Tunnel: Live By a Metaphor

“Tunnels are periods of time during which your life is constrained by a set of fixed circumstances.” (Good Busy, p. 34)

When Louisa Meacham’s three children were under the age of five, she found herself waking up to the same schedule and the same responsibilities each day with no end in sight. Louisa described this era as traveling through a tunnel. Figuratively speaking, she could not drive too far to the left or too far to the right or she would hit oncoming traffic or a concrete wall.

The Tunnel chapter in Good Busy encourages you to imagine a metaphor that serves as a symbolic representation of your current relationship with time. The Tunnel metaphor suits lives that are filled with seemingly inescapable commitments. A tunnel can also represent days organized around a looming deadline, like driving through a tunnel when the end is planned but not in sight. If driving through a tunnel does not seem to fit your days, then what about paddling down a river or climbing a mountain?

Louisa discovered that when she imagined her life as a metaphor, she could experience greater peace in her days. When Louisa could articulate the shape of her days, she was able to better accept her constraints. Yes, her life had become shockingly narrow, yet when she accepted that she traveled under a proverbial arc of concrete within a no passing lane, the content of her life (or the lack thereof), seemed to make more sense. It wasn’t that she had become a bad friend, sister or daughter. Louisa’s life had shrunk, temporarily, to pass through a tunnel.

The tunnel metaphor speaks to me not only as a way to relate to time, it mimics the anxiety I can feel driving through an actual tunnel when I realize how difficult and dangerous it would be to turn around. The only way I will get to other side of the tunnel, metaphorical or real, is to proceed forward. When I think about big projects in my life or difficult conversations, it can help to imagine them as if they were taking place in a tunnel.

Living by a metaphor such as a tunnel can help me to be more present to my current challenges because I know they will come to an end. I can fret over the duration of a tunnel or even proverbially put on the brakes at the end of the tunnel because I am not ready to drive under the sky again. I will be faced, however, by massive amounts of honking from behind. Tunnels come to an end and new tunnels appear in order that we can travel further down the road.

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I scrawl lists on receipts, on scraps of paper, and on my phone. When I dig into my pant pockets or scan any surface at home, I find my lists. I stumble on crumpled grocery, to-do, and random thought lists, some realized and others hardly touched lists. I keep a list called “waiting on it” for those assignments that linger longer.

When Shawn Amos creates a daily sequence, he orders his to-do lists to nurture their completion. He assembles or choreographs his days before they begin. By sequencing he concludes that some assignments may be better accomplished in the morning. Fridays are better than Mondays for certain activities. He might set aside a couple of hours right away to complete a project that has a looming deadline. (To read more about Shawn’s process, read Chapter 7 in Good Busy.) When I sequence, I try to focus on one commitment at a time and keep with it until my schedule says “move on.”

So many people have told me how good it feels just to check an item off their list. I know this victory too. Shawn Amos’ Sequence challenges us to go one step further by ordering our lists before we take action. When we sequence we decide what comes first and what happens last, which helps us to better allocate time and space to our commitments.

I encourage you to create a daily sequence and set timeframes around your intentions. When you’re in the middle of a sequence, there are far fewer decisions to make. You just follow the path you have laid out for yourself.

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“The bus driver must always balance her gaze backwards using the rear and side mirrors, and forward, as she anticipates what approaches through the enormous windshields.” – Debra Westenskow

When I wrote about the Mirrors practice in Good Busy, I emphasized the importance of paying attention to everything and everyone around you. Since then, the practice has taken on new meaning for me. While many self-help experts encourage people to dwell in the now, they have never helped me to do so in my own thoughts. Happily, the Mirrors practice has begun to make a difference in my own everyday life.

