by Megan Taylor Stephens
“When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be” -Lao Tzu
This article is part two of two. Part one is Aimless Unemployment: Allowing Yourself to Step Away Without a Goal.
You’ve Quit. Now What?
You may be 100% on board with stepping off the hamster wheel, but you still need some guiding principles in your search for a goal-less existence filled with wide open possibilities. It’s difficult to detach cold turkey from the expectation that one will always be a Productive Person. It’s hard to shed off Type A tendencies and ignore the feeling that you are judged for your accomplishments and busyness or lack thereof.
Removing expectations and objectives for yourself can let new paths emerge into view and fresh opportunities percolate to the surface. If you think it’s in your best interest to reboot and regroup, feel free to copy this admittedly loosey goosey 5-part self-discovery plan.
Note: A licensed career or life coach will have much more reliable information and a better structured plan than me! These are simply my first-person point of view musings.
1. Set aside some days to go to sleep and wake up when you want to.
I’ve always found myself to be a morning person. I am energized and able to tackle big jobs in the morning (perhaps all that caffeine helps). But other than that, I think I have been sleepwalking my way through my own sleep awareness, as it were. I don’t really know much about my own body’s preference for somnambulation.
Learning to take care of your sleep hygiene and notice your optimal sleep patterns is critical for your mental health. It’s important to tap into the innate flow of our bodies and allow our brains to take an occasional time out. Knowing one’s natural sleep and wake and super awake rhythms is valuable information. The observations can clue us in on a certain type of job, e.g., remote vs in person, salaried vs project-based, contractor vs employee, daytime vs graveyard shift, international vs domestic, etc.
Log your observations
Give yourself some time to turn off the alarms, notifications, and ringers and pay attention to your natural rhythms. Log your results. How many hours of sleep do you need to feel refreshed and rejuvenated? Do you sleep more soundly with a certain room temperature or are you more light-sensitive when it comes to sleep quality? Is something in your diet making you toss and turn at night? When there’s no alarm clock, when will your circadian rhythm nudge you awake?
You might need to send the kids to their grandparents or live in the garage for a few days, but it’s well worth it if you can pull off this informal little sleep study. If you can’t change your sleeping arrangements, maybe just experiment with cooling down the bedroom or installing a blackout curtain or cutting out alcohol in the evening.
Count your sleeps.
It might be my peri-menopause, but I am finding that I’m a “two sleeps” person by nature. In Shakespeare’s day, they say it was common for people to sleep in two shifts. So let’s say a person would get some solid Zzzzs from 10:00pm to 2:00am, then wake up and putz around for a while, then sleep again from 4:00am to 8:00am.
What happens in that putzing zone can be amazing and earth shattering! You don’t have to toss and turn and be frustrated that you’re wide awake. You can get up and get busy doing something that you’ve feel drawn to. Such as work on a mosaic tile Mona Lisa replica or crank out one award-winning play after another like Señor Shakespeare did!
Succomb to the nap.
Left unattended and unoccupied, will you take a nap? I learned something new: that I do like a very short afternoon cat nap after all. I thought I disliked naps because they disorient me and keep me in a prolonged state of torpor. Not true anymore! These days, it feels delicious and decadent to doze off mid-sentence in a book, mid-scroll on my phone. I couldn’t be more content to drift away with my trusty, napping dog at my side, legs twitching in her dream state.
2. Ask yourself if something is an obligation or a desire, mandatory or optional.
Look, there are some things that must be done, like laundry and taxes. But there are so many things that we think we should do—or that society tells us we should do—that are utter nonsense. The Earth will keep spinning and heads will not roll if we ignore or refuse to do many tasks. These three tips can help us prioritize and scale back many tasks in our overwhelming lives.
Follow your own heart.
I should cook an elaborate dinner. Nope. The kids will not become malnutritioned from occasionally consuming food that is freezer-to-table rather than farm-to-table. I should lose weight to be as fit and slim as my younger years. Not really. Getting pudgier with age is quite normal, as long as I have relative health. I should strive to climb up the professional ladder after all these years. Nah. I have climbed far enough to enjoy the view and get a little acrophobic toward the top. I’m cool at the lower rungs.
Instead of belaboring what I should do based on others’ expectations, I will follow where my heart and mind take me and see what floats my boat. (Though I really should mediate. I should add that to the obligatory list of laundry and taxes.)
Trim the list.
We try to do too much. I always tell my kids: “mandatory comes before optional.” It’s mandatory to do your chores and it’s optional to hang out with friends, so do A before B. I use this mandatory vs optional dichotomy all the time. But in truth, it can be really hard to separate the two.
