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Beyond all-or-nothing: A different perspective

Camera lens bringing landscape into focus
Photo by Paul Skorupskas on Unsplash

When it comes to starting a new habit or studying a new thing, I (along with a lot of Messy Deskers) tend to take an all-or-nothing approach.

I am a star at starting a new routine or habit. I follow my self-imposed rules perfectly for, like, a week. Sometimes, I can keep it up for a few years. I am the best exerciser and the most diligent dieter, right up until the moment I am not. And then when I fall off the wagon of whatever, I fall far and hard. And things break.

So, the all-or-nothing approach is self-defeating and completely unhelpful. But I love the flow of focusing really intensely on one thing for an extended period.

With a lot of reflection, I have realized that the most successful way for me to approach life is "all of this, then all of that" along with "a little of this, a little of that," with a solid underpinning of "these things, I don't change."

This is very much my own personal journey. Your mileage will vary.

These things don't change.

Some things are anchored deeply in my personality and my life. Since so many other factors in my life rise and fall in waves, I think these help me be more secure and more grounded than I might otherwise be.

  • I know myself well. I've had more than half a century of being myself, and I think my metacognitive skills are pretty darn good. I have had (am having!) a successful life. I did very well in school. I have never lost a job and the only negative performance review I ever received said I was "moody." (and they were right)

  • I am happily married, and have been for 15+ years. I plan to keep him around "until death do us part."

  • If I ever loved someone, I still love them, although the love may change. I let very few people deeply into my life, but they stay there. They only disappear when they no longer reach out to me.

  • I fell into my library career early on and have identified myself as a librarian for 30+ years now. I haven't worked in many places, as my loyalty to people also seems to apply to organizations. I like the security of having a steady job, and librarianship has evolved rapidly during my career, always keeping me interested. The library job will go by the wayside in my next stage of life, but I will probably still think of myself as an old librarian.

  • I follow my slothful circadian rhythms. I sleep a lot. Even in college, I went to bed at 11 during the week. I do my best task-oriented work first thing in the morning, and my best creative work in the afternoon. I structure my day like that, with the tasks flowing pretty naturally into the creativity as the day goes on. Some days, I do nothing at all, and I'm OK with that.

  • I am my unique self and I enjoy people who are open about their own uniqueness and quirks. I love eccentrics.

All of this, then all of that

I love learning new things. I dig in, hyperfocus, and learn everything I possibly can about the thing I am currently obsessed with. That's a behavior that's really common for people with ADHD, and I think it's a superpower. The trick is being able to harness the hyperfocus and pull out of it in time to keep regular life going on. You have to eat. You have to interact with the people you share your life with. You need to bathe and brush your teeth occasionally.

Over the long arc of my life, I have geeked out about so many things, I can't possibly name them all. Some of the obsessions last for years, others only days. Among the longest (unless you count librarianship in the list) was when I got a doctorate and wrote a dissertation, which is probably the biggest geeking activity known to humankind.

But, unlike other doctorate-types, who keep working on the same things for the rest of their academic careers, I finished my dissertation, and I was pretty much done with it. Degree over, I was on to another topic.

My next obsession was health and wellness. There is a lot to learn and do in that arena. In three years, I learned a lot about nutrition, figured out ways to keep myself motivated to exercise, and lost 30 pounds. When I fell off that wagon, I fell so hard that I gained the 30 back in 3 months. Oops. That was a bad all-or-nothing moment.

A little of this, a little of that

Here's where balance comes in, and it may be the most important part.

Bits and pieces of each obsession hang around after the geeking is over. I still know a lot about nutrition; I can tell you vast amounts about Frank Lloyd Wright architecture; don't get me started on Little Women and Louisa May Alcott. And Messy Desk Consulting has roots in my doctoral work and dissertation, as well as my life's workaholism.

My health and wellness journey may finally have found a happy medium. I still know all those things about nutrition and health that I knew before, but I have finally FINALLY finally stopped giving myself concrete rules that I "should" follow (and then beat myself up over when I don't follow them, followed by prolonged bingeing). Instead, I have been just eating when I am hungry and not eating when I'm not. I guess it is my own version of "intuitive eating."

Balancing Workload

You may notice that it's now August and I haven't posted a blog entry here since May. That's another result of an obsession finding its balance. My summer was crazed, as I returned to working on-site at the College (my day job). I spent the majority of my time working with planning teams to keep students and faculty as safe as possible when they returned to campus. As you've seen this week, plans like these haven't always succeeded at universities around the country. Students on my small campus made it through orientation, move in, and the first week of classes without any reported COVID cases. I hope that our work to build a culture of community care and safety will allow the semester to continue in this new normal.

In the lull of the end of the first week of classes, I am back to having enough time and mental energy to write. Throughout the summer, I have been working with Messy Desk clients, but rather than pushing myself to publish mediocre writing, I have given myself space to put energy elsewhere.

Really, all of this is a kind of big-picture time management. I know that I do my best work when I hyperfocus, so I feed that energy.

The takeaway:

Know yourself and your strengths. Give yourself space to explore a passion. Take a long-term, big-picture view of time management, whether that applies to getting a degree before going to work, taking a gap year to explore a new idea or skill, or spending a weekend recharging for a hectic week. Take time to reflect. Every experience teaches you something you can use in your future.

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