Redefining “Should”

Back in August, I bought a book by Julia Scatliff O’Grady entitled Good Busy: Productivity, Procrastination, and the Endless Pursuit of Balance. It’s a little gem aimed at, as the title suggests, helping crazy people like me bring more balance and calm to our daily living. The fact that it took me four months to find time to even start reading it should be proof enough that I definitely needed some wise counsel in my “endless pursuit of balance!”

This book has a lot to recommend it (not the least of which is, each chapter is short!). My favorite chapter, however, introduced me to the idea of the “sliver.” Basically, this is “an increment of time to tackle something you’ve put off.” Now, what I find fascinating about this concept is that the “something you’ve put off” could be more of an albatross around the neck that has been neglected because the task is unpleasant or unwieldy (see previous posts!) or something that you would love to do but feels like a luxury and thus is easy to push aside when so many other more “important” things are demanding your time. Either mindset can prove problematic; but using the sliver to combat both can be life-giving.

Previously, I’ve written more about the former, how I always seem to have too many things pulling me in all directions and I feel like I’m drowning in expectations and responsibilities. That’s why the “rocks vs. water” prioritizing system I’ve recently employed has been so helpful. In some ways, this is just another way of packaging the idea of the sliver, but takes it one step further. Instead of waiting until the end of the day to see if there’s time to “sliver” in a “water” item, the sliver encourages taking advantage of the odd moments throughout the day. So, during the 3 minutes my stew is heating up in the microwave, instead of just standing there watching the bowl turn round and round, I can “sliver.”* What small thing, that does need to be done, can be accomplished in 3 minutes? Checking the 5-day forecast for the city I’m about to fly to so I know what to pack; a quick phone call to the video store or library to see if they have the movie I need for class; filing away the notes and resources I used on my last gig. You get the idea. None of these things by itself takes much time. But add them all up and the whole suddenly becomes much greater than the sum of the parts and soon starts to feel like that proverbial albatross. By whittling away at them during the “dead” spaces throughout the day suddenly the burden of responsibilities feels much lighter and more manageable.

Case in point: a big part of the recent overhaul of my office consisted of going through piles (and piles and more piles!) of papers that needed to be filed away. If I had taken the time to file them back before they became a pile, most probably could have been taken care of in a few minutes. But because I was tired or busy (!) or unmotivated or lazy it just seemed easier at the time to set them aside to deal with later. But after two years of “I’ll-get-to-them-laters,” I found myself with an overwhelming amount of work that took much longer than the cumulative “few minutes” each because I now needed time to remind myself what each pile was, which parts were distinct from others, when each had taken place, etc. So what ended up taking days and sometimes weeks could have all been avoided had I slivered in real time all along. This may seem like a ridiculously obvious concept. It is! But that doesn’t necessarily make it easy to follow, especially for people who feel drawn to books about productivity, procrastination, and the endless pursuit of balance!

Perhaps more helpful (and healthy), however, is using the sliver to treat ourselves to activities that nurture rather than sap the soul. Sure, finally getting all those piles of papers filed away felt good—really good—but it didn’t particularly feed my soul. I didn’t feel more alive, energized or balanced because of it. In fact, the pleasure of finishing these kinds of tasks is often fleeting and hollow because I know that the next day—or the next hour—will produce more stuff that will also need to be filed away. And that’s fine; it’s part of life. It’s like showering or brushing teeth. I don’t complete those tasks and heave a huge sigh of relief: “Phew! Finally got that taken care of. Now I won’t need to worry about it ever again!” It’s all part of the mundane realities of life. Sadly, however, these mundane realities too often dominate our choices for how we end up living our lives.

Again, from Good Busy: “A lot of people find it much easier to fill the day than to discern what the day should be. You just react. … The lesson behind the sliver is that you can carve out time for what matters to you [my emphasis] by setting a goal, putting time limits around it, and acting on your intentions.” I find these sentences dripping with wisdom but perhaps the part that most jumps out to me is the phrase: what the day should be. I’ve grown to have somewhat of an aversion to the word “should.” In most cases I find it unhelpful, at best, and potentially damaging at worst. That’s not to say, however, that it can’t ever be fruitful. Maybe we should carve out time on a regular basis to do things that matter to us, things that cut the albatross loose, even if only temporarily. Many of us fill our days with things that “should” be done; but this list is too often the drudgery that saps the life out of us. That stuff does need to be tended to, yes, but not at the exclusion of the “shoulds” that will feed our souls.

A couple of years ago an artsy friend and I started occasional “art days” where we’d gather at one of our homes and for several hours do nothing that we “should” do (according to conventional wisdom) but all that we actually should do for our well being. We’d play with various materials and ideas and compilations and configurations with no particular goal or expected outcome. The purpose was the process … and numerous studies have shown that this sort of “release” and right-brain activity actually enhances problem solving and productivity. In other words, it tends to be generative … which is just another way of saying life giving.

One of my favorite comedians is Brian Regan. Among his many funny bits is a piece on going to the eye doctor ( “I’m wearing new contacts. I just had my prescription changed after 6 years. You ever wait that long? Then you get new lenses and you’re like, ‘Man, I coulda been seeing things!’ How can instantly improved vision not be at the top of your to-do list? ‘Oh … I’ll see tomorrow. I don’t have time; I don’t have time … to see clearly. No, I can’t do that. You see what’s on my desk?’”

Well, how can intentionally including instantly life-giving activities not be at the top of our to-do list? We’re too busy? Doing what? All the things we “should” be doing? The great thing about the sliver is that it can be as long as we need it to be: a few minutes, hours, or days. So if you really do have pressing issues from the outside world then maybe treat yourself to those 3 minutes while the stew is microwaving and sit contemplatively with your bare feet wiggling in a tray of sand (I’ve got my tray conveniently tucked under my computer desk). If you’ve been sitting at the computer for hours (even with your feet in the sand), get up and sliver via a 30-minute walk with your camera at the ready, looking for new signs of life or the letter “s” or anything purple. If you’ve had a tough week, sliver a weekend where you don’t check email or fix the broken chair or take the bags of old clothes to Good Will. Those are all things that “should” be done … eventually. But the world isn’t going to come to an end if they aren’t done today. On the other hand, you might actually find that they’re more easily accomplished once you’ve allowed yourself to sliver in a way that matters to you. If it matters to you, it’ll feed you and as long as you’re fed, you’ll experience LIFE. And that’s something that should be at the top of everyone’s to-do list!


*This is not to imply that every moment of every day must be filled with an activity. Sometimes the exact thing we should do during the 3 minutes the stew is heating up in the microwave is to watch the bowl turn round and round!

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