Finding Focus.

Well, I can’t believe it’s gotten to this point.

By which I mean both: “I can’t believe it’s my last Saturday in Madrid,” and also: “I can’t believe it’s March 25th and I haven’t blogged all month.”

I would be like “so much for my blogging every day goal,” but honestly the whole month has been a litany of “so much for this-or-that goal.” So much for learning Spanish, so much for getting up on time in the morning, so much for finishing work early and going out to explore the city. I’ve been struggling, and I think it’s only right in the interests of honesty to admit it. Working abroad is an amazing opportunity, but it is primarily that: an opportunity, and whether or not it actually proves to be amazing is up to you. It doesn’t happen automatically, and it can be frustrating to live under the pressure of having to make the most of your time abroad, especially when you are hyper-aware of what everyone else imagines your experience to be, and you want to live up to those expectations. Why yes, I am working from a bar, sipping my wine, watching the bustling streets of sunny Madrid pass by instead of holed up in my apartment, frantically trying to finish my latest assignment while there’s still daylight.

Does this sound whiny? It shouldn’t. I’m not trying to complain, I just want to be honest. I think we’ve fallen into a trap in the way we present our lives to others, in that we feel compelled to present the best face at all times, but feel false in doing so, and yet are afraid to admit when things aren’t all hunky-dory for fear of appearing glum, depressed or ungrateful. Well that’s the kind of nonsense I’d like to keep off my blog. This space is meant to be a real and honest exploration of shit I’m doing with my life, and that ought to include the things that aren’t working as well as the things that are.

So: I’ve had trouble pulling things together in Spain. And I’ll get into more of that in a second. But first I’d like to cover what I did over the past four weekends, which form part of why I’ve been so negligent in keeping this space up-to-date.

  1. Granada. I loved Granada. It was freaking incredible. If I come back to Spain for an extended period of time again, I may go to there. My last blog was on the Alhambra, and I meant to write more about the gypsy caves up by Sacromonte, and the city itself, but I got sidetracked by the other things and didn’t get to it. More on that to come.
  2. Barcelona. This was my other main travel destination when I came to Spain. It was nice, but much larger than I anticipated, and many of the attractions I wanted to see were quite far away from each other. Still, I discovered Gaudí, and that made the whole trip worthwhile. I think he would have made a great Hobbit architect.
  3. My friend Alaina came to visit. We had an excellent time exploring the city and discovering awesome places to eat and drink. We discovered my new favorite gin bar together. Good times.
  4. The UK. Originally, I had planned to devote my time in Spain to all things Spanish. But once I realized I was too distracted by ALL THE THINGS to do this (more on that later), I decided to pop over to the UK for a quick catch-up with some of my Uni friends. This is 100% the right decision, and did the more to help turn my month around than anything.

So there you go. Four pretty packed weekends sure put some perspective on why I’ve been remiss on, well, lots of things. In fact, they’re part of what helped me realize something very important about myself: I’m not a travel blogger. You know that last post I made about the Alhambra? It took me days to get that out. I was nearly to Barcelona by the time I managed to get it published, and that put me behind my schedule. I couldn’t decide if I should finish blogging about Granada before I moved on to Barcelona, or if I should skip the rest of my Granada post. Then I got back from Barcelona, and everything I felt I “had” to write about became this massive burden. I couldn’t write about what was actually on my mind because I hadn’t written these other posts yet. Blogging wasn’t an enjoyable experience, it was a task to cross off my list. An obligation.

And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I can only handle so many obligations. And if I’m prioritizing them, blogging is sure not at the top of my list. If I’m going to focus a lot of energy on making sure I get a thing done regularly, that energy should go toward something like my novel, or improving my languages.

All of which leads me to that “thing to come” I’ve mentioned in my preceding paragraphs:

I’m swamped. I’ve over-committed. I’m burning out. All the things I tell myself I’m going to do every day, they’re too much. I need to re-prioritize, and that mostly means that I need to cut back.

This is not an easy thing for me to admit. I like doing ALL THE THINGS, but in my excitement, I find I can’t focus on my actual priorities. So I planned my trip to Spain thinking that if I put in some intense study beforehand, and then really dedicated myself to practicing during the two months I was here, I could go home speaking Spanish. I think this would have worked, if I’d made my priority. Only I couldn’t bear to leave behind the books on Russian history I’d recently purchased, so I’ve spent most of the past two months desperately wanting to dive back into Russian practice. It doesn’t help that I made a stop by basically the most amazing fabric store in the world on my way to Madrid, and I’ve been antsy to get back home and sew again. Then there’s the apartment I’m moving into, which has probably cost me hours of productive work time as I’ve distractedly browsed the Internet for furniture and decor that I can’t actually afford. And of course at the bottom of all this is the thing that I really, actually should be prioritizing above all those other things, which is writing my novel. You know: that thing I said I had to do or else risk being a pretentious asshat for saying I would do it and then not.

