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Sure, slouching is bad for your back and neck—you knew that. Now a study suggests it may also affect how you feel about the very thing you’re working on.
The researchers found that people who slumped as they worked on a stressful task had more negative thoughts, fear, and low self-esteem than people who sat up straight.
This finding makes sense to me. It explains the deteriorating spiral that can take over when writing (or any thought-intensive task) isn’t going well. Obstacle -> slumping -> discouragement -> task feels harder -> more slumping -> and on it goes until you’re scrunched up in an unproductive ball of dark thoughts.
In my own experience, trying to change my thinking in the middle of a difficult project is easier said than done. So could I focus on my posture as a way of coaching my mind?
Here’s what I’ve been doing since I read about the study:
I anticipated that this would feel extremely unnatural. But it’s a simple enough routine that I’ve been able to do it pretty consistently. It doesn’t even require that I stop working or get out of my chair.
It’s also slowing down my breathing, which is always a good thing.
I should mention that “sit up straighter” doesn’t mean stiffening my back, or locking my shoulders, or anything that rigid. It’s more a matter of letting my spine extend upward, Somatic-Learning-style.
Work seems to be going a little easier. My neck thanks me; over time, I bet my attitude will too.
Driving provides all kinds of excuses to get annoyed.
I’m appalled by people who cut in without signaling, weave between cars, don’t leave space to change lanes.
Each of us is the hero of our own story, and I don’t think of myself as the jerk—hey, I use turn signals! But I get gripped by a sense of urgency on the road, even when I have plenty of time to get to my destination. I get irritated when a driver in front of me is going two miles an hour under my preferred speed. (Really? That’s gonna make a difference in my arrival time?) I curse at inconsiderate drivers (this happens inside my car, with the windows up), even though it doesn’t make me feel any better.
Why can’t people be more courteous?, I fume. More respectful?
One day behind the wheel, it occurred to me that it wouldn’t hurt to apply that question to myself. What would it be like to make courteous and respectful driving my own standard?
It changed everything about the hour-long drive.
When tempted to speed up and pass, I thought “courteous and respectful” . . . and calmly assessed whether passing was worth the trouble. I quit worrying about whether I was in the lane with the fastest traffic flow. When other drivers were rude, I thought, “Wow, that wasn’t very courteous. But I can still be courteous.”
I saw someone signaling in the next lane over, and instead of zipping past and letting them find a pocket behind me, I tapped my brakes and let the driver in. It felt great. I was surprised at how great it felt.
Oddly, “courteous and respectful” motivates me more than “be safe.” And I arrive in a much better mood.
I spent the weekend at the annual Wisdom 2.0 Conference, which looks at the role of mindfulness in the digital age.
One of the most powerful sessions I attended was a breakout on discomfort as a path to innovation. Facilitator J. Miakoda Taylor had us each identify an issue at the edge of our comfort zone. Then, working in pairs, we asked questions of ourselves and each other using the following process:
The issue I chose had to do with a complex project I’ve taken on that involves developing new skills. Some surprising and provocative questions bubbled up as I worked with my partner, such as “How does the team want to transform?”
Freed of the pressure to problem-solve, I could let those questions reverberate, inviting me to explore more deeply. I got the sense that continuing to ask questions, rather than provide answers, might be one of the most helpful contributions I can make in this new role.
“It’s time to take down the Christmas tree,” said my sister.
“I don’t want you to take away the tree!” cried my nine-year-old niece, and she fled the room.
My 12-year-old niece stayed in the living room to help her mom. Gently, they removed the ornaments one by one and placed them in the storage box.
We admired each ornament as it came down: the translucent globe from the art museum. The wooden angel floating on his belly. The mermaid with tiny shells glued to her fin.
“I made these in third grade,” said my niece of the foil disks painted with felt-tip marker, as I complimented her work. “This,” I said of a bejeweled sphere, “reminds me of the year I covered styrofoam balls with ribbons and hatpins back in junior high.” “I still remember that star you cut from a pie plate for the top of the tree,” my sister told me.
I understand the nine-year-old’s reluctance to say goodbye to the tree. But she missed what turned out to be a fond hour of appreciation.
It’s easy to value beginnings and peak experiences. But sometimes endings can be just as sweet.
I’m experimenting with a new way to manage the inner critic. (Happy to say it’s been more critic than doomsayer lately, but that nagging voice of doubt still saps my energy and efficiency.) I call this technique the Gremlin Checklist. It combines the best aspects of the split-screen technique and mental-habits labeling into one convenient package!
I made a one-page chart. Down one side, I’ve listed all the things the inner critic typically says when I’m doing creative work. I know what the themes are by now: “This piece of the project is impossible to fix.” “Someone might hate this.” “I’m too sleepy / hungry to concentrate right now.” “The tension is intolerable! I’m hurting my health and must distract myself!”… plus about a dozen more.
Down the other side of the page is a blank column. It’s for check marks. When I get stuck, I notice what I’m saying to myself that got me stuck, and I put a quick check mark next to that statement on the chart.
So it looks like this: Write write write (or Plan plan plan) … screeching halt … “Hm, OK, that sounds like ‘This is getting so complicated I can’t possibly organize it.’ CHECK!” Write write write (or Plan plan plan) … gear-grinding … “Oh yeah, that’s ‘I must research this point intensively so I don’t look like an idiot. I’m off to the Internet!’ CHECK!”
The list of comments gives me distance and reminds me that, hey, I’ve heard this before, and my job isn’t to please the critic. As for the check marks, they give me a quick way to acknowledge the voice and get back to task. Without the check marks, I tend to drift, dwelling on the critical comments instead of trying things that would move the project forward.
