Wiggle room


Sometimes constraints are good.

They swaddle babies, as I understand it, because it makes them feel safe. If you think about it, it makes sense: the little buggers are coming from a pretty restricted area, and the idea of flailing around in a whole lotta space must be as terrifying as, well, the idea of flailing around in space, period, for us. Adrift, in the vast beyond, total darkness except for whatever light is being bounced off of a random planet, or some giant chunk of astro-hell that flies in out of nowhere and bonks you on the head? Not my idea of a relaxing way to go through life.

On the other hand, too much constraint is no good, either.

You put a plant in a smallish container to seed it, then move it to a larger one when it its rootbed fills up the area, so it can continue growing. Not too much larger, that can kill it too, apparently. (I kill plants as a matter of course, so all of this is non-practical, book knowledge to me. Although if this thing about air-scrubbing plants is true, I may have to take one more crack at plant husbandry.)

There are a few constraints I know I need. Through trial and (grievous, abysmal) error, I have learned to embrace the deadline as my friend.

Similarly, I have learned to forge new friendships when I’m entering unknown (or known and dangerous) territory: they’re called accountability partners, I have several, some paid, some not, and I highly recommend it as a practice. I have a self-created deadline set up with my friend, productivity whiz, Matthew Cornell. Despondent over the highly unmanaged state of my contacts and other information, I reached out for a lifeline, and there he was. We set us up a phone call, a series of follow up tasks and check-ins, and holy cow if I’m not making some progress! (Matthew, if you’re reading this, I had another sync issue with @#%(! Google Contacts that set me back a bit, but I am making progress nonetheless.)

I also know that limiting my time with a particular project can work for me (done and OUT, rather than redone and redone), as can limiting my time, period. I’ve never been more productive than when I scheduled my whole ding-dong day, down to the five-minute break; I’ve also almost never been more miserable, so that’s not an option.

The magical sweet spot for me is always enough, but not too much, to do. I go a little batty without something to aim my guns at, but I wither and die without a little space to stretch and grow. Wiggle room, that’s really all I need to flourish. After the terror of letting One Big Goal go bye-bye subsided, I felt positively buoyant. There was suddenly room to breathe, and to think, and to create. I felt hopeful again, rather than doomed. And all I did was to take one thing off my plate. (Well, I also took an out a friend handed me, so a thing and a quarter, perhaps.)

As a result of this dreadful shock and subsequent revelation, I’m taking a cold, hard look at my calendar. What’s doable? What’s not? What can be put off for now? What can be put off indefinitely? Currently, I’m booking dates for March and out, even though there are some blank spaces still in February. Because while I could fill them, I know I won’t be at my best here, there or anywhere if I do.

This focusing stuff is a bitch, I won’t lie to you. A workaholic’s tendency is to keep working, long after she’s reached the point of diminishing returns, just like a couch potato’s tendency is to keep watching TV and a junkie’s tendency is to keep shooting H or popping bennies. (Sorry. Watching a lot of Dragnet lately during my HULU-hooping.) Because the thought of doing it differently is just too overwhelming: what would that be? How would it work? What does that even look like?

I’ll tell you what I think it looks like for obsessives like us: doing one thing differently. There’s a book about it I see each month on my shrink’s coffee table; I flipped through it today and found some stuff in there interesting enough to warrant checking out the rest of the book, I think. (Have you read it? Let me know in the comments, would love to hear how readers of this blog think I might or might not like it.)

And now, I will get back to work.

Work, with a little cushion of wiggle room on all four sides…


Image by frankh via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.


  1. Amen to accountability partners! (I’ve only written like ten articles on that ;-) It’s awesome to see you’re getting the right amount of focused work while still leaving room to move on to the next task and not keep re-working stuff over and over.

    I like you concept of wiggle room. Days never go as planned…and it’s better to have a sense of completion than to get more done but be frustrated at the end of the day. Good luck with sticking with it all!! That’s my challenge–I know the system but stustaining it day in and day out…that’s tough!

  2. And what is the name of the book in your shrink’s office? When I moved to this peaceful city by the sea my mission was a different street, a different route every day. Never know what you might find…but then I had kids who CRAVE sameness and predictability. It comforts their wacky wonderful brains. A little girl in my class today couldn’t believe that I didn’t sing “Good bye to the lights,” because of course I said “Hello to the lights,” so her mom sang it for her and all was well.

    There is always wiggle room as I fell sick yesterday, waking up at 4:30am and making a giant list. When my kid took my temperature with the ear thermometer at 7 in the morning ’cause I couldn’t find the grown up one, he pronounced me over a 100 and I crossed almost everything off my list. Today I am revived, able to take on my anniversary dinner with my hubby, and hopefully awake enough to light a candle in honor of 14 years of wigglin’ together, accommodating each other, making this family work with love.

  3. cunningly resonant with one (that would be me) whose brain is all a-swaddled with a performance mal-function … or so reads the daily storyboard :)

    much appreciation for another KINDLY and reflective posting …

  4. Jared – Yes! I had you in the back of my mind when I wrote this. And I have secretly wanted you for an accountability partner since I met you at SOBCon last year. But I know how damnably busy you are, and how all into the work-life balance thing you are and I couldn’t bring myself to ask. How could I be responsible, even partly, for taking time away from the search for the future Mrs. Goralnick?

    Peggy – D’oh! This is what happens when you post in a hurry. It’s Do One Thing Differently. Heard of/read it? And my dear…so good to see you commenting here on the blog. Like old home week!

    Joyce – mal-function? You? Feh. I refuse to believe it. You are perfection itself. In all its beautiful imperfection, of course. ;-)

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