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Ease the Feeling of Being Overwhelmed by Learning to Let Go

To gain peace of mind consider engaging in the experience at hand.

Key points

  • Peace of mind is not about changing circumstances but changing how we perceive them.
  • Plan for deadlines and allow what you are doing in the moment to be enough.
  • Don't try to improve efficiency, try to improve a tolerance for current and future life demands.

My dog Scout is never plagued by the idea that she’s not getting enough done (see photo evidence.) Unlike me, her human buddy, I seriously doubt that multiple responsibilities have ever filled her with the unconscious dread that she’s not doing or being enough or that she’s letting everyone down. If I could hear what Scout was thinking, it would sound more like, “I love you,” “throw the ball,” and “more peanut butter,” and less like existential dread.

Karen Shackleford
Scout is Chill
Source: Karen Shackleford

Never enough is a trap. Avoid the trap. We humans often fill our moments with the thought that whatever we accomplish is not enough and maybe never will be. Perhaps our jobs or family lives seem to pressure us to carry a greater load than we think we can. After all, that’s the definition of stress: the perception that life asks more of us than we can deliver.

In Escaping the Efficiency Trap, author Oliver Burkeman suggests that if we think that peace of mind will come once we’ve cleared our inbox, we’re working on the wrong end of the equation. Rather than finding peace in a clear inbox, find peace in a clear mind. As Burkeman (2021, C1) puts it, “don’t clear the decks, clear your head.”

How do we do that? So much about peace of mind is not about changing circumstances but changing how we perceive them. The key shift is not to figure out how to clear the inbox. In fact, you may have noticed that if you are fast and efficient at work, people will give you more work.

The solution involves understanding the situation differently. Let me use an analogy to explain: If you are standing in a stream fishing, for example, think about the fish that’s swimming towards you. Don’t think about fish that may or may not come your way soon or the snake that may find you.

As a regular practitioner of yoga and meditation, I’ve learned from those traditions that it is healthy and life-sustaining to engage fully in what you are doing rather than in what you may do later. With workload, you may have fallen into the trap that I have fallen into so many times. This is the trap that Burkeman points out: that the solution is in doing more…in getting each job done. Only then will you be able to relax. But that relaxation will never fully arrive.

Do this! No, do that! You're doing it wrong! Let me demonstrate the trap and the goal with my own life: While writing this blog, I was pulled mentally by the idea that some graduate students are waiting for me to grade their papers. In actual fact, I have many days to submit my grades. But, my psyche wails at me: “they want their paper grades now! They will think bad things about you. In fact, let’s just jump to, ‘you suck.’” My psyche can be a humorless wench, can’t she? I love her, but she needs an intervention.

Let it be. In meditation, one of the practices is learning to allow something uncomfortable to just be rather than trying to fix it. Burkeman advises us to chuck the notion that peace of mind will only come from meeting all demands. In other words, the idea that you’ll be happy once you empty your inbox or to-do list is a sure path to hell or at least discontent. Instead, allow yourself to believe that it’s okay to be standing in the middle of a river that endlessly flows, bringing many things to you. You needn't stop right now and think about all the things that may eventually arrive at your feet. In other words, new things to accomplish will always be ready and waiting for you. They will be waiting for us all. That’s not a sign of failure.

Love the one you're with. Lately, I’ve developed a mantra that amuses me. The mantra is, “love the one you’re with.” I like it because it sounds vaguely naughty. But what I really mean by this mantra is to remember to engage in the experience at hand and let go of what might happen later. When you are writing a blog entry, write a blog entry. Revel in it. Get into it. And when you grade a paper, grade a paper. But don’t write a blog entry while thinking, “what the hell is wrong with me that I am not currently grading a paper?”

By all means, mark your calendar for when the grades are due so that you’ll know that it's okay to put the papers aside right now. Then you’ll feel more confident that your essential responsibilities will be met in due course. You won’t need to be constantly reminding yourself of the next items on your calendar.

Hold on. Let go. I’ll leave you with one last lesson from the yoga mat and/or meditation cushion: the lesson of holding on and letting go. Yoga teaches you that you hold onto something at any given moment in time, and you let go of something else. Replace “yoga” with “life,” and the same is true. At any moment in life, you will be holding something and letting go of something. If overwhelm has been keeping you stressed out, you may have become an expert at holding on. Your next move is to develop the habit that every time you pick something up, let something else go simultaneously. Get in the habit of thinking, "What can I let go of right now?" Try it now.

References

Burkeman, O. (2021, August 7-8). Escaping the efficiency trap -- and finding some peace of mind. https://www.wsj.com/print-edition/20210807/review

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