Ever since the New Year I’ve been hearing myself say with uncommon regularity, “I’m slammed”. This is odd because I don’t see myself as the slammed type. I’m a mindfulness coach and my life is supposed to be open, spacious and free! Have I turn into one of those busy people? Whenever my own personal experience starts to mirror the goals of my clients, I pay attention. So lately I've gotten extra curious when several coaching clients wanted to talk about maximizing, organizing and prioritizing their schedules. They had too much on their plate and were feeling anxiety about fitting it all in. This might seem like a common theme for a coach to address but the truth is, it's rarely the main topic of a session. Instead we check in about health habits, meditation practice, relationships or work goals and then transition into the deeper conversation about honoring values, inner challenges and living from truth. "Time Management" seems so linear, boring, and corporate. But after recognizing the obvious relevance to both my personal life and the lives of my clients, I decided to dig in deeper.
For someone who’s mostly dismissed "Time Management" as an elementary coaching theme, I have a surprisingly elaborate system for controlling my own flow of time and events. Looking more closely at how I habitually partition life into color-coded sections has revealed some interesting patterns and beliefs that influence how I operate from day to day.
Let me explain. My life is managed by iCal. Paid client sessions and MBSR classes are green, non-paid business building (emails, program development, networking) are purple, home projects (chores and errands) are in orange, personal practice (meditation, exercise, reading, journaling) is blue and of course, fun is red. Having life organized in this way offers a snap shot of how my life is balancing during any given week. Seeing all of these color coded blocks lined up helps me to make it to appointments on time, start and finish projects when I say I will and avoid being swept away by work or distraction. It also ensures there is dedicated time for my personal meditation and fitness commitments that can otherwise lose priority.
While practicing mindfulness around my work schedule, I've noticed that if there are not enough green blocks (paid hours) I experience a gripping sensation in my stomach, accompanied by an irrational feeling of lack. With a sense of urgency and even desperation, I’ll react by cutting out red (fun) until things pick up or I’ll start painting my schedule with purple (business building), planting seeds in all directions for miles. On good days through, I remember that my practice is to pause, feeling into the sense of lack and fear that I’m not living up to my potential. I recognize the underlying tendency to measure my professional value and personal worth by how many clients or classes are on the roster. Just being with this truth leads to the knowing that no matter what I do, business naturally ebbs and flows. From this place, I have the freedom to make appropriate adjustments by intentionally engaging in selected business building opportunities or simply enjoying the downtime before the next inevitable rain.
But I don't always remember to do this, so the seeds I plant eventually grow leaving me with the experience of busyness at the opposite end of the spectrum. When I see an abundance of work on the iCal, there is an initial excitement as the intensity of the pace can be pleasantly engaging. There is also a feeling of being validated and important. This self-importance comes along with an adrenaline/ dopamine rush that has a slightly addictive property; “Look how much I’ve accomplished!”, “I’m a good coach!”, “I make a difference and people like me!”. But this buzz of being needed and productive can quickly shift to overwhelm if I don't continue to watch it. Looking to prolong this high, I’ll say “yes!” to almost every project, course, meeting and new client; taking on more and more until I’m completely spent and burned out.
When I've noticed that I'm feeling a bit "off" during the week, it almost always corresponds to a lower amount of blue (personal practice) during the week. If there’s too much red (fun) I can slip into feeling irresponsible or over indulgent and if there’s not enough red, boredom or cynicism arise. If there are not enough orange blocks on my schedule (home projects and chores), I feel guilty because my wife is taking the burden but if there’s too much orange, I fantasize about downsizing to a park bench or monastery. It’s such a delicate balance!
But even more interesting than the color-coded content of my week is how I find myself relating to the empty, white spaces between the events. It’s these wide margins that hold the real juice.
If a given day is completely blocked up with a rainbow of events, my mind says, "There's no time to breath, I need more space!" This thought is accompanied by a feeling of restriction, exhaustion and resentment for “all I have to do"... as if someone else made my schedule and is reviewing my time card! This is when I start getting protective of my “free time” and almost subconsciously assign dollar amounts to those precious, blank spaces on the calendar as if they were empty lots of coastal real estate. Nothing is safe as I suspiciously re-evaluate my various commitments and obligations to make sure they’re “really worth it”.
I imagine myself just standing there in the middle of my home, looking around with no purpose or direction- just a looming feeling that there is something I’m supposed to be doing, if I could just figure out what.
When the pendulum swings yet again toward too much "free time" I start to feel lost and empty. I can look ahead days or even weeks in advance and notice a desire to fill up the blank, white space. I start to box it in, schedule it, quantify it; again all with a noticeable urgency to prove that I contribute and my life has value. As I look deeper I wonder if I’m trying to distract myself or avoid something. Or maybe I don’t trust myself with idle time? What would really happen if I didn't plan to maximize my schedule by doing something in every moment? Would it all just fall apart?" The fear for me and my clients is that it would. I imagine myself just standing there in the middle of my home, looking around with no purpose or direction- just a looming feeling that there is something I’m supposed to be doing, if I could just figure out what. Being “crazy busy” is obviously much preferred to just being plane ol’ crazy! Fortunately I recognize that this is only a fear, and the only thing that is really crazy is all the unnecessary activity, busyness and worry it causes.
So what if instead I showed up fully to the fullness and to the blank spaces in my life with openness and curiosity? What if I trusted the wisdom of the moment to inform me of the most appropriate action, or non-action?" What if I brought mindfulness to the empty canvas and the finger painting of my schedule?
If you’re also curious to know what this might be like, the first practice is to start noticing every time you hear yourself say, “I’m slammed”. This should be an immediate signal to check in with yourself. As soon as we recognize that we're caught up in the schedule drama with either too much, or not enough time, our practice is to remember to pause, take a breath, feel into the body and trust whatever comes next. It’s in this pause that we can establish the sweet balance between structure and freedom, planning and spontaneity. When I'm in my flow, I do have a solid action plan and committed intentions but always with a certain degree of flexibility and non-attachment.
From this practice I recognize over and over that "Life Balance" is an illusion for most of us. It’s a fleeting experience between two dynamic extremes. By letting go of balance as an outcome, we can surrender to the ongoing process of mindfully balancing our life and schedule from moment to moment. From here we can begin to embrace both times of busyness and times of slowness, knowing that they too will pass. We can also savor the brief phases where life is actually in balance. Ultimately being mindful of how we relate to time and events on our calendar can help us respond to "schedule stress" with wisdom and strength rather than from fear.