It’s my belief that the culture that has you on a device reading these words right now has done away with a very important part of life: dealing with the inner inbox. by taking time off.
Let’s go old-school first. Imagine that everything that happens in your day is a piece of paper that shows up in a tray to be processed and filed away by you.
New school: Each experience throughout your day is an email that at least needs tagged or labeled or moved to a folder.
Either way, you’ve got incoming experiences that need sorted and stored.
How Filing Works – the need for taking time off
The routine experiences are easy to file away. Same alarm. Same time. Same soap. Same closet. Same clothing. Same kitchen activities. Same commute. Your brain knows where to file each repeated experience and is very well-practiced.
But out-of-routine experiences need more consideration and attention. For example:
- the weird noise your furnace was making when your alarm went off
- your loved-one forgetting the time change and ringing you in your groggy first moments
- the shower suddenly getting cold after two minutes and never warming up again
- realizing you left all your wet laundry in the washer overnight
- not being able to find the shirt you were expecting to wear
- the microwave making a snap-crackle-pop noise it’s never made before
- missing your public transit
- getting a coffee while you wait for the next bus/train and hearing something interesting from the barista
All of those things are experiences your brain needs a chance to reflect on before choosing where to file it away. Sometimes this reflection takes just a moment. Sometimes much longer. For example:
- Deciding if you need to do anything about the furnace. Call the landlord? Or the service company? If not right now, how and when will you figure out if the noise is a problem, if anything needs done, or if it’s something you can safely ignore?
- Does a cold shower mean something about the water heater? Or did someone before you just use all the hot water. Do you need to deal with this now, or can it wait until lunch break? Or tomorrow? Or Monday when you’re back from your weekend trip? How will you remember to do something about it?
- Where could the missing shirt be? You’ve looked everywhere. Did you take it with you when you were gone last weekend? Is that one of the things your cousin borrowed? Did you take it off on that group run and leave it in your friend’s car?
- If what the barista said it true, you should really call your college friend whose industry this is and hear more. And speaking of said friend, you haven’t talked to them in ages. What were they up to the last time you connected? Will you have time to call them on your lunch break? Tonight? This weekend? Should you just text?
Human Doings… Not Human BEings
Does it make sense that out-of-the-ordinary experiences require some of your mental bandwidth?
Do you recognize that, because of our constant doing, the latter filing doesn’t necessarily take place in real time? For example:
- The furnace thoughts might be interrupted by a notification that your sibling posted something on Instagram (or that unusual early-morning phone call mentioned above!)
- The shower thoughts might be interrupted by your mind wandering to what you need to wear, based on the days’ activities… then perhaps remembering an activity that you’d forgotten, then mentally making whatever plans and choices need to be made in light of that activity…
- Your shirt problems might remind you of a thing you said you’d do for the friend whose car you think your shirt might be in, and while you scramble to do the thing or set a reminder to do the thing later, you lose track of the shirt issue.
- The barista thoughts might be interrupted by a new conversation that someone strikes up at the transit stop
Making Meaning by taking time off
Can you see that our attention is easily consumed by new incoming information – both self-inflicted (your own mind wandering to a new topic) and externally-inflicted (someone talks to you, your phone buzzes, you arrive at your destination, you trip over the curb…)?
It’s my theory that piling new experience on top of new experience without time to let the mind sort previous experiences is the beginning of threatened sanity.
I also believe that taking time (more on what this looks like down below) to file and sort is critical to having an accurate understanding of yourself, your small world, and how your mini-world fits into the world at large. In short: making meaning.
Finally, I think that failing to make meaning leaves people overwhelmed, burnt out, numb, and very interested in chasing away that blah. How? With comfort eating or drinking, comfort exercising, comfort gaming, comfort busy-ness, comfort sleeping, comfort shopping, comfort watching/reading, etc.
But how do you know if you’re comfort eating… or just eating?
How do you know if you’re comfort drinking or simply having a glass of wine?
Are you just sleeping, or are you comfort sleeping?
Are you just buying something you need, or are you comfort shopping?
It depends on your mental state while doing these things. Is your aim to escape the moment and take your mind off your day? It’s probably a comfort behavior. Self-soothing.
If no escape from reality is involved, at the very least you’re taking care of your needs. You might even be making time to work through your inner inbox!
Tuning Out to Tune In
Cracking a beer and letting your brain sift through your inner inbox is different than cracking several beers in a row to reach a place of soft, somewhat pleasant numbness.
Running a few miles while your mind ticks through your day and things you see on your running route bring a smile to your face is different than taking on a grueling route so punishing that you won’t be able to think. about. anything.
Sitting down with a treat and enjoying every morsel is different than returning mindlessly to the chocolate-covered-fruit jar for the umpteenth time that day to get another little hit of dopamine.
Setting an alarm for a short rest – even if you never fall truly asleep – is different than closing your eyes under the weight of overwhelm and waking up six hours later.
To be cliché: it’s not what you do, it’s how you do it!
Inner Inbox Time – i.e. taking time off
You probably already have some inner-inbox moments in your life.
“…a good idea doesn’t come while you’re doing a million things. The good idea comes in the moment of rest. It comes in the shower. It comes when you’re doodling or playing trains with your son.” b2016 interview with Delta airlines magazine.
Think about when your best ideas come to you. These are you inner-inbox moments. In the shower or bath, on the bus/train/plane, walking/running/cycling, cooking or washing the dishes.
Those who feel the most sane slow their lives down and open up this space. It might be little, foundational practices. Saying “no” more. Being realistic about what fits in a day.
