Life Experiment #7: Nesting

Nesting Storks

Last week, I was served with a 30-day Notice to Quit, the first stage in eviction proceedings. I’m not happy about this, but such is life. This is my reality. So what am I going to do?

Not surprisingly, I’m really anxious. I have a houseful of stuff – books, art, furniture, dishes, appliances, writing projects, not to mention a cat. The idea of moving in less than a month is hugely stressful. Friends have reassured me that, practically speaking, I likely have far more time than the legal paper suggests, given our state’s landlord-tenant laws and the nature of judicial proceedings. But things are already unpleasant enough. At this point, I just want out.

Still, getting out takes time and effort. Much as I might wish it otherwise, I can’t magically snap my fingers and be somewhere else. The question: How to make the best of this particular bad situation? How to go about reducing its impact on the rest of my life?

A comment from my friend Allegra was helpful here, pointing out how the specter of eviction likely evokes past threats and rejections. “I’ve never known a notice to quit not to hurt,” she observed, speaking metaphorically. Separating the past from the present strikes me as eminently useful. How much of my reaction is about now? How much is about then – about newly retriggered pain surging from the past. (“Now is not then,” Havi says, over and over and over.)

That said, I’m definitely confronting a very real present-day challenge, one that goes to the core of how I live and work. Even if I don’t want to fight eviction, I already feel embattled. It’s affecting the quality of my days and my ability to get things done. I have a hard time sleeping. I awake awash in cortisol, already on overdrive.

Years ago, I took a class in Early Freud at a psychoanalytic institute in Manhattan. (“Early Freud, that’s great. Stuff even Freud doesn’t believe anymore,” a friend dryly remarked.)  Most of what I learned there is long forgotten but one principle stayed with me. “Never deal with a neurosis by attempting to uproot it. Always work to build up other aspects of the personality,” our teacher said (or something pretty close to that; it’s been a long time).

I see an analogy here. On the one hand, I could focus on the bad thing happening. Or I could train my sights on the life and home I’m hoping to create. What are the qualities I want them to have?  Where – and how — am I most likely to find them?

And here’s where the idea of nests comes in (another thing inspired by Havi). What are the qualities of a nest? (It holds EGGs. It’s a place where small creatures grow from helplessness to self-sufficiency. It’s a product of instinctual needs. That’s a start.) What am I looking for in my nest? (Safety. Support. Ease. Contentment.) How can I create it? (That’s what I’m sitting with now.) The nest metaphor feels especially apt given the sustenance I’ve gained in recent months from both breadcrumbs and basket weaving.

So that’s it: Life Experiment # 7 will be all about nesting, watching how the metaphor works and (I’m hoping) starts to shift things.

Update on Life Experiment #6: Present Me is delighted that Past Me got rid of some of these pesky nagging tasks, especially given the pressures Present Me now faces. I sewed on the button! And did some 20 other things besides – got my bike tuned up, hemmed a pair of linen pants, got a long-overdue haircut.  I didn’t make it through all 30 things, but I definitely made progress. And as I’ve learned through these Life Experiments, that itself is cause for celebration.

Metrics to the rescue

My Plan B Nation tool kit holds a collection of strategies, and choosing the right one for the challenge at hand turns out to be really important. You don’t pick up a hammer when you need to cut a piece of wood, and I’m finding that my Plan B Nation tools have equally specific uses.

Metrics are a great example — and by metrics I mean clearly established quantifiable goals. This is how I got two novels written, by holding myself to the writing goal of 500 words a day. Some days I wrote more. Some days I didn’t write at all. But even on the days when work didn’t get done, I knew that the goal was there, and that made all the difference.

Because metrics have been so useful to me over so many years, I’ve tended to rely on them a lot — to my mind, a little too much. On the upside, metrics are great (for me) for getting things done. On the downside (for me), they can also lead to a task-focused sort of grimness — where the only thing that matters is forward motion, not how I feel in the moving. Since I really value lightness and play, this can be a problem. That’s why I’ve been trying out different tools, especially breadcrumbs.

That said, there are times when metrics are just the ticket, and now is one of those times. Yesterday I talked about being in a bit of a summer slump. Projects that just days ago filled me with zest now fail to spark my interest. Nothing really feels worth the effort. Everything feels impossibly large, not to mention thankless.

