Done worrying about stuff — for the time being

man and woman jumping for joy on a beach

It’s Friday. Woot.

Ha – that’s pretty much of an ingrained response, just one of my habits that usually serve me well. Today, I don’t actually have a lot of reason to say “Woot!”, because this day is no different than most of the days of the past week. I haven’t been working my a** off all week, so I don’t have a ton of reasons to be jumping for joy.

It’s another day. But come to think of it, that in itself is worth a “Woot!”

I’ve got some appointments this afternoon, and then we’ll get some Chinese food and watch a movie. Nice and drab. Boring is lovely. Not a lot of drama. Just taking care of business. Maybe I’ll have a nap later, probably I won’t. That’s fine. Because I’ve been catching up on my sleep, and I don’t have a very busy day today.

At all.

Woot.

Yeah, thinking about my day, it’s pretty sweet. I have time this morning to catch up with some reading and writing, and just putter around the house. I’ll contemplate my life, think about the coming New Year, maybe take care of a few little things here and there, and get the ball rolling this afternoon.

Check the news… read some websites I’ve started following… and not worry about much at all.

And this is actually a slight change for me, since I’ve been a bit anxious over the past few days. Plans didn’t work out, or I got stir crazy, or I forgot to call people I promised to call… A while series of little annoyances set me off, and since all the Christmas activity wore me out more than I expected, the fatigue got the better of me.

But today is different. I’m just kind of hangin’ out. I’ll make those calls I forgot earlier, and I’ll go pick up the neighbor’s mail from their mailbox while they’re out of town for the next few days. Just get myself sorted and situated and settled. Enjoy the day, don’t make a big deal out of stuff… just kind of roll along and listen to some music I love. It’s not every day I get the chance to just chill out, so I’m taking advantage.

Looking back on the last year, I see I’ve spent way too much time worrying about stuff. For sure. It worked itself out, even though I was so focused on individual details — losing sight of the big picture, and getting swamped in minutiae. Maybe it’s just me getting older… maybe it’s looking back with hindsight (not exactly 20/20, but close)… maybe it’s just a shift in my priorities and interests… but I’m a lot less concerned with stuff outside my immediate control, than I used to be.

There’s only so much I can control or influence. I can certainly try, but my abilities are, of course, human, so…

The best thing to do is really take care of myself and figure out how I can make stuff work for myself. The rest of the world will figure itself out. Or it won’t. Either way, my life goes on.

And on.

And on.

Woot.

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Tending to my present… Kick-starting my future

road leading into the distance, with country landscape surrounding it

Well, that sounds dramatic. And I suppose it is.

Taking care of the present sounds so formal. It seems common-sense. And I suppose it is. But we live in a non-sensical world, these days, so it’s a lot more difficult than it seems like it should be.

Kick-starting my future is something I do — or don’t do — each day, with every choice I make. It’s a lot simpler than it sounds, and it’s a lot more complicated than it seems.

The thing is, we do this each and every day with the choices we make. We define our lives by our choices, and we further our plans with our actions. It’s not mysterious, it’s not magical. One thing leads to another, then another, then another. And all along the way, we have the chance to change direction, even slightly.

If you’ve ever thrown a ball, you know how wide of the mark you can go, if you alter the angle of your arm just a little bit. The same is true of our lives. One slight change in “angle”, and you can end up in a very different place than you originally intended.

A “little” slip on some stairs… a “minor” bump on the head… and your life can change in that instant. You can find yourself waking up each day, not knowing where you are, exactly, or where you want to go. Or you may wake up each morning wondering why the heck you didn’t get to where you were going the day before.

The brain is an amazing thing, and it’s surprisingly easy to disrupt in life-altering ways. We constantly take it for granted, like electricity or hot-and-cold running water. They’re all supposed to just work, just be there. And when they don’t… when they’re not there, we’re thrown into a state of chaos and confusion that blocks our ability to deal with anything.

The thing is, we tend to get stuck at that place of chaos and confusion. Perhaps because brain injury “rehab” is big business, with plenty of facilities billing plenty of hours to insurance companies, we don’t see a wholesale rush towards figuring out brain injury the way we should have long ago. Too many facilities make their money from people in need of help, rather than getting people back on their feet, never to need them again, so where’s the impetus to properly serve the brain-injured population? There are lot of us, with over a million TBIs added to our numbers, each year in the United States, alone, so I’d expect someone, somewhere to figure out how to end the suffering and teach people how to get back on their feet.

But no.

Well, never mind. Because there’s nothing I can do about that. What I can do is share my own experiences for everyone who’s interested in actually doing something about their situation, rather than staying stuck in something that can actually get fixed.

We all need a good dose of reality, when it comes to brain injury. That goes for health care providers, as well as those of us who get hurt. The brain is highly vulnerable. And the ways it’s most likely to get hurt are ways that hit us where it hurts the most — in our executive functioning, in our ability to plan and follow through, in our accustomed patterns that fall apart and plunge us into a steady state of anxiety… which builds up over time and impairs our ability to heal over the long term.

When we understand the true nature of brain injury (and don’t just get caught up in recycled notions that came from investigations done back in the infancy of brain research), we can also see that it is survivable.

We can — and do — recover from brain injury.

No one can take that from us. No one. Not any of the “experts”, not any of the scientists or neuropsychologists or psychiatrists.

The thing is, “recovery” means more than just restoring prior functionality to the injured brain. ‘Cause people, once the connections in your brain are disrupted, they stay that way. You can’t rewire broken connections. But we can — and do — create new connections that may function a little differently, but are still every bit as useful (sometimes more useful) than the old ones. And ironically, in my case, I find that some of my new connections are much, much better than my old ones, because I formed them with more life experience than before.

