It is time for me to start saying no a lot. My calendar for the next few weeks has large blocks of daytime work hours. There are no morning or mid-day appointments to disrupt the flow of my work. Afternoons are littered with many places to be, but they’re all regular events: lessons, tutoring, therapy. My only responsibility is to deliver children to their thing and then bring them home again. While I wait, I can be working on anything that I brought with me. I’m going to need every minute of those work hours. Deadlines have begun to loom close instead of distant.
I hit despair last Friday. The projects I have in front of me —work, household, parenting— all seemed like tangled and impossible messes. The only thing I could clearly see was that my available hours were insufficient for the amount of work I had assigned myself. “How can I help?” a friend asked me. He saw the front edge of my despair and wanted to take some of the business load. I couldn’t answer him, not in that moment. One of my weaknesses is that when I am under stress I hold tighter to all my tasks, expecting myself to just work harder. The more stressed I am, the less I can see what I should delegate and who I should give it to. Fortunately I have friends and Howard who have a better perspective. They pointed out a few things to me. It started my mind thinking about how to spread out the work more evenly and which things I can let lie fallow while I concentrate on other things.
I still spent Friday evening very sad. I didn’t like being that sad, but the sadness functioned as a shield which held off the blinding terror which howled around the edges of my mind. If I was grieving everything as a failure, then I didn’t have to be panicked about how doomed all my efforts were. I spent the evening hiding from sad thoughts. Around 1am I got out of bed and began to do the dishes. I hadn’t been sleeping anyway, and dishes were a simple thing that I could see how to do. I was inevitably doomed to failure, but at least I wouldn’t fail in the midst of dirty dishes. Then I began to fold laundry. By 4am I’d put enough things in order that my mind would let me sleep. Fortunately it was Saturday so I slept late. Then I put in eight hours on work projects, one small task at a time. Panic showed up periodically, usually when I was contemplating the project as a whole. Any time anxiety threatened to overwhelm me, I just reminded myself that it was obvious that I would miss my deadline, so there was no point in panicking about it. Instead I would just keep doing tasks one after the other. Then when failure inevitably arrived, at least I would know that I had done everything I could.
On one level, I’m aware that I’ve performed some weird hack on my brain. Doing one task after another is how deadlines get met. There is a part of my brain that has done the math and thinks that piles of hard work might still allow us to meet our deadlines. I’m trying not to think about that too much, because believing success is possible means I have to panic, stress, and push to get things done. The anxiety of pushing will cause me to freeze up and avoid the work. This has been an (unfortunately) frequent pattern in the past few months. But if I think I’m doomed to miss the deadline, I can work steadily and calmly. Shh, don’t tell my anxiety that I’m tricking it.
I made some lists today. One is the list of regrets I have for time wasted in the past few months. Pinning those regrets to the page pulled them out of my head where they were spilling sadness on everything. Another is the list of things that I should hand off to other people. The third list is discrete tasks that I can be doing next. I will follow my lists bit by bit, day by day. In order to do that, I have to vigorously defend the spaces in my days. I have to not let other people put things on my lists. I have to say no to opportunities. I have to say no to social appointments. I have to say no to teachers who want slices of my time in service of my children’s education. All these things can have my attention again once the deadline has been met or been passed. Right now I have to dive deep, ignore the internet, let calls go to voicemail, and work on the task in front of me.
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