Recently, we talked about how powerful a daily stack of habits can be. My own morning stack – yoga, daily gratitudes, meditation and writing – is at the very core of my creative life.
Those first two hours of the day are often the most effective and enjoyable of the whole day, and get me off to an excellent start.
At the other end of the day though, things aren’t always so rosy.
I still struggle to find that balance between how much I reasonably expect to be able to do, and being terribly disappointed if I don’t do enough.
Disappointment, in simple terms, is the gap between what you expect, and what you actually get.
So if your expectation is often unrealistically high, it follows that you’re often going to be disappointed.
A few years ago I might have told you that we need to have lofty goals, we need to set our expectations high to have something to strive for. Otherwise we live lives of silent mediocrity.
I still believe this to some extent, but where it’s shifted for me is with how realistic our expectations need to be.
Plus with expectation, comes another factor. Appreciation.
We can have sky high expectations of ourselves, be forever striving for the stars, and even reach them once in a while. But it means very little if we don’t appreciate what we do, what we have done, all that we have created in our lives.
Like with the morning stack, if I could use my own life as an example, and what happens in the evenings.
In the past, most days, my morning stack would be great. I’d spend the day at my dayjob, then come home around 5.15. By the time we’d sorted out meals, baths, bedtimes and so on, it’d be maybe 7.30 or 8.
Still, in my head, I was holding on to (and still sometimes hold on to) the idea that now the evening has begun and I can spend some time talking with my partner, we can watch a film together, I can do some writing, and catch up online, maybe play with my camera a little, do some reading, and still be in bed at a reasonable hour to get enough sleep.
The four or five or six hours I might need to do all those things obviously won’t fit into the two or three I’m likely to still be awake.
A big gap between expectation and the reality. A gap also known as disappointment.
So to try to fit all these different activities in, and knowing I couldn’t do an hour of each, I would more often try to do just a little of each.
This doesn’t make for a happy me. I constantly feel edgy and like I’m just watching the clock until I move on to the next thing, juggling the balance of time I have, as well as juggling time I want to spend with my partner with time I’d like to spend on creative projects.
It wasn’t really working. And this being a work in progress, it sometimes still doesn’t.
But there are three important things I’ve done that have really helped. They are –
1. Step back from the need to be online.
A few months back I spent far more time online. It wasn’t all quality time, and often I was racing around trying to keep up with every update on far too many different sites. It could quite easily be labeled as an addiction, in fact.
The biggest source of anxiety was email. I had email notifications set up for our creative community CCS, Google+, and Twitter. Meaning every time someone responded to something I’d written or responded to on one of these networks, I’d get an email.
Being in the UK, and the majority of people I know online being in the US, during the week the main activity goes on while I’m asleep.
So I’d often wake up to triple figures waiting in my inbox, and even as I managed to put them aside to do my morning stack, they were still there waiting in the evening as one of the dozen activities I expected to squeeze in.
Also, slightly longer ago, maybe a year ago, I was attempting to follow 80+ blogs in my RSS Reader.
Similar to the triple figure inbox, I would quite often fire up Reader to see four figures unread. Seeing “You have 1000+ unread items” staring at you doesn’t make for a relaxing visit. It just piles on more (self made) pressure.
So I culled all the RSS subscriptions in one go, and started again.
Gradually I added the blogs I found essential (trust me, you don’t need them bookmarked to remember the ones that matter most), and today I follow about 15, which fluctuates slightly as I unsubscribe from those I’m not enjoying so much, and find new ones I enjoy more.
Now I can visit Reader once a day and have only three or four new items to read. So I can enjoy them slowly, and read them in full.
With the email, it took me a while longer, but I eventually had the brainwave of simply switching off all the notifications from those three main sites I was receiving them from.
To catch up on whatever activity had taken place since my last visit, I just visited the site itself and browsed through the stream. (In fact with Twitter I don’t even do this now.)
Now, I typically wake to an inbox of single figures. Mostly they are personal messages I can respond to in a relaxed and attentive way, and without the impending avalanche of another 50 to 100+ still waiting.
The strangest (and most revealing) part about this overhaul of my approach to email is the dent it initially made to my ego.
I realised a few days in – when my inbox actually felt spacious and manageable – that part of the reason I had been signed up to the notifications was as a way to feel wanted, needed, significant, important.
I wanted on some level to feel that while I slept (in the UK), most of the people I communicate with online (in the US) were talking about me, missing me.
This all sounds a little pathetic written down.
But I recognise the truth in it, and the fear of “missing out” can be a strong driving force that leads to us overwhelming ourselves with far too much, just so we feel we’re a part of something, that we’re up to date.
We can do this without reading every word of every update of every person in the communities we belong to.
Something else that helped, again involved stopping trying to follow so much. At its peak, my Twitter following total was something like 800. How can we possibly hope to follow this many people and have any kind of meaningful connection with them?
Again, a huge gap between expectation and reality. Another source of disappointment.
So I purged that too, at first down to about 150, then gradually further, stopping following anyone who I either didn’t recognise, or who didn’t, for me, provide interesting and useful updates.
My current count is 60 something.
