How Are You?

This little greeting is really so mundane that we don’t usually stop to think about what it means or how to respond. I guess at one point this question was meant with great sincerity and interest but has evolved into the equivalent of “hello.” Another version of this question in Richmond is “What’s the good word?” I still am not sure how to answer that question.

Frankly, I’m not sure how to answer How Are You anymore either. The usual response in the past used to be “Fine. How are you?” or “Doing well, thanks for asking” or something along those lines.   Now, the typical response is “Busy.” Usually there’s a little exhale at the end, thus ending both the speaker’s daily micro break and the conversation at the same time.

That’s it. Just “Busy.”

It makes sense. We are all busy! We really are. Though in these empty nest days, I’m far less Busy than I used to be. I’m still Busy, but comparatively speaking, it’s a cakewalk.

I spent a few moments reflecting about the transition from Fine to Busy. The responses tend to be fairly meaningless, unless it’s the equivalent of a multiple choice question:

  1. How are you?

     a.  Fantastic! How are you doing?

     b.  Fine, thanks for asking.

     c.  OK. How are you?

     d.  Hanging in. What about you?

     e.   Busy. (sigh)

In this case, the response actually is some reflection of the responder’s inner world where the answer is the most true among the available multiple choice answers. (“Well, I’m not really Hanging in. It’s worse than that. But it’s not Busy so much as Stressful. So I choose e. Busy. Final answer (sigh).”)

How did Busy even get on the list? I remember first hearing that response in graduate school in the 90’s. The response came from a German classmate, and it struck me as odd back then. Is that a German thing? Why is it important for her to make sure we know that she’s Busy?

Turns out she was ahead of her time.   Maybe even a trend setter.

The sentiment of Busy evokes the Covey Time Management grid theme, where tasks are sorted in a 2×2 with the axes being Urgent/Not Urgent and Important/Not Important. The point of the grid is that we often spend our time in the Urgent/Not Important quadrant (III) since we sometimes get into the habit of believing Urgent = Important.  Ideally, we should be spending our time in quadrants I or II.

Are you equating Urgent with Important? Do you select answer “e”? Maybe during your exhale, take that moment to consider whether you’re in the quadrant III and whether you need to move into quadrant I or II.

Easy for me to say. I’m an empty nester. I’m doing Fantastic, thank you very much!  Final answer.

Urgent/important Covey grid

Urgent/important Covey grid

Time is a Wonderful Thing to Waste

Time Mis-Management

Time Mis-Management

Sometimes I can’t relax because it makes me feel guilty.  I have so much to do and sometimes I can’t manage it all without feeling stressed or inadequate.

Our employers are paying us to work 8 hours a day, so we should be productive virtually every one of those 480 minutes, right?

We’re paying a lot for our tuition so we should be studying or going to class roughly 16 hours per day, 7 days per week, right?

We have so little time with our children, and to be a really good parent, we should devote almost every minute, 24/7, to engaging and stimulating our children, right?

When I line the arguments up like that, it’s fairly easy to say, “well, not exactly.”  But this is the modus operandi for many of us.

We have turned into a guilt-ridden society where we equate productivity with personal value, as if by putting our noses down and working as hard and fast as we can, we can prove that we’re somehow worthy or good.  Problem is, with our nose to the grindstone it’s difficult to see where we’re going.  Working all the time also means we become one-dimensional and fail to tend to ourselves or our relationships.  Nor are we providing ourselves the important downtime we need so we can work efficiently and creatively.  By definition, you cannot always be working at maximum productivity.  Otherwise there is no maximum –  or minimum, for that matter.

I am not advocating you slack off and quit trying.  I am suggesting that we find a balance between work, play and rest, and do so by using our time wisely and prioritizing what’s really important. Nose to grindstone 24/7 is like driving all day without checking your route.  You may get where you were headed in short order, but if you end up in the wrong place, then you’re worse off than if you’d not started out at all.

Translating this approach to our lives means that we may take for granted our major life decisions and tactics.   We can only look objectively at our lives when we have the time and equanimity for in depth introspection and reassessment.   This level of introspection is not possible when we’re chasing and stressing about minutiae. Honestly and deeply reassessing periodically is important to know whether you’re on the right track or even if you should be on the track at all.

  1. What am I really doing?
  2. How am I doing it?
  3. Why am I doing it?
  4. Why am I doing it this way?
  5. Who am I doing it with, and why?
  6. Who am I?  Why do I believe that about myself? (Go back to question 1)
  7. Am I doing what I love?  If not, then why not? (Go back to question 1)
  8. In what ways are my actions/choices/perspective improving my life? Making my life worse? (Go back to question 1)
  9. In what ways are my actions/choices/perspective improving the lives of others?  Making their lives worse? (Go back to question 1)
  10. In what ways am I closing my mind to improving my life or the lives of others? (Go back to question 1)

This is not a linear process at all. The answer to one question should raise new questions for further exploration.

