How long you have to wait at the DMV. The weather. Where Earth is in the universe. If your favorite team wins the championship this year. Sunday night is the end of the weekend. Getting laid off. Who your parents and siblings are. Heartache is painful. Some drunks decide to drive. Humans can’t spread their arms and fly. Meritocracy is mostly a fiction. People need oxygen, water, and food (and many other things) to survive. You have to actually do the chores for things to be clean. Time travel is probably impossible. Others misunderstand and judge you. The typical lifespan is 71 years.
These are the boundaries of life. The things that are out of your hands and constrain who you are and what you can do. You might wish things were different. Or that you could have superpowers to overcome limits. But there’s little, if anything, you can do to change and control these things.
Some of the things you can control…
What food you eat. Who you ask out on a date. Where and when you take vacations. How you exercise. What time you go to sleep. How much of your income you save. If you play it safe or take a risk. Your outlook for the future. The city you make your home. Being better informed. Caring about what other people think of you. Your attachment to your phone. Learning new things. How you treat strangers and vulnerable human beings. The time you spend with the people you love.
These are the spaces. The undetermined, pliable things you can largely build and shape as you want. To do like this or like that. To prioritize or ignore. To do the same way for a while, or evaluate and change as you go.
A lot of being able to live well comes down to understanding the things you can’t control and the things you can. The things that guide and limit our path, and the things that we can do the way we want.
We don’t have superpowers. We’re not powerless. We are people. We are both limited and full of potential. Understand, explore, try. Know what shapes you and what you can shape.
I got terrible grades when I first started college. I didn’t know how to study well. I often didn’t even make time to study. In fact, there were a lot of things that I didn’t find time for: doing laundry week-to-week, burning off the freshman 15 at the gym, picking up a part-time job, exploring the campus, and more. There’s a lot to do and stay on top of as a college student: the fun stuff and the necessary stuff. For most of my first year, I felt like I was spinning plates. And a lot of the plates were crashing to the ground.
Struggling so hard at managing my time and making sure things got done has forced me over the past several years to get much better at all of it. College, alone, turned into college plus a part-time job. Then, after graduation, a full-time job. Then it was full-time job plus grad school. And after that, a different, more demanding full-time job. Each step presented new challenges for staying on top of things. I never was perfect at it then nor am I now, but I feel like I’ve at least found some things that help me do much better overall.
What works for me may not work for you. But if you find yourself having a hard time remembering to get stuff done or figuring out how to organize your time, perhaps give some of these things a try.
Use your phone’s calendar and reminders. There are plenty of things to dislike about what smartphones and smartphone culture are doing to people. But for me, the Calendar and Reminder apps on my iPhone have become invaluable. There are too many things happening in a week–let alone a month or over the next year–to try to remember it all in my mind. I need the pensieve-like effect of transferring things from my brain into my phone.
Calendar is good for things that you know will occur at a specific time. When you open the app, you can see when you have available time to make additional plans, and when you’re booked up with events you already entered. Calendar allows you to set up alerts in a range from at the time of the event up to one week before. More than once, I’ve been busy doing something and then I get the notification that I need to be doing something else in 15 minutes. I set up alerts with enough time so that even if I completely space out about what’s coming up, I’ll still have enough time to get ready for it: changing clothes, commuting, etc.
Reminders is good for things that you need to do soon but aren’t sure exactly when you’re going to do them. It’s a digital replacement for handwritten to-do lists. Send the birthday card. Pick up flour. Deposit the checks. Call the fam. If you figure out a task should happen at a certain time, or when you’re near a particular place, you can add that too and you’ll get a notification later. I like Reminders because when you’ve done something on your list, you tap to make it disappear. There’s a satisfying feeling of accomplishment as you get things done and shorten the list.
Prioritize the essentials. Fill out your Calendar first with things like work shifts, meals, workouts, class times, projects and assignments to submit, time with significant others and friends, and the like. If you want to keep your job, you better know when you’re working and have alerts or alarms to make sure you’re there doing the work you need to be. If you want to stay healthy, you can’t just work out one random afternoon per month. Block out a few times per week in your Calendar, and hop to it when you get the notification. You may be tempted to swipe to clear it and go back to Netflix. If you want to get solid grades, you have to actually show up to most lectures and have some hours blocked out for studying. Library: 7-11pm, into the Calendar, as many days as you can fit it. Making time for your relationships goes without saying. But if your week is somewhat busy, you may have to plan ahead when you’re going to hang out with the people you care about.
