Like most people, I have moments of loneliness. They tend to begin with thoughts about how I wish I had more people around me, everyone else is probably having fun and I’m not, blah blah, et cetera, ad nauseam.
If I look more closely at my loneliness, I usually notice that, underneath all the thinking, there’s a sense of emptiness in my body.
For me, the feeling of emptiness I call loneliness shows up in my pelvis and groin area. It’s as if there’s nothing connecting my lower back to my legs, and I might be in danger of spontaneously splitting in half. (Not to mention all the other implications of having no groin.)
Can’t Fight This Feeling
I used to assume, when I felt this sensation, that I had to “do something about it.” I needed to call my friends, go hang out in a public place, or something along those lines, to make my loneliness go away, and “make myself feel better.”
I eventually realized, though, that my efforts to fight off loneliness didn’t usually succeed. This is because the things I do aren’t fun when I do them from a place of wanting to avoid feeling alone.
If I call you on the phone, hoping you’ll make me feel better, the conversation will probably have a desperate, forced quality for both of us, even if that quality only shows up in subtle, unnerving ways. Many people stay in relationships that have that quality for years, and wonder why they never feel fulfilled.
Exploring the Emptiness
What I’ve learned is that, when I feel that empty sensation, the best approach is to put my attention on the emptiness — to get a sense of how big the space feels, the shape of the empty area, whether it has a color, and so on. I explore the space, rather than trying to fill it up or block it out.
When I come to that vacant feeling with curiosity, the vacancy starts to seem fascinating, rather than threatening. And here’s the best part — the same wonder I bring to that empty feeling starts to spill over into the rest of my life.
When I’m in that curious place, I find myself wanting to be with people — not from a place of trying to relieve my loneliness, but to explore what it’s like to relate with others. I actually want to know you, rather than to use you to make me feel better.
Maybe Life Is About Embracing Space
The more exploring I do, the more I’m starting to suspect that this isn’t just true for loneliness — it’s true for all of the emotions we tend to label as “negative” or “bad.” Anger, sadness, frustration, and so on all seem to be tied to a feeling of inner spaciousness.
Anger, for instance, tends to come up when we think a weak (empty) part of us has been exposed, and we feel a need to protect that part from harm.
Our first instinct is to see these feelings as holes we have to fill — maybe through money, sex, food, or something else. But I’ve come to think that, when we start exploring that space instead of trying to get rid of it, we deepen our enjoyment and appreciation of living.
A common idea in personal development circles is that “what you focus on expands.” For instance, if you’re feeling sad, focusing your attention on your sadness will only make you sadder. Instead, you need to distract yourself from your sadness by visualizing rainbows, playing with your cat, or doing something else to take your mind off what you’re feeling.
In my experience, the opposite is actually true. I’ve found that, when I turn my attention toward an uncomfortable emotion, or a place in my body that’s tense, I actually find myself relaxing, and starting to put the discomfort into perspective.
Getting To Know My Back Pain
For example, as with many people, my lower back sometimes tightens up. I used to buy the conventional wisdom that people just get “back pain” from time to time, and nothing much can be done about it short of taking medication.
Today, however, I have a practice for dealing with tension in my lower back that’s worked wonders. I just focus my attention on the discomfort. I get familiar with where it is, whether it’s sharp or dull, whether the painful area has a shape, and so on. You could say I get intimate with it.
Does this practice “attract” more pain? Not at all. Instead, I usually find that the sensation I’m feeling begins to shift, and the tight spot begins to loosen. By probing around in that area with my awareness, I get a sense of how I’m creating the tension, and often that’s enough to have the discomfort fall away.
Feeling Into “Bad Feelings”
I’ve had the same kind of experience when it comes to “negative” or “uncomfortable” emotions. In our culture, we’re conditioned to think that, when we’re “feeling bad,” we should do something to push the feeling away — taking a warm bath, drinking alcohol, saying affirmations, or something else.
The trouble with running from an emotion we don’t like, in my experience, is that pushing it away actually puts it in control of our lives. The “bad” emotion, not us, ends up in the driver’s seat.
Why? Take boredom, for example. When we’re working on a task and we start feeling the discomfort we call boredom, many of us are in the habit of automatically doing something to “take the edge off” — playing Solitaire on the computer, Twittering, or something else.
But here’s the problem: if we, like Pavlov’s dogs, automatically surf the web every time we feel bored, that means our boredom gets to control our work schedule. If we don’t have the ability to keep making progress in our work, even when boredom is coming up, we’re basically slaves to our boredom.
The solution for me has been, instead of turning my attention away from boredom, to turn toward it. Just as I do with back pain, I get conscious of where the boredom is in my body, what it feels like (perhaps aching, itching, or tightness), and so on.
The more familiar I get with my boredom, the more comfortable I become with it. It no longer feels so weird and disturbing — instead, it’s just another sensation I feel in my body from time to time. And the more comfortable I get with being bored, the more I can choose to move forward in my work, even when boredom is arising.
I think it’s amazing how much we can do just by shifting the focus of our attention.
My focus used to be on helping people find fulfilling careers. Like many of us, I assumed that, as soon as we find the “right” career — something we’re passionate about, that pays the bills, that gives us a flexible schedule, or has whatever else we’re looking for in a “dream job” — we’ll get the joy we want out of our work.
