In my day job, as a researcher, we have found that when children make things with their hands – especially when they copy designs made with creative materials – it helps their behavior, attention, and achievement.
I have begun to see our human desire to create everywhere.
Cooking, writing, painting
Sewing, singing or songwriting
Gardening and woodworking
and not least of these, blogging.
As a writer I’ve become more consciously aware that I need to write in order to sort things out. Writing helps me create sense and order out of the noise in my head. This 21st century life is so full of details – emails, news updates, constant status updates and FB posts.
Eckhart Tolle writes about “the noise in your head that pretends to be you and never stops talking.” Though he advises simply pausing, acknowledging the noise without spinning off into an alternate reality, I think of writing as a halfway point. Halfway between the chaos of confusion and the perfect simplicity of silence, is an orderly set of thoughts on paper (or screen).
The quiet that emerges after a good writing session feels like the earth after a good hard rain. The air feels cleaner and lighter. The forest is quiet and can be seen through the trees.
The canvas is cleared, to begin again, to make room for another noise, another mess, another “sorting out of things.”
Below is the text of an email I sent this afternoon to a local Comcast Sales Executive. Unbeknownst to him, he was getting me on a loquacious and socially responsible sort of day.
Dear Mr. X,
Today you stopped by my place on Robertson Avenue to ask why I don’t use Comcast. I was certainly honest which I feel is the best policy but can understand the difficulty of listening to someone say negative things about your employer or company. You were polite and kind and I thank you for that.
When I give feedback I usually try to come up with some positive directions for the future. And because I sense that you have some influence, at least locally, I would like to add something to my response.
First, I don’t think large companies are inherently bad. But I think that the larger the company, the greater the social responsibility to the world and community. I would be impressed and likely to consider returning to Comcast if I were to learn of:
– meaningful (large) donations to local charity or non-profits, or even other countries in need of services. We are such a rich nation and Comcast is an extremely wealthy company. Is it possible for some of their profits (or more than are currently spread around) to be distributed to those in need?
– more flexibility to personalize and customize packages. i don’t watch television – for me most programs are psychologically toxic – and don’t want to pay for it. but the best deals on internet require a TV package. this seems unfair.
– an explanation of what the costs are for in my monthly bill. to the level of detail such as, how much is going to the CEOs salary, how much is going to the servicemen and women and dedicated local staff such as yourself, how much is going to tech maintenance. I don’t want to say “internet is too expensive” without knowing for sure how much it costs. but i’m not interested in putting money in the pocket of the Comcast CEOs either.
For the record, I don’t think CenturyLink is that great, and may have a worse record in some areas than Comcast. I really haven’t done my homework. But for me, it was a choice of the lesser of two evils.
I thank you again for tolerating my candidness. I honestly hope I’ve reached you on a personal level -beyond the level that I’m a potential customer and you’re an employee of Comcast. I believe we’re here in this world to help each other and I believe honesty and generosity are important parts of that.
Bottom line is, I think large corporations, like Comcast and many others, could do more to add to the good in the world than they are currently doing. And as their representative, I entrust you with communicating this up the chain, with the hope that it reaches a CEO somewhere with a big heart.
All the best,
Today I put myself on an email diet. Which means I’m allowed to check email three times per day. This applies to my work and personal email accounts, and even with the limit, I probably had my email open for almost two hours. But compared to my usual habits of leaving it up all day, this was a huge improvement. And I get to use this snazzy chart:
Over the past few weeks I realized I was on email overload. Email had become my go-to procrastination activity, but unlike watching Arrested Development, it was also what could send me into panic mode most reliably. I used to leave work, unsure of what I had accomplished, but feeling completely fried.
We have just come through a period of deadlines at work, where I needed (or pretended that I needed) to keep email open all the time in case something time-sensitive appeared. But having my brain on constant alert mode meant I was attempting to keep vigilant attention all day, which is exhausting. Not to mention, about half of the incoming emails required a response, so I was also adding to my to-do list several times per hour.
A few conversations helped me confirm that I’m not the only person suffering from email fatigue. Colleagues shared strategies like reading email twice per day, once in the morning and again in the late afternoon; or anytime except for morning writing sessions; or replying to emails about certain topics on certain days. I even heard of a somewhat complex system of replying promptly when not working on a paper, and replying with a canned “I’ll get back to you in 2 weeks” when working on a paper.
When I mentioned my new email diet to a student, she acknowledged she does the same thing, and admitted that she’s afraid she’ll miss something important. She rattled off all the different lists that provide regular, sometimes time-sensitive, information: coursework, program announcements, student news and events, and our lab announcements.
Our culture challenges us with “too much of a good thing” habits: flying on airplanes, watching television, checking email. As much as I appreciate my information economy job, it’s making me tired, and there are no structures in place where I work to help my email behavior improve.
The first hurdle was identifying the problem. I don’t think I wanted to admit to myself that I “couldn’t handle” having my email open all day. Like an addict, I thought it was under my control and that I could stop at any time. I also compared myself to other colleagues, assuming they were on email all the time, asking myself why they could do it when I seemed to be tiring myself out.
Then the light bulbs began to go off: first, I recalled the words of one colleague who I believe manages his email better than I do (his five young children probably provide some extra incentive): “Emails beget emails.” Which means replying to emails – “tidying up” –exacerbates instead of solves the problem.
Second, I realized that I don’t sit around waiting for people to reply to my emails. Okay, sometimes I patiently await a reply, but it’s probably every tenth one. The others I forget about as soon as I’ve hit “send.” So I’m going to assume that 9 out of 10 people who email me aren’t worried about when I respond. Which is a high-tech translation of “I’m not nearly as important as I think I am.”
