A while back, a friend of mine told me he was going to try to stop talking to himself. I was horrified—why would anyone want to do such a thing?!
I have been chatting with myself since I was a kid. As an only child, I spent a lot of time alone in my room talking to my dolls and acting out scenes. I also had pretend friends with whom I carried on lengthy conversations inside my head.
Decades later, I still speak to myself out loud when no one is around. I do this pretty much every time I am driving by myself in the car and often in the kitchen.
If you’re anything like me, you talk to yourself in order to rehearse a presentation for work or to practice your answers for an upcoming job interview.
In addition to these scenarios, I tell myself stories from my life. Some of these stories are unpleasant, like the events leading up to my friend’s early death. Reliving such memories is like being voluntarily stuck in a nightmare, but at least I know the outcome.
Not all the stories are negative. After I quit drinking, I used to pretend that I was being interviewed on a podcast, and I would go over the steps that led up to my decision and the challenges I faced. I did this over and over, kind of like playing a favorite song.
Clearly I was in need of new material. Brain space is precious, and I was wasting my creativity by repeating the same old stories.
I decided that I would make an effort to explore new ground whenever I talked to myself. At first, I resisted and pouted. But it got easier and more natural in no time, thanks to these three templates:
Kid therapist: I pick something that has been bothering me, and I try to get to the root of the issue. Basically, I act like a little kid and keep asking “but why?” after each answer. The theory is that you should be able to ask yourself at least four or five whys before you get to the good stuff—the real reason why you can’t stop stewing over something. I did one recently that went on for nine whys!
Burner shift: I pick an idea that has been sitting on the back burner of my mind and talk through what would be required to move forward. What could be shifted from the front burners to make room for this project? I try to envision the potential obstacles along the way and how I might work around them. And I envision the potential rewards that I would experience, not just at completion but during the process as well.
Writing detective: Let’s say I’ve come up with a topic for a blog post, but I haven’t stared writing it yet because I’m not sure where it’s going. I play the role of a dogged detective who is questioning me to solve the mystery of what this piece is about. This process almost always helps me locate the main points of the piece, and I usually come up with some good turns of phrase as well.
Recently I was driving, and I caught myself starting to narrate one of my old stories. I was delighted to realize that it had been a while since I had hit replay on one of my top hits.
I will probably keep talking to myself until the day I die. Here’s hoping I manage to keep it fresh!
Last week a friend announced on Facebook that they would be scaling back their level of engagement on the platform. Declarations of temporary breaks or permanent departures from social media have become increasingly common. I’ve done this myself several times over the past five years, typically returning with a fresh perspective on the benefits these networks offer and the pitfalls they present.
Three years ago, I posted an article on LinkedIn identifying the Five Ways Social Media Can Lift Our Lives. This morning I went back and re-read that piece, and I still agree with every word of it. In fact, the former supervisor mentioned in the opening of that article sent me a friendly text message just the other night. Once again, I was reminded that social media has helped our friendship thrive beyond the handful of years that we worked together.
When I joined Facebook and Twitter back in 2008, it was primarily for my job. I couldn’t imagine how I would use social media personally. I remember thinking how ridiculous it would be to post that I had just done some yardwork or gone grocery shopping. And yet, in the time since then, it has become perfectly acceptable for users to regularly update their friends and followers on the most mundane aspects of their lives.
To test this out, I opened Facebook, and within seconds I was able to learn what someone had for dinner last night, how much exercise another person has been doing for the past month, and the kind of behavior a third person considers cringey on Zoom calls.
To be clear, I am not here to complain about over-sharing. If you are someone who posts multiple times a day, I salute you! I enjoy seeing what everyone is up to, honest.
I love to talk about my life and my thoughts as much, if not more, than the next person. For years I have welcomed the green light to post endless photos of my cats, my political viewpoints, and pics of my meals.
But somewhere along the way the novelty and utility morphed into something closer to an addiction. The expectation that I share my life in real-time because others were doing so began to feel oppressive.
These days, I am barely on Facebook. I deleted the app from my phone more than a year ago, and I feel much better for it. No longer do I get sucked into pointless arguments in the comments, and I am able to keep my scrolling to two short sessions per day (well, mostly).