What we’re recovering is our personhood. Our dignity. Our self-respect. Our individuality. I think the brain injury rehab industry lacks an understanding of how much more important that is, than any level of physical or cognitive processing. People get hurt all the time. We break bones. We get cut up. We get smashed and smooshed and crushed. And then we recover. We may not have full range of use after we heal, but we get on with our lives. We may limp along or not be able to reach over our heads to get stuff or have to stop shoveling our own snow, but that doesn’t keep us from living our lives.

Same thing with brain injury. We may not restore our brains to their former glory, but we can adapt. Losing certain brain functionality is not the problem with TBI recovery. It’s losing our Sense-Of-Self that does a number on us. It’s the panic that sets in when we find ourselves doing things that are “unlike us”. It’s the repeated little shocks of being surprised by one thing after another that didn’t used to surprise us. It’s the gradual disappearance of our friends and family who used to know us as one person, but can’t adjust to the new person we’ve become. That loss of the Self, that erosion of security about who we are… that’s the biggest hurdle to overcome with TBI.

Because if you don’t deal with that, your functional recovery is going to lag. Brain injury recovery is a re-learning process. It’s all about re-training the brain. And if you’re totally stressed out over everything, you can’t learn properly.

It’s that simple. And it’s that complex.

And it doesn’t need to be the big-a** mystery that we make it out to be, because it has to do with the braaaaiiinnnn.

Brain injury recovery is a matter of living your life. Learning to live your  life. Teaching yourself how to get on with things, when everything looks different, feels foreign, and doesn’t square with how everything used to be.

It’s about choice. Action. Reaction. Learning. Adapting.

And when we tend to our present, choosing to learn from each and every conscious moment, we move ourselves towards a future of our own making.

As the current year winds down and the new year approaches, I hope you can own that, yourself, and — whether your brain is injured or not — take responsibility for a future you can absolutely positively make up as you go along.

Looking back, looking ahead… and trying to get some sleep in the meantime

rowboat at docks

I have been meaning to get more sleep, during this vacation. I’m able to take naps in the afternoon, which is great. I just can’t seem to get to sleep at a decent hour (before 11:00 p.m.) Part of the problem is that I just don’t want to go to sleep earlier than 11:00. I’ve got an internal clock that tells me when it’s time to sleep, and it generally doesn’t kick in till 10:45 or so.

It’s a little nerve-wracking. But I do it to myself, putting all kinds of pressure on myself to go to sleep, when I’m not really feeling that tired. And then getting up at my regular time, which lately has been anywhere between 5 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. So, I’m not always getting a full 7.5 – 8 hours, like I need to. And then I wake up irritated, because I can’t sleep through.

It’s an ongoing problem, especially during this vacation.

Well, my life is structured very differently now than it is when I’m working. I’m still doing my morning exercise, which is crucial. I’m actually doing  better with it than usual — getting both my bike ride and the weight lifting done. I just don’t move enough during the day. I move more, when I’m at the office, because, well, I’m at the office. I have to go to meetings. I have to get my lunch on the ground floor. I have to make trips to the water cooler as well as the restroom. It gets me up and around, while being at home — where everything is within easy access and just a few steps away — keeps me sedentary. Heck, I can even work while sitting/lying on the sofa, which sounds great, but is a bit of an occupational hazard.

Anyway, it’s the end of the year, and I’m kind of out of sorts. Feeling like I’m drifting, cut loose from my moorings a bit… feeling like I fell asleep in a rowboat that was tied to a dock, and then I woke up finding myself drifting out in the ocean, with the dock in the distance. The thing is, although the distant docks look familiar, and that’s where I expected to wake up, I can also see other sights in the distance.

Cities I didn’t know existed before.

Distant piers and jetties that look every bit as interesting as what I’ve known before.

Busy industrial ports that hold mysteries within their iron fortresses

And secluded beaches to explore.

Different sorts of places where people live, work, and go about their business, which are both foreign and fascinating to me.

And lighthouses to guide me along the way.

Lights… sights… sounds… And a whole world of choices out there.

When I actually have some time to catch up with myself, I can see so many more possibilities. And it’s invigorating.

But it’s also a little depressing. Because I spend so much of my time in recovery mode, just trying to right myself in the very wrong world, that I don’t have as much time as I’d like to just kick back and relax into finding out What’s Next.

I look around me at my life… And I see so much more beyond my present situation. And I also see that the resources I have at my disposal are, well, limited. I’m not complaining. I’m just saying. I don’t have all the energy in the world, and I don’t have all the patience to match it. I want to cut to the chase and get on with my life, to the best of my ability. And after all these years of really working on my TBI recovery and firming up my Sense-Of-Self, I’m finally at a point where I have a reliable idea of how “I” am going to react and behave under certain circumstances.

That’s the biggest, hairiest, most dangerous part of life after TBI — losing your Sense-Of-Self. It erodes your self-confidence. It crushes your self-respect. It makes every situation into a danger-fraught series of surprises that threaten everything you care about. And then the real trauma of TBI sets in.

I really believe that the biggest trauma in mild traumatic brain injury comes after the injury itself. There’s a steady stream of “micro-traumas” which stress out our systems and add to the fight-flight biochemical load. And unless we learn how to manage our fight-flight overload and learn how to clear out the neurochemical gunk of all that ongoing stress, mild TBI continues to take its toll. It continues to haunt us, to tax us, to load us up with invisible burdens that nobody else understands, but which are very, very real.

If you really understand the physiology of trauma (and not a lot of people know about it, let alone understand and fully appreciate it), and you understand the profound change that even a “mild” TBI brings to your entire system, all of this makes sense. You know that the subtle changes to how your system works are disorienting and anxiety-producing. You know that the body’s mechanisms for protecting itself are working overtime post-TBI, and they’re kicking in, in the most unlikely of situations. You know that the overall effect builds up, and you know that it’s cumulative.

