It happens every so often. I'm chugging along, pushing through, feeling a little flustered but otherwise fine. And then the stress hits.
Usually it's set off by something I've been neglecting. When I get swamped, I let little things go. I'll do the laundry, but I won't put it away. I'll stack non-essential mail off in one corner, ignore emails that I probably should answer.
And then the piles get too high to ignore.
Last year, right around this time, I lived on coffee and about three hours of sleep per night. I lost something like fifteen pounds. It was not the ideal diet plan, and I was glad when it was over.
I nearly hit the edge, when at 8:15 I was still in the lab. I felt like the only one in the building. And I had very little to show for my eleven hour day, nary a dent in the staggering amount of work I need to get done in the next six months.
At the last minute, I took a step back. I took a moment to breathe. And I thought about how to put all of these 'MUST DO NOOOOOW' things into perspective.
Last year, I discovered a writer named Anne Lamott. I've read a good number of her books, for different reasons, over the last year, but the one that got me was a book that, in part, gives advice to writers. It's called Bird by Bird.
In it, Lamott tells a story from her childhood, about her brother who had put off doing an extensive school project on birds. When he finally sat down to do it, the night before it was due, he realized the amount of work he had to in a short window of time. As Anne tells it, while he sat there, agonizing, their father offered some advice: "Just take it bird by bird."
It's Lamott's style to apply this lesson across the spectrum of experiences, but she calls on it as an aid to the overwhelmed writer. Facing an unwritten novel is no small thing: even if the ideas, the characters, the dialogue, the action, are all in your head, it still takes a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to get it all out. Lamott recommends breaking the writing down into small parts... writing through the view of a 2x2 inch square, or within a postage stamp... as a way of working through the imposing nature of the task.
About a week after I read this book, I was perusing the Silver Spring Borders, killing time before a meeting, a notebook caught my eye.
|I'm no dummy. I can recognize a sign (useful coincidence?) when I need to.|
And then I used it to write when I needed to sort things out.
I haven't used it in a while, but most days I still carry it with me. So I took it out and I started writing.
|Prioritize. Breathe. Prioritize. Breathe. </stresslamaze>|
And that's what it's about. When I'm sitting at my desk, which is buried under about an inch of loose paper, paralyzed by the huge amount of things that have yet to get done, nothing is going to get done. There will never feel like enough hours in the day.
But if I break things down into small, manageable pieces, I can measure my accomplishments and feel better about how I've spent my time.
If I can arrange those pieces in a way that reflects my priorities, I'll be a happier, healthier, more balanced person.
And a run tomorrow morning, even in the ridiculous cold, will help.
How do you deal with stress? Are you feeling the crunch into the holiday season? Share your strategies in the comments below.