TikTok came and went on my phone in a matter of weeks due to my obsessive nature, and I’m on Clubhouse, but I’ve yet to actually do anything on there.
Instagram is a different story. I have four individual accounts that I feel compelled to update regularly, which can stress me out—even though it is my choice to keep these balls in the air. I enjoy posting on IG and cherish the communities that have developed on the platform, but sometimes it feels like a 24-7 personal branding competition.
I’ve started hating how every time I do something, I wonder if I should post about it. I can’t take a photo or form an opinion without assessing its post-worthiness. Or, if I haven’t posted on one of my Instagram accounts in a while, I feel the need to generate ideas. It’s like I’ve taken on the role of digital marketing and public relations for the business of simply being myself. And don’t get me started on how, as a writer, I should totally have a newsletter by now!
Currently, I’m experimenting with posting only when I truly feel inspired versus pushing myself to keep up a regular schedule. I’m in search of the right balance of posting, consuming, and commenting that makes me feel connected to others without getting all angsty about it. One day I might decide that no such balance exists, and that will be the day I leave social media altogether. But not yet.
In the meantime, consider following me on FB or IG @lisamaybennett!
Basketball isn’t exactly my favorite sport, but I’m familiar with the major players. I was a big Michael Jordan fan back in the day, I’m mildly obsessed with Shaquille O’Neal, and my current faves are Bradley Beal, Steph Curry, and Kevin Durant. If one of the NBA teams from my various hometowns appears headed to the playoffs, I usually start paying attention.
So, when the New York Knicks brought backup player Jeremy Shu-How Lin off the bench in 2012, and the team proceeded to go on a thrilling run, I took notice. It’s hard to overstate the frenzy that became known as “Linsanity.” Lin was on fire, helping resuscitate the Knicks at the end of a disappointing season.
The crowds were going nuts. Fans held up signs with playful puns on Lin’s name—like “Truly a Linderella story”—and waved giant carboard print-outs of Lin’s face. Suddenly, I was counting the minutes until the next Knicks game. The energy exploded through our television, and I found myself jumping up and cheering.
Lin was all over the local New York City newspapers. He appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated several times, scored the cover of TIME magazine, and even had his own flavor of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. The Knicks made it to the postseason thanks in large part to Lin’s play, but he exited prior to the playoffs due to a knee injury. Linsanity was over, but what a ride it was while it lasted.
Not to insult Lin, but I’m guessing he won’t be remembered on the same level as basketball greats like Jordan or LeBron James, or even within the next several tiers of players. But for seven glorious weeks in 2012, no one was more talked about or admired in the sports arena.
I have long enjoyed watching people excel in their chosen fields. I think most humans are drawn to dramatic success stories. Our appreciation is usually limited to those whose work takes place on the public stage—like athletes, actors, musicians, and other performing artists.
As a writer, I have struggled to come to terms with my lack of achievement. While I was in college, I came to believe that rising to the top of the literary world was essential to my sense of self-worth. Anything less would indicate that I was inadequate. Instead of working hard to prove that I was more than adequate, I simply gave up under my own judgmental eye.
These days, I’m comfortable admitting that it’s a long shot I’ll ever be a famous, decorated author. Very few people get to sit atop the heap. But I do believe that Linsanity-like moments of transcendence are available to us all, regardless of who we are or what we do.
I’m talking about experiences where everything comes together, when you’re in a groove and it just feels right.
Here’s a real-time example: I wrote a full-length memoir recently. After thoroughly editing it twice, I recruited some test readers to determine if I have something worth publishing. Despite my fears, I took a deep breath and hit send on a series of emails. The comments have started coming in, and I’ve had conversations with several readers.
For someone who less than five years ago thought she had given up on her writing for good, it sure is a bizarre feeling to discuss your manuscript with someone, to hear what passages touched them and what made them laugh. Maybe this book won’t be read by more than a handful of people, but the experience of having it reflected back to me by someone else has been priceless. I imagine it’s a little like having a crowd painting your name on signs and screaming for you.
A New York Times article reported how Lin was “underestimated and overlooked” for years and credited his breakthrough with the Knicks to his “perseverance, hard work and self-belief.”