Imagining Debra behind the wheel of a bus has helped me build a better relationship to the constant intertwining of past, present, and future thoughts in my mind. As I watch Debra drive, I realize I am not a safe driver if I linger too long in my rearview or side mirrors. I interpret this habit as a metaphor for dwelling too much on my past and future thoughts. My mind and heart are clearest when they are focused on the present of my daily windshield, not the regrets or wishes beyond the present moment. While it helps to check the rearview and side mirrors every now and then, particularly when I am planning to make a transition, it is best for me to stay focused on the territory just beyond the windshield.

Busyness can make me so self-absorbed that I do not pay attention to the sparkle in the here and now. Debra both celebrates the people who get on her bus and keeps them safe as she focuses on the road and regularly checks her mirrors. Maintaining a proper balance among what is just ahead and all that lies behind and ahead is how we can engage with the Mirrors practice.

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Low-hanging Fruit

One of my favorite productivity thinkers and writers is Julie Morgenstern, author of Never Check E-Mail In the Morning. This book offers a powerful message about setting priorities and shutting out the world each morning to tackle difficult assignments. While I admire and attempt to embrace the strategy in my own life, I often find myself afraid of difficult assignments.  

Since the release of Good Busy, I have begun to imagine additional words and practices to add to the existing ten. Low-hanging fruit is the next practice, one that causes us to ask: “Is it possible to transform our experience of difficult assignments?”

I like to imagine difficult assignments as if they were fruit trees. As I approach the tree, I pick the low-hanging fruit first. Then, I scan the rest of the tree for other ripe fruit. I move with greater ease through difficult assignments when I focus on what I can harvest in each moment. 

Low-hanging fruit resonates with Tom Rankin’s sliver practice in Good Busy but with a twist. It serves as a strategy for getting big projects done by surrounding them with achievable tasks. Instead of thinking you must toil away at a difficult project, you think to yourself, “How can the conditions be such that I can move forward with greater ease?”

The goal of the low-hanging fruit practice is to “pick fruit” when they are ripe. You pick the low hanging fruit because they are ripe and ready to be eaten. You return to the tree each day to harvest more. You do not passively wait for ripeness. You cultivate readiness as you work under the shade of the tree.

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Geological: Take the Long View

“What matters is the whole span of your life, not the one or two things you do or don’t do now.” (Alexander X. Byrd, Good Busy, p. 47)

In Chapter 6 of Good Busy, Alexander X. Byrd, an Associate Professor of History at Rice University, says that he sets his watch to what he calls “geological time.” Geological means articulating two or three intentions that matter most to you and living by their content every day–for years.

At the time of our interview, Alex’s internal clock was marked by the following intentions: “See my children go to elementary school, die married, go to heaven” (Good Busy p. 48). Because he was an Assistant Professor at the time of our interview, he added the hope of finishing his academic book before tenure review.

Even in the slow passage of geological time, one of two kids is now in middle school. Alex has become a tenured professor and his book Captives and Voyagers:  Black Migrants across the Eighteenth-Century British Atlantic World won a top award from the American Historical Association. Over time, Alex’s intentions remain the same, though he must occasionally adjust his watch. These changes, however, are reflective of his original intentions.

The practice of being geological is to help us all remember that, in the end, we don’t leave much behind that matters.  As an historian, Alex came to know geological time in the archives, as a reader of “dead people’s mail” (p. 47).  He pored over ship logs where the only trace of one human being’s life was an “x” mark. There has been no greater wake up call in my own archival research than to see a cart emerge with a few boxes of letters, ephemera, or records meant to encapsulate one person’s life.

As I have reflected on Good Busy this year, I have come to believe that time management is about being more geological, not necessarily more efficient or speedy in our daily lives. If you want to be like Alex, you will simplify your to-do lists and resist the temptation to feel pressured by others to cram more into each day.

What are the two or three intentions by which you set your internal clock?

