How to keep your attention in an age of distraction.

Your attention is precious. Me, I could always use more. I need it to write, finish reading a book, plan a project, and any work that requires sustained concentration. It is so damn easy to lose focus with interruptions, as I wrote last week.

We’re in the age of distractions, and it’s only going to get worse, so let’s buckle up and design a strategy for preserving some needed brain power.

We can blame our electronics, but the real problem is us! Sure, taking a prolonged technology break might help, but not as much as you think.

Taking one day a week as a Sabbath without devices might be restorative, as my friend Marilyn Paul advocates in her book, An Oasis in Time.

But those month-long or year-long breaks? Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen, authors of The Distracted Mind; Ancient Brains in a High Tech World write:

“While taking a break is certainly a good thing and can act to improve our metacognition about the influence of high-tech on our minds, to put it simply, there is no evidence that extended IT tech detoxes actually work.”

I kind of get it. A prolonged tech break is like going on a food fast to lose weight but finding, at the end of the fast, that your old food habits are waiting for you. AND you have to eat all the food that you ignored.

Who wants to come back from a break and deal with 50,000 messages?

What you can do

The authors describe two types of options to strengthen your focus and avoid being sucked into distraction: 1)  build your brain power/cognitive control and 2)  change your behavior.



No magic pill

I wish I could find a magic pill, but despite the hype about “smart drugs,” I ain’t racing to any off-line pharmacopeia. Although there’s a rage in Silicon Valley and college campuses to pop a smart-pill in order to enhance brain power (the authors say that 25% of college students may be using smart drugs), the verdict’s not in on whether a pill will help your brain in any significant way. Obviously, messing with drugs can have unwanted side effects.

What works

The tried and true, well-researched favorite for increasing brain power is EXERCISE. Dang! Everywhere I look it turns out exercise is good for something. Time to load up on Zumba classes and dog walks this Spring.

Runner-up techniques for building cognitive functioning are meditation, being in nature, brain games, and carefully constructed, non-violent video games.

Manage your behavior

Noticing how you become distracted and experimenting with fixes can help you to keep your attention focused.

Keep interruptions from setting back your progress, productivity and concentration.

  1. You can add apps to your phone that track your smartphone use, and monitor how you let yourself become distracted during peak-concentration times.
  2. You can close all computer programs you don’t need so that you’re only dealing with one program when you’re working on a project.
  3. If you’re a bit addicted to social media, computer apps like “Freedom,” “SelfControl,” and “KeepMeOut,” will let you block websites that could lure you from your work.

Plot out your day or week and identify times when you need to concentrate.

  1. Partition your day and week into project units with blocks for concentrated work, maintenance work, and fun, or whatever categories you choose. I sometimes color code the blocks in my schedule.
  2. Use the times of day when you’re tired or not running at peak brain-power to check social media or respond to email. Not all life or work has to be brain-rich. Some people like to establish set times for checking e-mail, I do it when I need a break.
  3. Put a firm boundary around the periods that require your concentration. If you’re interacting with others, letting them know what you are doing will help decrease your anxiety or “fear of missing out.”

Take restorative breaks.

  1. Use your breaks wisely. I find it SO frustrating when, after a good writing streak, I take a break and forget where I was going with my work. I’m going to try writing out what I need to do next, before I take a break.
  2. If you’re focused on a critical piece of work, you might keep breaks short to sustain momentum.
  3. Use breaks to nourish the non-brainy sides of you. Move your body, walk in nature, or read something that allows your mind to wander and stimulates your emotions. Laugh. Sing. Make music. Not only will these activities give you a break, but they’ll help you find balance.

When I try to do too much concentrated, brain-rich work, I begin to wither away.

Use your intention as a life-preserver.

  1. Set an intention every morning that you can return to throughout the day.
  2. Use a tool like Personal Kanban to avoid the curse of “Multi-tasking” (or, more accurately, rapid attention switching). Personal Kanban can help you select three critical priorities for your focused attention during any given period.

My personal suggestion: Find your passion.

Passion can help you concentrate without efforting and find flow without force. Being delighted by what you’re doing is a natural and powerful way to avoid distractions.

Explore, experiment, discover.

It’s a brave new world out there, and we’ll all be learning how to build brain power and sustain our attention in a time of increasing distractions. Think of yourself as a pioneer.

