This is my new series on some really basic shit that I should know by now, and yet somehow I still need to be reminded of. Maybe you do, too?
How often do you find yourself all jammed up, and you try to power through, but the more you power through, the worse things get?
It happens to me daily. I work in software, and my job involves a great deal of troubleshooting and problem-solving. My process is both intuitive and analytical, and when I'm on the trail of a solution, I never want to give up until it's done. I push and push, and sometimes I get there, but more often, I just get more and more frustrated.
The same thing happens when I sit down to write. When the words are flowing, I'm flowing, too, and nothing feels better. But when the words stop, or when I have a concept that I'm not sure how to break down for the reader, the frustration again starts to rise.
What is that frustration? Is it a sign that I'm useless and a failure and no solution is possible, and I'm just going to sit here in front of this computer raging and muttering to myself like a crazy person until I die and devolve into a skeleton?
Probably not. What I'm starting to see is that frustration is only a sign that I need to take a break. Make a cup of tea, watch the birds, take a walk, do some dishes -- anything to break up the glut in my mind and open my perception back up again.
Because when I don't take a break, and I keep trying to power through the frustration? I start fucking things up. I make silly mistakes, I forget what step I was on, and I get super-real-to-the-point-of-bitchiness with the people around me. And then I feel awful.
If this sounds familiar, well, there's a good reason for that -- it's how human beings work. When we are in the midst of bad juju, our perception narrows to a point. We tend to focus on what's wrong -- risks, dangers, likely pitfalls. And that makes sense, in a way, because of where we came from and how we evolved -- like, when there's a wooly mammoth with giant tusks charging at your family, you should probably focus on that first.
But a software problem in 2017 is not a mammoth, wooly though they both may be. A desire to express a complex thought in my writing with clarity and humor is not equivalent to a desire to stay alive in the face of danger and strife. The kinds of problems that I face these days generally aren't even solvable from a space of fight or flight. They require that I open up my attention and consider new ideas. Even if my customer is having a cow and my boss is having a cow and I am also having a cow, I need to find away to set all that aside and let my mind breathe for a minute.
This requires that I stop freaking out. It requires that I allow my brain to relax and the ideas within to mix and mingle freely. And the very best way to do this is to take a break, to focus on something different and allow the pressure and vexation to run out of me.
It's best if it's a major break from what I was doing before. Like, if I'm troubleshooting something on the computer, picking up my phone doesn't make for a very good break. It works much better to do something completely different, like vacuuming or lifting weights or painting. The goal is to exercise a different part of my brain and hopefully get my body and blood moving, too.
It takes effort for me to remember and allow myself to step away for a while, because what I've been taught is to stick with it. At school, at work -- all of us are taught to sit still, to override our natural instincts to ebb and flow, and to keep our little noses to the grindstone for the allotted amount of time, whether it's an hour in math class, or eight hours in the office. So my default is to try to push through, even though it doesn't work that well.
When I do remember to take a break, though, and afterwards I go back to the issue at hand? I have fresh eyes and a new perspective. Without exception, I'm able to do what I wasn't able to do before I switched things up. It's kind of magical, how breaks can lead to breakthroughs.
The dangers of NOT taking a break are spelled out in the second act of the genius musical, Hamilton. In "Take a Break," Hamilton's in the midst of shit-tons of work drama, and his wife and sister-in-law exhort him to run away with them and spend the summer upstate. Their voices entwine in gorgeous harmony as they try to convince him, and it's not only about the fact that they want to spend time with him -- they both can see that he's in the frustrated place and desperately needs to switch things up.
Tragically, he doesn't see their good sense. He makes a terrible decision -- to stay in town and power through -- and in the very next song he fucks up majorly, sowing the seeds of his own political destruction as well as the death of his oldest son. Everything unravels for him, and it all stems from his inability to step away from the fray for a minute and reconnect with the easy and free-flowing parts of life. If only he had listened to Eliza and Angelica and taken the damn break!
So, this week, let us all learn from Alexander Hamilton's mistakes and NOTICE when we are getting frustrated. Let's pay attention to the moment when trying to push through an obstacle starts to feel more like banging our heads on a wall. And let's use that feeling as a cue to step away and give our minds a chance to unclench for a minute.
Are you good at recognizing when you need to take a break from whatever you are doing and switch up your internal experience? Do you find frustration to be a good workmate, or a barrier to getting your work done? Tell me all about it!