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Finding The Happy

Looking for joy in all the right places

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time management

Welcome to 2015!

My 2013 was horrible for the most obvious reason (mother’s death, for the uninitiated) but last year really blew for many of my friends, and for Malaysia’s aviation industry. There were quite a few good-riddance-to-this-rubbish-year posts on my FB news feed, and I’m glad for them, at least, that we have reached 2015.

For us, 2014 was largely a calm year. A winding down from the emotional roller coaster that was 2013. There were a few points for anxiety – the sale of my mother’s home being one, haggling with financial institutions on two continents, being another – but on the grand scheme of things, they proved paltry compared to the addition to our family. Atticus signaled a new chapter to our family life in late November — and a welcome focal point. We rounded off the year largely sleep deprived while being surrounded by family, and feeling older, slightly melancholy and stressed, but not sad. And after the sorrow of 2013, being not sad was a great step forward.

There was a study on “workplace happiness” conducted in Singapore between April and August last year. And the grand reveal was that Singaporeans are Under Happy – that vague, lukewarm, non-committal, soggy middle ground between the state of being Happy and being Unhappy. Under Happy was last year’s Meh, and the punchline for many Singaporeans still secretly seething about being ranked the Least Emotional Country in the World in 2012.

And it got me thinking. Although I had many things I’d been grateful for, and felt largely content with my lot in life, there was still a lot of Meh left in me last year. I’m wondering if it’s a self preservation thing, or the natural trajectory one follows after being shot out of the Emo canon that was 2013. Numbness is comforting. It allows one to function well and to even feel episodes of muted happiness. But although a bland life can be a happy one, happiness isn’t blandness.

I know this is a blog largely about my children and a little about my personal life. But some of the things I keep circling in this blog seems to be Life organisation and finding the Happy – whether it’s about some habit tracking app I find useful, or whether it’s about reflecting on my list of gratitudes every Thursday. I know I probably appear to be overthinking things, or maybe I’ve reached some kind of 40%-life crisis that induces me to contemplate my life and purpose. Perhaps I’m still trying to define myself, since I’ve currently parked my Career Woman persona. Or my cousin’s and mother’s early deaths have shaken me to the very core, and what you see here are the aftershocks.

Or perhaps, if I can indulge in some hubris, my soul resonates with the likes of W.H. Auden, who observed that “between the ages of twenty and forty we are engaged in the process of discovering who we are…”

I don’t know. I just know that I’m searching for… something. Every New Year, I pounce on the chance to reinvent myself to some extent, and this year is no different.

I had started out last year reading Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project, and then got sidetracked. I had planned to explore my year like she did with a theme for each month, but that intention got seriously derailed by January, when I decluttered the house (just like in her book) for our anticipated move (which didn’t happen), only to pack her book in the process in one of 70 boxes now sitting in a storage unit four suburbs away.

Oops.

Anyhoo, I’ve gotten hold of an electronic copy and I’m trying her book out again. This is my Eat Pray Love, except I don’t have to leave my husband and children, and swan off to India to learn how to meditate. I’m still plotting my game plan for 2015 in between innumerous breastfeeds and rocking and shushing and diapering and cleaning and cooking and soothing and playing and including… so wish me luck.

What are your New Year resolutions, by the way? Made any this year, or cannot be bothered?

The Art and Science of Being Present

Continuing the thread on switching off from a virtual life so I can tune in to the real one…

Yesterday, I touched on the fact that human beings are actually lousier at multi-tasking than we think.

Forbes touched on how it hurts relationships:

When I was writing “The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help – or Hurt – How You Lead,” I asked for examples of body language that sent negative messages. Here’s an email I received from an office worker in an insurance companyMy boss drives us crazy with her mixed messages. She says things like, “You are always welcome in my office” and “You are all an important part of the team.” At the same time, her nonverbal communication is constantly showing how unimportant we are to her. She never makes eye contact, will shuffle papers when others talk, writes email while we answer her questions and generally does not give her full attention. In fact, we don’t even rate her half attention! Then she wonders why her staff doesn’t seek her out.

Health.com clarifies what works better:

What you call multitasking is really task-switching, says Guy Winch, PhD, author of Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries. “When it comes to attention and productivity, our brains have a finite amount,” he says.

Contrary to popular belief, multitasking doesn’t save time. In fact, it will probably take you longer to finish two projects when you’re jumping back and forth than it would to finish each one separately… “What tends to save the most time is to do things in batches,” says Winch. “Pay your bills all at once, then send your emails all at once. Each task requires a specific mindset, and once you get in a groove you should stay there and finish.”