If you crack the code, let me know immediately!

Till then, remember the ad:*

A mind is a terrible thing to waste…

I want to preserve mine, and my attention, as long as I possibly can.

 

*Factoid: that famous ad was designed by Young and Rubicon in the 1940s to promote the United Negro College Fund.

Attention! Yours is at risk!

You know how it starts…

You’re trying to concentrate on the computer, perhaps reading an article, writing a document, thinking through a problem, or searching for a recipe. After five minutes of concentration, a text pops up. You think, Might be a family member or something else urgent. Better check it. You discover it’s nothing important and return to work. A few more minutes of work and you see a notification flash on the screen: an email from a good friend you’ve been missing. You think, I can just take a moment to check it, right? 

These little interruptions seem innocuous enough but beware, with each interruption that asks you to switch tasks and take your attention away from what you’ve been doing, your focus, information retention, and productivity go down. Now it will take you longer to complete that project.

Welcome to the world of distractions

When it comes to concentrating, the odds aren’t stacked in our favor. Even focusing on a relatively simple task requires your brain to do three things:

Maintain a goal–and filter out what’s not relevant.
Hold information by using your working memory.
Avoid distractions. (LIke that text and email.)

Staying focused for fifteen minutes shouldn’t be hard, except that it turns out it is. The amount of time we, in our culture, can concentrate has decreased.

This week, I confirmed the extent of our problem by reading The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World. Authors Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen present extensive research results to document how the brain works, what it takes to maintain attention, and why we’re so easily distracted.

They cite an experiment in which students from middle school, high school, and university levels were tasked to study something important for fifteen minutes.

The finding? Students in all three groups could stay focused for an average of only three to five minutes before switching to another task–often social media or texting. (How does anyone still teach?)

Every time a student darts away to check social media and then comes back to a task, she or he has lost some cognitive power and usually, the tasks will take longer to complete.

Attention is an endangered quantity.

Those of us who are a little, er, older are even more at risk because, according to the research, we have a harder time filtering out distractions. Once a little distraction slips through the gates of a mind, it is harder for us to regain focus.

Threats to our attention are everywhere. Most of us live attached to distraction machines called smartphones

The statistics on how much time younger people spend texting or talking on their phones is boggling. Smartphone addiction, though, isn’t limited to the young. Check out the stats on what happens to our anxiety levels when we can’t be with our phones.

Just at a time when the United States should be developing minds capable of “deep work” and sustained thinking, that can lead the way toward innovation, we’re driving ourselves to distraction.

The perils of task switching

You’ve probably heard that you shouldn’t multi-task.

The word “multi-task” is a computer term that is used to mean doing two or more activities requiring thinking at the same time. It doesn’t accurately describe what humans do. Computers can run multiple programs at the same time. Unfortunately, you, stuck in an analog mind, cannot. What we call “multi-tasking” is just switching our attention very rapidly between tasks.

This skill of task-switching comes with a price. Gazzaley and Rosen document how much it costs us in terms of information retention, increased time required to complete a project, and reduced results. Not to mention the increased anxiety we feel when we’re trying to think about several things at the same time.

Or the fact that focusing elsewhere while driving or crossing an intersection, is not safe.

The risks of boredom and Shiney Object Syndrome (SOS)

The authors write, “There is evidence that the rate of both our boredom and our anxiety accumulation while engaged in information foraging is actually increasing in recent times, seemingly in direct response to modern technology.”

Boredom then makes you more susceptible to the next shiny digital object tempting you.

Let’s face it, checking texts and email can be fun, especially when occasionally we’re rewarded by a piece of information that engages us–Intermittant reinforcement being the most persuasive.

It’s certainly more fun for most of us than:

  1. Doing our taxes,
  2. Trying to finish reading that long article that is critical to our work.
  3. Writing that document we committed to do that is moving like sludge.

Compared to our not-so-thrilling project, a text message can seem seductively urgent. The more boring or mundane our “real work,” the more susceptible we are to interruption.

As a high school senior in English class, (way back then!) I was often bored and tried to read novels while my teacher lectured. (It turns out, that he didn’t appreciate this!) Imagine if I’d had a mobile device. With access to instant amusement, I’d have transcended his ramblings altogether, and let my grades take the hit.

