Category Archives: Essay

Procrastinate to Think

A check of my Timex sports watch, 13:00. I shrug, no problem.  I hurry out the door for a Monday afternoon jog.  After a productive morning of writing, I deserve a break and some fresh air.  The other work can wait.

I run half way around the lake path, walk the rest, and make it home in under 45 minutes.  Maybe a quick protein shake, then back to the writing?  On a second thought, maybe a shower first.  With damp skin, I could catch a chill.  But before that shower, a speedy check of the email.  A quick pop-in just in case, I don’t know, someone needs me immediately.  Not sure who the hell that would be, but too late.

One check of an email leads to the click of a link, another, and then a Google search about creative entrepreneur teens who are changing the face of feminism. Maybe a YouTube search to find out what the music and TED talks are all about.  A Timex check, 15:00 already. I should eat a substantial lunch if I hope to get through the mental obstacles of revising my manuscript.

Bread warming in the toaster; ham slices, tomato and relish at the ready. The sandwich made, I grab a book and read while I eat.  Only crumbs left, I read some more and enjoy the warmth of our sunny patio. Then, okay, 16:00; is that the time?  Wasn’t I supposed to work on something this afternoon?

I pull up the document.  I sigh.  A disjointed mess of words hang on the screen.  The usual awaits: sorting, revising, massaging, re-typing, finding a rare jewel hidden in the crud.  Eyes drooping; maybe a revitalizing cat nap?  No, too late in the day.  What about that full sink, there in the kitchen, disgusting and screaming out to me? No, it’s hubby’s turn to wash; don’t give in.  But the dog needs to go out a little early this evening.  Don’t even think about it.  I could stare at the screen; think of the thousand things to do other than write this essay; this essay about procrastination.

A friend joked that I would probably put this one off.  My laugh flowed easy when she said it, but inside I knew.  It would be like every other essay, every other project.  That first hurdle; not necessarily of focusing, but convincing myself to start, and start immediately, before anything else popped into my frontal lobe and offered an excuse to delay.

No, sit back down, you don’t need to find some damn gum. Just chew on your tongue.

*********

To procrastinate is not exactly a positive choice in our culture.  Beyond the simple definition, there are the social stigmas: procrastination equals lazy and lack of will power, or leads to the plague of never getting anything done. Self-help guides line bookstore and virtual shelves to assist with this near mental disorder.  Sciences study indicators and motivations, hoping to figure out the almighty weapon to fight off procrastination so it never returns.  Are we in the battle of our lives, to conquer and defeat the fire-breathing monster known as ProKrastin Ate?  I admit, I intentionally delay certain tasks that linger on the top of my priority list.  But sometimes I am only taking a pause to think.

From my experience, the first stage of procrastination involves a fear and apprehension welling up from my belly’s pit.  In response, stress throws up a mental roadblock that always offers a convincing detour sign.  The messy-house-that-must-be-cleaned is my classic form of procrastination.  If my home is unkempt, the universe will of course disintegrate back to a tiny particle of dust.

My inspired muse works overtime to generate more creative procrastination techniques, expertly veiled behind cloaks of both necessity and temptation.  While juggling multiple assignments, the easy one becomes the focused center; the intentional distraction to divert any attention given to the one that’s due.  I also prefer busy work in the name of procrastination.  Although I do not budge an inch on the targeted task, I accomplish lots of other stuff like paying bills, creating a new household budget, organizing notes and files, even completing a few cryptograms from a puzzle book.  And then there are the obvious offenders: eating sandwiches, checking my arms for odd shaped moles, sorting through junk mail coupons, taking pictures of my sleeping puppy dog, biting my nails, daydreaming of the nearby construction site and the creative ways I could dismantle or mangle the excessively loud equipment.

My fail-safe method of procrastination is time travel.  Jumping forward, out of the present moment, and making to-do lists; creating new schedules that I implore myself to follow this time.  Just turn off the brain and follow the damn list.

