A More Flexible Approach to Planning

calendar-660670_1280Before I used to start any task, whether it was completing a batch of marking, writing an article, or preparing for a lecture, I always spent some time in advance planning how long the task would take and how much time I would need to devote to it each day.

For instance, if I was aiming to complete an article within two weeks, I might set a goal of writing 750 words per day, or if my marking deadline was in 10 days and I had 70 scripts, I’d aim to complete 7 exams per day. This is the approach I had consistently taken over the years and at first glance, it does seem like a reasonable approach to planning.

There was, however, something very crucial that I had been overlooking in my planning process, or to be more specific, an incorrect assumption that I was making. I assumed not only that every day that I worked on that task would be the same, but also that it should be the same. After years and years of doing this, I can attest to the fact that this could not be further from the truth. What I encountered in reality was a much greater degree of variance between each day that I spent working on a task.

There were days when things just flowed and I ended up exceeding what I had hope to accomplish in that day. Then there were the days that I struggled to make any progress whatsoever. Sometimes the progress I made during the exceptionally good days would even out my lack of progress on the ‘off days’, and I would still hit my targeted deadline. Other times I was forced to go back to my initial schedule and amend my completion date. This never felt particularly good!

Despite knowing that my instinctual approach to planning doesn’t work, I still sometimes feel drawn to plan in this way. What this demonstrates is a reluctance to acknowledge that ‘off days’ are inevitable. Acknowledging this would not only lead to a messier schedule, it would also feel like I was somehow inviting more of those days in, which I definitely did not want.

After a lot of reflection, I’ve come to realize the value in taking a more flexible approach to planning by building in time for less productive days and unexpected delays. Now, on the days when I accomplish less than I would have hoped, I try not to make it a big deal. I can see that what I used to perceive as a ‘bad day’ was not really a bad day at all – it was simply an outcome of the fact that no two days will be exactly the same.

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What’s On Your Plate?

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Valentine’s Day is approaching and while we usually think of the day as a celebration of love between couples, we could also use it as an opportunity to practice some self-love. One way to go about this is to conduct an honest inventory of everything we have on our plate.

How often do we hear phrases like ‘my plate is full’ or ‘I have a lot on my plate’? What’s interesting about this is that although we evoke the imagery of food on our plate for the various tasks and things we do throughout our day, we don’t tend to think of the things on our plates as feeding us. As a consequence, we may end up doing many things that don’t really nourish or give us energy – these are the things we tend to do automatically, whether it’s out of obligation, habit or even a sense of guilt.

So, start by taking stock of everything on your plate and ask yourself – does this task, commitment, activity, or group of people actually fulfil me? Asking this question allows you to be more discerning about how you spend your time.

When it comes to activities that are not enjoyable, where are you saying yes where you would like to say no? Could you minimize the time spent on these things? If it doesn’t feed you in some way, it doesn’t really have a place on your plate (or at the very least, not as big a portion!)

There will of course be tasks you can’t avoid, but there are probably other items you could stand to remove, as well as items that you could add. For instance, how much time do you devote to things that are actually enjoyable? What activities do you do that energize or excite you? And how much time do you make for them on a daily basis?

Cultivating a more balanced plate requires not only an openness to ask the question: ‘does this truly feed me?’ but also a willingness to make the necessary changes once you have the answer.

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How to Start and Sustain a Meditation Practice

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In one of my earlier posts (‘How Meditation Can Change Your Brain’) I explored the scientific evidence behind meditation. Despite the growing body of evidence in its favour, the process of beginning and sustaining a meditation practice can still feel quite daunting. As many reasons as there are to begin meditating, there seem to be an equal number of reasons and excuses not to.

I’ve found it quite useful to acknowledge this underlying resistance and confront it head on. With this in mind, I will discuss some of my own objections to starting a meditation practice and the strategies I’ve used to overcome this resistance.

1) ‘I’m too busy to meditate’

The first and most common objection to meditating is the feeling that we simply do not have enough time. As busy students and academics, there never seems to be enough hours in the day as it is, so how can we justify an additional item on our to-do lists?

Each day we take the time to do a number of tasks that we deem to be essential (such as eating, brushing our teeth, showering and sleeping), yet when it comes to meditating it can feel like a struggle to find the time. Very often this struggle stems from the perception of meditation as an optional indulgence – something which we can do when we aren’t so busy. The truth is that meditating can be of equal, if not greater, importance than these other daily tasks, and it is actually when we at our busiest and most overwhelmed that we would benefit from it the most.

I’ve often found that when it comes to starting a meditation practice, what is crucial is not the actual amount of time we dedicate to it, but the simple act of showing up to meditate on a regular basis. So even if it means taking just a few minutes at the end of each day to centre yourself and focus on your breath, this small action can go a long way towards developing a daily meditation practice.

2) ‘I’m confused about what to do’

 As meditating has become increasingly popularized, so have the range of different meditating styles and techniques. This often leads to questions, and sometimes confusion, over which methods work best. Should I meditate with my eyes open or closed? Am I meant to repeat a mantra while I meditate? Should I listen to music or is it best to have complete silence? Are guided meditations recommended or not?

Irrespective of these different meditation styles and techniques, what they all have in common is an emphasis on slowing down our thoughts and becoming more present. None are better or worse than others and the key is to find what works best for you. This may involve a process of trial and error. It could be that on certain days you enjoy meditating in complete silence, whereas on other days you may find a guided meditation more comfortable.

It’s completely ok to experiment with different methods and then decide which you prefer. The most important thing to remember is that there is no right or wrong, and it’s simply a matter of finding out what suits you best.

3) ‘I’m not good at this’

The final part of resistance to meditating derives from our ever present inner critic – the one which constantly tells us we aren’t doing it right because we can’t get our thoughts to stop. Herein lies one of the greatest misconceptions relating to meditation. The goal is not (and never could be) to push away all distractions and to stop our thoughts. Instead, it is to simply slow down the pace of our thoughts, and to become more aware. In so doing, we learn to observe our thoughts without judgment.

Because of our over active human minds, there will inevitably be days when slowing down our thoughts will feel more challenging and when we will succumb to distractions – this is inevitable and it applies to even the most experienced meditators among us. The key is to accept these ups and downs with patience and compassion for ourselves, and then to bring these same qualities into our daily lives, and in our interactions with others.

This raises an important lesson I’ve learned about meditation, which continues to fascinate me and also comfort me on the days when I feel most distracted. Contrary to what many people believe, meditating actually has very little to do with what happens on our meditation cushion. The judgments relating to how good we are at it are not only misplaced, they also overlook the fundamental purpose of meditating.

The objective is not to measure how long we can sit in silence for; instead, the purpose of meditating is to actively cultivate certain qualities within ourselves that we can carry out into the world.

I hope you have found this discussion helpful. If you have any questions or would like some more tips on how to start and sustain your meditation practice, feel free to email me at academease@gmail.com.