Often, the inner-inbox time is bigger and more intentional.
For the gurus of balance and sanity that we so admire, it’s both. Small, foundational practices and larger, daily intentional time taken.
Yes it takes privilege to have autonomy over one’s time. If you have the privilege to own the device on which you’re reading this, and the time to spend leisure reading, you have as least as much autonomy as you’re willing to admit… probably more!
It’s easy and tempting to believe you don’t have the time. Bills to pay. Commitments to meet. Maybe kids to take care of. Yes. AND. A body, mind, and spirit that does those things… and too needs care.
Ratio of taking time off to working
How do the responsibilities of your life compare to the responsibilities Gandhi took on in his life?
I’ll hazard a guess that virtually no one reading this (and certainly not its writer!) has Gandhi’s level of responsibility in their lives.
Guess what Gandhi did with an ENTIRE DAY of each precious week?
Got reeeeeal busy with his inner inbox. An entire day of silence. An entire freaking day!
So many of us struggle even with the suggestion to meditate 10 measly minutes each day – to “give up” 70 minutes of our week to our inner inbox. Gandhi *made* nearly fourteen times the amount of “inner inbox” time each week!
What can you do to work on your ratio?
Live Your Way – just start taking time off
I heard this quote for the first time nearly a year ago:
I spent decades at the altar of meticulous planning, goal setting, and color-coding, most of which ended in exasperation.
At the time of reading the quote, I’d collected a small handful of experiences just gritting my teeth and doing the wildly uncomfortable thing… with virtually no plan.
- Instead of hours formulating careful arguments about why certain requests made of me were unreasonable… I just said no. And flinched my way through the sarcastic comments. And came out the other side with the inner inbox time I needed. It only took a few weeks for the sarcastic comments to stop. It took just a few more for the commenters… to realize they could make inner inbox time for themselves, too!
- Instead of hours looking up exercise plans, researching membership prices to gyms, picking out the perfect yoga series… I just did a plank, I just went out for a run. I just pressed play on a yoga video.
- Instead of waiting until I had a perfect plan for how I would fit inner inbox time into my life, I just started putting it on the calendar, pretending it was a commitment to someone else. Pretending that it was like a surgery, or some other major, important thing outside of my control. I cringed as I said no to things I knew perfectly well I “had time” for… if I would just cancel my silly, superfluous, selfish, extravagant, self-important inner inbox time. Each “no” initially left me disgusted with myself. And nudged me farther down the path to the most emotional health I’ve ever had.
The planner in me still viciously guards the driver’s seat of my brain. When I decide I’m going to oust her, she loses it. “But you can’t just start meditating with no plan!” she screams. “You won’t succeed! You’ll fail! Failure is death! You’re doing to die!!!!”
She also hates when I choose what to wear/eat/do based on my first impulse and don’t spend 25 thoughts justifying why my choice is right/best.
She hates when I write down an intention (i.e. do laundry) only to later ignore it in favor of taking advantage of great weather.
She cringes when I say no to people who offer me opportunities to use my time and attention in ways that seem great to them. “Are you freaking kidding?!,” she shrieks. “There goes your only chance to ever have that person’s love and approval. You know they’re never ever going to think you’re worth anything now. From here on out, they are going to think of you as a selfish, disgusting human being who doesn’t care about other people. Good job getting hated forever.”
I know. She’s harsh. However, she’s growing up bit by bit.
Each time following the first “unjustified“ impulse doesn’t result in disastrous consequences, her blood pressure drops one teeny millimeter.
Each time the responsibilities eventually get done, she won’t quite say “Okay, you were right,” but at least she says, “I guess you weren’t totally wrong.”
Each time a “no” isn’t followed by any perceptible change in relationship… she mutters reluctantly, “Well… not yet… but it’s too early to conclude that no damage has been done. It may take a few months for the true consequences to appear!”
Yes. You. Can. take time off
If the you who is in the driver’s seat of your brain is insisting inner-inbox time just doesn’t fit…
If they are already itching to check the three texts that came in while you were reading that last paragraph…
If they are longing to pour a drink, do a punishing workout, fill a shopping cart, go to sleep forever, or binge anything…
If they’ll begrudgingly admit that those “inner inbox” moments in the shower or on the morning commute are some of the lightest and most enjoyable moments of your life…
If they’re insisting comparing themselves to Gandhi is senseless…
… can you just pat them on the head?
… gently remove them from the driver’s seat?
… find your lightest day of obligations in the coming seven days, and cancel everything?
… no, really. Everything. Move your coffee date to another day. Do your workout the next day or the day before. Skip the meeting.
You can. If it’s something that could get cancelled if you got hit by a bus and were in the hospital, it is cancel-able.
Think about the one person in the world you’d most like to have dinner with. Pretend they’ve just offered to spend the day with you, and it has to be that day.
Don’t apologize. You’re not sorry that your inner inbox is in disrepair and you’re going to fix it.
Don’t make excuses. You don’t have to say “something important has come up.” You can just say, “I need to reschedule. Can you do next Wednesday or Friday?” You can just say, “I can’t make it.”
Don’t grovel. You don’t hope it’s not too much of an inconvenience. Joy and pain are two sides of the same coin. Hoping that someone doesn’t have pain also means wishing them less joy. It’s absurd to say, “I hope my actions don’t cause you to experience real life!”
Yes. you. can.
♣ Go Courageously!
Sharing is Daring – help others with taking time off
Want to inspire others? Share your inner-inbox forays in the comments!
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