After spending more time talking and working with people, I noticed something that changed my mind. What I saw was that, after they changed careers, people tended to gripe about their new jobs or businesses in exactly the same ways they once complained about their old ones.
Back when a friend of mine was working a 9-to-5 job, he used to say, when asked about his work, that he “didn’t want to talk about it.” Eventually, he started his own business, hoping to “do something that didn’t feel like a job.” Unfortunately, a few months into his entrepreneurial stint, he began noticing himself telling people he “didn’t want to talk about” how his business was doing.
Wherever You Work, There You Are
Examples like this taught me that, while we usually think we dislike our work because we have a bad job, often the problem has more to do with our relationship with ourselves. My sense with the friend I mentioned, for instance, is that, on some level, he simply doesn’t see himself and what he does as worth talking about. It’s no wonder, then, that he keeps “not wanting to talk about” everything he takes part in.
Perhaps you’ve heard this kind of talk before — “wherever you go, there you are,” and all that. What we don’t usually hear, however, are suggestions for how to become aware of, and transform, these habits of thinking and feeling. I’ll talk about an approach I’ve found useful.
An Awareness-Building Exercise
Believe it or not, in the productivity workshop I lead with a yoga teacher, one of the exercises involves sitting in front of a wall, and staring at a piece of tape for half an hour. The only thing the participants have to do is, whenever their minds wander away, simply bring their attention back to the tape.
After the exercise, we ask people what they experienced as they did it. We usually find that they had a wide range of thoughts and sensations — some felt antsy, some got sleepy, some were annoyed at me for “making them” go through this process, and so on.
But we almost always learn that, no matter what a person feels while staring at the wall, it’ll be a feeling they’ve had before. For example, if they notice themselves internally griping “there’s no point in doing this” during the exercise, that’s probably something they often think while they’re doing a project at work.
In other words, what this exercise teaches people is that they – not their jobs, their bosses, the office furniture or anything else — are the ones creating the suffering they’re going through in their work.
Just getting conscious of this, I’ve found, can create a big shift in perspective. In my experience, when we become aware of how much power we have over the way we experience the world, we often find ourselves spontaneously using that power to let go of ways of thinking that have troubled us in the past.
I’ve published a post at The Change Blog called “How To Build a Longer Attention Span.” It’s about how practicing holding your attention on an object, or on your breathing, as meditators often do, isn’t just helpful for getting centered as you meditate — it can also help you stay focused on a project at work for a longer period of time. This is a great technique if you want to be able to get a lot done in a single sitting, instead of constantly getting antsy and winding up on Facebook or Minesweeper as you work.
I also noticed that I’ve practically got enough Change Blog posts to fill a book (publishing magnates take notice ) — here are some past highlights that I think you’ll enjoy:
We hear a lot in business literature about how it’s important to have an “elevator pitch” — a prepared speech about our business that’s so concise we could deliver it to someone on a brief elevator ride. We’re often told to memorize our elevator pitch and practice it in the mirror, making sure we look and sound appealing and confident.
This may sound great in theory, but in my experience, when someone delivers an elevator pitch to me, it’s pretty obvious and painful.
Often, I’ll be at a party or event, having an otherwise pleasant conversation with someone. But then we’ll get into talking about their business, and they’ll suddenly undergo an unnerving transformation — their posture will get rigidly straight, they’ll slap on a forced grin, and they may even start speaking in rhyme (“I turn your reads into leads”), as they recite their rehearsed speech.
When someone starts talking this way, it doesn’t exactly inspire me to buy what they’re selling — instead, whatever pleasure I was getting from our conversation quickly evaporates, and I want to excuse myself for more hors d’oeuvres.
“Elevator Pitching” To Yourself
I don’t mean to say elevator pitches are never useful. I’ve found, both in observing myself and working with clients, that delivering a sales pitch out loud is most helpful, not when we’re talking with another person, but when we’re alone.
The exercise I’m suggesting — which is similar to an exercise I have people do in pairs in my workshop — involves simply finding a place to be alone, and speaking, out loud, a brief description of what you have to offer. As you do this, notice how you find yourself feeling and reacting.
Some questions you might ask yourself include: where is my body tensing up as I’m talking? Is this a really intense or anxiety-provoking experience? Is there some reason why doing this doesn’t feel okay — maybe, for instance, there’s a sense that I’m being pushy, greedy, or deceptive, or that I’m wasting someone else’s time?
In my experience, the more awareness we develop around why it’s hard to talk about our business, the more we become able to put into perspective the difficult thoughts and feelings that come up when we self-promote.
How This Has Helped Me
This exercise has been very helpful to me personally. In the past, when someone asked me “what do you do?”, I’d find answering difficult for some reason. I’d get an uncomfortable, heavy feeling in my stomach, and to avoid that feeling I’d often find myself downplaying what I did or changing the subject.
Worse still, all the usual techniques for crafting a compelling elevator pitch didn’t seem to help. No matter how much I practiced my speech, and worked to deliver it with convincing intonation and body language, that pesky sensation remained.
