The last 12 months have been hard for me. I lost a few people I cared about last year, and just when I thought I was getting my sea legs again, the US election happened, and all that fear and loss and anger and sadness crashed down on me like a wave.
When I thought about writing this piece, I struggled. What could I possibly have to say about getting things done? About being a human amongst the machines? I have not been at my best for much of the last year, and if I came here pretending to be some kind of productivity genius, I’d be an absolute fraud.
Maybe you feel that way, too. I don’t have a listicle of life hacks to help you get through the hard, hard times, but sometimes—sometimes—it’s still possible to get things done when everything is falling apart.
If you’re in that space right now, I’m sorry. Even if I don’t know you, know that I am holding you in my heart. If we could sit and have some tea, I would tell you these things that have helped me out this past year—maybe they will be helpful for you, too.
Ask for what you need
Last summer, I woke up one morning to a phone call that my aunt had died. It was 8am and I was still in bed because my grandmother had died two weeks before, and my boyfriend and I had split up two weeks before that, and sleeping is sometimes a nice way of tricking yourself into not being sad for a bit.
Those six weeks were almost comically bad, like something out of a terrible sitcom or a sappy country song. And with each subsequent loss, I felt this temptation to keep things to myself. To say nothing and pretend everything was fine. Weird how that first stage of grief is denial.
I work remotely, so I found myself sitting in front of the computer that morning debating: do I say something to my coworkers when I get on Slack? Maybe I could just put my headphones on and keep my head down.
What’s the worst that could happen? I asked myself.
The site could go down.
I thought about it. Thought about how that would be a very real problem for all of our users, and how folks would be looking to me to lead communications through the crisis.
I knew I had to say something then, because I realized that if the site went down that day, I just didn’t have it in me to respond with empathy and compassion. I couldn’t do that part of my job on the day my aunt died.
No reasonable human would have asked me to do that, of course. But if I didn’t say anything, no one would have known. I told my coworkers what had happened, and that I would be heads down and trying to stay busy with a few simple tasks. I asked for their understanding, and got that back tenfold.
Your hard times will be different than mine; but whatever they are, if you cannot ask for what you need, the people around you won’t know how to help or support you.
You don’t have to share more than you’re comfortable with. “I’m not 100% today; can you help me with…” is perfectly fine. You don’t need to justify it.
This is, by the way, generally a good way to live in the world, hard times or no. Most of us generally want to do what we can for the people around us, but we’re none of us mind readers. Ask for what you need and give others what they need when you can.
Do the thing
A frustrating fact about hard times is that however much is happening, it is always too much. Everything still happens so much.
At the beginning of the year, I found myself working all day, and then lying awake at night thinking about the simple, little things that I had been putting off. The phone calls I didn’t make, the forms I hadn’t mailed, the appointments I ought to schedule.
These were small things, but somehow a week would go by without doing them. And then another. I’d get to the end of the day and realize I had forgotten, yet again. I spent way more time being annoyed with myself for not doing the thing than it would’ve taken to do it.
So, I started setting up a 20 minute meeting on my calendar to just deal with whatever the thing of the day was. I left conspicuous reminders on my desk: the empty forms that needed to be filled out, the invitation I needed to respond to, whatever. The irritation of having to clear them out of my way to get to work finally forced me to deal with them. Giving myself a small amount of dedicated time helped me prioritize it and remember that it wasn’t some huge, overwhelming task; it was a phone call, a piece of paper signed, a printer cartridge ordered.
Suddenly, I was getting things done.
They weren’t huge things, but every time I got one thing done, it felt like I was Marie Kondo-ing my brain. I had one less thing to worry about in a time of a lot of worries, and I was doing a small thing to take care of myself, which, surprise, is a great way to remember that you are worth taking care of.
You are worth taking care of. Do the thing.
Hi, stop working
Sometimes, when you are having a hard time, you will not get as much done at work as you would like. If you are like me and prone to feeling a lot of guilt, you might think the solution to this is to stay later and work until you feel like you have gotten everything done.
This is a terrible plan. There will always be more to do! That is how work works.
Over time, doing this creates a feedback cycle that is really, really hard to get out of. You don’t get enough done during the day, which makes you feel bad, so you stay later and try to finish just a few more things, but you still don’t get it all done, so you spend the night beating yourself up for having a bad day at work and vow to get an early start the next morning, but you sleep terribly and…
You get the idea.
I’ve done this to myself more often than I care to admit. Lately, I’ve tried to give myself reminders that it’s time to call it a day. I put a meeting on my calendar for 6 or 6:30 with the subject hi, stop working.
At the end of the day, I get a little notification from my past self reminding me, kindly, to pack it in. These are dangerously easy to ignore, but I try to use those reminders as a signal that whether the work day has been good, bad, or ugly, it’s over now.
It’s important to stay motivated, to learn and grow and try new things and get stuff done. That’s all true. But when you are in the midst of hard, hard times, you’ve also got to take a breath. Give yourself permission to have a bad day. Close your laptop at the end of it and do something else. Give your brain an actual break. Get some sleep.
The work will be there tomorrow, and you’ll be in much better shape to face it.