I’m sharing this beautifully written blogpost with you from Cindy Giovagnoli about expanding our definitions of “productivity.” This is a subject I find personally and professionally very relevant, and one that I think you may too, so I’m delighted that she gave me permission to reprint it here to share with you, my readers.
Cindy is a gifted photographer, artist, writer, podcaster, website developer, adventurer and nature lover whom I did a podcast with a few years ago about “Noticing.” She’s a funny, honest, wise old soul whose thoughts and ideas can be found at:[email protected]
A few days ago, I took Chili Dog over to my favorite local running trails so that he and I could both stretch our legs and breathe in some wild air away from the sounds of cars and people and busy-ness.
It was drizzly and a little raw (Seattle winter, anyone?), but I actually love the woods in that weather- it feels extra quiet and mysterious and there tends to be fewer people on the trails.
As Chili and I began, I ran through my mental list of things “to do” while I was out there. I wanted to brainstorm a writing project and some website tweaks I’m making behind the scenes. I wanted to think about possible applications for some advice I’d heard on a podcast episode. Think through the structure of a class I’ll be offering locally in 2020.
I pulled up the “notes” app on my phone, ready to jot down what came to me. As I was looking down at my screen, a bigleaf maple leaf fell from the tree above me and landed across my phone.
How’s that for a sign from the universe?
As I peeled the enormous damp leaf from my phone, I realized that I’d fallen into a mindset trap that can sneak up on us without our noticing: the idea that “being productive” is the highest value on our time. It was a Tuesday in the middle of the day- didn’t I have to justify my hours in the woods with some kind of work product?
There are two big problems with that idea:
(1) It defines “productive” as relating solely to work product, to tangible, measurable outcomes related to how I make my living. That’s a pretty narrow definition.
What about how I do my living? As in, the quality of my life? Of my days? They’re numbered, after all. Such is the reality of mortality.
So why wouldn’t my definition of “productive” include things that bring health, wellness, wonder, awe, peace, or simple joy to my days?
Walking in the woods, reading a novel, meeting a friend for great conversation over coffee, sketching in my journal, taking in an exhibit…even binge-watching Netflix in the right circumstances- these can all qualify as “productive” tasks when we broaden the definition to include the things that make our lives richer and more enjoyable.
(2) If we’ve decided that being “productive” (even in it’s broadened definition) is the absolute highest value we can place on our time, we’ve disregarded the power of blank space in our lives. And blank space is where a lot of magic happens.
Part of what led me to a “to do” list of brainstorming ideas while on a walk in the woods is the fact that I often have breakthroughs and game-changing ideas when I’m out on such an excursion.
The reason that those breakthroughs and ideas happen is usually due to the fact that I’ve allowed my mind free time. I’ve allowed boredom and daydreaming and for my thoughts to wander where they will at random.
It’s amazing what can pop up when we allow our brains to do their own thing for a bit. It’s why so many ideas land on people while they’re in the shower.
Connections are made. Problems are solved. Ideas take shape.
But there’s no way to force this. There’s no way to prompt it.
We simply have to leave some blank space and then see what happens.
Sometimes that space will result in ideas or breakthroughs and sometimes it won’t. You never know.
At worst, we end up with a brain that got a bit of rest. Not such a bad deal, really.
So I invite you to broaden your definition of “productive” to include the things that add richness and meaning and joy to your life, regardless of whether they have a measurable outcome that makes money or not. And also to allow for some blank space for boredom and daydreaming and letting your mind wander at will.
I’d like to hear what that looks like for you, so hit reply and tell me- how do you define productive and where do you find some space in your days?
Most of us have talked about wanting to do or achieve certain things in our lifetime – learn to speak Spanish, remodel the house, write a book of poems, volunteer for a humanitarian cause, take a trip to India, etc. There’s also often a sense of what needs to happen first to make that possible – quit my job, earn six figures, retire, get married, etc. – some future point in time when the stars will align perfectly to facilitate the doing of the thing we claim is important. In the psychotherapy world we call this “destination addiction.”
My “thing” was to be regularly playing our beautiful Mason & Hamlin grand piano with ease and competence. Early in our marriage my husband and I had been fortunate enough to buy the piano for a small sum after it made its way here, supposedly from a castle in Ireland. It was a magical event!
I used to take lessons, and MaryJoyce, my teacher, would exclaim about my large hands and how I was perfectly equipped to play Franz Liszt. It seemed that the piano and I were meant to be a team. Sadly, a few years later, MaryJoyce died and I was so pregnant that it was uncomfortable to sit at the bench, especially now with no accountability to anyone who could witness my musical strivings and ability. So, I stopped playing, and there the sad, majestic piano still sits, unused, reminding me daily of my unfulfilled “commitment.” I look at it regularly with longing from my desk in the “piano room” (which also functions as my home office). I’m reminded daily of my “piano folly.”
I now realize that playing the piano competently has been a sweet story I’ve told myself – a lovely idea, without any renewed infrastructure or resources to back it up, especially since I’ve been taking guitar lessons this last year, honoring a precious gift my family gave me long ago. With my full time private practice and the other realities of my life there aren’t enough hours in the day to dedicate myself right now to both instruments. So, realizing that we make choices in life about where to put our energy and time, I’ve accepted that for now, playing Franz Liszt with facility is part of my “piano folly.” Unlike my commitment to play the guitar, I’ve not hired a teacher, dug up the sheet music, or scheduled in regular tunings and the time to play the piano. A passion without a plan to make room for it, is just a dream.
So, if you’ve also dreamed about doing or achieving certain things in your life, make sure you avoid self delusion, (“piano folly”), by creating some accountability, first to someone else who will take you seriously and hold you to your dream when you get discouraged, but most importantly, accountability to yourself – an action plan, tools, markers of stagnation or change, so you make your dream come alive.