I think the Puritan work ethic is engrained in our culture’s psyche.  You must be hard at work to be a good person because while the boss is away the mice will screw off and idle hands are the devil’s something or other.  I read an article published recently, “5 Tricks to Teach Kids to Avoid Procrastination.”  The article advised to prioritize work before play, to keep a to-do notebook and to get organized.  The subject in the article was a child who had entered the first grade.  Yowzah.  What is that, 7 years old?  I thought I was stressed out in grade school when I had to use my stuffed animals as dates for my Barbie dolls because I didn’t have Ken.  I never knew this stress was a projection of how I felt about putting off other more important shit.  Seriously, someone should have let me know about the other more important shit.

It’s all about results. I was raised to produce, to accomplish.  When I got into school, homework was on, then band practice and tennis practice, then some more homework, nightly assignments, monthly tests, quarterly projects and exams.  After public school came college.  Time management was the necessity; procrastination meant cramming, all nighters, gut-rot from too much coffee and NoDoz. How did I manage without the current prescription Adderral focus-me drugs?

Maybe we credit procrastination too often as the culprit, the something to blame. “Oh, I’m just procrastinating,” I tell myself with a dismissive wave.  But what is the delayed activity and why am I dragging my feet?  Do I feel an intuition of bad timing, or do I hear the disgruntled integrity alarm?  Maybe it’s plain ole fear and I need to gulp a breath before leaping into possible failure, or possible pain (I’m thinking of the dentist appointment that I have to make). Procrastination could be the red flag snapping in the storm, a signal to take a moment more of thought and consideration.

Wait, that’s right, no time. Multitasking is the desired momentum in this day and age, with everything geared toward doing more in less time.  Procrastination could be the rebellion, to escape a social conditioning that runs our humanity dead tired into the ground.

To me, procrastination is a symptom of our productivity obsession; a sign that the overstimulated, multitasking wires are fritzing on overload.  If I am not busy and producing, the social control kicks in and I feel horribly guilty.  I must not be managing my time, or, oh-no, procrastinating.

If the social stigma evaporated and we didn’t beat ourselves up for delaying an action on some things, we could be a more relaxed culture. That’s a scary unknown.

Just because I create a to-do list doesn’t mean I actually have to do anything from it.

© M.R.Collier, A Way of Your Own, 2015

I’M BUSY: A Personal Essay on Productivity

(previously published in 2014 edition of ‘Stratus: Journal of Arts & Writing’)

“If you’re bored, I’ll give you something to do.”  My mom used to say this when I was a kid.  Her threat of chores silenced my whines of boredom and I found anything to keep myself busy.

Ah, to have the chance to be bored again; to lie in a hammock and listen to a breeze flutter through tree leaves on a warm afternoon.  Would I only twiddle my thumbs?

Maybe it’s simply normal human behavior to do.  But when did to-do lists, time management and waves of guilt for non-productivity harness so much of my attention and energy?  When I ask my friends, “How’s it going?,” common responses are “Great, I’m really busy, crazy busy; I’m stressed out, saturated; It’s too much.”  I wonder if the meaning of productivity has somehow stumbled onto a fatal racetrack, where it loops around to a dizzy velocity while reaching frantic for giant carrots and teetering toward a crash and burn.

I have an insatiable drive to be productive.  Balancing ‘busy’ with concentration and efficiency is my method and even a minimal level of output is my goal.  At the end of a day, however, if my to-dos have not diminished, I feel stressed/unaccomplished, angry/wasteful, worthless/lazy and definitely don’t want to share any of my ‘not doing’ with my busy and producing friends, peers and family.

But maybe they would understand.  Maybe we are all caught in an unfocused culture struggling toward the salvation of productivity.

Inattention is one of the primary symptoms of a chronic mental health condition that affects millions of children and adults in the United States, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).  And those diagnoses have been on the rise.  According to prescription provider, Express Scripts, studies showed a 36 percent increase between 2008 and 2012 in the number of Americans using medication to treat ADHD.  But, beyond legal prescriptions, the ‘medication’ is also widespread on college campuses and in the professional workplace.  The trafficked ADHD drugs are not a treatment for a diagnosed disorder, but a resource for enhanced performance, productivity and focus.

Maybe I just need to focus, too.

