July 28, 2012

Turning Down the Heat

You may wonder where I've been this week.

I've been learning to rest. 

Workaholism, I read somewhere, is a drug just like nicotine or caffeine. It's a stimulant we use to hide our exhaustion, our depression, our frustration. It keeps us busy so that we don't have to think about what's going on below the surface, what's wrong with our pace of life. 

But it's only a temporary fix. The busyness only keeps a lid on life to a certain pressure point. After that, all the junk we've been sitting on--anxiety, estrangement, dissatisfaction, disappointment, uncertainty--overflows like a boiling pot of spaghetti that explodes in a sizzling deluge all over the stove. 

So if overworking, outrunning our problems is only a mask, how do we deal with them? How do we keep our internal pots from boiling over? 

I still have a lot to learn on this topic, but I took a few days this week to intensively focus on these things. Unlearning old habits is hard, but impending burnout is good motivation. These tips might seem obvious from the outside, but it's amazing how effective they are when you really put them into practice!

1. Don't turn on your computer and cell phone until you're ready to make contact with the world in the morning. You can't control the volume of calls and e-mails you receive in a day, but you can set some times that are technology-free. It relieves stress and restores some quiet times of focus.

2.  Make a new to-do list every day on a separate post-it or paper. Make it detailed, including all the tasks you expect of yourself in one day: Get up. Eat breakfast. Fold laundry. Then enjoy the satisfaction of checking items off and throwing away the list at the end of the day. If you didn't finish every last thing, it's OK: you'll have a fresh one tomorrow. This kept me from feeling disappointed about what I didn't accomplish during the day and helped me to realize all that I did. (It also kept me from committing to more things than I could fit on one page.) 

3. Include time for rest in the day. Spend a half-hour or an hour curled up with a book, watching your favorite TV show, taking a nap, or cuddling with pets. I found myself working more energetically, cheerfully, and efficiently during the day when I took a break somewhere in the middle. 

4.  Don't sign up for too many things. It's better to do each activity of your day with enjoyment, margin time, and time to stop and appreciate people than to try and cram 50,000 things into 24 hours. Say no when too many tasks threaten to overwhelm you. 

5. Surprise your family (or whoever you live with) with little, spontaneous acts of love, affection, and service. Empty the dishwasher. Bring in the garbage cans. Leave encouraging notes. When you have fewer things crammed into your day, it's easier to find time for this, and it helps reduce your loved ones' stress load, lifting the overall mood of home. (You'd be surprised how this comes back around, too!)

What are your secrets for setting boundaries in your life? How have you learned to pace yourself and rest? 

I'll be out of town this coming week, so look for my next post on August 6!

July 16, 2012

Cleaning Out

For some reason, summertime always ends up being clean-out time in my life. None of this spring or fall cleaning business. Summer rolls around and I get the instinct to reset my environment, sort through the junk and piles--at least partially.

Some things are hard to clean out, especially books and papers. That's why my room/office sometimes looks like this:

I'm a word person, and words are special to me. That means I keep old letters, journals, and books. (Sometimes it also means I have newspaper ads from 5 years ago...)

But there's one collection of things that I recently found was much easier to throw out than I thought it would be: my high school speech and debate trophies. My mom, eyeing them gathering dust on the shelf, coolly suggested that I look through them. In under ten minutes, most of them had ended up in a cardboard box headed for the garbage.

I was surprised to feel so little attachment. At those weekend-long speech and debate tournaments, we students lost sleep, skipped meals, battled nerves, developed grudges, and drove hundreds of miles to turn our countless hours of practice into one of these trophies. Shiny affirmations of our excellence, they brought fifteen delicious minutes of fame in front of cheering friends and flashing cameras, plus bragging rights. 

Six-plus years later, I didn't remember where most of these trophies came from. When I hustled them off the shelf, they looked just like what they were: plastic and dust. I actually laughed a little at how nervous I used to be, hoping to make it to semifinals, finals, the awards platform. I was suddenly really, really glad that I spent my time in high school working for other things as well: public speaking skills, the practice of giving glory to God, strong friendships. These things remain useful and valuable to me almost every day of my adult life.  

Of course, I did keep a few trophies--a few pieces of plastic that reminded me of special moments. A First Speaker award from a debate tournament where all the other competitors were pre-law-school boys. A cup from the national tournament where I dragged my giant portfolio of visual aids onto the airplane as my carry-on. A first place trophy from my 18th birthday, where an auditorium full of people surprised me by singing Happy Birthday to me on the awards platform. But I kept them because they're memories, not because they're trophies. 

Anyway, my room still looks like a mess, so I'm signing out. Throwing out trophies just reminded me how much I want to spend my time now working for things that will last, that will still matter even when all the microcosmic stress and work is done. 

