(Or exercise, or study, or go outside ….)
A friend asked if I was using the lockdown to “finally write a novel”? No. I was not.
Like almost everyone else I know, the eerie quiet was the opposite of what I needed to be productive. I knew logically that it was okay not to get things done – we were in the middle of a pandemic! Lockdown was stressful! But the stress was an invisible, creepy kind that crawled into the walls, making enough noise to keep us up at night but not enough that we felt like we deserved to freak out. We got on with our days with random tears, too much Netflix (or wine) or afternoons in bed, fearful for our loved ones, our community, and our futures, and all while wearing an expression like the meme dog in the burning room: “This is fine”.
My early pandemic plan was to use the sudden downtime to supercharge my meditation practice. I planned a program of listening to podcasts, doing courses on the Tricycle website, and getting a tiny sangha-book-club going with a pal. I’d do some Instagram live meditation ‘drop-ins’ for other locked-down buddies and meditate, meditate, meditate. It went well… for about two weeks.
I did some of a course. I led a few ‘live’ Instagram meditation sessions. I listened to podcasts and did ‘podclub’ video meetups with my friend where we mostly just talked about life – but I didn’t meditate. When I thought of meditating my body went into a frenzy of resentment. I did not want to meditate. I WOULD not meditate!
I was convinced by neuroscience and research and reading and my own past practice how helpful, useful and just plain interesting meditation can be. It wasn’t information that was holding me back. I could talk about how great meditation was until the baby magpies in the park grew into full blown swoopers, but I could not make myself sit down to meditate.
And then I got lucky.
In lockdown I had the good fortune to work with a couple of clients on a skill called pacing. It’s a great tool to use when you’re having trouble getting an activity or goal in perspective, and it’s a classic life-skill: Something like drinking less coffee or saying ‘no’ that sounds so simple we sometimes don’t even bother to try it.
Pacing is a common strategy for managing conditions of chronic pain, fatigue, or illness, and can be really effective in supporting a better quality of life while you’re working on chronic pain or living through episodes of depression. Turns out it’s also great for basic goal support. Here’s a definition from Dr. Rachel Zoffness: “When you pace yourself, you engage in a regular, daily level of activity somewhere between doing nothing (too little) and doing everything (waaay too much).” (“The Chronic Pain and Illness Workbook for Teens”)
But there’s a hidden magic trick to pacing.
To demonstrate, we’re going to do an exercise:
Get your pen or smartphone notes app out…
No, actually do…
1 – Write down what it is you want to do.
(For me it was “re-boot my daily meditation practice.”)
2 – Write down how much you would like to do in a completely ideal super-you world.
(For me that was 20 minutes, twice a day.)
3 – Now write down how much you actually ARE doing of this thing you value and find meaningful. Be honest.
(For me that was 15 minutes once or twice a week – or in some weeks, zero times).
4 – Now think about what an actual reasonable goal might be. Something like what you’re actually doing, but with an added pinch of “do less”.
(My super reasonable idea was to try 10 minutes a day.)
5 – Now, for the final planning step cut that time in half. Your end goal should be almost embarrassing. If you’ve arrived at an actually embarrassing time you’re doing great.
(Now my meditation goal was at 5 minutes a day.)
Now for the magic trick:
6 – Once you’ve worked out your ‘kind of/ genuinely embarrassing’ goal you make a deal with yourself that you are absolutely, no excuses, 100-percent FORBIDDEN to do ONE SECOND more than your goal.
Not one second, not one extra page, or yoga pose, or metre, or sentence more. If your goal is about being more out-in-the-world, then your twenty-minute limit at a café or market or park is the moment you say, “I think I hear my mum calling” and get out of there.
For me the result looked like this: I sat on my cushion with the Insight Timer app on a five-minute setting* As soon as the little bell sounded at the end my meditation, I made myself get up. Sometimes I let myself have a few seconds to stretch and gaze about happily, but that was it. Pretty soon I was longing for those five minutes. After a while of pacing my meditation this way I started to feel more pleasure and ease and when it became clear I was feeling happy about it I gave myself a treat by increasing my time to six minutes.
The truth is you’ll slip up. You’ll feel so great and be so into whatever you’re doing you’ll go on a streak and then suddenly you won’t feel like it and ‘forget’ for a week and then another and soon you’ll start feeling obliged and resentful and guilty and your mean inner voice will tell you all sorts of untrue things.
Don’t sweat it. Give yourself a completely guilt free day (or two) off if you need it, then take a big step back to before the point you quit and start again. Make it a slightly scary step back – lose a full ten minutes, or full chapter or page or sequence of poses. You’re aiming to get frustrated that you can’t do more. If you quit while you were doing fifteen minutes of meditation, then go back to doing eight or even five. Typically, as time goes by, you’ll find a sweet spot – a rate of practice or exercise or study or social connection that both leaves you wanting more and has healthy room (and a strategy) for doing less. It can take time. Just keep at it.
So, there you have it. The magical and absurdly simple skill of pacing. Not the cure for everything, but definitely worth trying. Give it a go, and let me know!
* There are some four-minute guided meditations on Insight Timer that are complete and wonderful. 4 minutes is a great place to start.
* If you’re in any doubt of the impact a small ongoing effort can have then take a look at this great graphic from the fabulous “Show Your Work” by Austin Kleon: