Christos Plachouras

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You can have too many things on your plate. This might sound obvious, but there are stages in our lives that our motivation, among other things, prevents us from understanding that not feeling caught up isn't always caused by bad time management, procrastination, or not focusing enough on our goals.

A few years ago, I was working on a research project for a class for which I hadn't found the time to make almost any progress in two weeks. I had to show up for the second time in the weekly meeting with my advisor with nothing to present but my list of excuses for why it had really been a tough couple of weeks and how there was no way I could manage to find time to work on the project. With a look of disapproval, he explained to me that there was in fact enough time to work on this project, and that time expands and shrinks based on the number of things we have to do. The problem wasn't the lack of time, but my lack of discipline.

Now, you probably have opinions about this statement already. Perhaps even very strong opinions about it. Back then I didn't. My initial reaction was to think I was being treated unfairly, and that he didn't comprehend how busy and stressed I was. But slowly his words started fueling my insecurity that I am, in fact, not productive enough, and that I could be achieving so much more with my time. This small nudge from someone I admired was enough to change the context of the productivity self-help books I was reading when I was younger to a motivator for self-blame, and encouraged me to say "yes" to too many things.

And well...honestly, it wasn't too bad. This mentality over the next few years helped me produce so many things I am proud of. It contributed to me reaching a stage where I don't have to worry too much about whether I'll be able to be working on something I enjoy in my life. It really pushed me to be better with my time, to try to concentrate and work deeply, and to try new things. There were many different sources of motivation for me in those years, but I've had to realize that there was also a degree of self-blame that was fueling me.

But as you might expect, it wasn't great either. I was stressed. And I was stressed. And I was stressed again. Perhaps when I was in fact getting better at working deeply, I was considering it an indication that I was in fact unproductive before, and that I could be squeezing more things in my schedule. In a way, time did seem to expand to fit the things I was saying yes to.

It took me a couple of valleys of my mental health to start realizing I needed to change things. But even when I did, it wasn't because I thought there genuinely wasn't enough time to do all the things I wanted. It came in the context of reframing my life goals to focus on mental wellbeing. Once in a while, I still get thoughts of self-blame for having quit the chase of self-actualization. Perhaps there would be enough time to do the things that I want if I maximized my potential. But I don't think there's a path to self-actualization that allows for sound mental health throughout its stages, at least for me.

I don't know how much productivity I'm missing out on. I don't know how high of a salary I could be getting, or how many papers I could be publishing. But I know that reducing stress to a fraction of what it used to be has been one of the things that I'm happiest about. Perhaps time will expand when you add another project to your schedule. But will your mind be happy?

I've had a pretty up and down experience with meditation, more specifically the "mindfulness" flavor, ever since I started practicing it 2 years ago. At the low points of my life in this period, it helped me recover and define better guidelines to base my happiness on. At other points, I've felt like it disconnected me from fully embracing good present moments, or even resurfaced trauma I thought I had long farewelled. While I've read enough on meditation to convince myself that this is about me doing something wrong and not because there's a possibility that the consistent practice of meditation isn't universally beneficial, I have had to acknowledge that meditation won't become my exclusive platform for living a happy life any time soon. I do, however, consider it an indispensable tool even in the level I have managed to tame it, so I've been wanting to devise some guidelines on how I can more effectively integrate it into my life.

I've come to realize having a neutral mood is, for me, a lot closer to having a positive one than it is a negative one. This, I feel, might be mostly attributable to the practice of gratitude. I wouldn't, for example, say I'm full of positive emotions when I'm deeply concentrated working on something. This neutral mental state can, however, be transformed into a positive one through gratitude. I feel grateful I can be deeply absorbed in the work that occupies half my day. I feel grateful I can afford to travel to see my friends that live in other countries. I feel grateful I have found a few tasty, healthy recipes that I can prepare quickly. Without mindful gratitude, the often neutral activities of working, traveling, and cooking can be transformed into negative ones. I could complain I have to work for this long, or that I had to take the bus ride which was more affordable but also 5 times slower than the flight, or that I have to cook instead of ordering food every day. Mindfulness has definitely allowed me to see happiness in the present, be grateful, and savor some of my most memorable memories.

But what about the usefulness of mindfulness when things aren't going too well? I find that improving my ability to recover to a neutral or positive mental state when I don't feel well is more relevant to evaluating my wellbeing than simply measuring how often I feel good (although this, undoubtedly, is still an oversimplified and incomplete guideline). I, therefore, try to put more thought into how to reduce bad mood, rather than searching for what can make me happier. Practicing mindfulness has clearly helped me be able to take a step back and observe my emotions more often than not. It's been crucial for reconsidering my perspective in situations such as feeling uncomfortable on an 8-hour bus trip, or, well, more serious situations where overwhelmingness takes over.

There are some problems in life that seem to require us to approach them with mindfulness in order for them to be solved. But I've also felt that observing my thoughts has sometimes been a chaotic distraction for problems that require trivial solutions. This has especially been the case when, sometimes, I'm in a bad mood and my emotions overreact to a decision. There's a difference between observing your thoughts and overthinking, but when you're having a bad day and you're searching for a solution to start feeling better, listening to the chaos that your brain decides to offer can make you think that the problem is deeper than it really is. Sometimes not being able to focus might really be about rearranging your desk to make it more comfortable, not about rethinking your career aspirations. Mindfulness might be essential for discovering one's core values and direction in life, but there is some elusive threshold under which decisions do not require contemplating one's values and observing the thoughts that arise. As I'm still struggling with my meditation journey, it has been helpful to sometimes try to ignore the storm of thoughts and just ask: "Is there anything simple I can do right now that can make me feel better?".

In one's strive for happiness there often comes the realization that one can never become happy. One can only be happy. In my own quest of attempting to recognize the moments I am trying to pursue happiness instead of seeing it, I stumbled upon a seemingly obvious omission. What about work? Is it fine that I am allowing my personal projects, my job, or my studies to affect my mood, positively and, more interestingly, negatively? Is work another playing field for the chase of pleasure?

I don't really consider my life to inherently have a meaning, or at least there's no meaning that I know of that I would want to identify with. I love making things that people find utility or pleasure in, whether that's software or music. But I can't say my life's goal is to maximize my contribution to the world, neither can I find much interest in the idea of fulfilling my potential.

Is work for the personal gains? Given I assign no higher meaning to it, is it reducible to the money and recognition it can produce? If that's the case, how should I think of the emotions that arise when working or thinking about work? Above a hypothetical monetary threshold required to live a mentally and physically healthy life, one could argue that, if work is about its output, I am again involved in a chase of pleasure, this time through money and recognition. My work-related affective state is merely its byproduct.

But what if work is for itself, and not its results? And if this is the case, why is it often accompanied by negative emotions? It seems to me that if I truly believe that I work because of my attitude towards the process of working, it is a worthy endeavor to investigate why negative emotions are sometimes arising when working or thinking about work. Should I only be striving to find and do work that gives me pleasure? Should I work to improve my concentration for a particular task until I start enjoying it? I am not sure...but I feel that the more I've avoided framing work as a chase, the better I've managed to define a healthier and, perhaps, happier relationship with it.