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“Adopting a routine as a practice means creating order by following a daily schedule.” (P.16)

For one year, Artist Teching Hsieh punched a worker’s time clock every hour on the hour, leaving fifty-nine minutes in between to sleep, eat, or engage in other activities. This “One Year Performance 1980-1981” illustrates how routines that are determined by relationships of power and subordination can dehumanize. The installation is part of an amazing exhibit,  0 to 60: The Experience of Time Through Contemporary Art at the North Carolina Museum of Art.

The Routine chapter in Good Busy is also about taking control of your everyday life but with the hope of individual liberation. When I first began to interview people about their busyness, I spent time with Joe Kennedy, a former colleague of Mister Rogers, the Emmy Award-winning children’s television host.  As you read about Fred Rogers and Joe Kennedy in the Routine chapter, I encourage you to make a few small adjustments in your own life.

Ask yourself the following question: Will my daily routines or habits support my intentions for the world?  For example, I know that I think and write best in the morning and I often give this time away to other pursuits. If I am to take myself seriously, I will commit to a daily routine that allows me to tackle my most difficult work in the morning.

Another possible adjustment to your routine may involve your sleep schedule.  Falling asleep and waking up around the same time every day can make a big difference in your overall health.  Good Busy readers have been amazed by the fact that Fred Rogers began his days at 4:00 AM and went to bed most nights around 8:00 PM. You don’t have to wake up at 4 AM to establish a routine that can put your body into a daily rhythm of sleep. You determine the time coordinates for your days.

While I am aware there are many barriers to the creation and maintenance of routines. I encourage you to consider how your daily routines can be adjusted so you spend your time in the middle of a routine that reflects who you are.  Joe Kennedy characterized Rogers by saying “he was the same man off-camera as on.” (p.23) The statement invites further reflection. How do we become the same person off-camera as on? How can our daily actions manifest our beliefs? When we live by a thoughtful and evolving routine, our daily actions can more easily begin to manifest our beliefs.

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“…an icky sensation that welled up from deep inside her.” Good Busy, p.62

April is dedicated to Gungee, a practice about the importance of forward motion in the midst of emotional stress or hardship. Esther, a bartender in Las Vegas who I interviewed, coined the term Gungee. At times Esther has faced great difficulties in her life, which are detailed in Good Busy, and she has always figured out how to keep going. As I reread the chapter, I realized that often my own Gungee appears when I give too much to others and neglect taking care of myself. This revelation has made me think more deeply about my role as both giver and receiver. When you read the Gungee chapter, you will see how Esther has struggled with giving, both at work and in her family life.

Recently, The New York Times Magazine featured an article about giving in the workplace. The article focuses on the research and everyday practices of Adam Grant, a professor of Management at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. In his recent book, Give and Take, Grant divides the world into givers, takers, and matchers, and argues that the people who get ahead in the work world are the ones who practice workplace altruism. Grant identifies himself as a giver. He rarely says no and always says yes to the five-minute favor. As a result, he is an award winning professor, in addition to being a well-published scholar.

While I was inspired by Grant’s research, it also made me a little queasy. My fear is that the givers are going to think they have to give even more than they already do. Some people, like Grant, are able to give massively without becoming depleted or sick. Many of us struggle to be generous and also maintain clear boundaries. Giving can also follow gendered norms that leave women with greater responsibilities around caregiving. For some, being too generous can lead to Gungee.

While I know I will benefit from Grant’s ongoing research and appreciate his personal example, I want to encourage the givers out there to steer clear of the Gungee that can creep into your life when you give too much. What would happen if you stopped being a giver for a week? What if you tried waiting a little before you volunteered to take on a chore? If you have dependents in your life, you may need to remember practices like Milk (Your Cows), as well. You can still nurture your people and tend to your responsibilities, but what if you experimented with being a taker (which might mean asking for what you need)? When you feel the impulse to give, consider what you might be able to do to fortify your own well being. Think of Mother Theresa taking a bubble bath. Givers often think, “If I don’t do it, who will?” This month, I encourage you to take a step back and see what happens if you don’t.

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