Wow the summer goes by quickly, doesn’t it? On June 25th I posted my then-favourite recipe for Ajo Blanco (a cold almond soup) and now it is September 4th, summer is over and I’m already all about casseroles and pies and stewing fruits for dessert. New uniforms have arrived and/or been checked for stains, I’ve caught up on all of the What’s Apps from the past 8 weeks and it is well past time to get back to work. This has made me think a lot about we do to kick-start our brains and our limbs when they take too much time off. Before the end of school I could organize a class drinks party, post a newly discovered recipe and hook up with my Creating for Good cohorts to plan a new fundraiser…all in one day. With an extra cup of coffee I could even throw in a bit of afternoon shopping or a hair cut. But, after taking the summer off, a time I thought would reinvigorate me with ideas and inspiration, I find myself at the other end of the spectrum. I just sort of stare at the pile of paperwork, accumulated mail, messy kitchen and cold computer and I retreat into myself with overwhelming stress and sense of foreboding. There is just so much to do…
I know can’t stay in this zone. I am a card-carrying adult and I have to function like one. I have to put one foot in front of the other and one key-stroke ahead of the last. I have to organize, prioritize and socialize. Foreboding or not I have to get up and move.
I have created a strategy for climbing up and over my never-ending to-do list. A way to coach myself through those days that feel, when I wake up, simultaneously horribly infinite and impossibly short. When I want to give up, turn on television, sit on the sofa and just stare blankly ahead. But I can’t, because none of us can. I’m sharing this with you in the hopes that it helps you out too. You can do it. I know you can.
1. To do list.
When my thoughts are all clogged up and there is a bottleneck happening in my body because I can’t do it all, I create a good, old-fashioned, to-do list. Not just the immediate things – I write it ALL down. I let it flow. Every large thing (like “sell house” and “update will”) and every small thing (like “sharpen pencil” and “wipe down table”) and everything in-between. I just let it all out. But then I break it down and re-write it. To do today. To do this week. This month. This year. Then, I make a note of any steps that need to be taken before the item listed needs to get done. For instance one hulking item, like “Get Teddy a new passport “ becomes three very manageable tasks, “1. Get Teddy passport photos 2. Pick up passport application from post office 3. Book appointment for passport application”
By breaking down an enormous task into smaller, manageable tasks I remove their power to overwhelm me and I ensure my dominion. (‘Cause that’s how adults look at their to-do lists, right?)
2. Tiny, but significant, digital detox
The term “Digital detox” annoys me because I know that I need it but I don’t want to do it. I’m pretty sure that is a top definition under addiction but I have bigger fish to fry at the moment, like how I feel about wine. And butter. And Netflix.
I discovered, however, that taking tiny breaks from my digital devices is liberating when I feel overwhelmed. At times like this I make it a point to go out for a bit and leave my phone on my desk. Whether for a 10 minute coffee run or a trip to the grocery store. I don’t just make a vow not to check it – I actually take a physical break from it. This small act clears my head and frees my thoughts and I am able to think about things other than, “Should I take a picture of that house?” or “Ooooh! I didn’t text Karolina back. Let me do that while I walk.”
Side note: Have you ever wondered why you solve problems in the shower? There is actual science behind this – basically it has to do with your prefrontal cortex relaxing – because you are relaxed. Your mind wanders because you are comfortable and you switch your movements onto automatic so your mind is able to think about other things and do some unusual problem solving. That can also happen when you aren’t following a plot or singing along to your favourite country songs. So for once, just enjoy the silence. Let your thoughts wonder. This is how problems are solved and books are written.
Every self-help book, article and tweet addressing getting out of a funk tells you to exercise but exercise itself can bring about a whole new level of stress. I haven’t exercised in so long, where to start? I’m not a member of a gym. There is nowhere near me to run. I don’t have time to do Yoga. What am I supposed to do? Answer: Anything. Even if I can only take 15 minutes out of my day and walk a bit faster than I normally do, even if I can only barely get my heart rate elevated. When I feel overwhelmed and under-able, I make it a point to take some tiny sliver of time where I dedicate my thoughts to myself and not to someone else. Of course I do this without my phone because of #2.
4. Schedule the day
My first day back “on the job” usually punches me in the face. Because I don’t work out of an office, my work is everwhere I turn. And my to-do list is every corner. In the pile of unread or unfiled mail on the desk. The unfolded laundry I know is lurking in the drying cupboard, the refrigerator that needs to be cleaned out, the menus that need to be planned, the computer that needs to be typed upon, the bed linens that should be changed, the products I want to shoot and share with the world, the closets that should be organized…I’m also pretty alpha minded and I never intended to be a stay-at-home-mom so I look around and every single thing out of place (of which there are plenty) feels like a failure. I should be doing more, learning more, creating more oh, and spending more quality time with my children. The self-flagellation doesn’t stop. So when I am really struggling to stand up and start working because I feel weighed down with tasks, I make a very specific schedule for the day:
Now this may seem pedantic – who needs a reminder to eat or prepare lunch? But creating a backbone to my day, and in the most extreme case of feeling ovewhelmed and uninspired, organizing how I spend each hour, is the first step to regaining control. At the end of these days instead of feeling like the failure that was threatening me when I woke up, I can count these things crossed off my list: Organized kids closets, booked in dentist appointments, two loads of laundry, wrote blog post, wrote 2 recipes, downloaded photos, grocery store, breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Also, if you look closely, you will notice the theme of managing electronic devices running through my schedule. When I am feeling down and out I can lose an entire day in social media and chatting with friends. I think it’s like smoking or eating Supersized McDonalds french fries. Feels good at the time but at the end of the day nothing good comes of it. By scheduling in time to leave devices turned off I concentrate on being in each moment as I am there, which is probably the real key to taking control of time and my day. When I am playing with the kids, I am really playing with the kids. Not half texting, half nodding. Likewise when I tell them that I need an hour to get some work done they are more likely to respect my boundaries and understand that I need some time to myself.
The bottom line is this: Everyone gets overwhelmed from time to time. Mine happens when I am jetlagged and tired and trying to transition from one culture (New Orleans) to another (London) which happens a few times a year. Living between two countries sounds fun, and a lot of times it is, but readjusting to relative routines, obligations and relationships, and helping my three children do the same, can feel crushing. You might feel overwhelmed if your partner is working more than usual, or with the birth of a new child, or the death of a loved one or maybe just an overwhelming to-do list. You can get through it though. Make a to do list. Detach from your phone. Get some exercise. Schedule your day. You’ve got this.