Have you hugged a red light today?

Last week, on a mild evening, I was riding my bike toward the waterfront. A few blocks ahead, I saw the light at a busy intersection turn green. As an optimizer who’s often in a rush, I know that particular light stays green for about thirty seconds, and once it turns red, it stays red for long, long minutes.

I noticed my urge to race toward the intersection and make the green light. I chose not to be the jerk on the bike speeding through stop signs. The light turned red just before I reached the intersection. I’d done the right thing, but I was annoyed.

Earlier in the afternoon, I’d been reading Stress Free for Good, about simple, practical, research-based ways to reduce stress. The chapter I’d just read talked about the power of appreciation, so gratitude was on my mind. I got a crazy idea: What if I were grateful for the red light? It’s a long light (did I mention that?), so I had plenty of time to think. I thought about how traffic lights keep me, and others on the road, from getting injured. (There’s been a lot of press lately about the harm done by light-ignoring cyclists, but that’s not the fault of the lights.) I thought about how, despite the recklessness of some drivers and bikers, most of the time the system works pretty well. Looking at the rush-hour traffic, I felt a surge of affection for the people heading home, and a sense of wonder at the engineering that keeps traffic flowing.

The light changed back to green, and I rode the rest of the way on a gratitude high.

Hm. If a traffic light can prompt appreciation, what else might, if I keep my eyes open?


Aquarium meditation

sea nettles


Jellyfish drifting upward, undulating

Leafy seadragon’s dorsal fin fluttering, gently, almost imperceptibly

Sole covering itself with sand

Jellyfish drifting, drifting


Making breaks inviting

I continue to be puzzled by my reluctance to take breaks, even though working straight through makes my neck pain worse. I’ve been more consistent about setting a chime to go off every 15 to 25 minutes—that’s progress. But I keep ignoring it when it rings.

What I’m noticing:

I get impatient.  A sense of urgency strikes when I hear the bell. “Let me just finish this thought.” “Let me just finish reading this post.” “Let me just finish going through this latest batch of emails. Then “Let me just” turns into a bunch more things and the break doesn’t happen.

There’s a belief in there—a fear?—that I’ll lose focus or momentum if I stop. While this is true for some tasks, I suspect it’s less of an issue than I think, at least if the break is a brief, physical one—away from the computer, no reading. I’m even wondering whether, far from delaying my progress, a break would restore perspective. I’m vulnerable to hyperfocus, which can turn into gear-grinding.

Some guesses about what might help:

I need something inviting to draw me into breaks. The break-reminder chime hits me as a negative thing, something I’m not in the mood for. How can I shift to thinking of it as something I want to do?

I could use impatience as a tipoff. That buzz of annoyance is a clue that I’m hyperfocused, rather than in flow. When the chime goes off, my reaction might help me distinguish between the two. “Impatient? Hmm—remember, that’s hyperfocus—which means you really will work better after a pause.”

I need variety. This may be why I keep skipping the three sighs technique, despite its simplicity. Simple is good, but always doing the same thing is boring.

So my experiment is to…

Alternate among stretching; self-massaging; walking down the hall for a glass of water; tossing Muse Cubes; taking a few deep breaths; rolling on the floor…whatever seems easiest and called-for in the moment. Is this too many options? Nah, it’s manageable. I’m keeping a list of simple stretches and acupressure points at my work area so that I don’t have to think about this.

Observe whether my beliefs and assumptions about breaks are true. Do breaks pull me off task? Do they do the opposite and restore perspective? Does my neck improve when I pause more? Does my mood? As I get more data, I can adjust the plan.


Going scorecard-free

I took my six-year-old niece miniature golfing during school break. My childhood memories of miniature golf are conflicted: It’s one of those activities that always looks like it will be fun (all those turrets and railroad cars and gnarled fake trees with moving trap doors), but I’ve always been been bad at it, and having the worst score in the group was painful for a high achiever like me.

The attendant handed us our mini-clubs, balls and a scorecard. I asked my niece whether she or I should be the scorekeeper.

“Let’s not keep score,” she said.

Wait—was this even an option? Since it was her date with Aunt Janet, I let her set the rules. No scorecard.

We ambled along, taking as many strokes as we needed to get the ball through moving doors, up anthills, and into 18 holes. We helped each other out, standing in front of water traps so the other person’s ball wouldn’t go too far astray.

Miniature golf is a lot more fun when you don’t keep score.

Where else am I keeping score, when I don’t need to be?

A simple solution for meltdown

Often when I travel, it’s to give speeches and workshops. Last week, I was in the audience for a change, attending a conference by speakers for speakers.

I like going to conferences—the stimulation, the connection. But it’s also exhausting and draining. All those ideas crammed into my head for days in a row. All that intensive notetaking. All the small talk. After a couple of days I melt down—hyper and spacy at the same time, overcaffeinated, overstuffed, worried about whether I’m getting everything I came for, and incapable of articulating a coherent sentence.

I tried something different this time, something I took away from the Wisdom 2.0 Conference last February. At that conference last winter,  I was surprised that I didn’t go into Conference Burnout, and that I was able to relax and enjoy the experience more than I typically do. One reason is that, every day, everyone in the general sessions spent a few minutes sitting in silence. OK, this was unusual! — maybe not for the mindfulness community, but certainly for a conference setting. I found myself letting go a bit of my standard fretting over what semi-famous people I must try to connect with, what action points I must act on. I was able to let things unfold. I even offered, and led, a spontaneous breakout session on one of my workshop topics.

Hitting “pause”

So a few times at last week’s conference, when I felt meltdown approaching, I just paused. Wherever I was—standing by the coffee bar, sitting in a meeting room waiting for the next speaker—I closed my eyes and took a few slow breaths.

It worked. I got my brain and body back.

I had some minor concerns about whether this looked weird. It seemed like the majority of people didn’t notice—they were too busy running around being hyperstimulated themselves. Invariably, though, after a minute or two, somebody would come over and say, “Oh, meditating, eh?” or “Having a quiet moment?”  At that point, part of my mind would wonder, “Huh, what would make a person interpret closed eyes as an invitation to come over and chat?” A bigger part of me was receptive and found it kind of cute. Maybe they were looking for a little vicarious calmness. Maybe they were just curious about this unexpected behavior. I rolled with it and had some pleasant, quiet conversations—more testament to the benefits of breathing.