You also know that while the effects may show up as a psychological disorder, the underlying basis is a combination of mind and body — and the body bears the burden of it all.

The thing about this whole deal is, because the body is involved, it’s possible to work with the body to turn that sh*t around. Even if your mind feels like mush (I’ve been there), even if you can’t remember what you did, just a few hours before (I know the feeling well), even if you can’t get through your morning without a detailed checklist (the story of my life for years), the body can act as a gateway to recovery.

Regular exercise helps stabilize your system. Eating the right foods (and steering clear of the wrong ones) helps your metabolism stay stable and keeps you off the blood sugar roller-coaster. Getting enough sleep lets the brain “knit itself back together”, as well as clear out the gunk that builds up, just as a result of everyday living. Plus, learning to regulate your heart rate and your blood pressure can train your overall system to get back to a stable state, even if everything feels like it’s falling apart around you.

I’m sipping the last little bit of my half-cup of coffee, as I write this. The snow from last night is giving way to freezing rain, which will fall until midday, when the temperatures start to rise, and regular rain falls. There’s always a chance that the ice buildup will take out our power, and that’s no fun. But I have wood for a fire in the fireplace, and we’ve been keeping the house pretty warm, so we’ll have some residual heat to see us through. In the past, we’ve had some pretty hair-raising experiences with losing power, and I don’t look forward to repeating them.

But I know a lot more now about keeping my physical system stable, and I’m in a much better place, mentally, than I’ve been in past years. So, I’m at much less risk than before. And knowing that relieves the pressure and also reduces the risk of my “losing it” even moreso. And that’s good. It’s awesome.

So, where was I… I’m kind of meandering, this morning, as I try to get my bearings. I’m looking back at the last year, wondering if all the effort really paid off the way I wanted it to. I’m not sure it has. Some things I started have kind of stalled. And other things I wanted to continue with have floundered, as well. In some ways, I’ve been as diligent as ever. In my day job, for example, I’ve been invested and involved in ways that have actually paid off. When I think of all the other jobs I screwed up since 2004 (and even before that), it’s kind of depressing.

So, I won’t think about them. I’ll focus on the good.

And as I look forward to my future, I see a much simpler — but much more do-able — path ahead. I’ve let go of a lot of old activities that were busy-work I picked up for the sake of pumping up my tonic arousal (the state of wakefulness in your brain) and getting my system turned “ON”. I had a handful of websites I wanted to start, a number of business ventures that seemed promising, apps I wanted to build, and novels I wanted to write. That extended experiment in busy-ness went on for 10 years or so, and it just didn’t work out, so I’ve now narrowed my focus to a few particular activities, which will actually lead somewhere.

Heck, they’ve already started to pay off. And taking the pressure off myself to go find another job… yeah, I’ve let that one go. Yes, traveling for work every few months really takes it out of me, but there’s no guarantee the next job won’t be just as much of a pain in the ass. Plus, it’s too stressful to go changing jobs every few years. I used to thrive on that experience, but now it’s just a pain in the ass. I need to look for the good in things and tweak the things that I’ve got going on… not ditch them and go looking for something better, somewhere else.

So, I guess I’ll wrap up my ramble. My morning is in free-flow, so I’m just letting my mind wander as it will, for the time being. I got my grocery shopping done yesterday. I got my meals for today prepared yesterday, too. I can’t go out and do anything, because the roads are bad. There’s no need to go anywhere, anyway. I’ll just hang out for the day… drift… make a fire, perhaps, and catch up on my reading.

And write a bit more. Because I can. I’ve got the time and the opportunity. So, yeah…

Onward.

TBI Holiday Survival Tip: Make a danged list

Keeps me sane
Keeps me sane

If you want to make yourself crazy, this holiday season, try keeping everything in your head.

It will work like a charm.

But if you want to take the pressure off and actually enjoy yourself, making lists of things you need to do, can work wonders.

Making lists has the following advantages:

  1. It stops you from running around like a chicken with your head cut off. It tells you what you need to do next, every step of the way, so you can focus on the steps, instead of trying to remember what’s next. TBI can make it very difficult to focus, especially when tired. If you’re like me, you can end up bouncing around from one thing to the next, and finish the day with nothing much done. That’s anxiety-producing and bugs the crap out of me. A list keeps me on track.
  2. It saves your brain from needing to store everything in reserve. It’s stressful to hold everything in your head, and it’s even more stressful to wonder if you’re going to remember everything you need to. TBI can do a number on your short-term working memory, so if you’re like me, you can forget things in the space of minutes. Sometimes those things are important and shouldn’t be forgotten. We only have so  much “cognitive reserve” of thinking power, so using a list to store things instead of your brain can be a big help.
  3. It lets you think things through ahead of time and do a “practice run” of your steps before hand. Visualization and practicing motions in your head has been used by athletes and top performers for many, many years. And it works. When you make a list, you can “step through” everything you need to do, see yourself doing it well, and prepare mentally for what’s ahead of you. TBI can complicate even the simplest things, introducing distractions from your mind and your body, so when I run through my list of things to do in my head, ahead of time, it points me in the right direction early.
  4. It lets you weed out things you don’t really need to do. If you see your list getting really long, you can remove things that aren’t really all that essential, or move them to a different day. This saves your energy for the stuff that’s really critical. TBI can make your head think that everything is important, and compel you to DO IT ALL… or else. Putting things down on paper, lets you see just what matters, and what doesn’t.
  5. It can be very calming. It’s reassuring for me to have a list with me, when I’m going about my errands and chores. I know I’m not alone on my quest to get stuff done — I’ve got a tool to help me through. Just holding the piece of paper in my hands is a welcome sign that I’m doing something smart about my day.