Experts estimate that switching between tasks can cause a 40% loss in productivity. It can also cause you to introduce errors into whatever you’re working on, especially if one or more of your activities involves a lot of critical thinking.

And Bloomberg highlighted the difficulty of opting out in today’s world:

At the last World Economic Forum, Yahoo! (YHOO) CEO Marissa Mayer shared that she checks her smartphone more than 150 times a day. It was a proud admission that feeds the myth that multitasking is the new modus operandi for smart, connected leaders. In fact, research has shown we work better when we concentrate on one thing at a time.

The myth persists, however, that multitasking is the best way to work. Peruse any job website and you’ll find literally thousands of descriptions making it clear that those who can’t handle “multitasking” need not apply.

 

Actually, that Forbes anecdote hits me the hardest, because it’s the mirror to my face. How many times have I tried to “spend time with Arddun” while doing the housework? How many co-painting projects have been secretly supplanted by a quick flick through Facebook? I went to visit my colleagues at my old corporate stomping ground a couple months ago, and another part-timer and I commiserated about how We Are THAT Mother. The one checking her work emails on her phone while her daughter is yelling, “Look at me, Mummy!” as she tries out the same toddler stunt for the 276th time — climbing UP the slide.

(On a side point, why is it that we feel like we’re “getting the day off work” when we’re home parenting our children? It’s the only reason I was driven to check in on my corporate projects while with Arddun. The truth of the matter was that my days home with Arddun were also my “work” days. I have a duty to be fully present at ALL my workplaces… even if the workplace also happens to be home and I’m teaching my daughter how to spell her name with toothpicks.)

Of course, being present – which I personally define as giving my All in the moment – isn’t just about stepping away from the gadgets. The bigger narration is about the lack of focus and discipline – especially when the unexpected crops up. “Firefighting”, we sagely called it when I was a pencil-skirted, killer-heeled corporate mover with a much smaller waistline. Yet I’m finding more and more that the principles of effective time management in the office need to be applied in my home life just as diligently, if I want to bring back focus and discipline in my home life.

So here’s what I’ve been trying out.

  1. Tuning into technology more deliberately
    Still a work in progress, and which I’ve already touched on in my previous post.
  2. Micro-managing my lists
    I am a HUGE list maker. I am almost at Wikipedia proportions, where I need a list of my lists. But the problem with having many lists (with all tasks ordered by level of importance, of course) is deciding which tasks fit in what Stephen Covey refers to as First Things First. Which is a lot easier said and done, because deciding what should come first goes right to the heart of what you are trying to achieve first for your life… then your year… then your month… then your week… and then your day. Remember making those New Year Resolutions? Not as useless an exercise as I thought. And yet at the same time, I want to be flexible enough to go where God takes me. (This year, He took me through pregnancy and a return to the corporate world – both wished for but still surprising!) I’m currently reading Eat That Frog by Brian Tracy – a wonderfully concise book that manages to summarise and consolidate many time-honoured time management systems.
  3. Micro-managing my day
    Closely related to the point above about micro-managing my lists, I dedicate a chunk of time in my mornings to sit and plan ahead. If I’m REALLY organised enough, I even micro-plan my day the night before. The process itself is still messy fun, so it roughly goes as follows:

    • First, I pull out a list (hah!) of tasks I want/need to accomplish that day. It goes right down to the everyday things like “Give Arddun a shower” and “Clear the dishrack”. They are all tasks, not goals – each can be accomplished in a single dedicated session. Granularity, my friend.
    • Then I figure out my Top Three Priorities for the day. They are still tasks, but they have to be tied to my medium and long-term goals.
    • Then I work out the importance and urgency of all my tasks. To do that, I’ve lately fallen back on Eisenhower’s Decision Matrix, and I’ve started punching my tasks in an Android app called Tudle.do. There are far more complex apps out there that align much more closely with Eisenhower’s Decision Matrix… but I love Tudle’s simplicity. The website’s in Polish, but the app is largely in English. This exercise can be painful, but it’s SUCH a great feedback mechanism because it immediately tells me where I’ve been using up large resources of my time. And most of the time, I tend to tackle the mundane because they’re quick and rote… but they also tend to be urgent-not important, or worse – not urgent, not important
    • And then I write a schedule to fit in all of those tasks in my day. This is where the rubber meets the road. This is the essence of time management – understanding how long each task takes, and finding time for it. It completely distills your list, and I always end up trimming non-essential tasks by the end of this process. I also build in time to rest and take stock of the day – so it’s a lot less tempting to get distracted with technology because I have already promised myself a break. And I leave buffers everywhere to handle the unexpected, so I can still catch up later. If I have time, I type in my schedule in my iPad app, Schedule Planner HD and then sync it to my calendar as well so I have it on my Android phone. The beauty of that app is that it enables me to log the ACTUAL time the task took place… so I can glean a better understanding for future time allocation of my tasks. The crap part about that app is that data doesn’t sync between the Android and iPad versions of the app. Schtoopid, I know.

