This week I have let things overwhelm me. It’s not that I am particularly busy and rushed off my feet, but I seem to have more things ‘active’ in both work and home life than usual, which are taking up so much of my mind. Dealing with clusters of activity, and the anxiety that leads to, is something I feel like I have been working on forever. Am I getting better at dealing with it? Hard to say. But I try.
I had a longer-than-usual tube journey yesterday and so I popped a couple of books in my backpack for company. At the start of the year I bought The Daily Stoic (which I reviewed last month) and managed fairly well to set aside a bit of time each day to read the passage and think about how it might influence my day. Well, I suppose it won’t shock you to hear that I last read the book a month ago, so the tube journey became a rather big catch-up.
But in amongst the many passages that weren’t really relevant to me right now, I found some useful gems. And a flick through of the pages I’d turned down highlighted to me that I struggle with the same things off and on, but I also know what I can do to help myself. I can take inspiration from other people (even people who lived thousands of years ago) who also struggled with these things. I can take comfort in the fact that in all likelihood there are loads of people out there right now also feeling a bit overwhelmed with their work and life. A small dose of perspective coupled with connection and a sympathy to things outside of myself.
Maybe this is you, today, too? If you’re feeling overwhelmed by how much stuff you’ve got going on, what can you do to help? What can you read, watch, listen to? Who can you reach out to, connect with? Maybe the words of a long-dead old man (who just happened to be an emperor) might help, like they’ve helped me:
“It is essential for you to remember that the attention you give to any action should be in due proportion to its worth, for then you won’t tire and give up, if you aren’t busying yourself with lesser things beyond what should be allowed.” – Marcus Aurelius
How easily we get caught up in the almost frenzy of feeling a bit stressed – so that suddenly everything becomes a bit too much and adds to the feelings of being overwhelmed. This passage reminds me to focus on the important stuff - the truly important stuff – and not let the other little bits clutter up my mind and wear me out.
“Do now what nature demands of you. Get right to it if that’s in your power. Don’t look around to see if people will know about it. Don’t await the perfection of Plato’s Republic, but be satisfied with even the smallest step forward and regard the outcome as a small thing.” – Marcus Aurelius
Oh, Marcus. I really do feel like you and I would get along fabulously. This is exactly what happens to me – I start to get overwhelmed and I freeze. I think too far ahead and worry about whether I’ll do a good job, how things will turn out. And I forget that all I need to do today is one small step forward. That’s all. But by missing the opportunity to do one little thing, I’m missing the easy road forward – which is built up of small acts.
“In your actions, don’t procrastinate. In your conversations, don’t confuse. In your thoughts, don’t wander. In your soul, don’t be passive or aggressive. In your life, don’t be all about business.” – Marcus Aurelius
Although every element of that statement feels relevant, it’s the last one that I need to hear this week. When the blinkers are on, and all I can see is that deadline, I really need help reminding that life isn’t all about work. How many days have I lost recently to feeling worried, aching, pressured when I could have been looking up and out at the sky, the spring that is emerging all around? Too many!
“The first thing to do – don’t get worked up, for everything happens according to the nature of all things, and in a short time you’ll be nobody and nowhere, even as the great emperors Hadrian and Augustus are now. The next thing to do – consider carefully the task at hand for what it is, while remembering that your purpose is to be a good human being. Get straight to doing what nature requires of you, and speak as you see most just and fitting – with kindness, modesty, and sincerity.” – Marcus Aurelius
So, now that Marcus and I have identified the issues at hand, and have realised that it’s easy to get too focused on something, to let work dominate and the worries of perfectionism take over, we reach the part where we do something about it. Marcus is a big fan of reminding himself of the brevity of life, of how we are all only here for a short time whether we are great emperors or ordinary folk. He uses this trick, of contemplating his own mortality, to fire him up to do things. I’m not sure I need that, right now. But, I definitely agree that getting worked up is a quick way to stop dead. When I reach this lull, this plateau of energy for the work I really do want to do, I need to remind myself why I do this – remembering my purpose, what ‘nature requires of me’. I’ve talked about this before in other blog posts, about the need to reflect on your values regularly, and to remind yourself of the big picture. That is what helps here. Why I am doing it – who it is for, what joy or opportunities it will bring, where it will lead. All positive things that are good rewards for a bit of effort and energy spent right now.