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No more zoning out

Posted Jul 16 2013 9:00am

Big blocks of unstructured time are not my friend. At least, that’s true when I need to get things done.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, lately, looking back at the last three years at this job, thinking about all the things I started and have not been able to finish. I also inevitably end up thinking about all those times when I started things as a kid, but never followed through. Those big blocks of time that I thought were my friend… they weren’t. They didn’t help. If anything, they actually made it harder to finish what I started.

Of course, when I need to rest and relax and just “let it flow”, then having a big block of open/free time is my best friend in the world. There are plenty of those times in my life, and I haven’t always done a good job of taking that time for myself.

The end result has been a lot of frustration and anxiety – which then sends  me back into the “zone” where I feel safe and untroubled by the screw-ups in my life.

I just need a balance, is all.

I also need to be aware of what it is I am trying to accomplish, at any given point in time. Like an important project at work. Or chores around the house.  I need to have both aspects of my life — structured, focused periods of time when I am getting a lot done… and open/free time to just let things mellow out. The problems start to happen when I should have structured focused time, but I am really “zoning out” and “going with the flow”. That’s when I get myself in trouble. Likewise, I get into a jam, when I really need open/free time, but I’ve scheduled myself to have lots of structure and focus.

I need to make room for both in my life. It’s not healthy to have only one or the other. They both feed each other, like pistons in a combustion engine, pushing me forward by their back-and-forth motion. When one part of that combination doesn’t get its due, then all hell breaks loose. But when I can alternate and oscillate between one type of experience and the other, and I can let myself just do that in balance, things go well.

It’s funny — looking at my life up to this point, I can see how all that go-go-go has gotten me ahead in life. My ability to keep up a blistering pace has put me ahead of my peers, time and again, and it’s paid off in the past, in terms of money and position and prestige. After ten years of doing that, though, without ample rest, relaxation and rejuvenation, I totally got fried. Burned out. I kept pushing myself, but then I pushed too hard, and I got hurt. Again. The time when I fell in 2004, I was so far beyond burned-out in my job, it wasn’t funny. And the other times when I have fallen or gotten concussed — car accidents, falls, even the assaults — were when I was pushing myself and not using good judgment. I didn’t exactly bring it on myself. But my choices and actions did not help me at all.

If anything, they put me in danger.

But I was all into the go-go-go, caught up in that excitement, in the “zone” along with everyone around me — totally sucked into the mesmerizing fantasmagorical space of imagined productivity and happiness.

Emphasis on sucked.

Now it’s all different, of course. Fatigue takes it out of me, and I rapidly find out what’s not working for me in various situations, when I’m pushing too hard. Everyone around me finds out, too. The saving grace of all this is that now I know better, in my mind, and I have come up with coping mechanisms and adaptations to handle things as they come.

I’d better come up with coping mechanisms and adaptations. The price is too high, if I don’t.

One of the massive adaptations that’s developed with me, lately, is realizing that “the zone” is not my friend. It’s a drug. It’s a temptation. It’s a trap. For as long as I can remember, I’ve considered “the zone” my friend — a safe, comfortable place where I can shut the rest of the world out and just get some work done. Hours upon hours can go by, with me focused on one thing and one thing only. And when I’m done, I feel like I’ve really made progress.

But that’s a deception of the highest order. When I get “into the zone” — caught up in something for hours and hours, feeling good about it, feeling like I’m making progress — I’m actually just wearing myself out and getting more tired by the quarter-hour. I’m not being productive and instinctive and inspired. I’m engaging in some serious soothing behavior that has the only advantage of taking my mind off what’s going on around me. It’s like sitting in front of the t.v. for hours upon hours, just shutting out the rest of the world. But it’s on my terms, doing things that appeal to me. And when I come out on the other end, I can justify my absence from my life by saying, “Look how much I got done!”

Except most of the time, I didn’t.

I was just acting like it.

It felt real enough, that’s for sure. I felt like I was making progress. I felt comfortable and safe and engaged and interested. And maybe when I came out on the other end, I did have something to show for my efforts. But even at my most productive, those hours-long stints of work really did little more than tire me out. Especially when they were done at times when I’m not naturally inclined to be working hard. My own personal “alternating cycle” makes me practically useless between 11 and 3, then I start to gather steam around 3, and by 4 or 5 o’clock, I’m really in the groove. That’s what works best for me, and by 6:30-7:00 p.m. I can get a hell of a lot done. But when I settle in to “get a lot accomplished” early in the day, and then that’s what I do all the livelong day — not taking any breaks, and just churning-and-burning — I end up completely wiped out by the end of it all, and then I’m useless for the next few days.

Of course, it feels great while I’m doing it. It feels awesome. I feel like I’m super-human, and nothing can stop me. But by the end of the day, I can barely stand, I can’t see straight, and I feel like I’ve been hit by a Mack truck. And then I need to recover.

For days.

And days.

And I end up worse off than if I’d just done a little bit, taken a break, then come back to the job fresh and alert at a later time.

Yeah, break it up. That’s what I need to do. I used to think routine was my friend, and to some extent it is. It’s been a comfort for me for many years. But it can also be numbing and deadening and lead to all sorts of excesses of food and activity, just to break up the monotony of daily life.

Now, one caveat — in order to break out of routine and still live my life to the best of my ability, I need to replace it with structure. Routine and structure are somewhat similar, but structure really makes lack of routine possible. I don’t know about you, but I have a lot I need/want to get done on a regular basis, so having a structure — lists and priorities and discipline — lets me get away from the whole routine thing and shake things up.

In a way, structure is the opposite of routine. It’s a framework you can use in your everyday life to get things done, without needing to do everything a rote way. Routine makes it possible to do things (hopefully well) without thinking about them. And that in itself has its benefits — there’s a whole school of thinking that centers around having routines and rituals in your life, in order to make those regular boring old activities into automatic reflexes, and save your mental energy and attention for the really important things. But routine doesn’t have to rule every single thing you do — and if it does, then you’re in trouble. At least, that’s how it is with me.

It’s all about balance. Here I come back to that, yet again. It’s about having a good understanding not only of what you’re doing, but why you’re doing it, and then finding the best way to do it, period. It’s different for everyone, of course, but for me, I have to steer clear of the “zone” a lot more than I have in the past, and keep things fresher and more dynamic. Now that I know how to relax and rest, and I know how good it really feels to do that, I don’t have to rely on the zone the way I used to. I don’t need that same level of soothing, that same level of avoidance. I can just live my life and get on with it.

And so I shall.

Onward.


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