Think about something on your To Do list. Is it absolutely necessary that it be done? Once you realize that it is ‘optional stress’ and you can opt out, are you good at saying no? Some people rarely say no for fear of disappointing people. Others just need to step back and ask themselves if they must do That Thing. You might find out that you can move something from your To Do list to your Not To Do list. Some tasks might stay on your To Do List but can be moved toward the bottom in that hazy To Do Eventually zone.
Keep the dog in mind.
When we’re about to reflexively commit to something, perhaps we can ask if we’re “shoulding” ourselves and not thinking through whether something is truly obligatory vs optional. We can be more in control of our life than we give ourselves credit for. Our instincts are strong; we just need to notice and acknowledge them. Then we can proceed with the knowledge that we are in control of our time and activities.
When we are the ones controlling the minutiae of our lives, we are like the dog wagging its tail and not the tail wagging the dog. The same goes for how we approach work. Are we taking ownership of our lives or letting other forces steer the ship? In our jobs, so often we find that the tail (i.e., our supervisor’s glare, our rote behaviors, our frivolous tasks) is wagging the dog (i.e, our values, our health, our satisfaction level). It’s time that we act like the dog and not its puny appendage!
3. Notice your feelings
I am pretty good at sorting things into the categories of mandatory vs optional, which helps me whittle down my To Do List and lessen my overwhelm. But I am still on a journey in terms of learning to sit with my feelings and true reaction to a proposal or idea. I’m convinced that tapping into my feelings is key to finding my way.
Go with the Hell Yes.
Do I truly want to hang out with that person at this time? Do I truly want to hang out with that person but not at this time? If I am double booked, is one event much more appealing to me than the other? If I say no to something, will I ultimately have FOMO or JOMO—fear of missing out or joy of missing out?
I’m trying to go with that emphatic “hell yeah” response (à la Derek Sivers) rather than stumble along passively with a semi-dissatisfied taste in my mouth. Maybe there are important patterns that we all can notice about what sparks joy for us. What makes us perk up, our hearts flutter, our cogs turn, our boats float? Maybe there are equally important patterns to know about what makes us recoil, wince, or groan.
Draw the happiness.
How do you feel deep down? You could take that To Do list from the section above and assign feelings to each item. Do you feel excited to tackle something on that list? Are you dreading doing it? Put a feeling next to each thing. Same with a list of job openings. Which ones attract you, which repel you, and which are neutral for you? Put a smiley, frowny, or neutral face next to each job on that list that you are qualified for.
You can cross out lots of things on your To Do List or Potential Jobs List that you don’t want to do or don’t need to do (or that someone else can do) and add things that you can do and are excited to do. Pack your To Do list and Potential Jobs List with things that require no motivational speech from yourself to go after because they already bring you happiness or satisfaction.
Find the patterns.
Stand back and look at those lists. Are there patterns to what you like and dislike?
I like things that are creative, intellectual, social, and physical. I dislike bureaucratic things that involve forms and numbers, like accounting, budgeting, bills, taxes, and paperwork. Which is interesting, because my professional field requires lots of administrative form-filling and organizational skill, and I’m generally good at it.
This is an opportunity to notice that “I’m good at it” is different than “I enjoy it.” I may not be able to find a job that ticks all the boxes of enjoyment for me, but I can sure try. When we like a task or activity, goals and motivation are less relevant. We can ride the wave of internalized pleasure that propels us where we’re meant to be.
4. Be Laissez-Faire
I heard something the other day along the lines of “a sense of urgency is trauma-based.” I don’t usually buy into sweeping generalizations like that, but it definitely stuck with me.
With America’s WASPy cultural and religious underpinnings, we’ve been traumatized by oppressive forces on all fronts to work harder, do more, go faster, acquire more, do better, be better, be perfect. Between pleasing children and parents, bosses, and the bill collectors, the fear that Everything Will Crumble Around Us keeps us on that Oh So Very Urgent Hamster Wheel.
Sometimes urgent things come up, but always carrying oneself with a sense of stress when there is no emergency isn’t good for the mind or the body (hello, cortisol!). And if we are in a constant state of stress and urgency over very basic daily things like shopping, cooking, and raising kids, then there’s something wrong.
Short of day drinking and getting stoned every day, certainly there are ways to have a more calm and nonchalant baseline demeanor. By embracing a Zen mentality, we’ll have more healthy heart rates and blood pressure, surges of endorphins, and flowing serotonin, making us happier and more sustainable in the long haul.
The opposite of “a sense of urgency is trauma-based” might be “a sense of calm is self-care.” Here are three of my reminders to embody the latter.
Reject the Rush.
