On Constraints and Herding Cats

Do you ever feel as if trying to corral your thoughts is like herding cats? I know. Me too. Getting your mental ducks in a row, making plans, making choices, especially when there are too many choices, can be overwhelming. That’s what I felt last month when we returned from our fall camping trip and I looked at my empty calendar and my long list of things I wanted to do this fall. I needed to create some order in my life. Because without a structure to my week, with no hard and fast deadlines, and no depend-upon-it weekly appointments, I was floundering in a sea of too much time, too many possibilities, too little motivation, and too much guilt that I should be doing something more productive than I was doing on any one given day.

That’s one of the things we all have to learn about retirement. How to deal with an unstructured day, week, month, life.

I remember leaving for work one morning when I was still teaching, and Hubby was newly retired. He said, only partly in jest, “It’s easy for you. You know what you are going to be doing every hour today. I have to make it up as I go along.” We both laughed. But in retrospect, I’m sure his was a rueful laugh. I mean, he had a plethora of things he could be doing, things he wanted to do, and needed to do. But no time constraints, aside from the seasonal ones, on when they should be done. Or if he might want to chuck the lot of them and have a nap.

Colourful oak leaves against a grey garden shed.
Our garden shed and the (almost) last of the fall colours.

I’ve created various structures and schedules for myself and my life over the eight years I’ve been retired. And not all of them have served me as well as the one I’ve recently devised. A kind of loosely structured week, with days devoted to certain activities, and days deliberately set aside as “anything goes” days. You can read about my newly created plan to “get my act together” here.

On Sunday I was reading an essay written by Haley Nahman called “In Defense of Burdens.” In it, she writes of abandoning many of the constraints, or burdens, which had previously ruled her life. And, as opposed to feeling wonderful and free, she felt oddly unsatisfied and even “empty.” She had made “the kinds of changes many people dream of making if only they had the resources.” And yet, she writes that she felt “at a loss for how I’d managed to make my life feel emptier in the process.” Lack of commitment, a life devoid of any constraints simply made her feel untethered, and undermined her confidence in her own capabilities. She goes on, in the essay, to explain the many small changes she has now made and how her life has improved. She’s more productive, more creative, and happier.

I really like Haley Nahman’s work. I’ve written about her before on my blog. I subscribe to her Sunday newsletter called Maybe Baby, which you can find here. I find it oddly comforting, that although we live vastly different lives, and she is way younger than I am, her introspective writing and musings about life appeal to me so much. As if age, ethnicity, lifestyle, and nationality don’t matter much after all when it comes to sharing the really important things in life.

Fall colours and sunshine in Beryl Gaffney Park in Nepean, Ontario.
Afternoon sun on the trail on Tuesday.

In her essay from last Sunday, Haley refers to this article from the Harvard Business Review on “why constraints are good for innovation.” Apparently “constraints counterintuitively lead to better creative work.” And despite all the palaver from people who think that any kind of constraint stifles creativity, “getting rid of rules and boundaries does not ensure that creativity and innovative thinking will thrive.” It’s “only when the constraints are too high that they stifle.” The key is finding the sweet spot. The perfect balance between stifling and allowing so much scope that the potential “innovative thinker” suffers from what Haley calls “choice paralysis.”

This article made me smile. And it made me think of all the students over the years who have looked me in the eye and assured me that they absolutely could not write creatively without complete freedom. That ideas just came to them from out of the blue, and that deadlines were an anathema to creative work. Oh… the confidence of the uninitiated. Ha. This popular misconception about how creativity works was why the first few weeks of my writing course were always dedicated to learning about the writing process and the creative process, how to “feed the muse” (as one writer put it), and ways of just getting started writing when one had no idea if they even had any ideas at all.

Without structure, and boundaries, and goals, teaching this class would have been like herding cats. We all would have been, as I said in my post last month, “riding madly off in all directions.” And not getting anywhere at all.

Fall colours in Beryl Gaffney Park in Nepean, Ontario.
Plethora of yellow leaves on the walking trail this week.

In the past month I’ve found that my new weekly structure has put, in my opinion, exactly enough constraints upon my time. It ensures that I have free time to do whatever. But it also gives me a firm deadline for writing this blog. Without these deadlines, I would stress about having no ideas, or too many ideas, I’d put off writing, and have no fun blogging at all.

For instance, I frequently have a loose idea for my Wednesday blog post, often sparked by life circumstances or by things I’ve been reading, like this week. But until I sit down at the computer to upload photos, I have no clear plan for the post, and often no clear theme. It’s only when I actually start writing that things pull together for me. If I waited for the ideas to become perfectly clear before I started to write, I’d never start. As it is, I now simply trust that once I start writing the ideas will flow. And they always do. But for that to happen I need a deadline.

Without deadlines, a weekly structure, and some constraints, writing this blog would be like herding cats.

Now, have a look at this little video about herding cats. It’s from a television ad that ran, I believe, during the Super Bowl a few years ago. It’s brilliant. You have to love the small details: the ball of yarn, the cowboy with the “lint roller.” So good.