Exhausting? Not really. I’ve gotten this process down to half an hour and it’s well worth it. I don’t get to do it every day – there are some days I struggle out of bed, or rush off to an appointment. But I have noticed that when I don’t plan my days well, I default to non-essential but urgent tasks. Those are the days when Tony comes home from work and when he asks what we’ve been up to, I frankly can’t remember what I’ve accomplished.

Micro-managing my daily schedule also has the added bonus of forcing me to do one thing at a time. Okay, maybe TWO things at a time. Which is the limit of what we beautiful, pitiful human beings can handle anyway, according to the French.

The Middle

I have two posts jostling to be written today. One is supposed to be a snapshot of Arddun, aged 3 years and xx days. It’s a burst of adoration, a love letter, a scrapbook of scrappy descriptions that can only hope to sketch the lovely creature she was and is and is becoming.

The other is this post. It’s all about the distractions, and the art of decluttering the mind and heart to prepare for goodlier things.

I haven’t been very organised.

Part of it started from the sheer exhaustion one feels in the first trimester of baby-growing, when all you want to do at day’s end is crawl under the doona and fall into a deep sleep. Except I couldn’t bear to indulge myself this way, because I needed to do lots of other things. So we started packing and sorting for the eventual, inevitable house sale. Even before the papers (the stacks of papers!) got signed, Tony and I went and rented ourselves some storage space, and put away about 20-odd boxes before the bitter winter chills set in.

And then it felt too much like I hadn’t had enough Me time, so I started watching The Good Wife from the pilot. And because no one I know in Canberra watches TGW religiously, I wasn’t prepared for how utterly well-written and addictive the series is. Oh my word, it’s addictive.

I’ve finally caught up with the series, so now that there’s nothing left to fill my very late nights, I’ve turned back to decluttering my life. Also, I’ve stumbled upon The Fabulous – a rather pretty Android app that can be summarised as a Life Coach wearing lace. Or something.

I’m realising that my life pendulums from 20,000 boxes of discrete tasks that reek of chlorinated discipline, to wild, unstructured periods of floating and exploring and meh. Except ironically, my unstructured walks in la la land seldom provide inspiration to write or read. There is a mid point, before either extremes take over, where I feel free and disciplined enough to blog regularly.

Welcome once more to my middle.

Now that my energy levels are back to normal, I’ve awakened to a few new truths.

  1. My time with Just Arddun now has a rough end point.
  2. I need to work out a new weekly routine that involves fewer errands and that maximises whatever little free time I’m going to have with a new bub.
  3. I’ve been mentally run down, which usually results in some form of disengagement from social things – bad juju for extroverts like me. I need to lock in time to recharge batteries, find the discipline to follow through, and keep irrational guilt at bay. This includes sleeping before midnight, for a change.

So with that, I bid you a good evening. Sorry this is such a boring post for you, but writing literally helps me think better. Also, I haven’t blogged in ages – so I’m out of practice. So thanks for listening.

Christmas tradition phail

There are only so many balls I can juggle in the air, and setting up the Christmas tree by 1 December early December December is turning out to NOT be one of them.

Last year, while still doey eyed about the whole Mommy business and wanting desperately to set traditions in the House of H that have never been important before, I decided that a Christmas tree was imperative, replete with Darling Decorations and (some) homemade, meaningful Christmas baubles. And then I decided to bake a Gingerbread Tardis for my husband, which turned into a Gingerbread House, which turned into Gingerbread Biscuits… which were ALL a flop.

Which is just as well, because I’ve never liked eating gingerbread anything. And I’m not just saying it because of sour grapes.

THIS year, I’m behind on so many things. I’ve wanted, for days, to

  1. finish some freelance work by some deadline I had set for myself (today, in fact)
  2. write a magazine article about the crazy imperative one feels to Create New Traditions as soon as one procreates a munchkin.
  3. finish off my Christmas shopping for family (almost done, actually). Except I keep getting thwarted by photo labs.
  4. continue toilet training the munchkin more regularly, so she doesn’t think the potty is something to be transported to various parts of the house to facilitate some light reading by Mommy
  5. blog about how long my days are, yet how short the year’s felt
  6. put up the Christmas tree.

