May 23, 2022

Slowing down and taking stock (before life forces it on you)

I started this year recognizing that I really needed to unlock time and space in my professional life to spend more time on what matters to me, but slowing down so I can make that happen has not been easy.

At least it wasn’t until life presented me with no alternative.

It took the form of a positive test for COVID-19, and while it wasn’t the news I wanted after two-plus years of extreme care, it was a wake-up call. But not in the way you might think.

I have long preached the wisdom of making time and space for what matters most to you. And I have worked very hard to follow my own advice to prioritize self-care, rest and time away from work. But I, like so many of us, sometimes get trapped in a packed schedule without any easy path to the pause button. Fortunately (or maybe not, if your reminder is more dramatic or serious than mine was), life has a way of helping us figure it out.

The silver lining of my own COVID-19 experience was I couldn’t go anywhere or do anything. I couldn’t even emerge from my upstairs cloister to hang out with my wife, Cindy. It was just me … and all the time in the world.

Moving too fast

As I was sitting with my thoughts between COVID-19 naps, I remembered a recent conversation with Cindy (before my enforced isolation). I was racing through the house back to my office, and she stopped me and asked if she could get just a couple of minutes of my time before my next appointment. Think about that for a moment. My wife, nearly reduced to reaching out to my assistant to book a few moments to chat.

I also thought of a friend of mine, whose newly widowed mother just moved in. She told me she brushes off her mom’s midday comments about the birds she is seeing outside her new window, because there is simply too much to do to stop and listen.

I think many of us have experiences like this, and often it’s because we simply feel trapped by our plans, schedules and obligations. It’s not that we don’t care about our spouses, parents, friends and other loved ones. We just feel stuck – until life steps in.

Slowing down when you have no other choice

COVID-19 was not fun, and I know I am one of the lucky ones. I am grateful to be vaccinated and know that my immunization likely shielded me from a more unpleasant illness. But one positive side effect was the enforced week of nothing to do and nowhere to go.

That’s actually a really important point. Thich Nhat Hanh wrote a book with that phrase as its title, and he noted the importance of stopping so one can be truly present in the moment. That’s what was missing in my life, and it’s what I recaptured during my COVID-19 isolation. “The person who has nothing to do is sovereign of herself,” Hanh wrote.

So, what happened when I finally had space and time to be present with myself? I spent time re-evaluating my own priorities and what matters most to me, just like I urge clients to do. And then I explored what it would take for me to adapt my business and my time to work with those priorities, not against them. I created a vision in which Cindy doesn’t need to schedule 10 minutes to plan the week’s meals with me and where I can spend an hour in the garden if it’s what I need to feel grounded.

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I also figured out how to bring that vision to life. It involves some professional and personal changes. Nothing drastic (I’m not going anywhere, Metta Solutions community!), just some tweaks that will create spaciousness and flexibility in my calendar while helping me do the work that I find most rewarding.

How to slow down before life intervenes

I am sharing this experience because I found the lessons helpful, and I hope you will, too. I also really hope you can create space for this kind of process for yourself before life intervenes. A week on your own with your thoughts might not seem feasible, but perhaps some more incremental steps will. Some ideas:

Go for a walk

If you’re someone who exercises, maybe replace a hard workout with an ambling walk in the woods. Instead of aiming for a goal like achieving a certain pace or distance, make being present your goal. This is a step toward reframing how you assess the value of your time from output (how much did you accomplish?) to input (how did it recharge you?) Imagine life measured by a metric like that!

Create space in your calendar

When you can barely find time in your day to grab a cup of coffee, it’s probably laughable to imagine a week of pondering the directions of your life without being forced to like I was. But you have to start somewhere. So, take aim at your packed schedule.

I urge people to think about building white space into their calendar. This is time for whatever you need – or nothing at all – but it’s unequivocally for you. You’ll probably have to block it off so no one else does, but you will quickly see that the world does not end if you are available for one less meeting each week or day. What’s key is creating a habit. I recommend spending a little time on this each Friday afternoon. Look at the coming week and choose something you can skip, shorten or move. Take it off your calendar and instead block that time for you.

Looking further out, you may be able to block of larger periods of time that you can set aside for creative work or planning. As you start to find white space in your calendar, you will discover time for exploring some of the deeper questions I thought about during my COVID-19 experience. Am I spending my time in a way that aligns with my priorities? What’s missing from my days that I care about? What has to change to achieve better alignment?

Make rest – and play – a habit

As you start to see your calendar open up, consider how you can use that space for things that fill your cup. I encourage clients to consider pursuing a hobby, learning a new skill (one that is NOT about work!) or trying a physical pursuit like biking. This is a form of rest that engages the mind and /or body, while enabling you to both unplug and recharge. It’s also a form of play that is as good for adults as roleplaying games are for children.

Whatever you try, make sure your approach is not about becoming the best. Keep your focus again on input, rather than output. Learning to play the piano is a wonderful idea, but try to set aside any aspirations of becoming a concert pianist. Unless you’re looking for a career change, which is another topic entirely.

As you sink your mind and hands into something new, you should see your perspective shift. You may develop some additional clarity about your existing priorities, and you may uncover some new priorities. Looking at life with fresh eyes may help you unlock some of the wisdom I found while recovering from my illness.

Schedule a long weekend

As you start to build white space in your calendar and develop new interests, I suspect you will unlock sense of wanting more. A great way to start is by scheduling regular long weekends.

I recommend once per quarter, and take four days off. I promise that any three-day weekend will turn into a chore-fest, but four days will start to feel like a real break. It’s long enough to relax, but not so long that it’s a headache to plan for. Step away, take a deep breath, and look to the horizon.

Take an extended vacation

I have written before about the benefits of time off. Long weekends are wonderful, but we all need more from time to time. And sometimes, we need much more. That’s why I advise everyone to plan a two-week vacation.

Two weeks off for a working professional probably sounds like a luxury. On some levels, it is, and it may take some planning, but I promise you it will be worthwhile.

If you’re like me, you hurtle madly toward vacation, making plans to cover your work and spending long hours getting things done ahead of time. Without fail, I roll into vacation completely exhausted.

The beauty of a two-week vacation is you can spend the first week sleeping it all off. The real magic happens in week two, when you are refreshed and ready to embrace the expansiveness of slowing down. That is when I get my best ideas – and when I find the greatest clarity about the things I can’t see when mired in regular life.

Clarity without a crisis

I am fortunate that my COVID-19 experience was not the kind of health scare some people have before realizing they need to make a change. But my hope for you is that you can bring the intent and commitment to your calendar to clarify what matters most to you without any kind of crisis.

Once you become clear on your priorities, you can start to get clear on how to build your life around them. It will take time to get there, but even creating the roadmap and starting on the journey will feel good to you and those you care about.

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