There’s something to be said for the lengths our brains will go to sabotage us.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve watched enough motivational videos, listened to enough podcast interviews on self-improvement, and read enough philosophical thought-pieces to know that my time on Earth is terrifyingly finite.
I will watch the time tick past, almost sociopathically, without dread, as I consume mindless online content instead of producing, mindfully, something hopefully of worth to at least one other person out there.
THE CAUSES OF A WASTED DAY
Time will always pass. You can’t stop or preserve it. Yes, you can compress or expand time depending on what you do – but if you’re reading this then more often than not you have found yourself compressing time for subpar activities that do nothing to help you evolve as a person.
Why do our brains find mindfulness in the present moment so painful? What are we avoiding?
Does it come down to fear? This idea, as Brene Brown says, that we’re not enough. That we’ve internalised this fear so much that, instead of just pushing through time, this inevitable passing thing, knowing full well that by the end of an hour or, heaven forbid, twenty minutes, we’ll be okay, we’re still plagued by this fear that it’s true, we can’t actually live up to our dreams and expectations.
Consider: do you have a sense of shame around rest and relaxation in general? I realised that I was, for a long time, blurring the lines in this area – getting to the weekend and feeling like I hadn’t worked hard enough to truly feel good about my allocated time off. This kind of thinking needs recalibration.
Consider: are you overwhelmed because your day, or indeed life, isn’t playing out to your expectations? Just like a shitty written draft of anything, it’s time to accept that reality often will not line up with expectations. And hey, sometimes it exceeds them! And that’s amazing. But when it doesn’t, you can’t resist something that just is. You need to merely move on from that step. What can you do with the reality that’s being served to you today? How can you creatively solve any problems you’re currently facing? Your only job, really, is to create as ideal a day as you can manage with the unique constraints that have been placed on you.
Consider: is your brain actually shutting down because you won’t let it? If you are burning out – and don’t bother with the comparisons, burnout thresholds will be different for everyone – your brain and body might be trying to preserve or recoup what’s being hit at. Take a look at your physical health (the four quadrants: nutrition, exercise, sleep, hydration) and your daily schedule. What is actually tiring you out or making you nervous?
You’ll often find that your behaviours are maladaptive for a reason – you’re avoiding what that reason is, so it’s manifesting in other ways. I always overeat when I think about my writing aspirations. I’m so filled with dread about not being able to reach my potential in this arena that turning to my tastebuds for some sort of sensory reprieve seems the better option. The ill-fitting clothes in my wardrobe would disagree. What areas of your life do you need to fix to make relaxation time feel better/worthwhile/well-earned? Maybe the fact that your life feels like this big wasteland will point you in the direction of things you could be more purposeful about.
HOW TO SAVE A WASTED DAY IN TEN STEPS
If you’re reading this at the end of a wasted day, sit tight and buckle up. You probably weren’t going to use the time effectively anyway, right?
I kid. Actually, more than that: boy, do I empathise.
Here are some things you can do to start alleviating the pain that comes with avoidance of the present.
STEP ONE: LOOK AT TWO THINGS – YOUR TASK LIST AND THE CLOCK.
If you’re sitting here, you can be sitting there. You can be sitting anywhere, doing SOMETHING to feel a little better.
PLOT TWIST: It’s never a wasted day.
Your task is to look at how much time you have left, and then look at the list of things you wanted to do. Sort them according to the constraints that you have. Forget the things that won’t fit. Can you bundle any smaller tasks, those niggly ones that don’t seem at first glance to be particularly urgent and get pushed back day after day until they start weighing on you?
Hint: GET THEM DONE.
Or, start whittling away at a task that’s a bit bigger, but could benefit from you breaking in, somehow. The key is not to put pressure on yourself here. Just do something. ANYTHING.
David Allen in Getting Things Done talks about the Next Action list. Having a task list isn’t enough – you need to have visualised what the very next physical step is you would take to get to work on the items on your list. This has been a game changer for me. No longer am I staring at a list of abstract tasks that seem nice enough but still on the whole overwhelm me. Now I have a list of things I know I can physically and practicably do. And that just makes that a whole lot nicer.
STEP TWO: CLEAN YOUR HOUSE, BY SECTION OR TIMEFRAME.
I feel like there are two people in this world – those who complete tasks by section, and those who prefer time tracking. I am definitely the latter. I like to box myself into time intervals and see how much I can get done if I work quick and hard enough.