I finally started getting more comfortable talking about my business when I shifted my focus from trying to “look and sound good,” to getting intimate with that weird feeling that came up when I promoted myself. My new practice was to make my speech, while holding my attention on my stomach and any queasiness that arose there.
What I found was that, the more I just allowed that unsettled feeling to be there, without running away from it or criticizing myself for having it, the more familiar and tolerable it became. Once the feeling became easier to be with, talking about my business began to feel more natural, and even fun now and then.
Upcoming workshop: I’ll be leading another full-day Inner Productivity Intensive workshop in the San Francisco Bay Area, on February 26, 2011, with yoga teacher Rosy Moon. I’ll be offering a substantial discount to my newsletter subscribers shortly, so I’d definitely recommend signing up for the newsletter if the course sounds like something you’d be interested in.
New e-book at DevInContext: At my lesser-known-but-just-as-worthwhile blog, DevInContext, I’ve released a free e-book compiling some of my best posts there into longer essays. I think it will be food for thought for you if you’ve been interested in any of the recent controversies surrounding the personal development field.
I came to praise them, not bury them: I previously put links to Evita‘s and Patricia‘s warm and wonderful reviews of my audio course at the end of one of my more “avant-garde,” “grunge,” and, er, “Personal Development 3.0″ posts, but I thought it would also be helpful to add them at the end of this one too, to make sure their posts get the exposure they deserve.
Ready to get off the “time management treadmill”?
You’ve tried all the usual productivity advice: make to-do lists, reorganize your e-mail, color-code your folders, and so on. You’ve probably bought more than enough books, CDs, planners, special notebooks, and “apps” as well.
So why do you still find yourself procrastinating, getting distracted, feeling anxious, and not making the kind of progress you want in your work? Why does getting through your daily routine still seem like such a frustrating chore?
The answer goes deeper than planners and iPhone apps . . .
Although there’s a lot of sound advice out there, it usually doesn’t deal with the biggest obstacle we tend to face in getting our work done: our own minds. As I think you know from experience, arranging your e-mail subfolders in some fancy way won’t be enough to keep you on task if:
- You keep getting to the end of the day, and feeling like you didn’t accomplish enough
- You’re working from home, and it’s hard to stay on task when no one’s keeping tabs on you
- You feel overwhelmed when you see a lot of items on your to-do list
- Your mind keeps jumping around to all kinds of different ideas when you’re trying to focus on something
- You struggle with a sense that you’ve got to do everything perfectly, or not do it at all
- You have trouble starting a project you want to do, because you worry that it’s not going to be good enough
- You have difficulty saying “no” to requests, and protecting your time, when you’re trying to do a task
- You’re tired of beating yourself up and forcing yourself to work
- You get bogged down in resentment, because it seems like people don’t appreciate what you do
Most of us are in the habit of running from uncomfortable feelings and sensations like these when they come up as we’re working. To distract ourselves from them, we check e-mail, play Minesweeper, get up and pace around, or do something else. Unfortunately — and this is key — when we distract ourselves from our discomfort, we also take our attention off our work.
What if, instead of running away from difficult emotions and sensations, you could learn to accept and allow them? What if you could choose to move forward in your work, even when discomfort is coming up?
That’s what the Work Consciously Audio Course is all about.
For thousands of years, mindfulness practices like meditation, yoga and qi gong have helped people learn to be with silence and discomfort, concentrate on one thing for a long time, and even find peace and joy doing it. This program is about using practices like these “in real time” — while you’re at your desk doing a task — to stay focused and motivated as you work.
To get a sense of what this is about, next time you find yourself wanting to turn away from your work, pause instead, and notice what you’re feeling. What kind of discomfort is there — tension, heat, itching, or something else? Where is it in your body?
Now, see if you can keep breathing, relax your body, and just allow that discomfort to pass away on its own, without trying to fight it or flee from it. Notice how, the more you welcome the uncomfortable feeling or sensation, without resistance, the easier it is to be with.
This is just a taste of the practices offered in the Work Consciously Audio Course. In this program, you’ll learn how to:
- Let go of anxiety that used to paralyze you in your work
- Develop a longer attention span and feel less distractible
- Stay focused even when you’re feeling the urge to procrastinate
- Motivate yourself by getting in touch with your desire to contribute to the world
- Return your attention to the present when it’s drifting off
- Become aware of the unconscious ways you sabotage yourself in what you do
- Set boundaries with others and protect the time you spend on your projects
- Move through writer’s block, and even use it as a source of inspiration
- Bring the “real you” into your work by letting go of the “work persona” you put on in what you do
What others have said
“I found Chris’s material in the course amazing! And what I mean by that is the value that he provides, the wisdom he shares and the practical applications he leaves us with can literally transform our life and work. And he does it all, with the most loving and authentic approach.”
“We all need some nudges along the way to keep our thinking, writing and designs fresh and refreshing. The [Work Consciously Audio Course] is a good work out.”
And here’s some of the wonderful feedback I received about Inner Productivity:
“Chris Edgar has taken an exploratory dive into the procrastination pit and come up with a cogent explanation of this phenomenon as well as an elegant set of techniques to transcend it. It’s a great read and a useful guidebook for turning the daily grind into something much more interesting and engaging.”
– David Allen, bestselling author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity
“Inner Productivity will show you how to clear your inner clutter and create a pathway to success!”