Obviously, not everything can be listed out, and things will probably come up that you didn’t think of. But having a list of the things you  do know about can go a long way towards making your life — and your holidays — much more enjoyable.

So yes – enjoy!

Onward.

Sweet relief – the end is in sight…

So, I’ve been out of sight for a number of days, buried in my work-work, and those two massive deadlines that finished up yesterday. Well, “finished up” is a bit of a stretch, because no matter what, there is always some other detail to manage.

But the bottom line is, I closed out the lion’s share of the work on Monday, after breaking my back – and shoulders – and wrists – and head – from sitting and working very intently for most of my waking hours for weeks on end. That final push started last week, and it’s been a roller coaster. Most things have gone right. A few little things have gone wrong. Of course, people are focused on the little things that went wrong, despite the mass of big things that went right.

We’re all just very tired, I guess.

And we are that.

This is a good way to close out my tenure at this job. Now that these two deadlines are done, I can start looking in earnest for another job. I’m going on vacation next week — taking the whole week off to go somewhere with plenty of nature, open water and sun… and nothing that I have to do, other than relax. I’ll probably give a lot of thought to where I want to go next, but I won’t start talking to recruiters again until after I get back. Then I can take my sweet time… and look forward to getting away from the situation I’ve been in. I’ve been steady and loyal through all kinds of crap, for the past couple of years, and now things are at a place where I can move on.

Part of what makes it possible for me to move on, is that I’ve put in place a lot of best practices that other people are now doing as though they’ve always done them, and there was never a different way. I’ve coerced/convinced people to standardize many of the things they do… put systems in place that will help them do their jobs… create and enforce deadlines for things that were chronically late for years before I got there… and I’ve helped to establish policies that are just good practice (but were nowhere in sight when I first started there). I think the fact that people think things have always been done this way, is the biggest testament to my success. I changed things for the better at this job, and the changes are so pervasive, people don’t even remember how it was before. Even if people don’t realize this fully and I don’t get full credit for hanging in with everyone, secretly pulling my hair out as I explained to them for the 80th time why we need to do things a certain way… the fact remains that I’ve made a positive difference. And that’s something I can take with me and feel good about — even as the rest of the crowd descends into panicked anarchy over organizational changes.

Politics. Yeah. I am so over them. That’s why I need a contract. More money, less politics. I just want to show up, do the best job I can, and not have to worry about who I impress and how I phrase things. Please. I have better things to do with my life and energy, than fiddle with all that static fluff.

I also need a job where I can go home at the end of the day and not take it with me. During the past weeks, I have had late conference calls with folks in Asia every few nights, and troubleshooting till 11 p.m. each night is not my idea of a fun time. It also keeps me from getting decent sleep, which is a real drain. With this job, I’ve been so invested, so intent on making a difference, that my health has suffered, and I’ve definitely aged. Not good. I can reverse that trend with some changes, but I need to get out of this situation and stop the 14-hour work days first.

It’s wild – I have been pushing so hard for so long that I almost don’t know what I’d do without being on an “electronic leash” 24 hours a day. Three years isn’t forever, but it’s felt like it, and it’s more than enough time spent on a company that frankly doesn’t give a crap about me or my future. In fairness, they’re not a welfare provider. It’s not their job to make sure I’m doing alright. That’s my job. It’s their job to provide me with opportunities and let me move into the ones that suit me best. But once upon a time, the company was small enough and close-knit enough that the organization truly gave a damn about how people were doing, they recognized contributions, and they stayed out of our way and let us do our jobs.

Now, it’s just some big monolithic profit center. That’s fine for some, but I need something that recognizes the humanity of employees — and doesn’t use that humanity against them.

Vent, vent… I’m not saying anything unique here. I am seriously tired, so I need to focus on how to get un-tired. That will happen next week. And this week, too, I think. I can take some time to unwind a bit, catch up on some things that are outstanding, and figure out how to get my life back.

Normalize… normalize… I need to return to my “ideal performance state” — with all the pieces in place that support me in my daily work:

  • Routine
  • Lists of items that must be done, ranked in order, so I don’t waste a lot of time
  • Regular bedtime
  • Good food
  • Lots of water
  • Regular exercise

I’ve been doing pretty well with the food business, cutting out morning carbs (I have an egg instead), and keeping my junk food intake to a minimum. I snack on raw almonds now, instead of candy bars, and I have been drinking plenty of water. I haven’t been moving as much as I need to, but that’s changing now that I’m done with my deadlines. I started out this morning with a lot of aches and pains and creaky bones and limited motion. But I did my exercises and light lifting as soon as I got up, and within 20 minutes I felt a whole lot better.

I have also been working with my activities lists, and that’s been helpful as well.

And I can now get back to my routine, which is the key to how I can do so much in so little time. Other people would drown in the work I’ve got going on — a full-time job doing the work of three people, another side project which involves producing something every week by a certain deadline, a new project / business venture that I’m firing up, and of course this blog. Routine and lists of what needs to be done are my secret weapon. And all things considered, I am incredibly productive through it all. Not always well-rested, but still productive.

Well, speaking of being productive, it’s time for me to get on with my day. I have reached the end of these two massive projects, and as soon as I catch up on my sleep, I’m going to feel great about it. Right now, I’m way too wired and fried, to fully appreciate what I’ve accomplished, but logically I know it’s a big deal, which nobody else in my group could have pulled off as well as I did. I’m headed back into the office in an environment that’s just bubbling with political intrigue, and I’m thinking about reading Marcus Aurelius to give myself some perspective and remember that these kinds of situations have been happening for eons, and it’s nothing to get worked up over.