One of the harder parts of adulthood is knowing that cleaning your house is a lifelong chore. I can’t get around it. And I struggle a LOT with keeping my house at a visitor-friendly standard. But when I put the timer on and just focus on, say, the lounge room, I feel a lot better.
FlyLady is a wonderful website that gives you step by step instructions for getting your house to an acceptable level. She suggests starting with intermittent decluttering sessions, to clear away the absolutely unnecessary, before moving into a deeper cleaning schedule. FlyLady swears by the less aggressive approach, acknowledging that if your house has been in disarray for this long, there’s no point in trying to make it spotless immediately – it won’t stick! A nice reminder that being realistic will, over time, have the biggest impact.
STEP THREE: JOURNAL
Journalling can be as personal as you’d like. I personally maintain an evening journal and have for as long as I can remember – but even that has shifted on occasion! I’m usually very reflective, without necessarily recounting the things that I’ve done each day. I’ve since moved to more of a recount approach, accompanied by a targeted, relevant reflection.
Julia Cameron touts the method of Morning Pages – free-writing for three A4 pages a morning. She believes this clears the mind of harmful and insidious modes of thought that can clog you up before you’ve even started your day. A good recommendation as a strategy to minimise your wasted days, but also – you can modify this practice to suit you! I have a 35-40 minute commute to and from work, and started completing this verbally via Voice Memo, and it has 100% made a difference! At first you will find filling three pages time-consuming and painful, but perhaps that’s exactly how to solve the problem this post is looking to fix.
You can also get fill-in-the-blank journals. I have three going at the moment – one for Gratitude, another a Five Year Journal that asks a new question each day, and the third focusing on daily meaningful moments. I can fill those three in in less than 15 minutes, and it really does make me home in on the things I should be happy about, instead of discounting the positives.
STEP FOUR: LOOK FOR INSPIRATION.
Now I’m not really talking about your typical Get Ready with Me or Day in the Life videos. What I am talking about here is going for videos that explore ideas, or provide a look in at someone who is inspired and living a quality life doing things that are outside of your interests. This sense of distance from the subject matter can serve to eliminate that shame trigger you might have felt if you watched, enviously, people in your field who seemingly have their shit more together than you.
I liken this to whenever I make trips to the art gallery – I can’t draw to save my life and actually loathe the practice when I do it, but seeing others’ dedication to the craft, and learning about their processes to reach the final product, restore my faith in how I might be able to better use my own time.
Look at people who made changes – realistic but audacious changes – and find people who actually reveal their processes. Avoid the Instagram two-shot post of a before and after without much context. You need to see the struggle, because that’s reality. You need to find people who value vulnerability and honesty over just grooming their egos with a brag post. While it’s not until we look back that we see the vast changes we’ve enacted, we still need to remember that we live in the present. So what you can do NOW is the focus, not what you will BE or what you’ve failed to do up until this point Those thoughts have their time. This is not it.
STEP FIVE: FORGET THE SOCIAL EXPECTATIONS.
This one should probably be done with caution, and treated like an occasional treat rather than an all day thing – precisely why I’ve included it in a post about a day almost at its end. The rationale is that the last thing you want is to sit there, moping about, wasting even MORE time thinking about all you could have done but didn’t. Don’t waste what’s left! If you want to watch a clip from your favourite film, or read a long-form article about something you’re interested in, DO IT.
The key here is to choose something quality, NOT lowbrow. It’s like indulging in a beautifully baked good as opposed to a burger sloppily thrown together for you at a drive-thru. You want to get to the end of the time you spend on this activity feeling better than you did going into it, not worse.
You want to raise your feelings, or your internal barometer, about the day – even if only slightly.
STEP SIX: DEFINE YOUR FOCUS THRESHOLD.
The Pomodoro method says 25 minutes on, 5 minutes off. The Benjamin Franklin method prefers 15 minute blocks of intense focus. You might only be able to concentrate for five before you need to come up for air. THIS IS FINE. The brain is easily adaptable. Start with something doable that will guarantee success and keep you satisfied. Don’t get complacent, and your concentration will improve over time – guaranteed.
STEP SEVEN: SET RANDOM ALARMS TO SHOCK YOU INTO PRODUCTIVITY.
Set some alarms, each with different sounds, to get your mind jogging. You might want to do this with your morning alarm, because your brain will start making associations with the one you have, and if it’s tired or over the generic beep beep, it might grow desensitised.
