Today this column comes to you from Starbucks. There are several reasons for this. First, my yoga class was cancelled, and I felt like doing something worthwhile with my exciting spare hour. Second, my laptop only works in Starbucks. And third, I’m only allowed to park here for an hour, so I’d better get writing. (That second one is a big fib, I just fancied coming to Starbucks, because there are lots of boring jobs waiting for me at home.)
On a recent writing course that I went on (a Guardian Masterclass with Philippa Pride), Philippa would give us seven and a half minutes to complete a writing exercise. Seven and a half minutes works, she told us, because five minutes doesn’t feel long enough to write anything, and if we had twenty minutes we’d spend the first ten minutes wondering what to write and worrying that it isn’t good enough. If you’ve only got seven and a half minutes, you get scribbling straight away.
As someone who regularly experiences overwhelm (too much work! Where did all this laundry come from! Too many children!), checking out how long it actually takes to do something can sometimes help. I’m inclined to allow a whole day for a job that might only take an hour or so. But Parkinson’s law takes over, and I’ll somehow make darned sure it takes the whole day. I’d allowed a day to write this, but right now, with the car park thingy ticking away, I could get it pretty much wrapped up by elevenses.
The other day I spotted a useful article on overwhelm. Overwhelm (my definition – please don’t tell me it’s just me) is when you can’t achieve anything because you have too much to do, and the fact that you’re not achieving anything makes you feel that it’s all terrible, and it’s a pretty unpleasant downward spiral from there, mitigated only by writing off the day and heading to Starbucks, finding a little table for one in the corner, and perhaps sobbing quietly, or at least staring out of the window with a crazed look in your eyes, wondering where all the squirrels are (just me? Ok …).
The article, ‘Dealing with Overwhelm: with 10 Simple Steps and Lots of Tea’ (oneofmany.co.uk), suggests the following: Stop. Stop running around madly getting stressed and take a breather (I think this means: go to Starbucks). Recognise it’s ok. It’s not a failure of your very being, just that today it’s a bit much. Tomorrow you’ll be fine. Then, dump it out. Make a cup of tea (or: order a flat white), and write a long list of everything that you need to do. Include everything. Then – this is the best bit – cross most of it out. Most of it is rubbish, irrelevant, or unnecessary, at least for today. ‘Beware the baroness of busy life’, wrote Socrates. Pretend your best friend is going through the list with you. They’d probably say ‘do you really need to grout the bathroom – today?!’ The article’s author, Joanna Martin, says, ‘it’s not just about time management, it’s about energy management’. Then, delegate! (Sigh… haven’t I told you?! You don’t have to do everything yourself!) If other relatively able-bodied people live with you, they can and should be called upon to help. Bribe if necessary. Hard cash or chocolate usually works. Finally, focus on the big picture. What’s it all about, Alfie? (Where have all the squirrels gone?) ‘Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans’, said John Lennon. Ditch the other plans. Concentrate on the life stuff, the bread and butter, the all day breakfast bap, the tall skinny macchiato, the beans on toast for the children’s tea. What do you absolutely need to do today? It’s summertime, and the livin’ should be easier than this. The rest can wait until tomorrow, which, as Scarlett O’Hara points out, is another day.