I’m wrapping up my tenure there, and it feels good. I’ll put the finishing touches on everything, collect all the relics of all the work I’ve done, so I can show it to headhunters, and I’ll secretly say my good-byes to the people in the place I’ve called my home-away-from-home for the past 3+ years.

It’s poignant and it’s bittersweet, but it’s time.

Is it ever time.

Onward…!

Back in the swing of things

So, it’s Monday, and I have to say I’m relieved. This past weekend was kind of sh*tty, and I didn’t get much of anything done that I had planned, which is a bit of a problem, because I have a lot of things I need to get done, and I had two whole days to do them.

Oh, well. Next…

It’s always interesting, seeing how my best-laid plans turn out. I mean, I had the whole weekend choreographed within an inch of its life, and then Friday I flared out and spent the weekend feeling like crap, fighting with my spouse, recovering, and just trying to feel like an normal person again.

Now it’s Monday, I’m back in the swing of things, and I’m actually feeling better — even though I am still foggy and dull and not nearly as sharp as I’d like to be.

The thing is, during the week, there’s all this energy, all this activity. And on the weekends, there’s not. It’s a massive disconnect, and I think that’s what makes me sick — just not being able to keep moving. My spouse has a lot of issues with my “energy levels” — they say I make them anxious, and I’m “too kinetic”. Yah, well, whatever. Kinetic gets the bills paid, you know?

At the same time, they do have a point — I do push myself too hard at times, and I burn out. That is my doing, and it’s the result of me not taking sufficient breaks and not allowing myself sufficient recovery time to come back from my flurries of activity. I need to do a better job of that, and I’m working on it.

One other piece of the puzzle, though, is how much my spouse has slowed down over the past years. They’re a few years older than me, but they act like they are a LOT older than me. We each have very different ideas about lifespans and quality of life — they are convinced that they’re going to live only a few more years — as long as their parents (who both died years sooner than they should have) — and at the same time, they’re terrified of dying. I, on the other hand, believe I’m going to keep going for decades to come, and my main concern is keeping myself mentally sharp and active and able to be involved in my life for the many coming decades. So, I’m ramping up at the same time my spouse is slowing down.

Total disconnect. It’s pretty tough to see someone so close to you, who has been such an integral part of your life for the past 25 years, just giving in to the hype and giving up hope of anything different happening. They say they don’t want to die, and they say they want to live a long time, but they actually don’t act like it. Actions speak louder than words, and their actions say they’re getting ready to pack it in and pass on. The bitch of it is, at the same time they’re doing less for themself, I’m required to do more.

Yet another reason to keep my strength up and keep fit. I can’t imagine the next 10-20 years with them (if we have that long) is going to be a cakewalk.

Well, anyway, what can you do? I’m just glad the weekend is over, and I can get back to my regular routine, taking care of what needs to be taken care of.

I did my warm-up exercises this morning — some weight lifting and some balance work and some coordination footwork. I’m focusing less on building strength and endurance with extended workouts and focusing more on warming up, feeling good, moving, and getting in the swing of things. Waking myself up, and feeling good at it, too. Just moving. Getting the blood pumping and getting a bit out of breath. Pushing myself a little bit, and then giving myself a chance to recover.

I’ve got my list of things I need to do, and I started on one of them this morning. Having my list makes things so much easier — I don’t have to keep things in my head, and I can put everything in perspective by seeing it all on paper in front of me.

That helps. When I try to do it alone without any tools or props… look out.

Speaking of looking out — the day is waiting. Gotta get a move on and see what the day has to offer.

Onward

Slow and steady might win the race…

I’m the one on the right, who has to work like the one on the left.

… but it drives me bleepin’ crazy.

I want to run ahead at top speed, but I can’t always do that. Sometimes I need to be slow and methodical. Once I get into that groove, I’m okay. It’s getting into that groove that’s the killer.

I’m nearly done with one part of my project, where I am summarizing details that about 18 people have sent me for one phase of this project. One Phase – God, at this rate, if the other four phases are anywhere as complicated as this, I’m toast. What was I thinking, taking on a project management role, as well as doing R&D? Sucker for punishment, that’s what I am.

At the same time, I have to say that I have a perspective and a passion for this project that has been a real driver behind it. Others don’t quite get the significance and the potential of it, so to keep it moving forward, I’m taking on the coordination work.

Right about now, I’m feeling overwhelmed and beside myself. So, it’s time to take a break and remember the magic. I can finish the remaining three summaries later this afternoon, after a nap and some errands I need to run.

The wild thing about this task — which is taking me 3 days, instead of the one afternoon I had expected — is that I’m realizing just how heavily it’s been weighing on my mind. I’ve been so paranoid about it, so afraid of making a mistake and making the wrong decisions, that I’ve put it off and put it off and put it off… till I almost forgot that it needed to be done. That happens, if I put things off long enough. I actually forget to do them.

This, however, cannot be forgotten. It must be done.

And now that I am in the swing of things and am nearing the end — I have taken care of 15 different summaries, and only 3 are left — I am (finally) starting to feel like I know what’s going on. With me, I can start, continue, and complete complex tasks without ever really understanding what it is I’m doing. I do a pretty good job, too, which is weird. I do it without really getting the big picture or having a 360-degree understanding of what I’m doing — and why. And then after I’m done, then it sinks in. I’ve done things this way for as long as I can remember, because my conscious processing speeds just don’t keep up with everything around me. So, if I wait till I understand everything 100%, nothing gets done.

Nothing.

But now, I’m actually getting the gist of what I’m doing before I’m completely done, and it’s good.

The other thing that’s good, is that getting this done is freeing up my head to focus on other things. I’ve been noticing more and more lately how things I put off, that are in the back of my mind, really take a big chunk out of my processing. I only have so much to think with — I’m definitely limited in that respect. So, I can’t afford to let to-do items just languish on my list.

