Yes and No

I have always taken every opportunity that life has thrown at me.  This has led to some awesome experiences (getting great gigs, learning to ride a motorcycle through the Himalayas) and some less awesome experiences (not having time to sleep, being unprepared).  There is a delicate line between taking on too little and trying to do too much, and I have definitely spent most of my more recent years jumping back and forth over it.  I’m not afraid of much, but I am terrified of missed opportunities so I often say yes to things that I perhaps shouldn’t.  I’ve found myself taking 27 credits (more than twice a normal courseload) while working three jobs, holding e-board positions in organisations, and finding time to exercise and practice my instruments while still coping, but there have also been times when I’ve taken on a lot less and still felt overwhelmed.

At the same time, it is always important to seize new opportunities when appropriate.  Many people want things but don’t think that they deserve them or are qualified, and they really miss out.  My rule is that you are always capable of more than you think.  I have tried so many different things that I would never have thought myself able to do or enjoy, and I have very rarely regretted it.  As a freshman, I took on the task of accompanying an entire choir (usually a graduate piano major’s job) despite not having had a piano lesson in over six years.  It kicked my ass, but I learned so much from the experience and I’ve been working with the choir since.  This past summer I took a job at a marketing firm as an intern just to make some money.  I said “yes” to any task they asked me to do even if I had no clue how to do it, so I sometimes had to teach myself random things-like designing, slicing and coding an email blast or writing a press release-in an hour.  It was stressful, but I realised that I actually liked working there and had a knack for it, so now I’m graduating school a year early with a job already lined up.  In both of these cases, I was grossly underqualified for the positions, but simply because I took the opportunities that arose, I benefitted immensely.  I often accept opportunities before thinking about whether or not I am capable of them, and even if it blows up in my face (like one time when I offered to fill in for a gig despite having a 104 degree fever) I end up learning a lot more from it.

It’s really difficult to know when it’s a good idea to take something on and when it’s not, not only for time reasons but also just for general wellbeing.  All it is is another way of prioritising, though.  Is the opportunity something you want to do?  Is it something only you can do, or can someone else do it better or enjoy it more than you?  Will this opportunity come by again?  How much of a time commitment is it really, and are you willing to make other sacrifices?  Is it something you will enjoy, or will it stress you out?  Will you be able to make this commitment, or are you spreading yourself too thin?  Will this experience set you apart in terms of your career or other life goals?  Thinking about things like this before you decide whether or not to take a chance or opportunity can be very clarifying, because when you know what your motivation is for making a decision, you will be far more at peace with it and probably also more organised in how you approach it.

Happy Monday, everyone!

Making time

One balance that I find particularly difficult in life is that of time.  I’m always running around trying to get stuff done and I very rarely have time to relax.  I know the importance of just mellowing out every so often, but life is so short and there is so much to do that I often take the “sleep is for the dead” approach.  Many people prefer to take life more slowly and take on less obligations, and that’s fine- but they can benefit from stretching their perception of time too.

The trick in finding your balance is knowing what’s negotiable and what’s not in order to alter your perception of time.  Anyone who knows me will tell you that my only real “pet peeve” is hearing someone say “I don’t have time.”  Nobody magically “has” time.  Successful people create time, because if something is important you must find the time for it.  End of story.  I find it incredibly important to go to the gym every day, so I make time for it no matter what.  I’ll sleep less, I’ll scarf a meal faster than I should (I’m the master of the four-minute lunch), I’ll be a few minutes late to the practice room- I even schedule my classes and rehearsals around gym time.  I’m not joking.  To me, it is a major priority (possibly a major addiction but hey, it’s better than crack).

When you grasp the idea of priorities, your day will magically start to get longer.  Seriously- you will begin to do things more efficiently because you have incentive, and your perception of time will just expand to fill it.  It’s proven:  Parkinson’s Law states that tasks expand to fill the time you have to do them.  Well, Fiona’s Law states that tasks also shrink to fill the time you have to do them.  Haven’t you ever noticed that the busiest people have the most time?

It’s all about priorities and give and take.  If it is a priority for you to go for a run before breakfast twice a week, make it happen no matter what.  Go to bed earlier the night before, arrange your schedule at work a bit differently, stash breakfast at your office- whatever it takes.  When you start to sort out one priority at a time, soon you won’t even think about scheduling anymore.  It becomes second nature to figure out what’s the most efficient way of getting things done so that you can make more time for your priorities.  Here are a few quick tips to help you start prioritising and finding more time:

