On Scheduling Less

And what Zen has to do with the infinite list

 

calendar page

 

When I first realized the truth of the infinite list*¹, I knew it was a big shift, but I wasn’t sure what it meant I should do.  I’ve had a few months to think about that now, and I’m ready to put a few ideas out there. In the language of that NPR post*⁶, I’m advocating utter surrender. And acceptance, and curiosity, and a huge sigh of relief. I’m advocating letting go of the unreasonable expectations we hold over our own heads, for whatever reason. Let’s talk about it.

(You may have noticed that I’m going old-school with the citations here.  Otherwise I was trying to jam too many things into one little paragraph.  All the numbers refer to the numbered list at the bottom of the post, you can find more info about my sources there.)

From the beginning of the infinite list idea, I kept wanting to associate it with Zen, or Buddhist ideas, or mindfulness, but I wasn’t quite sure how or why. So I decided to do a little research. The first book I read*³ mentions a cultural idea of “that’s very Zen” which can mean something is minimalist or tranquil, and maybe those were the ideas I had in my head. As I read further though, I found some actual Buddhist/Zen ideas that did have something to do with what I was getting at. (Both of the books I read were by Zen Buddhists, so I’m not entirely clear on where one ends and the other starts … may need more research.)

 

winter in nm 1(These photos are from a winter trip to New Mexico a couple of years ago.)

 

The Buddhist idea that resonates with my ideas right now the most is that of trying to see past appearances and old patterns, into the truth of the moment. I’m interested in choosing what I will actually make next, and making it, instead of spending lots of time dreaming and planning, but not much time making. I’m interested in finding out how much progress I can actually expect, like how many projects can I really do in one winter, rather than fantasizing that I’ll make them all.

I read this quote by Alan Watts earlier this year*⁵, and it was the best expression of just exactly how I’d like to relate to life I think I’ve ever seen:

“For the perfect accomplishment of any art, you must get this feeling of the eternal present into your bones — for it is the secret of proper timing. No rush. No dawdle. Just the sense of flowing with the course of events in the same way that you dance to music, neither trying to outpace it nor lagging behind. Hurrying and delaying are alike ways of trying to resist the present.”

 

It may not seem like it, but this has everything to do with my life as a maker. I spend an awful lot of my time, and thus my life, making and thinking about making. By choice! It’s a major part of how I define myself and what’s important to me, and a great source of joy and satisfaction. But if my making time is crowded with expectations, with piles of projects that MUST be done, one coming right after the other, even with an un-doable number of ideas floating around and tapping me on the mental shoulder all the time, then I’m not present, not enjoying or relating to the moment, even though the act of making something with my hands can be a beautiful expression of myself in a moment in time, if I let it.

 

winter in nm stacked pots

 

I’m scheduling less. I’m vowing to surrender completely to the idea that I can’t do anywhere close to everything I’d like to, and so what matters is what I’m doing now. I’ve been literally writing fewer things on my calendar, and trying to understand how much I can expect to get done in a day, a week, or a month. The longer time frames are the hardest, at least for me, and I’m definitely still working on getting this right. Even so, having a little calendar, weekly goals, and daily tasks which I try to keep at a reasonable level, is helping me feel less overwhelmed and more present.

For a long time I thought I thrived on having a ton of ideas at once, and working on different projects at the same time, a bit of this and a bit of that. It seemed the more ideas I got, the more would appear, and it felt very creative and energizing and full of sparks and life. But lately, partly thanks to Felicia*², I’ve been thinking about focus. That maybe, if I head straight for the things I want, just a few at a time, I’ll actually make more progress? Don’t get me wrong, I’m still a firm believer in taking some little time for creative projects every day, I need it! But I’m starting to think I went too far the other way, until the ideas themselves were at the center, and I was generating more of them and completing fewer. As I’ve been on this journey of working more in the here and now, I find fewer spontaneous ideas popping up into my consciousness, but call me crazy, the ones I do get seem more thought out, more relevant. I like this way much better than a crazy swarm of ideas I’ll never get around to.

I’m letting ideas go. Let’s be clear, I still have lots of ideas that pop into my head, many more than I need. If they seem important/good ones, I try to write them down or sketch them out, to get them out of my head, and have them stay out there until their time comes up, if it ever does. And if not, that’s fine with me too.

Besides the ideas in my own head, I’m sure it hasn’t escaped your notice that more new indie patterns than one person can possibly sew come out just about every month, not to mention all the projects on Ravelry, Pinterest, etc. I do love this digital revolution that’s fueling our maker movement, but I don’t go surfing around looking for “inspiration,” unless I’m actively looking for a pattern or researching a particular thing. This is a really personal choice, and it will be different for everyone. For me, I’ve found that I get much more satisfaction out of sitting down to make something I already have the idea for, than out of looking at new ideas.