A quick search for ‘productivity’ at the digital bookstore, Amazon.com, gave me some non-medicated direction with up to 100 pages of results.  The titles from the first 10 pages were mostly ‘How To’ e-books published in 2014, all under the umbrella of productivity; how to: get more done in less time, achieve success, master time management, take action, end laziness, outperform the norm, supercharge-maximize-boost, overcome burn out and work faster.

Surfacing from the flood of sub-titles, I felt that I had a serious problem.  If I could not overcome procrastination, concentrate harder and become a ‘Productivity Ninja,’ I would never be a successful person and would simply flounder in my own wasted space.

With an e-stack of self-help books to improve productivity, an increase of diagnoses and legal medications for a disorder that includes inattentiveness, and a thriving black market for the ‘focus’ drugs to give people the concentration and performance edge at school and the workplace, I have to wonder what generates this pressure to focus in order to produce at a greater, faster speed.  Achievement, recognition, and wealth are some probable motivators.

I hope that in the U.S., it is still okay just to be human instead of ‘hyper-focused super-juiced’ human.  Is our culture perpetuating the mounting speeds, standards and expectations?

I recently worked and lived in Belgium for a few years.  In downtown Brussels, I would have to walk for 20 minutes from my office to get to a coffee shop that made steamed lattes ‘to-go’ (or ‘take-away’ if you want to be European about it).  Coffee shops were called cafes, where people would sit down and stay awhile to have their espresso or cafe au lait.  Coffee time appeared to be social time, a break from work or the day’s activities.  For me, this was culture shock.

I had arrived in Brussels from Seattle, Washington where I had lived for the morning or afternoon latte that I would order ‘to-go,’ speed walk back to my desk, chug half of the nectar, then type furiously as I rode the caffeine wave determined to finish just one more report.

Since my time in Belgium, I have made my way back to Seattle and the coffee shops on every corner. This past Friday morning, in fact, I stopped by a local coffee shop.  It buzzed with people taking cups to go and others who stayed and sat, fused to digital devices.  No illegal focus meds for sale over-the-counter here, but the standby triple shots were in high demand. Coffee caffeine, not to just wake up, but to wake up and get to doing, making the most of precious time. After the barrels of espresso and drip I washed through my system daily for too many years, I can’t drink caffeinated coffee anymore. My heart palpitates just thinking about those shots that always helped me beat deadlines and pound out page after page.  So, now I settle for a weak tea, or three.

But maybe productivity is not just about an American’s relationship with coffee and caffeine. Recently, I hopped on the morning commuter bus to downtown Seattle, every seat occupied with Androids ThinkPads tablets iPads iPhones gizmos gadgets, and earbuds; bowed heads, glazed eyes, scrolling reading playing posting, and plugged in.

Apps manage a person’s day; electronic appointment books schedule tasks to the minute; programs organize time and information; electronic cigarettes even improve the bottom line.  The continuing surge of technology cleans up the wastes of time, streamlines effort and smooths any wrinkles of inefficiency. But distraction can remain. When I lose focus of the carrot, the output line graph takes a nose dive.

So I get distracted.  Doesn’t that keep me human?

I attempt to stretch most moments, packing them in with multiple projects, to be productive, to earn money.  But to participate and keep up with the current flow of our culture, is it imperative to enhance myself with meds or extra doses of the latest natural stimulant?  From my office work experience, once elevated productivity levels (for an individual as well as a group) becomes normal, it becomes expected and the new standard.  Then, more has to be done to surpass the now ‘minimum’ standard to achieve recognition and success.

What is the culture cost of this building block approach to productivity measurement? Is it an unavoidable evolution to machine behavior, sacrificing health and human interaction to produce to the capacity of a digital chip?

Maybe we’re running out of time as a species and fear of the wasteland-apocalypse and extinction propels us to move faster and do more.  Maybe productivity is a learned behavior and a fed addiction exploited and manipulated by a profit driven system.  Maybe on some subconscious level we remember that if we are not busy, we might be bored.

On a Tuesday evening, a birthday gift card brings me to a Seattle spa that offers hour sessions in sensory deprivation tanks, otherwise known as isolation or float tanks.  Bright orange earplugs fit snug in my ears.  And I float in 10 inches of skin temperature salt water.  Sight, sound and smell have been turned off as I hover weightless and disconnected from the physical world.  But my mind continues.

