Staying on Top of Things

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.

 

What Are Emotions For?

Have you been afraid lately? Maybe while watching a horror film on the couch ? It’s that time of year, right?

Have you recently felt angry or confused? With this mess that we’re in, I’d be surprised if you weren’t.

How about joy–a wave of unadulterated bliss? The word joy can connote a kind of cheesy or naive thing. But some experiences are genuinely blissful. I hope you’ve had some of that recently.

Through the course of your life, you’ll experience the whole spectrum of emotions…

Anger

Apathy

Shame

Hate

Fear

Worry

Confusion

Jealousy

Envy

Panic

Sadness

Grief

Momentary Depression

Happiness

Contentment

Joy

Karla McLaren, in her book The Art of Empathy, organizes human emotions into the sixteen categories above. And, she further explains, each emotion can occur in soft, moderate, or very intense states. Anger, for example, can vary from irritated (soft) to aggravated (moderate) to enraged (intense). Even the same emotion at the same level of intensity can differ in sensation. Irritated is a little different than impatient, which are both slightly different than displeased. Even though they’re all fundamentally a soft form of anger.

Given the range of intensity for each emotion, and the subtleties of a particular intensity level, there are probably hundreds of distinct emotions we can each experience. To top it all off, we often feel multiple emotions (each one of different intensity) at the same time. Soft shame with intense worry with moderate sadness, for example. No wonder there are days when you just can’t adult.

Surely there’s a purpose to these rushes of feeling. Human beings have evolved for hundreds of thousands of years, and we’ve had emotions longer than we’ve had language and names for them. They must have been around for that long for a reason. What does it mean when we feel these sensations, and why are there these particular kinds of sensations–worry, jealousy, happiness, and the rest?

Antonio Damasio, a professor of neuroscience, describes emotions as action-generating neurological programs. As a nerd, I like the precision of that description. But that’s a bit dry and abstract. Maybe we could think of emotions like the push-notifications on your phone. With phones, a notification pops up to alert you—based on some event or some person’s actions (a weather alert, a message from a friend, being tagged in a post, the final score of a game). You see the notification and what it’s for. Then you take the necessary action to complete the process (reply, like, swipe to see more, put on a jacket, celebrate in the streets, etc).

Emotions are like the push-notification system for our selves. When triggered, emotions draw our attention to things happening around us or to us that we need to respond to. Different emotions are triggered by different situations. Anger arises to “address challenges to your voice, standpoint, position, interpersonal boundaries, or self-image.” Contentment arises “to help you look toward yourself with pride and satisfaction.” And similarly for each of the other emotions.

With every emotion, there are a variety of responses we might carry out. Some are more helpful and some are (much) less helpful. To go back to our friend anger, if someone pisses you off, there are a lot of ways you can follow through on your anger. You could scream–at them or privately in another room. You could beat the crap out of someone or something. You could try to ignore or suppress the fire burning inside. You could acknowledge your anger and try to understand what challenged your voice, point of view, or personal boundaries.

When we’re not angry, it’s pretty easy to recognize that acknowledging anger (or any emotion) and maturely thinking through why we’re feeling it is probably the best route to go. But, of course, some emotions–especially in their intense state–can make it incredibly hard to be mature and thoughtful. We often react without thinking at all. A little while back when I was angry, I erupted instinctively and broke a window by throwing my wallet at it. Absolutely moronic. But for a moment it felt like a sweet release. The broken glass everywhere and the window in need of repair made it clear that was the wrong response.

So when an emotion arises–when our body gives us a notification about what life is doing to us in that moment–how can we better understand what needs to happen? What’s the right conclusion for the action-generating neurological program? Again, Karen McLaren is super helpful.

First, she says, you need to recognize and name the emotion you’re feeling (or emotions–plural–if there’s more than one at a time). We can get mixed up. It doesn’t help that often when someone is having a strong emotional experience we describe them simply as being emotional. Why is Andrew emotional right now? Ugh, I’m so emotional.

OK! There’s a lot of emotional activity going on. Which emotions? Sad is different than afraid or worried, but they can be confused. We have to learn how to identify the particular emotions–the notifications–we’re receiving. When an emotion wells up inside, take a moment to name it. It can be surprisingly revealing when you pinpoint what you’re feeling.