Is it weird to make an event like Lunch: 12:30-1? Perhaps. But when people’s choices for eating are increasingly a quick smoothie or fast-casual takeout at whatever time of the day it can be squeezed in, having the regularity of sitting down to eat something decent around the same time, day-to-day, is important. Similar things are true of sleep.
Do chores and errands on regular days as much as you can. Groceries on Sunday. Laundry on Tuesday. Dishes every other night after dinner. Bills on the 2nd of every month. And the rest. Whatever days make the most sense for you.
Put them in your Calendar so you don’t forget and don’t put them off. You can set events to repeat for upcoming weeks if you’re going to be able to do those things on the same day again in the future. The more you do the essentials in the same week-to-week pattern, the easier it becomes to remember what’s coming up and get it done without stressing out.
Don’t beat yourself up if you get a little off schedule. If you’re going to be a little late to something, give them a heads-up and politely apologize. If you didn’t do something when you planned to and you can reschedule it–then reschedule it. The world will keep spinning if you do laundry on Thursday instead of Wednesday (though you might find yourself out of clean socks).
Set aside unstructured time. No one wants every minute of every day planned out. That’s a good way to go crazy. Things become too robotic.
Unstructured time is the cheat meal of staying on top of things. So pick an afternoon or a day where nothing that happens in it will be predetermined. Maybe you’ll grab coffee at a new spot. See if a friend is free. Read a book straight through. Drive off on a day trip. Who knows. Relax and let time unfold without obligation, deadlines, and expectations. Live for a little while as if all your work is done–even if it isn’t. You’ll come back to things fresh.
There is perhaps nothing more quintessentially modern American than obsession with health. At a time when a majority of Americans are at least slightly overweight, it’s not a surprise that there’s a whole industry of supposed quick fixes–everything from foods processed to remove the “bad stuff” to the latest celebrity personal trainer trying to persuade you her workout program will get you her abs in a few weeks. Taking advantage of the desire for instantaneous self-improvement is a tremendous way to make money.
Do quick fixes work? Rarely. If it were that easy we probably wouldn’t have a national weight crisis. But new fixes are constantly being wheeled out and showered with confetti as the remedy for health happiness because we just can’t seem to achieve it with willpower.
And it’s not just with health that we struggle for improvement. Have you ever been awake in bed at night, or somewhere else contemplative, and wondered if you were meant to do something more with your life than you are? Have you ever had an idea for a work of art, a business, a charity, or a political reform? Did you embrace it with excitement and start working on it? Or did you dismiss it as something that you could never do?
What’s going on there? Like gravity, there is a force in the world that tries to yank you back down to earth when you’re passionate about making something take off. Steven Pressfield, in his excellent book The War of Art, calls this force Resistance.
Resistance can be subtle. It can gently nudge you into thinking, “Yeah, I will start that! But I’ll start it tomorrow.” And then it’s pushed to the next day, and the next day, and the next day. You feel pretty good because you think you’ve committed to something life-changing, but nothing ever actually changes.
Or Resistance can be blunt and painful. You may indeed start to improve your health, or make music, or begin a business, only to feel a wave of judgment and rejection from those who are close to you. Whether it’s because of jealousy, closed-mindedness, or something else, they can’t handle that you’re becoming different. What are you supposed to do when Resistance forces you into a choice between relationships and passion?
Resistance can take the form of the apparent quick fix or distracting escapism. Fad diets, get-rich-quick schemes, hooking up, substance addiction, binge-watching. They give you a bit of a result or a good feeling for a little while, but eventually, the effect fizzles out and you’re back to the beginning–probably more discouraged than when you started. It’s no wonder many of those things can be linked to depression.
If Resistance is so powerful, how can we possibly overcome it? As Pressfield sees it, we must become a professional at whatever our great passion is. The hardest part of any pursuit is not that we aren’t the world’s greatest artist, an expert on exercise and nutrition, or a graduate of the most reputable school (though doubting your qualifications is its own form of Resistance). No, the hardest part of becoming the person you’re meant to be is simply showing up over and over again and giving the work your best. Resistance does everything it can to prevent you from finding rhythm, traction, and growth.