Whether at work or at home, step off the gas pedal. Embed relaxed energy and a slow, methodical, reasonable pace into our work. Listen to music, nibble on snacks, and sing or chatter with friends and colleagues as we pass the day. When in doubt, take the long way rather than the short cut. Stairs instead of elevator, walking over driving, stopping to smell the roses. No amount of hurrying and scurrying will bring satisfaction. The faster you do things, the more things you’ll find to do.
Life doesn’t hand out breaks voluntarily, so you have to make them happen. Mix up the day with 15-minute dog walks, karaoke, yoga stretches, food prep, meditation breaks, weeding, reading, Duolingo lessons, whatever brings you a sense of rejuvenation. Instead of feeling guilty for taking a short break from work or childcare or whatever you have urgent feelings about, remind yourself that Chilling the Eff Out is good medicine and ultimately good for productivity.
Even if you’re introverted, try to occasionally swap out activities and tasks you could do alone (and often more quickly) for collectivist activities that are done in a group (and often more happily). You can sometimes be more efficient and proficient when you go it alone, but being rushed and manic about your own projects also tends to feed the Urgency Monster. Work parties with neighbors to clean up each other’s yards, paint each other’s houses, round up the trash and recycling, or host a potluck remind you that the journey is more valuable than the destination.
Many cultures are collectivists and work together to bring in the fish from the sea, harvest the crops, shuck the corn, mill the grains, mend the roofs. I highly suspect that a cooperative mentality lowers stress and an individualistic mentality increases it.
5. Be spontaneous and try new things
Along with scrapping a lengthy To Do list, I’m trying to stop over-planning in general. That’s the only way for exciting possibilities to crop up. A packed and preset schedule doesn’t allow for pockets of exploration. The creative self needs wide open space to daydream, ruminate, ponder. Novel experiences introduce the mind to new worlds. Running from appointment to appointment and event to event leaves no time for novelty or reflection or aha moments.
I also like spontaneity because there’s really no way to know ahead of time if I’ll be in the mood for that concert, that restaurant, that trip. I’d rather pounce on something when I’m feeling it rather than drag my behind out the door kicking and screaming because I made a commitment long ago to go to such-and-such a fundraiser or such-and-such a volunteer gig.
Here are some fun, last-minute things one could do:
In the mood for an escape to nature?
Try shinrin yoku. “Forest bathing,” as it’s known in Japanese, is when you go out into a forest and drink in the beauty and oxygen around you. You purge the toxic buildup of the modern world and immerse yourself in nature therapy. I asked my friends for recommended hikes not too far away, and they came through in spades when I was ready to dart into the forest.
Hankering for people?
Meet Up events tend to be smaller and more intimate than FaceBook events. Get on meetup.com to see what is happening in your community. I just saw meet ups coming up in my city for Walking Group, Singles Game Night, 80s Dancing, Adult Asperger & Autism, Fall Hike, Mushroom Picking, Book Club, and many more. There is something for everyone, including some very niche themes and eccentric activities!
Missing your artsy side?
If you don’t know where to start, you might try Airbnb Experiences. You log onto Airbnb and instead of looking for lodging, you can search experiences that are offered. They range in price and span all sorts of small group or private activities. I see someone local offering a self-portrait painting class, pottery wheel lesson, photography workshop, botanical watercolor lesson, and more.
Don’t Disrupt my Mojo: A Resolute Mindset
I know this period of semi-employment won’t last long, so I’m soaking up every soul-affirming moment I can get. A big hope of mine is that when I’m ready to relaunch this whole employment thing, I won’t fall back into old patterns that leave me overworked and zapped of energy.
Somehow, amidst my Demotivation Plan and Free-Floating Agenda-less Existence, I will need to come out the other end of these gap months with a clear sense of purpose. Chilling out isn’t enough. Joe Pinsker (2022) put it this way:
“Sabbaticals seem to help people heal from burnout, but they aren’t a comprehensive cure. ‘You can’t rest your way out of burnout, because burnout is about the relationship between your ideals for work and the reality of your job,’ Jonathan Malesic, the author of The End of Burnout: Why Work Drains Us and How to Build Better Lives, told me. If you don’t change anything about the way you work, he said, ‘you’re going to end up in the same miserable condition again.’”
I know good things will come of my sabbatical if I pay attention to my internal state and ward off external pressures. One external pressure is my ever-comedic husband. In between my self-care activities and experiments, he has been disrupting my mojo. He likes to remind me of the high pay for plasma (or is it platelet?) donation and offers to set up regular clinic visits for me. I think he’s joking—he’s a real ham, that guy—but he may not be.
Sorry, Honey, I’m committed to being uncommitted for a few more months, and that includes prescheduled plasma donation appointments. Try to hold down the fort while I take a nap.
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Pinsker, J. (2022). What is life like when we subtract work from it? The Atlantic.