I came to Madrid thinking it would put me back into that “everything is possible” mindset I had while I was in Vienna, only now I’m realizing that mindset was not a good place to be, even if it did make me happy. Because that happiness was an illusion built on a daydream of things I hadn’t done. And when the things you thought you would do don’t align with the things you actually can do, it leads to a pretty big crash. The kind that lands you in the doldrums for months as you beat yourself up for being less-than-awesome.

So Spain has been a reality check, which is not what I wanted, but certainly far better for me in the long run. I can’t do all the things—or at least, I can’t do them all well. I need to do the thing. And do that thing right.

Does blogging still have a place in all this? Oh most definitely. But not travel blogging. Not the kind of blogging that leaves me feeling drained for failing to live up to yet another obligation. Instead, this is my progress blog and my think space. This is where I’m going to keep dumping my spare thoughts, because it helps me focus. It keeps me accountable.

If that’s not useful or interesting or enjoyable to you, please be reminded that this is an opt-in space: you’re not obliged to keep reading. If you care to join me for the ride: thank you. I really do like knowing you’re here with me.

Building the habit.

Jet lag struck again this morning.

I had this amazing plan in place to get an early start on my day, pound out my work, practice some Spanish, and then go see some more of Madrid. But then I couldn’t fall asleep last night, which meant that when my alarm went off I had to give myself more time to sleep, and then when I woke up and tried to do my reading I kept nodding off. By the time I actually got going, it was nearly noon and I knew I’d be fighting my own disappointment as well as the jet lag all the rest of the day.

I recently downloaded another app to help myself stay on track with some of my more important goals. You know: things like logging enough work hours to pay my bills and blogging regularly. Part of what I like about it is that it encourages you to maintain streaks: you can’t cut corners, because if you do you’ll lose the nice long run you’ve build up. Part of what kept my mind whirring yesterday was how pleased I felt with myself for checking off all my habit boxes. It helped me feel I was one step closer to accomplishing some of the goals I came here for.

But there are days like today when I really really wish I didn’t care so much. Where I’m fighting myself so hard to give in, to not do that thing today, to cut myself some slack because it’s 11:06pm, and I’m tired, and I really just want to call it a day.

And then I remind myself I’m in the eleventh hour in more sense than one. In spite of my late start, I’ve pushed through. I’m so close to getting done the things I promised myself I would do today, and if that means putting off Netflix for another half hour, isn’t that worth it? Because isn’t it exactly now, right when I hate myself most for wanting to do anything, that it’s most important to double down and be the person you expect of yourself?

Maybe I expect too much of myself, and this is prelude to burn out. But that’s a conclusion for another day. In the meantime, I’m tired, and this is my blog for the day. Onward.

Punctuality and learned helplessness.

One of my less formal resolutions this year was to be on time for things.

I’m one of those perennially tardy folk for whom the passage of time, as a concept, never seems to sink in. I will look at a clock, see that I have 15 minutes to get somewhere, and yet convince myself that I have 10 more minutes to do whatever it is that I am doing because time is relative, right?

The other day, I was 20 minutes late meeting a friend for breakfast because I finished my book and then spent 15 minutes contemplating my bookshelf, thinking about what I would begin reading later that day.

Given how much I’ve travelled, it’s a miracle I’ve never missed a flight—although I came close the other day, when I left my house at 2:00pm to catch a 3:30 flight.

I care a lot about punctuality. I feel guilty when I keep people waiting, and I feel stressed when I know I’m running behind. Being late basically says to another person: my time is more important than your time. That’s obviously rude, and I don’t mean to treat people that way, so I’ve tried very hard at different times to change my behavior. Yet of the various habits I have acquired and broken over the years, this has been the hardest to shake off.

I think one of the greatest barriers to overcome for most perennially tardy people is the realization that perfect punctuality is impossible. Many habits are built on the ability to maintain a streak. Yet there are too many external factors affecting whether or not one is on time for it to be entirely in your control. As a tardy person trying to change my habits, this often feels cosmically unjust: dear universe, I’m trying my best, WHY MUST YOU THWART ME?!?!?!?!??!?!?!?

This is essentially a form of learned helplessness: I’m trying to be on time, but even given my good intentions, circumstances outside my control keep making me fail. Given this, why try to be on time at all? Why not accept fate?

But the truth is that, while I cannot predict or counteract some unexpected delays, I can do a lot to lower the frequency at which they cause me to be late.