That’s becoming more and more clear each and every day.

So, that being said, I’m going to make myself some lunch and get on with my errands, so I can come back later today with a cleared mind, and finish this seemingly endless job. The end is in sight… and the light at the end of the tunnel is not an oncoming train 🙂

Spending time on the things that matter most

Time flies – Use it well

It’s turning out to be a beautiful day. I got to bed early last night — around 10 — and I was up at 5:30, after lying in bed resting (and observing my head getting going) for about half an hour. I’m working on getting myself out of bed whenever I am awake (or my head is awake) and not just lying there. I did try to focus on my breathing and just relax, which was fine, but my head was up and ready to go… so up I got, too.

Then I had some breakfast — not the kind of big breakfast I had been building up to over the past months… somehow my portions were getting a little bigger each week, and I was starting to drink 2 cups of coffee in the morning, instead of one. Yesterday, when I cut back and just had a small cuppa joe and an apple, I actually felt really great all morning — started to get a little antsy around lunchtime, and then was increasingly on edge by the end of the day (pro’lly as much due to running out of steam as being hungry). So, I went with the minimalist approach and kept to a strict 3/4 cup of granola, some rice milk, and a cup of coffee that was not splashing over the brim.

I’ve got two whole days ahead of me — praise be. And I got a whole lot done yesterday. I know, because I sat down with my list after I had my breakfast and looked over the whole slew of things I wrote down that I had to do. Sure enough, I accomplished everything that had to be done — and then some. I exercised… I picked up my package from the post office (alas, it was not the exact item I thought I had purchased, which is actually fine, because now I know what to look out for)… I went to the bank to deposit a check… I went online and moved some money around to cover bills I have had to pay which have not been drawn against my account just yet… I checked on the due date for a very important expense I have coming up in another month or so… I bought a new window fan to replace the one that died in the bathroom… I tended to my lawn and took in the barrel of weeds that I filled up last weekend, and then forgot about so it was standing beside the front porch for the past three days, getting all funky in the hot, wet weather… and then I took my nap. And in between all these things, I also did some research for one of my projects, pricing items at hardware stores and learning my way around towns that are near where I live, but I normally don’t spend much time in.

Not bad for a day’s work. By the end of the day, I was done. Baked at 9:30 p.m., which felt pretty great — except that my spouse was keen on me staying up with them till 2 a.m. watching movies, which is about the last thing I needed. After a testy conversation about how much I need sleep and how I’m not really interested in staying up till 2 a.m. because I really need to keep on a regular sleep schedule, I managed to extricate myself from the living room and crawl into bed for a good night’s rest. I was concerned that I might be too sore to fall asleep, but I had no trouble with that. I did wake up before 5 in a sweat with shooting pains in my lower back and legs (all that bending and standing work on the lawn does a number on me), but when I focused on breathing and relaxing, it subsided, so that was good.

Nothing like starting the day with shooting pains… as much as I wanted to just get up when I woke up, at least this way, I started the day without too much anguish.

And then I had my breakfast… a small-scale, nutritious start that tasted all the better because I went without, yesterday. My 22-hour fasting experience (I had my last food at 10 p.m. the night before, and I ate at 8 p.m. last night) was pretty enlightening, making me quite aware of how much agitation is lurking at the edges of my attention. People I was mad at, situations, circumstances, details that got under my skin… Any number of things were hanging out, waiting to jump into view to get me going. Surprisingly, there weren’t a lot of really great things that came to mind to get me going.

I’m sure it’s just bad habits of thought, because I’ve trained myself over years to generate energy by getting pissed off over bad things. I haven’t trained myself (yet) to generate energy by getting excited over good things. So my go-to default for getting my energy going is to find something to get pissed off at, and then think about that till I’m revved up and rarin’ to go.

Not so hot. Is that really how I want to spend my life and time and energy — being pissed off and upset about things? That’s the thought that came to mind yesterday as I was driving around, feeling miffed about this or that or the other thing. I have a three day weekend, and I’m going to spend it dwelling on sh*t? Silly.

So, I spent a fair amount of time yesterday adjusting my attitude and repeating “Hormesis” to myself — which is the principle of using large doses of stressors for short periods of time to build up immunity to them. Things like cold, hunger, fatigue — all these (among others) are things that you can use hormesis to overcome, and when I thought “Hormesis” at times when my patience was starting to wear thin, it calmed me down, because it reminded me why I was doing this — to train myself to just deal. It also reminded me that the stressors I was experiencing at that moment were fleeting and temporary. I would be eating within hours. I was in training. I could take a chill pill, already.

And that worked.

The other thing that worked, was sticking to my list. I’ve been reading about the usefulness of everyday rituals in making certain activities automatic, so you can focus your attention on other more important things. Rituals and automatic activities free up your mind to focus on the finer points of things, rather than the gross logistics of everyday life. I have found this to be very true for myself. Having a morning ritual of rising at a certain time, stretching, brushing my teeth, washing my face and hands in cold water, and making breakfast in a specific order, frees up my mind by not having to think through every single next step I need to take. I don’t have to figure out what’s next. I don’t have to figure anything out. I can let my mind wake up at its own pace, while my body goes about the work of getting started.

Lists do the same thing for me. When I was really struggling with my everyday life, several years ago, and I wasn’t able to start my days without some sort of meltdown or freak-out, I took to making step-by-step lists for myself each and every morning. I had everything planned right down to the amount of time I spent on each thing. Some people acted like I was crazy to be doing that, and they insisted that I didn’t need that “crutch”, but it helped me immensely. It helped me to regulate the details of my morning, and it freed up my brain to relax because I knew exactly what was going to come next.

All I had to do was follow instructions. Easy-peasy. And it helped.

Now I have rituals in the morning rather than lists, but those rituals came out of the list.

