Since Feburary I've been doing a group therapy class for anxiety. "Anxiety" is not exactly how I would have described my problems before doing this class, but I've been getting a lot of useful tools out of it.
That's how I think about therapy -- i'm not crazy, it's not trying to fix me or make me normal. It's all about gaining (mental) tools I can use to more effectively deal with my problems.
One of the best tools I've learned wasn't even the main point of the class. It came from an offhand comment from the anxiety class teacher. He said "Try not multitasking. Try watching a TV show and just watching it, not doing something else at the same time."
I tried it. It felt weird! Turns out I'm really used to bringing some kind of work with me when I watch a TV show. Because when I can tell myself "I'm multitasking!", I feel less guilty that I'm wasting time watching TV.
But do I actually get any work done when I'm "multitasking"? Hmmm.
Just do the thing you're doing
this is so simple it sounds dumb, it sounds tautological: of course I'm doing the thing I'm doing! But in fact extremely powerful if you think through its implications and commit to them.
If you really think about it, we spend a lot of our time not "just doing the thing you're doing". We spend a lot of time on the equivalent of "pretending to multitask work while half-watching TV".
- When you're having a conversation with someone, are you fully being with the person you're with? Not looking at your phone or splitting your attention? Am I giving them the respect of my full attention, really listening to them (that's Doing The Thing I'm Doing) or am I just nodding and making "mmm-hmm" noises until they stop talking?
- How much time do your thoughts spend in the present, as opposed to in the past (regretting some mistake you made years ago) or in the future (worrying about horrible things that are going to happen)? Ruminating over the past is not Doing The Thing You're Doing; anxiety about the future is not doing the thing you're doing.
- Spending the day angry about some political thing that I have no control over, just letting obsessive thoughts about the evil so-and-sos in the government occupy most of my brain, so that I'm not present for what's in front of me... that's not Doing The Thing I'm Doing.
- How often are you doing a thing because you decided to do it? As opposed to out of habit, social pressure, guilt, believing you "have to" do it, or you just noticed that you started doing it without thinking about it? Doing The Thing You're Doing means doing it on purpose.
- If I decide to do something and then sit down at the computer to do it, do I do that thing, or do I immediately check Discord and Mastodon first out of habit?
- Are you reading a web page because you decided to read it, or because you're procrastinating about work, or avoiding writing an awkward email, or you followed a link somebody sent and then another link and another... are you deciding what's worth your attention today, or did you let the internet decide where your attention goes?
- How much of your life have you spent reading web pages you didn't even really want to read that much? (I give you permission to close this tab right now without finishing this post, you are free to go!)
- On the other hand, if you decide a web page is good enough to be worth reading? Make it The Thing You're Doing, devote your full attention to it, guilt-free, and enjoy it!
- Saying "I'm going to sleep now" and then lying awake in bed looking at my laptop in the dark? That's not Doing The Thing I'm Doing. The Thing I'm Doing is sleeping. I need to give myself permission to just sleep. To admit "I'm not actually going to get any more work done tonight by having this laptop open, I'm only making myself more tired tomorrow morning."
Doing The Thing You're Doing means doing it wholeheartedly, not guiltily half-doing it. For example: say there's a game I wanna play, but I also need to work. Which is better:
- I do 2 hours of really working followed by 2 hours of guilt-free playing the game;
- I do 4 hours of half-assed "working" while guiltily distracting myself reading about the game?
In the first case I'm getting 100% more quality work done and 100% more quality playing done and feel 100% less guilt, because I'm Just Doing The Thing I'm Doing at work and then I'm Just Doing The Thing I'm Doing at play.
Is reading about the game (instead of playing it) really something that's fun and valuable enough that I would devote a chunk of my actual free time to it? Probably not. Probably it's a low-value thing that I'm only doing because I can do it while pretending to work.
The absolute worst was when I was in grad school, and I had end-of-term deadlines coming up with large, amorphous projects being due, and I was like "I must cancel all social activities and anything else fun so I can spend all day in the computer lab working like crazy" and then... spent all day in the computer lab miserably noodling around, wishing I was anywhere else. Time spent forcing myself to be at a computer does not equal productivity.
I am convinced this simple idea has a deep connection to all the other most valuable life advice from the anxiety class. It helps with anxiety, it helps with productivity, it helps with guilt, it helps with depression, and it helps with interpersonal relationships. Also I'm pretty sure it's congruent to major teachings in Daoism, Zen, and other philosophical traditions.
Hope this idea will be as useful to someone else as it has been to me.