One hour to float, to not do.  And I am not bored.

© M.R.Collier, A Way of Your Own, 2015

Noise: Do We ‘Have’ to Make It?

Have you ever heard the charge of cars, double-decker buses or 18-wheelers over a cobblestone paved road?  If not, I wouldn’t advise the experience without some ear and stress protection.  Several months ago, I lived in Brussels and had a fifteen minute walk to the office.  My preferred route was a slower paced stretch of road that outlined the Parc du Bruxelles, a graveled park that depending on the season and dust level, provided some green space comfort in the city.  But to reach that park, first, I had to traverse three blocks of cobblestone.  Motorists entered this thruway at top speed because, I believe, of the road’s design – no lane dividers, no indicators of right-of-way at the south-end ‘Y’ intersection.  Even the ‘take-your-life-in-your-own-hands’ crosswalk had faded to a spattering of gray-white paint.  The stone street was a free-for-all that translated to ‘go fast to get there first.’  And they tried- the buses, trucks, vespas, Audis, Peugeots- all gunning as if the faster speeds would yield a smoother ride.  But in the real world, they only jangled to a roar; a wave of metal and rubber engulfing  pedestrians, like me.

Back home in Seattle, I now notice ‘too loud’ cars and trucks speeding on the streets, but it’s nothing like the cobblestone eruptions.  Recently though, I woke in the night, a bedroom window open only a crack, and I heard it. The neighborhood rested, but it was there, constant; the whoosh and static hum of Interstate-5.  Relentless, it had been there all along.  As the sun rose, so did the more immediate sounds of vehicles, overhead air traffic, barking dogs, crying babies and a delivery truck or two.  The highway noise was buried beneath.  Even now, mid-day, I can no longer pick it out, but I know it’s still there; the noise hasn’t evaporated.

Is this noise my subjective complaint, or is it a pollution?  Sources define noise pollution as an unwanted, even harmful sound from man-made things like airplanes, automobiles and industrial zones. From hearing loss to heart disease, I read that chronic noise exposure can have negative effects on the human body.  Spikes in heart rate, elevated stress levels and blood pressure from noise are not just physical reactions of the hypersensitive. Constant stimulation of a body’s sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) from elevated noise levels, can lead to sleeping disorders, stress and hypertension.  And while we may think we can simply adapt to increased noise through strategies such as selective hearing and deep breathing, our internal systems, including our cardiovascular system, do not acclimate.

I know that living in cities like Brussels or Seattle has some noisy consequences.  The affected communities and people tend to adapt.  When noise isn’t unusual, certain amounts are accepted as part of the everyday.  High and low frequency and decibel levels for hearing health have even been standardized.  Within a world where noise is normal, most solutions for reducing the pollution react to the problem that exists – the noise that already fills our ears.  From industry to consumer, could more proactive steps increase awareness, peel back the layers of noise, and scale down the amounts created in the first place?  In this age of space tourism, Google Glass, and the ‘Whisper Quiet’ pet clipper, where is the soundless lawnmower, blow dryer and garbage truck?

Besides hearing damage from excessively loud music, I never knew about other health hazards of chronic noise exposure.  My body and mood felt vexed, irritated, even enraged from elevated noise, but I thought it was my individual problem; I just needed to calm myself down, think positive thoughts, find a way to adapt, and get used to it.  Maybe I could run, use another route, or wear earplugs while relying on my non-traumatized senses for urban navigation.  Imagine my surprise when I read that the health hazards of noise have been known since before I was born.  In fact, in the 1960‘s, the surgeon general who first put the health warnings on cigarette packs, Dr. William H. Stewart, also warned that noise was a hazard, not just a nuisance.  The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established the Office of Noise Abatement and Control to regulate noise issues at a federal level and enforced the Noise Control Act of 1972.  But, ultimately, officials decided that noise issues were best handled at a state and local level; regulation responsibilities were transferred to cities and states in the early 1980’s.