In my case, it’s not the end of the road for the piano and me. When I’m ready to fully commit with not just longing, but with action, Mason & Hamlin and I will make lovely music again together.
This guy, Tucker, is one of the 4-legged loves of my life. In previous posts I’ve written about how through our daily romps in the woods around my land and walks around the neighborhood he reminds me about what’s most important in life, especially as I veer off into thoughts about my unanswered emails, calls, bills needing attention, etc. (Refer to “Its’ All About the Ball!”)
I share him with our next door neighbors Peggy and Dave who inherited him, not having had an agenda or a wish for such a demanding, messy creature. They love Tucker but Dave isn’t a dog guy. So our arrangement works. I don’t have a dog of my own, so Tucker is it. He lives at Peggy and Dave’s, but his heart lives with me.
Here’s the thing: Tucker at 7 years old has terminal cancer. Six months after surgery to remove a huge malignant mass on his thyroid the cancer is back. After a subsequent evaluation, the vet gave him about 7 months to live. My challenge is how to manage the pain of witnessing his imminent suffering and probably losing him not long from now, without wasting precious time we have together today – time for joy and much fun. It’s a mind screw and a heartbreak – right now he has minor symptoms – some weakness in his legs and some coughing, but other than that he still acts like an exuberant toddler, full of sweetness, innocence and life.
“Staying present” means being in the moment without preoccupation about the past or the future. Some Eastern spiritual practices say that when you’re anxious you’re not here now, but in some possible or anticipated future, and when you’re sad you’re living in the past, grieving some loss or disappointment. So, the challenge is to be here for the present moment, savoring and amplifying it. The present moment is usually just fine if we don’t mess it up with our thoughts. For me with Tucker the present moment is about enjoying his current vitality and playfulness, savoring the shared sights and smells of Autumn without obsessing about it probably being his last one. (And by the way, research has indicated that people who practice savoring and amplifying positive experiences have more happy neural pathways which show up on brain scans)!
If you are in a situation like this with a similar challenge, make room for your sadness and honor it when it visits you. But, so your sadness doesn’t drown out all else, when you’ve given your sadness its’ due, change the channel in your brain through the practice of noticing the specialness of this present moment, take a mental snapshot, then save it as a treasure to place in your treasure box of memories for the future. Pay attention to what is right in front of you and appreciate its meaning to you. You will be present for your life which will feel much fuller, and in the future you’ll be thankful for that!
If you’re a follower of this blog you may have been wondering where I was all summer – why no posts?? Where’s the new material, any new tools or resources, even just thoughts?
The answer is: I’ve been having too much fun practicing what I preach to clients: nourishing connection with self, family and friends, mostly outside, nowhere near a computer! I’ve put away the devices, as we all should do with some intentionality, and practiced more face-to-face experiences. How can a cell phone or a laptop compete with a glorious, sunny 80 degree day on the lake with beloved family or friends? How can researching and posting about all the new resources for creating joy and meaning compete with the meaning derived by loving up the local shelter dogs each Monday? And what “work-related” activity on Earth can compete with days at the beach or the park with our irrepressible two year old granddaughter Anna and Old Soul grand-dog Barley? What thoughtful article or diligent new podcast could possibly compete with immersion in the magnificence of our coast, our mountains, our rivers and forests here in the Northeast for the measly three months of friendly weather? None!!!
Then, there’s the other knee with it’s own torn meniscus, amplifying a sense of needing to “make hay while the sun shines”, knowing the inevitable surgery is around the corner (successfully completed today), bringing with it mandatory vegging out on the couch and a perfect opportunity to get back together with all my devices, my writing, my internal world.
So, there you have it – iced knee on pillows, hoping for crappy weather to avoid FOMO, and lots to share once again with you, my gentle readers whom I hope will forgive my incognito, hedonistic summer and know that I’m finally back…
I’ve been making lots of lemonade in the last few days. On Friday I had knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus, (which happened on the second day of a two week trip to Slovenia and Croatia – another lemonade story)! So here you see me trapped in an easy chair with the big, swollen knee, with only trips to the bathroom labelled as “walks.” The highlight of my day was watching our shared Lab, Tucker, chewing on a Kong on the blanket in front of me a few hours ago. Big doin’s!
So what do you do when you get a bunch of lemons? Make lemonade! – in my case, finding a way to reframe my entrapment into something meaningful, productive and hopefully fun. I spent a whole day tending to my “Google Business” site, beefing up my Psychology Today listing, at last funding my EasyPark USA account, watching the White House debacle of sociopaths and narcissists in action, cleaning out my email box, watching more criminals on TV, and reading my new “What Dogs Think” magazine. Not working out, not doing dishes, not Christmas shopping, not cooking or cleaning, not trimming garden beds, etc., etc. Just relaxing!
In psych lingo we’d call this very good “reframing.” Taking a less than stellar situation and “finding the silver lining”, “making lemonade out of lemons”, “looking through rose colored glasses,” to rattle off just a few metaphors for finding optimism and advantage in a negative situation. It’s an important skill all of us must hone to not let life make us crazy. In Buddhist ideology it would be related to the challenge of “letting go of expectation,” “acceptance,” and “cultivating stillness” as we strive to experience more peace of mind and presence in the moment. In Western thinking it would be about resilience and dealing more effectively with disappointments and mishaps, not becoming bitter and dark when life deals us difficult or aggravating blows.
So, whenever lemons have been dumped on you, find a way to make some really sweet lemonade, and you’ll get through it more peaceably with some learning and grace.
Now, back to all the criminals running the government……
I am a licensed, board certified pyschotherapist and relationship coach in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Through my psychotherapy or coaching services, I can provide you with
skills and tools to transform your life.