You have to be open to the possibility of channeling Linsanity. You have to put yourself out there. You have to let the coach of the universe know that you’re ready to shine.
Stepping up to the line is scary. Going for a promotion, taking your first-ever ballroom dance class, heck, even attending a party after these long lockdowns—challenges of any size can be intimidating.
But if you can get past the assumption that being “the best” is the only trophy worth having, then you can bask in your own personal breakthroughs.
I just wrote a book—a full-on 64,000-plus word book! The process started last September, and it took me five months to finish the first draft. Then, I needed three months to complete two extremely thorough edits. Yesterday, I sent the manuscript out to some trusted folks to give it a read and let me know if I have something worth publishing.
For a person with a history of anxiety and catastrophizing, this is a big leap. Especially since the book is about my self-doubt—how I came to have it, how it held me back, and how I am finally moving past it.
I have much trepidation about the forthcoming responses from my test readers. Amongst my many fears is the sinking feeling that this memoir reveals me to be hopelessly trite. And I don’t think I’m alone in preferring not to be associated with that trait.
Call it what you like—hokey, cheesy, corny, sentimental, earnest—it’s a quality that our society doesn’t typically value, at least not proudly. These words might mean slightly different things, but I think they all imply a certain softness, and being soft marks us as vulnerable.
On the Ten Percent Happier meditation app (which I use faithfully), co-founder and journalist Dan Harris has referred to his aversion to coming across as cheesy. It’s helpful to know that someone as successful as Harris struggles with the connotations of this label.
I’ve come up with some examples from my own life to help illustrate what I’m talking about here. I think you will agree that some of this stuff is pretty embarrassing:
Hokey – Making up a song about our dog, sung to the tune of Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy
Cheesy – Clapping along with an audience on TV (I get this from my mom)
Corny – Using sayings like “good golly!” and “holy guacamole!”
Goofy – Dancing down an empty aisle at the grocery store
Sentimental – Crying while watching This Is Us
Treacly – Crying while watching Top Chef’s Restaurant Week (it was soooo good this season)!
Trite – Hanging inspirational quotes, like “enjoy the journey,” on the wall above my desk
Earnest – Believing an “angel” in human form was sent to save me at just the right time
As I typed this list, it occurred to me that these behaviors and emotions are coded (at least partly) as feminine and/or young. Our culture tends to idolize femininity and youth, but we don’t seem to respect them. There is a delicacy that makes femininity and youth special but not dignified.
Dignity, on the other hand, is a characteristic that conveys strength and power, which is coded as masculine and mature. I’m not saying I agree with the associations of these words as being female or male, or that one or the other is necessarily good or bad. I just wish we could get beyond the kinds of simplistic characterizations that hem us in and make us anxious.
Personally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being soft. We are all fragile sometimes. And if we’re lucky, we feel free to act silly when the mood strikes us. I don’t think anyone is immune to these attributes—it’s just a question of whether we are in touch with them and can embrace them.
If my book, and by extension me, turns out to be sappy, I will wear that badge proudly.
I hoped Jocelyn hadn’t seen any change on my face. If her boyfriend was trying to ditch her, I needed to keep her occupied. That was my first instinct.
“The singing competition?” I asked. “He told you about that?”
“Yeah, he said you tried out after college for that show, and you made it through the auditions.”
Why had my dad told her about that?
“Did he say what happened next?”
“Only that you didn’t make it on TV. But he was proud of you.”
I gulped down some more wine. I could see shadows out in the snow.
“Well, what really happened was…I got there, and everyone else was so talented and ambitious and committed to becoming a star. I chickened out and left after a couple days.”
I had never said that part of the story out loud. Everyone just thought I failed, but I knew it was even worse. My brother was right, I had auditioned because I was trying to win my dad’s approval, and once I got to the next stage, I realized that wasn’t going to be enough.
“What did you sing for your audition?”
Why was Jocelyn so interested in this? Normally, I would have avoided this conversation at all costs, but now I was trying to fill time.
“Midnight by Yaz.”
“I don’t know that song. How does it go?”
I started singing. About halfway through, tears started trickling down my face, and I didn’t care.
