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“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labour with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living.”
To emphasise that what happens at the micro level of your life will ultimately affect what happens at the macro level during a coaching session I am quoting from Annie Dillard. I always find it such a powerful truth.
My mother used to wax lyrical and tell anyone who would listen that when she retired she would spend half of the year in Africa enjoying the summer and then, like a swallow, spend the other half of the year in Europe, having the best of both worlds and avoiding winter eternally. Similarly, she spoke of filling her work-free days with charitable tasks and giving back to the community. There were times before my father died that she would talk about going to Las Vegas once she was free from the shackles of his ill health. This was my mother: great at imaging a future for herself although completely unsuccessful at making it happen. This wasn’t because she failed at implementing her plans but rather because she had no plans – just wishes, desires and whims.
Many find it easy to live in the world of ‘someday’ and ‘if’, where happiness, wellbeing and other trophies of success are postponed, imagining that they will be realised sometime in the fortuitous future. I myself am not insusceptible from falling into this way of thinking. This week, when discussing with a colleague the slump in business, I mentioned that I was trying to teach myself to enjoy the downturn, but I was finding the old state of anxiety and having to prove my worth was hard to break. I pondered if in the future we may romanticise this period and look back and see it as a ‘gift’ which we squandered, instead of embracing and enjoying it. He agreed that he was thinking and feeling the same.
I have posed the question of what I would do if I didn’t work. For the most part this is an uncomfortable debate because I love working and a large part of my identity comes from what I do. Because I have always had that work ethic, it’s a hypothetical situation, although today, as I have a less of a workload than normal, I am closer to the question and the dilemma of what should I do with less professional functionality and more free time, becoming real. Again, hypothetically I know that the answer should be focussing on activities that are purposeful, value adding and enriching. These will be different for each person but for me that means health, wellness, family time, relationship building, intellectual enrichment, learning a foreign language, benevolence and so on. But rather I find myself substituting by sitting in front of my computer screen adding no real value except to give me the feeling that I am showing up for work as if nothing has changed. The ‘other stuff’, while deeply important but not urgent, feels too indulgent to allocate ‘work’ time to, and so it gets swept aside. Without real acceptance of its legitimacy and plan of action it won’t get the attention proving therefore that the apple does not fall far from the tree as I reflect that I am indeed my mother’s son!
When this period of COVID started and we went into lockdown there were lots of promises made like; caring more about the planet after a halt in traffic and industry cleared the air and made nature sounds audible on the streets; paying frontline healthcare staff more and not taking other workers for granted etc. It promised a chance to start society afresh. At the personal level is was things like family time and embracing the chance to slow down, to rethink our lives and question the obsession with work.
My mother passed away a few years ago and while she didn’t have shortness of sight when it came to her personal vision, she failed to act on many of her intentions and dreams. This doesn’t mean she didn’t work hard. Like me she was defined by her work and good at it. Pressing urgent tasks like raising a family and putting food on the table took precedence, I guess, over plans for a dual-continent, globetrotting lifestyle, charity work and hitting the slots in Vegas. I can’t help feeling it was an opportunity lost due to not having a plan to deal with what is there and what is possible.
So, with my colleague we have agreed to remind ourselves that this period is unique. In all situations there is opportunity if that is what we choose to embrace. So, we welcome this time, uncomfortable and unfamiliar though it may appear, with a schedule to do not what I am used to but what I could, would and should. Well, it’s either that or staring at the hypnotic computer screen. In other words, being brainwashed or a no-brainer!