Slow Down When You're Too Busy
We all get overwhelmed sometimes and can frequently get out of balance when it comes to our personal lives and work, but rushing through what we have to get done is not the best answer. Slowing down is, through mindful practices, that help us do more in less time.
Well, I really enjoyed the feeling of being caught up with work, for about a week. Now I’m slammed again and I know that’s just par for the course for many of us. But I liked that feeling of freedom. Of not feeling constant pressure. So this time, despite booking 15 workshops in the last two weeks that have to be completed by the end of May, I’m aiming for maintaining that sense of freedom.
If all I had to do was present at workshops, it would be no problem. But each workshop requires coming up with the topics, researching, writing, creating activities and handouts, and finding new icebreakers that can be done on zoom, which after all of this time is getting quite challenging. So I almost slipped into overwhelm, but the blessing of self-awareness is that it catches me. I want to feel relaxed and free, period. Summer’s approaching and I also want to get back into shape. Looking at my calendar, which is booked with back-to-back meetings, workshops, coaching sessions and more, it’s easy to see why I felt a little dismay. But no, I will pursue my dream of freedom and relaxation and getting into shape, regardless of my intense workload.
I started walking again last week. That may sound like a low-bar goal, but I’m back to sitting at my desk for 10 or 12 hours a day and my body complaining. As I looked at the packed calendar, and then looked out the window at foggy dampness and cold, my mind kept saying, you don’t have time, or maybe tomorrow, but Monday morning, recognizing I’m just not motivated to go out there at 6am, I said to myself, you’re doing it, period.
And I did. I’ve made it out the door seven days in a row now. Again, that may sound like an easy achievement, but it’s really not. Our procrastination on doing something we don’t want to do is powerful and if we wait for motivation to strike, it may never come. Sometimes, the motivation comes after we begin. I interviewed the hosts, Zach Tucker and Jeremy Grater of the Fitmess podcast last week and we talked about this during our conversation. Sometimes we have to create the motivation. Sometimes we have to just start something and the motivation follows.
I’m only walking a mile each morning and while I want to increase the distance, I know if I take too much time out of my day, I’ll probably give it up because I just don’t have that luxury right now. Any change we want to undertake is the same. If we break it down into something small and manageable, we greatly increase our odds of success. If we beat ourselves up for not doing more or better, we greatly decrease our odds of success. So, I’m content with a mile a day for now. That’s seven more miles a week of walking than all of the weeks of this year so far.
I also did something I haven’t done in years which is make a menu for the week. I noticed the lack of green in the fridge the day before I went shopping and realized I’m not eating all that well lately. I’m sure many of you have this same problem. When we’re too busy, something has to go. Washing, peeling and chopping can feel overwhelming at the end of a long day. It’s a lot easier to grab fast food or heat something in the microwave. But that’s not going to help me get back into shape. By planning my meals in advance, I can do little bits of prep work during any short breaks I take throughout the day. If all of the prep work is done, it’s nothing to cook a meal at the end of the day. And for days that are just too tiring, I bought pre-made bagged salads. That doesn’t mean I’m gong to eat perfectly. It does mean that I’m shifting my mindset towards eating healthier.
I had scheduled a day off last week to attend an orchestra rehearsal at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. As a person who normally takes advantage of everything L.A. has to offer, somehow I’ve never been and really wanted to visit. Then the workshop marathon entered and I really felt I didn’t have time to go, so considered cancelling. But that didn’t feel good. Do you know what I mean? You need to make a decision and while what seems right from a cognitive perspective feels wrong all through your body? Well, I listened to my body and I didn’t cancel. I took my scheduled day off, going to the rehearsal and even added going out to a nice restaurant downtown afterwards. That felt good.