Midnight, it’s raining outside, he must be soaking wet Everyone is sleeping tight, God knows I tried my best Darling, you know it looks bad Just lost the best thing that I ever had, well Still I don’t know why I did him wrong, no It’s too late, now, he’s gone to say
Baby, oh, no, can’t leave me now Said, think about it, please ‘Cause I love you, and I need you And I should have thought of that before I did you wrong
Jocelyn stood up suddenly and ran from the dining room. I followed her to the den, where we found the room empty.
“Where the hell are they, Elise?”
“I have no idea. I was in the dining room with you, Jocelyn.” I wiped the tears from my face.
How the hell had Jack snuck everyone out without us hearing? There was a deck attached to the den—maybe they went out that way. Their escape would be a challenge with the kids, so maybe we still had time to catch them.
“Let’s go!” I yelled and ran to the coat closet. We both grabbed our jackets and headed outside.
The snow had piled up as high as the top of my boots. We could see fresh, deep footprints on the steps. I looked to my right to the neighbor’s driveway. The headlights were on, the engine was running, and it looked like Jack was helping the guys clear off the car. In the lights, I could see how fast and heavy the snow was coming down.
“No time for the steps,” I whispered to Jocelyn. “We can cut across the yard, but we have to be careful.”
I reached out and grabbed her hand.
Not only did I want all of them gone, but my mind had shifted, and I could no longer bear the thought of Dean leaving Jocelyn behind. It was a shitty thing for him to do, regardless of her messed up scheme. I could see why Jack was helping Dean, but I didn’t want it to end like this.
The walk from our front step to our neighbor’s driveway included large rocks and tree roots, which were hiding beneath the snow. Had we lived in the house longer, I might have been more familiar with the location of these obstacles. Plus, I was feeling the effects of the wine.
“Maybe he was coming back for me,” Jocelyn said. “He just wanted me to finish up with you.”
We both knew that was a stretch.
I stepped on something and almost fell. “Watch out here, I think there are some stones.”
I wondered if they could see us from the driveway. The car had been backed in, and its headlights were pointed toward the road. With all the snow, I thought there was a chance we might surprise them.
“I need to sit down a minute,” Jocelyn said. She was flushed, like when she first arrived at the house.
“We need to keep going.”
“I can’t.” She was brushing snow away, creating a place to sit on one of the stones.
“Stay right there, I’m heading up to stop them,” I said.
I looked back once at Jocelyn sitting there in the snow. She looked so alone yet peaceful.
As I got closer to the driveway, I shouted, “Hey, you guys forgot someone!”
The three men turned to look at me trudging through the snow. The car was pretty much dug out.
“Elise,” Jack started to say something, but I cut him off.
“Jack, how will Jocelyn get home if they leave her here?”
“She seems pretty capable of handling herself,” he said.
I had reached the car. I could see that the fake mechanic dude was using our shovel to create a path in front of the car.
“How do you guys think you’re going to drive away in all this snow?” I asked.
“Oh, we’re getting out of here, don’t you worry,” said Dean.
“Let me get Jocelyn, she’s right down there,” I pleaded, motioning to the property line between the two houses.
“Look lady, she might have gotten to you, but I’m done. I don’t think she knows whether she’s lying or telling the truth anymore.”
Dean and the other guy jumped in the car. I could see the kids in the back seat. They looked terrified.
I pounded on the driver’s window, “You are putting these kids’ lives at risk!”
Dean rolled down the window a crack, “Don’t you tell me what to do with my kids. Now move the fuck away!”
I stepped back and fell on my ass. I wanted so badly to just lie down in the snow and stay there. As Jack leaned over to help me up, the car started moving forward.
“Jocelyn!” I screamed and ran back the way I came, with Jack behind me.
Jocelyn was gone.
There were footprints leading to our stairs. We followed them and headed up to street level in time to see the car driving slowly in the other direction. There was no sign of Jocelyn.
Jack informed me that he had no interest in looking for Jocelyn. He went in the house, and I walked all over our property, falling several times, calling out Jocelyn’s name.
After I don’t know how long, I finally went inside and told Jack everything, including the parts I had been leaving out for years.
