A supermarket snowman showed me that I’m doing it wrong.
A year ago I was in the supermarket checkout line with my then 6-year-old. He clanked his Keds against the shopping cart as I fed groceries to the conveyor belt. While my hands worked I thought about which items would go into the freezer, which ones I’d cook right away, what we’d eat later that night….
“Daddy, look at the snowman.”
“Look at the snowman.”
“Honey, it’s summer time. There’s no snowman.”
“I see a snowman.”
I looked up, my hands still moving groceries from cart to belt. “Where’s your snowman, honey?”
He pointed. I looked. I saw it.
A snowman. In the floral department, a balloon shaped like a snowman, about 18 inches tall.
I never would have if he hadn’t pointed it out. His question was valid: why was there be a snowman balloon for sale in July? What an odd thing that I missed. What else had I missed that day? Or any other day? I wanted to know.
That’s when I vowed to notice what I was missing. The first step, I figured, was to identify how I was missing things. Once I found it, I could change it and then cease missing things. I began to monitor my habits. Not change them, just observe. I was stunned at how frequently I invite distraction upon myself. Here’s what I was doing.
- Wake up in the morning, switch on the news. I dressed while barely glancing at my clothing. Heck, I watched the news while barely glancing at TV. Between buttons and sound bites, my eyes scanned email while my brain ran its own acrobatics: What will happen today, what will happen this weekend, I need to do laundry, why are the kids moving so slowly, don’t they know it’s a school day?
- Eat breakfast, turn on some music. I eat and listen to music with the bulk of my attention on email.
- Drive the car while listening to a podcast or an audiobook. I never, ever drove the car without either a podcast or audiobook playing. Never.
- In the evening, watch TV while talking to my wife and browsing the Internet. That needs no explanation.
Eventually, I realized something significant: I never did what I was doing. For example, when I got dressed in the morning, I didn’t get dressed. Instead, I spent that time filtering much incoming stimuli: The TV, email, my children’s progress towards getting ready for school and so on. My mind wasn’t on what was happening: Selecting clothing. Buttoning a shirt. Tying a shoe. Tightening a belt.
Likewise, when I drove the car, I didn’t drive the car. I got lost in the mental images I generated from the novel I was hearing. I sipped a soda. I thought about my destination and how quickly I could get there. I barked at pokey traffic. I didn’t feel the wheel, press the gas, observe the scenery, feel the tires hug the road.
With the problem identified, I worked on eliminating it. In the morning, I turned off the TV and the computer and just got dressed. I even told myself, “I’m getting dressed.” It was nice! I found that I appreciate that I have the motor skills required to dress myself. I found that I have nice clothes. I found that my backyard looks nice in the morning through the bedroom window, and I can look down on the berry patch and rhubarb plants. When I was done, I felt, well, happy.
Later, I realized that I love driving my car. It’s a little butt-kicker with a sweet exhaust note if I may say so. I never noticed that before.
Today, I strive to do whatever I’m doing, and only that. Nothing else matters in that moment. Here’s a great example of that experience from the late, great Kurt Vonnegut:
[When Kurt Vonnegut tells his wife he’s going out to buy an envelope] Oh, she says, well, you’re not a poor man. You know, why don’t you go online and buy a hundred envelopes and put them in the closet? And so I pretend not to hear her. And go out to get an envelope because I’m going to have a hell of a good time in the process of buying an envelope. I meet a lot of people. And, see some great looking babies. And a fire engine goes by. And I give them the thumbs up. And ask a woman what kind of dog that is. And, I don’t know. The moral of the story is, we’re here on Earth to fart around. And, of course, the computers will do us out of that. And, with the computer people don’t realize, or they don’t care, is we’re dancing animals. You know, we love to move around. And, we’re not supposed to dance at all anymore.
The Most Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh said, “Wash the dishes to wash the dishes.” From The Miracle of Mindfulness:
“While washing the dishes, you might be thinking of tea afterwards, and so try to get them out of the way as quickly as possible in order to sit and drink tea. But that means you’re incapable of living during the time that you are washing the dishes. When you are washing the dishes, washing the dishes must be the most important thing in your life.”
This practice has benefitted my professional life as well. Twitter, while both a tool and a toy that I love, is the ultimate enabler in this regard. When a webpage is taking too long to load, I refresh Twitter. Between emails [1. Why is email running all day, anyway? Another mistake.], I refresh Twitter. And that’s just the beginning.
Let’s imagine that 10 tweets arrive. One is about launching a weather balloon. The next is about a Droid phone. After that is something about a video game, then an Australian wine and then Major League Baseball. In a sense, using Twitter is not using Twitter, as I don’t have an opportunity to process and think about that cool weather balloon video because my brain is already on the Android phone and how much I’d like a glass of Shiraz.
Now, I’m not saying it’s impossible to do two things at once. Nor am I suggesting that we eschew productivity to examine every detail of every moment. Sometimes I like to write and listen to music or breeze through my Twitter stream like a humming bird. But now I know that’s what I’m doing, if that makes sense. And I’m missing a lot less.