The professional is the person who has committed to sticking to a regular schedule and showing up to throw themselves into it no matter what. It’s both incredibly straightforward and incredibly hard. Most people haven’t decided to become professionals in this way, and Resistance wins sooner or later. You decide to eat well and then your family gives you crap about how you think you’re better than them. You commit to working on writing music at 7pm, and Resistance whispers in your ear that a new series just dropped on Netflix that you can start watching instead.
Resistance got me with this post! It should have been out earlier in the day, but I got persuaded that it’s been a stressful and exhausting week and that I needed to sleep in this morning instead of writing at my usual time. Resistance is really good at rationalization.
Over time, though, as you begin to win a battle here and a battle there against Resistance, you become stronger and more adept at sticking to being pro. Every time you’re ready to do the work at 7am and pour your best into it, Resistance is forced to try a different tactic next time because you overcame it–even if you only wrote one sentence or one chord, or could only manage half the reps.
I strongly believe that we are all capable of the unique, the important, and the transformative. Learning to overcome Resistance in all the ways it will try to undermine and stop you is the path to becoming the person you’re meant to be.
As a younger me, I did not in a million years think that I would ever get into yoga. In college, as many classmates and coworkers began to find their way into studios every week, I wondered what exactly was so appealing about methodical stretching and deep breathing. Yoga is bodily in the fullest sense. Practitioners often show up in minimal clothing, are in close proximity to one another, and fill up the room with sweat and the occasional aromas of flatulence, active feet, and old mat. To this day, I much prefer to do yoga at home by myself for those reasons alone. The introvert in me is entirely uncomfortable being that unfiltered with other people. Maybe that’s irreverent. I apologize to the hardcore yogis committed to judgement-free group work in the studio.
I’m decidedly low-key and solo. I haven’t received extensive instruction on the asanas–the poses. I don’t do yoga because I’m seeking spiritual enlightenment or a transcendent experience. I have a DVD and a mat in my living room at home that I take out a few times a week. Close the blinds and begin. And the DVD? It’s a “power yoga” course from the 90s that is so 90s: saxophone and synth dad-music, original VHS-quality video, and cutoff jean shorts for workout wear. Just watch some of this! The first dozen times I used it I went back and forth between calm focus and hysterical laughter. The most-sensitive-man-in-the-world intro still gets me every time.
I think when I see that unintentional comedy it helps me shake free of the crazy things that happened during the day. And then begins the stretching and breathing stuff, which is unexpectedly powerful. How can something so simple and mundane be so beneficial and transformative? I find myself grateful for giving the seemingly uninteresting practice of yoga a very open-minded chance, and the purchase of a random DVD to try doing it regularly on my own. Serendipity is a wonderful and amusing thing sometimes.
Now, I get frustrated at myself when I go a week without yoga. On vacation, I’ve gone into the corner room where we’re staying and played the same accidentally hilarious video on my phone just to make sure I do a little bit. Why is this?
There’s an incredible thing that happens when you push the pause button on everything else in the world a few times a week. The whole be present in the present mentality is overflowing with a sense of silly spirituality, but there are some profound things that happen to you when you eliminate busyness and distractions and just be for a little while. No phone, no work, no social pressure. I’ve come to realize how much I need that. Now I long for that recharge and clarity through the week.
Yoga also presents physical challenges that compel me to keep coming back. Even if you do the exact same set of poses each time, you can always go a little deeper. With each position, you’re working at the edge of increased flexibility, strength, balance, and calm. I would not be surprised to find that one of the reasons yoga is so engaging for mind and body is because it puts you into so-called flow. You’re challenged just enough that you can rise to the occasion, and every time you complete another session you feel a little stronger and a little more whole. I’ve been doing yoga regularly for a couple years now since stumbling into it, and I can honestly say that I have more energy, sleep better, have less body pain, and feel better prepared to tackle what the day throws at me because of it. That’s no small thing.
Give it a try. Get some cool ass pants if it helps. You feel like a rockstar with yoga pants on. Based on how often they’re worn in public, apparently a lot of people think they’re made for feeling like a rockstar when you go shopping. I can tell you that if you do wear them around town you’re probably going to feel even better in them if you actually doyoga. That incremental increase in strength, flexibility, and the rest, leads to an increase in body confidence as well. You feel good and look good. This is a whole-body thing in a very tangible way.