A couple days later I called my dad. I asked him if he had been seeing a young woman who told him she was pregnant. He claimed he had no idea who this woman was—just some scam artist, probably. And then he closed the subject. I resigned myself that I would never know who or what to believe.
Next, I spoke with my mom. She wouldn’t say if she had written a letter to Jocelyn—she said there were some things she might never be able to discuss with me. But when I offered to help her get away from dad and that maybe the two of us could take a break from drinking, she took me up on the offer.
Finally, I called my brother, and we mended our relationship. I didn’t tell him about Jocelyn specifically, but I told him I had seen our dad from a new perspective. I even got him to ease up on Mom.
We never saw or heard from Jocelyn or Dean again. Jack and I lived in that house for 25 years, and I always wondered if she might come back, but she didn’t.
We weathered the pandemic in that house, raised two kids together, and did our best to always tell each other the truth.
But you can only know your own story, right? And that’s a fact you learn to live with, hopefully—sometimes the hard way.
Jocelyn demanded to speak with me, and she refused to do so in front of Dean. Jack did not want to leave me alone with her, but he didn’t want to leave the two men alone, either. Eventually, Jocelyn and I decided to go into the dining room, and the three men headed to the den to sit with the kids.
On the way to the dining room, Jocelyn opened the coat closet, plucked an envelope from her jacket pocket, and carried it with her.
We sat down at either end of the dining room table. I didn’t say a word. Jocelyn was going to have to go first.
She opened the envelope and removed a piece of paper, unfolded it, and smoothed it out on the table.
“This is a letter from your mom,” Jocelyn announced. “Susan, right?”
My stomach dropped like an elevator falling 80 floors.
Jocelyn continued: “Your dad is Greg. We met when he was on a work trip, and we started going out whenever he came to town. He always treated me nice. Then I got this note from your mom telling me to back off.”
“She wouldn’t do that,” I said, trying to keep any hint of emotion from my voice.
Jocelyn held the letter up. “Is this her handwriting?”
I squinted. “I don’t know,” I said, but it was a strong possibility.
“She says here that he’s had girlfriends in towns all up and down the east coast—that there’s nothing special about me. She told me to move on, to find someone who’s not married.”
My wineglass and the open bottle were sitting on the sideboard, hovering at the edge of my vision. I wanted a drink so bad. I needed to stay alert, but my nerves were on fire. Maybe the alcohol would help?
How long had I been thinking about that wine?
“What the heck do you want, Jocelyn?”
“Well, first I want you to tell me that I’m speaking to the right person.”
I took a deep breath. “I don’t think you’re speaking to the right person at all. But if you’re asking if Greg and Susan are my parents, then yes, they are.”
Jocelyn sat back a bit in her chair. She was studying me.
“I don’t think I can help you in this situation. I honestly didn’t know my mother cared enough to send a letter like that.” I reminded myself that there was a chance that the letter was fake—that all or most of this tale was a fabrication.
“Forget your mom. Let’s talk about your dad.” Jocelyn leaned forward again, elbows on the table. “Around the time I got the letter, I found out I was pregnant. I told your dad, and he said he didn’t believe me. He thought I was trying to con him.”
My head was like a busy airport, and my thoughts were a hundred planes getting ready to take off. Which plane should I choose? What was the right path?
Jocelyn turned her palms to the ceiling. “Look, Elise, I really liked your dad. We had some good times. I didn’t expect us to get married or anything, but I couldn’t believe he just blew me off, stopped responding to my texts and calls.”
I rested my chin on my hand and tried to present a calmly quizzical look. “How do I know this isn’t a con? Your plan seems…” I searched for a word that wouldn’t set her off, “…impractical.”
She was offended anyway. “What the hell do you know about my plan?”
Every time Jocelyn’s anger surfaced, my own rose up to meet it.
“I know that you brought two small kids into a stranger’s house. I know you wasted a lot of time while it’s snowing like crazy out there. And I know you’re afraid to talk about this in front of Dean.”
“I’m not afraid of anything, Elise. I just didn’t want him to have to listen to me talk about your dad. He’s already heard enough about Greg.”
I sighed, “Okay…”
Jocelyn took the cue and went on: “When I started showing, I tracked down your dad. Boy, was he pissed off. He told me to get lost. He said I must have gone out and gotten pregnant to try and scam money from him.”
