Three months. Two thousand two hundred eight hours. Enough time to get lost in hours of reading every day and spend a few hours gardening. Enough time to prepare and enjoy three healthy meals every day and try out a whole bunch of new recipes. Enough time to visit friends I haven’t visited in years and hang out more with the grandkids. Enough time to go through all those piles and files and boxes around the house and in the attic and sort and organize and bring a little order to things. Enough time to paint a fence, build a shed, fix up a few rooms that need some attention. Enough time to cultivate new habits: exercise, meditation, being more deeply attentive. Enough time to take naps when I crave them and to sleep well every night. Maybe not for the average person, but definitely for me because I can get a whole heck of a lot done if I really put my mind to it. Optimism bias strikes again.
Apparently I am in good company. According to Tali Sharot, 80% of people demonstrate optimism bias in their approach to life, overestimating the likelihood of good outcomes and underestimating the likelihood of bad outcomes. In her Ted Talk, Dr. Sharot shares why and how this optimism bias came to be, affirming its many benefits. People with high expectations feel better–physically and emotionally– and those positive expectations have an impact on outcomes as well.
There is a downside to our optimism. We tend to hang on to it in the face of information about the bad things that can happen. We may know about the negative health impacts of eating sugar, for example, but we tend to think our own health will be an exception to the probability of bad outcomes. We may have $94 in our checking account and we will round it up to $100, and then when we go out for dinner we spend $24 and in our heads we round that down to $20 and somehow we think we have $80 in that account when it is actually $70. We may know all of the risks associated with driving in a flash flood–an action we would advise anyone else not to take–and with full confidence that we will be the exception to the rule, go ahead and drive through fast moving water to get home. We come face to face with hatred and violence and the abuse of power, and we believe that we can create a world centered in love, where people thrive in communities of integrity, respect and compassion.
Dr. Sharot posits that by understanding how optimism bias works we can temper our risk-taking behaviors–not by eliminating them, but rather by intentionally mitigating the risks. In this way we hang on to our hope, and to the individual and collective belief that things can improve, that change is possible, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. Those hopes and beliefs can actually make change happen.
As a participant in a national network of advocates committed to change that will lead to a world which is centered in love, a wise teacher by the name of Norma Wong introduced me to the concept of “gates” and to my particular gate of “delusional optimism.” If you imagine your life’s journey as a path, gates pose an obstacle to moving forward on your path unless or until you learn to acknowledge that the gate has appeared and develop practices that help you to open the gate and move through it. An examination of times in my life when I felt stuck or felt as though I was not being true to my best self has illuminated when my particular gate has popped up in my path. More than a few times!
So what does it mean to not only have an optimism bias, like most folks, but to be a delusional optimist? It means that I am not just bad at understanding how long it REALLY takes to do things, I am awful! I say yes to too much. I plan too many things. I put too many items on my “to do” list. I have too many lists. It also means that I underestimate risks. I don’t always see danger when it is clear to others. I hang on to optimism and hope even in the face of repeated challenges. I way overuse the “benefit of the doubt.” Both optimism and delusion have served me well over the course of my life. I can also see how they have hurt me, and as a leader in a social change organization, I can see how my delusional optimism has had negative consequences for others.
So one of my hopes for this sabbatical was to practice balance–tempering the delusion in my optimism. As someone who uses lists–and who always has several lists going that are individually and collectively impossible to complete–I have experimented with how I approach planning my time over these past ten weeks. I started by setting intentions in my head for each week–a garden bed to work in, a book to read, one delicious bread to bake. An entire month with no lists–just a weekly plan in my head. Looking out at more than two thousand hours of sabbatical it felt as though I had all of the time in the world, so it took a few weeks before discomfort arrived. What about all of those practical things that needed to get done? What about all of the things that I never have time for and hoped to complete during this time off–if I didn’t get them on a list they would never get done!
In the face of this discomfort, I resolved not to give in to my list-making habit. I took the plunge and tried out a week with no plan at all. I had to work really, really hard to redirect my thoughts each night away from planning for the next day. I woke up each morning and tried to connect with my feelings–what would be fun, or interesting? With no plan, what might happen. What a disaster! What a grump I became. It isn’t often that Ruth is begging me to make a list, but things were really bad. Indecision led to anxiety led to frustration led to overeating and not sleeping–in a week!! Neither one of us could imagine continuing that experiment!
As I begin this third month, I am appreciating the value of lists in my life. Lists help me to remember things, reduce my stress and help me to focus. Making lists helps me set intentions and think more deeply about priorities. Lists help me balance what needs to get done with what I want to get done. The trick is not to let my out of control optimism bias take over my list. I don’t actually have more time than everyone else, I am not faster or more efficient, and on reflection, I thrive on the unexpected moments in a day, whether quiet and unexpected (an interesting article, watching a butterfly) or social and full of love (Ashlin arriving for a spontaneous visit and helping with the planting). I want to have time for those unexpected moments–whether on sabbatical or back in the midst of coalition work. My task then is to move from a habit of listmaking to a practice of giving structure and meaning and space to my day(s).
The gate that illustrates this post is a gate to someone’s home built with wood and branches. I want to build one of those gates as the entrance to my vegetable garden and a reminder of the lessons and joys of this sabbatical. Rather than painting it orange (the color of optimism) think I will paint mine green, the color of balance and growth (to go with purple, the color of creativity, power and magic–like our witchy house). I will add that to my list.