So I'll cherish the old rugged cross
'Til my trophies at last I lay down
I will cling to the old rugged cross
And exchange it someday for a crown.
~George Bennard, 'The Old Rugged Cross,' 1912

July 9, 2012

Braveheart, Camels, and a Baby Announcement

Back in January, I blogged about my top 5 goals for 2012. Along with reading through the entire Bible, finishing my novel, and reading Gone with the Wind, one of my goals was to be able to buy a car. 

Part of being accountable for goals is reporting on your progress.

So I think it's time you knew...


Name: Toyota Corolla 
Weight: 2530 pounds
Length: 173.8 inches
Age: 6 years
Mileage: 92k
Personality: Amazing

That's my baby (post title got ya, didn't it?) As you might guess, I'm pretty excited. 

I've learned so much about mechanics, business, and stewardship throughout the search and purchase process. But all cylinders, gauges, gears, hoses, and gadgets aside, a car is so much more than a box on wheels. 

To put it in the words of Captain Jack Sparrow:

"It's not just a keel and a hull and a deck and sails. That's what a ship needs. But what a ship is--what a ship really is--is freedom." 

It's come in different forms throughout history: a horse, a camel, a buggy, a bicycle, a stagecoach, a Model T. But getting your first one opens up whole new horizons. The opportunity to go new places, accept new work, and expand your reach is a timeless experience. 

It feels like progress, it feels like love, it feels like...

Do you remember getting your own first car/mode of transportation? What was that first taste of freedom like for you? 

July 2, 2012

Definition: Twentysomething

I've had a lot of conversations lately where people I haven't seen in a while stop talking. They look at me. They squint. Then they go, "You're not in college anymore, are you?"

Nope, Toto. Not in college anymore. 

In fact, I've passed the 1-year mark since college graduation. I have over 12 months of experience living in the "real world." And the topic of twentysomethings, "boomerang kids," and the new, extended adolescence keeps coming up in conversation. Adults of the last generation often shake their heads when I tell them I'm living at home, cobbling together freelance English work. "That's not how it was when I was growing up," they say. "Kids moved out to go to college and never came back." 

And we twentysomethings look at each other in desperate frustration. 

The thing is, we've been handed a different world than the one our parents grew up in. With digital technology making many human-powered industries obsolete and a global economy that's in the tank, many of the jobs our parents inherited no longer exist. Opportunity has looked in the mirror and found itself slimmer. 

Life between college graduation and age 30 has always been fraught with decisions. But in this day and age, it's even more charged with expectations and anxiety. Being a twentysomething can feel like setting out on a cross-country roadtrip with only a city map (or spotty satellite signal, if you take your GPS). You're young, a little stupid, pretty naive, and doing ping-pong between immense enthusiasm and deflating depression. Most of your life experience comes from hearsay. And yet the decisions in these pivotal years set the course for the rest of your life. I find this quotation by Soren Kierkegaard, Danish theologian and one of my most-admired authors, very true: "Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forward." 

This is the time when soap-bubble dreams, spacious and unlimited, start to pop or settle down into the more tangible, more limited suds of reality. To choose your life's course, you want to be a little informed about what you're supposed to be doing here...what life is about...how to be happy and find meaning on a road that can feel confusing, dangerous, and sometimes disappointing. 

So what do you do with a time when it feels like you're blindly charting the course for the rest of your life? 

Meg Jay, a clinical psychologist writing for the LA Times, pounces on this decade of frustration and anxiety to scold twentysomethings for not growing up at a satisfactory pace (you can read the whole article here). Stop acting like kids and start passing the milestones that will make you an adult, she says.

And what are those milestones? "Make money, get married, buy a house, go to graduate school, start a business, save for college and retirement, and have children." 

So life is about making money and wearing a ring on your left hand? Whoops. 

An article by economist John Kay paints quite a different picture of purpose (read it here). Forget racking up a fat bank account or having 10 kids. He says that happiness is reached only by a principle he terms "obliquity." It's like looking at faint stars: when you aim your eyes directly at them, they disappear from your vision. But when you look just to the side, focusing on something else, you can see them quite clearly. 

Kay quotes John Stuart Mill in saying that “aiming thus at something else, [happy people] arrive at happiness along the way." To be happy, to enjoy this space of years we are granted, we need to not make "being happy" our goal. We must aim at something bigger than ourselves, bigger than our finances, our relationships, our legacies, in order to truly hit on what matters, what will satisfy the big, dark, frustrated hole inside most twentysomethings. 


Not that finding love or having a savings account can't be part of that bigger goal. I caught an episode of the show "Secret Millionaire" last night and was inspired to see the enormous power for good in the hands of people blessed with wealth. But buying a house and saving for retirement aren't like the hokey-pokey: they're not what it's all about. 

Kind of a paradox, isn't it? In order to really be satisfied with life, we have to lose ourselves in working for something bigger. We're whole only in self-forgetfulness. Jesus said almost just that: "Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it." 

So yes, I'm a twentysomething, a year out of college, still living at home, learning how to make a living by my pen. But ask me what I'm doing that's bigger than myself. Who knows? I might even ask you the same question.