Before closing their noise reduction offices, the EPA released the 1978 document, Protective Noise Levels: A Condensed Version of  EPA Levels Document; an educational piece listing the maximum A-weighted sound levels in decibels for a variety of consumer products.  After my initial confusion I learned that ‘A-weighting’ is the measurement of sound pressure levels commonly used to assess environmental and industrial noise.  Further, because I did not have a reference for decibel levels as compared to actual sound, I picked one of the most common items listed – the vacuum.  The 1978 document listed the maximum A-weighted sound level for a vacuum from 60 to approximately 85 decibels.

What did that mean?  When checking out the market for vacuum cleaners on Amazon.com, decibel ranges were not common product specifications.  As a consumer, I never considered the noise level when purchasing a vacuum.  Vacuums are just noisy, right?   Or, maybe, that had been the only option available, but not the only one possible.

I looked up ‘quiet vacuums,’ and Amazon.com advertised a few.  The decibels listed from 60 to 67; the cheapest sold for around $200, canister style, not upright.  In 1978, 60 decibels for a vacuum cleaner fell in the maximum sound level range.  The other ‘non-quiet’ vacuums on Amazon.com, both canister and upright, did not advertise the decibel output, and the least expensive model sold below one hundred bucks.

Beyond the vacuum, volts, watts, horsepower, and weight are readily seen in most household appliance or device specifications.  Decibels and sound emissions are not.  I came across a website which reviewed the top 10 electric lawn mowers for 2014; decibel levels were not mentioned in any of the mowers’ details.

Without labeled sound emissions, consumers, like myself, cannot consider or compare the sound effects of products – unless stores offer test drives for vacuums, mowers and blowers.  Maybe the ‘quiet’ options are too few to compare.

My internet searches highlighted the technologies used specifically for noise reduction.  One company urged the use of certain engineering principles during the initial design of products to curtail sound emissions.  Another company promoted noise suppression materials and techniques, such as sound barriers, compressors and the installation of sound-absorbing-stuff.  Active Noise Control was listed as a technology which displaces sound waves, muffling the various sounds of appliances and motors.  Quieter pavements and lubricated rail and train tracks were mentioned in articles as effective for less noise.

In the Seattle area, the Sound Transit’s light-rail has had lubricating devices installed on its trackway to reduce the trains’ screeches.  I reached out to city offices to ask what other noise responses are active in Seattle.  While the city lacks a comprehensive strategy monitoring and addressing noise as a pollution and health hazard, noise is addressed in some capacity on a project by project or department basis. For example, permits granted for construction projects in the city do require an inspection for noise. Carpooling, public transportation and bicycle commuting are encouraged.  The State Environmental Protection Act also has noise restrictions to limit the impact of noise at certain times of day.

Several years ago, the Washington Department of Transportation (WDOT) won a prestigious award for innovative efforts to handle noisy roads.  The WDOT used asphalt-rubber and polymer pavements on sections of major roadways in the Seattle area.  Unfortunately, the results of the WDOT study revealed that these ‘quieter’ pavements were not audibly quieter after 6 months of wear.

I keep thinking of the interstate roar that is out there, but masked at this mid-day moment.  My mind may not fully register all sounds and effects, but my internal systems activate as the duo leaf blower team revs engines to remove a few rogue leaves from bushes outside an apartment building and the cranked car stereo plows down the street rattling windows and my rib cage.

And what is that in the distance, approaching like a black cloud…a buzzing swarm of drones?

© M.R.Collier, A Way of Your Own, 2015

Noise: Adapting to a Pollution

A jumbo jet rumbles across the Seattle sky.  A garbage truck screeches to a halt outside.  And a neighbor slips on ear muffs, ignites a gassed up leaf blower and sends any unprotected eardrums into a fleeing panic.

In some instances, noise vibrations can cause the ear to bleed.  Exposure to loud rock music through blasting earbuds or concert hall speakers can lead to permanent hearing loss. Unmuffled motorcycles revving down residential streets can spike tempers and heart rates. Consistent screeches, pops and clack-clack-clacks from nearby construction projects can pump a person tight with stress.

Noise pollution is an unwanted or harmful sound from man-made things like automobiles, airplanes and industrial workplaces, expanding to sirens and horns, boats, trains, and lawn care machines.  Finding acoustic reprieve can be difficult.

