Dealing with daily gloom

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The observable universe © Richard Powell

Do you ever wake up in the morning and think ‘Jesus Christ, it’s happening again’? With a sinking feeling of mild dread at starting the day, knowing it will consist largely or entirely of things you don’t want to do but have to do?

It’s something of a recurring theme for me. I remember walking to work across busy London streets and regularly thinking ‘At least if I get run over I won’t have to go to work’ (and sometimes, ‘At least if I get killed I won’t have to go to work ever again’).

I didn’t really mean it of course, but that way of thinking was a bit of a prompt that it might be time to change my job – so I did, and changed countries to boot.

It was fun for a while, then I was inveigled into a management position, and before I knew it I felt like I was living on a slag heap, constantly scrabbling to do better, to reach the top, but never making it. So I changed job again but managed to find one that meant doing even more for even less, and the slag heap seemed higher than ever. I used to be someone who had joie de vivre, enjoyed brandishing umbrellas at strangers, who took no crap and just enjoyed life . . . but now I often wondered where that person had gone. I worked so hard and so long at this new job that my hair started falling out.

That was a bit of a prompt that it might be time to change my job again – so I did and moved in with my boyfriend as an extra measure (thinking if you don’t have support and security, maybe you can move in with it. For the record, this is not a great reason to move in with someone.) It was fun for a while, and I found my feet in various freelancing positions, but moving in with someone didn’t change who I was, and 6 months later I still felt the same. I wanted to go home, crawl back into the womb and come out as a different creature.

Instead we moved to Australia. I got another job, again with some responsibilities, and again the same thing happened. Back on the slag heap, always trying, never getting anywhere. I finally ended up in a job which was the perfect hamster wheel, training would-be teachers on short courses. Every course was a fresh start – every middle was the slag heap – and every ending was a relief. But I could start again next month and try to do it better.

So you’d think this cycle would end after falling pregnant and stopping full-time work. It didn’t. Having kids is a hamster wheel I can’t get off till they leave home – and not even then, maybe. Currently I feel like I am in a Groundhog Day of making packed lunches, doing laundry, feeding and watering people, and otherwise attending to their needs. I do LOVE my family and I love spending time with them but when I wake up am woken up in the morning I also find it hard to think of anything I am actually looking forward to not only that day but also that week, or month, or more. That doesn’t make me Number 1 Fun Person To Be Around sometimes.

I derive a lot of meaning from working and using my skills, so I take on a lot of freelance work – which gives me my same old slag heap but with even less time for even less money. I keep trying but I’m at that stage again where something has to change – but this time it feels like I am out of options. I know that this can seem like a non-problem, a first-world malaise experienced by people who have never had to face true adversity – that’s how I think of it myself. So I am caught in a cycle of feeling depressed but also feeling like I’m not allowed to feel depressed, of always keeping going but never resolving.

This is not good.

But it’s interesting that whether I am in paid work or unpaid work, full time or freelance, or even not ‘working’ at all (because child-raising obviously just a great big latte-fest) – the slag heap never changes. What I’ve suspected for a while is that the slag heap isn’t there at all. I am just the kind of person who will create one wherever I go by always trying to ‘make things better’, and always thinking I can actually reach the finishing line, when actually there is none and nobody gives much of a crap what I do.

If I can, I want to think of my life in a different way now. I want to remove the word ‘battle’, ‘fight’, and ‘struggle’ from my brain. I’m not sure what to substitute ‘the battle’ with, but one I’m trying at the moment is ‘be kind’. Remember the people you are dealing with, whether you care for them or not, are just little people fighting their own battles, and anyway the outcome probably doesn’t matter in the long-term. So if you can, be kind. Take a deep breath before you open your mouth or think a dark thought and instead be kind to your kids, kind to your partner, kind to the power-hungry reception-bitch at the doctor’s, and kind to that person at work who is trying to undermine you. It doesn’t seem like it could be a substitution at all or that it would help directly but it does somehow. I used to go into situations emotionally girding myself for battle, but now I can (sometimes) feel much calmer. Whether they accept that kindness or not is up to them – I’m trying to stop taking responsibility for other people’s feelings.

