Three tips for managing the anxiety of an empty diary

Empty notebook

Over the last two weeks, lots of my clients have been telling me that they are having trouble with the change of pace that has been forced on every one that isn’t an ‘essential’ worker. For many people, this means moving from a 9-5 routine to having enormous amounts of free time, but no activities available outside the home. Of course, most people have lots of things that they have been dreaming about doing for years. Whether that is writing a book, getting on with a sewing or art project, cleaning the cupboard or connecting more with loved ones. Yet with all this time opening up, somehow those things still aren’t happening, and that seems to be causing lots of distress.

Lots of people are having more trouble than usual switching between tasks and even getting started with doing things that they really want to do. Some of these folks are usually really productive, others often have a hard time with focus. Nearly everyone I’ve talked to is having a harder than usual time with being intentional about how they spend their time, and that the fact they are having a hard time is causing many people distress, including guilt, shame and self-judgement. Here are three tips that might help:

  1. Chunking your time

I’m dyspraxic and have long struggled with being overwhelmed by tasks. When I was in secondary school, I had an important geography project that I just couldn’t start. I didn’t know what to do first, so I did nothing. This was not a good plan. I ended up doing it at the last minute and having asthma/panic attacks and some humiliating interactions with my parents. This was an experience I was keen not to repeat. So I learned how to break down large tasks into tiny pieces so I could schedule them into my daily life rather than feeling completely paralyzed and overwhelmed. 

Turns out, I also get overwhelmed by an empty diary sometimes. When I look at an empty week it can feel wonderful, but my day to day reality when experiencing it can be one of decision fatigue. I can get stuck doing absolutely nothing because there are SO MANY CHOICES. The tyranny of choice is 100% a thing in my world. Luckily, the lessons from my geography project apply here too. If I chunk up my time and assign it to do specific tasks my life is easier. Even if I don’t actually do the things. Yesterday I had 3 hours set aside to make Ikea furniture that I’d made the day before so the time doesn’t always work out the way I planned. Nevertheless, the exercise of chunking the day up into slots helps me to assign time to the things that are important to me, and reminds me to actually do them. 

Personally, I prefer to have 3 main activities scheduled in a day. I put times in my google calendar for the week ahead leaving aside time for my clients to book sessions. When my calendar tells me what is up next, I usually decide that I want to do what it is telling me to, but I am able to be kind to myself when it just isn’t going to work. Sometimes I don’t feel up to writing. Sometimes I need more rest because I’m having a pain flare. Sometimes it is unexpectedly sunny and colouring in the garden is what I feel moved to do. I feel good about adjusting my schedule when I need to. Nevertheless, I know that in this uncertain world, having activities planned into my diary gives me a sense of control and certainty which is really valuable to me right now. I’d invite you to try it out and see how it works in your life.

2) Taking 5-10 breaths before starting something new

I’ve written a lot of posts in the past about the joys of incorporating mindful moments into your day in the form of being consciously present when hand washing, tooth brushing or even door locking (something I do because otherwise, I forget!). I find these mindful practices remind me to be present with my body and help me to reduce my stress level. Today’s exercise is a really brief mindful breathing one. Doing this exercise before you start a new task can help you to reduce your stress level and refocus on what you would like to be doing with your time. There is also considerable evidence that exercises like this can reduce stress, anxiety, depression, increase focus, decision-making ability, cognitive function and emotion regulation. Fortunately, it’s also really simple. 

 

Take a deep breath, in through your nose while counting to 7.

Pause for a moment

Breathe out through your mouth while counting to 11

Pause for a moment

Repeat 5-10 times.

The key to this exercise is doing it frequently. Don’t worry if you lose count. Don’t worry if it isn’t exactly perfect. The point isn’t perfection. The point is to give it a go. If you’d like to work with a prompt, try one of these.

3) Switching judgemental thoughts for self-compassion and kindness.

More than at any time in my professional life, I’ve noticed people judging themselves right now. In particular, people are making judgements about how they aren’t being sufficiently productive. How they aren’t using their time correctly. How they aren’t getting all the things that they had been hoping to, done. Given how much our culture values productivity, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. But I am! We are living in the midst of a global pandemic. Health workers are being traumatised (not to mention sickened) by the sheer volume of critically unwell and dying people. All of us know someone in a vulnerable group, if we aren’t vulnerable ourselves. Our lives have been fundamentally changed by the virus and government responses to it. It would be extremely surprising if people weren’t finding it harder to concentrate, focus and make decisions. Yet nearly all of us are judging ourselves for these things. 

You can find lots of resources on working towards self-compassion and kindness. These are some I’d recommend. To begin, I’d suggest just noticing the judgemental thoughts that you have, and consider whether they are something you would say about your favourite person if they were in your situation. If you wouldn’t say it about them, then you’re probably being unreasonably harsh towards yourself. When you notice that you’re being judgemental, find a simple way to be compassionate or kind towards yourself. That might mean taking an action to comfort or de-stress yourself like moisturising your hands, texting a friend or taking a walk. Alternatively, it might mean addressing the thought directly, for example:

Productivity critic: You’re so lazy, you should already have got that post on your blog. You were thinking about it all last week and only a useless waste of space wouldn’t have got it online already. Why are you so lazy?

Wise mind: There has been a lot of change in the world and in my life. I am not defined by how much I write or how productive I am. It is OK if I am not getting through as much as I usually would.

If that is enough then you can leave it at that, but often you will get lots more judgements coming through. 

Productivity critic: Ha. Other people are getting through more than you. Just look at that post Meg John put up the other day. It was FOUR TIMES as long as anything you write, and way more interesting and smart. You should be doing more. 

Wise mind: I agree, Meg John is brilliant, and I loved that article. We are also really different and have almost opposite writing styles and both styles can be good and useful to people. What are you really worried about? 

Productivity critic: I’m worried that you will never do anything and you will never get your ideas on paper and no one will want to be your client and you will be broke and die. 

Wise mind: Those things are really scary. I can see why you are so keen for me to get writing. At the same time, I have plenty of posts on my blog, plenty of clients on my list and writing another post probably won’t change that much. Plus, I’m more likely to be able to write if I feel calmer. 

Productivity critic: I want you to DO SOMETHING though. 

Wise mind: OK, so let’s make a schedule so I can spend some time finding ways to be in my body and be calm, some time to rest, some time for pleasure and some time for purposeful work. Will that help?

Productivity critic: Yes. I feel a bit better now you are taking me seriously and planning on doing some things. 

I don’t know what the script would look like for you, but I certainly know my inner productivity fiend takes a lot of pleasure in comparisons, catastrophizing and ruminating. Getting to the fears and working directly with them has always been more useful than ignoring her, suppressing her or arguing with her or just doing everything she wants. I’d invite you to set aside some time to work through the main emotional drivers for your own productivity pixie’s judgements. 

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