As an example:

  • Let’s say your regular commute is 15 minutes in perfect conditions. Let’s say that you hit perfect conditions about 50% of the time.
  • Maybe another 40% the time, some delay due to road conditions or an unlucky confluence of traffic lights causes a 5 minute delay.
  • Perhaps 8% of the time, unusually bad delays cause up to a 10-minute delay.
  • 2% of the time, catastrophe strikes and the roads are blocked or something and you have a more-than-10-minute delay.

Now, let’s say most people don’t care about a 5-minute delay. (I don’t think they do.) If, as a perennially tardy person, I take advantage of that by allowing myself to be constantly 5 minutes late, then by this scheme I will be noticeably late half the time. (And remember: Even though most people don’t notice if you’re only 5 minutes late, they will still begin measuring your absence from minute 0. You can’t excuse 10 minutes late as being only 5 minutes late from being 5 minutes late.)

On the other hand, let’s say I’m trying to always be 5 minutes early. According to these same conditions, not only will I be either early or exactly punctual 90% of the time, but even if something unusually bad happens which causes a 10-minute delay, I’ll still be within that 5 minute zone of easy excusal. This means that only 2% of the time, and for the most catastrophic reasons, would I be noticeably late.

Thus, the difference between “nobody will notice if I’m five minutes late” and “I must always strive to be 5 minutes early” is the difference between “I am noticeably and reprehensibly late at least 50% of the time” and “I am punctual or within an acceptable margin of error 98% of the time.”

I know this is true, because (like with catching my flights) I’ve almost always on time for absolutely critical occasions. So in order to be more punctual more often, all I need to do is expand my definition of absolutely critical occasions.

Sounds like I’ve sorted my punctuality problem and put learned helplessness in its place. Now I’ve only got to make sure I stick to it.

Estimation by day, year, and lifetime.

I’m about to get really fast-and-loose with my quote attribution here.

Recently someone shared a quote from someone else that ran to the effect of: “People overestimate what they can get done in a day, and underestimate what they can get done in a year.”

Only when I went to Google it, it came out as overestimating a year, underestimating a lifetime, and it might have come from Bill Gates, but by then it sort of ruined the moment. The point is: If, as I have said before, people are bad at planning things, why plan at all?

A friend and commenter recently linked me to some articles talking some articles on goal setting. Essentially, setting ambitious goals gets you further than setting attainable ones.

When I write my to-do list every morning, I put down everything I could to to achieve a truly terrific day’s worth of work. As I go through the day, I cross off tasks, and often re-write my list several times. Each time I re-write it, I make a more accurate list of priorities. I re-focus. I get more done.

I feel like the same thing happens when I write down goals for the year (or the quarter, or the month, or the week). Typically, I set forth an absurd list of aspirations and stretch goals. But with everything on paper, I can prioritize.

As the year goes on, the list inevitably shifts. One item which I thought would be super important a few months earlier now seems oddly dated. As in: why did I want to do that again? But others rise to prominence by virtue of their longevity. Writing, traveling, and languages remain constants on mine, and have done for the last decade.

Estimation is guesswork. You’re guessing about what you think you can do, what you think is important. But when you assess your guess work again and again, even though each individual guess doesn’t seem to get any better, cumulatively you learn a lot about yourself.

The two-week sprint.

New Year’s is coming up, which—not gonna lie—is one of my favorite times of the year for completely geeky reasons.

I like making resolutions. They make me feel so productive without even having to do anything. I simply resolve to do a thing, and: magic! I’ve accomplished so much! I feel all the warm fuzzies!

To my credit, I usually succeed in following through on the things I resolve to do for about… two weeks. Essentially, I make a sprint, totally prioritize my new modality for that temporary phase of time, and then… it’s not that I burn out, it’s just that the realities of maintaining that pace catch up to me, and I reprioritize.

So, for instance, I briefly tried getting up at 5 AM for a while because I feel so much better about the rest of my day when I get all of my personal priorities out of the way in the morning. I knew my difficulty wouldn’t be getting up so much as going to bed, and sure enough, I could only sustain a 10-O’clock bedtime on nights when I wasn’t spending time with friends. Because friends > writing my novel, it would seem. Stated vs. revealed preferences, yo.

I think this is why so many people fail their New Year’s Resolutions (and subsequently come to mock them so ardently). The problem with sustaining a resolution lies not so much in the task itself, but in the trade-offs you have to make in order to accomplish it.

In this light, the two-week sprint doesn’t look so much like a failure, and more like one step in an iterative learning process. Did that thing seem like a good idea? Well, here’s what it will cost to keep it going. Does it still seem like a good idea?

It’s OK to give your resolutions a two-week trial and then decide they’re not for you.

Or, if you have to make them work, it’s OK to give them a two-week trial and then test a new path toward accomplishing the same goal.