And – sorry to be cheesy – ‘be kind’ also means being kind to yourself. Not feeling guilty about taking the night off or spending time doing something that helps no one but yourself. Not feeling guilty about a particular interaction that went wrong but instead letting go of it and giving yourself a little back rub and a ‘This happens to everyone. You’re still a good person’. Looking after yourself the same way you would look after a friend.

I feel tiny, insignificant and overwhelmed every single day. But being part of this great machine at all is pretty awe-inspiring. Amoebas went through millions of years of evolution just to crawl out of the sea, millions more walk upright, and millions more again for our brains and our language and our culture to co-evolve into who and where we are today. If you could trace back your family tree you would find two people, time and again, living their lives, dealing with stresses (many infinitely greater than yours), falling in love (or not), raising and loving children (or not), dying and surviving through wars, illness, and hunger, through weddings, childbirth, and funerals, across land and sea, oceans and deserts, over and over again – to make you. It is AMAZING that you are here. However crappy you feel, the universe did a lot to get you here. So try not to wake up in the morning feeling like you can’t go on.

“You must think that something is happening with you,

that life has not forgotten you,

that it holds you in its hand;

it will not let you fall.”

(Rainer Maria Rilke – Letters to a Young Poet)

Note:

I’m not depressed. I’m generally easily cheered up by a good movie/book/wine/cuddle/nap. But if you feel like you are trapped in a negative way of thinking a lot or all of the time, please talk to someone. This website has some initial resources.

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Just not enough tomatoes to go round

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My timer is an owl. He looks worried. He should.

I am an awesome procrastinator. I’m so awesome at procrastinating that I bought a book called “How to stop procrastinating” about 10 years ago and still haven’t finished it. Suffice to say I am the sort of person who spends many more hours making colour-coded Excel spreadsheets of all the work I am going to do than actually doing some work. So that is why one week ago, instead of actually doing some work I drew myself up a complex system of points, including little tiny tomato drawings to colour in, based on the Pomodoro Technique for time management.

I haven’t researched this greatly but it’s been on my radar for a while. Basically it was invented by Francesco Cirillo, and it’s based on the idea that you work in a more focused and effective way if you time yourself and do it in 25-minute bursts (or ‘pomodoros’), followed by a 5-minute break. There are surely various studies to back this up as it is definitely a Thing (which you can read much more about here). The 25-minute burst is called a pomodoro because when Francesco started using this technique as a student he used a kitchen timer in the shape of a tomato (pomodoro being Italian  for tomato, you uncultured buffoon).

What I describe below may sound overly complex for very little, so let me try to explain. I am a stay-at-home/work-at-home mum so before I can think about my work, or other things that I might want to do for myself, I have to factor in the following:

  • drop-offs
  • pick-ups
  • extra-currcicular activities
  • grocery shopping
  • several hours of core drudgery (laundry, cooking and tidying up)
  • meals/snacks/clothing/bathing for 2 kids (possibly me and DH also)
  • inevitably unforseen circumstances relating to, eg, falls, vomit, rainstorms etc.
  • a certain amount of time lying on the sofa in a heap
  • possibly some medicinal wine (it’s CALMING)

I don’t know how many hours you stay up in a day, but I can tell you that for me, it is ALL ABOUT THE TIME. So first of all I tried to estimated how many hours I really had ‘free’ to work, which oddly enough I had never done before despite finishing a masters and working on various publications and projects for the past several years. I estimated (optimistically) 20 hours a week – which translates into 40 pomodoros. Then I tried to break down the different things I both need and want to work on (I can’t JUST look after kids and work, I would be horribly batshit mean and crazy – having said that, I now realise I have at times both done that and been that. Fairly frequently.) I came up with 7 categories. Here are the 4 I thought I would do, placed in the order of time I thought I would devote to them, if I was being honest:

1. Social (Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Skype, etc. Some of this is kind of work, honest.)

2. Regular work/professional development

3. Freelance work

4. Admin (bills, taxes, emails, permission slips, etc.)

And here are the other 3, in no particular order as I didn’t think I would really do them (I hadn’t so far):

5. House and home (decluttering, meal planning, organising cupboards, fixing chairs, vacuuming packing baby clothes that have been out for the past 6 years, etc.)

