For a few months now, nearly everything I’ve done has been mediocre. I’m just barely getting all my work done, and it’s not as creative as I know my work can be. I’m making Bs in graduate school. I skip many of my weekly volunteer days. My house looks clean, as long as you don’t look under, behind, or inside anything. Exercise is walking to meetings all day and 15 minutes of stretching at night, if I don’t fall asleep first. Gmail has stopped counting the emails in my inbox; now they just say I have “many.” This post was due yesterday.
It’s not that I’m busy, because it’s about energy more than time. We all have limited amounts of energy. When we choose to spend it in one place, we’re pulling it from somewhere else. We can do a little of a lot, or a lot of a little, or try to find a balance in between. I have so many friends who do so many things, they feel like they can’t come up for air. Other friends feel like they’re not productive enough because all their energy goes to their family or their job or the book they’re writing. They’re mostly women—in my experience, we tend to put more pressure on ourselves this way. We’re all trying to find the balance, but we all need to swing a little far to the left or right sometimes. We don’t expect other people to be excellent at everything all the time. Why do we demand it of ourselves?
So this is where I am right now. Mediocre strong. Adding shame to the mix won’t help, so good enough will have to be good enough until I can do something about it. Projects will close. The semester will end. There will be new opportunities to say yes and no, and I’ll reallocate. For now? It’s all getting done, and that’s something to be proud of.
They will take no for an answer.
These are perfectly acceptable answers to requests for your time and energy:
No thank you.
Not right now.
Let me think about it.
I don’t have time at the moment.
I’m not the right person to help you with this.
I can’t commit to that.
I won't be able to make it this time.
I'm not comfortable with it.
I'm not interested.
I’m in the middle of something right now.
I’d rather not.
We all have to do things we don't want to do, but most of us do things we don't have to do. I make so many commitments because I feel guilty, I want people to like me, or I want to be important. It's almost never worth it. Insecurity and guilt are terrible motivators. So I'm trying to guard my time a little better. Saying no is hard, but I find it helps to be polite about it, adding a simple thank you or a kind word.
Take care of yourself. Spend your time and energy on things that matter.
I recently took a class about listening as part of an internal education program at work. For one of the activities, the instructor had us partner up and tell each other a story about a personal experience. She gave us some rules: Each person has three minutes to tell their story. Include as much detail as possible, and keep talking until the alarm goes off. When you’re listening, you’re not allowed to say anything or ask questions. You also have to sit on your hands, so your whole body is focused on one thing.
When we finished describing our personal experiences, we took turns reciting the stories back to each other. The goal, of course, was to see how much you can retain when you’re completely focused on hearing what your partner is sharing with you.
It seemed like an awkward classroom exercise at first, but I was amazed. I listened so intently. I remembered details. I noticed facial expressions. I was able to recite the whole story back and describe how my partner felt at the time. I probably won’t forget what he told me for a long time. And now I have a new friend at work.
I’m always busy and often distracted while I’m at the office. I glance at my watch during conversations and make to-do lists during meetings. I fidget when I’m stressed. I try to do two things at once. While another person is talking, I think about what I’m going to say next. The “sit on your hands” exercise made me realize I was a pretty crummy listener.
I’m trying to listen more generously. I want to truly hear what people have to say, but it’s more than that—I want to make people feel heard. It’s so nice to have someone look you in the eye and give you their undivided attention.
I’m not going to start sitting on my hands in meetings, but it’s a good reminder: When someone else is talking, listen. Only listen.
Enjoy the Walk
I hate running, but a few times a year I decide to be a runner. I update my cardio playlist, stretch my legs, and tell myself it’s going to be fun this time. And it is, for the first few minutes. Then at some point around mile three, I have to stop and walk. I turn into a sweaty, grunty, red-faced monster. An angry tomato in running shoes, floundering down the sidewalk.
There’s a woman down the street who sits in a lawn chair on her porch when the weather’s nice. Some days I wave when I pass her, and some days she waves back. Last time I went running, I barely made it two miles before I had to catch my breath. I felt defeated and mad at myself. But as I passed the woman in the lawn chair, she called out from her porch, “Enjoy your walk!”
It hadn’t occurred to me that I walking. In my mind, I was just not running.
Running gets too hard after a while, but walking I can handle. So what if I’m not burning as many calories as quickly? When I’m walking, I can look around and appreciate the work my body is doing. Slowing my pace allows me to breathe and makes me stronger for my next run. It seems like a better use of my resources than running until I’m angry and then slamming on the brakes.
There’s nothing wrong with stopping to walk. In fact, I’ve decided to formalize it, alternating between running and walking while I’m still a beginner. I’m not lowering my expectations as much as I’m changing the plan. It feels doable.
I’m fumbling my way through a couple of projects at work right now, and doing things I’m not naturally good at. It’s been challenging, because I’m internally competitive. I want to be excellent at my job all the time. I want to be fast and reliable, no matter what I’m working on. But that’s not sustainable. I get tired, and my brain hurts.
As I stretch myself and learn new skills, I’m also learning to show myself a little more grace. After a sprint, I need to breathe. Reflect on what's working and what's not. Relax my muscles, and build up my energy for next time.
To get there, I’m trying to create moments of rest in my work. Most of the time, that means adjusting my pace and setting realistic deadlines. Sometimes it’s a day off, a long lunch, or leaving my computer at the office over the weekend. Sometimes it's reading. Maybe it’s going from a stressful and difficult project to one that’s more in my comfort zone. Or it could be a debrief, where I can listen to feedback and articulate what I learned.
In those places, I slow down and enjoy the walk.
20 minutes, every day
My late grandmother loved to read, and it was important to her that my sister and I became readers too. When I was a little girl, she bought me storybooks and read to me. When I started reading on my own, she pretended to care about The Baby-Sitters Club and Sweet Valley High. As I got older, she recommended novels and memoirs, and she always asked what I was reading.
I read all the time through my early 20s, but at some point later in my 20s, I stopped making it a priority. My grandmother still asked me what I was reading, and I made up excuses. All of them were variations on “I’m too busy.”
When I told her I didn’t have time to read, she would simply say this: “20 minutes, every day.”
Twenty was her magic number of minutes for forming a habit. It’s long enough to get into a book, but short enough that it’s doable. Pretty much anyone can find 20 minutes to spare; it’s pocket change. Wake up a little earlier, stay up a little later, take a lunch break, watch less TV at night.
I wish I had taken her advice at the time, but I spent four or five years in cycles of reading kicks and dry spells. I slowly realized that I felt more rested and fulfilled during my reading kicks. So just last year, I committed to 20 minutes every day.
Now I read every weeknight before bed, and in the morning on weekends. Sometimes I fall asleep too early, but most nights, 20 minutes turns into 30 minutes, or 40, or an hour. On Saturdays and Sundays my morning reading time sprawls into the afternoon. Being under a blanket reading a book makes me happy and gives me energy. It’s the perfect kind of alone time for me.
Self-mandated daily reading has come with a lot of positive side effects. Since I read more books now, I put less pressure on my selections. I read what I want. If I don’t like what I’m reading, I’ll have another chance tomorrow. This little freedom has led me to books I wouldn’t have picked up otherwise. I also have more things to share with people now. Books make great conversation starters. I’ve had pop-up book clubs with friends when we discovered we had all read the same thing. I’ve had long conversations with my sister, who lives across the country, but we read the same books.
All those gifts from just 20 minutes a day!
I think the 20 minute rule would work for forming other habits too: writing, cooking, yoga, painting. If you’re struggling to find the time to do something you want to do, I encourage you to start with just a few minutes every day.
There is never enough time. But there is always enough time.