Next, you need to question the emotion. OK, I’m feeling angry. I know that I get the anger notification when my sense of self or personal space is challenged. So: “What needs to be protected? What must be restored?” Those are the key questions for anger. Each emotion has its own set of questions (check out McLaren’s book for the full list). Worry, to consider another emotion, “arises to help you organize, plan for, and complete your tasks…to help you orient to possible upcoming change, novelty, or hazard.” Worry happens when the path just ahead is uncertain. So, if you’ve identified that you’re feeling worried, ask yourself: “What triggered this feeling? What really needs to get done?” What got you going on this worry train? What do you need to do to be as ready as possible for what’s ahead?

Happiness, contentment, and joy are unique in that they give rise to statements rather than questions. If you’re feeling one of those three emotions, you simply get to say thanks. Whatever is going on in your life is rewarding. Savor it.

For the rest of the emotions, the ones that generate questions, the final step is to act. What did the answer(s) to the questions tell you? If you’ve nailed down the emotion is anger, did someone’s action invade your personal space or suggest you’re inferior? How are you going to address that with them in a mature and thoughtful way (rather than blowing up in their face or chucking a wallet at the window)?

Did you think someone slighted you but actually they didn’t? Sometimes the action is to check that what you think happened is what actually happened. We always need to go deeper than perceptions. As McLaren says, “…emotions are always true, because they’re always responding to emotionally evocative stimuli, but they’re not always right, because the stimuli may not be valid.”

If we go through all the steps of this action-generating neurological program reflectively and wisely–feeling, naming, asking, acting–we’ll finish it and be back to a place of balance. That’s the sign that your action was a fitting one. It takes practice, and we all blow it sometimes. Shame is an emotion, too–”to help you moderate your behavior and make sure that you don’t hurt, embarrass, destabilize, or dehumanize yourself or others.” When we feel shame, the questions become: “Who has been hurt? What must be made right?” Those will get you on track to fixing things.

We have emotions for a reason. They draw our attention to what’s going on. Each sensation is unique to correspond with what’s happening. Ask the questions. Enjoy the rushes of happiness, contentment, and joy as they come. Emotions are the original notifications in our lives. Don’t swipe them away.

How to Adult: Sleep

For something that takes up about a third of our lives, it’s surprising that sleep is still rather mysterious. It’s not fully clear why we need it the way we need it. There are people who have died from lack of sleep. There are researchers trying to “hack” human biology so that some people–for example, soldiers–are able to function reasonably well for several days at a time without any. And others, including the current GOP presidential nominee, brag about how little sleep they require. Do you have one of those people in your workplace?

We all know what it feels like when we get a really good night of sleep. But it’s not always apparent what led to sleeping so well. Was it the right amount of hours? Going to bed at the right time? Avoiding alcohol and caffeine before going to sleep? Because you were able to sleep in?

Even if we don’t fully understand why we sleep, there are definitely some steps toward improving it.

For starters, four or five hours is probably too little. Ideal hours vary with age, and surely from person to person also. But even for older adults, who require less sleep than children, the bare minimum is probably about 6 hours. Four hours plus three cups of coffee is unlikely to allow for full rest overnight and good brain function during the day–even though it might feel like you’re doing OK. And we’re finding out that it’s actually dangerous to your health to think that you can “catch up” on sleep on the weekend or other days that you can sleep in.

The hours you sleep need to be deep sleep, as you’ve probably figured out. A huge hindrance to that in the age of smartphones is our screen time leading right into bedtime. The lighting of smartphones and other devices actually tricks the brain into thinking it’s daytime–making it harder to fall asleep and achieve restorative, REM sleep. Many people sleep with their phone right next to them, and any kind of sound or vibration doesn’t help either. Smartphones are the epitome of an always on, always connected society. That’s not a friendly condition for achieving good sleep.

Getting the hours on a regular schedule also seems to be especially important. It helps your body lock into a consistent rhythm of waking and sleeping. Alert when you’re usually up; asleep when you’re usually in bed. We need that usually to be as consistent as possible.

So how can you start to put these things together in a practical way?

Try to go to bed and wake up around the same time every day. The rhythm and length are clearly important. As you start to get closer to regular going to sleep and waking up times, think about how your body is responding to the number of hours that you slept. Do you feel better with 7 than with 8? Does it seem like your body might need something more like 9 to be your best? Having regularity will give you a feel for how much sleep is right for you.

Have a ritual when you go to bed. Start working on shutting off phones and other tech a little while before you think you might climb into bed so that your brain can unwind from the screen activity and other stimuli. Make sure your bed is a haven of rest and relaxation: good pillows, regularly cleaned sheets and blankets, good room temperature, and all that. My wife and I have experimented a bit with essential oils and salt lamps, and things like that can definitely help you relax and sink into sleep. There’s an old rule for many that the bed is for sleeping and sex–nothing else. Maybe you need to give that rule a try.