Whereas all I’ve managed to do is keep the house reasonably uncluttered, the family’s tummies filled, the freelance work chugging along (albeit at a slower rate than I would’ve liked), and my bleary eyes still staying open.

A Christmas tradition phail, perhaps. But still 24 hours a day well spent.

To be a time warrior

I had a rather confronting conversation the last time I was back in Singapore, and it had gone something like this:

Friend: So… what are you working as now?

Me: I’m a stay-at-home mum

Friend: Yeah, but besides that?

Me: Um… that’s it. That’s my job. I stay at home and take care of Arddun.

Friend: You mean that’s it? Like, don’t you have a job apart from taking care of her?

Me: That’s enough for now, believe me.

And then I had launched into a mini-spiel about how being a SAHM is a full-time job, blah blah blah. All the while wondering if I had missed something huge. Like, am I maximising my time? Am I inadvertently being lazy? Are most of the other women home alone with toddlers also juggling a lucrative sideline in jewellery-making while studying for a grad dip in business economics? All while keeping the house immaculate, the waistline suitably skinny, and the child untouched by The Wiggles?

Am I not doing enough? Did I miss the secret memo on my obligations as a super woman?

So you know what I’ve gone and done since that conversation?

I’ve

  • renewed my gym membership
  • redeveloped my church’s website
  • taken up a freelance job
  • started baking again.

And what I’ve succeeded in doing instead is

  • see less of my husband
  • lose sleep from working late hours
  • fall sick repeatedly.

I’m not assigning blame to that friend or that conversation. I’m assigning blame wholly to my impatience, my pride, and my inability to bite off less than I can chew. Ever since I started secondary school, I’ve been notorious for triple booking myself. Crazy-eager to please others, crazy-eager to appease the inner voices, crazy-eager to conquer the world.

The first 16 months of Arddun’s life have been so blessedly peaceful because for the first time in a very, very long time, I found myself focusing on Just One Thing. My family. All the noise, all the clatter around the edges faded away. I had found The Happy – or at least what The Happy looks like to me now.

But in the last two months since I’ve worked my mind around going back to work, I’ve opened the floodgates and the busyness… the noise… has started to rush back in.

There is a sense of achievement in amongst it, sure. I’m really enjoying my freelance job, actually. And I’m glad I’m baking again because I enjoy baking for others – even if I’m not very good at it. And the church website has been one of those goals I’d been wanting to kick even before I had Arddun, so it’s great that it’s finally done. And the gym membership… well… at least it’s renewed. One step at a time.

But I’m also bone tired.

When thinking up of a title for this blog post, I thought about being a Time Warrior, and then I googled the term – only to find that someone had already written a book about being one. I’ve never read it, but the book summary seems to imply that one of the keys to productive time management is the letting go of people-pleasing and approval-seeking. And I really tussle with that description.

On the one hand, it really resonates with me. I think we are all inherently approval-seeking and people-pleasing. It’s how we like to get along in the world. And a lot of my people-pleasing stems from insecurity. I don’t like people not to like me, or think critically of my actions. Especially of how I manage my time.

But on the other hand, a lot of my people-pleasing stems from the desire to think of others before myself. I get really bugged that our family isn’t more hospitable, or that we’re not doing more for the work of the church. I also think we are called to be peacemakers – to be all things to all men which does seem to imply a sacrifice of one’s time and oneself for others. So the very idea of becoming a Time Warrior by “slashing out all the people-pleasing” sounds, to me, inherently selfish.

I guess what I’m trying to decide for myself while “thinking aloud” (i.e. blogging) is my motivation for getting busy these past 2 months. Am I doing it because I don’t want to appear lazy? Am I doing it because it’s for the edification of my family and friends? Am I doing it because I really want to?

Because there’s so very many things I want to do and be. I want to be a kick-ass wife. I want to be a kick-ass mum. I want to be a kick-ass asset to the church. I want to be a kick-ass writer, with a kick-ass career in writing and editing. Preferably earning kick-ass money to pay for kick-ass things for loved ones. Like immigration visas. And private tuition in kick-ass Christian colleges. I want to be a kick-ass blogger. With a kick-ass ass, honed by many diligent hours in yoga and pilates. YEAAAAARRRRHHH!

And of course there’s that wise old saying that

I can do it all… it just doesn’t have to be all at once.

I should probably get some sleep.

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