And speaking of herding cats. I am happily herding my own very small herd of cats this week. Our new next-door neighbours have gone away for a vacation, and Hubby and I are looking after their two kitties. Oh my. This cat-lover is in cat heaven. Sigh.

And now it’s getting dark and I must go, my friends, and herd my small charges indoors. Give them their dinner. And maybe sit down for a brief cuddle.

One of  the cats I'm herding this week, under the maple tress among the leaves.
One of my new buddies.

So my new weekly schedule is working a treat. I’m meeting the deadlines I imposed upon myself, getting my chores done. And enjoying the days when I feel free to do whatever. In fact I’m doing more whatever then ever before. Like Haley, I’m more productive, more creative, and happier.

And, you know, I’m thinking that this whole constraints and creativity theory explains why I love working with a small wardrobe. The closet constraints only add to the outfit creativity.

But that’s a story for another post, I think.


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37 thoughts on “On Constraints and Herding Cats”

  1. Ha! The very opposite of my current post! Two brains, musing differently. But probably with the same intent. Those cats have the perfect terrain for their desires. (You will note I did not say purrfect.)

  2. That cat is identical to our neighbours ‘ Tiger ‘ who died a few weeks ago . We miss seeing him around – mainly glaring through the hedge at our dog . It was mutual hatred . The expression ‘ like herding cats ‘ is new to me but I like it .

  3. The Dalai Lama was once asked the secret to happiness; he replied, “Routines”. Retired 7 years now, I find this to be true. “Purpose” can be more refined than our ego-inflected, achievement-trained minds were trained to think. If I can do something positive, useful or considerate most every day, it’s enough.

  4. Aw,lovely cats indeed! My neighbours have such a nice new cat,I follow her/him through my window!
    I’m so glad that you are finding your routine satisfying.
    Not to repeat myself…..I agree completely with Dalai Lama and Duchesse!
    Time to buy my next year desktop daily planner-the most important helper

  5. Living in the UK I have never seen the Herding Cats video before. That has made my day, the funniest thing I have seen for a long time.
    Our three cats give me enough trouble!

  6. As a lecturer at a big state university, I encounter institutional constraints all of the time. Figuring out how to work around or through them has led to pedagogical innovations, so yes, constraints can be my friend.
    I’m happy you found constraints that work for you!

    1. Me too. I found that when the Ministry of Education changed the curriculum guidelines, and as a department we were forced (with much groaning) to review our goals and activities, resulted in some wonderful collaboration and some of the best curriculum I ever taught.

  7. I kept nodding my head in recognition as I read your words, especially about the negativity of colleagues. As I continue in year three of retirement, most of which was well, you know, constrained by Covid, I am beginning to get the hang of it. I still keep a color-coded planner (a 40-year “habit” is hard to break) but like you finding the right routine for my day is the cornerstone. I also watch some Japanese and Scandinavian You-Tubers. I find the gentle way of creating a soothing home and life that celebrates the small things feed my soul. Carol in VT

  8. An empty calendar could be the scariest thing ever. I learned to be ok with just a few weekly activities with other people. I leave the other days unscheduled and decide daily in the morning what I will do that day. I get anxious if i don’t have the daily plan. So much for the “freedom” I had dreamed off before retirement 🤣

  9. This video is perfect timing. My friend and I were trying to organise an outing for 5 of our friends and I got an email after a frustrating back and forth, ” see, I told you it would be difficult, like herding cats”. She was so right. The guy on the horse sneezing is so funny as well as the lint roller and yarn. Such details make it so funny. The other comment I want to make is that I too suffer from ‘ choice paralysis’ but until now did not have a name for it. Oh, there are days…… More lists needed. Ha!

  10. Loved the video. Not sure where the expression came from. it sounds Southern. You do generate the thoughts in me when reading your posts. For years I have worked at a not for profit(after teaching about 7 yrs) at a non -union,non paying job. Three years ago, the andemic hit,my not for profit dried up,I had some health issuesand there I was-nothing to do. A retired husband so I thought this was nice, this is what we married for-to spend time together! Wrong. He got a cell phone- it might as well be growing out of his hand!After the to do about my health issues settled down, I got the feeling he was bored. Now I really physically can not do too much(That’s why I started reading these blogs)I am perfectly happy staying at home reading books, blogs,etc. I have been floundering, I must admit,But your comments and those of the above ladies have given me much to think about. I am working on the closets,mainly so my children won’t have to see the mess should something happen to their mother! Thank you for the good advice ladies, I think Sue said it right about race,age,nationality, it all doesn’t matter in the general scheme of thing,s ,if we can share and benefit.

    1. It’s amazing how much we are affected by the boredom, or restlessness of our partners, isn’t it? When the weather gets miserable, and we still have no snow to ski on, I will brace myself for Hubby’s boredom. Good thing he likes to cook.

