Good morning – it’s slow here where I am, slow in my belly and bones, slow in the opening eyes, slow in the water boiling, slow in the release of night to sun. It’s Friday, when things should be moving toward break and weekend, but not for the self-employed. Where do you find breaktime? How does Friday slow itself to greet you? Are you rushing headlong into this day, just ready to just get it over with?
This week I am thinking a lot about workaholism and stress, I am thinking about the cultural messages I get as an American to work harder work harder — if you’re tired or anxious or there’s too much to do: work harder. Don’t stop. Push through the tired. Yes, you’re overwhelmed — just keep working. You can get through it. I am thinking about how I have internalized these messages: just keep going, Jen. You can do this. Don’t stop. You just gotta power through.
And how, when I’m overwhelmed, those sorts of messages just drive me right into shutdown. Everything in me slows down, whether I want it to or not. It’s as though my body knows something it doesn’t want to tell me. Or, no, wait: my body is telling me all the time: more and more and faster and faster isn’t better. Working harder isn’t the way to get more done. Working slower is.
I can’t quite get my head around this idea. I have to keep learning it, and I’ve been given the opportunity many times over the last several years. Until just last November, I had a part-time job that I did in addition to the full-time work I have running/organizing the workshops — and let’s not forget writing (that’s often the easiest “job” to forget). As I was preparing to leave my day job, I started making schedules and plans for my self-employed life: with numerous workshops already running and scheduled that needed prep and promo, I was also networking, setting up meetings for new collaborations and ventures. I joked that I would be much busier after I left my day job.
My body didn’t find the joke funny. I had a massive back spasm on the first Monday after my last day at that job, my first day as a self-employed person, and spent the next several months recovering. It would take me half the day just to be able to walk upright; during those months, the only work I could do was show up for the already-scheduled workshops — I could barely write. Most of my energy was spent taking care of my body. Everything got very slow. I got up in the morning and stretched, then often had to go right back to bed after I struggled through the shortest dog walks ever. I would try journaling, found it painful or frustrating. There were few distractions during those months — I had movies and novels, and my workshops, to focus on, when my body would let me. I didn’t see many people during that time; everything got very slow, and very quiet.
What I discovered during those months, surprisingly, was that I didn’t have to spend hours every day stressed and worried about the business in order to have business go well. I discovered that I could take hours every day for self-care and still be able to do the work that I love: write and facilitate workshops. However, as my body improved, I began spending more and more time again at the computer, falling into the idea that I’m not going to be successful unless I work 80 hours a week. Recently, I’ve found myself, once again, when I get together with friends, saying, “Oh, I’m so busy” when they ask how I’m doing. I caught myself the third or fourth time I did it – I haven’t been that person who defines herself as ohmygod so busy since before I left the day job. It’s not how I want to define myself. And it’s not healthy for my body. I’ve been dealing again with the same sorts of physical symptoms that I had when I had multiple jobs: nausea, panic, tight shoulders, and an inability to relax. At first, when I noticed I was feeling this way, I chastised myself: Get over it, Jen. Everyone has to work hard. You’ll get a break soon.
But that scolding voice doesn’t actually help when I set up schedules with no break — weekend workshops, too many get-togethers, too much prep. And after not too long, I hit a wall of overwhelm, and stop being able to do anything at all. The only thing that helps when I hit overwhelm is to slow down.
Slowing down looks like cutting in half or a third the amount of time I spend on email. It looks like taking more walks every day. It looks like turning off the computer and the tv. It looks like more personal calls, fewer work calls. It looks like tabling the idea that I can write three books at one time, or promote and write thoughtfully and return phone calls simultaneously.
Slowing down, for me, is working smarter.
Slowing down looks like creating a big to do list for the week, or for the day, and laughing out loud at the impossibilities I set out for myself. Who taught me that I should be able do all of this in one day? Or even one month?
Slow means I can pay closer attention, I breathe more deeply, I choose one task and focus on that task for twenty or forty-five minutes at a time: no multi-tasking, no flipping among several different jobs. Slow means a lot of breaks.
I take the energy that I would have spent panicked or spinning my wheels or worrying about getting everything done right now, and I redirect it. And here’s what happens: When I work slow, I’m more focused, and I get more done.
No matter how well it works for me to take my life at a slower pace, still I have to relearn this lesson over and over. It feels like yet another practice to learn. So I return to books like Christian McEwen’s World Enough and Time, and remind myself of the sort of life I want to be leading — it’s not the life in which I’m too sick to enjoy an evening with my sweetheart because I’m so worried about work. No. It’s the life that has space enough for love, for friendship, for poetry, for words and possibility and connection and discovery. It’s the life that has room in it for living.
What’s your relationship with work? What do you want it to be? What if that were the prompt for today? Give yourself at least 10 minutes and write into the realities and the possibilities…
Thank you for the ways you hold your work: all that you do is important. Thank you for your unrecognized efforts, and your spacious breaths. Thank you for your words.