This week, in my role as Trustee at New Brewery Arts in Cirencester, I went on a three day training course. In many ways I was happy to go – I was looking forward to getting to know the senior management team better, to understand the challenges facing the organisation and to be as useful as I could in supporting them in achieving the vision they have for the future. But, secretly, I was wondering whether I could spare the time.
At the moment I am in the thick of it organising a project which has taken up most of my headspace for the last year. I have what feels like a never-ending list of things to do, so many people I need to keep in contact with and new people to reach out to. There are weekly lists, monthly lists, a year planner and the world’s biggest mind-map on my wall – all of which are to keep me on track, so I don’t miss anything. Perhaps I’m being overly paranoid, but the reality is that it’s just me keeping this thing going; I don’t have a collaborator or team behind me. And, it’s starting to get exhausting.
There have been many days, in the last few weeks, where I’ve woken up and the first thing I do is sigh. The weight of it seems enormous. I have become time-poor and have all the terrible symptoms that go with it: feeling like every little thing that comes up is ‘just too much’ to deal with, ignoring basic chores and responsibilities around the house, stopping seeing friends and working at times I try to keep clear for myself and my partner (like evenings and weekends). It feels like there is so much to do that if I don’t push on, being busy for every moment, it will all fall apart. I can no longer see the big picture – the reasons why I wanted to do this project in the first place, the love I have for the work I do. My focus has become narrow and restricted.
So, the thought of spending three whole days away from my desk (and two nights not at home) seemed impossible. How on earth was I going to keep up with my deadlines and self-imposed work load? The anxiety of it all almost caused me to cancel at the last minute (another bad habit of the time-poor). But I didn’t. I went. And I noticed how it made me feel, and began to learn some things which were unexpected.
On the train there, leaving the city in the early morning, I could feel the resistance as I wished I were still at home. Much of the first day (which was a deliberately slow day as part of the training programme) felt like time was being stretched out, and I was desperate to get to my work, feeling frustrated that I couldn’t go anywhere. But, by that evening, having done nothing all day, except be aware of my thoughts and the emotions they bring up, when it came to ‘getting down to work’ I felt surprisingly calm. I got things done, but it no longer felt fraught with worry.
What surprised me more was how over the next two days my attitude to my work shifted. I still knew how much needed doing, but the anxiety of the work, the feelings of not having enough time, of missing things, seemed to slip away. I was still thinking about it – as conversations with other people about the challenges they face in their jobs would remind me of my own – but it was almost like I could see the work more clearly. It was no longer emotional. I could see that rationally there was going to be much to do when I got home, but I realised that I could cope with it. I would have enough time. I didn’t need to panic or exclude the rest of my life to get it done. My train journey home, yesterday evening, was such a contrast. It felt as if I had been given a gift. The gift of space, of quietness, of clarity. Just by not doing the things I thought I should be, by not working hard and fast on the things that had seemed life or death to me.
I don’t understand exactly how it happened, and I can’t promise this sort of thing will work in the same way for everyone. But the experience has made me challenge how I feel about being busy and about feeling short on time. I think that when we get ourselves into that mindset where it feels like we couldn’t possibly stop, or waste time on non-work things, that is exactly the best time to stop. To force ourselves not to do it. Maybe not for three days, but possibly for a morning, or a day. That time away is vital to create a separation, to remind our minds that the work isn’t everything, that there is a way to look at it with a wider view, that there is time to do the things we must, but we don’t need to sacrifice our mental health along the way.
Recently I’ve listened to a couple of episodes of the Hurry Slowly podcast which engage with this issue: an interview with Alex Pang, the author of Rest: why you get more done when you work less and a mini-episode by host Jocelyn K Glei where she asks ‘Who are you without the doing?’. Both are well worth a listen.
Is there a way you could take a break from something in your work or creative practice that is taking up too much emotional bandwidth?