Either way, they allow me to focus my time and attention on things that are more complex — and more fulfilling — than the drudgery of “what’s next”.

And that’s a good thing.

Today, I have more items on my to-do list. I have emails I need to read and respond to. I have things I’ve been needing to do, and haven’t gotten to because I’ve been so busy this past week. Some of them are more fun than others, and I need to arrange them so that I have some good rewards after I take care of the less fun things. Some of them are downright nerve-wracking, because they involve some complex thinking and I’m concerned I will screw them up.

Then again, I do have 2 days left in the weekend, so I can take care of some of this tomorrow.

That takes the pressure off. It makes things easier to start, when I take the pressure off.

Speaking of getting started, I guess I’ll get on with my day. I’m up early, so I actually have time for a walk before I start all this. Excellent idea — off I go…

Onward.

Life without lists

I’m trying something new and different these days — I’m doing without my exhaustive lists of what I need to do, when I need to do it, and how it should be done. This is a real leap of faith for me. A key component of getting myself back on track and building some kind of structure in my life has been my list-making habit. After my last fall, I had a hell of a time keeping track of what I was supposed to be doing, and tracking whether or not I was getting it done. So I got in the habit of making lists and using them to keep myself focused on important tasks.

I have been writing out all the things I need to get done for a number of years, now. And it’s a good thing, too, because there have been plenty of times in the past when I would literally forget from one minute to the next what I was supposed to be focusing on. I’d get distracted by something, and my “problematic” short-term working memory would lose track of what it was I needed to be doing.

It was maddening. I’d get to the end of a day and I’d look back on all the things I had planned, and lo and behold, nothing would have gotten done.

It was pretty bad. Everything from returning books to the library, to people I was supposed to call or email, to picking up pet food on the way home from work, to taking a certain route home so I could run my errands on my way home… a ton of important things got lost along the way. And each time that happened, I felt worse and worse about myself. As though I intentionally blew it all off and didn’t give a crap.

At least, that’s what my spouse thought. And they weren’t happy with the situation. Or with me. Nor was I.

So, I got into making my lists. I tracked my activities, marked the things I got right, the things I messed up, the things I forgot, the things I needed to remember for the next day. I had the list-making habit down to a science of sorts. And it helped. A lot.

One of the ways it helped was actually getting me away from making exhaustive lists. ‘Cause when I looked at all the things I had scheduled for myself, and I compared the list of “successes” with the list of “failures”, I saw how much I had loaded up for myself. And I saw how impossibly busy I was making myself, with no hope of ever digging out from under the mountain of to-do’s I needed to dispatch. Only when I took a look at the written record of all the stuff I had slated for myself to do over the course of weeks and months, was I able to step back and say, “Hey – what’s going on here? Is it really necessary to do all that stuff? Is the world going to stop spinning on its axis, if I just give up some of that stuff?”

And I realized that a big part of my most dysfunctional behavior is the habit of loading up a lot of crap on myself to keep myself so busy I can’t pay attention to the things that bother me. I get all stirred up and all worked up and all tweaked over things, and rather than sitting down and thinking it through and working my way through the feelings I’ve got and constructive ways of dealing with those feelings/situations, I make myself even busier, even crazier, and the stress of it all pumps my body and brain full of stress hormones that dull the constant pain and confusion and help sharpen my thinking for basic activities (but do nothing for the more complex aspects of my life).

So, my lists have given rise to plenty of ah-ha’s over the past months. And slowly but surely, I’ve gotten away from the crazy-busy franticness that used to drive me like a low-level nuclear reactor pumping a steady stream of energy that is fundamentally toxic and very hard to dispose of safely.

My lists have grown progressively shorter and shorter, as I’ve forced myself to make decisions about what I really wanted to spend my time on. As I’ve realized that there is no way on G-d’s good earth that I’m going to get everything done that I want or would like (or even “need”) to get done, I’ve had to pick and choose the things that I absolutely positively cannot live without… and then figure out why that is… understand what part of my life those things fill… and then bump them to the top of the pile of constantly shifting priorities in my life.

It has been hard — very, very, very hard — to do this. You have to understand — my daily list of to-do’s used to fill two sides of a sheet of paper, and by the end of the day, there would be even more things listed in the margins that I had either started or wanted to start or had gotten done just on the spur of the moment. Culling my list is not my first instinct. It’s exactly the opposite of that. But doing anything less was simply — obviously — not sustainable.

Okay, you may think, that’s fine, you’re trimming back your list, but how do you get anything done? Good question. I asked myself that many times, when I started getting away from my list-mania. How would I manage to get anything done? How would I manage to remember the things I needed to do? How could I get away from all those lists AND keep myself on track?

Well, for one, I started getting more involved in my life. I’m talking, think-it-through-plan-and-vision involved. I realized that keeping those lists was keeping me from getting involved in the actual living of my life. I was so busy looking at the list of stuff to complete, that I stopped paying attention to the WHY of what I was doing. Or examining the ultimate outcomes of my actions.

For example, I once had it in my head that I was going to start a new business. I had it all mapped out, all planned. I had my unique selling proposition, my schedule, my business plan, my project plan, my lists of all the different people I was going to contact, how I was going to go about doing this-and-that, etc. I had it all mapped out on paper, and the list of stuff to do was voluminous. Someone in the “getting it done” camp probably would have gotten a thrill out of all my lists. Because there were many of them, and they had every single activity broken down in to a series of smaller steps, each with its own timetable, etc.

The problem was, in the process of getting all those lists in place, I neglected some critical, fundamental aspects of any new undertaking — as in, my motivation for starting this business in the first place. Why did I want to do it? What did I hope to accomplish with it? Where did I see myself in another five years, and what kind of life did I want to emerge out of this new venture? When I thought back, I detected some faint recollection of wanting more freedom and independence, but by the time all my lists were written out, my mind was pretty well enslaved to the tasks-at-hand, and freedom and independence were about the farthest things from the situation I was creating for myself.

