Do Less in More Time
Wherein I remix myself to fix myself
Content warning: a little bit of climate anxiety
Do More in Less Time. May 7, 2020. I wrote this two years ago:
I went to a very intense music camp in Michigan when I was a kid. We wore uniforms that included navy corduroy short pants, so I was on side from the get go. The camp’s motto was Do More In Less Time. They played reveille at 6:15 a.m., and days were packed with activities and lessons and concerts. Somehow I managed to learn guitar, watch obscure foreign films, obtain my lifeguard certification, realize I actually hated classical violin, develop a major crush on a contrabassoon player, and see about 40 concerts in a mere eight weeks. I imagined it would be impossible to maintain this pace year-round, but they now have a boarding school, so who knows.
Phrases imprinted on my brain when I was young seem to stay there, like tacky glass pebbles on the bottom of a fish tank. I come back to Do More In Less Time regularly, even if there’s a sort of lifehacky striveyness to it that I don’t love. I think it’s because, despite every deep-breathed effort to slooowww myself down, I like the idea of doing more in less time. It means there’s lots of leftover time to do even more.
What a sociopath. I’ve evolved. Here’s the remix:
Do More in Less Time was the motto of the summer music camp I went to, and, like so much of the strivey productivity speak of my youth, it stuck. Likely because it’s also just who I am. When I turned 30, my family performed a song for me that ended with the entreaty to “Make Some Time To Relax.” Though it has become a jovial catch phrase, I still do not actually make some time to relax. I make time for family, friends, work, and exercise. I just find normcore relaxing unrelaxing. Please do not make me sit through a massage, or baseball game, or weirdly fussy group activity designed by people who don’t understand that all you really need in life is good conversation and beverages.
And yet, for the past few years I’ve been pushing myself to do something “relaxing.” Because I realized that not taking the time for things that take time was actually a very unhelpful manifestation of my climate anxiety. It’s not that I wouldn’t take part in fun things, it’s that I didn’t believe things with sustained duration and time outlay were valid undertakings in a climate-deadlined world. In other words: Jam session that I didn’t need to practice for, sure. Sustained effort to get good at something new, nah. In a word, deeply effed. OK, that’s two words.
When I think about the hours in a day, or the years I have left, I’m guided by a desire to make them count. It’s why I can only manage an episode or two of most “guilty pleasure” TV shows, and listen to podcasts at 1.2x speed. But the unhealthy belief at the root of this is a feeling that devoting time to anything that is not climate is in some way an abdication of my planetary responsibility. Yes, I could do that frivolous thing, but would my time not be better spent working on one of my projects, big or small or weird?
When I caught myself not allowing for perfectly reasonable activities under the false belief that they were not worthy of my time, I knew something was wrong. When I realized I was not taking piano lessons due to the climate crisis (wtf!), I felt a tiny, relapsing dollop of my long-ago climate anxiety, which took the form of a debilitating double feature of “must do everything right now” and “no idea what to do right now.” Or, climate supersedes Netflix. Or or, all the rest is commentary.
So I started piano lessons.
The world is burning and I am … trying to get a handle on some Brahms. At the same time, a world in which a person cannot find an hour or two to do the things that nurture a brain or heart seems like a not very great one to live in, even if climate catastrophe can be quashed.
It’s an act of faith in 4/4 time. Or 5/4 if I am feeling ambitious.
And it has mostly worked. Though I still sometimes find it difficult to allow myself that daily half hour of play. It’s counterintuitive that running away from the danger, for even these tiny minutes, will help me to run towards the danger, so I doubt it every single time. But like any work, this doubt lessens palpably with every passing month and chord change.
My wonderful friend Dr. Kim Nicholas and the excellent climate scholar Dr. Britt Wray get at some of what this is all about here:
Kim: What are your practical tips to work on the skill of existing in that uncomfortable, non-binary grey space?
Britt: Something that’s super painful for a lot of people is feeling like they live in a split world. They’ve had a climate awakening, and they’re so awake to the scary things barreling at us, to human suffering and conflict. At another moment, let’s say a parent is playing with their child, reveling in the innocence of a nice walk in the park. The sky isn’t falling, the sun is shining. This split sense of self is really difficult to reconcile within an individual.
Something that has really helped me is meditation. Being able to ground oneself in the present moment is huge. You focus on what is real in this moment, rather than hypotheticals. It brings you into the non-dualistic nature of reality. You realize there has always been joy and suffering in the world; they are inextricable.
It's important to notice when you’re at your edge, getting outside of your window of tolerance, and then take a step back and think about the basics: eating, sleeping, exercise, connecting with someone you love. You’ll know what works for you, if it’s cooking, gardening, or climate-aware therapy, the burgeoning cottage industry of climate coaches, or validating and connecting over concerns in support groups.
Black feminists like Audre Lorde tell us that self-care is a political act because we have to fill ourselves up to be able to take on the external struggles we have to push against, and we can’t do that if we’re depleted. We need to nourish ourselves for the long haul to carry and stay with the trouble of this crisis for the rest of our lives.