6. Writing (just because this is specifically something I want to do more)

7. Self-development (please don’t think I believe in angels or anything. Amongst all this stuff to do and with so little time, I find what’s missed from the equation is what just benefits me, which makes me happy, which keeps me learning in a non-work way. So this includes exercise, language learning, etc.)

I am just being honest by putting ‘social’ (media) at the top. I know work should be there really.  It’s no surprise that ‘admin’ is 4 slides down because unless I am having a burst of super colour-coded organisation in a particular area, my brain just assumes people – or creditors – will remind me when the due date is near . . . And everything else – even house and home (yes, I am a really rubbish housewife) – is in the kind of position of the list that my brain thinks of as ‘extras that would be nice but hahahahaha’.

[Man, my life is so #firstworldproblems. Sigh. Quick pause for shame spiral. OK.]

So 7 categories and 40 pomodoros, perfect. Everything got assigned 5 pomodoros, except ‘Social’ which got 10, as I reckoned that’s where I spent most time (I was wrong). One week later, when the scores were in, it looked like this, in order of apparent priority to my confused brain:

1. Regular work/professional development: 12 pomodoros (AKA 6 hrs)

2. Social: 5 pomodoros (AKA 2.5 hrs)

Tie for 3rd place:

3. ‘House and home’ and ‘Writing’ both got 4 pomodoros (AKA 2 hrs – the latter only because I am writing this post)

Tie for 4th place:

4. Freelance work & Admin both got 2 pomodoros (AKA 1 hr)

And in woeful last place:

5. Self-development: drum-roll please – 0 pomodoros (AKA ZERO hours. But I did read a lot)

Ok, this is probably a lot of blah blah to you, and to me too as things change all the time – I’ve just finished a massive batch of freelance work, for instance. But what I really wanted to do here, in the first instance was see if I was estimating my time correctly (something I am thinking about more and more as a freelancer), and see where I did more or less, and try to get a bit more balance into my life, as I constantly feel on the back foot, running from deadline to deadline, both personal and professional. So what I learned from this first week was:

  • I spend way too much time on my main work and professional development, for the remuneration or reward that is involved to me personally. I need to channel some of that invaluable time into other things – such as finding myself more paying freelance work.
  • I need to break down my ‘regular work/professional development’ category . The two are very tied together for me: being aware of what’s happening in the field helps me do my job better (and make it more interesting), as well as keeping my CV alive. But . . . if it’s benefiting everyone else, but not paying me, then I need to think about myself and my family a bit more.
  • It’s also hard to separate ‘social for work’ and ‘social for self’. Social media is massively tied into my work, and a lot of people I have been able to work with/chat with professionally have also become real friends – even if I have never met them. I need to separate these though, and I need my ‘social time’ to help me stay connected to family and friends in far off places. I’ve been away from home in various countries for 16 years now, and I know not only how important my family and friends are, but how easy it is to let that link wither, despite the best of intentions. I need to schedule that time because in my life, if I don’t prioritise it, it doesn’t happen – work does, admin does, but not the things that really matter.
  • Having zero pomodoros for self development is really rubbish. Everyone deserves at least one hour a week for something fun, that they are passionate about, that’s just for them. I have my eye on Bollywood classes (again!)
  • I overestimated my time by at least 10 pomodoros (5 hours)
  • I need to think about what difference it would make if I turned this on its head and worried more about myself, and my family, than ‘work’ (remembering if course that I have a whole sense of self tied up with ‘work’ and this isn’t just about money.)

Tomorrow I’m starting the week again, with a 30 pomodoro minimum. This time the categories that I will definitely do are these:

1. Paid work: 10 pomodoros

2. Unpaid (forthcoming??) work: 5 pomodoros

3. House and home: 5 pomodoros

And some that I will still do, but with less urgency:

4. Social: 4 pomodoros

5. Writing: 2 pomodoros

6. Admin: 2 pomodoros

7. Self-devlopment: 2 pomodoros

Is it silly to worry about such tiny pockets of time? Do you do this or have you learned to let go? I’d be interested to hear if anyone else feels they struggle with time management and what they do to carve out some time for themselves.