Sometimes I use a couple of blank columns instead of just one, and put dates at the top of each column. It can be interesting to note where the checkmarks cluster on a given day.
I’m finding that the Gremlin Checklist works not just for writing, but also workshop development, or any type of project that involves a degree of focus and frustration.
I’m typing this with a cast on my arm. I fell on the stairs a few weeks ago and broke a finger. I was carrying bags in both hands, and hurrying. Don’t hurry on the stairs!
On the injury spectrum, this one is trivial, and I appreciate the cast that’s helping those tiny bones knit back together. But the adjustment to temporary one-handedness is causing me to examine my propensity to lurch headfirst through life, often discontented with the pace of things.
The cast reminds me to be more careful on staircases and sidewalks. Yet I still have the urge—to name just one example—to speedwalk down the hallway in my home. What do I imagine I’ll gain by saving a few seconds in transit?
In bed, I can’t grab the covers when I turn over, the way I like to; grabbing doesn’t work with a cast on. I have to be much more deliberate and slow. This frustrates me—the covers should be where I want them, now!—and my frustration seems a bit misplaced. Isn’t bedtime a time for slowing down? Couldn’t adjusting the covers, calmly and gently, be a transition into sleep?
As I anticipate having the cast removed this week, I’m asking the revolutionary (for me) question: Is rushing ever a good idea? Despite my ingrained hurrying habit, I’m hard-pressed to think of a time when it would be.
Break off a very small piece of chocolate.*
Wait… don’t eat it yet!… hold it at a distance and admire its looks. (Especially fun with an engraved bar, like the ones from Dick Taylor.)
Bring it to your nose and inhale.
Now you can put it in your mouth—and let it slowly melt on your tongue. Don’t chew. Ever.
What do you taste? Fruit? What kind—cherries…raisins…citrus? Floral? Coffee? Smoke? Acidity, bitterness, sweetness? How does the taste change as the chocolate melts—does it get sweeter, more fruity? What’s the texture—buttery, chalky, crumbly?
Enjoy it as it melts away. (No chewing!) The pleasurable sensation will linger. You may not need to chase it with another piece.
You can get a chocolate bar to last for days this way.
*This works best with small-batch, artisanal-type chocolate—beans+sugar, no additives. (Mass-produced chocolate is designed for a quick hit, according to Jasdeep.)
Yesterday I joined the long line of museumgoers eager to see The Clock before it leaves San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art (and to enjoy the museum before it closes for expansion). The Clock is a 24-hour video—you stay as long or as briefly as you like—consisting of thousands of film clips, each clip indicating a time of day (2:20, 5:15) that corresponds to the actual time you happen to be watching. So it functions as a clock itself as well as a film.
Sometimes the time is shown on a character’s watch or on a clock face; sometimes it’s mentioned in the dialogue. It’s a marvel of editing by artist Christian Marclay; the clips span movie history, familiar and obscure, and the result is witty and mesmerizing. A character looks up in shock, and the person looking back is from another film. The soundtrack from one clip overlaps into the next, creating unsettling relationships between scenes. You keep watching to see how things will resolve, even though by its nature and structure the “narrative” can’t resolve; it just keeps unfolding. The anxiety of waiting, and of being kept waiting, was one prominent theme during the afternoon chunk that I viewed.
Reflecting about the experience afterward, I thought, yes, we know that clock time dominates our lives. Yet how arbitrary and melodramatic that dominance is!
Worth standing in line for if it comes to an art space near you.
In search of being more grounded while I work, I’ve been trying out a mind-body approach called Somatic Learning. During a daylong workshop on the process, I felt as though years of habitual tension had melted away and areas of chronic pain were finally starting to ease. How long would that newfound ease last, I wondered, back at the keyboard or at the wheel of the car—back in everyday life?
The instructor and developer of the method, Risa Kaparo, addressed this concern toward the end of the workshop. The goal was not, she said, to “get it” the first time and hang on to the experience forever. “You’ll lose it. That’s OK. You know how to find it,” she reassured us. “Losing, and finding, and losing and finding again—that’s how mastery happens.”
As the glow of New Year’s resolutions begins to fade, this seems like a helpful thing to keep in mind.
I assisted at a weekend workshop recently. I’m a learning junkie, and part of the fun of assisting is the opportunity to jump into class activities when someone needs a partner for peer coaching.
When there’s more than one assistant, you can’t jump in every time. So the assistants agree ahead of time who will participate during which exercise.
Somehow I didn’t realize that the afternoon activity I’d opted out of would last an hour and a half. Gah! You can’t pass the time by reading a book or a blog or by checking email—it’s important for assistants to be mentally as well as physically present, aware of the mood in the room, and available in case the workshop leaders need anything.
An hour and a half! Of not getting to coach while others are having all the fun. Of not having anything to do, really, except be present (sigh) and wait for the time to pass.
Sounds like some mindfulness might be in order. C’mon, I’ve been on retreats where I spent whole days without reading or talking. I got through that OK.
So I tuned in to what I was experiencing, inside and out. Not to fix it, just to observe. Turmoil! Crushing disappointment! Fear of unending boredom! Envy at the people getting to play!
I rode the waves of emotion. I heard the rumble of the air conditioner and felt the cold air on my skin. I became aware of the pleasant buzz of people interacting. I felt a rush of delight at the intensity of their focus. Disappointment burst back, co-mingling with appreciation for the spirit of the students in the room.
It took a lot of energy to be mindful for 90 minutes! Afterward, I felt encouraged and open and grounded. I keep hearing about the value of bringing attention to my moment-to-moment experience, and I keep not quite knowing how I’m “supposed” to practice it in daily life. I guess that’s how.
It’s interesting to note how hard I work to avoid being bored…or disappointed. It’s useful to know that those feelings don’t have to demolish me.