Pauses, moments of silence, and clear areas are uncommon in our always-on culture. We’ve reached a place where everyone is constantly maxed out. We get through our days by cutting away at our hours of sleep, in debt, multi-tasking, consuming every possible calorie, filling every square inch of our homes with stuff, exploding into storage units, and overlapping our tight waistbands. We’re constantly bombarded with billboards, junk mail, TVs, text messages, notifications, and other people’s endlessly chiming devices. Our mental bandwidth has shrunk to nothing. We think we can text and drive, or if not, we have to be on the alert because the people driving in the next lane think they can. It stresses me out just thinking about it.
Creating stillness is possible. It’s the reason people get hooked on meditation and yoga. It’s the reason people get hooked on their electronic devices, which are really ways to channel our focus and attention into a constrained area so we won’t physically attack the people crammed in next to us. Sometimes we need a way to push out the myriad distractions of the world and find a moment that isn’t overlapped by so many other moments.
I’m writing this from a coffee shop. There are people having a conversation less than one foot from my shoulder, while three feet in front of me, a pair of friends trade gossip. Behind the counter, baristas are steaming things and rattling ice cubes. School just got out (evidently) and there are a dozen girls talking to someone with a bouquet of pink balloons. I don’t drink coffee, although you wouldn’t know this if you ever caught a whiff of my laptop bag. I come here as a way to test my powers of concentration. And eavesdrop on people. But mostly, I come here to make sure that I can think and write no matter how much racket is going on in the background. It’s a survival trait.
It starts with reclaiming some mental bandwidth. If you’ve ever felt too busy to go to the restroom, you know what I mean. No matter how much is going on, there is always a moment to take one deep breath and slowly release it. One breath. One breath. Let the shoulders drop an inch and draw one deep breath. Then make the decision to reclaim five minutes a day to breathe slowly and stare into space.
I believe there is a mechanical means of inducing creative inspiration. It requires staring into the “middle distance,” and that tends to require a view of the outdoors. I read that J. K. Rowling conceived of the idea for the Potter books while watching rain trickle down a window. I suspect there is something to the position of the eyes that aids this process. (There is another eye position that helps in falling asleep, and that is having the eyes slightly crossed and focusing on a spot in front of one’s nose, eyelids closed).
The next step is to use the daily pause to reconnect with a sense of purpose and direction. Who is driving this bus, exactly? The brain likes to do System One thinking, just following a routine and going through the motions every day. We have to force ourselves to initiate System Two thinking, the kind of concentration that is required to fill out our taxes or use a map when we’re lost. A daily pause for strategic thinking and planning can help us realize when we’re off track or over-committed. It’s how we make choices about whether to rewrite our resumes, go back to school, hire a coach, train for a new sport, remodel, or all the other fascinating things that require initiative and focus. Meaningful decisions are impossible to make when mental bandwidth is overtaxed.
Reconnecting with our bodies takes that same kind of pause. We have to check in. We have to realize when our necks and shoulders are tense. We have to realize when we need to get up, stretch, and walk around a bit. We have to feel it when we’re sleep-deprived and exhausted. Have you ever been so tired that you keep reading and rereading the same paragraph? Why do we treat ourselves this way? We have to quit skipping meals and sometimes set alarms to remind ourselves to stop for breakfast and lunch. If we managed our personal hygiene the way we manage our biological needs for sleep, meals, and stretching, people would hold their noses whenever they walked by us. If we managed our retirement accounts the way we manage our overall health, well, let’s just say we’d be getting a lot of angry, hurt calls from Future Self.
Our schedules are part of the problem. We come home and try to “catch up” on queues and playlists and feeds. Our brains try to trick us into thinking we can somehow consume and analyze all the information that is constantly streaming past. (NB: we can’t). We allow ourselves not a moment to pause and delete. We are so burned out that we tend to devolve to “Netflix and chill” as a default over every other activity. Cook a nice meal or screen time? Call a friend or screen time? Go to the park or screen time? Clean out the storage unit or screen time? Look for a better job or screen time? Bucket list or screen time? Live the best life possible or screen time?
Buffer zones can be purely physical. I keep my kitchen counters and dining table clear, and as a result, there is always room to cook and eat a meal. There is always room to set down groceries. I keep my bathroom counter clear, and so it’s easy to wipe down and I don’t tend to knock things into the sink. I keep my desk clear, and there is always room to work on projects, address packages, or make illustrations for my blog. I keep track of my weight, so my pants fit properly and I don’t have big red welts around my waist at the end of the day. I pack lightly, so there is always room in my suitcase for something extra like a sweater, a magazine, or a snack. We try to maintain a savings buffer of at least a month’s expenses in checking, which looks electronic but is really a digital representation of bags of pennies. Buffer zones mean saving a little extra space in every drawer, cabinet, closet, and shelf.
The buffer that has been the toughest for me is the punctuality buffer. As a gift to my husband, I have spent the past several years working on my punctuality problem. It turns out that it has several root causes. One is my internal feeling that 90 seconds is really only 60 seconds. Another is my desire to “do just one more thing” before going out the door. Another is my dread of sitting for 10 minutes before an appointment with “nothing to do.” After I got a smartphone, I realized that I would never have a problem filling 10 minutes again. Most of the things I would be doing at home, I can do just as well in my dentist’s waiting room. I’ve learned to accept that I should be early and trust my electronic pacifier to help me in this effort.
Life is easier with the addition of buffer zones. An attention buffer helps us to maintain focus only where we want to focus. A financial buffer helps prevent any number of scary, depressing money problems. Buffer zones of physical space help facilitate interesting projects, as well as making it easier to clean up. A well-planned pantry helps provide a time buffer, as we only have to go to the grocery store once a week. Following a rational system of activity and nutrition helps to only have to maintain one size in the closet, without having to tolerate pinching waistbands. Strategic planning helps to keep track of all these disparate areas. Buffer zones take away so much of life’s stress, urgency, anxiety, and burnout. What is left is space to live and breathe freely.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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