I have been just the teensiest, tiniest bit totally sucked into some local school board politics for the last month or so. And for the first time since maybe 1991, when I graduated law school, I have been channeling my inner, loudmouthed idealist daily. It’s been awesome!
What this has looked like is me attending a lot of board meetings, plus smaller meetings among like-minded parents, lots of emails, and throwing together a totally new blog in 12 days. Plus the other parts of my life, like, oh, work, parenting, singing in the choir, and such.
I mention all this because all this interaction and activity wears me the hell out, frankly. I also have been pretty obsessively thinking about this stuff in every spare moment, plus a lot of moments that aren’t spare.
In many ways, it has felt like I’m right back in the corporate and legal world overload. But this time, I’m handling it better than ever before. I chalk this up to 3 or 4 practices I’ve adopted in the last few years. While I preach these to clients, and in various posts over the years, I thought I’d highlight them for your consideration.
Daily Alone/Meditation Time
I’m an introvert, and I really need my alone time, or things go south very quickly in my life. To the point that I don’t even like being around myself. Despite the fact that I haven’t been going to bed quite as early as I should, I have been getting up about an hour before the rest of my household (except the cats), making coffee and crocheting.
Being alone itself is helpful, but I also try very hard to concentrate on the work with my hands. I focus on the feeling of the yarn, the number of stitches, and any other immediate sensory input. I try to focus on the present sensations, noises and items in my visual field, rather than rolling around all the thoughts about what I need to do that day.
This is hard. I get off track very quickly at first, like in 5 seconds or less. When I catch myself, I just refocus on whatever I need to in the present. My monkey brain is a busy little toddler, and has to get redirected constantly, but eventually calms down and stays focused. I generally end with a loving-kindness meditation, which is very calming and centering. My days definitely go better when I allow myself enough time for starting my day this way.
Taking a Break from the To-Do List
Even though it feels as if I must conquer my to-do list or die trying, I have stared that demon down and made myself go to stuff that is utterly unconnected to work or school board stuff. That means showing up at choir rehearsal, going to my creative group, and making time to do some small, creative projects. I feel renewed and refreshed after I do these things, and my brain thinks better, too. Plus, since I’m calmer, I’m pretty sure I’m easier to be around in general.
It’s so easy to get caught up in the crazed belief system that by working more, you will produce more and better work. You won’t. You are not a simple piece of machinery whose 10th hour is just the same as your 2nd hour on duty. We are organic beings, with energy highs and lows, and we need to recognize the moment when we are getting less productive, then stop and do something else for a while. Eat, sleep, walk, chat about something unrelated to what you’re working on. Let your brain do its processing in the background, and it will do its work better than it will if you keep it on the grindstone 15 hours/day.
Sleep. A lot.
When I say I’m not getting enough sleep, that usually means I’m only getting 7 hours/night. And I know for a lot of you, that would be your own personal version of heaven. But I need around 8, maybe 8.5, hours daily. If I go 2 or 3 days on 7 hours, I’m a cranky, irritable mess. Even minor amounts of sleep deprivation can very quickly do in your emotional regulation. Minor sleep deprivation also affects your executive functioning—things like ordering tasks, making sound decisions, and the like.
Emotional regulation and executive functioning are two things that we need most in times of stress. Or maybe I’m just crazy that way. But for my money, sleep is the foundation of good mental and physical health. Do whatever it takes to get what you need. (You can tell how much you need by not setting an alarm clock, and seeing over the next 3 days how long you sleep on average. Though if you are seriously sleep deprived already, try to fix that deficit with a good week of sleep, at least 8 hours/night, first.)
A lot of us, me included, will feel keyed up and not ready to go to sleep, so we turn on the television, and then suddenly it’s 11 or 12, and we should have gone to bed an hour or two ago. TV in this instance is a glowing, seductive trap. Yes, it will eventually numb you out. But for a sustainable life, you need to learn to calm yourself down with other, less stimulating techniques.
Put together a bedtime routine that does not include TV or any other screen. Maybe it’s doing dishes, or taking a relaxing 10-minute soak, lighting some candles and breathing, petting the dog, or filing your nails. It doesn’t really matter what it is, so long as it feels a bit calming and soothing. Try your new routine for at least a week before deciding to make changes to it. Make sure you do the same thing on the weekends, too.
The cool thing is that once you’ve become accustomed to the routine, simply following it will tell your mind and body that it’s time to shut down. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy of the best kind.
If you have a particularly upsetting day, you might need to add something to your bag of sleepytime tricks. I am particularly fond of one, because it just works.
As you lay in bed, try to feel 3 parts of your body from inside. For example, a left toe, a right finger, and your chin. Whatever you pick, try to make it a left, right, and center of body combination. If it helps, wiggle the appropriate body parts. The trick is to feel all 3 simultaneously. This is really, really hard.
And that’s the beauty of it. You need to concentrate hard to keep your focus in all 3 places, and that automatically takes you out of your chatty monkey brain, and into the parasympathetic nervous system, which works to maintain the body at rest. As with meditation in general, when you’ve drifted back into lawyer/stress brain, just focus on your 3 body parts again. You will be able to stay there longer, bit by bit. And with any luck, you will soon drift off.
Lawyers Just Need To Have Fun
When I tell clients to go have fun as homework, I often get this long pause, followed by “But how is that going to help me find a new job?”
Well, it’s not as direct as applying for a job or having a networking conversation, but having fun helps your brain be creative and more alive. Those are 2 things anyone needs in a challenging job search: thinking outside their self-made boxes of employment hell, and an energetic presence when interviewing or networking.
I know, I know. You’re fighting that deeply Puritanical belief that hard work is the only thing that gets you ahead in this world. I agree not only that hard work is necessary, but also that working hard at something you find interesting and challenging is a path to satisfaction and a happy life.
But, as the saying goes, all work and no play makes you a dullard. Play, whatever your preferred type of it is, connects you with who you really are. It gives you freedom and insight, even though it seems like a waste of time. Play allows you to escape your overgrown demons for a while, so that you can prune them back to resemble reality.
Play feeds your soul. Most of you have been starving your souls for years. So go do something fun and festive, at least weekly, for an hour. You can look at this, this, and this for ideas on how to have fun, if you truly don’t have a clue. But I urge you to push yourself a little, and listen to what that tiny little voice wants to do. Don’t judge it, just do it.
Really, it’s simple to lower your stress level: Meditate. Work Less. Sleep. Have Fun.
Simple isn’t always easy. So it you need help, drop me a line.
Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who had rediscovered her voice and is having lots of creative fun with it. She’s working on the sleep part. If you need some help, contact Jennifer for a discounted sample coaching session at firstname.lastname@example.org .