"Wait...strike that...reverse it...okay." - Willie Wonka
So many of my friends have asked me how I stay so laid-back, easy-going, and calm all the time. One friend even described me once as having a perpetual island attitude, referring to the relaxation one experiences on vacation in the Caribbean or some such place. Well, first of all, those who know me best know that isn't always me - I can sometimes get tweaked, just like everyone else. Usually what sets me off is when I feel as if I'm being mischaracterized to others by someone who has no real clue who I am or what I'm like. I know, ultimately it says more about them than it does me, but we all have our triggers.
But it is true that most days it takes a lot to stir me up. It isn't that I don't have overwhelming demands on my time, like everyone else, which is the primary cause of stress and mood swings. It's that I've learned - for the most part - to compartmentalize stress and manage the many chores and deadlines and expectations pressing down on me. I'd like to share with you some thoughts on this, see if it helps you, the reader, to manage stress in your own life.
OVERWHELMING PILE OF @#%&*
The most common way in which people get overwhelmed is by trying to look at the entire pile of things they have to do all at once. Think of it this way - there is never going to be a time in your life when you don't have tasks ahead of you that need doing sooner or later, and who would want a life that didn't? How boring. So trying to wrap your arms around everything all at once is going to overwhelm you, it just is, there's no way around it. But you can manage that feeling of standing at the bottom of an avalanche waiting for it all to come crashing down on you.
This is going to be profound....are you ready for it? Make lists. All right, rather less profound than, well, boring, but I swear it works. Put the things you have to do in lists, and add to or rewrite these lists often. This not only helps you feel as if you've at least got a handle on the things you have to do, it even gives you a small feeling of control, just identifying the things that you have to do.
The next thing is, do the things that need doing. Again, this sounds stupidly simple, but I've known people who get so wrapped up in making lists and buying colored pens and bulletin boards and bins and shelves, etc. all to organize their "things to do," that they spend more time getting ready to do the things that need to be done than actually doing them. Your list should be a very informal thing jotted down on the nearest thing to hand - a piece of paper, a paper sack, an old grocery receipt, whatever. Then go do the things that need to be done. Do them. With each task you complete and put behind you you'll feel a growing sense of accomplishment and control, and there is nothing better than this naturally earned feeling to combat stress and especially depression.
WHAT TO DO, WHEN?
The other thing I hear a lot from people who feel overwhelmed by everything they have to do, is that they don't know where to begin. My answer is simple, and it comes from the canon of slogans shared by attendees of 12 step programs: Do the next indicated action. In other words, do whatever needs to be done next, then after that, do the next thing, then the next. Again, deceptively simple, but it's a great way to undercut that feeling of being overwhelmed. Just do one thing at a time, in order. If it's dinner time, cook dinner. When dinner is cooked, eat it. When dinner is eaten, do the dishes and clean the kitchen. When cleaning a room, pick up the top-most item on the floor, then the next, then the next, and put them where they belong. Prioritizing those things that need to be done doesn't take much thought, you generally know what needs doing, and what must be done first, or next. Do the most pressing or important thing first, then do the next. You'll be surprised how intuitive that is.
I want to write a few words about urgency and crises. With very few exceptions, if you look at your most recent crisis, it didn't really come without warning. Much as we will deny it, in most cases crises occur as a result of us neglecting our responsibilities in one area or another. For example, when you don't pay your electric bill in a timely manner, your electricity gets turned off. If you don't take care of your health, you get sick, sometimes quite critically. And crises caused by neglect have a way of cascading. If you don't write that chapter while the family is out shopping, you fall behind on word-count, you are forced to cut into family time to write, pissing off your spouse, forcing you to write during working hours at your mundane job, pissing off your boss, who doesn't give you that raise you need, money you might have been able to spend on a much nicer anniversary gift than you end up affording, and the cheapness of your gift hurts the feelings of the person you love, bringing you yet another inexorable step closer to divorce...
Stephen R. Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People shares a great image of four squares. The first are crises; the second are urgent things; the third are just things that need doing; and the fourth is leisure activities. He talks about how neglecting items in the third square, the things that need doing, sooner or later they move into the second square, the urgent things that need doing. By neglecting things in the second square, you allow them to eventually moved into the first square, crises. By focusing on the things that need doing, you can reduce the number of urgent things, and of course by concentrating on the urgent things, you prevent them from becoming crises.
Stay ahead of crises by doing the next indicated action - the most important and urgent thing that needs doing at the moment, then the next, and the next. You'll find the emergencies and crises in your life occurring less and less often. I promise.
And now for the great news, if you've stuck around long enough to read this far. I know all of the above makes it sound as if all you'll ever be doing is trying to keep ahead of all of the things you need to do, but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact quite the opposite. By following these guidelines you'll actually find yourself getting ahead of the stuff pressing down on you. As impossible as it sounds, you'll actually start getting out from under that mountain of chores. Referring back to the four squares, as you spend time in the second and third squares, you'll find you suddenly have more in your fourth square: FUN! You'll find that not only does your leisure time expand, but because you've done the things that needed doing, that leisure time will be so much more relaxing and stress free.
(With some edits, this is a reprint of a blog I wrote about a year ago, but I think it applies to writers as much if not more than anyone, since we have to self-motivate most of the time.)