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Monday, January 9, 2012

Monday Morning Check In: Freedom From Limits

I made an interesting discovery this week. As I have written in the past, I complete “morning pages” daily on a fairly consistent basis. I habitually wake up on the early side of the day and spend about 20 to 30 minutes thinking and writing about whatever is on my mind.

This past week I have struggled with “skittered thoughts.” This is my description for those times when I cannot seem to calm my mind down, when my mind seems to be in the active “monkey mind” as the yoga instructors refer to it. My thoughts alight on one thought only to bounce off a few seconds later and head off in another direction. Very disconcerting.

I accomplish very little on mornings like this. My goal is to complete three full hand-written pages in my composition book (4 if the book is wide-ruled), about 25 minutes’ worth of writing. On “skittered thoughts” mornings, I flit from one idea to another, jump up a minute later to make a note about something, cross the room to complete a small task, and then return to my writing. All of my actions seem relevant at the moment I do them because I cannot calm my mind down to a speed that allows me to grasp the core of an idea to wrestle it onto the page. Instead, I reach to catch the tail end of each thought, and my skin starts to crawl with unexplained physical energy. I am agitated and exasperated because I cannot seem to sit still for more than a few seconds at a time.

Less coffee, you suggest. I wondered about that myself, but I have not altered my caffeine intake in years. I always drink the same size cup of caffeine every day. If I add to my load, I do it later in the morning.

I also thought that the problem stemmed from my having something I needed to really digest on the written page. I worked hard to dig into the words and see what the pen turned up. Nope. Nothing changed.

Then I remembered an old saying, referred to as “Parkinson’s Law.” This expression was published by Cyril Northcote Parkinson in an essay in “The Economist” on November 19, 1955: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” See the full article at: This expression means that if I allow myself 10 minutes to dust my living room, then amazingly enough, it actually takes 10 minutes! The folks use this phenomenon to their advantage by suggesting that house cleaning activities be timed so that they last only as long as the time you allow to complete them.

What could it hurt to try it? I grabbed my iPhone and asked Siri to set the timer for 23 minutes, which she gladly did for me. I asked Siri to play the "Beethoven for Book Lovers" playlist to put me in the writing mood. Then I started writing as fast as I could, because I knew that 23 minutes was about 3-5 minutes too short for how long I would need to write three pages of long-hand writing. Surprisingly, I ended my third page of writing at the sound of the timer going off. I happily report that at no time during those 23 minutes did my mind skitter around my thoughts. I wrote with a purpose and fierce determination to finish before the timer sounded.

I did not stop with that one day’s writing experiment. I continued the rest of the week by repeating the timed writing exercise, and I completed each day’s writing assignment with no return of the skittering thoughts problem.

I went to the grocery store the next day. I had a bank deposit ready to put in the bank, but I had not yet put the checks into my account. Usually I make my deposits as checks become available, and then I grocery shop as I need. I use a grocery list and do not usually succumb to impulse purchases. I do not limit myself much when I shop for groceries; I usually have enough to buy what I need or desire.

Because I had not yet deposited my checks into the bank and was using a debit card, I did not have the funds in the bank to cover shopping in my customary manner. I had to pull some cash from an emergency stash before heading off to the store.

How could I limit my purchases so that I would come in under the amount that I had in my wallet? I grabbed a grocery cart, whipped out my iPhone, and used the calculator function to record the price of each item as I put it in my cart. I kept a running tally of my proposed purchases as I swept through each grocery aisle. At some point I came dangerously close to a total that exceeded the amount of cash in my purse. I surveyed my cart and decided to switch a few items for smaller sizes, and in one case I decided to buy one package rather than two.

I was amazed that I had managed to arrive at a final cart total that fit within the budgeted amount of money I had put in my wallet. As I thought about the entire shopping experience, I realized that I had spent about $20-30 less than I might have spent if I had shopped in my customary way. I had still bought everything I needed, but I had made some choices along the way that altered my final total in a positive way. By saving money on my shopping trip, I had given myself the freedom to make additional purchases in the future, whether groceries or some other category (clothes or books),

What did these “limiting” experiences teach me? I learned that by limiting the amount of time or money I would spend on an activity, I gained more focus on my activity. I concentrated on what I was doing in order to succeed within the limits I had set for myself.

I made choices. I could not buy everything. I could not write about every thought that entered my mind. I prioritized and selected what I purchased or wrote.

There is a value in setting limits. Freedom is lovely, but I notice that when I have a free day (which is exceedingly rare in my life), I do not get very much done. I end my free day wondering where the time went. What I learned this week is that by setting limits to how I spend my time, my money, and my attention, I actually create more time for myself to do something more or at least to do nothing if I so desire.

I once learned of a study about children playing in backyards. In one backyard, the children were told where the boundaries of the backyard were, but there were no visible markers of the boundaries. In the other backyard, the children had a fence that clearly set off the limits of the backyard; the children were very aware where the backyard ended because the fence stood there.

In the unfenced backyard, the children played throughout the entire yard area, but they tended to stop short several feet from the "boundary." In the fenced backyard, the children played in every inch of the yard, including the last few feet within the fence. The conclusion was that when the children were aware of the physical boundaries, they played more freely within the perceived physical limits. When the children were unsure where the actual boundaries stood, they curtailed their spatial play area. They did not feel free to use all the space available to them.

The lesson to be gleaned here? Setting a clearly defined limit allows more freedom. In other words, we gain freedom from limits.

I have given you two examples of how setting a limit might offer more freedom in return. Imagine how many more ways we could use this trick to free us from the thoughts and things we use to limit ourselves.

What a paradox! By setting limits we free ourselves from our limits.

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This is Monday Morning. Have you done your weekly homework? Have you reviewed and completed the checklists from last week? Here is the typical weekly list checklist. Look it over and make an effort to get things in order.

Weekly Checklist

o Have you scheduled all your necessary appointments or lessons for the week on your calendar?

o Is there anything you want to accomplish this week that needs to be broken down into manageable steps over several calendar days?

o What major projects or goals are you working on this week?

o What materials do you need to gather to complete a particular project this week?

o What steps can you take this week to move yourself forward on your goals?

o What can you do today to make some forward progress on your goals?

o What phone calls do you want to make this week? Do you need to schedule time to make those calls?

o What emails do you want to make this week? Do you need to schedule time to write those emails?

o Are you waiting to hear back from someone? Have you scheduled the day when you will follow up with that person?

o What errands do you want to do this week?

o Have you scheduled time to do those errands?

o What materials do you need to gather together to complete those errands?

o Have you sent out your tuition bills for the month?

o Have you done your record keeping from the previous week (or month)?

o Have you scheduled your practice time for the week? Maybe I should move this item further up the list, because I think it is an important daily item.

  I added something new to my checklist. My father sends me a beautiful day planner calendar from the Smithsonian Institute every Christmas. Since I use my iPhone for my calendar and just about everything else in my life, including teaching, I have not found much use for the planner.

This week I tried scheduling my daily activities for each day. I started out the week by "inking" in all the activities, appointments, and lessons I had. Then each day I would visit the day planner and schedule what I would do every hour of the day in general. This is something different than the activity log I completed in the past. I found that I could use the day planner for this same purpose, and I like that I can see the entire week at a glance. So I will be adding a new entry in my weekly checklist: have you planned out your activities for the week? 

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