This seems pat, and so I never believe it, despite the fact that I know it to be true for exercise (you always feel better after the run, or as my friend Carol’s needlepoint reads, “you never regret a swim.”) But it’s true for all the things that take us away from ourselves. A half-hour of piano will not make or break the world, but it will make me measurably happier. It’s a practice that exists outside my other responsibilities, and it’s a flow state activity that dissolves thoughts of methane leaks, the NRA, or what to make for dinner.
And yet piano also makes time concrete. A thing I can see myself improving at, modestly, as the days dance by. I can mark the passage of time and take mild comfort in the fact that the planet is still standing, even if just barely. And not in an Adrien Brody playing amidst the rubble of the world in The Pianist kind of way.
The bonus is that, in recent years, I’ve somehow turned all this into a party. I’ve roped friends into the adult piano lesson scene, and our teacher now holds a mature students recital. Her aging father attends, and offers overly generous praise through a remarkably uninterrupted cadence of wine consumption. A seemingly superfluous thing has become a source of joy to people other than me. Which makes it worthy, if I’m using the more-than-myself metric of what inessentials I am allowed to take time for in this most demanding world. Not that I should be.
Do you allow yourself to luxuriate in new, time-intensive hobbies? Let me know.
Last planet: words
Writes lovely Lyn:
I haven't gone to climate rallies, though I often put them in my calendar thinking, maybe this time!
One of the pieces missing for me are the specific demands from a rally for climate. I haven't dug deep into the policies and necessary change. I think it is important to draw attention, sure, but I like to have concrete, manageable demands of our governments. Do you have a list of top 3 or top 10 demands for corporate clients, policy, regulations, etc.? I am sensitive to some of these issues from a government perspective, since I am a public servant in the environmental/conservation/natural resources management field (though I do not have climate policy directly in my work at the moment).
Good point. I agree. Clear objectives FTW.
If you’re here thanks to another awesome shoutout from Substack (thank you, Substack!), welcome! Honoured to be in the company of so many great writers. Introduce yourself pls.
It’s a gloomy morning here in Ontario. I knew it would be, yet did not want to believe. A majority government with the lowest voter turnout in history and 38% of the popular vote. We’ll need to work even harder to protect this province from the disastrous environmental (and social) idiocies that this government will now foist upon us. If you’re in Toronto, please come to a backyard benefit I’m organizing. Message me for details and let me know if you’d like to sing a song, or would like to hear me butcher some Blondie! We have some solid talent, and an incredible karaoke band led by the incredible Lorie Wolf (plus a late night set from the Poly-tones and extremely strong beverages by my husband). If you’d like to donate to our Environmental Defence page, do so here. Thank you!
The chef at the restaurant poured us way too many free drinks when he heard our piano teacher had told us not to imbibe before the recital. And still I managed to remember at least a few of the notes.
Hope you are happy and healthy and giving yourself time to do the things you like to do. Always let me know how to improve.
Wishing you a wonderful weekend,
On a different note (see what I did there?) a meditation along these lines by Antonia Malchik https://antonia.substack.com/p/what-is-the-point-of-anything-but?s=r.
I'm very good at relaxing and sleeping is my superpower and yet I relate strongly to this sense of climate guilt and the loud tick-tick-ticking on a different kind of doomsday clock than the one originally created for the nuclear holocaust we were going to bring down on our own heads.
One sporadically time-intensive new hobby thanks to the pandemic is painting rocks and hiding them in the woods in the big park near my house. To be clear I am no kind of artist so these are pretty simple, although I did take a class in dot painting and can turn out some cute little versions of mandalas. It makes me happy to go on another walk after hiding one and see that someone picked it up.
I also spend some evenings with the TV and Zentangle, which is a soothing and meditative practice of drawing repetitive patterns/shapes that turn into amazingly complex pieces. It's very small scale (on a 3x3 square or round although I ventured into the 4x4 territory because that paper was on sale at the tiny little locally owned art supply place I go to). I saw a book on this years ago on a vacation, didn't get it then, and for some reason kept thinking about it every so often. The pandemic basically made say to myself "why the hell not?" and I ordered the kit from the creators.
I think "why the hell not?" is a good motto for all of this. WTHN do something about climate, WTHN do something soothing or meditative or whateverish.
I found this post fascinating, but not because I can relate. I don’t find it hard to relax; I find it too easy! If anything, I struggle with lack of ambition.
For a few years I went all in on the “time-intensive hobby” of crochet. I found it relaxing, and a fun way to connect with my mom and some of my friends who are much more accomplished in the fibre arts. I did improve a bit, but never got very good, and one day I was overcome with guilt at the amount of time and money I’d spent, considering the lack of truly impressive end products to “show” for it.
I haven’t picked it up since. So I totally get where you are coming from with piano, even if I started out from a totally different place :)