I repeat: I wonder how anyone teaches these days.

Every time students dart away to check social media and then return to their tasks, they lose some cognitive power, and their projects will take longer to complete. Their information retention goes down. Often, so do their grades.

Artfully crafted seduction

Social media, that wasteland of shiny objects, is engineered to distract your attention. Sometimes, after a stint of work, I’ll offer myself a brief reward (well earned), and will scan media headlines or skim Facebook.

My break begins innocently enough. But then in the Washington Post headlines, there are at least two juicy tidbits, and I have to find out what (fill in the blank) the President has done this time. On Facebook, click-bait headlines are waiting to seduce me. Before I know it (this is true, alas) I’m checking out what ten top models look like without their makeup, reading a list of ten celebrities who I didn’t know recently died, and yes, learning whether Brad Pitt would go back to Jennifer Aniston (I’m embarrassed.)

 

What to do?

This week, I suggest that you read The Distracted Mind to learn about the magnitude of the problem, and then send me your solutions.  Next week, I’ll share your ideas along with the authors’ and some of my own.

Just in case you have any doubt there’s a problem, I’ll close with some statistics about smartphone use from the book:

55% of adults access their smartphone while driving.
35% use them in a movie theatre.
33% use them on a dinner date.
32% of parents use them while attending their children’s school functions.
19% use them in church.
12% use them in the shower.
9% use them during sex. (You got me there…)

Believe me friends, we have met the enemy and he is us.

Just notice the role your smartphone and other attention diverting devices have in your life, and we’ll talk more next week (assuming, of course, that you’re not too distracted.)

How to Do More by Juggling Less

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Do you ever feel as if you have too many balls in the air?

We all have our limits. Ever watch champion jugglers? As their audience applauds, they add object after object to their juggling mix. The crowd watches in awe and anticipation, knowing that if the jugglers add one too many, everything will come crashing down.

Life can be like that, too. When we have one too many projects in the air, our stress peaks, our thinking fuzzes, and we start dropping the balls.  Often, we didn’t ask for these intruders to our schedules. We had a reasonable to-do list, but then the phone rang, and we had to add two more urgent items to our must-do list.

Maybe we don’t spill all our balls, but instead of feeling in balance, we’re now stressed, overwhelmed and disappointed in ourselves.

Not a good reward for our efforts.

How can we stop being pushed by our to-do lists and use our planning to pull us towards what we want to do?

Enter Personal Kanban

Last year a book came out, Personal Kanban by Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria Barry, that suggested a new approach to personal time management based on the principles of Kanban, used in the highly productive Japanese system of “Lean Manufacturing.”

Personal Kanban invites you to take information out of your head, write it down, and make it visual. It also encourages you to limit the items you are working on at any one time.

The process is helpful for those of us who: 1) carry a large amount of information in our heads (I used to, but that was forty years ago), and 2) try to work on lots of items from our to-do list at any one time and then complete very few.

Personal Kanban is about flow and releasing you from the rule of the to-do list. It’s ridiculously easy to try.

You write onto post-its all the work, projects, activities, and ideas for projects that you have on your plate. Then you stick the post-its on a whiteboard, placing them in an area you label OPTIONS or BACKLOG. (Name the columns as you like.) You then choose items to slide into a column marked READY from which you’ll choose three items for your DOING column. When work is complete, you slide it into DONE.

Then, voila, you monitor your flow of work and reflect on the results.

The key is to limit your work in progress–the “doings.” Rather than doing a little bit of a lot of things at any one time, you focus on the few things you most want to get done. If you are working on a big project, you slice off the piece you can do today–the one call you need to make.

You focus more, stress less, and typically get more done. But Personal Kanban is not just about getting a lot of stuff done–it’s also about making choices that can, in the words of Marie Kondo, bring you joy.

Resist the tyranny of to-do’s

Focusing on to-do lists can fry your brain because to-do lists are static, and almost always getting longer. What was “important” today, to use Stephen Covey’s categorization of high-value activities, may not be important tomorrow.

With Personal Kanban you can revise the flow based on new information or shifts in your life. For example, I may be writing a chapter of my book (important), when I remember my Granddaughter’s birthday. I slip it onto my DOING list, perhaps bumping something else because I know that sending her a gift is key to my satisfaction for the day.