STEP EIGHT: SPEND A DAY OBSERVING YOURSELF.
If you feel like you’re unable to answer people when they ask you what you got up to on any given day, you might need to take a step back and look, unflinchingly, without judgment, at what you actually are doing. Just to see the choices you’re making. Are you actually doing things you enjoy, or are you avoiding them? Why do you think you’re avoiding them? Do you actually enjoy hanging out with friends, but feel an apathy rise in you when opportunities arise? Make sure your behaviours are lining up with your values.
Have a few focus sessions lined up. Maybe write a list of things you could do in those sessions. And then: randomise. Maybe you’ll watch a video, write in your journal, clean your house, listen to an album in its entirety. Whatever the task is, commit to it. You’re not allowed to move. Eek!
Remember: time will pass. If it wasn’t a good choice, you’ll note this down and be away from it, unchanged, soon enough. Better than what you’ve been doing, which is NOTHING. HELLO.
The key is also to track how you’re FEELING in these sessions. You might want to scrap certain activities, or consider how you could tweak them to suit you, personally. These notes will serve as reminders! You may actually get to know yourself in the process.
Nathaniel Branden was big on helping people increase their daily consciousness for a more meaningful life. Mark Manson talks a lot about truly aligned values systems. Knowing where you are, so that you can narrow down your options to the next best, most appropriate action step, is crucial when we’re so overwhelmed with information.
STEP NINE: CHANGE YOUR LOCATION.
This one’s for those with a car who might be feeling socially overwhelmed. Maybe you need to get in that car and simply drive somewhere. Choose an album or a playlist and go for it. Drive to the next suburb even and then turn around. You don’t need to make this like Netflix, scrolling through a list of suitable parks or reserves or walking trails. See the car as a safe space that can take you anywhere without judgment.
Or, if you don’t drive, maybe you can pop on your sunnies and go for a walk around the block. If you feel overwhelmed by the thought of running into people, sunnies and earphones should help you feel a little more blocked in. Eventually you’ll want to work on breaking out of that reliance, but for now we’re taking steps. Slow exposure. I find that when I spend long periods of time away from large groups of people, my social anxiety flares up. Be kind to yourself. You’re literally an eternal carer for every aspect of yourself, physical and mental.
STEP TEN: SKILL UP.
Everyone with an addictive personality say “I”.
As with anything we have at our disposal, we can either utilise it as a tool or as an avoidance strategy.
Case in point: self-improvement content. The high you get from consuming this kind of content is akin to a drug fix, honestly. That’s how it feels for me. The problem is when you don’t actually apply the content, which is the easiest choice in the world – and, considering how booming the industry is, this is clearly the situation for a lot of people.
Treat self-improvement as an area in which you’re skilling up. Choose a specific area you’d like to improve in. Is it organisation? GTD will help. Is it time management? Lifehacker might have the answer.
The key is not to make things more abstract and overloading than they need to be. Accept where your life is at. You might not be able to set up a whole new system with all these bells and whistles. You might just be able to install an app like Fabulous that slowly and gently gets you into habits like drinking water when you wake up. It may seem like nothing, but we can all agree that if we have the choice of staying the same or becoming better hydrated without much thought, the latter is preferable.
If you skill up in something, you feel confident doing it. There’s no anxiety there. Just like you know how to brush your teeth. Treat self-improvement as practical. But also ACKNOWLEDGE and ACCEPT the innate reactions your brain will have to you changing. And do it anyway.
Remember: it’s insanely hard to truly change yourself without conscious effort. Shedding a skin takes not only time, but consistency and persistence. It is an undertaking, and it’s actually okay if you don’t feel up to it. You need to first accept your limitations and then strategically work with them. Because if you’re anything like me, improvement is something you really strive to achieve, and this won’t go away. That’s probably why you’re reading a blog entry like this in the first place. What you could ask yourself is: Does it scare the hell out of me to think that I’ll be the same as I am now in ten years? Or a year, even?
Think of life this way – we can’t possibly figure out what the endpoint’s going to be. Oftentimes it will be even better. Sometimes, realistically, it won’t be. But the point is: WE JUST DON’T KNOW.
We have to absolutely become okay with uncertainty.
Here is your worksheet for today’s Exhaustive Life Lesson. Try ticking off one step each day for the next ten days, and let me know in the comments how you feel.
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