Every week, my friend and I go through a bit of a crisis over our Google calendar. We have classes, and we take extra electives, and we work, we’ve lot to read for school, but we also want to read for pleasure, work out, eat healthily, plan the semester abroad, work on our own projects (like this website), take 10 minutes every day to meditate to cope with all of this whilst also finding time to be social and to rest, to learn languages and to travel – and it’s wintertime now – Danish winter – so the lack of sun makes us exhausted after 5 pm. All this conversation usually happens on Sunday evenings, so we’re feeling the blues – I’m feeling it because it’s the end of the week and he’s feeling it because it’s the beginning of the week (a tale as old as time).
How can we accomplish our goals if we have all of this in our calendar? And what starts as merely 20 minutes of planning becomes an existential crisis about the type of life we’re living. So, every week, in alternate rounds, we assure one another that everything is fine, we just need to focus and allow us to have time to rest and “Rome wasn’t built in a day, you know?”.
THE FOUR-BURNER METAPHOR
So, last Sunday, the same happened. I didn’t give it much thought until I was walking back home while listening to Madeleine’s Dore podcast, in which she said:
“In Laugh, Kookaburra, David Sedaris recalls a conversation in the car whereby his friend asked the passengers to picture a four-burner stove: the first burner represents family, the second friends, the third health, and the fourth work. The gist of the four-burner theory is in order to be successful in a particular area of your life, you have to turn off one of your burners – in order to be really successful, you have to cut off two.”
She then questioned this metaphor and explained that maybe the answer to this is less about cutting some of the burners and more about adjusting our expectations on how intensively each one of them burns.
I found this brilliant and it made me think that it would be nice to remember it next time I meet with my friend for some weekly planning – that and some other things that we tend to forget week after week. But better than remembering all this is writing everything down – so, dear friend, here it is:
Firstly, let’s not forget about our shortcomings, shall we?
My friend’s worries usually revolve around wanting to tackle all his goals at once, whilst mine is about how to plan the work that needs to be done with this project. Though the problems might be different, there’s one belief that is inherent in both of us: we have our worth attached to our productivity. In other words, we feel good when we read 200 pages for school and still manage to read a fiction book. Less than that and “I failed on week 7” (in Denmark, we divide the time in weeks – I know, it’s weird).
But as Madeleine Dore said in the interview I had with her: “You don’t need a project or to be productive every moment to be a worthwhile human being, so really think about what it is you want to do for you.”
I guess that this idea of what makes me a worthwhile human being has been stuck with me lately. I wrote in my journal a few days ago:
“The truth is that I have my identity and worth reserved only to the things that I conquer. On paper, I look interesting. You know, I’m creative and I read books in a city that barely reads, and I have a project and I write and I’m going to Brazil… But this appreciation only exists because there’s a physical object that I’m carrying (a book) and a product I’m creating (my project) and lastly, this idea that someone who goes to Brazil must be adventurous. But what if I didn’t have any of that? If I didn’t read or write and didn’t even have that need, nor want to travel abroad? And what if I had never left Lisbon? Would I still like myself?”
This is still a work in progress, but it’s safe to conclude that we are more than the number of pages or the number of times we went running ina particular week, and self-compassion never hurt anyone.
Secondly, we tackle our “list of problems” (and eat the frog)
I wrote this a few months ago in response to a friend who was having a busy period in many areas of her life and was having trouble identifying if she was holding herself back from putting in a full effort or if she was simply not allowing herself to rest:
“Nowadays, I try to break down all the things I need to do. Then I list all my worries and concerns. The next step is to try to attend these worries. So for example, if I’m worried about reading something for school, instead of thinking “well, I don’t want to do it but it’s stressing me out the fact that I might get behind with my reading list”, I put half an hour in my weekly calendar just to read for school. It’s only half an hour – better half an hour than nothing (trying to avoid the all-or-nothing mindset here). That also prevents me from getting confused and wasting time trying to decide if I should read or rest. Also, I consider it an act of self-care to try to “eliminate” the things that are “at the back of my mind”. Lastly – and again, this is a way to avoid the discomfort of being concerned – I try to “eat the frog” every time I can. Now I tell myself “okay, today is no bullshit day” – this is a bit silly, but it helps me to take the actions needed first, before relaxing and taking care of myself.”
So, my friend and I have found it helpful every week to create a list of all the tasks we want to accomplish. At the end of the week, we disregard the list and create a new one – this was an idea I took from the Life Coach School podcast here. We then highlight the tasks that are bothering us the most to then prioritize and act on them.
Thirdly, we only do a maximum of three goals at a time, okay?
But this list of problems exists in parallel with our 2020 resolutions – and my friend and I have many of them! But, if we decide to work on ten goals at once, we’ll get overwhelmed. Besides, we’ll need to spread our energy by ten, so that means that it will take us more time to achieve the results we want. In that way, it’s better to focus on a smaller number of goals and get momentum on them.
This realization came to me this year since I’ve been following Muchelle B’s Life Map workbook that only allows me to focus on three goals at a time per quarter, so I can achieve better results and implement changes one step at a time. Another thing that seems to be working really well this year – which is also part of her workbook – is to write down my three goals and assess if they’re on track at the end of each week. It’s a good way to be intentional with my days!
Lastly, on Sundays, what would you like to do?
One of these Sundays, my friend called me when I was still in bed and asked me “What would you like to do today?”. It was a good question to remind me that school and work only come on weekdays and I’m actually free on the weekends to do something different than spending my budget on cappuccinos and brownies whilst ticking some to-do list. So, I told him“I’d like to go to the beach”. It was cold and windy that day, but seeing the sea always makes me happier. In fact, when I went back to therapy a year ago, one of the first exercises I had to implement was to find an hour in my day to do one of the five activities I managed to “enjoy” at the time (I think they were, in order, going to the beach, writing, reading, dancing and editing videos).
Nowadays, the list is different, and I enjoy life in such a different way that I find myself skipping classes just to read in cafés. But this only happens when my brain goes into “flow mode” and says “Can we please just enjoy a brilliant thing today?”. But other times it is harder to remember to take some “me-time”, especially when we become so fixated on being productive.
It would be nice to include in our schedule some time for doing nothing – maybe Sunday could be that day. As the Pomodoro technique we’ve been trying to implement suggests – taking a 7-minute break after 25 minutes of focused work – maybe we should “Pomodoro” our weeks too.
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