Friday, September 14, 2012

Zen and the Art of Just Getting the Darn Thing Done

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Portland, Oregon's Chinese Garden 

Help me to have the courage to finish what I have begun
and to begin what I want to finish.
 
Phyllis Theroux


This is the time of year when I realize that the time is short to accomplish all the goals I energetically set at the beginning of the year (for example, this little one).  The blogging drought is the biggest sign of the physical and mental inertia that squeezed me like a Hollywood movie anaconda after I returned from France.  A dozen half-finished, never-posted blog entries became lost in the forest of my computer files while I spent my time instead developing a serious opinion about the new hairstyle of tabloid favorite, Miley Cyrus.

One thing I managed to finish was essayist Phyllis Theroux’s graceful memoir, The Journal Keeper.  This summer in France I made a spastic attempt to maintain a relevant and detailed travel journal.  Another unfinished product.  Theroux’s own journal can make her readers sob because they will never be so poetic or so detailed in their own daily scribblings.  But that is no reason to hate her.  The memoir made from her edited journals covers a period in her life when many women just disappear into the woodwork.  She fights that tendency along with writer’s block, her mother’s deteriorating health, and financial stress.

Rather than give you a review that in no way matches Theroux’s lyrical observations I’ll just offer her own words as evidence why you should read it:


  • On a mundane level, I think I am capable of swimming half a mile with relative ease.  But in the water I don’t do it because I feel myself to be weak in resolve.  And what I feel is stronger than what I think.  In my writing, I am fearful of risk or change, not because I wouldn’t if I could, but because I don’t think I can.  Here, what I think prevails.  Do I have anything to say?
  • It is true that you become what you love.  I love ideas, words, people, and food.  So I am an intellectual with lots of friends who is twenty pounds overweight.  If I were to love exercise, thrift, and truth I would be better off.
  • [My mother] spent a good deal of time wondering, as she phrased it, how to put in my day.  I think that knowing how to put in your day is one of the great unspoken problems of being alive.

I’m continually drawn back to Theroux’s small prayer at the top of this page.  Hand raised.  Guilty as charge.  I’m the world’s worst starter of anything.  The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.

My plate is so full right now that it looks like I went through the line for Sunday brunch twice before I even began to eat.  Pre-action decisions about which problem or task has top priority, what’s the best way to approach the situation, what I need to do first before I even begin to make a move paralyze me so that nothing gets done until crisis mode hits.

The solution seems so simple – so obvious.  Do something.  Anything to break the logjam.  Len Babauta of the blog Zen Habits understands how hard it is to develop new habits and abandon the unproductive actions that control our days.  If we fixate on our goal, e.g., to do 30 minutes of cardio every day or write 1000 words each day, it may seem too daunting a task even to begin.

The key to forming a new habit, Babauta says, is not how much you do of the habit each day, but just whether you do it at all.  In other words, it’s not whether you do 50 sit-ups a day but whether you do just one.  “Focus on the smallest thing — just getting started. You don’t have to do even 5 minutes — just start. That’s so easy it’s hard to say no,” he instructs us.

Well . . . duh.

Yet it really is hard to do that one freakin’ minute of filing loose paperwork that would set me on the road to having an organized office and desk.  Or to commit to writing one minute – let alone 5 minutes – each day.  But I’m game if you are.

This is like in yoga class when we’re instructed at the beginning to set a one-word intention for our practice or our day.  I choose such intentions as peace or energy, depending on how many aches and pains my body has that day.  Maybe I should add a new intention -- commence.

In the time I have left to have a productive year, perhaps I’ll say Phyllis Theroux’s little prayer each morning and then commit to working for one minute on anything on my exhaustive to-do list.  Then the rest of the day is mine to waste.  Who knows?  Maybe if I develop this new habit of starting I’ll improve my record on finishing.


Are you someone who has more trouble starting or finishing?  How do you get over that hurdle?  What one thing would you apply Babauta’s simple technique to right now?  Share all you know about starting or ending good habits in the comments box.  It will only take a minute.


Do you feel you have as many tasks to do as stones in this walk?
How do you get them done?
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10 comments:

Patricia said...

Love this post, Julie. You articulate so well many of the issues a writer faces. Guilty as charged! I'm a big fan of Theroux too and have lost myself in her wonderful travel writing for years. I'm applying Babauta's zen philosophy to help me get through all of the blogs I love to follow while I'm still in the revision trench with my novel. Oops, I think I just used my one-minute!

Julie Farrar said...

Hey, one-minute blog reading. I'm so far behind it would be a great way to catch up. Thanks for giving me one minute of your day.

N.Scott said...

Oh, how this post speaks to me. I set deadlines and feel so bad when I miss them. I wish I knew the cure.

Small steps can achieve a lot but on a day to day basis sometimes they don't seem ambitious enough. Personally, I fall into the trap of wanting too much right away but I'm a believer of small daily achievements.

Nadine Feldman said...

Julie, it sounds like you're being pretty hard on yourself. I can get caught up in the goals and to-do lists as much as the next person, but I think the key is to create an environment that is fluid, fun, and relaxed. Maybe your inner wisdom is giving you a different message from all these "shoulds" and "have to's". I think sometimes we need to step back in order to germinate what's next.

olgagodim said...

Julie, this is so true. Like many I'm a procrastinator. I say to myself all the time: "in half an hour," "maybe later in the day," "tomorrow I'll start," you know. But those resolutions can last forever. You're an inspiration to throw them all out the window and start NOW.

Julie Farrar said...

Thanks for stopping by. I couldn't respond earlier because I took my own adviced today and knocked some items off my to-do list.

Tami Clayton said...

Leo's advice is spot on in my opinion. Every little step, every small bit of effort builds on itself and before you know it, you're getting things done. Welcome back, Julie! :)

Julie Farrar said...

Thanks, Tami. I plan on going back and reading about the parts of your trip I missed.

Jodi @ Heal Now and Forever said...

I start many things, and finish a few. I am really productive but still keep thinking of more ideas and try to fit them in too. But them I do take time to rest and just be and it feels balanced!

Julie Farrar said...

I have a lot of ideas, too. However, that becomes my downfall because I don't know where to start. I've read every "organize your life" book out there, but I think the real answer is just DO SOMETHING. Anything. Just do it.

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