be “on” constantly, and give ourselves little room to relax, much less empty our minds. Meditation runs against the very grain of this paradigm and challenges us to attempt (what seems) the impossible: to turn off our thinking minds. No time. No judgements. No emotion. Nothing.

Simple enough, right? To the uninitiated, meditation feels more like slamming the brakes in a semi-truck going 70 miles per hour. Instead of stopping, what happens is that everything suddenly clamors for immediate attention. You hear the brakes screaming, the tires skidding against the pavement, horns honking all around, and little voices telling you that this was a bad, bad idea. This, my friends, is what it was like for me to meditate that first time. I was wholly unprepared for inner battle that would ensue the moment I closed my eyes. At the end of the thirty minutes, I was exhausted. Instead of feeling connected to some greater energy, I felt like I’d been pounded by waves for hours.

I only went back to that meditation circle once or twice more. I hadn’t expected meditation to be so challenging and I was ashamed of my failure. Several years went by sans-meditation. Occasionally, I’d feel a glimmer of guilt. Then one day, I realized that I was ready to give it another try. This time, it was much easier, especially since I knew what to expect. I had matured enough  that I didn’t give up when I didn’t instantly achieve a state of nirvana.

This brings us to today. My meditation practice is going well, thanks in part to some lessons I’ve picked up along the way. Lesson #1: start small. I try to meditate a minimum of ten minutes a day. I’m gradually building from there, but ten minutes is small enough to seem achievable, especially when balancing a busy schedule. At the stage I’m at, even ten minutes can be a challenge.

Lesson #2: acknowledge and release. The first time I tried meditating, I felt like a failure because I couldn’t empty my mind. I now know better. Instead of trying to instantly empty, I try to acknowledge the thoughts and emotions running through my brain and then one by one, let them go. This is a remarkably cathartic process. As I am discovering, sometimes peace of mind is as simple as recognizing that for ten whole minutes, I don’t have to fix everything. The world no longer rests on my shoulders, and I am free to just be.

***

Currently Reading: Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Csikszentmihalyi dissects creativity with a highly objective eye. He asks us to let go of our preconceptions of creativity as something whimsical and erratic; instead, he paints a picture in which true Creativity (with a capital C) stems from rigorous work and interactive processes. One of his most intriguing claims is that in order for anything to be creative, it needs to be validated by others working in the same field.

Quelling my Inner Over-Achiever

In Work/Life Balance on January 7, 2013 at 11:09 pm
Beautiful winter sky before sunset.

Beautiful winter sky before sunset.

Happy New Year! Hope everyone had a delightful holiday. It’s about this time every year that the post-holiday hangover kicks in, that precise moment when we realize that the fun is over (for now) and we have to get back to our normal lives. Laundry, grocery shopping, paying the bills…the list goes on and on. I feel the post-holiday hangover too, but I am excited about what lies ahead.

Granted, I am typically an optimist, so I can’t help but think of all the possibility that comes with each new year. It’s not quite a tabula rasa situation, but there is some kind of mental release, perhaps a willingness to forgive ourselves for past mistakes and lapses, and an embracing of renewal and improvement that makes the new year always seem brighter. I am reminded of a Vietnamese friend who shared the Tet tradition of throwing out all the old chopsticks from the past year as a symbolic gesture of ushering out the old and welcoming the new. I am drawn to such meaningful gestures, however small they may seem.

My own new year’s tradition would not be complete without setting some goals for the coming months. Instead of choosing broad, over-arching resolutions for the entire year, I prefer to set smaller, achievable goals for each quarter, which help me track my progress and, if need be, can be tweaked for subsequent quarters. I know that certain quarters have begun to embrace the “no goal” lifestyle (think Leo Babauta), but as a strong “J”  in the Myers-Briggs world, I find that setting goals helps direct my energy in a constructive way. There are times when I wish I could simply “let go” and let life happen as it may, and I think I’ve succeeded in doing more of that over the last few years. For me, “letting go” is only possible, however, within the context of some basic guideposts.

I’ve set two goals for the next three months. Goal 1: Write for at least 45 minutes every morning. I chose the morning because I really am a morning person – I’d much rather wake up an hour early than stay awake an hour later. The early mornings are also free of distractions. My partner is still soundly snoring in bed, our noisy neighbors are dreaming of sheep, and it’s just me, my cup of tea, and my thoughts.

Goal 2: Meditate for at least 10 minutes each day. This is the part where I admit that this particular goal is being resurrected from last year. Exactly one year ago I set out to start a daily meditation habit…and failed miserably. Part of this had to do with setting too many goals. Part of it had to do with not following through on my commitment. I failed, and I recognize it, but now I really want to make it happen. The peace of mind, clarity, and focus (i.e. “The Magic of Doing One Thing at a Time” ala Tony Schwartz) that come from meditation will be most welcome in my daily life.

