my green vermont

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My Divided Self (with apologies to R.D. Laing)

Welcome to My Green Vermont - A Blog by Eulalia Benejam Cobb.
By Eulalia Benejam Cobb

These days I walk around with two entities inside my head. The first is a governessy, head-mistressy, bureacratish person obsessed with getting things done on time and averting disaster. The other is a recalcitrant child, a sort of idiot-savant who wants to be left alone so she can woolgather in peace. The Governess is constantly going on about the desirability of discipline, good habits, strategic planning, and punctuality. The Kid couldn’t care less about any of that.

The problem is that, while The Governess has the structure and knows the rules, The Kid controls whatever intelligence, creativity, and other as yet unidentified gifts were bestowed on me at birth. So The Governess, who knows precisely how every minute of the day should be spent, has wasted years of her life vainly commanding, directing, and pleading with The Kid to do what needs to be done.

The Governess is not entirely stupid, however, and over the years she has figured out that The Kid does not respond well to frontal attacks, guilt trips, angry tirades, logical arguments, or finger-wagging, no matter how well deserved. The Kid, it turns out, can be managed by a sideways approach, one that pretends to respect her  right to refuse to do anything she doesn’t want to do because it is either boring (such as gathering paperwork for the accountant, dealing with insurance companies, meditating) or too difficult (writing, drawing, thinking, meditating).

One of the ways to fool The Kid into getting down to work is to set a strict time limit, and I mean strict—The Governess likes to use a timer—say, an hour for IRS paperwork, or twenty minutes for meditation. The deal is to work feverishly (well, “feverishly” doesn’t work for meditation, let’s say instead “diligently”) during the agreed upon time, and to cease immediately when the timer sounds. It helps to pretend that The Kid is a nun in a convent and her life is ruled by the bells, so that if the bell rings for compline while she’s in the middle of illuminating a manuscript, there’s nothing for it but to lay down her brushes and head for the chapel, or risk the abbess’s ire.

Another way to get The Kid going is the “only a little bit” technique. This works especially well for creative tasks, and is in fact how I wrote this post. Having walked around for a couple of days mulling over the general idea, when it came time to write I found that The Kid was feeling exceptionally mulish and bringing up all kinds of obstacles and excuses (the topic is too vague, too dull, too theoretical, and so on). So I—in Governess guise—said to The Kid, “Don’t worry, honey. Nobody is expecting you to write a whole post, for heaven’s sake! But perhaps you could manage a little paragraph?” At the mention of a paragraph, The Kid stuck out her lower lip, always a bad sign, so I ratcheted down my suggestion and said, “forget the paragraph, maybe just a couple of sentences?”

That worked so well that The Kid kept going after the first two sentences and  disgorged the entire first paragraph. Then I turned off the computer and gave me and my various selves permission to take a nap.

Imagine my delight when, having successfully used my “only a little bit” strategy, I came across the following from one of my favorite gurus, Oliver Burkeman (who can resist a guru who publishes a newsletter called The Imperfectionist?):

“…identify some project, activity or relationship that you know matters deeply to you, but on which you’re currently taking no action, then give it a few minutes of your time today. Not ‘every day’ – just today. That way, you’ll feel satisfied you did a bit of it, while also strengthening the muscle of confidence and self-trust that you’ll be able to do more of it later. And all that aside, you’ll have spent at least a few moments of your finite time doing something that truly matters to you.”

A day later I returned to the post and, while I can’t say it’s been easy, here  we are, The Kid, The Governess, and I, and the post is all done.

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