“Did you?” Ugh, that slipped out.
“Jeez. Like father, like daughter. No, Elise. I started dating Dean not long after your dad tossed me aside, but I was already pregnant. Dean doesn’t particularly want to be here, but he agrees with me that a man needs to take responsibility for his kid.”
“So, what do you expect me to do about it, Jocelyn?”
“Tell your dad to be a man and stand up.”
I wondered what would happen if I said no. How far was she going to take this?
“Why should I trust you? How do I know you’re not some grifter trying to hustle my dad or me out of money?”
“Sounds like you watch too much TV, Elise.”
“All right, then tell me, did your car really break down?”
Jocelyn pursed her lips. No answer.
“And who the hell is that mechanic? Seriously, Jocelyn, who is he?”
“He’s a friend of Dean’s. He came along for extra security. I think he must’ve gotten tired of sitting in the cold car.”
“And Dean’s fall on the steps, was that real?”
“I’m fairly sure that was real. I can’t imagine Dean going rogue on me like that.”
I stood up, grabbed that damn wine bottle from the sideboard, poured myself a big glass, and sat back down. I let the glass sit in front of me, untouched for the moment.
“Do you see why I might not trust a word you say?”
“I have a print-out from my doctor. It shows when I got pregnant. It’s in there, too.” She tapped on the envelope, which now that I looked at it, did appear to have another piece of paper in it.
I should ask to see both pages up close, I told myself. She hadn’t handed them to me yet, so she could be bluffing.
Instead, I changed the subject.
“Jocelyn, when we were in the living room you said that maybe you were here to save me. What did you mean by that?”
She smiled, and I immediately regretted asking.
“Maybe this is your opportunity to stop being a daddy’s girl. Maybe I’m here to help you put to rest any lingering illusions you might have about your dad.”
My heart sank. Either Jocelyn was an astute observer of the human condition, or my dad had told her about me. Possibly both.
I could feel my eyes welling up, so I finally lifted the wineglass and took a long swallow.
“You’re just fishing, Jocelyn,” I said in a shaky voice that was not at all convincing.
“Tell me about the singing competition, Elise,” she said, and she leaned back with a smirk.
Before I could burst into tears, something caught my eye in the window behind Jocelyn. Was Dean trying to make a break for it?
The balance in my bank account. My body weight on the scale. The percentage on the Kindle screen that shows how far I’ve read in my book. The number of “Zone Minutes” I’ve achieved according to my Fitbit app. The clock, reminding me that I better finish up one task and get started on the next. The current tally of posts I’ve published on my blog so far this year.
Numbers are everywhere, and if you’re like me, you can get really hung up on them. Paying attention to the time of day, dollar amounts, and other calculations seems like a responsible thing to do. You don’t often hear people warning you off from counting.
So, I was surprised a couple years ago when I read Twyla Tharp’s “The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life” (written with Mark Reiter). I’ve probably mentioned this before, because it really stuck with me: In the book, among other helpful suggestions, Tharp writes, “For one week, I tell myself to ‘stop counting.’ . . . The goal is to give the left side of the brain—the hemisphere that does the counting—a rest and let the more intuitive right hemisphere come to the fore.”
For me, resisting the pull of numbers goes beyond freeing up the right side of my brain (which it absolutely does). You see, I use counting the way I use busywork and worrying, as a form of procrastination. Sometimes numbers become a deep forest where I let myself get lost while creative endeavors starve.
Lately I’ve been testing out a tracking system I developed for establishing new habits. The key to the system is to keep it as simple and pleasant as possible. At first, I was writing down way too much detail, as I am inclined to do. I became preoccupied with setting time ranges for my walks, which then led me to fixate on my watch, instead of just enjoying that I was getting outside and moving my body.
Numbers are deceptive like that. They promise to lend a helping hand, and before you know it, they are using their power to take up real estate in your head. Sometimes numbers are tools and sometimes they are tyrants. I’ve been known to spend an hour choosing five words to pluck out of a piece I’m writing so it doesn’t exceed some arbitrary word limit I set for myself.
But I’m here to tell you that the power of numbers can be restrained.