Finally, I gave myself a break. I decided it’s okay if I become tired at work and if I become tired from checking email. I decided I’m not Super Email Woman (apparently someone is. The internet is amazing). Instead, I’m Normal Brain Lady.
This last insight was difficult. I was reading an essay this morning by Diane Ackerman and she shared the simple, “why didn’t I think of that” idea that her energy is finite. She wrote that in one morning, she can either write, OR talk to a friend, OR answer emails. But not all three. And it’s okay, because she’s Only Human.
Imagine that. (And now, with my extra brain energy, from being kind to myself, I can).
This article is timely because I just moved and have been packing or unpacking for months now (OK, with a vacation thrown in). I haven’t collected any data but often when I spend time with my possessions – washing dishes, putting away clothes, or yesterday when I spent 10 seconds deciding which spoon to use to stir my dinner – I think about what else I might do with those minutes…
Play the guitar
Weed the garden
Read a book
Practice vocal exercises
Take a walk
Talk with a friend
Write a blog post…
It’s probably not a realistic goal to have zero possessions, which is the sort of extreme thought I have when I’m completely fed up with the pile of seasonal dishtowels creeping out of my pantry.
Instead the goal might be like the rule of parsimony that writers are taught to follow: write what is necessary, but nothing more. Researchers are also trained to think of complex problems or ideas as simply as possible.
Getting back to possessions, how do we know when we have what is necessary but nothing more? Sometimes it’s useful to have more than one serving spoon, such as when people come over and you want to feed them.
Perhaps we don’t know how much is too much until we have gone way overboard. Which the UCLA study about clutter seems to illustrate. If the ’90s and the naughts were about acquiring, I’m crossing my fingers that the 2010’s will be about being selective and resourceful.
Questions to consider:
1) What type of possessions do I spend the most time managing, cleaning, or maintaining? (In which room do most of these possessions belong: kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, study)?
2) If I didn’t have those possessions, what might I do instead? (It’s OK if I just want more rest).
3) What is necessary? What is not? (This is the hardest one. How do you know you won’t need something in 4 months?).
For more on this topic, visit: http://www.scribd.com/doc/77197556/60100856-the-Happiness-Project
This afternoon I was stretching in the bedroom of a friends’ house where I’m pet-sitting for the weekend. While the older dog Sadie napped nearby, it took only a few minutes for the younger beagle, Belle, to figure out that I was on the floor.
Belle has spent much of her time since I arrived yesterday watching me. She figured out immediately that I’m a grazer, likely to be eating food at any given moment, so I don’t blame her for watching my every move. When I sat on the floor, to Belle that meant I was available to pet her. My parents’ 2-year-old terrier, Roscoe, thinks it’s time to wrestle and nips at my ankles and wrists when I’m on his level (roughly knee-high). Any attempt at a calm Yoga session in the morning turns into puppy playtime. In my parents’ home, set at the edge of a swath of state-owned forest, furnished with my dad’s custom-built woodwork, I’m happy to indulge Roscoe. He’s always been available for puppy play, but I know that someday soon, he will be a jaded adolescent dog, content to lay in a corner. So I always play.
The house I’m in this weekend reminds me of my parents’ in lovely ways. It has the warm tones of wood throughout and an indoor-outdoor space that the dogs traverse all day. It has the unmistakable permanent feeling of family, of being a place where people have chosen to settle down while children and pets, like Belle and Sadie, grow older.
Whenever I’m around other people’s pets, I’m impressed by how easily the animals adapt to me (and in this case, my boyfriend). I don’t know how they decide we won’t harm them, though I assume it’s something to do with how we smell. (It’s comforting to know that I don’t smell angry or cruel). But beyond that, I’m sure we keep a different rhythm compared to their human owners. Shouldn’t they act more confused? But Belle, Roscoe, and their kind don’t require much beyond food at the right times, time every day spent outside, and companionship.
They don’t really demand it though. They wait, observe, and remind with a look or whine if food or water is forgotten. When it’s delivered, they react with rapture. “Appreciate” is an understatement for dogs’ enthusiasm for the basic necessities. When you fill their food dish, take them for a walk, or scratch their bellies, they simply love you. I feel embarrassed at how much dogs seem to love me for doing the most basic of caregiving tasks. A part of my brain says, “Is that all it takes to make another creature happy? What does anyone need a PhD for?” But it’s in their nature to love that way, and thank goodness. Dogs have helped many humans, otherwise at the edge of their sanity, remain attached to the daily gift of existence and of habit. I’m sure of it.
In his book The Social Animal, David Brooks describes the ideal learning experience as a series of excursions into a novel place, back to a safe and secure base. For dogs, it may be a source of sustenance and kindness; for babies, that base is a comforting, stable parent. Brooks says that adults have the same need to explore and return, explore and return. Habit and break from habit.
I’ve spent my adulthood at universities, away from my parents’ home. It would be a euphemism to describe the past few years as a “learning experience.” In a decision that felt more like an earthquake, I decided not to pursue a tenure-track position in academia, got divorced, and began dealing with a series of health mysteries that, while not terminal, still take up huge amounts of my time and energy. I have spent the last year learning to rest. Often I have imagined myself in my parents’ peaceful wooded home, taking a break from all the questions and worries swirling around in my head about all these changes.
I have also realized that the same questions and worries will be there waiting whenever I return to my working life, as a professional. If I stayed at my parents’ long enough, they would arise. They are there because I’m a human being, who has a brain and a body and the things that a brain and a body produce: thoughts, feelings, worries, questions. What I’m working on now is a new set of habits, and I’m not embarrassed to say they’re habits that Belle and Roscoe, who are dogs, exhibit as part of their nature.
Observe. Be available. Appreciate. Love.