Will this decision create more pressure on me this week? Not necessarily. I’m definitely guilty of self-sacrificing, thinking that if I just put my nose to the grindstone and force my way through, it will be worth it. But the funny thing is, there’s always more work. Always more deadlines. Always a perceived lack of time. While I may get the work done with that method, I’m usually exhausted afterwards and my attitude is definitely not one of joy. So in pursuit of feeling freedom and relaxation, I can’t follow that old pattern. I went to the concert and had a lovely lunch afterwards and it gave my brain a much needed reset. Being calm and centered increases productivity. Accepting that I have a lot on my plate without resisting the work increases productivity. I worked diligently the day after and then made a commitment to myself that I was also not going to work all through the weekend. I worked in the early morning hours and then turned off my computer. I was rewarded with a clearing of the skies, beautiful sunshine and warm temperatures.
Almost everyone I coach is stressed out. They’re struggling to get everything done, they’re feeling pressured, about half are considering leaving their jobs and they clearly aren’t happy. Yet they keep repeating the same patterns and hoping for a different outcome. I think we all do this to some degree because we operate habitually about half the time. We don’t stop to think, wait, does this make sense? Why am I doing this? It can really be that simple. My shift last week was about more than self-care. It was about sustainability, it’s about feeling engaged with my work and it’s about efficiency. If I’m well and relaxed, I can do twice the amount of work I can accomplish when tired and stressed.
Perhaps more importantly, it’s about paying attention to my needs and desires in balance with my clients’ requests. Of course I work hard and I want to deliver high quality work, but I know from past experience that working myself down to a nub is not the way to do it. Based on all of my clients’ state of stress, it’s no wonder so many people are unhappy at work, silently protesting through slacking off and job-hopping without much thought. Not to mention all of the negative health impacts. Every day, at least one client is sick or exhausted, dragging themselves through their workday. That just doesn’t sound rewarding.
When we keep in mind that a life out of balance is not mindful, not healthy and negatively impacts others as well, it makes sense to consider some changes. Although we can’t meet all of our needs all of the time, we can address the most important needs to ensure our health and well-being. The rest can be met as workloads ebb and flow, or on the weekends or holidays. But feeling good each day about our work and ourselves has to be a top priority. That leads to motivation, to enjoyment and to higher quality work production. Of course, it also leads to improved health.
Mindfulness enhances our focus, but also includes nonjudgment and acceptance. When we’re overwhelmed, our minds bounce pretty much all over the place. How can I get all of this done? What should I work on first? This is so unfair. It’s miserable to feel this much pressure. What if I fail? And on and on. But when we shift our mindset to nonjudgment and acceptance, we realize that a lot of the stress we’re experiencing is self-induced. When I stop resisting the amount of work I have and stop judging it as stressful or even scary, most of the stress dissipates.
If being overloaded with work sounds familiar to you, consider what it would feel like to simply accept it. I have a giant stack of work with deadlines coming up. That’s simply a fact and if I just accept that fact without judgment, I’m freeing myself from the negative effects of stress. It doesn’t have to be stressful. I can sort the stack by priorities and stay in the present moment. I can change my calendar view to today. There’s no need to worry about tomorrow – that’s just wasting precious brain power that I need today. I focus on the process in front of me in this moment instead of the outcome weeks from now.
I don’t have to skip meals or my walk. My brain and body need nutrition and exercise more than ever to support me over the next few weeks. My morning walks are not only good for my body but clear my head before I settle down to work. Each day that I walk, I also feel good about myself because I’m caring for me instead of putting myself last. That builds more motivation. And again, I’m not perfect so some days I may have to cut the walk shorter or eat something more comforting than healthy, but that’s okay as long as I keep at it with self-compassion.
It's important to remember that we always have a choice, about being mindful, about practicing self-care and about aiming to balance our work lives with our personal ones. It’s easy to slide to one extreme over the other, I know. Like many of you, I’ve struggled with this since the pandemic began and because we were restricted for so long, some of the behaviors I started 3 years ago had plenty of time to become habits. During that first year especially, there wasn’t anything else to do anyway, so why not work? At least it gave my life some structure and purpose during an extended period of limbo. But that habit is a mindless act unless I consciously recognize what I’m doing and take steps to change it.