I’ve started stripping numbers from my life wherever possible. Obviously, you can’t do this with all figures. You need to make it to your doctor’s appointment on time, and you don’t want to overdraw your bank account. But there are lots of places where focusing on measurement does nothing but feed self judgment and obsession.
For example, I have stepped on the scale every morning for a very long time. Eight days ago, I decided to take a week off from weighing myself. It was easier than I thought it would be, but you better believe I stepped right back on that scale this morning once the week was up. I’m hoping to take longer and longer breaks in the coming months. And I’m looking for other areas where counting is truly gratuitous.
Wondering where to start? Take a day when you don’t have to be anywhere and try not looking at the clock. It may just blow your mind how little the time matters.
A life with fewer numbers can be a less stressful, more expansive existence.
Let’s say you are making a big pot of vegetable soup. (Yes, it’s analogy time again.) You find a recipe online but decide to improvise—spending an hour inspecting your spice rack. Once you settle on a mix of herbs and spices, you grab whatever bags of veggies you have in the freezer and dump them into the pot.
Your soup may turn out perfectly fine, but most folks would agree that your emphasis on ingredients was misplaced. Flavor enhancements are important, but this is a vegetable soup. You might want to spend more time choosing and chopping fresh veggies if you want a truly delicious soup.
If you want a truly fulfilling life, you must also choose which ingredients (or actions) to concentrate on. For years, my personal priorities were out of whack. I would spend precious time on busywork rather than creative projects.
If you’re anything like me, this train of thought might sound familiar: I need to write a blog post, but maybe I should put on a load of laundry first. Oh, and now would be the perfect time to rake up those leaves in the front yard. And wouldn’t it be nice to organize that pile of stuff on the coffee table? Laundry’s ready to fold! Ugh, now I’m drained, and I deserve a break. Instead of writing, I’ll just collapse on the couch and watch Netflix.
This was happening over and over again because I was stuck in a loop of focusing on things that were mentally easy to do but still consumed considerable time and energy. It felt good to be crushing it at “adulting”—but this system was leaving me unfulfilled in a larger sense.
Last fall I took a course to help get my life on track and establish a writing practice. In the first phase, we were encouraged to set goals that we could achieve in approximately three months. One of my goals was to write 30,000 words in my book by the end of January.
This goal sounded intimidating, given that I hadn’t written regularly in ages. But if I wrote, on average, five days a week, I only needed to produce 400 words a day over the 15-week period. Totally reasonable!
But to make this happen, I had to stop staring at the spice shelf.
I had to break my habits of:
Making meticulous to-do lists for everyday tasks and striving to check off every item
Jumping on non-urgent things to get them “out of the way”
Turning trivial chores into complicated, time-consuming projects
Insisting on doing everything to my standards, by myself
When I felt the urge to procrastinate with busywork, I had to ask myself:
Will I get to these chores eventually, even if they’re not on a to-do list?
What would happen if I saved this task for later?
Am I being paid to perform this chore at a master level?
Can someone else help with this task or take it over altogether?
Doing the above was the only way I could make time for my writing. I had to suffer the pain of watching the laundry pile up higher than usual, push past the discomfort of seeing those damn leaves every time I walked in the front door, and learn to ignore the clutter on the coffee table.
And by Jan. 31 I had exceeded my writing goal, pounding out a grand total of 40,060 words. Writing was the star ingredient in my plan, and by placing my attention there, I produced the result I desired.
During Thanksgiving week, I took seven days off from social media, television, and podcasts. I’ve unplugged from media before with fruitful results. This round was prompted by Jocelyn K. Glei’s course RESET. Glei suggests taking a break from “inputs that play a huge role in the life of your mind” in order to “open up space for new ideas to flow.”
I’ve been writing a book, so I was eager to see if dramatically reducing external inputs could spark creativity and promote productivity. Full confession: I cheated more than once. However, it was still an illuminating experiment. Three observations stood out:
Silence Equals Discomfort
While making lunch, cleaning, or driving, I would normally listen to podcasts or my own music playlists. Once I eliminated these, I did not like the way I filled up the silence by singing the same lines from the same handful of songs over and over. My chattering mind is accustomed to filling in the blank spots. So, I tried listening to classical music to ease the transition. By the end of the week, I was better able to tolerate short quiet stretches, and I started generating ideas in these open windows.