  11. I’m so pleased your new schedule is working well and that you’re feeling happier – how marvellous is that? When I retired, the lack of structure was frightening. Who was I if I didn’t have meetings and deadlines to wrangle? Things were improving and then the pandemic and its lockdowns gave my fledgling structure a serious rattle. Now, newly free of many Covid-related restrictions, I’m happily re-establishing a pattern of fixed and variable commitments.

    I agree with you about process and discipline. I love how difficult things work out when I make myself face them. Recently, all within the space of a few days, I wrote notes to two people who’d lost loved ones and another to someone facing serious illness. I was afraid I wouldn’t be up to the task. What if I inadvertently said something insensitive, how could I strike the right note of caring and support without resorting to hackneyed phrases? As is often the case, the solution is in the doing. Process is a wonderful thing. If only I could apply it consistently to exercise…

  12. I am a ‘planner’ Sue and very much in my happy place when there is some structure to my life. Thankfully I have a good mix of routine and not so routine tasks built in to my days and weeks. When I was newly retired, my Sister who had already retired asked how I filled my days. When I told her, she said clearly, she needed to come for a visit and teach me how to properly retire. She enjoys “herding cats”, me not so much.

    1. Everyone thinks that know how everyone else should face retirement. I have friends who love to play bridge or other group activities in the afternoon. That’s not for me. I am no good concentrating on things like cards when there’s chatting to be done. Ha. But I also know that some friends think I “waste” too much time writing my blog.

  13. So often, your blog speaks to what I’m feeling. This post, and the comments, felt like you were all reading my mind. I’ve been retired for four years and worked for a company for 40 years where I held a senior management position. I eventually ran out of closets to clean, things to organize and faced the reality that my vision of contributing to the community with my skills was somewhat disillusioned. I eventually settled in and the pandemic helped me learn to embrace being happy with a quiet life (and no travel). But now that I have choices, it is work to plan, organize, take social initiative – it’s either too much or not enough! You are right that routines and structure are important. Nothing is more satisfying than a routine that nails it! It’s great to find out I’m not the only one in pursuit of what works. No one ever tells you retirement can be this much of a mind bender!

  14. Retirement came as a bit of a shock for me, especially the first year. From school to university to teachers’ college and back to school as a teacher, plus a stint as a mother of three, my life has been guided by bells and routines have been my life. During my first year at home I did do a little relief teaching so was still aware of time and place. On the days at home I kept waiting for bells to ring and a degree of urgency to the days.
    But the next two years have not been so good. We have been in lockdown five times and this last one has lasted three months so far and my “planning” has gone to pot. Added to that I had spinal surgery so have not been overly mobile to add to problems.
    Think I need to take a leaf out of your book and start planning a little more and perhaps accomplishing more. Thanks for the inspiration..

  15. I am trying a modification of your planning and find that a routine really helps. I’m still trying to find the perfect balance of accomplishing things and taking the time to enjoy and appreciate each day.

  16. Hoo boy, did this hit the nail on the head! Four and a half years into retirement, even after 18 months of going nowhere, the closets are not cleaned out, the twenty-year-old computers are still shoved precariously up in the garage rafters, my late parents’ papers and photos are still unedited, and the family memoirs not begun. Then, when I should be asleep, I’m wide-eyed and agonizing over the still-to-do list. It struck me as paradoxical that I was so much more productive when I had so much less time, but it seems I’m just human. My daughter recently gave me the perfect birthday gift–a service that prompts me each week with a “life experience” topic to write about and that, at the end of the year, will bind them all into a book. AT LAST, A DEADLINE! There may be hope for me (but perhaps not for my garage) yet. Signing up for Haley Nahman’s Sunday newsletter right now.

  17. Oh, and enjoy those cats! We lost our sweet Oreo (maniacal and one-eyed though he was) 18 years ago. Because of my husband’s allergies the decision was made not to get another. But I missed having a cat so much that one night, while thinking about how Oreo would lie on my chest “kneading” me (and invariably drooling on me) as I watched TV, I marched down the hall and tearfully announced to my bewildered husband, “I think you’re MEAN!” Poor man!

    1. Ha. Great story. I am off to “visit” with the cats next door as I write this. I take my tea and my book and sit with them for a half hour or so. They are very lonesome. Or at least that’s what I tell myself. 🙂

  18. I enjoyed your thoughts on managing time and constraints. I find that there is nothing like a deadline to get me moving. That can be applied to a task at work or to housecleaning (company is coming and it needs to be done).
    My husband and I had company for lunch on Saturday. Friday night and Saturday morning were spent doing food prep and getting the table set. About an hour before our guests arrived, our winter wood delivery arrived. We were supposed to be called before the delivery came, so that we could get the cars out of the driveway and prepare a place for it to be dumped. After company left later that afternoon, we had about an hour of light left. We had planned a walk, but the wood was weighing on us. I suggested that we just get outside and stack it. Two people, one wheelbarrow and the motivation to have the job behind us was just what we needed. We were racking the remaining debris in the dark, but what a sense of satisfaction that night. The job was done and it wouldn’t be hanging over us for the next week!

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