So I get a bit giddy when I plan out my goals for the year. But when they start to fray mid-January, I find ways to patch them up. Or I make alterations. And each time I try something new, I learn more about what I can and can’t accomplish.

I think we get hung up on the plans we make. We make all these decisions early on in the process when we have relatively little data as to how it will affect our lives and what we’ll actually have to do to make them happen. Then, when they don’t work out, our conclusion isn’t: I guess I should adjust my plan and find a different way to make this work. Instead it’s: I guess I’m lazy, and I planned beyond my abilities, which wasn’t hard to do because I guess I’m just bad at everything.

Well, we’re all bad at planning things. I can tell you now: my list for last year was absurd. I wanted to get so many things done, that I stuffed it full of the most insane pipe dreams. And what’s amazing is: I got about half of it done. I accomplished about half of my pipe dreams.

So resolve away. And if mid-January hits and you’ve already changed your mind, resolve anew.

Marginal stress.

I got to thinking recently about the amount of stress I feel from avoiding marginal tasks.

Last year, for Christmas, I’d planned to give my dad DVD copies of a series of interviews he had done of my grandparents about twenty years previously. We had an old VHS tape of them, but the quality was deteriorating and I was worried something would happen to it and we’d lose the interviews entirely. Only, I didn’t know how to burn the MP4 files to a DVD such that my parents could play it on their DVD player, menu and all. I knew I could probably figure this problem out in a few minutes of googling, but because doing so could theoretically take anywhere from 30 minutes to 3 hours to complete, I kept putting it off. For a whole year.

I kept that un-checked to-do on my dry erase board that entire time, a silent reminder of this thing I had to get done that I was avoiding just because I didn’t know how long it would take me to finish it off. I’m not saying it kept me up at night, worrying about when I would burn those DVDs, but I felt a slight twinge of guilt every time I thought about it.

Christmas Eve, realizing that if I left it any longer it would never get done, I spent about 30 minutes figuring out what to do, then burned the DVDs.

Seriously: a whole year of accumulated guilt and marginal stress, just to avoid a 30-minute chore.

A few months back, I invested $12 in a box of pens. They’re black, retractable, gel ink pens with a semi-fine ball point and a rubber grip. I like writing with them. I haven’t been frustrated by a dry, scratchy, or smudgy pen since.

In a similar vein, I bought some new dry-erase markers the other day with finer tips and a broader array of colors because the ones in my room were dry and boring.

I’ve started throwing out socks once they get holes in the toes because I hate holes it the toes of my socks, so why do I keep wearing them instead of just buying new socks?!

And speaking of socks, do you know how much time I spend tripping over laundry baskets and digging through a pile of clothes for matching socks when literally five minutes could save me at least as much time and make me happier with life because of my neat and orderly room? Way too much time.

I waste a lot of energy avoiding small tasks, or being irritated by minor things with a simple solution. So one of my new goals is to address minor irritations promptly instead of allowing the to take up a disproportionate amount of mind-space.

Because sometimes it’s easier done than said.

Working ahead.

So, today I worked on three blog posts, and had to save each for another day.

I’d started the first several weeks ago, jotted down a few paragraphs while I felt inspired, then shoved it into my drafts folder. I’ve since discovered that my drafts folder contains equal parts bad ideas that will never see the light of day, really good ideas that will take forever to finish off, and occasionally the near-finished idea that can save me in dire extremity when I’m short on time but would still like to get something out.

Anyway, this first post I tried to work on is a topic I love, and I want to do it justice. Partway through working on it, I realized that doing it justice would take another post entirely. So I split off part of it, and began working on that other post. And partway through that post, I realized that this whole thing was part of a much larger topic, and that I should go back even further. So then I put 500 words into a preamble for my third post without reaching the meat of what I wanted to write about, and that’s the point at which I knew I would have to put the project aside for the day and write about something simpler or else I wouldn’t get my post out for the second day running.

My big resolution of 2017 is to work ahead. I could list tons of reasons why I want to do this, but today’s experience is a case in point: working ahead allows me to develop my thoughts in this particular series of blog posts without the pressure of having to publish today.

I enjoy blogging every day (by which I really mean I enjoy seeing a post go live every day). It motivates me to keep going. But I do not enjoy blogging at the last minute every day. That’s stressful and disorganized.

I’ve been under water with work for most of the past couple months, and it’s taught me (I hope?) a lot about the value of tying up loose ends and keeping your shit in order. I’d like to put those lessons into place starting 2017, and I plan to use the rest of 2016 to get me there.

I hope that it leads to better-quality blog posts, content with purpose, and more fulfillment and less stress on my end. If you’re interested in seeing whether I make that happen, stay tuned.