Confession: I have too much on my plate again.
It’s a problem that occurs every month or two as I struggle (usually unsuccessfully) to fit all the things I really want to do into a finite number of post-work hours.
I try to do this because in theory I want to do it all. But the reality (which I have a hard time remembering) is that when I’m busy trying to do it all I invariably end up exhausted and unhappy.
Instead of cramming more and more into my already-busy schedule, I find that I make the most progress when I have wide open space and only a few tasks competing for my attention. Into this wide open space my creative endeavors unfold gracefully, effortlessly.
But as soon as my schedule starts to get cluttered again, I find myself feeling overwhelmed. And once I’m overwhelmed I stop getting things done.
Learning this lesson has been hard for me because I taught myself to manage the opposite when I was at MIT. And so I know that the opposite is also true.
You can motivate yourself to achieve impossible tasks when your schedule is so cluttered it is beyond overwhelming and begins to induce panic.
Martha Beck would say that when the to-do list get to panic-inducing levels of overwhelm we shift into the place beyond fear (an idea from her book, Steering by Starlight: The Science and Magic of Finding Your Destiny) and from this place we can act with calm and clear precision, taking highly effective action toward our goals.
As a student at MIT I usually completed my work from the place beyond fear. The amount of work was so extreme that I had to stop worrying about if I could do it at all because every drop of my energy was focused into getting as much done as I could. I didn’t need to prioritize or schedule — I just started with the assignment that was most pressing and worked until I was too tired to press on.
In this way I accomplished impressive, impossible tasks as a student at MIT. But most of the time I was miserable.
Because this place-beyond-fear ridiculousness isn’t a healthy way to get things done in our day-to-day lives, but as a student it became the only way I knew. I didn’t know the steady effort of healthy progress — I knew the reckless, careening drama of a panic-stricken dash to meet a looming deadline.
And so I’ve struggled with finding a model for getting things done that works for me out in the real world, and especially one that works for me in my own personal life.
Because my personal projects don’t have deadlines really, and if they do have deadlines those deadlines were usually arbitrary goals I set for myself.
I’m not good at keeping myself accountable to my own deadlines. I expect to disappoint myself and so I usually do — partly because my deadlines often assume a willingness to pursue the kinds of herculean efforts I invested as a student, and partly because I find it hard to feel motivated when the only person my failure is disappointing is myself.
All of which is to say that I have a history of feeling ineffective when it comes to achieving my personal goals and it’s taken me a lot of experimentation and observation and practice to start to figure out why I struggle with this and what to do differently.
But I’m starting to get a handle on the answer. I’m slowly, grudgingly coming to the conclusion that I can’t do it all. I’m finding I can’t have more than one or two personal projects I’m focused on at a time.
Which brings me back to the title of this post, because i’ve lived most of my life in an attempt to keep my options open. When I didn’t want to get my PhD after finishing undergrad I got my Master’s degree instead because that seemed to “keep my options open”. When I didn’t know what I wanted to do after I graduated with my Master’s degree I accepted the first job that came along (a job that happened to be in science) because that felt like “keeping my options open”.
In some ways, the whole story of my life since I was a student at MIT has been a tale of keeping my options open about having a career in science.
And I apply the same principle in my personal life. I hesitate to cross projects off my list because leaving them on feels like “keeping my options open”.
Crossing off a project means saying I’m not going to work on this right now and making that decision can be scary.
What if I’m making a mistake? What if I decide something isn’t a priority and then find myself wanting to spend my time on it?
These sort of nonsensical concerns weigh on my heart and I think the real problem is that I still think it’s best to keep my options open.
But, increasingly, I believe that keeping one’s options open is a fool’s journey. Instead I think it might be better to slam doors shut early and often — after all, we rarely close a door that can’t be opened again.
The more I spend my energy keeping all the doors open, the more paralyzed I feel.
When all my energy is spent holding doors open, I don’t have anything left to make progress toward reaching the goals that lie through those very doors I’m so busy holding open.
I’d love for this to be a conversation, and not a monologue! How do you feel about keeping your options open? Do you need white space to get things done? Do you struggle to prioritize? Let me know in the comments below.
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