Recently I’ve been running around like the proverbial headless chicken, worrying about work and various personal projects – finding too much to do in the time, feeling at the mercy of external forces in terms of how I organise things, and succumbing to the pressures that seemingly make it difficult for all involved to produce a good end result … you get the picture.
Working alone suits me brilliantly in all sorts of ways, but I confess that I’m not always the best at not letting things get to me. I care deeply about the things I do, and doing a good job – which is generally positive, but it also makes me extremely hard on myself, and I know a lot of my friends and colleagues are the same.
It got to the point where I was considering setting up a whole new project in Toggl devoted to worrying about other projects rather than actually doing them … which was perhaps the wake-up call I needed to chill out and take it all a little less seriously. (And not only because I would have descended into some kind of stressed tailspin thinking about what colour to make the worrying project, honest.)
Instead I had another cup of coffee, moaned to my long-suffering in-house barista/IT department, chatted to some friends about it on Facebook, and came up with a list of strategies to put the hapless chicken back together.
This is going to sound a bit silly, but I did at one low point stand in the kitchen trying to remember everything I learnt at NCT antenatal classes seven years ago. And it turned out that a bit of slow, careful breathing did actually calm me down in the short term. At this rate I might even think about trying meditation again.
2. Rewrite the to-do list
I’m a lover of to-do lists (hard copy, in nice notebooks), but recently I’ve noticed that the lists have turned into a nightmarish scrawl of randomly ordered and crazily angled items, often with no clear order or hierarchy. I try to number them retrospectively, but the whole thing turns into a frantic mess, with decimal points for afterthought items that need to be slotted in, sub-bullets, and furious rings and highlights for Things That Must Definitely Be Done Now Or All Hell Will Break Loose.
I already use iCal for deadlines and appointments, but for the day-to-day things I do like a list … however, it’s no use if the list becomes a source of stress in itself, and the longer-term (and arguably more important) strategic stuff inevitably gets overtaken by the more urgent tasks. A friend suggested I look at Trello, and I could certainly see it working well for some of the more fun, inspiring goals that otherwise get crowded out. Perhaps I can learn to use it for daily and weekly work deadlines, too. And then if there were just a button I could click to instruct it to do everything, too, that would be splendid …
3. Share problems
I always think I’m quite good at communicating when it comes to work. I keep clients updated regularly on longer projects, and try to keep on top of all the little details with larger projects so that I can keep everyone in the loop. But I know that I also have a tendency to play up the idea that everything’s fine and I can cope, when perhaps I should be pointing out that certain aspects are beginning to be problematic. The sooner small problems are addressed, the less likely they are to escalate into massive ones. There is no shame in asking for more support when you need it. And there is no use in battling on alone and keeping problems hidden until the point at which it’s much harder to sort them out.
4. Be realistic
Coming back to my beloved lists, another bad habit I know I need to break is writing too many things on the list. If I never get to the end of a list, I am bound to feel bad. If I do nothing else from this point forward, I have to stop routinely giving myself almost impossible goals. I will break things down into smaller, more manageable chunks with sufficient time devoted to them, and conquer them that way. Piece by piece.
5. Do something else
This is the classic, of course, but it works. Go for a walk (I walk to pick the children up from school every day). Go for a run (I haven’t done this for ages, and I really should!) …
This week, too, I have been particularly worried about various things I need to do or organise for the children for school, as well as work. At one point I was getting way too worked up about sorting out costumes for them to dress up as Sendakian Wild Things (as you do) … but then I started making some masks, got really carried away with white card and masking tape (it was like being back at architecture school) and it turned out to be incredibly therapeutic, even if not chargeable by the hour. Especially because it wasn’t chargeable by the hour. Then another day I picked up my poor, neglected trumpet and played for 30 minutes. It sounded terrible (with apologies to our lovely next-door neighbour), but it felt great. Both things totally cleared my head and enabled me to return to work refreshed.
And right now, once I post this blog, I am going to go out for half an hour … with no fixed idea of where I might go, and nothing special to get done. And I feel better already, just typing it!
Liz Jones has worked as an editor in the publishing industry since 1998, and has been freelance since 2008. She sometimes does need to be reminded to chill out.