In the morning, don’t hit the snooze button! Time and again, sleep research has shown that this significantly ruins your rest rather than adding to it. Maybe you need to establish a morning ritual too that gives you an enjoyable reason to get out of bed: a tall glass of cool water, making some coffee, climbing in the shower, going for a walk, meditation, whatever. Just don’t grab for your phone right away. It may be tempting, but it’s the wrong kind of engagement with the world when your brain isn’t even fully alert yet.

Are these things easy? Of course not. A night of too much drinking, 2am texts, or stressing about life can easily ruin the best sleep intentions. And going to bed with too few hours before your alarm is set to go off, or sleeping in late on a Saturday, can throw you way out of rhythm–even (or especially) if you had rhythm for several days beforehand.

But intention is an important place to start. This week, see if you can get your bedtimes and waking times to occur around the same hour or two each day. Maybe one night you go sleep at 10:30pm, and the next, 12:15am. Then you can work on narrowing it to something like between 11pm-12am every night. That’s better than 10pm some nights and 3am others.

I’ve found that I feel pretty great with about 7 hours of sleep–around 11pm to 6am. Give me a nice cup of coffee at 7:30ish when I’ve been up for a bit, and I feel ready to tackle most anything the day can throw at me.

Because even if we don’t fully understand sleep yet, you’re going to spend a third of your life doing it and the other two-thirds either buoyant or in agony based on how you spent the sleeping third. You might as well try to get some good sleep. You deserve it.

 

A Mile Wide and an Inch Deep

Conversation
nchlsft/Bigstock.com

Can we talk for a minute about talking?

It seems that there is an increasing deficiency in simply being able to hold a conversation. We’re good at the agreeable stuff. There’s a familiar trajectory to most smalltalk.  A little something about the weather. List a couple random things we’ve done in recent memory. Maybe thrown in a mention of something delicious or trendy we’ve eaten lately. Everybody loves food.

We can go a mile wide.

Bring up some witty social media post we just saw, pivot to the latest celebrity inanity, grab our phone and play that video everyone’s been passing around, get riled up about the big game on Sunday, swipe through photos of the cute pet that one person just got…

But it’s all an inch deep.

When was the last time you talked with someone about your greatest fears? How you really feel about your job and the work you wish you could do? The family struggles and drama you’re dealing with? What you think the most important things in life are? What’s hard about being in a relationship with the person you’re with? What you think about death, and what that means about life?

It’s probably been awhile, right?

Maybe you are supremely emotionally intelligent, perfectly comfortable with yourself and what you think about the world, and encounter no adversity in life. If so, you should probably get to publishing a book for the rest of us.

For the rest of us, most of our conversations in real life take the form of our digital communication: short snippets that float right at the surface, and do just about anything they can to skirt existential depth and vulnerability. A mile wide and an inch deep is right in our wheelhouse. Not too long. Not too personal. Awkward-free and friction-free. Plenty of ambiguity to leave room for plausible deniability.

Indeed, MIT Professor Sherry Turkle’s recent book, Reclaiming Conversation, argues precisely that: our devices and our preference to communicate through them are fueling an inability to actually communicate and relate to one another.

Many families Turkle interviewed mentioned that they prefer to “fight by text,” rather than hashing it out audibly with some brutal honesty and struggling through anger and disagreement to find reconciliation.

Just the other night, my wife and I went out to eat and watched the couple at the table next to us utter maybe one or two sentences to each other before fixating on their respective phones for the remainder of the meal. I couldn’t help but wonder if they broke from toggling through endless apps to text each other every so often. Should we get an appetizer? How’s your dish? Dessert? Apparently making eye contact and actually talking was either too much work or deemed trivial to the whole dinner-date experience. This wasn’t the first time we’ve seen this happen.

Many of us have a hard time turning off our phone or keeping it out of sight even when we are in the middle of talking with other people face-to-face. We look for ways to make stealthy peeks at notifications that come in, and respond to them like a ventriloquist who learned to type without moving her fingers instead of talk without moving her lips.

But what’s the loss, right? Maybe you prefer to stay a mile wide and inch deep with just about everyone you know. It would be agony to go deeper.  I get it. As an introvert myself, I’ve been in more conversations than I can count where I felt like I was just trying to find the escape hatch and get home alone with a book on the couch as soon as possible.

