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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Make open space in your life

In 2006 I came close to suicide. I was under incredible stress at the time. I was trying to run a  medical practice. I had just bought a physical therapy business from two guys who had no business being entrepreneurs, and I made the foolish mistake of keeping them on as employees. I was constantly stressed out and miserable. I blamed myself for everything. My wife and I were fighting. I felt like a huge failure. I found myself sitting at the edge of a cliff contemplating a 300’ jump. Luckily, I did not do it.  It was hard to return to my life after that. I needed help, and I knew it. I ended up in the office of a psychologist.  He said something in the first session that stuck in my mind as excellent advice. “Make space in your life.”

 The counselor  felt the mistake I had made was using up every hour of my day. I admit it, I worked too hard. I was working 16 hour days 7 days a week. I had the idea that I was failing in business because I wasn't trying hard enough. So I spent my hours meeting with my staff, seeing my own clients, doing paperwork, bookkeeping, and trying to spend time with my kids. Every minute of my day was accounted for. I simply had not left any moments open.  So there I was, complaining to this psychologist about why my wife was ignoring me. He smiled and said, “Doesn’t sound like you had any moments for her to see you.”

He wasn't listening! Surely my wife  was ignoring me. I wasn’t getting any help from her with my business. The bookkeeping, staffing, and billing were all my problem. I felt alone in this business. We weren’t talking. We weren’t having sex. I was going on and on. Again, he smiled at me. “Where in that schedule did you expect her to have time for fun with you? When was the free time for a conversation with her? Where are the unaccounted moments?” He had me. He was absolutely correct. I had left no free moments. There was no open space in my life.

Kailua Beach - The best beach to walk.

There is a lesson here to always remember. If you are so busy that you don’t have any time for occasionally enjoying a walk on the beach, you are too busy. You must have down time. There has to be a day to rest, a moment in your schedule that is not full of other things. Otherwise, you will not be happy. Your spouse won’t be happy. Think of all the sex, and love, and romantic walks you are missing out on because you are so busy. I know I was missing out on all of that and more. There I was thinking my wife had lost interest in me, in us. Really I had just scheduled her out of my life. Our only interaction had become our fighting about the business. Why weren’t my wife and I  having fun together? Because there was no time for fun! There were other problems too that go beyond the open spaces thing. I was making the huge mistake of thinking of my wife as my employee. That is a terrible mistake and will usually lead to divorce if not corrected! But it's not part of today's topic. I just thought I would mention it in all fairness. 

It gets worse! By not allowing myself time to rest, time to be free, I was losing my ability to think clearly. My mind was wearing down. I was short tempered with everyone. I wasn’t sleeping well. I found myself getting only four or five hours a night. I had committed myself to so many things that I could not be effective at anything.  I had no recuperation time. I stopped thinking clearly! I multi-tasked so much that I was multi-failing. And soon, I found myself on a cliff! No wonder! You need mental breaks. I have this unearthly ability to push myself. I can go hard without food, rest, or a break. I realize now, that I am one of those people that can easily work himself to death. Whatever little alarm that goes off in most people when they push too hard is missing from the brain I have. But it's not healthy! You need open spaces for perspective and clear thought. You can not go and go and go. 

So I listened to the psychologist. I made free times. I stopped scheduling things on the weekend. I slowly un-entwined myself  from all the commitments. Things improved. I began to make more free time for my wife and kids. We began a tradition of going hiking as a family every Saturday. It forced us to talk and enjoy the day. Sounds weird when I say forced, but it’s the truth. I needed to have a portion of the day that was just devoted to being outside with nothing to do. It made a huge improvement. Then I took it a step further. I left spaces for my wife and my kids. This did not mean planning to do things with them. This meant planning to do nothing with them, planning free time. Sounds silly, but it’s the only way. Don’t think it went perfectly well. Things come up. Life happens. But to this day, I still leave the weekends open. No seeing patients ever, no matter how much they beg. And we go hiking as a family almost every weekend. We have even taken a few backpacking trips to New Zealand and the mainland US. I think when you are tied to a phone, computer, and clients all day the only real way to focus on your family is to go someplace with no internet or cell service. No, you don’t have to hike to accomplish this, but you do have to remove yourself from your work and other commitments. Otherwise, you will never see how free time can help.

So what are the benefits of these open spaces? I already mentioned that you will have time for seeing your wife and kids. Believe me, nothing kills your life more than not having peace at home. But there is more. Having open space allows you to find your own creativity. You might try painting or starting a hobby. You might find that you like to write. If you wonder why you aren’t expressing yourself creatively, it may be that you haven’t been giving yourself free time to try it.

 I wrote the other day about all the time people waste watching TVImagine if you painted instead of watching American Idol. Or possibly you started writing a novel instead of watching the Late Show. No, you might not ever make it big as an artist or a writer, but you sure as heck will grow more as a person by being creative. Maybe while you're painting you will figure out what you really want to do with your time. I know that has happened to me.  It's often when you are doing what you want that you get an even better idea. There is a funny thing about having open spaces: you will only understand how important they are once you are in them. The best ideas I have come up with occurred to me when I was hiking with my kids, laughing at their jokes, or when I walk with my wife on the beach. When you are free of your usual requirements, that’s when your mind can really become creative.

Now I realize that free space is for more than just my wife and kids. I also need free space for me.  This year, I planned free time to write this blog. Two days a week, I arranged my schedule so I could be home with nothing to do. Before this, I spent two days a week learning to program a stock trading robot. It was fun and it worked, but it turned out to not be my thing. But after years of dreaming about it, I finally tried it. Maybe this blog leads to something bigger. Possibly it finally gives me the confidence to write. All I know is, if I don’t allow myself this time, it will never happen. I will waste my entire life dreaming of more, but never actually find it.


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