It came at me out of the blue, this feeling, and I can’t entirely explain it. But regardless, this is where I am. This is what I have to work with.

Here’s why metrics are great (for me) at times like this:

1. They take the focus off how I feel and put it on concrete actions.

2. They encourage me to break up ambitious projects into small pieces, which are far less likely to feel overwhelming. They offer a way in.

3. They tie success to something within my control — to actions, not outcomes.

Right now, I’m working with two metrics — you might call them micro and macro.

The first one: 5 things a day.  What this means is that, every day, I take five concrete steps forward (which, as always, I track in my desk diary). Today, one of these is writing this blog post. Another will be getting exercise — a walk or maybe yoga. The rationale: I know from experience that if I just keep this up things will eventually shift. For me, this is what faith is — a belief in cause and effect borne out by experience.

The second: 100 pitches. (In case you didn’t guess, this would be the macro.)  Looking for work is really tiring, the more so, the longer you do it. Using this metric feels like a way to turn it into a game, to imbue it with the qualities of curiosity, play, and fun. What is a pitch exactly? That’s up to me. Reaching out to a potential client, drafting a magazine query — these are two examples, but I’m sure I’ll come up with more.

But even as I take up the metrics tool, I’m also aware of its limits. For me, it’s always the means to a goal, not the goal in itself. I think of metrics as the propulsive push a plane needs for liftoff. Once you’re airborne the job is done. Metrics fall away.

On breadcrumbs & basket weaving (aka Life Experiment #4)

Young bird

So if you think I haven’t been blogging as much: you’re right.

Over the past few weeks, my personal Plan B Nation has become an increasingly busy place, and while that’s mainly a very good thing, it’s also entailing some readjustments and recalibrations.

As you may have read, last month’s Life Experiment—taking a photo everyday as I learned to use my new digital camera—came to an abrupt end only days after it began.  I realized I simply couldn’t add another thing to my plate. While at first I saw this as a failure (bad!), I ended up realizing that it was doing what any good experiment should: Giving me useful information.

In that spirit, I’m taking this month’s Life Experiment in a somewhat different direction. Instead of focusing on an activity, I’ll be playing with metaphor and shifting perspective.

I recently wrote about how I’m trying to bring more playfulness into my life—to still get things done but to have more lightness in the doing.  For much of my foray in Plan B Nation, Getting Things Done has felt like accomplishment enough. On some days simply getting out of bed felt like a pretty big deal.

But lately, I’ve come to wonder if things have to feel so grim. In particular, I’ve been thinking about the role of metaphor. Which brings me to breadcrumbs and basket weaving, aka Life Experiment #4.

On Breadcrumbs . . .

Instead of marching through a to-do list, I’m a bird following bread crumbs.  Breadcrumbs are: Nourishing.  A bird doesn’t order itself to follow a trail of breadcrumbs. That comes naturally. A trail of breadcrumbs invites you on. You don’t have to think about it.

I’ve been playing with this over the past few weeks, and I like how it’s feeling.  Looking for the next breadcrumb is way better than pushing myself to Be More Productive.

and basket weaving

Another big challenge has been feeling that I’m moving in too many different directions. By nature and habit, I go for depth rather than for breadth. I like to focus on one thing, to give it my full attention.

Of course, that isn’t always possible—it isn’t for me right now—so I’ve been mulling over how I can keep doing lots of things but feel a little less stressed. The answer, at least for now, seems to be basket weaving.

Instead of seeing life as pulling me in disparate conflicting directions, I’m thinking of my various activities as strands in a single  basket. The challenge is weaving them together. The challenge is creating a whole. What I was viewing as a source of stress has become a creative project.

Which isn’t to say that I really like being all this busy. I’m hoping (expecting) that by April’s end, things will have settled down. In the meantime, I plan to do what I can to hold the situation lightly—to follow the trail of breadcrumbs and practice basket weaving.

Note: My interest in how metaphor can shape experience was sparked by The Fluent Self‘s Havi Brooks–if you’re interested in reading more, she’s written loads on the topic.

Basket Weaving