  • Start small.  Suddenly trying to find four hours every day to practice painting will not happen.  Start with an extra half an hour, and slowly find more when the opportunities arise.
  • Small bits of time add up.  Say you have six classes in a day.  If you wait around for fifteen minutes before each of those classes, that’s 90 minutes right there.  Do something small during those 90 minutes that you would usually have to do at another time, like reading or checking emails.
  • Move quickly.  Seriously, people waste so much time walking slowly.  Get some exercise and get places faster- two birds with one stone!  Also, walking quickly alters your entire mindset- you’ll be much more productive.
  • Multitask.  Research shows that those who multitask don’t do as well with each task.  That may be true, but now much effort does it really take to do the dishes while the water is boiling for dinner?  Or to stop at the post office on the way to the bank instead of making two trips?  Pay bills online while you’re on hold with customer service?
  • Sort your tasks.  Sort of like multitasking: check your emails, facebook, twitter, pay online bills, do anything that needs your computer- at the same time.  If you do similar tasks at the same time, you can move from one to the next much faster than if you were running back and forth all over the place.
  • Say no.  I’m all for taking awesome opportunities and saying “yes” all the time.  But if you’re really in a time crunch and someone asks you to do something that you know someone else is available to do, don’t feel pressured to say yes.
  • Schedule.  I’m a very spontaneous person, but I do keep a schedule.  If you have a schedule of what you need to do in some sort of chronological order (nothing formal, just something loose like “go to the gym for 2 hours in the morning, lunch, go to the bank, then practice for 3 hours, etc.) then you can know exactly how much flexibility you have when something inevitably gets thrown off, you know when you can take a 20-minute coffee break, and you won’t get stressed if you fall a wee bit behind.
  • Organised to-do lists.  Sort of like a schedule, but more long-term.  I keep a list of all my assignments with things that need to get done ASAP and things that have dates way off in the future.  Prioritise things that are due soon, but let yourself slack a little bit with things that are further off in the future.
  • Manage your media.  We live in such a cluttered world.  Facebook, Twitter, blogs, commercials, TV…these things are all huge time sucks.  How easy is it to creep on your friends for an hour when you just meant to shoot a quick message, or watch four episodes of Modern Family because they’re all on Hulu?  I’m not saying to go crazy and delete all your accounts, but at be conscious of how much time you spend “plugged in.”  Not only does it physically take time, but it also adds stress and overstimulation to your life.
  • Sleep less.  In a healthy way, not in a miserable caffeine-dependent way.
  • Don’t be a slave.  The idea isn’t the whip yourself to misery.  The point is, by slowly making adjustments to how you perceive time you will naturally become a more efficient person.  Sometimes you just need to park it on the sofa and sit still for awhile, and that’s totally fine.
May you all bask in more free time!

Body Clocks

When my mum used to tell me about why it was important to sleep (even at a young age I didn’t want to waste the time when there was adventure to be found), she used the words “body clock.”  I used to think that we literally had a Dali-esque squishy clock organ inside of our bodies that told us when things needed to be done.  I don’t think I was really that far from the truth, though.  Time is sort of a fallacy created by humans as an attempt to find order in the universe, but at the same time it is entirely authentic.  We just all have our own perception of it through that mythical part of our body: the clock.

Some people like to stay up late, and find themselves most productive in the wee hours of the morning.  Others get up with the sun and find that to be the best.  Some need 9 hours of sleep every night, others only 5 or 6.  I can’t sleep if I eat just before bed, but my brother can devour six pounds of curly fries and sleep like a baby.  Everyone is different, however, everyone is adaptable.

At my worst, I stayed up until 2 or 3 each morning, downed about twelve cups of coffee at 630 each morning to get through the day (not exaggerating), and then caught up with 12-14 hours of sleep each night over the weekend.  I was also sedentary and had terrible eating habits as a vegetarian who had never even met tofu.  I was overweight and miserable.

Then university happened, and there was so much to be done!  I trained myself to be a polyphasic sleeper: I took 4 hour-long naps during the day so I could be awake for 20 hours of the day.  This was miserable for the first two weeks, and then it was awesome.  It was like being high all the time, but with amazing productivity.  I think I accomplished more in a day than some of the other kids on my floor did in a week.  I got a lot thinner and happier.  This pattern didn’t last though, because when you sleep so little you have to be incredibly precise, and having to take a nap every day at dinner time killed my social life.

Now, I’ve reached a happy medium.  I sleep for a solid 6 hours just about every night.  This works because I exercise every day and eat a lot better, so that little bit of sleep is high quality.  In fact, this semester I’m only taking 21 credits and I only have two real jobs so I decided to try sleeping more- but I just can’t do it!  I can get 7 hours if I really wipe myself out, but that’s about it.  Apparently, my window of opportunity is between 3 and 7 hours- but that’s still a lot of flexibility!  Now I’m in great shape and I barely need any coffee- usually just a bit before the gym in the morning.

The point is, everyone has some sort of flexibility with their body clocks.  Anyone who says “I need eleven hours of sleep every night” simply does not know how to optimise his or her life.  Here are some tips to get started:

  • Be strict!  At first, you won’t feel great when adjusting your habits but you have to stick to it.  Research shows that new habits take up to three weeks to form.
  • But be forgiving– if you fall off one day, don’t just give up.  Nobody is judging you- just pick yourself back up and try again.
  • Be careful when you eat– if you know you don’t sleep well after eating a lot, don’t down a bag of chips just before bed!  It takes self control, but try a nice cup of tea instead.  Or at least something light like soup if you’re seriously famished.
  • Set alarms– plural!  I have three alarms every morning set at 15-minute intervals.  Now I wake up before they go off, but when you first start shifting your body clock you need lots of reminders.  Sleeping an extra 15 minutes at one time is better than hitting the snooze button seven times!
  • Exercise!  It will boost your energy during the day and you will sleep so much better at night.  Just know how it affects you personally- are you wired after your workout or do you need to pass out?  Figure out which is best for you, and time your workouts accordingly.
  • Make plans- You’re much more likely to get up if you know you have plans to grab breakfast with your friends.
  • Be productive- You’ll sleep a lot better if you have crossed at least one thing off your to-do list for the day.
  • Follow a circadian rhythm- Sure, some people are night owls.  But I guarantee you that if you can shift yourself to spending more of your waking hours with the sun, your health will improve.  Our bodies are optimised for natural light, not this electrical nonsense.  If at all possible, try to get up earlier in the day!
  • Honor your body- as always.  Sometimes you might find it difficult to stick to schedule.  Once in awhile, it’s totally fine to stay in your bed all day reading or watching trashy TV.  Everyone needs a guilty-pleasure binge once in awhile.  Just make sure you get up on time the next day and greet the world!