Closing the Files in My Head

P1020227Do you ever feel like you’re drowning? Like you can’t keep your head above water no matter how hard you try? That’s been my year. I can handle juggling a lot. I don’t mind, heck I actually really enjoy, the busy, chaotic life we lead. But lately it’s become too much even for me. I recently tried to tally up how many ongoing, recurring commitments (e.g. nonprofit boards, entrepreneurial projects, professional associations, book groups) I have on top of my full-time job and family. I lost track once I hit a dozen. No wonder I’m feeling overwhelmed!

I long ago got comfortable with the notion that I wouldn’t be able to do everything perfectly, or at the level my type A self fantasizes about – at work, at home, or in any other facet of my life. I have no illusions of having a magazine-spread-ready home or car or clothes or body. I don’t even begin to pretend that nightly home-cooked meals are even plausible. I permit myself at least 24 hours to respond to even important work emails or calls. But to maintain my sanity, even I need to have some minimal amount of order in my life: a home and desk tidy enough to find things when someone wants or needs them; being abreast of basic email – with old emails sorted and archived instead of cluttering up my inbox; and being able to keep up – relatively timely – with simple home projects, thank you notes, birthday cards/calls, and other little social niceties that matter to me.

Keeping up with these things is important for me to “close the files in my head”, as a friend recently put it, so I can focus on and be fully present for the big stuff.

Yet, pretty much all of this has fallen by the wayside this past year as work crises, family demands, and my zeal to take advantage of every interesting professional and personal opportunity in my path have coalesced into a nonstop whirlwind of craziness. The result – a constant feeling of drowning.

What does that look like in daily life? New emails get lost for days in the midst of the 1100 others in my inboxes – many of which I’m already weeks or months behind on responding to. I’ve completely dropped the ball on cards and thank you notes (both our own and ensuring our kids write theirs). I belong to two book groups, for which I’ve made exactly one meeting and read exactly zero books. To get dressed in the morning I have to wade through bags of old clothes to donate that have ben swallowing up my closet floor for over a year. To reach my home computer I have to step over 2-foot high stacks of papers that need going through. I have become the queen of doing stuff for my myriad entrepreneurial projects and nonprofit boards at the 11th hour – a mode I absolutely hate, and which I don’t find very effective anyway. And forget about staying on top of home projects or checking in on old friends.

It’s driving me crazy. With all those “files open in my head” perpetually, it’s near-impossible to be fully present at work, with the kids, with D, or for anything else. Every time I walk by that wall I’ve been meaning to re-paint for years or open my email and see the inbox message counter, I tense up. Writing my personal to-do list down hasn’t solved the problem. If anything, seeing just how much is on it is terrifying. On nights I’m not facing an urgent deadline, I’ve taken to proverbially hiding my head under a blanket – escaping the weight of it all thanks to Netflix or Amazon Prime.

I’ve got no one to blame for this state of affairs but myself.   I volunteered for this. I chose to do everything I do – no one forced me. But even I realize that it can’t go on this way.

So recently, I decided that, to regain control of my sanity, I had to start shedding. Shedding the nice to do activities in favor of the need to do or definitely want to do. The decision to shed was easy; the decision of what to shed was anything but.

I took a long hard look at all of the things I spend my time on. I thought about the joy and meaning each brings to my life; the amount of time each requires; the role I play in each. I thought about which activities still give me energy and which drain it out of me. I thought about what I would lose from my life by letting each go, what I would miss, and what I would gain. I thought about our 20 year rule – what would I most regret giving up.

I ultimately decided to shed two types of things:

  • active participation (for at least the next 9-12 months) in social and professional groups I enjoy, but that aren’t directly related to my current job or immediate family needs; and
  • active roles in projects or organizations that don’t (or at least don’t any longer) require me / my unique skillset or perspective.

Make no mistake about it – these choices were very very hard. I’m now in the process of stepping down from some ventures very near and dear to my heart, including a few I helped launch. Missing out on the camaraderie, learning, and networking from the social and professional groups I’ve back-burnered saddens me. I’ve also turned down meaningful new side projects, ones I would enjoy doing and derive significant personal and professional value from. And each time, it’s been really really hard to say no.

Yet, as hard as it is, I know I’m doing the right thing for right now. I’ve been amazed by how freeing it feels to reclaim my time and emotional and mental energy for myself and my family. And already it’s paying off. For the first time in ages, I can actually see the floor in both my closet and home office.

Have you had a similar experience? How do you decide when to take on something new and when to walk away and simplify?

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