In January 2013, I started an MBA. I was working full-time, and had two children under the age of two. One of those children was still nursing. I had no free time for two years. Whether it was a school assignment, a work deadline, or a child who needed to eat, there was always something or someone who wanted my attention.
For many people, this pandemic is a lot like that. Work and family commitments keep them sprinting from sunrise to sunset in a desperate bid to keep everything from crashing down. Maybe this is your situation. Maybe it describes the situation of a friend or colleague.
Today, we’re going to talk about how to catch a break when you haven’t been alone or uninterrupted since early March. Veteran remote workers understand that they are their own first line of defence when it comes to taking breaks. This is even more true during the current pandemic, when many have lost access to their personal safety net.
We’ll talk a little about how to think about taking breaks when crafting your own. After, I’ll end by offering some resources if you don’t have the energy to craft your own plan. I am not affiliated with any of these offerings, and do not receive compensation for mentioning them.
When There’s Too Much to Do, You Might As Well Take Time Off
There is only so much one person can do. We all acknowledge that fact in general, but we act as if we aren’t allowed to stop trying to complete our impossible to-do lists until we drop from exhaustion. We feel bad. Or think that there’s a life hack out there for fitting 30 hours of work into a 12 hour day.
There isn’t. When you have too much to do, the best you can do is choose which balls you drop. That may mean missing a non-critical work deadline. Or not signing your kid into zoom class. Deliberately choosing to drop a ball doesn’t mean the dropped commitment isn’t important. It’s just less critical at that moment than something else you care about. And if you’re thoughtful about what you miss, you stand a better chance of preserving the things that are important to you over the long haul.
Let’s call this strategic neglect. Generally I call it ‘choosing who I’m going to piss off,’ but strategic neglect sounds so much nicer.
Practicing this strategy can feel scary. But if you eye the items on your task list through the lens of your values, you’ll start to see places where you can build in a little breathing room in your day. That breathing room may look like fifteen minutes a couple days a week, but even five minutes of break time is better than zero minutes. You take what you can get.
Break Time Doesn’t Always Have to Be Productive Time
Once you start dropping things strategically, you’ll notice pockets of time in your day. And you’ll be tempted to shove something else on your to-do list into that slot. You may have visions of starting a side business or writing a book. But if you’ve been doing too much for too long, then you may need to spend some time doing nothing at all. You might sit on your couch and pretend to read a book. Or stand in the hallway in-between your kid’s zoom meetings taking slow breaths while wearing headphones.
I can’t tell you how long you’ll need to stay in this stage. You’re waiting for that internal voice inside of you that says “you should be doing x, y, or z,” to start saying “I’m bored. I want to do something.” That’s the signal that you’ve recovered enough to make your break time a little more active.
Prep For Your Break
When you only have five or ten minutes of free time, you need to have a grab-bag of activities ready to go. Spend some time prepping for your future activities. Put all of your workout clothes in one place. Wind your yarn. Order a sketch pad from Amazon. Choose a bread recipe–and make sure you have the ingredients.
Have a couple of possible activities ready to go. I love to read, but sometimes, if I crack open a book after work, my entire family takes that as the cue to interrupt me 42 times a minute. I’m less frustrated if I switch to knitting or playing my guitar at those times.
Think in Terms of Bite-Sized Breaks
Lao Tzu once said “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” It also turns out that exercise, or learning a new hobby, or developing positive coping skills can also be done over the course of a few consistent minutes spread across the week. This is basically how I’m learning guitar. I have a 30 minute lesson with my teacher over FaceTime, and I fit in a few minutes of practice most(ish) days of the week.
Get creative with your definition of down time. Do you have to sit in your car while waiting for your pet to leave the vet? That’s break time. Are you stuck in a zoom meeting? Get your knitting and call it down time. Do you wake up early because you’re stressed out? Grab a mindfulness app, and learn new ways to destress.
If You’re Looking For Ideas for Your Breaks, Try These
Sometimes you’re ready for a break, but too overwhelmed and stressed out to figure out what to do, so you do nothing. Maybe one of these ideas will work for you. I use an app called Movr for bite-sized fitness. You can build a 15 or 30 minute workout, or you can pick one of the 5 minute pre-planned workouts. If you want someone to plan your meals for you, I’ve used The Fresh 20 in the past. Be aware that you have to pay for it. And if you want to work on coping with stress, I’ve found Mood Mission to be helpful.
Whatever self-care you choose, don’t give up on it just because your to-do list is out of control. Those little breaks may not change your circumstances, but they can give you enough of a boost to carry on. We’re in this pandemic for the long haul. Spend some time recharging your mental and physical batteries. You’ll be a better person for it.