– Marshall Goldsmith, bestselling author of What Got You Here Won’t Get You There
“Real productivity doesn’t come from forced behaviors. Inner Productivity can help you connect with the inner state of being that can empower you to act in new ways, choose new perspectives and have a different experience. There is no greater productivity than connecting with your true self.”
– Tama J. Kieves, bestselling author of This Time I Dance!: Creating the Work You Love (How One Harvard Lawyer Left It All to Have It All)
“Inner Productivity is packed with practical examples of how to achieve greater results and peace of mind at work.”
– Laura Stack, bestselling author of Leave the Office Earlier: The Productivity Pro Shows You How to Do More in Less Time . . . and Feel Great About It
“A wonderful guide for organizing both your physical and your head space.”
– Peter Walsh, bestselling author of Enough Already!: Clearing Mental Clutter to Become the Best You
Download the introduction
To get a sense of what the course is all about, you can listen to the introduction here free of charge. If you’d prefer to read it, you can view a text version here. Whether you buy the program or not, I’m confident that just listening to this section will fundamentally shift the way you think about your work and what’s possible for you in it.
One unique part of this course is that, if you download the program, you’ll also receive a 100-page document with the entire text of the course. If you prefer reading to listening, or you’d like to review the exercises you’ve done in written form, this will be an ideal resource.
Buy the course
The audio course is available for $24.95. I’ve tried to keep it affordable because I want everyone, including people who want help getting through the job application process — and who benefit a lot, I’ve found, from my book Inner Productivity — to have access to this program.
You can buy the course using this PayPal button:
If you’re done with buying fancy gadgets and notebooks, and you want to really get to the source of what’s holding you back in your work, this is the program for you. I think you’ll find this course will help you bring your creative gifts into the world, find the efficiency you want in your work, and even have some fun in what you do.
Wishing you the best in your work and elsewhere,
“The strife is o’er,” as the hymn goes — I’m all done recording the Work Consciously Audio Course. I’m writing up the “liner notes” right now — that’s what I like to call them, anyway, because it has me feel like I’m releasing a rock and roll album.
In the meantime, I’d like to share with you the introduction to the audio course, and hear any feedback you might have on it. If you’ve read Inner Productivity, you’ll be familiar with some of the ideas I present here, but there’s plenty of new content that I’ve developed over the year I’ve spent speaking and leading workshops on the book.
The course will feature both exercises you can do “in real time,” as you’re sitting at your desk, to restore your focus and motivation in what you’re doing, and guided meditations I’ll lead you through for developing awareness around what’s holding you back in your projects.
Whether or not you pick up a copy of the audio course when it comes out, I think you’ll get some useful insights out of just listening to this portion of the program.
I’ve linked to the mp3 file of the introduction in this post, and I’ve copied the text below in case reading works better for you. It’s long, so you have my blessing if you want to read the first couple of paragraphs, or listen to the first few minutes, and leave a comment.
Hello, and welcome to the Work Consciously Audio Course. I’m looking forward to working with you. I think you’ll find that this course takes getting work done and enjoying what you do to a deeper level than what you’ve probably experienced before.
When most of us think about productivity, a pretty predictable group of images comes to mind. We tend to think of all the usual organization and time management tools people recommend — creative ways to organize your e-mail inbox, color-code your folders, find the right iPhone apps, and so on.
What you’re going to hear about in this course will be very different from all that. Don’t get me wrong — there are many great productivity techniques out there. But one thing I’ve noticed about these tips and tricks is that they tend to be almost exclusively focused on our outer circumstances — the ways we have our to-do list or our desktop organized, and so on.
What the usual techniques don’t tend to focus on, though, is what I think is the biggest obstacle we usually face in getting our work done — and that, we might say, is ourselves. It’s our own minds and bodies.
Why There’s No “App For That”
Here, I’m talking about those moments when we find our attention getting scattered all over the place — maybe replaying some piece of music in our heads, or replaying memories of that bad relationship from twenty years ago, or something else.
I mean those times when we find ourselves feeling sluggish or unmotivated, like we have to drag ourselves through the mud to accomplish the task we’re trying to do, and it’s all we can do to keep our heads off the desk.
Maybe we feel paralyzed with anxiety, worrying “what’s the boss going to think of this presentation I’m doing,” and second-guessing every word we write.
As I’ll bet you know firsthand, if you’re having one of these experiences, having a really well-organized e-mail inbox probably isn’t going to cut it. That is, it isn’t going to be enough to keep you on track in what you’re doing, no matter how great the tips for time management and organization you’re following may be.
If you’re paralyzed with fear about what the boss is going to think of this presentation you’re doing, that paralysis isn’t going to go away because you’ve achieved a zero e-mail inbox, or because you’ve made a multicolored to-do list.
Getting Off The “Time Management (Product) Treadmill”
Unfortunately, because — like I said — productivity literature tends to be focused solely on our external circumstances — on how our workspace is arranged — people tend to assume the only way to get more done is to find the right method of organizing their work environment.
So, people often get locked in a cycle of buying a book or taking a seminar, finding what they learned isn’t working for them, going out and buying another one, and repeating this process until they get tired of the whole productivity thing and give up.