The fact that I’ve narrowed my vision down to two goals doesn’t mean that these are the only areas that I’d like to improve. If I were to write a sample list of all of my unachieved goals and desires, it’d look something like this: do more yoga, eat less meat, spend less money, play the piano more frequently, get rid of extraneous belongings, practice random acts of kindness, grow more plants. Some of these things will happen this quarter and some of them will not. For me, I know that setting more than these two goals would lead to a scenario in which I haphazardly accomplish a little bit of this and a little bit of that without ever making solid progress on anything. I know because I’ve done it before. That’s the kicker about trying to be an over-achiever; if you don’t wisen up and learn to focus, you may never get anything meaningful done, and if you do, it may be at the cost of your own sanity.

***

What are some of your goals for 2013? How do you go about turning them into reality? And how do you stop yourself from trying to over-achieve?

Currently Reading: Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver, one of my favorite authors. I’m only 10 percent done, but it’s promising already.

The Outside Job

In Work/Life Balance on August 22, 2012 at 8:32 pm

Can you blame Mini Darth? I’d take a telework day too if this were my morning view.

For unexpected reasons (hint: I was hit by a car over the weekend and wound up with a bum knee but thankfully nothing beyond that), I found myself unable to go into work this week.  As bruised as my body may have been, my mind was sound and felt restless in the confines of the house, even with the prospect of filling some of the time with my writing project.  Not to mention that I had anticpated a busy work week and there were things that I simply needed to get done. Enter into the scene one of most intriguing developments in the modern workplace over the last 20+ years: telework.

I have to admit that I have hesitated in embracing the telework trend, despite the increasing ease of doing so over the last year or so in my workplace.  Now don’t get me wrong here – I firmly believe that employers should judge their employees by the extent to which they reach their clearly defined work and output objectives ala the much lauded Results-Oriented Work Environment.  As my mother would say, BIC (butt in chair) managers are so seized with making sure that they can keep track of their employee’s whereabouts that they forget about the reasons why they have said employees: to get things done.  BIC managers are inefficient and often insecure, which is what leads them down such a dangerous management path.

At the same time, telework is still such a new concept, and if utilized in the wrong situation, it can be awfully hard to determine what exactly it is that an employee is doing with their time.  This is especially true in situations (such as my own) where employees are working without clearly defined and measurable objectives.  Add to this an incredibly laid-back managerial style, and you have the recipe for a potential telework disaster.  (Not all of us have situations like the one that NextGov.com describes at the Defense Information Systems Agency, where telework standards and methods of evaluation are clear and equitable.)

I can’t be the only one who, over the past few months, has witnessed the results of people teleworking in these less than optimal situations.  One of the classics is the “telework vacation,” that all too common situation when someone “teleworks,” but somehow never manages to send or respond to a single email, can’t be reached by phone, and somehow never finishes whatever it is they set out to do in the first place.  While I hate to use things likes emails and phone calls as proxies for real work, the fact is that when you work in a situation without clear deliverables, you have to resort to something.

Yet another is the “out of office” telework day, in which the individual puts up an out of office message to let their colleagues know that they simply won’t be as responsive today – after all, they are teleworking.  And unsurprisingly, they really are not very responsive at all.  It’s the perfect self-fulfilling prophecy.   These “out of office” teleworkers drive me almost as crazy as the “vacation” teleworkers.  The whole point of telework is that you are as responsive and productive as you would be on any other day, plain and simple.

Witnessing these and other examples of telework mis-use, I was loathe to add myself to the same pool.  I have, however, been delightfully surprised to discover this week that not only can telework be enjoyable and preferable to sitting in a dusty old cube all day (and listening to co-workers deal with their personal issues over the telephone), but on top of that, telework can actually be ridiculously productive.  With the right environment (for me, my quiet living room with music playing softly in the background), away from the distractions of the workplace (and drive-by taskers from the higher-ups), and with the right method of focus (mine’s simple – I love making prioritized lists and yes, I am a strong J in the Myers-Briggs), I have discovered that telework actually really does work.  And truth be told, it seems to work even better than my normal work.  Amazing.

The reality is that I work in a situation where I really do need to be in the office at least a few times a week.  And I love it, if it means meaningful interactions with a dynamic group of co-workers.  Yet, if I’ve discovered anything this week, it’s that I could afford to shake up my workplace routine by adopting some kind of regularly scheduled telework.  Maybe once a week, maybe once every two weeks.  Someday, maybe it’ll even be up to several times a week.  Either way, it’ll contribute to my overall workplace satisfaction, drive up my productivity, and will help me regain some of the focus that seems to disappear in the day to day crush of normal office life.  That will translate into extra time, energy, and focus that can then be used for some of the other important things in my life. And finally, if the GSA is right, it could even save my employer some serious money too.  Everybody wins.