Kanban maps are fluid and visual. They can also be colorful–which for me is a big plus. Seeing the rows of columns allows me to focus on the few things I can do, not the whole list of options for what I might do.

Instead of being “pushed” by my to-do list I’m “pulled” by what I choose to do.

It’s super easy to start

With barely more information than what is in this post, you can set up your system, although I highly recommend the book . or some of the explanatory videos you can find online.

Step one:

You start by doing an enormous brain dump and visualizing ALL of the work and activities clamoring for your attention. Take out a stack of post-its and write down everything you have open, or might have open in the way of a project, commitment, one idea to a note.

The trip you are planning. The birthday gift you need to buy. The client you need to call back.

You will stick all your post-its or stack your cards in an area (column or list” in Trello) called OPTIONS. (In the original system it was called BACKLOG.)

Step Two

Create a column called READY. The work that you select represents what you will choose from today. You can also call it TODAY. Every day you will spend a few moments reflecting on what is essential today and arranging your lists. You want to be able to finish what you start, so you may want to break apart big projects into bite-size steps. Even a project as small as putting out a blog post can have discrete steps like “write,” “edit,” and “publish.”

Step three

Here’s the critical part. Select up to three post-its or cards for your  DOING column, your work in progress This will focus your attention on what you want to finish today. Once you complete a task, you move it into the DONE column. After you’ve completed your three work-in-progress items, you can choose something new, or take a break and celebrate.

Step four

Once a work-in-progress is complete move the card or post-it to your column called DONE.

If you need to wait for a response from someone, create a column called WAITING, or The PEN or ON-HOLD and put the card in this waiting bin.

Voila, Now you have a visual map that allows you to watch your work, activities, and processes move from ready to complete.

Step five

Take time to reflect on what you learn. You can even add a column called reflections. And celebrate!

It’s flexible

I do my Kanban map on the computer, using a piece of online software called Trello that feels like a mobile whiteboard. With Trello, you create cards and “pin” them on an electronic whiteboard. Even though I love the idea of standing in front of a large whiteboard sticking on lots of colorful post-its, the portability of an online program works better for me.

With one week into the process of using Personal Kanban, I’m already achieving results with less stress. I’m less tempted to go on a task marathon and start checking items off my list just because I can. With Personal Kanban, I make choices. I may decide to slide some small tasks into DOING, but I do this intntionally based on my view of the whole. And most importantly, I limit what I’m focused on at any one time.

The authors write,

We need to define our work, rather than let our work define us. To escape the tyranny of push [by our to-do lists or obligations], we must complete what we start, exercise options for effectiveness, and increase the occurrence of what brings us joy.

Yep. Who wants just to do tasks when we can choose more joy?

Marie Kondo, Will you be my Valentine?

Dear Marie,

I know my invitation may come as a surprise after all the snide comments I made about tidying in this blog. You have every right to be offended.

I read your book once, standing up, in the bookstore. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. (My approach saves the clutter of buying new books.)

Your message, which has been praised and parodied, was too austere for me. The word “tidying” made me think of “white gloves,” and “princesses,” who probably have more than they need, incidentally.

It was hard to accept tidying because I believed, and still do, that creativity can thrive in chaos. A life that is too strictly organized feels confined to the straight and narrow. I always find some moment of inspiration when I go through an old stack of papers, books, memorabilia, or the top drawer of my desk. Austin Kleon, whose book, Steal Like an Artist I love, would agree with me, by the way.

Why else would we be fascinated to rummage around in old attics, trusting that some magic could be found in the mess?

Once upon a time,  I participated in a spiritual community that favored simple living before minimalist was a word. The teaching was to have no more and no less than you needed. Some participants were able to reduce their belongings to what could fit in a half dozen Tupperware boxes.

I succeeded at simplifying a bit, but I always rankled at the idea that I “should” let go of what I loved. I flunked the teaching.

That’s why Marie, I wasn’t well set up to enjoy “tidying.”

What turned me around to tidying

This weekend I binged watched your new Netflix series in the midst of Seattle’s once-in-a-lifetime (I hope) blizzard. I watched as you taught your approach to eight different households. 

