There’s a danger, I’ve realised, in writing blog posts about positive habits. With all that focus on productivity and tips to ‘live your best life’, it can paint a picture of the author having everything figured out. That they, or in this case, I, have completely cracked the code and are now living a consistent life of daily bliss.
I’m here to shatter that illusion.
Now, I’ll never write about something I don’t believe in, that I haven’t tried for myself or at least had validated by somebody I trust deeply. And every suggestion and piece of advice given on this platform has 100% been a positive step in the right direction for me, and has led to me feeling healthier, fitter, smarter, happier than I did before. But I’m still a work in progress. And I absolutely still have bad days. Quite a lot of them in fact.
More days than I care to count fly by in an absolute blur. It’s like I step out of bed in the morning and strap myself into a rocket ship, or a super fast rollercoaster that zooms me into a long black tunnel. The next thing I know, I’m spat out at the other end. It’s 7.30pm, I’m hungry, drained, and I’m wondering where the day went.
This often happens Monday through Friday every week. In most cases, the ride has been so exhausting that I can do nothing with my evenings. Write a blog post? My brain is too fried. Socialise? Too drained. Do some chores around the house? Not tonight. I’m too tired. Maybe tomorrow.
Frankly I’m fed up with living like this, so I raised it with a friend last night to explore it a little more.
The dark side of focused productivity
In our incessant, modern world of overload from all angles, there’s no shortage of literature about productivity systems that promise to help us get more done and achieve greater focus. Naturally I understand the appeal and have too been captured by the allure. But their inherent danger is that they further validate unrealistic expectations of what should be reasonably expected, by us of ourselves, and by others of us.
For me that plays a part in instigating a daily struggle.
As soon as the work day starts I am so anxious about my overwhelming to-do list that I put myself into a single-minded focus on getting as much work done as possible. Even though, as I have written about before, I have learned the great benefit of writing a short-list of the three top things I want to achieve in my day, I’m still not letting go of the other things on my action list. I still secretly harbour a desire to complete as many tasks as possible.
And so I enter my ‘focus tunnel’, which essentially means that anything at all that interrupts my mission to do as many tasks as possible becomes an unwelcome distraction.
This leads to frankly odd and embarassingly anti-social behaviours.
I put on noise-cancelling headphones to block out the world around me. Not so rare in many offices these days. But a definite causal factor in the situation I’m describing.
I shut myself off from colleagues (Partially as a result of, but not exclusively because of the headphones). I’m very much a closed book at work. I avoid stop-and-chats in the corridors like my colleagues are going to try and sell me something I don’t want. On the odd occasion when I do get caught in conversation I can literally catch myself counting the passing minutes in my head. “These are 5 minutes more I’m going to have to work late now,” complains my internal monologue.
It’s very wonky thinking. And I want to address it.
This ‘every minute counts’ mentality also brings about other odd behaviors. Yesterday I was heading to the work canteen. I could see through the window in advance that it wasn’t that busy. There were no queues at any of the three counters. However, there was a group of five people walking ahead of me in the corridor. I immediately felt the urge to quicken my pace to overtake them.
Now, even in the unlikely event that all five of them chose to head to the same serving counter as me, that would still only have been a short queue of five people. Each would probably take an absolute maximum of 30 seconds to receive and pay for their food, meaning a total delay to me of two-and-a-half minutes. Yet that was too much to bare. I bided my time to the opportune moment and then swerved around them to be front in line.
It isn’t only human connection and the moments of happiness that can bring that I am depriving myself of. I’m also completely not noticing or appreciating the environment around me.
I’m lucky enough right now to work on probably one of the best work campuses in the world. For starters we’re in the Bavarian countryside, surrounded by lush green fields and dense forests. This time last year I was taking a snowy morning run through some nearby woodland and the only other souls I encountered as the sun rose over the snow white trees were a mother and baby deer, also out for a morning scamper. It was a magical moment that still sticks in the memory.
Around our campus and even within our office spaces there are no shortage of stimulating things to see, touch and experience. There are some incredible creative minds at my company, and a regular supply of inspirational speakers.
Yet these days, once I’ve entered my dark tunnel every day I don’t notice any of this. I may as well be working in a cave. Alone.
The other shocking result of my self inflicted isolation is that I neglect myself totally. I so rarely check-in to see how I’m feeling that often I can be sick with flu or a bad cold but not realise until I get home in the evening. Or I regularly don’t notice I need a bathroom break until I’m practically bursting!
Most nights when I walk in the front door and my partner asks me how my day was, I actually have no sense of whether it was a good day, bad day, or anywhere in between. I’m on such autopilot throughout that I don’t even register my emotions.
It’s not a pretty picture, is it?
And I certainly don’t want it to continue.
So what am I going to do about it?
Well, the interesting realisation of talking this through with a friend is that I can have control over it. It’s completely within my power to change.
My initial reaction has been to blame work. “There’s too much of it.” “This behaviour is the only way I’m ever going to get all this stuff done.” And whilst, yes, there are measures I can take relating to my workload (Such as: not taking so much on; saying “No” more; delegating more; or being open with my boss, and asking for additional support), the bigger issue to address is a behavioral matter that I can absolutely adjust.
Little pattern interrupts
So here’s what I’m going to try. Rather than blocking out the world and strapping myself in for the ‘Amazing Black Tunnel Ride (TM)’ for the entirety of every day, I’m going to try introducing little pattern interrupts to snap me out of the tunnel and get me re-engaging with the world around me.
I will set a reminder to go off every hour throughout the day and at that moment take a break from the laptop screen and do one of three small things:
1. Start a conversation with a colleague
Actually instigate one myself. Be interested in people. Connect. Engage. Focus on what they have to say and enjoy the interaction. Not be counting the seconds of its duration!
2. Sniff some fresh sneakers!
Well, probably not actually sniffing sneakers. Although I do work at the world’s best sportswear company, the point here is to pay better attention to what’s around me. To engage my senses and interact more with my environment. To take a break from my computer and experience the sights, smells, sounds. To engage with life. And if that means going to the design studios and asking to smell the scent of some box-fresh Stan Smiths just for kicks, then that’s what I’ll do.
3. Focus on my breath
This always sounds so simple doesn’t it? We’re breathing all of the time, how hard can it be to focus on it? But then you try, and you realise that even fully focusing for five breathes without the mind leading you back to thoughts about work, dinner, or frankly anything and everything can be a monumental challenge. Especially in the middle of a busy workday.
But if we can’t check in with ourselves just a few times a day then is it any wonder we get ourselves into some real messes sometimes?
The key here is that these pattern interrupts need to be very small actions that I can execute quickly and painlessly, and they have to be things I will enjoy doing. The last thing I need is more tasks on my task list, and if they are uncomfortable for me I simply won’t stick to them.
So, I’m going to give these small new habits a try and see how I go. Wish me luck and I’ll report back with how I’m progressing with turning my long dark tunnel of a work day into a more leisurely experience that I actually look forward to.