 

winter in nm 2

 

Sounds like I’m on the path to crafting enlightenment, right? Well, maybe. Let’s just say I’m still figuring it out. The holidays were a perfect excuse to go back to dreaming of random projects, grossly over-estimating how much I can do in a short space of time, and scheming ways to fit in more making at the cost of other things. But, I made a chicken pattern, and then the chickens! I have no regrets, I loved the things I made, and the results when folks got the packages. At the same time, part of what I’m hoping for from putting this post together is to get back on the path, closer to where I was in November.

 

chickens 2Chickens!

 

So here’s another Zen idea for you: forgiveness, starting over again, and again, however many times it takes.

By the time you read this, Bryan and I will be visiting his family in MI, and then heading to the East coast for an opening of his work at the Griffin Museum, and then a little quality time with one member of my family who I don’t get to see nearly enough. For the two-week trip, I’m taking yarn for a pair of socks to knit, supplemented by a little extra to experiment with, for my upcoming class on socks. That’s it. Ok, and maybe the finishing touches for the mittens I’ve been making Bryan, if I don’t finish them before it’s time to go.  Witness my heroic effort to accept the fact that this, combined with thinking and taking notes about socks for my knitting students, will be plenty (after all we’ll be spending a lot of the time with little ones, who have their own way of taking over your whole life), and that knitting is a really good activity for this kind of time (blogging is not). If I did what I usually do: take my laptop and fantasize that I’ll find time for some research or writing, I’m kidding myself, and that doesn’t help anyone. It just makes me grouchy because I couldn’t realize what I wanted, and then I feel like I’m behind, when in fact it’s a trap I’ve set for myself. This is what I’d like to do with all my plans, not set myself up for disappointment, but focus on what I can do.

By the way, I have no plans at this time to actually become a Buddhist …  But these ideas are pretty compelling, right? What do you think? What path would you like to be on in the next year?

 

Further reading

This post draws on just about everything I’ve read and thought about in the last 6 months, and a lot of it goes much further back. I owe particular debts to:

1. Sarai, editor of Seamwork magazine (and head of Colette patterns).  She asked me to distill an essay about the infinite list from my original post, for the January issue!  I’m excited and proud to be published there, and grateful for the encouragement this assignment gave me to keep thinking about all this.  (Did you know that “focus” was Sarai’s watchword in 2014?)

2.  Felicia of The Craft Sessions, for writing the most thoughtful sewing/making blog I’ve found, maybe … ever?  Seriously, it’s fantastic.  Several of the ideas here have bounced around there first, either in the comments, or in my head as I read what she’d written.

3.  Tell Me Something About Buddhism: Questions and Answers for the Curious Beginner by Zenju Earthlyn Manuel.  If you’re curious too, I thought this was a great book to start with.  Not everything in it made sense to me as I read, but when I started the next book, I realized it made much more sense than it would have without reading this one first!

4.  Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki.  Despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that it contains phrases like “Do not think you will necessarily be aware of your own enlightenment,” I really enjoyed reading this book as little further introduction to Zen.

5. Alan Watts was a British philosopher who was one of the first to bring Zen thought to the West.  I discovered this quote via Brain Pickings.  It’s from a book I would really like to read more of, but my library is lacking so I may have to pick up a copy elsewhere:  Does It Matter? Essays on Man’s Relation to Materiality

6. Although not about making, but about taking in culture, especially books, this is totally relevant: The Sad, Beautiful Fact That We’re All Going To Miss Almost Everything on NPR’s monkey see blog.

Also, I’d like to publicly thank my sweet family, particularly the Albuquerque branch, for being spiritual seekers, and introducing me to the ideas that were floating around in my head when I started thinking about all this.

 

Happy New Year everyone!

 

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Time, Productivity, and All the Things I’d Love to Do

Or, how I discovered the mindfulness of the infinite list.

This post is illustrated throughout with projects we made at our annual family and friends craft retreat a few weeks ago.  I’ll tie that in later in the post.

 

I'm kind of obsessed with the hand as a symbol of the ideas I hold dear.  This was my design in a reductive printing process we tried.

I’m kind of obsessed with the hand as a symbol of the ideals I hold dear. This was my design in a reductive printing process we tried.

 

I’ve struggled on and off my whole adult life with a problem that boils down to this: there will never be enough time in my lifetime to make everything I want to.  Much less will there be enough time to learn nearly enough new skills, or to read everything that’s so good, it might change my life.

 

Speaking of new skills, we got to try wood carving this year thanks to my dad.  I made this new and improved wood version of the giant plastic hair pins I use all the time.

Speaking of new skills, we got to try wood carving this year thanks to my dad. I made this new and improved wood version of the giant plastic hair pins I use all the time.