Annoyance from noise is not just the reaction of an overly-sensitive person, but a symptom of an unhealthy environment.  In urban areas, daily immersion in waves of unwanted sound diminishes health, sleep and lifestyle quality.  The effects of noise on the human body range from hearing loss to heart disease and spikes in heart rate and blood pressure, to instigating the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) which can lead to sleeping disorders, stress and hypertension.

“People in noisy environments experience a subjective habituation to noise, but their cardiovascular system does not habituate…”, claims a February 2014 article published in Environmental Health Perspectives.  So, while we think we are getting used to the ever present urban sounds, the rationalization may just be in our minds and not translated to our organs and health needs.

When the blood begins to bubble, can we turn off the noise, control it in some way or leave the polluted space?  And if escape is not an option?  Maybe we’ll just adapt.

In urban habitats, animals have developed strategies to adapt to increasing noise pollution.  Research studies released in the past few years indicate that birds, for example, sing louder and at a higher pitch to separate their song from the low frequency traffic hum.  Besides loud-talkers yelling at cell phones and pedestrian voices raised to clear the thick haze of downtown traffic, human city dwellers have adapted in additional ways to compete with escalated sound levels.

Noise canceling headphones have become a popular fashion.  White noise generators mask the cacophony outside and provide a constant sound of wind, rain, or ocean waves for focusing, relaxing or sleeping.  Apps assist urbanites in the search for quiet spaces in cities.  Installing sound-dampening fiberglass insulation, double or triple pane windows and thick carpeting throughout a house increases acoustic comfort.  Even biologically, the human brain filters unwanted noise to focus on a desired sound.  In this process of auditory cognition, more immediate sounds take priority and others fade unnoticed, or are masked until consciously heard.

Over 40 years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recognized the impact of noise levels and in response, established a national policy under the Noise Control Act of 1972 to “…promote an environment for all Americans free from noise that jeopardizes their health and welfare.”  The EPA no longer directly monitors and manages noise pollution.  Since the early 1980‘s, individual states and cities have shouldered the responsibility.

State and local laws have adapted to address the swell of excessive noise.  In Washington State, the Department of Ecology asserts that “Any loud noise that occurs between 10:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m. could be considered noise pollution…The zoning of your location also determines if a noise is considered “pollution”.”   Noise Abatement Coordinators in the city of Seattle hear questions regarding the Noise Code that addresses sound levels for commercial and construction projects, while Police Officers enforce the Municipal Code sections that cover noise disturbances ranging from barking dogs and human voices to motors and music.

The state has attempted to control the effects of a chronic noise sprawl, but in at least one instance, the sound waves would not be stopped.  In 2010, contractor crews for the Washington State Department of Transportation finished installing 700 noise-absorbing ceiling panels above the express lanes on Interstate 5’s Ship Canal Bridge.  The project started in reaction to the escalated traffic noise vibrating from the interstate throughout the Seattle neighborhoods below.  After monitoring the project results for a couple of years, officials determined that the finished construction did not significantly impact the noise levels from the stretch of road.  In part, the adaptations could not control all of the noise diffractions and reflections.

Daily exposure to the chronic jumble of noise is part of the Seattle city scene.  Bus routes have been cut due to budget issues potentially creating more traffic on the roads, and drones (unmanned aircraft) are said to be loud and on the horizon for package deliveries and potentially for law enforcement use.  While quieter hybrid and electric cars are commonly seen on the roads, legislation in the United States requires them to emit warning sounds for the safety of pedestrians.  Maybe urban noise pollution has reached a threshold where less noisy things are too ‘quiet’ and have become a potential threat.

An article in the August 2013 issue of Men’s Health Magazine stated that out of 100 U.S. cities, with number 1 (Durham, North Carolina), as the quietest and 100 (Houston, Texas) as the loudest, Seattle ranked number 26.  But since Seattle’s population grew by 2.8 percent (almost 18,000 residents) in 2013, becoming the nation’s 21st biggest city, should a noise swell be expected?  And what adaptations will be made?

There are always earplugs.  Until they aren’t enough.

© M.R.Collier, A Way of Your Own, 2015