… it was a moment of sheer panic, even though nothing was happening.
Or so it would seem: I was simply sitting at my desk, working out my plans for the year… I had opened this file, “Blueprint 2020”, with a palpable sense of clarity: I knew exactly what I was going to do. It was simply a matter of writing it all down, putting it all together.
Admittedly, there are — as always — quite a lot of things I am planning, but I am accustomed to that, and I even saw, in my mind’s eye, how all these projects can be integrated together into a beautiful, unified flow — no reason to panic at all.
— and suddenly, seemingly out of the blue: this sensation of overwhelming chaos emerging, right in front of my eyes, from the seeming clarity of my plans.
As a girl, I once noticed that my mother’s little notebook, where she kept her “to-do” lists, contained two recurrent entries. Every day, she would begin her “to-do” list with two items:
- Tidy up
She herself never saw the irony in this, because her “chaos” referred to the mathematical problem she was working on, and “tidy up” — well, it was simply her day-to-day fight with the household chaos generated by our little family.
I often recall this daily rhythm of chaos/tidy-up, because it keeps recreating itself in my own life.
But this time, something unusual was happening: an overwhelming chaos erupting right in the midst of “tidying up”, of simply writing down my already clear plans.
Luckily, I had the opportunity to talk this through in our small mastermind group (which was conveniently scheduled in advance to almost coincide with this moment of panic — a totally unplanned miracle of synchronicity ). This is what allowed me to pinpoint exactly when the sensation of chaos emerged, and what I did to generate it…
The thing is, I lived the first thirty five years of my life without any “goal-setting” whatsoever.
It might have seemed “from the outside” as though I did have goals, because some fairly long-term projects were completed in this time (books, dissertations, field trips, moving house…), but in truth, I had none.
In retrospect, I think there were two reasons why I didn’t need any goal-setting back then.
First, all my projects emerged naturally from who I was at the time; and if they involved some learning and some growth, it was continuous, organic, predictable. No leaps, no discontinuities.
And — probably even more importantly — all these projects were naturally entrained into a larger flow of life. My whole life was like a river following a predictable course through its native terrain.
But at thirty five, I found myself completely disconnected from this familiar flow. (It was a conscious decision — I just didn’t fully realise its consequences in advance.)
Suddenly, I was in the midst of an ocean, and there were no familiar stars to chart my course — and I didn’t even know where I wanted to sail…
That’s when, after a momentary confusion, I started to explore the whole “goal-setting” thing, in its different variations, models, modalities, and frameworks. And what keeps appearing in (almost) all of them is time: the idea that a goal has to be linked to a temporal signpost, projected onto a specific point in the future.
And this is exactly what engendered my experience of chaos suddenly erupting out of nowhere: it happened precisely when I tried to link all my projects to a single point in imaginary future.
It doesn’t even mean I imagined all of them completed by this point: all I was trying to do is to create some “benchmarks” for them… and yet, this arbitrary deadline was like a dam blocking their (yet unknown) natural flow, all at the same time.
I cannot count how many times I have recreated this pattern for myself in real life: arbitrary deadlines to create arbitrary expectations and equally arbitrary constrictions in the natural flow of events. (My favourite way to feed the addictive habit of being disappointed in myself.)
This week, though, it all happened within a single moment of presence — I sensed the chaos I was projecting into my own future, before it actually happened.
Boris Pasternak once wrote that an artist is an “eternity’s hostage, imprisoned by time”.
But here, I was the one locking myself up in this prison of time — and all I had to do to get out is to accept that I simply don’t know the natural time frame for my projects… and to let go of the idea that a project cannot be completed unless it is willfully locked into an imaginary time.