Do you ever feel as if trying to corral your thoughts is like herding cats? I know. Me too. Getting your mental ducks in a row, making plans, making choices, especially when there are too many choices, can be overwhelming. That’s what I felt last month when we returned from our fall camping trip and I looked at my empty calendar and my long list of things I wanted to do this fall. I needed to create some order in my life. Because without a structure to my week, with no hard and fast deadlines, and no depend-upon-it weekly appointments, I was floundering in a sea of too much time, too many possibilities, too little motivation, and too much guilt that I should be doing something more productive than I was doing on any one given day.
That’s one of the things we all have to learn about retirement. How to deal with an unstructured day, week, month, life.
I remember leaving for work one morning when I was still teaching, and Hubby was newly retired. He said, only partly in jest, “It’s easy for you. You know what you are going to be doing every hour today. I have to make it up as I go along.” We both laughed. But in retrospect, I’m sure his was a rueful laugh. I mean, he had a plethora of things he could be doing, things he wanted to do, and needed to do. But no time constraints, aside from the seasonal ones, on when they should be done. Or if he might want to chuck the lot of them and have a nap.
I’ve created various structures and schedules for myself and my life over the eight years I’ve been retired. And not all of them have served me as well as the one I’ve recently devised. A kind of loosely structured week, with days devoted to certain activities, and days deliberately set aside as “anything goes” days. You can read about my newly created plan to “get my act together” here.
On Sunday I was reading an essay written by Haley Nahman called “In Defense of Burdens.” In it, she writes of abandoning many of the constraints, or burdens, which had previously ruled her life. And, as opposed to feeling wonderful and free, she felt oddly unsatisfied and even “empty.” She had made “the kinds of changes many people dream of making if only they had the resources.” And yet, she writes that she felt “at a loss for how I’d managed to make my life feel emptier in the process.” Lack of commitment, a life devoid of any constraints simply made her feel untethered, and undermined her confidence in her own capabilities. She goes on, in the essay, to explain the many small changes she has now made and how her life has improved. She’s more productive, more creative, and happier.
I really like Haley Nahman’s work. I’ve written about her before on my blog. I subscribe to her Sunday newsletter called Maybe Baby, which you can find here. I find it oddly comforting, that although we live vastly different lives, and she is way younger than I am, her introspective writing and musings about life appeal to me so much. As if age, ethnicity, lifestyle, and nationality don’t matter much after all when it comes to sharing the really important things in life.
In her essay from last Sunday, Haley refers to this article from the Harvard Business Review on “why constraints are good for innovation.” Apparently “constraints counterintuitively lead to better creative work.” And despite all the palaver from people who think that any kind of constraint stifles creativity, “getting rid of rules and boundaries does not ensure that creativity and innovative thinking will thrive.” It’s “only when the constraints are too high that they stifle.” The key is finding the sweet spot. The perfect balance between stifling and allowing so much scope that the potential “innovative thinker” suffers from what Haley calls “choice paralysis.”
This article made me smile. And it made me think of all the students over the years who have looked me in the eye and assured me that they absolutely could not write creatively without complete freedom. That ideas just came to them from out of the blue, and that deadlines were an anathema to creative work. Oh… the confidence of the uninitiated. Ha. This popular misconception about how creativity works was why the first few weeks of my writing course were always dedicated to learning about the writing process and the creative process, how to “feed the muse” (as one writer put it), and ways of just getting started writing when one had no idea if they even had any ideas at all.
Without structure, and boundaries, and goals, teaching this class would have been like herding cats. We all would have been, as I said in my post last month, “riding madly off in all directions.” And not getting anywhere at all.
In the past month I’ve found that my new weekly structure has put, in my opinion, exactly enough constraints upon my time. It ensures that I have free time to do whatever. But it also gives me a firm deadline for writing this blog. Without these deadlines, I would stress about having no ideas, or too many ideas, I’d put off writing, and have no fun blogging at all.
For instance, I frequently have a loose idea for my Wednesday blog post, often sparked by life circumstances or by things I’ve been reading, like this week. But until I sit down at the computer to upload photos, I have no clear plan for the post, and often no clear theme. It’s only when I actually start writing that things pull together for me. If I waited for the ideas to become perfectly clear before I started to write, I’d never start. As it is, I now simply trust that once I start writing the ideas will flow. And they always do. But for that to happen I need a deadline.
Without deadlines, a weekly structure, and some constraints, writing this blog would be like herding cats.
Now, have a look at this little video about herding cats. It’s from a television ad that ran, I believe, during the Super Bowl a few years ago. It’s brilliant. You have to love the small details: the ball of yarn, the cowboy with the “lint roller.” So good.
And speaking of herding cats. I am happily herding my own very small herd of cats this week. Our new next-door neighbours have gone away for a vacation, and Hubby and I are looking after their two kitties. Oh my. This cat-lover is in cat heaven. Sigh.
And now it’s getting dark and I must go, my friends, and herd my small charges indoors. Give them their dinner. And maybe sit down for a brief cuddle.
So my new weekly schedule is working a treat. I’m meeting the deadlines I imposed upon myself, getting my chores done. And enjoying the days when I feel free to do whatever. In fact I’m doing more whatever then ever before. Like Haley, I’m more productive, more creative, and happier.
And, you know, I’m thinking that this whole constraints and creativity theory explains why I love working with a small wardrobe. The closet constraints only add to the outfit creativity.
But that’s a story for another post, I think.