So as I consider my situation right now, I can clearly see the pattern that has emerged over the past few years. Work surge has equaled hunkering down too much, gritting my teeth to get through. And then there’s a reprieve, whether a week or sometimes even a month, where I try to repair the damage done during the hunkering down period and catch up on my personal life. And then another surge and the cycle starts all over again. That means that I’m allowing external events to dictate my actions to an unhealthy degree. The solution is pretty simple, right? Just stop it. But once something becomes a habit, it’s written in the brain and you can’t erase it.
Fortunately, you can overlay the automatic instructions with something new. But it’s important to be conscious of the fact that the original habit is still hanging around in our grey matter. This is why it’s so easy to return to negative habits like smoking, drinking or drugs. It requires a certain level of diligence to notice that the old habit is resurfacing and to take steps to reinforce the new instructions repeatedly until they become stronger than the underlying older habits.
If I wake up earlier than normal, which is happening more often lately, my instinct is to go straight to my computer and get started. But I don’t. I meditate, make coffee, take my walk, make coffee, turn on the TV and search for something I’d enjoy for a little while. Unless of course there’s something on my mind. That happened last night. I woke up at 1am and quickly realized that I wasn’t going to be able to go back to sleep. I observed my thoughts for a minute or so and recognized that although I wasn’t consciously worried about anything when I went to bed, my brain was on high alert that I had not finished reading a book written by someone I am interviewing later today.
Two important factors here. First, I accepted that my mind was not going to allow me to return to slumber so I got up. Second, I didn’t beat myself up over the fact that I didn’t get enough sleep, which as many of you know is a very high priority for me. I simply accepted that the situation was what it was. I finished reading the book and then began my morning routine. I could have tossed and turned, gotten aggravated, followed by grouchy – well, you’ve probably had at least one of those nights. But all any of that does is increase stress, again self-induced. By accepting that I was up in the middle of the night and that it was my brain doing its job, protecting me from not being fully prepared for the interview, I decided to be grateful for the nudge and just go with it.
Finally, the last piece of managing all of this is to establish boundaries. I’ve already received a request this morning for another workshop, from a client I really like and who I’ve been working with for over 10 years. I had to reply that unless it’s in June or later, I can’t do it. I can’t add one more thing to my plate before that and while I hope June works, if not, I’ll have to let it go. I also had an offer for an advertising spot on the show, but that requires me to use the product or service. Again, not one more thing so I have to decline. I schedule everything, by the way. If it’s not on my calendar, it’s not happening, and while I’m not always rigid about it, I am when there’s too much work and then I abide by my own scheduling boundaries.
If life is feeling too pressurized lately, take just a few minutes to assess what’s occurring. How much of the pressure is being generated by you? What are your real commitments, where there’s not a choice, versus not saying no when you need to? Are you taking care of yourself in the midst of the pressure or thinking you’ll take care of you later? And the biggest question of all, what do you need to feel a sense of freedom and relaxation even while busy. It may sound counterintuitive, but sometimes, the busier we are, the more we need to slow down. Mindfulness is the mechanism that can help us do that while increasing our productivity so that we can still find the space in between to relax, take care of ourselves and enjoy a sense of freedom.
This podcast is part of the Airwave Media podcast network. Visit AirwaveMedia.com to listen and subscribe to other great shows like The Daily Meditation Podcast, Everything Everywhere and Movie Therapy. We’d deeply appreciate your support at patreon.com/amindfulmoment. Our podcast is now available to view on our YouTube Channel, so be sure to follow us there and on Instagram @amindfulmomentpodcast. Visit our website, amindfulmoment.com to access podcasts, scripts and book recommendations.
A Mindful Moment is written and hosted by Teresa McKee and/or Melissa Sims. The Spanish version is translated and hosted by Paola Theil. Intro music, Retreat, by Jason Farnham. Outro music, Morning Stroll by Josh Kirsch, Media Right Productions. Thank you for tuning in! This podcast is produced by Work2Live Productions.