Finding Focus

Despite good intentions, my year of focus is off to a rocky start. After a visit home for the holidays, a few glorious days of fun with friends and family, and an unexpected trip home again for my grandmother’s funeral, I’m struggling to get my schedule back on track and myself back in motion. I’ve spent most of this month catching up on the work stacked on my desk, the dirt layered my floors, and all the random-yet-pressing obligations scribbled on random pages of my Passion Planner (which I finally got this week!). In the meantime, my downstairs neighbors have taken to screaming at each other in a manner that quickens my heartbeat—partly out of frustration, but mostly out of fear—and my upstairs neighbors continue to walk incessant laps around their apartment, taking extra care to hit the squeakiest spots.

In this the first month of 2015, I’ve barely managed to squeeze in a half hour of writing once or twice a week, if I’m lucky, and I run so little now that I can’t even call myself a runner anymore (or justify my monthly gym fees). Sometimes, most times, I feel like I am descending into madnesss, that I will forever be swirling in this tornado of chores and overflow work and frantic running here and there. But I keep reminding myself that small, consistent actions lead to big rewards, so I continue to seek focus in all aspects of my life.

At work, I’ve relegated personal emails and texts to my lunch hour, so I can focus all my attention on work tasks. I’ve imposed a strict 8-5 work schedule and I’ve quit checking work email when I’m not in the office. Instead of giving 110% to all of my tasks, I give 100% to the things that matter and let everything else wait for the next day or the next available person.

At home, I wake up an hour earlier than before to sneak in some writing time before work. Unfortunately, like the true night owl I am, I often wander about in a half conscious state until a half hour before I need to leave the house. Sometimes I end up using those early morning minutes to pack a gym bag or consolidate leftovers for lunch. Sometimes, I sit at my computer and write a mish mash of run on sentences, half complete thoughts, and notes for later. It’s slow-going at best, but at least it’s going. I’ve moved my computer from my comfy couch to the more business-like table. I’ve created an editorial calendar for the year, outlining both my blogging deadlines and estimated completion dates for a collection of approximately 7 essays. I’ve written the first sentence of my first essay on Ecuador, and I’m picking out a handful of writing residencies that I’ll apply to later this Spring.

In the meantime, I continue my attempts to gain control over a life spun out of control. I map out my work engagements and writing times, coffee dates and bed times. A queasy, regretful feeling spreads in my stomach every time I think about my neglected running practice and my quickly deteriorating Spanish skills. I hate prioritization, for the impossibility of its nature and the anguish it causes me. But I continue to do it, because life is short and my goals are big. So stay tuned; I’ve got some exciting things in the works.

One day at a time.

I can and I will.

Public Service Announcement

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Today, I broke down and bought a passion planner. In spite of its suggestive name, a passion planner is a yearly agenda that combines an appointment calendar with pages for journaling, to-do lists, goal setting, reflecting, drawing, mind mapping, and logging gratitude. This is the kind of organization my wayward schedule requires these days.

Upon returning from Ecuador, I looked at my life and saw nothing but large swaths of time. After two years of living off the “American grid,” it was as if I didn’t exist in the adult world. With no job, no commitments, and no pressing social engagements, I wallowed in days filled with endless hours of reality television, luxurious runs, and extended visits with friends. It was a wonderful existence, a continuation of Ecua-time that I simultaneously cherished and longed to replace with a real schedule.  Now, I can’t begin to account for the minutes of my day. Every Sunday night, I look at the week before me and mentally plot out when I’ll do my writing, my reading, my workouts, my meetups with friends and boyfriend. Then a dinner with colleagues pops up, an early meeting appears on my calendar for Tuesday, then again on Wednesday and Friday, an empty fridge leads to an impromptu shopping trip, and before I know it, the minutes have somehow slipped away until what appeared to be an ordinary week has once again become an overwhelming one.

It’s no secret that I’m not good at balance.

More than anything, my life lacks focus. I spend my work days jumping from one task to another while texting with friends about after-work plans. Tasks small and large escape my view. At any moment, there are fifteen open tabs on my internet browser and three partially-drafted emails on my smartphone. I make lists on lists on lists—of people to call or write, errands to complete, forgotten tasks to follow up on. I can’t finish a blog post. (This post alone took me over a month.) I can’t finish a book. And yet, I can’t tell you where my time goes. I’m running as fast as my little lungs will allow, but the horizon never seems to get any closer. (Of course, the ultimate irony of this statement is that I struggle to fit running into my schedule at all these days.) And, as always, when the week gets busy, the first thing to be compromised is my writing. Or as Jay McInerny writes in Bright Lights, Big City, “But between the job and the life there wasn’t much time left over for emotion recollected in tranquility.”

This, I’m learning, is adulthood: a constant battle with tedium and minutiae. I have the distinct feeling that if I’m not careful, this constant struggle to eat three meals a day, keep up with laundry and cooking, follow a budget, sleep enough to function, and stay on top of work will carry me right to the end of my days before I’ve even set down a single word worth reading. On a daily basis, I am paralyzed by the fact that I cannot write fast enough, learn fast enough, or even think fast enough to accomplish all of my life goals. And I don’t even have kids or work two jobs or take care of elderly parents or commute an exorbitant amount by today’s standards.

I’ve tried to write as much as possible given my hectic schedule, but it’s been less than successful. Every day, I wake up at 5:30am to write unintelligible sentences with my eyes still half closed. Even at that unbearable hour, I feel the pressure to get it right the first time, because who has the time to rewrite anything with all the early morning meetings, phone dates with friends (on this continent and beyond), and boring adult things to tend to? And even as I’m attempting to write the perfect first draft—ha!—I’m scrutinizing whether I should be spending my valuable time on this particular writing task at all. Would my time be better spent on a different essay or short story? I think as my fingers move blindly over the keys. If I were to die tomorrow, is this the last piece I’d want to be working on? With thoughts like these bouncing around my brain, there’s not much energy left over for creative fission.

I realize that being an adult means making choices. I just never imagined that I’d have to choose between advancing my career, maintaining friendships, and building a writing practice. I certainly never thought that these grandiose life moves would boil down to such common place decisions. Do I spend my few hours of free time after work writing tonight? Or do I wash my stinking dishes and iron my work clothes for tomorrow? Do I sleep till 6 so I can focus on my long day of meetings and stave off that imminent cold for another week? (Thanks, public transit!) Or do I get up at 5 to eke out a few garbled lines before hopping on the train?

No matter what I choose, it always feel like the wrong decision.

Part of my problem is—and always has been—that I want to excel at too many things. This, of course, is not just my problem, but a larger societal issue. Our newspapers and social media are full of articles on the “disease of busy” and the somehow newly discovered importance of sleep. We’ve all seen these articles, and yet we continue filling our schedules to the breaking point. A  couple weeks ago, though, I came across a Thomas Merton quote in the On Being blog that made me see the busyness of my life in an entirely different way:

“There is a pervasive form of modern violence to which the idealist…most easily succumbs: activism and over-work. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence.

To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence.

The frenzy of the activist neutralizes his (or her) work… It destroys the fruitfulness of his (or her)…work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

Violence? Destroying the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful? That’s some heavy stuff, and yet, that’s exactly what it feels like.

Now that I’ve had time and space, I yearn to write a collection of essays on my time in Ecuador. Despite my best intentions, I’ve yet to begin. I’m terrified that by the time I cobble together enough time to write the first draft, the details will be tarnished and dull, lost in that black hole where memories go when they are too often unthought of.

Cloud Atlas author David Mitchell says that to make time for writing you must first neglect everything else. I instantly prickle at the thought; my heart pounds a little faster and my obsessive need to be good at this “being an adult” thing sends me into a spiral of rationalizations as to why this approach won’t work. What about that pile of laundry, the multiplying dishes, the vacant refrigerator? I already struggle to keep up with friends; what will they think when I’m even more unavailable than before? How can I excel at work if I’m not willing to stay extra time, always go that extra mile? It’s when I’m exhausted and panting from a crazy week that I feel the need to see where my time is going, to reclaim those fleeting minutes for myself.

As I look towards the new year, I know that something has to change.

So this is a public service announcement: The be-good-at-everything, surrender-to-too-many-demands me is out of commission. If you don’t hear much from me in the coming weeks and months, know that it’s not you; it’s me.  The focus of this past year was reading a book a week; the focus of next year will be focus itself—on the right people, the right goals, and the right projects. So if you haven’t heard from me in a while and you begin to wonder where in the world I am, know that I am squarely in front of my computer, desperately putting digital words to digital paper. Because I can’t keep living in a reality of tomorrows, and I can’t keep putting my writing on the back burner. I officially proclaim 2015 the year of wrinkled shirts, mile-high dishes, bags under the eyes, and pages and pages of writing.