First off, thanks for picking a diversity of clients – not just affluent, straight, Caucasians. I counted African-Americans, Pakistani, Japanese-Americans, Caucasians, gays, married straights, married lesbians, and one widow, all at different stages of life. Their homes ranged from tiny apartments to big houses. You greeted all your clients with respect and a squeal of delight.

I once worked in Japan, so hearing you speak Japanese was a treat, as were the moments at the beginning of each consultation in which you’d sit in Zen-like silence, meditating to connect to the spirit of the home.

I was never good at tidying because I thought it meant austerity. Something that would be good for me to do. It brought as much joy as my mother did when I was eight and she made me stay inside on a sunny day and clean my room.

But now your words, “Does it spark joy?” are ringing in my head. Some may call them corny, but I think you’re in touch with something here. I started looking at my belongings in a new way.

I was so glad that you didn’t insist that your clients prepare themselves to sleep on woven tatami mats instead of beds, and keep their belongings in a closet tucked behind a couple of shoji screens, like my Japanese friends. You knew that wouldn’t work for people in the States. I loved watching the man, of Guatemalan parents, who was proud to have reduced his 165 pairs of sneakers to 45. 

You seemed to understand what your clients were facing, not just with their stuff, but with the impact that their belongings had on their relationships. You helped them remember what was most important. Maybe that’s what I liked most about your show.

Giving tidying a try

With the blizzard burying our town, and no electric power, I started tidying my bathroom and then did my dresser. That question, “Does it spark joy for you?” shifted my mood, together with the process you suggest of always thanking your belongings for their service before you let them go. Crazy idea perhaps, but it made it much easier for me to give things away.

My belongings started speaking to me in new ways. I discovered items I had forgotten and felt like I was re-meeting old friends. I resolved to pay them more respect. 

I admit, I took a few liberties with your system, and I followed more of a  “let’s do what I can” process. I approached my book collections separately rather than heaping all my books together. I used a small-steps approach.

The hardest so far has been my vases. I study Ikebana, the Japanese art of arranging flowers, so I can always justify getting another vase. But then I bet Imelda Marcos, the queen of obsessive shoe collections, could always justify buying a hundred more shoes. One by one, I asked the joy question to my vases and started letting some go.

Please be my Valentine

Sparking joy feels a bit like magic, and we need more of that today. Tidying feels like an invitation to feel the essence of things and to appreciate everything you have. Plus, it brought me joy.

I get so tired of reading about bad news that I am powerless to change. Tidying a drawer helped me to feel a little optimism again. 

I know, Marie, that you’re probably not available to join me on Valentine’s Day. I just wanted to tell you that I appreciate you a lot. 

My real Valentine’s date will be my husband. I used your question and discovered that yes, he still brings me joy.

 

 

 

Improve your day a click at a time

What if one click of acknowledgment could reinforce the skill, craft, or project you’re working on?

Why not reinforce the best of what you do, while letting the rest, well, fade away?

The limits of willpower

In working alone on my book, blog, or podcast, I sometimes need to rely on willpower to keep going. But that elusive resource eventually runs out, leaving me struggling to keep my engines going. 

Willpower is definitely overrated. Imagine the results (my guess: zero) if we asked our dogs (or staff) to stay motivated on willpower alone. Fueling on willpower is too hard. 

Treats and rewards can be much more helpful…but I’ll come back to that later.

We all need acknowledgment and positive reinforcement, and I’m learning just how important that is from my new ventures into dog training.

A new (older) foster dog recently joined us, the irrepressible Jackson. A bit of training was in order and we hired a coach who specializes in “Clicker Training.” I’m hooked. I want to use Clicker Training on me.

It’s is a form of positive reinforcement that comes out of Behaviorism, a branch of psychology I used to criticize. Rats working in boxes weren’t my thing.

But I’m reconsidering now.

Basically, you click to reinforce behaviors you want so that they will increase. You ignore or don’t reinforce negative behaviors and they decrease. That may sound manipulative, but Clicker Training works a lot better than the punish and reprimand school of dog training. 

A clicker is a small device you hold in your hand and immediately click when your dog does what you’ve asked for (or makes a credible try). You click to reinforce his good choice and always follow with a small treat.

Your massively intelligent dog thinks, “Wow, I did something right, yum, treat is coming,” and feels reinforced for doing the behavior you wanted.

Clicker training has been used to shape the behavior of a tiny crab and to train champion sheepdogs. It works.