Also, to be totally upfront, I think one of the reasons the usual organization strategies are so popular, even though so many people have trouble actually putting them into practice, is that people feel kind of virtuous and responsible when they learn new material on getting organized, or overcoming procrastination, or something along those lines.
They get a temporary high when they buy that new planner, or e-mail application — that frustration they’re feeling, and all the self-flagellation they’ve been doing because they feel like they’re not doing enough, temporarily fall away. But very soon, those feelings come back, and the procrastination and inefficiency come back too.
If you can relate, one of my goals in this program is to break you out of that cycle of frustration. I want you to be able to actually benefit from these organization strategies you’ve been learning, rather than just trying them for a day or for an hour and giving up, which unfortunately is what I think many people do.
So how do we start dealing with the ways our own minds and bodies tend to disrupt our focus as we’re trying to get something done? I’ll begin to illustrate this by telling you a little story about my friend and the frustrations he’s been experiencing around e-mail.
The Core Experience: An Illustration
My friend is really into these tips and tricks for organization and time management — he’s probably what a lot of these productivity websites would call a “productivity ninja.” His most recent goal has been to curb his habit of compulsively checking his e-mail. I imagine you’ve struggled with this at times yourself — or maybe you just, you know, know someone who has.
What my friend has committed to himself to do is to check his e-mail only twice a day while he’s at work — at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. In theory, this sounds like it would help my friend save a lot of time. But in practice, he’s never actually been able to keep this commitment to himself.
This is what happens for him. He gets into work at about 8 or 8:30 in the morning, and he’s able to get about half an hour of fully focused work in, even if he’s got a nagging curiosity in the back of his mind about whether there’s anything interesting or important in his e-mail inbox.
But when that half-hour mark rolls around, my friend’s curiosity actually starts to intensify into physical discomfort. He starts to feel a tension in his shoulders and a tightness in his chest.
If he leaves that curiosity for long enough without doing anything about it, it almost starts to feel like a shortness of breath, and he starts wondering “oh my goodness, am I going to die if I don’t check my e-mail?” So, it seems like a pretty serious situation to him in the moment.
So, of course, to relieve this tension that’s coming up for him, my friend goes off and checks his e-mail. When he does this, he takes his mind off the tension he’s feeling, and so he gets a break from it.
Unfortunately, while he’s checking his e-mail, he’s also taking his attention off the work he’s trying to do. And because this keeps happening throughout the day, he keeps arriving at the end of the work day having accomplished less than he wanted.
The Core Experience: What It Means
The moral of the story here, of course, is not that my friend doesn’t know enough organization and time management techniques. He knows plenty of those. He’s got a super-organized e-mail inbox with about 100 different sub-directories. But no matter how he tweaks his e-mail organization, that burning curiosity still seems to come up.
The point of the story is that, when my friend tries to sit and concentrate on his work, these sensations come up in his body that he finds uncomfortable or even disturbing. And to relieve those sensations — to take the edge off, as people often say — he checks his e-mail.
In other words, my friend is caught up in what I call the Procrastination Cycle. He sits down to work and is able to chug along in what he’s doing for a short period of time. And then, that pesky sensation, which I call the Core Experience, comes up for him.
I call it the Core Experience because, no matter what type of project you’re having difficulty moving forward in — whether it’s starting your dream business or cleaning out the garage — you’re going to find this particular nagging experience lurking in the background.
In order to get away from the Core Experience, my friend uses what I call an Escape Route — that is, he checks his e-mail to distract himself from what’s going on inside.
Then, after a little while, he returns to work, but within a short time the Core Experience arises again, and he repeats the cycle over and over again throughout the working day.
Everyone’s Experience Is Unique
I imagine you can relate to this story — that you can relate to trying to get your work done, but being confronted with thoughts, emotions and sensations — or, what I call inner experiences — that you’d rather not be having.
Now, of course, not everyone has a problem with a burning curiosity about their e-mail. Everyone’s mind and body is different, so everyone has their own variety of inner experience that tends to come up and make their life difficult when they’re trying to get something done.
For example, maybe, for you, it’s a painful memory that keeps nagging at you while you’re trying to accomplish something. For instance, maybe you keep replaying an old argument you had with someone in your mind as you’re sitting trying to code your computer program. And, to make matters worse, this only seems to arise when you’re trying to do a project that’s particularly important to you.
For other people it’s just an unpleasant physical sensation that arises when they’re trying to get something done. Maybe they feel this jumpy, anxious energy in their body. Maybe they find their shoulders tensing up. Maybe it’s a sinking feeling in their stomach.
Whatever it is, it seems to come up most often, or perhaps most loudly, when you’re trying to get something done.
An Awareness-Building Exercise
What kind of experience tends to come up for you? Maybe the thought or sensation that you keep experiencing is easy to bring to mind. But for some people it isn’t immediately clear — when I ask what inner experience is giving them trouble, they’ll say “I don’t know — I just keep finding myself putting things off.”
If you find yourself unsure about what the particular feeling or thought is for you, I think you can start to get an idea of what kind of experience it is by doing a brief exercise.
Right now, think about some project you’ve been wanting to work on recently, but you’ve been putting off. As you recall this project and the frustrations you’ve been having around it, notice what you’re feeling in your body.