“We don’t see things as they are.  We see things as we are.”  Timethief, commented on The Other Side of Ugly blog, The Issue, 3/20/13
Byron Katie, in her book Who Would You Be Without Your Story, suggests using inquiry to re-examine our assumptions about our life by exploring the assumption in the reverse.  So, if I believe that my boss is treating me unfairly, I should turn it around and explore how my boss treats me fairly, or how I treat my boss unfairly. This approach forces one to get way from the grindstone and observe oneself and one’s life from the balcony instead.

So – goofing off, chatting with colleagues, going for  a walk, taking a break, reading a trashy novel or watching TV,  hugging your kids or dogs or spouse are good for us and our productivity.  Even more important is finding time for gratitude, forgiveness, joy, love, and reflection.  Unless you stop to get a bird’s eye view of the maze that is our lives, you may not realize you’ve been running in circles, going backwards, or even headed in the wrong direction.  What I know now is that if I accept and love myself, I can really happily focus on what is most important to me.  And I have all the time in the world to do that.

The Importance of Saying “No”

I believe the benefits and importance of saying “No” are widely underappreciated.  In fact, saying “No” often is much maligned  – like it’s a bad thing.

Saying “No” can actually be a healthy, empowering act, not only for yourself but for others.  I’m not talking about the obvious No’s, like saying No to dessert, drugs, or too much alcohol or shopping.  I’m talking about when someone asks you to do something that is not in either your or their best interest in the long run.  Sometimes those requests are not even verbal, and we agree to them without conscious thought, much less conversation.

There is often much pressure to say “Yes”, including those habits we’ve adopted without thought.  For example, it is my habit to go to the kitchen first thing in the morning and start picking up and cleaning up.  There’s food, dirty dishes, trash and crumbs on the counter and stove top, and I relax with the newspaper better when the kitchen is clean.  I have been in this habit for probably decades as I can’t really remember when I started doing it.  What is the tacit agreement here?  That my family can leave a mess each night with their midnight snacks/meals/desserts and that I will clean up after them?  Apparently so! 

Why haven’t I said “No” to this?  I will likely get some pushback from saying “No” either immediately or later, when they forget or fall back into old habits.  I might argue that I’m picking my fights. In other words, I have tacitly agreed to this arrangement because it’s easier than asking them to change and then enforcing the new behavior. 

This is an agreement I can live with and have chosen to do so.  For now.  But some other agreements may not be so obviously benign.    If my son were to forget his homework repeatedly and I have to drop everything to bring his assignments to school, then maybe I’m removing his incentive to bring his own homework by protecting him from the natural consequences of his behavior.  If my husband is supposed to call the plumber, but then forgets or gets too busy, then maybe I’m encouraging him to avoid responsibility at home if I repeatedly take care of such tasks for him.  If I fail to say something when my girlfriend keeps interrupting me or arrives 30 minutes late again, then maybe I’m telling her that her behavior is acceptable to me.   If I put one more thing on my over-loaded plate at work, even if I know I can’t do a good job because I’m overcommitted, then maybe I’m telling my boss it’s OK to have unrealistic expectations of me.

If I do manage to say “No” and stand my ground and insist that others treat me with consideration and fairness, then I should also consider the unanticipated consequences of that choice too.  I may say “No” then feel guilty about asking for what I need, even if I’m standing up for myself for the first time on an issue.   Perhaps when I say “No”, if I use in a whiny, defensive, or judgmental tone, then participate in a fight or an argument, then I’m also undermining my cause by putting others on the defensive for what is an otherwise reasonable request or decision.

The benefit of No has been most apparent to me when it comes to parenting.  We have parented with an assumption that any behavior that we accepted or tolerated when the kids were little was going to be a reality that we would have to live with the rest of our lives. This assumption has largely proven true.  Though teaching manners and civilized behavior was tiring and frustrating to consistently enforce in the beginning, those discipline and courtesy problems at some point became almost non-existent.  

However, there were exceptions to this rule.  Some behaviors were resistant to change, encouragement and/or punishment.   We struggled against them for years with little progress, but when we took a step back for a fresh perspective and assessment, we learned there were medical issues involved in that were the root of the behavioral issues.  In this case, neither giving in, giving up nor punishing were effective.  We needed to listen, learn and investigate.  Then support.   

I hope the parenting example illustrates that I am not advocating that we all start saying “No” to anything and everything because we now feel empowered to do so.   Instead, I suggest that we stay attuned to our feelings, especially that nagging but quiet inner voice, to gauge to whether we’re being true to ourselves and our values, of if we’re just taking the path of least resistance.  I suggest that we do not shrink from having difficult conversations with family or co-workers, but we approach them with kindness, firmness, empathy, and confidence as we advocate for what we need or what we believe is the right thing to do.  I suggest we also listen with an open mind for what they need and want, and approach the conversation with an aim to understand and compromise.  

I suggest we also consider changing our own behavior:  if I stop doing the thing that isn’t working, then others will have to change their behavior in response.  For example, if I don’t want to clean the kitchen anymore, I can simply stop cleaning the kitchen and live with the consequences.  One possible consequence is that someone else may choose to step up to help with this chore.

Maybe I’ll go read the newspaper now….