Our new dog, Jackson, at ten years old, is on for the program. He believes all treats are good.

I’m now wondering if I could clicker-train myself?

Click to train leaders

As I think about it, I suspect a sizeable chunk of management literature has borrowed liberally from behaviorism, such as Ken Blanchard’s classic The One Minute Manager, in which he advocates “catching people in the act of doing something right,” or Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit, in which a series of cues are set up to shape a habit you want to develop.

Maybe a lot of management consulting could be replaced with clicker training. Hmmm. Just an idea…

How we might click to train ourselves

I’m no expert on Clicker Training, but I’ve distilled a few principles to try:

Relaxation first

Our dog trainer, Maggi McClure, exudes ease when you’re with her. You relax and  shift from thinking, “Oh my god, you wouldn’t believe that (bad) thing our dog just did,” to “Let’s have some fun together.” This definitely helps the dog.

For people: Since over-efforting is my M.O., I could use more ease at the start of my workday. A little breathing, meditation, or relaxation would surely improve my focus.

Plus, fun makes me more functional.

Become more observant

We often think we see what dogs are doing, or focus on what they “should” do, and miss what they’re actually doing. Clicker trainers become very observant. Is that waggy-tail a show of happiness or a reflection of stressed over-excitement?

For people: I often don’t see my own behavior. I don’t notice that I’m tensing, demonstrating signs of stress, “over-adrenalizing,” or making a project harder than it needs to be.

Focus on the positive

Clicker trainers catch dogs in the act of doing something right, even if it’s the smallest beginning step of a command, such as a head turn. They still occasionally reprimand. But they’ll try to substitute a positive pathway for your pooch’s knock-guests-down-at-the-door behavior.

For people: Some writing coaches feel it’s their job to rip apart student writing. Actor/writing-coach Ann Randolph uses only positive reinforcement to power up her improv-writing courses. She finds something interesting to highlight in each participant’s writing. You learn to build on your successes and, even more importantly, you’re motivated to keep writing.

Be specific

Clicker trainers break down actions into the small steps required to succeed with a command. It takes artistry to break a skill into manageable bites. For example, before a dog will come to you, he needs to look at you.

For people: Big goals can give you a direction. But I’ve discovered that a broad goal like “I want to write a book” is too general to help me focus my day. I’d be better off identifying the specific steps I need to take or break apart the particular skills I need to learn. 

Acknowledge

In clicker training, the click tells the dog immediately that it’s got the right idea. (Timing is key.)

For people: I wish someone would click to tell me that I’m doing my life right. (God, are you listening?) Short of that, I have to be my own clicker and find friends who can remind me of the positive steps on my path I’ve made.

Reward

The clicker is always followed by a reward.

For people: Give yourself more rewards. You deserve them. They don’t have to make you fat. (Jackson is on a strict diet.) Make a list of the best low-calorie treats, breaks, or special experiences you could use to reward yourself for even small progress. (Send me your list, please…)

Keep the sessions short and focused

Maggi recommends lots of 2-minute dog training sessions and tells us to end with a win while the dog is still focused.

For people: Determine how long you can sustain deep focus and schedule accordingly. For me, it’s about 25 minutes. After that, I’ll perform better after my reward!

Build on success

As a dog becomes more successful, clicks and rewards can become more intermittent. If he’s mastered one behavior, you add a new challenge. If that new challenge proves too big (“don’t chase squirrels” would almost always be too big),  you ease back to a place where he can again experience success. You keep the overall experience positive. 

For people: Count all the ways you’ve improved so that you can remember on one of those dark “the-sky-is-falling” days.

Go off duty

When a dog is not in training, he’s off duty.

For people: Go outside and play.

Obviously, not all learning can be built around stimulus-response. Some deep learning may require years of thought and questions. Or, it may come in one unplanned Eureka moment.

Yet, the idea of identifying a lot of small positive steps, and giving myself lots of specific acknowledgments and rewards is appealing to me.  I’ll just have to be my own clicker.

Ruff!


Fill with joy and arrest the stress in the holidays

Does it ever feel to you that someone is tightening the gears on life in order to speed up time, especially during the holidays?

Years ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Boeing Commercial Aircraft factory in Everett, Washington, where the new 777 jetliner was being assembled. The Boeing guide pointed out how the gears under the seats could be tightened to decrease the space between the rows, a potentially useful feature if you were selling the aircraft to a country of midgets.

