27 March 2008

On Deadlines

I have a keen awareness of time. Given a task, I can accurately estimate how long it will take me to finish it. I know how long a certain dinner will take to cook, or how long I need to edit a newsletter, or how long to mulch a flower bed.

This ability has great benefits. I don't overschedule myself because I have a realistic understanding of my current time needs. I reject new commitments that would overwhelm me (or delete an existing commitment to make room for an exciting new one). I tend to finish tasks ahead of schedule, so I rarely feel the stress of working to a hard external deadline.

That's not to say that my life is deadline-free, however. In fact, it is quite the opposite. I set arbitrary deadlines for myself all the time. It's the key to how I manage my time. If a certain project will take 24 hours and has three component tasks, I set time goals for each task.

For example, yesterday I was piecing a quilt top. I completed the blocks and strip-pieced sashing and knew that I could finish piecing the top and adding borders before the end of the day. So that became my arbitrary deadline: to finish piecing the top, with borders, before bedtime.

I worked on it diligently and patiently for most of the day and was on schedule. But as time passed, I began to feel a little anxious. I began looking past my current work and ahead to the finish line.

While I was racing to finish, my husband arrived home from work and suggested a walk. As we walked and discussed our day, I realized how my day had changed from pleasurable-sewing-in-the-moment to anxious-racing-to-meet-the-deadline. And with that realization, I decided that I was done sewing for the day.

This is always the danger of my arbitrary deadlines--that I lose awareness of the moment and instead focus on the future. Over the past couple of years, I have been practicing mindfulness; that is, conscious awareness of the present moment.

Mindful awareness has made an enormous difference in my daily life.

I am calmer, more relaxed, and less prone to mood swings because I pay attention to little niggles of negative emotion and recognize that they are telling me that something is off-kilter and needs adjustment.

I get more done each day because I do things when I encounter them, rather than putting it aside for some future moment.

I have stronger relationships with family and friends because when I'm with them, I focus on them, rather than being distracted by my own worries or concerns.

I've even lost weight because I have learned to recognize the difference between physical hunger and psychological cravings.

And so yesterday, I found myself falling into old habits of working toward the deadline, rather than living in the moment. When I took a moment to pause, I remembered that I value the peace of mind from mindful living more than the thrill I get from beating a deadline. And so I choose to break that deadline and not return to that project after dinner.

It's a fine balance--learning how to stay in the moment while moving forward. But learning to say "Although the task may not be done, I am," is a small step along the way.

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