I was at an ocean beach a couple of summers ago. The waves were high and the drop off into the water was steep, but I’m a strong swimmer. There were families and kids all along the shore. It didn’t occur to me that I might get into trouble.
But somehow, I got knocked down by a wave getting out of the water. I came up gasping, started to get my feet underneath me, and another one got me from behind. I eventually staggered out, spluttering, after a few more attempts, knocked down again and again, wondering what I was doing wrong, how everybody else was getting in and out so effortlessly, increasingly feeling like I was going to spend the rest of my life on this edge… and that it might not be a very long time.
There are times in every life when it feels like you’re drowning.
The roof comes off the house and hits the car the same week that your kids start at a new school. You get a phone call from the teacher just before going into a big meeting. Six things break on the car in the same month, just when your job is under review.
You stagger to your feet and something else hits you. It feels relentless. There is no time for dreaming, no space for desire. There is barely time to breathe.
Yet you need a lifeline. If nothing else, you need a reason to keep getting back on your feet. 10 minutes here and there, carved out of a life which feels full to bursting, to remind yourself of why you are doing this in the first place.
This is the time of the oxygen mask.
1. Take a breath
Even though it feels like you don’t have time, this is the place where you need to take a break the most. Five minutes to start, even if that is just sitting in your car listening to music before you get onto the highway.
We cannot make good choices in a state of panic and anxiety. We make mistakes. We yell at the people we love most. We miss the most important meetings because we are distracted by the most urgent. When we are stressed beyond belief, that is the time that we most need to slow down.
2. Be realistic about time
There are a limited number of hours in the day, the week, the year. Even with superhuman effort, we have edges beyond which we cannot pass. We have bodies which require sleep and food and exercise, relationships which require time and attention and presence, dreams which need to be nurtured and listened to.
Trees and children take time to grow. Books take time to write. Businesses take time to become self-sustaining.
Rome, I hear, was not built in a day.
3. Engage in some triage
Does every single thing really need to get done? Is it even all yours?
I know it all feels urgent, but my experience playing entropy-whack-a-mole is that you can expend an enormous amount of energy on other people’s priorities simply because they are the loudest ones.
Once again, a moment of pause is in order. What are actually the priorities? What must be done. What can wait until next week? Next month? Never? Are there things that you are doing purely to look good?
Here’s a sneaky one: Are there things that you are doing to be able to keep doing something else that you really don’t want to be doing?
4. Ask for help before you absolutely need it
I debated where to put this one.
So many of us resort to asking for help only after all other solutions have been exhausted… or, more to the point, refuse all offers of help until we are so exhausted we can’t resist any more. So I thought about putting it first.
But I still think that we should consider whether what we are doing really needs to get done before we ask for help in accomplishing it. There is a subtlety in knowing when to ask for childcare from your sister so you can sit on a board and when to ask for help to say, “No,” to yet another volunteer request. We don’t just want to recruit more people into doing too much. That’s no good.
So, yes, ask for help. But do take a couple of minutes to figure out what to ask for. Maybe what you really need is somebody to listen to you rant and remind you to take deep breaths. Maybe you need to hire somebody to clean your house. Maybe you need a friend, and maybe you need a professional. But when you are frayed to the breaking point, toughing it out and doing it on your own is not the best solution. That’s when we wind up collapsing… and then the chance to ask for help in a timely fashion is taken out of our hands.
5. Don’t waste energy comparing yourself to others
One of the first guidelines in yoga is “Stay on your own mat.” The person next to you is inhabiting a different body, with different capacities. If you attention is over there, watching and comparing, it is not in your body, feeling the way into the pose.
When you’re being knocked down by waves, it is not the time to ask, “Why aren’t those other people being knocked down?” First, you need to get up. Then, once your feet are under you, there will be time to improve your balance, change your job, go back to school, paint your living room, negotiate a raise, or whatever it is that you feel like you need to do before the next batch comes along.
6. Create touchstones to remind you where you are going
When you have dreams that seem very far away and out of reach, it can feel like a waste of time to connect with them. But you need a north star, at least, if not a compass and map.
If, for example, you want to go to Italy but you can’t imagine getting there, carry a picture in your wallet. Put one on the wallpaper of your phone. Use the Duolingo app to learn Italian for fifteen minutes on the subway. Make a Pinterest board if that’s your jam.
Take some of the time that you are currently spending on Facebook, Netflix, or your distraction of choice (you know you are) and use it for something that gets your mind moving toward your dream. You might even make a jar (or a separate account) for savings just for that thing.
Redirect your energies, and eventually the things that you redirect them toward become a part of your life. The key part of that sentence, though, is “eventually”. There is effort involved, and sometimes if the goal is very large, that effort needs to be sustained over years. The key is holding onto things that are dear to your heart, even in the face of challenges.