I planned this post as a follow-up to one called The Truth About Work from a couple of months ago, but a few things happened that changed my thinking. It has implications for my future and in particular, it redefines what this break from work and upcoming trip means to me.
One of the punchlines to "The Truth About Work" was that, sometimes, the only way to move ahead is to quit. I (originally)1 put it a little more baldly than that: I said that you always have to quit in order to move on from a sticky situation. Because I knew I was about to quit, I felt I had to write about that decision in unequivocal terms. Obviously I don't think that you should just tap out every single time that things get a little tough. I am not even sure now whether I should have done it at all: hitting the reset button so far in advance of the tour no longer feels like the great idea that it once did. I wasted a lot of the last six weeks and the principal effect of that has been to erode my self-esteem and my bank account.
As a result, I've become difficult to live with. Leaving work is isolating in a social sense, especially because I worked with a great bunch of people and built up the majority of my social network in London around being good friends with people at work while rarely going to their parties. As you can imagine, the lack of human contact and stimulating work throughout the day, along with my procrastination over the few things I had to do to prepare for the tour, mean that I have festered somewhat. It turns out that my job was doing some good for my sanity after all.
Now, throughout my life I've tended to experience cycles – ones in which I might fester then fizz – so this recent festering didn't bother me too much. I thought I would rally. Because I don't want to carry six months' worth of drugs across almost every land border in South America, I also tapered off my antidepressants. So that had an effect too. I wrote almost three years ago about how difficult it was for me to sleep in the weeks after giving up this same medication the last time and my experience this time around is similar, I've not slept that well since I began to reduce my dose.
These two things in tandem2 were a disaster waiting to happen and so about a week ago I managed to alienate one of my housemates. It takes two to tango and so even though I have apologised, things still seem intractable between us. You have to respect people's choices, though it saddens me to note that if I'd done that in the first place perhaps I wouldn't be in this mess. There isn’t much point lamenting that another person isn’t being nice to you if your actions are the reason that they aren’t being nice! Cue another one of my rounds of soul-searching and an investigation in to exactly what I am supposed to be achieving with my life at the moment.
In the end, I realised that I was looking at things all wrong and that you can't be "achieving" anything in particular at any given moment. Achievements are what come to us after time, the things that we look back on and laugh about, or cringe at, or make toasts to. You attain very little in life if you are goal focussed – or at least if you are goals were like mine: abstract, open-ended and unachievable. When you say things to yourself like "I will learn X" or "I will get better at Y", you have to be very careful that you aren't sweet talking abuse toward yourself. To get things done and feel good, you have to make those goals specific and achievable. You can say "I will read <em>that</em> book (before all the others)” or "I will run 4km in 25 minutes". A deadline never goes amiss either, the reason why you hate them at work is because they actually make you do things.
After realising what a hole I had got into, I tried to make more of these precise goals and I think it is working for me. Generally I try to do one thing each day and then see how I feel after that. I made a cake the other day and that was a real confidence booster. (Spoiler alert: a post entitled "The Only Chocolate Cake Recipe You'll Ever Need" is coming soon!) I also fixed up this blog to looking pretty: that was a longer goal as editing 400+ blog posts can feel like an unending task when you are setting out, though it became easier as soon as I made a list of the posts I would fix in a given session and checked them off one by one. This meant that my sessions didn't take too long and when I looked at the results of each session's work, I felt a pride in what I had done and was excited for the next one.
The Reset Button
That said I still feel lacking in character for allowing myself to get into this funk in the first place and so, rather than hazy headline goals for my life, I decided that I need some guidelines for how to proceed. With Buddhism as my template, I wrote these four little lines in my notepad:
- Behave better
- Be nicer
- Do more
- Expect less
In recent days I revisited each of these guidelines and tried to work out they really mean to me and what I could do in my life to espouse them. For starters, on closer analysis aren't 1 and 2 sort of the same thing? I think so, but I choose to take them as respectively representing inward and outward behaviour. Kindness has to be self-directed as well as other-directed and I think it is important to address both of these when you're trying to improve yourself.
I will try to write a post on each of these four before I leave for South America. I realise that this journey is a massive chance to push the reset button on my life in a gentle and fun way. It will be nice to get up and go from A to B for the day, to be present in my life and see, hear, taste, smell, and feel new things. It is my hope that if I can do that for six months, I can carry on doing that for a long time afterward. I don't want to be a completely different person and I don't expect to become one, I am just really excited at the thought of making the most of who I can be from now on.