Notice the places where it’s tensing up — where it feels uncomfortably hot or cold — where you feel a heaviness or nausea — or whatever it is you’re feeling. Do you get how unpleasant that experience is for you?
Now, what I’d like you to do is consider the possibility that, when you sit down to work on the project you’re thinking about, this is the experience you’re having — these are the sensations that are coming up in your body. Whenever you put off working on this project, it’s because you don’t want to be feeling these sensations.
And I think you can see, as you experience the sensations right now, firsthand, why you might be doing that. Of course you’ve been fleeing from them, given how unpleasant they are.
The Core Experience: Fighting and Fleeing
So, I think we all have some troublesome inner experience that comes up as we’re trying to complete our projects. But importantly, I want to suggest to you that this experience alone isn’t enough to create procrastination.
The mere fact that we’re feeling some kind of discomfort doesn’t force us to put off our work. Instead, procrastination happens when we do what I call fighting or fleeing from the experience — basically, when we choose to try to avoid having it.
What do I mean by fighting or fleeing? I’ll start with fighting. By fighting the experience, I mean trying to punish or shame yourself into working when that experience is coming up.
For instance, suppose that, like my friend, you tend to experience a burning curiosity about what’s in your e-mail inbox when you’re trying to work on a project.
If you try to shame yourself into working despite that experience, maybe you’ll tell yourself something like “oh, I can’t believe you’re so lazy and distractible — I can’t believe you’re thinking about your e-mail again — what’s wrong with you,” and so on.
Or maybe you’ll threaten yourself with punishment, as I know some people do. Maybe you’ll say to yourself “you know, if you check e-mail again, you don’t get to play any XBox 360 tonight — no video games for you tonight if you check it again.”
Some productivity writers actually recommend doing this — making threats, or using what’s sometimes called “negative reinforcement,” to force yourself to work — but I don’t.
Why not? As I’ll bet you’ve experienced, when you try to beat yourself into submission and make yourself work, that only creates more resistance inside — it only tends to intensify, in other words, that unpleasant experience you’re having.
In fact, I know that, for myself and others I’ve talked to, doing this can actually be physically tiring — by beating ourselves up, we can drain ourselves of the energy we could have been using to accomplish something. This is a good example of what I think Carl Jung meant when he said “what we resist persists.”
What Fleeing Means
The other thing we tend to do, as I said, is that we flee from this painful experience. Whenever that unpleasant memory, or that worry about the future, or that pain in our lower back, or whatever it is, comes up, we do something to distract ourselves from it. Maybe we’ll play Minesweeper, or call a friend on the phone, or surf the Internet, or something else.
When we take our minds off the sensations we’re feeling, the benefit is that we don’t have to experience those sensations. Unfortunately, there’s an obvious cost as well, which is that we don’t accomplish anything when we’re in this self-distraction mode. While we’re messing around on Facebook, playing video games, or whatever, we aren’t getting anything done.
Now, one recommendation you’ll often hear from people who write about productivity is that you should just take away all the “toys” you could possibly “play with” when you sit down to do a task for a long stretch.
In other words, take away all the tools you might use to distract yourself — leave your cell phone in your car, disconnect your internet, and so on. When you’ve got nothing to divert your attention with, you’ll be forced to work on your project.
Unfortunately, if you’ve ever tried this strategy, I’ll bet you’ve seen the flaw in it. No matter how many “outer distractions” you switch off, you’ll always be stuck with what we might call your “inner distractions.”
You can always use your own mind and body to escape from that pesky inner experience, even if there’s nothing else at hand. Maybe you can start thinking about a pop song you like, or drumming your fingers on the table, or getting up and pacing around. The last problem I guess you could solve by tying your legs to your chair, but how far do we really want to take this?
All Right, Then What?
So, merely rearranging your workspace isn’t going to be enough to break you out of the habit of fleeing — of distracting yourself from — these unpleasant thoughts and sensations that you’ve been going through.
Now, imagine if, instead of fighting or fleeing from the experience, you could just calmly accept that the experience is coming up, and choose to move forward in your work. Suppose that you could stay relaxed, keep breathing, maybe notice for a moment “oh, there’s that experience again,” and stay focused on what you’re doing.
Imagine the sense of freedom and ease that this could give you in your work, and how much more this would allow you to accomplish. Learning how to do that is the heart of what this course is about.
Awareness of the Core Experience
I see dealing with this inner experience as basically a two-step process, and I call these two steps Awareness and Allowing.
I’ll start explaining this by talking about what Awareness means. By Awareness, I mean that we become aware of the Core Experience that we’ve been running away from, and the Escape Route we’ve been using to run away from it — that is, calling friends on the phone, messing around on social media, playing Solitaire, and so on.
Remember I talked about my friend, who came to me and complained that he couldn’t concentrate on his work, because this burning curiosity about his e-mail would keep coming up that was almost painful.
In a sense, my friend’s situation is unique — perhaps you could even say he’s lucky — because my sense is that most people don’t have that level of awareness of what the Core Experience and Escape Route are for them.
Let me put it this way — have you ever gotten to the end of the workday, and wondered to yourself “where did the whole day go? Why didn’t I get anything done? What could I have been doing with all that time?” And you feel frustrated and confused. I think most of us have had that experience from time to time.
