Zen goal setting and overcoming my strange relationship with time

The Zen-est picture on my desktop. From our
Hopscotch Honeymoon stop in Keokuk, IA.

As you know, I’m a list-making freak (see here). I craft yearly, monthly, weekly and daily goal lists. I get a lot done (apparently), but I still feel unproductive (and lazy) a lot of the time. I futz with Facebook and do the Twitter thing. I read historical fiction chick-lit at the gym. I blog. I watch TV with Mr. T. I sleep eight hours a night. (Truth!) But I feel guilty.

My problem seems to be my obsession with time. “I don’t have time.” “If I only had time.” “There’s not enough time in the day.” “I’m wasting time.” Really, last I checked I had the same 24 hours a day as everyone else. I’ve just cultivated this approach to discipline wherein I “waste time” and then I think I shouldn’t be doing anything except for school until such and such a date (May 11, for the short term and May 2013 for the long term). I burn out quickly, get a little depressed and end up reading blogs or watching re-runs for a couple hours. Then I feel guiltier and I tell myself that I will work even harder for the next few hours/days, but I get tired and go back to the re-runs. I can’t seem to get the work done (until the last minute, of course) and the cycle continues. I lose my motivations*.

This isn’t a new issue by the way. It’s an every semester issue and definitely speaks to accumulated stress and burn out. But it’s par for the course in PhD school (see here for more on that). My question is, with my last two years of school, can I change the behavior?

Sure. Cue Zen goal setting.

I asked my advisor for some ideas about getting work done over the summer and being more productive. As a work/life balance scholar, she is interested in healthy, sustainable approaches to work that still honor personal commitments and health. She sent me some reading that included Zen approaches to goals and retraining habits.

The gist? Incorporating action. Instead of asking “Who do I want to be” or “What am I going to do,” the idea is to be the change I want to see. So the goal is not “To be a healthier person” for instance, but to act like a healthier person. To ask myself “What would a healthy person do?” and then do it.

It’s a slight tweak but one that helps goals seem more manageable and attainable because the action is focused in the here and now. For instance, if my goal was to lose 50 pounds or to write a book, I could easily see myself being overwhelmed. But by concentrating on the little things I can do today–writing for an hour or choosing salad over fries–I can act like a person who is committed to a healthier weight or act like a person who is writing a book. And soon I will be that person. Yes? Yes!

Of course, the hard part is retraining habits. Want to know who you are? Look at your habits. Do the habits and goals line up? For me, if I want to be a healthy person, but I eat fattening foods, avoid the gym, and never take days off, am I really healthy? (I’m working on this!) To meet goals or incorporate new ones,  habits needs modification. Happily I think realization is the first step to recovery. To wit, I am trying a “time study” on myself to see where my time actually goes in a day. How many minutes do I fiddle with Facebook or sit staring into the distance instead of pecking away on my laptop? What habits contribute to my goals? Which detract (*cough* Facebook)? What new habits need to be added? I will let you know how it goes.

Until then, I am acting like an accomplished, not-stressed-out student, and will write a few more pages of my narrative paper before acting like a healthy person and going to the gym. ha!

What goals are you enacting? What habits do you want to change?


* My motivations often hide on Facebook or this blog. Ah!

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