A few days ago, as I was going through boxes that hadn’t been opened in years, I ran across this little sculpture that my daughter made in a high school pottery class. As I held this little figure in my hand I was transported back to that time in my life. I was a single parent with one child in high school and another in college. And I held a high-pressure job for which I wasn’t particularly well-suited, but which paid the bills. It always seemed that the days were a blur of scheduling activities, carpooling, and traveling around the country for work.
There were moments when every obligation and activity felt like one more burden, and I just wanted to curl up or double-up like my daughter’s sculpture.
Do you know what I mean? Have you ever had one of those days when you feel like you’re trying to run through quick-sand and sinking deeper with every step?
There’s too much on your to-do list. And every time you cross-off one item you end up adding three more.
Emails pile up. Phone calls need to be returned. Current clients need answers. Potential clients need appointments. Committees need your input. A friend needs someone to listen to just this one problem (it won’t take long). The stacks of dishes test the limits of the sink. The cat wants to be fed. And your partner would like to spend some time with you but you’re just too busy.
And then there’s that new assignment. It’s the one you’ve anticipated for more than a year – it’s the chance to show what you can do. But now that the opportunity is finally right there in front of you, your brain is just too full to make the creative space this project needs. But…You. Just. Can’t. Do it! You feel paralyzed inside. You’re overloaded and exhausted and every ounce of your creativity has ebbed away.
In a word, you are overwhelmed.
In her recent book, Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Human Experience (Random House, 2021) researcher and author Brené Brown says, “Overwhelmed means an extreme level of stress, an emotional and/or cognitive intensity to the point of feeling unable to function.” (p.6)
The sense of being overwhelmed can creep up on us, especially if we’re experts in multi-tasking. It’s easy to talk ourselves into adding just one more thing because, well, how hard could it be? It won’t take long.
Except that the one more thing is what ends up putting us over the edge.
There’s only one solution for being overwhelmed: stop. Take a break.
Take a break – even if it’s only for ten or fifteen minutes. Just take a break.
And during that break do – NOTHING! That’s right. Do nothing for a few minutes. Stare out the window. Let your mind wander. Close your eyes and take a nap if you want to. The most important thing is to disengage from everything even for a brief period.
This sounds simple. However, it can be very difficult to do. For busy people, and especially for those who provide care for others, taking a break to do nothing can seem selfish and wasteful. But, in fact, it is vital to our well-being.
Taking this kind of time isn’t only important for our own well-being, it’s important for our relationships and commitments. It’s during those breaks that we are replenished. Our energy rises and creativity returns. Like a well-crafted symphony, it’s the rests and pauses between notes and musical phrases that add interest and color to the overall work.
Ideally, we will get to the point where we build breaks into our daily routine. We’ll put that time on the calendar and make an appointment with ourselves for rest and recharging.
So, go ahead and give yourself the space you need. As author Anne Lamott has pointed out, “Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.”