My sense is that, when we have a day like this, this Procrastination Cycle I’m talking about is happening outside our awareness. It’s happening unconsciously.
Throughout the entire day, this is what’s happening: we work for a few minutes, then that Core Experience — that jitteriness or resentment or whatever it is — comes up, and then we turn our attention away from our work — we follow our Escape Route. The cycle repeats again and again, and we’re not even aware that it’s happening.
How could this be? What I’m going to suggest is that you’re doing unconscious behaviors like this all the time. For instance, have you ever gotten into the car, and just watched your hand shoot out and turn that car radio on, as if you didn’t even have to participate in the process?
Breathing, of course, is another good example — most of the time it’s happening even though we’re not doing it consciously. This Procrastination Cycle, if we’re not aware of it, becomes just another one of these unconscious behaviors going on in the background for us.
Awareness by Itself Can Be Curative
The good news is that, when we become aware that this Procrastination Cycle is happening, we start to gain some control over the way we move through our workday.
Sometimes, just being conscious of the Core Experience we’re avoiding, and the Escape Route we’re using to get away from it, can free us from this Procrastination Cycle, without us having to develop a lot of self-discipline and constantly monitor ourselves to see whether we’re back in our usual habits.
Fritz Perls, the inventor of Gestalt psychotherapy, said that “awareness by itself can be curative.” In other words, awareness by itself can create transformation. I think this is true, and I’ve certainly seen evidence of it in my own life.
For example, I used to be in the habit of clenching my jaw and grinding my teeth. I wasn’t consciously aware that I was doing it — the only thing I knew was that my jaw would be strangely sore a lot of the time. Eventually, someone close to me pointed out that my jaw seemed really tense, and I had an amazing experience — my jaw just spontaneously relaxed.
In other words, I didn’t have to do any work to accomplish this — I didn’t have to get a jaw massage, or acupuncture on my jaw, or something like that — thankfully, no needles needed to be involved. All I had to do was become aware of the tension, and it naturally fell away.
I’ll bet you’ve had an experience like this — you were doing some habit, like tapping your fingers on the table, or tensing up your shoulders, or something like that, and when someone pointed out to you that you were doing it, you effortlessly let go of the habit.
That’s what I want for you when we do the awareness-building exercises I’m going to talk about in this program — to spontaneously let go of ways you may have been hindering your progress in what you do.
Allowing the Core Experience
Unfortunately, just becoming aware of this procrastination cycle I’m talking about isn’t enough to help some people break out of it. Some people are acutely aware of the Core Experience — of that troublesome thought, feeling or sensation — that keeps coming up when they try to focus on their project. But that doesn’t stop them from habitually running away from this experience.
I think one reason is that, for many people, this Core Experience is actually kind of disturbing and scary. When that anxiety, or anger, or distraction, or whatever that sensation is comes up, it can seem like a really serious or dangerous situation.
Some people get the sense that, if they just let that feeling be there without trying to do anything about it, it might stay there forever, or they might somehow be hurt or destroyed.
It’s almost as if your body is a steel pipe, and there’s pressure building up inside when this Core Experience is arising, and if you don’t open the valve and let some of that pressure off, maybe you’ll explode or implode or disintegrate or be destroyed in some other horrible way.
What Allowing Means
This is where what I call Allowing comes into play. Allowing a sensation means to keep breathing, relax your body, and let that sensation pass away on its own — to just let that feeling flow through you and dissipate, without resisting it.
For example, suppose you’re sitting there chugging along in a project at your computer, and suddenly, like my friend I described earlier, you start to have this burning curiosity about what’s in your e-mail inbox.
Before, you may have been in the habit of beating yourself up for feeling that curiosity, like “oh, I can’t believe you’re so lazy and distractable,” and so on; or, perhaps, you may have been in the habit of giving into the urge by checking e-mail.
But this time, I invite you to try something different. Instead of fighting or fleeing from that sensation, just sit there, and breathe, and relax your body, and allow that burning curiosity to pass away on its own. Just let that tension or discomfort, wherever it may be coming up in your body, just drain out of you by itself.
The Core Experience Is Fleeting
What I think you’ll discover, when you practice Allowing in the way I’ve described, is that this Core Experience — this sensation you haven’t wanted to be with — is actually fleeting. That is, it’s temporary, and it passes away quickly when you don’t resist it. In that sense, it’s like any other thought or emotion we experience as human beings.
Take anger and sadness, for example. If you feel angry or sad, as I’m sure you have at some point in your life, usually those emotions don’t stick around forever. Normally, they pass away, and they’re replaced by some other thought or feeling. That’s just the human experience.
What you’ll find when you take on this practice of letting the difficult experience pass away is that, in fact, the Core Experience is exactly the same as other thoughts and emotions in this sense.
Just letting it be there, without trying to force it away, isn’t going to make you spontaneously combust or disappear or be harmed in some other way. Instead, it will simply fade away on its own.
Once you experience, firsthand, the fact that this Core Experience is fleeting and temporary, I think you’ll start to observe something remarkable, which is that you’ll actually begin to get more comfortable and more familiar with that Core Experience. It will start to seem more manageable, and less disturbing and scary.