And isn’t it a wonderful convenience that if the chatter with the people you’re with–the family at dinner, a random acquaintance you bump into on the sidewalk, a group of friends out late–turns uninteresting or unengaging, you can simply duck out into a digital conversation through text or social media? If worse comes to worst, you can even use the phone as a smokescreen to suggest that you need to end your in-person conversation. When you’re potentially always interruptible because of the phone in your pocket, you can feign interruption.

But as Turkle profoundly observes, with the loss of conversation comes an equivalent loss in empathy. We are losing the fundamental capacity to recognize the basic humanity in each other, and live together communally rather than individualistically and standoffish. “Conversation is on the path toward the experience of intimacy, community, and communion.” If we can’t figure out how to be fully present here, talking together–for even just a little while, with at least a few people close to us–our own existential and emotional foundation crumbles and disappears. We need to be in conversation with other people for our own well-being.

And not just the pleasantries of the weather and mentioning an uncontroversial current event or two. “Human relationships are rich, messy, and demanding…” You surely know this already from your own life experiences. Being a person comes with risk, and you have to risk the messy and demanding to get to the richness. In conversation, you might say the wrong word or pronounce something strangely; your thoughts might come out in a jumble instead of like a perfectly edited and polished text that you read and re-read until you felt good about releasing it; you might accidentally reveal a guilty pleasure that others will find laughable; you might veer into sensitive territory–pain and worries, personal demons, past mistakes; you might say something that pisses off or hurts the other person. That’s why continually pushing through the messiness and the demands to cultivate empathy is so crucial.

Conversation is the verbal playground where we learn how to move and grow together. Sometimes it’s pure enjoyment and we feel like we could run around for hours. Other times we crash into each other, get tangled in a political or religious cargo net, or step knee-deep in some emotional or personal mud. But when we can see in someone else’s eyes their vulnerability and their uniqueness–their humanity–we come to understand their hopes, fears, and joys are much like our own. We begin to build greater trust, respect, patience, and support. We begin to build a real relationship. We can’t survive without each other–whether it’s the close intimacy of family and friends or the fleeting bonds of coworkers and acquaintances. A mile wide and an inch deep doesn’t get you there.

What a Piece of Work is Man

Mobile Phone Video
sabelskaya/Bigstock.com

As if Benedict Cumberbatch wasn’t already cool enough, he’s now in the first performances for his version of Hamlet on stage. When tickets were made available last year, it became the fastest-selling production in British history. There’s only one problem: as soon as Cumberbatch begins to utter to be or not to be, a handful of people yank out their smartphones to try to record the scene. To what end?

To share as bragging proof that you were there? To turn into some kind of remixed or reworked media like a GIF? To rewatch over and over as a self-made souvenir?

Cumberbatch, for his part, is pleading for restraint. The Guardian posted a video of him on the street post-performance asking reporters to work their information-disseminating magic and get the word out. “…There’s nothing less supportive or enjoyable as an actor being onstage…it’s mortifying. And I can’t give you what I want to give you which is a live performance that you will remember, hopefully, in your minds and brains–whether it’s good, bad, or indifferent–rather than on your phones.”

What has happened to our sense of appreciation and capacity for enjoyment without capturing, posting, and hashtagging? It’s not enough to be at a thing: we have to record evidence of the thing, share the evidence of the thing, and replay the evidence of the thing again later–almost as if we were never even there and we need to prove to ourselves that we were.

Through the lens and microphone of our multifarious pocket technologies, we distance ourselves from what’s on the other side, and eliminate the possibility for the kind of memory our brains have developed to record in their own biological way: complex, emotional, sensory-rich; deep in story, context, and potential for recollection.

Have you ever been alerted by a smell that suddenly brought you back to a vivid moment earlier in life? Something that reminded you of that one day at your grandparents’ house, or that one concert with your high school friends, or that road trip with your lover? When the memory was formed, we were silent and still enough to knit together thousands of little strands of experience into something that we would remember in our minds and brains. Remember for a long time. Something that could transform who we are as a person. Something that would shape our future for the better by connecting us to the rich human experience we were in the midst of.

In a tech-saturated world, we have to put limitations on ourselves to maintain a healthy ability to appreciate what’s there right in front of us. To recognize skill and artistry. To observe beauty. To see truth embodied. To experience a transcendent moment. Perhaps even to feel a sense of healing and wholeness. If you think it’s ridiculous to get those things from standing still for an hour and letting the world wash over you, you just haven’t found the right thing yet. Let the great performers perform unimpeded and unfiltered–Benedict Cumberbatch, that musician you love, Mother Nature, and anyone else–and be transformed by moments and memories that will long outlive and exceed the likes you’d receive for cutting it into an oversimplified, shareable file.