I noticed, shortly afterward, that legroom did start disappearing on aircraft, an effort, I believe, to reverse engineer us into becoming midgets.

I don’t know who is responsible for tightening my experience of time during the holiday season. Every year, for those who celebrate Christmas, the number of days in the buying season appears to be expanding (has it spilled into September yet?), while our experience of time, or the lack of it, is increasingly compressed. Our collective buying hysteria is like a horse race, where we line up and wait for an announcer to cry, “And they’re off,” as we rush our way out of the gate, not quite sure how to even find the finish line.

No wonder we’re stressed.

If you celebrate another holiday like Hanukah, the winter solstice, Kwanzaa, or New Years, I hope you’re feeling more sane. I invite you to still take a few ideas off this page to apply to any big, stressful events in your life.

Make a list and check it twice.

Don’t worry about being naughty or nice. Just make a list of everything you want to do and realize that not even a superhuman filled with holiday spirit/s could accomplish it. Then take out a fat sharpie pen, maybe a red one, and, with gusto, put lines through at least a third of the items.

If this feels impossible (“You don’t understand, I have to buy a gift for my nephew…”), invite your BFF for a Toasted White Chocolate Mocha (real drink) and ask her or him to edit the list for you. Hopefully, they will question: You HAVE to put up a tree, attend two holiday concerts and go to the office party this weekend??? You HAVE to buy a gift for your thirty-five year old nephew who has never once said thank-you? You HAVE to decorate your bathroom?

The more obligations you can cross out, the more time you’ll have for the holiday experiences you most care about.

Drop Perfection. Pretty good is good enough.

Think of imperfections as the spice of life, like one of the secret ingredients in the Chestnut Praline Chai Tea Latte (real drink). You need them to prove that you’re human, and that applies to the people around you as well.

Set your tolerance meter on peak strength as you laugh at the foibles and failings of yourself and others. Your teenage daughter is acting surly? She’s proving herself human; don’t let it spoil your day. Your husband forgets to buy the candles before the party? You aren’t able to send out cards?  And that prize batch of cookies that chars when the doctor calls at the wrong moment?

More proof.

Remember that in the original Christmas story, the inn blew the reservation, the motels were all full, and the couple ended up staying in a barn without even a cot. Your mishaps and those of your friends are nothing in comparison.

(Special holiday bonus: My official permission for you to have an occasional, scrumptious meltdown if you need one.)

Accentuate the positive

With a tip of the hat to Johnny Mercer’s hit song from 1944, we need to give more attention to what we love so that what we don’t can roll off our backs. Confession: I do not like crowds, lines, Christmas carols played in elevators, holiday offers over Amazon, or malls. But I love putting up a Christmas tree, singing carols, decorating the house, quiet meditations and choosing a gift for someone I love (when I’m not stressed). And hot baths.

Focus on what you love and give yourself a lot of it. If you want to go to three Messiah concerts, keep White Christmas playing on the stereo, or sip a juniper latte (real drink) every day, do it. If you love winter snow, why not take a special drive up into the mountains and send a loving note to your in-laws telling them their gift will be coming soon?

If you choose to drink a cup of low-fat, highly-sugared eggnog every day, fully savor it, while allowing visions of January exercise programs to dance in your head. (Private note to husband.)

The holidays are meant to be a time of joy and celebration, so if you fill up on joy, you can throttle down on stress.

Take ten minutes (or less) to make a change

There will be a few things you might not prefer but can’t avoid, like the obligatory holiday office party that can be so deadly for us introverts.  That’s why I wrote my little e-book The Ten Minute Holiday Miracle: Reclaim your joy and sanity this season in ten minutes or less. It’s designed to help you create small intentions that change your feelings about your experiences, or to trick the stress out of you.

Rather than take space here to describe these stress-busting secrets, I’d rather give you the book as a gift. Pick it up by clicking here.

Remember the holidays don’t have to be all sunshine and joy. It’s OK to embrace a little darkness, too. This is the season of light, and the light will always bring out a few shadows.

Enjoy the ride, and, even when life feels like a roller coaster, buckle up your seat belt and send out some extra love.

It’s needed more now than ever.

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