Moving Through The Core Experience
And ultimately, when you get comfortable enough with this Core Experience, this experience that used to be difficult for you to tolerate, you become able to keep moving forward in your work, even when that Core Experience is coming up. In other words, you become able to make progress in the project you’re working on, even when that sensation is arising.
It’s as if, when that anxiety, sadness, tightness, or whatever it is comes up, you become able to say “yes, I’m feeling this sensation — and, I’m going to keep drafting this presentation, or coding this computer program, or sculpting this sculpture,” or whatever activity you happen to be doing. And when you develop that ability, that’s when you really start to get the sense of ease and flow you want in your work.
This attitude of Allowing is similar to the practice of yoga. If you’ve done yoga, you’ve probably had the experience of getting into a pose that involved a really deep stretch — and choosing to hold that pose, despite the intensity you were experiencing, and just allowing the sensations you were feeling to be there, without trying to do anything about them.
You may have had the urge to get up and run out of the yoga studio, or take a break and fold your socks, but you consciously chose to stay with that feeling.
I imagine you noticed that, as you stayed in that challenging pose, the intensity you were feeling in your body started to seem more comfortable. You started to understand that you could be with that feeling, and that it wasn’t going to envelop you or destroy you if you just allowed it to be.
In the same way, when we allow the difficult sensations that come up as we’re working to just be, rather than distracting ourselves from them, we start to see that we can actually handle that intensity, and that nothing awful is going to happen to us if we continue working when that intensity is coming up.
How To Use This Course
So, like I said, the method of finding focus and motivation in your work I’m talking about in this program has two basic steps: first, becoming Aware of the Core Experience you’re avoiding, and the Escape Route, the way you’re habitually escaping from that Core Experience; and second, learning to just Allow that Core Experience to pass away on its own, without resisting.
The exercises we’re going to talk about in this program are all about bringing this two-step process of Awareness and Allowing into your everyday working routine.
One last note: as you’ll notice when you listen to this course, the course consists mostly of exercises. It’s important to actually do those exercises if you want to get the benefits out of this program — this isn’t about just passively soaking up information. The good news is that, for all of the exercises, you don’t need any special props — you just need your own mind and body.
With all that said, let’s dive right into the perspectives and exercises I’m going to talk about in this program.
I want to share a few videos from a talk I gave recently at a job-seeking group. I’ve revamped my “Transcending Procrastination” presentation to add some more techniques and ideas, and these videos offer some samples of the new content. I hope you find them useful and fun.
In this first video, I talk about how to develop a longer attention span, and thus get more done in a single sitting in your work, by practicing holding your attention on your breathing or an object:
In the next video, I talk about how being able to say “no” to requests is an important part of staying focused and motivated in our projects. Often, this is a matter of getting comfortable with the intense sensations that can come up when we refuse a request:
Here, I answer a question about dealing with job interview-related anxiety, discussing how useful it can be to find the place in your body where you’re feeling the nervousness or tension, and breathe into that place. This can be helpful for anxiety in other situations as well:
I’ve published a new guest post at The Change Blog, “Mindfully Moving Beyond Multitasking,” which is all about how mindfulness practices can help us stay focused on a single task at work, even when we’re confronted by boredom, frustration and other kinds of discomfort — rather than jumping around from task to task in order to “take the edge off.”
I hope you enjoy it!
I can’t believe it was nearly a year ago that, on this very blog, we had our fascinating discussion about the productivity challenges readers are facing, and how mindfulness practices like meditation and yoga can help us move through those challenges. It was an inspiring chat for me, and I’ve re-read it many times.
Last time I re-read the post, it proved to be more than just a source of nostalgia — it gave me the idea to put out an audio program dealing with the questions people asked in the comments, and in the many other settings where I’ve spoken to people about Inner Productivity.
I now have voluminous notes about what I’m going to say in the program, and I’ve started recording it. Before I release it, I want to check in with you to make sure I’m not leaving out any concerns you may be dealing with in your working life, whether it comes to focusing, staying motivated, letting go of anxiety, actually enjoying what you do, or something else. Simple as that.
So, I want to throw the floor open to you. Maybe “throwing the floor” isn’t the most coherent figure of speech, but you get the point. I want to know what you’d like to hear me address in the program, and if you let me know I’ll do my best to cover it.
To get the creative juices flowing, here’s a list of some common issues people raised in our earlier conversation:
Self-Starting: “I’m working from home, and it’s hard to stay on task when no one’s keeping tabs on me.”
Overwhelm: “I feel overwhelmed when I see a lot of items on my to-do list.”
Perfectionism: “I struggle with a sense that I’ve got to do everything perfectly, or not do it at all.”
Inadequacy: “I have trouble starting the project I want to do, because I worry that it’s not going to be good enough.”
Image Consciousness: “I’m having difficulty doing the work I want to do, because I get too concerned about what others will think of it.”
“I haven’t done enough”: “I keep getting to the end of the day, and feeling like I didn’t accomplish enough.”
Resentment: “I get bogged down in resentment, because it seems like people are asking so much from me in my work.”
Distraction: “My mind keeps jumping around to all kinds of different ideas when I’m trying to focus on something.”
How about you? What issues would you like to hear about in the program?