Get an awesome retro yoga DVD. Or sign up for a class in your neighborhood (if you can handle bodies without boundaries).
Whatever it takes to commit, I promise it’s worth it. We all could use a bit less stress and anxiety, exercise that we actually look forward to doing a few times a week, and regular recharge and refocus. To my great surprise, yoga is an excellent way to achieve it.
It’s the time of the year that a lot of people make resolutions. Resolutions work sometimes. They can be easily broken, though.
When you make a resolution to go to the gym 4 times a week, but by the 3rd week of January you go once and the 4th week zero times, you’re liable to label yourself a failure and just give up completely. There’s a cliche about packed gyms at the start of the year for a reason.
Millions of people will set resolutions for themselves like this, and then abandon them after a month or two. Time flies by–having returned to the status quo–and before you know it it’s January again and you’re making the same sorts of promises to yourself.
The problem with most resolutions is they’re too one-dimension and too impatient. All or nothing. Now! But that’s not human nature, and that’s not how life works. We need to think of ourselves in a more holistic way, over longer stretches of time. You can’t lose 20 pounds or jump several IQ points overnight.
Take a look at the entire year ahead, and ask yourself where you’d like to be Jan 1, 2017.
What kind of person do you want to be?
What do you want your health to be like on that day?
What new experiences would you like to have had between now and then?
What things might take the whole year to achieve that you should start now?
In what ways are you living as a shadow of yourself that you keep circling back to like some kind of an addiction to bad habits?
Take the coming year’s worth of time to move from where you are now to where you’d like to be then. There are so many things that can be achieved.
Let the next 366 days (it’s a Leap Year, so you’ve got an extra day, even) be a journey of growth and depth and overcoming some of the ways you keep struggling to be a better version of yourself.
Maybe you don’t get all the way there in one year’s time. Mastering eating well, or being more organized and on time, or keeping in touch better with family and friends, or pursuing a dream job can take multiple years. But you have to start somewhere, and in a year you will have gotten somewhere steadily and rewardingly. We are all on a constant path of becoming, and we can continue to grow our whole life if we live with self-reflection and intention.
Don’t let next-year you be the same as this-year you.
It would not be surprising to find out that for most people busy has replaced good as the auto-response to a How are you?
All 168 hours in the week may not actually be blocked out with schedule commitments in your smartphone calendar, but it certainly feels that way sometimes. Some of that is surely the acceleration of life that unprecedented technological innovation has enabled. Until recently, we didn’t have to worry about things like creating laws about email cutoff times to prevent people from barraging each other with messages late into the night. Workdays had clean boundaries.
Some of the busyness may be purposefully self-inflicted. A number of artists and academics have wondered if we try to preoccupy ourselves with busyness to avoid confronting feelings of emptiness, mortality, or meaningless. Even if we know it’s exhausting or stressful, busyness is better than nothingness.
The problem is that busyness for busyness’ sake is just a different kind of meaninglessness: spinning your wheels instead of being parked and paralyzed. In its best form, we’re busy because we’re engaged in activity that’s worth doing. Work we love. Learning a new hobby. Training for a marathon. Cooking for the family.
But the good kind of busy, worthwhile activity, is still only half of a flourishing way of life. The other half is rest and disengagement. The most basic form, of course, is sleep. This is not a biological complication in need of a technical fix to eliminate it. Sleep is essential to our ability to function properly during waking hours. Yet many of us wear a badge of honor proudly proclaiming how few hours of sleep we think we can get by on. Even then, we shoot ourselves in the foot in the race to REM sleep by gluing our eyes to blue-screened devices (blue = clear skies of the daytime = be awake, brain!) right up until we lay our head down on the pillow. During the day, our bodies work hard to maintain periods of stable energy and then let us know when they need rest, but we hijack that cycle by consuming all sorts of uppers and downers: coffee, tea, energy drinks, supplements; cocktails, beer, wine, sleeping meds, and the like. Most of us can’t hear our bodies telling us when we can be exerting and when we should rest.
Activity and rest are the most fundamental set of complements of a well-rounded life. We need engagement, risk, and sweat; and we need disconnection, mindfulness, and sleep. If we’re primarily just one or the other our lives get out of sorts. Just activity: exhaustion and bewildering bustle. Just inactivity: melancholy, occasional self-loathing, and extra pounds of bodyweight.