I’ve come to think of this as giving my brain “me” time. The more silence I give myself, the better my mind gets at focusing my scattered mental energy. Like building muscles, developing a deep comfort with quiet time will take dedication and repetition.
Cable News Makes Me Anxious
One night I was meditating upstairs while my husband was watching TV downstairs. I could sense immediately when he switched to cable news by how angry the voices sounded. I know there’s a lot to be mad about in our world, but this shift in perspective helped me realize how unhealthy it is to pump so much tension into my brain every day.
With more time at home this year, my cable news routine had devolved to include watching my favorite news show on the iPad while preparing dinner, and then my husband and I might watch more news in the living room and again in the bedroom before going to sleep. Thanks to my media break, we rarely tune into cable news now, and I feel much calmer. We do listen to a brief news podcast while eating breakfast—just 15 minutes or less compared to the two hours I had been consuming daily.
Media is Like Pecan Pie
We bought a store-made pecan pie for Thanksgiving this year and salted caramel ice cream to go with it. It was delicious, yet I would never think to eat such a decadent desert regularly, let alone multiple times a day. Perhaps I should treat TV, podcasts, and social media more like pie and less like a staple in my diet.
Balance is everything. When I spend less time on screens, I read books, meditate, and exercise more. And I’ve come to the conclusion that social media works best for me as a tool rather than an endless conversation—I have to know why I’m on there.
But you know what? After cheating several nights in a row, I came to accept that my husband and I enjoy watching TV together in the evenings. And that’s ok. It’s also ok for me to skip a night now and then to write or do yoga.
Media and technology add value to our lives, if used mindfully. I’ve learned that occasional breaks shine light on my habits and alert me to how these inputs might be crowding out other positive experiences.
I love analogies and metaphors. By translating abstract concepts into relatable situations, analogies promote understanding. Analogies and metaphors typically work best when they use everyday examples. Like a worn-out couch.
Imagine you have a sofa in your living room that is faded and sagging. It’s uncomfortable to sit on and stuffing is poking out of the arms.
But this couch has sentimental value. You’ve had it for a long time—perhaps it’s the first nice sofa you ever bought, or maybe your grandparents gave it to you.
You know you need to replace this couch, so if you’re anything like me, you do one of two things…
A) After an embarrassing incident when a visiting relative struggled to extricate themselves from your sofa’s caved-in cushions, you banish it to an extra room or the garage. You now have one chair in your living room and a big empty space. You know you need to go buy a new couch, and you realize that if you keep putting off this task, you’ll be tempted to drag that dilapidated old thing back into the living room. Still, you procrastinate.
B) You go furniture shopping and fall in love with a snazzy new sofa. You purchase it, and the salesperson tells you it will be delivered in four weeks. You have plenty of time to make room for the new couch, right? But you put it off, and the next thing you know the furniture store is calling to set up a time to deliver your new sofa tomorrow, and your old one is still sitting right there.
In both cases, your shabby couch may be a reminder of good times, but it’s not doing its job anymore. At the same time, you have a living room with the appropriate amount of space for one couch. Zero couches will only work for so long, and two couches won’t work at all.
If you haven’t already guessed, the decrepit sofa in my story is a stand-in for any counter-productive behavior that is taking up space in your life. Like, say, social media scrolling, maxing out your credit cards, or gossiping. You may be well aware that you need to scale back or quit this habit entirely. But if you give it up without a plan for how to reallocate all the time and energy it’s been sucking up, you might find yourself right back where you started, like the couch-banisher in scenario A.
Or maybe you do have something you’ve been dreaming about—traveling the world, learning how to play the guitar, or starting a small business. Like the couch-shopper in scenario B, you have to make space in your life for this passion, otherwise where will you put it?
A little over three years ago I realized I was living in scenario B. My writing had been pushed aside while I drank wine and watched TV. I finally had to ditch alcohol and reduce my media consumption to make time for my writing and all the other things I wanted to do.
If you can relate to situation A or B, I’m pretty sure there’s an amazing new couch waiting for you. But you have to do the work of finding it and clearing the way.