Filtering out the noise to hear fewer, much stronger, much more relevant signals, makes a huge difference.
Now when I’m online I feel far more in control.
I don’t browse for hours like I used to, becoming increasingly numbed by the whole experience.
If I need to, some days I simply visit them less, or not at all. When I return I can choose to just begin from that point and create something new, whether it’s a piece of writing, sharing some new artwork, or engaging in conversation.
I don’t have triple figures of emails bearing down and screaming about how much I’ve missed.
So that’s one way that’s really helped reduce my expectation and enjoy my time more. Can you relate?
2. Be less scheduled, and more spontaneous.
In my morning stack, it’s pretty tight and scheduled. 30 minutes yoga, five daily gratitudes, 15 minutes meditation, 60 minutes writing. A set sequence, and a fairly set amount of each. It works incredibly well for me.
Because of this tried and tested effectiveness, I was trying to apply the same mentality to my evenings. The reason it wasn’t working is because I was trying to cram far too much in the time available, I was in a different frame of mind, and other people were more involved.
What has worked is to pick far fewer activities, and be much more relaxed about the time I spend on them.
For example, saying I will write haiku for 30 minutes every evening at 8pm just wouldn’t work for me on so many levels.
What does work is sometimes picking up my haiku pad and pen for 10 minutes and just letting the thoughts and haiku form on the page.
Ten minutes might stretch to 20 or 30 or 60. But I don’t have the expectation up front. I just let my mind unravel until I don’t want to anymore, and see what I have. I’m happy whether it’s one haiku or twenty one haiku.
Reading works in a similar way. If I try to strictly schedule it, it doesn’t work. I then end up approaching the reading with a sense of obligation, and don’t enjoy it.
But again, if some evenings I decide to pick up a book for 10 minutes, or quite often last thing at night in bed until I fall asleep, it works far better. I can immerse myself in it without counting the time or the pages read, or thinking I should be doing something else.
I’m relaxed, the pressure is off, I enjoy the reading as long as I enjoy it, then I stop.
Another element here is living with other people.
I have a very understanding partner and we try to give each other time and space for our own stuff, as well as spending time together.
We both have the need to relax and unwind, and sometimes do this together, sometimes apart.
It took me a long time (and again it’s still a work in progress) to realise I wasn’t being expected to be attentive and doting for 24 hours a day, and that we both sometimes are most happy just getting on with our own things, without feeling we’re neglecting each other.
A more realistic expectation means far less disappointment.
3. Stop expecting so much.
The third element that’s been helpful is really a summation of the two we just spoke about.
Simply stop expecting so much.
All the time you’re trying to cram five hours of activities into half that time, there can only be two outcomes –
You either –
a) Do a little of each of them (probably less than half of what you want to) and feel like you’re constantly rushing and under pressure. Consequently you don’t enjoy a single moment.
b) You spend as long as you want to on each of the activities you do begin, but only get half of them done. Out of six, you might get two or three done. So instead of enjoying those you have done, and acknowledging what you’ve done, you’re too busy lamenting all the undone. Feeling frustrated and disappointed that you didn’t do absolutely everything. Again.
That disappointment gap. Again.
The answer is to be realistic and let go of the need to do so much in so little time.
This really is a quality/quantity pay off.
When you’re trying to do too much, you don’t enjoy any of it. What’s the point of cramming your life with a constant feeling of being overwhelmed and unfulfilled?
When you consciously choose to do less – to let go of some the things that, tonight, right now, aren’t your priority – your enjoyment of the few that remain increases many times over.
Think about a plate of 10 different delicious cakes.
Which approach are you going to enjoy more – picking two and savouring every morsel, walking away with a lasting memory of how delicious an experience it was?
Or trying to fill your face with every one of the 10, barely registering how each tastes, before another flavour is forced in your mouth? Then walking feeling rather sick and like you never want to see another cake again.
Choose fewer cakes, enjoy every bite, every morsel.
So, to try to sum up what has become something of a novella of a post (thanks for coming this far…)
Structured stacks of habits work brilliantly well for me, every morning.
In the evening, the way I manage my time, and my expectation of what I can do in that time, is quite different.
Different in the amount I do, different in the type of activities I do, different in the structured (or rather almost entirely unstructured) way I approach them.
I try to be realistic in how much I do in the evenings. If I get five haiku written, it’s great. If I read a chapter of a book, that’s great too. If I spend a couple of hours watching a film with my partner that’s great too. I appreciate each. I don’t try to do them all (plus half a dozen other things).
It’s by having that powerful morning stack that I can be so much more relaxed and spontaneous with my evening time.
Experiment, find what works for you. In the mornings, during the day, in the evenings.
Reduce your expectation, let go of the need to do so much, to be connected so much.
Do less, do it more fully, enjoy it more.
Or, as I said just now – Choose fewer cakes, enjoy every bite, every morsel.
Your life can’t help but improve immeasurably, and disappointment, rather than being an ever present unwanted guest, will increasingly become a stranger.
Where is there disappointment in your creative life? Where do you think your balance of expectation and disappointment might be improved? Join the conversation to share your experiences, or let me know directly.
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