There are several other complements that flow out of the foundation of activity and rest. Exercise and recovery. Work and time-off. Socialization and solitude. Teaching and learning. Being in the city and being in nature. Self-critique and self-love. And many others.
These are not antagonistic binaries. Rather, there’s a sliding scale for each set of complements from one to the other. So if purely active is the left edge of the active/rest scale, purely restful is on the opposite end. Since binaries, scale, and purely this or that probably reads like a whole lot of jibjab, take a look at it visually.
Depending on what’s going on in your life and the time of the day, you’re likely closer to one or the other end. If you’re purely active, you’re probably not reading this because you’re too busy and about to pass out from exhaustion. If you’re purely restful, you also are likely not reading this because you’re in deep sleep. The rest of us are somewhere a bit left of center (middle of the workday, in the midst of a workout) or somewhere a bit right of center (streaming a movie, browsing through cake blogs).
Life feels chaotic whenever we’ve been too far to one side for too long.
Because we don’t swiftly jump back and forth between really active and really restful like alternating electric current. It takes a while for your body to recover from a long day of work or other strenuous activity. You’re trying to mellow out, pick up carryout for dinner, and go put sweatpants on, but you’ve still got adrenaline and cortisol flowing and a high-strung mind. Your body is still active when you’ve hit a time to rest. It takes a little while to slide over on the scale.
The middle of the scale is the goal. It’s balance; well-being; stability and contentment. To find that balance requires rhythm. Rhythm is understanding where you’re lodged on the scale and what you need to do to bring you closer to the center. If you’re off-center to one side, you need the contrast of the other side. If you’re in a state of hyperactivity you need an equivalent form of rest. It’s like counterweights. Or better: like the dials on a stereo or equalizer in a music app. If there’s too much bass in a song, you turn the dial to increase the treble to compensate. If your life has too much bass (and let’s be honest, we were a little too all about that bass, no treble for a while, there) you need to counterbalance to bring things into equilibrium.
This is true for any of the complementary pairs that contribute to your well-being. Too much exercise: you need recuperative things. Too much work: you need a vacation or a staycation. Too much socialization: you need some solitude. Too much city: get out in the woods. Too much teaching and leading other people: crack open a book in a quiet place to learn something new for yourself. Too much self-critique: do things that encourage self-love. Too much connecting: time for a bit of digital detox. And, of course, they can all overlap and interconnect. Some need to counterbalance this way, some that. If you’ve been in a downtown workplace completing work on a smartphone (too much work, connection, and solitude), you should get out and go for a hike with some friends (out in the woods, digital detox, socialization).
On an average day, it’s easy to get caught up in one thing after the next. You drop off your significant other. Work gives you a handful of surprises to resolve. You realize it’s 3 hours past lunchtime so you stop at a sandwich chain or a convenience store. Life just kind of happens to you, and you set the alarm to get up and do it again tomorrow. But when you consider where you’re at on the different scales, you can start making a day or a week happen with some design. You start living with some intentionality, the way that will help you feel balanced and well. Finding rhythm gives you a gameplan, a beat, a flow. It gives you a guide for the thing or kinds of things you should do next—and after that, and after that.
This means that most things we might do on a regular day aren’t inherently bad, but they might be bad for you in that particular moment because of where you’re at on the scale. They’re not a counterbalance right now: they’re a chaos catalyst. If you had a cheeseburger and soda for lunch, and then have fried chicken and a few beers for dinner, you’re going to put your digestion and energy out of whack. You want to think about something lighter for dinner (can’t go wrong with some pho). But if you’ve been eating light all week, maybe it’s a good night to treat yourself to a bit of comfort food. Fried chicken and beer isn’t evil—it’s just indulgent—and you might be self-sabotaging if you’re already well into the comfort food side of the scale instead of the health-conscious one.
Nobody’s going to be a flawless balancer. If we all were perfectly in the middle of each of life’s scales, unicorns and rainbows would probably spontaneously appear. But they don’t, and we’re not. It’s OK. Remember, there’s a self-critical/self-love scale to try to keep balanced too.
If we’re at least trying to find rhythm there’s a good chance that we actually will a lot of the time, and we’re going to have some real well-being and contentment because of it. That’s a lot better than busying ourselves into the meaningless chaos we were hoping to avoid.