 

I used to have a fantasy that if I could cut out all time-wasting activities, I’d have time for everything I on my love-to-want-to-do list.  I really, really hate to break it to any of you who may be still thinking about this, but it won’t work.  I got rid of the low-lying fruit a long time ago: I haven’t had TV since college, and one of the few benefits of being one of the millions of Americans paying too much for bad internet is that our connection is way too slow to spend hours watching video, or even reading content-heavy pages online.  I fully support giving up time-sucks, but it’s sad and true that no matter how much you cut out, all the good stuff still won’t fit in.

So sad, right?  Although, I do agree, as elegantly put in this article from the NPR blog, that it would be so much sadder if humans hadn’t produced more beautiful ideas than I can take in in one lifetime throughout all of our history so far.

After I figured out that no matter what, there would still be more lovely projects to make and music to listen to and books to read on my list than I could ever get to, the idea simmered on the back burner of my brain, sometimes seeming as if I had things under control & was making good progress, and other times like my available time was a thing with wings, or fangs, chasing me, or flying away at warp speed.

 

I led a refashioning session for everyone to remake & mend as they saw fit.  I'm awful at taking any pictures while I'm teaching, but even the pile of scraps from this session was lovely.

I led a refashioning session for everyone to remake & mend as they saw fit. I’m awful at taking any pictures while I’m teaching, but even the pile of scraps from this session was lovely.

 

Then, just a few weeks ago, we had our annual craft retreat of family and friends, hosted at my house for the first time.  I had a classic moment of semi-panic as I suddenly saw through the eyes of these people who I wanted to think well of me, some people who had never seen my house before, and my yard looked like a redneck junkyard in-the-making … I consider myself a decent housekeeper, and I did make an effort to get some stuff out of the yard on our last trip home … but there was this moment, about two days before the first arrivals, when I looked around and realized I could clean the house non-stop, without sleeping, until everyone got there, and still be seeing deeper levels of dirt, areas I had missed.

That’s when I got it.  It’s not that the list is longer than I can ever hope to finish, it’s that the list is infinite.  There’s a freeing, meditative aspect of mindfulness to the infinite list.  Since it’s not just unlikely, but actually impossible, to do everything on an infinite list, any infinite list, a certain amount of letting go is perhaps an inevitable next step.

 

My aunt Barb Miller made this truly lovely pillow from a unwanted garment, using my grandmother Dottie Miller's handwoven fabric.

My aunt Barbara Miller made this lovely pillow from a unwanted garment, which used my grandmother Dottie Miller’s beautiful handwoven fabric.

 

I’m still looking around in this infinite-list paradigm, getting my bearings. A few consequences that seem important have occurred to me so far.  Priorities, for one.  Since I can spend an infinite amount of time cleaning the house, I have to choose to stop at some point, even though of course I want things to look nice.  As a guest, if I could arrive at either a house with sparkling windows, or one containing delicious homemade ice cream, I’m wouldn’t hesitate to pick the latter option.  Your choices might be different from mine, but we all get to choose which of the current available options is the most important to us.

 

She was so right about putting the label on the outside.

She was so right about putting the label on the outside.

 

Since my to-do list is infinite, it makes more sense than ever to block out time for the things I love, which would otherwise get immediately buried under the small mountain of tasks I “should” do every day.  Back around the time I gave up TV, I decided to pencil in an hour a day for myself to sew, and I was fairly astonished at how quickly I finished projects.  I have more to-dos now than I could have imagined in college, but I’ve also realized that if I work on only one thing all day, even something I like, my brain slowly turns to mush over the days and weeks.  Plus, the feeling of getting further behind on my personal goals really starts to drag me down.

I need a little “fun” creative time, and a chance to explore new ideas, to keep me happy.  I reinstated the practice of giving myself an hour a day to work on whatever I want, regardless of whether it’s likely to ever make me any money, a few years ago.  It’s a huge and immediate boost to my life satisfaction.  If you can’t spare a whole hour, even 15 minutes a day can give you enough time to make progress on anything you’d like to fit in (Mark Frauenfelder of Make magazine says so, and I’ve seen a lot of sewing bloggers trying it out in the last couple of years, particularly after this post appeared on The Coletterie).

Mark Frauenfelder

The infinite list only beefs up my justifications for scheduling my “free time”, since it makes clear that the time when I “don’t have anything else pressing to do” won’t ever come.  I must choose to make time for the things I love, rather than waiting for the time to appear.

 

My dear aunt Barb also made this wonderful spoon.

My dear aunt Barb also made this wonderful spoon.

 

Perhaps the most freeing thing about meditating on the infinite list so far, is that since there’s no pressure to finish the list, it’s easier to give myself permission to to pay attention to what’s happening in the here and now, and to take care of some things right away.  Or just to appreciate a lovely moment, rather than always focusing on the tasks already stacked up from yesterday.

Overall, I’m feeling pretty stoked about this mental shift from the incredibly long list to the infinite list.  I’m hoping that it will help me focus on the things that are most important, leave some room for spontaneity, and let go of some of the unreasonable expectations I tend to hold over my own head.  Sounds pretty good, right?  What about you, any thoughts to add from your own experience?