So, I let that go. I learned some valuable lessons, and I had to let it all go. Because the lists took over.

The same thing had been happening in my life, over the past six months or so. I had refined my list-making practice, had created numerous to-do templates which listed the most common things I needed to do each day (that I was prone to forgetting), and I had my system for tracking what I did and did not get done, and why. I even wrote a computer program to help me keep track of everything, which was very helpful at the time.

But it got to a point where the list became the thing, not the doing, not the getting done. And I found that in the process of making sure I got things done, I had lost my connection with why I was doing it all, in the first place. And without that motivation, there was less and less chance of me actually getting those things done. The very tool I was using to help me along, was holding me back.

Huh.

Plus, I found that making daily to-do lists made me more prone to distraction. By the time I had the main things written down that I wanted to do, I had worked up a head of steam, and suddenly I could think of a gazillion other things I wanted to get done. And they would end up on the list. And some days, the distractions I’d written down would get done before the main items. But I checked them off, so it looked like I had been successful that day — when I really hadn’t. Not really. Effectively distracted, yes. Effective in living my life, no.

So… I have been living more and more without my lists. And I’m starting to love it. Oh, sure, for things like going to the grocery store to buy more than three things (more than two, actually), I have to have a list. But who doesn’t? I know I’m prone to distraction and confusion in grocery stores — so many choices, so much extraneous input to screen out (no, I do not want a diet of cheap carbs and high fructose corn syrup!) And if I have more than one library book I need to find on the shelves, I make a point of writing the numbers down. But for the overall flow of my life, I’m moving away from planning out every single thing I do in advance.

It was kind of a losing battle, anyway. For all the things I finished in the course of each day, there were always other things that I hadn’t gotten to, and it was those things that got to me, to no end. Even if I’d done 9 out of 10 items, it was that remaining one thing that would stick in my head. And the next day I’d start out playing catch-up. Yet again. And by the end of the day, I’d have a couple more things that needed to get done, which needed to be added to what I’d do the next day. Eventually, I would amass such a heap of undone stuff, I’d just bag it all and have to start from scratch… all the while knowing in the back of my mind that I had a lousy track record… and I was really just another loser making a losing bid at trying to do stuff only winners could do.

Why did I bother?

Why indeed? Man oh man did I need a change.

So, I bit the bullet a little while ago and started taking on each day without a list of stuff to do. Instead of spending my time on the exercise bike listing out all the crap that needed to get done, I spent my time focusing on my workout and thinking about what kind of life I wanted to live, what I wanted to accomplish — on a much grander scale than ever before — and I quit fixating on details. I resolved to let a lot of stuff go — a lot of anxieties about “lack of effectiveness” and not being good enough. I let myself off the hook, thinking back on all my years of compulsive list-making… and looking realistically at how much I had actually gotten done (far less than I’d intended). And I took a long, hard look at the toll it had taken on me and my quality of life and my relationships.

I was so busy with my damned lists, I didn’t get around to living.

And I let the lists go. I quit fretting about the exact order in which I did my morning routine. I quit worrying about making sure I had the exact proportion of sleep to activity. I quit freaking out over drinking coffee after 2 p.m. And I quit stressing out over how much sleep I was — or was not — getting. I stopped making myself and everyone around me nuts, if I/we didn’t get everything done that I/we originally said we would. I wrote stuff down when it was critical that I remember it, and I started using my work calendar more creatively and regularly, so I wouldn’t have to hover over my list(s) every moment of every day. And I gave up the all-consuming need to satisfy every single damned requirement they had for me at work.

I have probably pissed off a lot of people I work with because I haven’t been as anal retentive as I used to be, but you know what? I’m a lot happier. And healthier. And that makes me a better co-worker and employee.

Plus, it frees me up to actually get things done. Because in lieu of lists, I have a larger picture in mind for what I’m doing with my day and my life. I’m less focused on the details, but I’m more focused on the bigger picture — not just what I need to do and how, precisely, but what I intend to do and why.

That why makes all the difference. Because lo and behold, even in the absence of lists, I am actually making progress. Granted, I may not be as frenetically ‘efficient’ as some folks would love me to be, but you know what? I’m a lot happier this way, and if others want to wreck their health and their sanity over a bunch of detail and have-to-have’s, then have at it. I’m not going there. Not anymore.

Which opens me up to other possibilities. And it makes more possible in my life. Because it’s not just about what gets done, but why. And when you know why you’re doing things, more details emerge that add to the overall work you’re doing. Those details add higher quality and greater dimension to what you’re up to. And that’s a good thing.

It’s all good.

So, here I am, up early on a Tuesday morning. I woke up at 4:30, worried about money and how I’m going to make ends meet. I tried to get back to sleep, but by 5:15, it was pretty clear that wasn’t happening. So, I got up, exercised, and sat down to have my breakfast and write. I resisted the temptation to make a list of ways I can deal with my finances, and focused on the larger work of my life. Now my money problems aren’t gone, by any stretch, but the worry has subsided and within the larger context of my life, all the drama and anxiety and worry is a lot less overwhelming. I’m ready for my day, full of tasks and duties and worry and anxiety as it is. And I’m actually feeling pretty hopeful. Because there is more to my life, than a few hours’ worth of concern. And there is more to my work, than fretting over distinct details and trying to control and “manage” every single aspect of my existence.

Some times, you just gotta let yourself be. The lists will always be there, if I need them. The challenge is telling the difference between needing them and wanting them — for the wrong reasons.

For today, I don’t want one. Not like I used to. For today, the day will take care of itself.