Slowing down

In early July, I wrote about how exhausted I was after 16 months of living and working in a pandemic and admitted to the bad habits I had fallen into:

“It has been all too easy to fall into very bad habits when working from home and, more generally, living in a state of social isolation. With travel off the table, why bother taking vacations? With no outings to movie theatres, live music performances or restaurants, why not work in the evenings as well as the early mornings? Indeed, why not just work all the time? After all, my desk is just 16 steps from my bed.”

I took a short break from work and have returned somewhat restored. However, as my own experience, coupled with some reading I have done, is slowly teaching me, it takes more than a little holiday to break bad habits and begin to look at work differently.

Quality not quantity

A friend recently shared a blog post by British journalist Oliver Burkeman, in which he wrote:

“[Y]ou almost certainly can’t consistently do the kind of work that demands serious mental focus for more than about three or four hours a day.”

He sets out some suggestions for those who would like to change how they do their work:

  • Figure out when in the day your energy is at its highest level (for me, that’s early morning)
  • Set three to four hours during that time when you can focus without interruption on your work (I have long worked early in the day, not just because that is when my brain is at its best, but because almost no one else is working then, so I am free from phone calls, emails, meetings and other interruptions.)
  • “Just focus on protecting four hours – and don’t worry if the rest of the day is characterized by the usual scattered chaos.” (This strategy is pure gold: when I have two or three meetings with just half an hour or so between them, I don’t even try to hack away at work that requires focus. It takes 23 minutes to refocus on a task after being interrupted. Much better to take that half hour and tidy up a small administrative task, throw a load of laundry in the washing machine, start some dinner prep or walk around the block. Save the focused work for the blocked off time in the day and you’ll spare yourself a lot of frustration.)
  • “Stop assuming that the way to make progress on your most important projects is to work for longer.” (I’m working on believing this one.)

I would add a couple of other suggestions for those of us who tend to pack every day to its limit, and then wonder why we feel overwhelmed:

  • There will always be unexpected work, and it’s a challenge figuring out how to leave space for it. One approach is to keep half a day a week unbooked so other work that gets bumped in favour of those unexpected tasks has somewhere to go.
  • Especially now, when most of us are working remotely, keep one day a week free of meetings. We need a break from the exhaustion of Zoom, and it’s a way to make sure you can get some of those blocks of uninterrupted time to focus on work that is mentally demanding.

Those busy brains

I found more words of wisdom in an essay I read during my break. Annalisa Barbieri writes about being an over-thinker, admitting that:

“ ‘Just going with it’ is not something I do. . . .  I have to be super-careful to give myself time off because burnout is never far away.”

Barbieri has a list of tips for slowing down our brains, some of which I know won’t work for me. I am never going to stand in a cold shower for two minutes and, if I were to do so, I am quite certain it wouldn’t slow down my brain, but she says it never fails her. Nor am I going to find solace in a one-legged yoga stance.

However, tip number two in her list appeals to me and, the first few times I have tried it, it has worked:

“I’ve learned never to try to ‘clear your mind’ – it’s just not going to happen. Instead, try a gentle challenge, such as counting back in threes from 100.”

My busy brain starts clicking away as soon as I get up for my 3 a.m. bathroom trip and, most of the time, a return to sleep seems impossible. At this point, I generally pick up my book and read for a few minutes, an hour or until daylight.

For the past few nights, instead of letting my brain begin to click, I have tried the counting suggestion, and it has worked.

Slowing down slowly

The week my partner and I spent in Wakefield, Quebec, last month gave me an opportunity to slow down. Much to my surprise, it was not that easy. The first two days were great:  I read, cooked, hung out with friends. The third day I packed with activities: a trip to the farmers’ market, a wander along the river and so on. By day four, though, I was jonesing for structure and work. I was a non-functioning, sobbing mess. Lesson learned: even slowing down has to be done slowly; going cold turkey doesn’t work. The next morning, I made myself a list of what I wanted to do over the course of the day. Most of the activities were pretty minor, but the list gave my day the structure I seem to need, and peace was restored to my soul.

I am slowly learning how to slow down, trying to learn from my cat for whom slowing down is all there is. As Burkeman says, we are all capable of slowing down:

“Regardless of your situation, you can choose not to collaborate with it. You can abandon the delusion that if you just managed to squeeze in a bit more work, you’d finally reach the commanding status of feeling ‘in control’ and ‘on top of everything’ at last. The truly valuable skill here isn’t the capacity to push yourself harder, but to stop and recuperate despite the discomfort of knowing that work remains unfinished, emails unanswered, other people’s demands unfulfilled.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *