S1E01: “What Have You Been Doing Now That You Can’t Do Anything?” – 1/2

Pink tulip with three drooping petals, and two strong petals

That is a direct quote from one of the several curious well-wishers who reached out in the weeks after I left my job. In the midst of a global pandemic, and more specifically – in the midst of international lockdown.

Sidenote: My first official day of freedom was a week before official lockdown in the U.K. Talk about serendipity. I’ll be honest – this isn’t exactly the setting I thought I would encounter it. I thought it would come as a surprise, in a way I least expected it, but I secretly also wished for some romance. And a happy ending, like in the movie. It did come as a surprise and there’s been no romance so far, but this story also doesn’t have an ending yet – so I will dare to say, there is still hope.

Even previously, I had been intentionally vague in my answers when people asked what I planned to do. I would say that I wanted to travel in the UK through the two months I’d be allowed to stay there, and then I’d see. No set plans yet. Turns out that uninteresting, directionless response was not what they were looking for but hey, I’m not here to entertain.

Regardless of what I said to inquisitive acquaintances, privately, I had options outlined to be set into a plan. And yes, most of those options involved being abroad. Or being exposed to art. Or having new experiences. And the one directive during the worst months of the pandemic was: stay put. Stay home, stay safe. The experiences I wanted to have were no longer happening. Museums were closed. Forget going abroad, getting on public transport was a scary thought. Travel of any sort, even the kind on foot, turned into a risky activity. Banned, even. Non-essential, they said. What could I do when I couldn’t do anything?

I didn’t have an answer to that, to be honest. After all, I had the same question. And this had just happened to me, as it had to everyone else. I’d barely had time to react. So I did what any person with professional crisis management experience would do: I maintained composure, pretended everything was under control, and calmly told enquirers that I didn’t know, but that I was figuring it out. Transparent, clear, calm communication.

And then I turned off WhatsApp notifications. I stopped answering the phone. Tried to make sense of what was happening through journalling. And hid under blankets. And retreated from humanity.

I was overwhelmed.

I didn’t know what I could do. But I knew what I could not afford to do – I could not afford to stay overwhelmed. I could not collapse under the anxiety of several layers of uncertainty. I could not let the constant incoming bad news about this “novel coronavirus” send me into a dark spiral. I couldn’t fall back into binge eating my way through this new source of stress.

Because I was my own safety net.

The only way out was through. So I spent a lot of my time cultivating practices, habits that would keep me healthy and sane. Started with the basics. As I get closer to the six month mark since leaving work, I thought to share some of the foundational lessons I learnt / stumbled upon through these last strange five-ish months:

1 // Chasing productivity can be counter-productive

One of the reasons I wanted to take some time off is that my brain felt fried. I felt exhausted all the time, like I didn’t have enough energy to get through normal days. I definitely felt too deflated to deal with any new changes, or come up with new ideas. I wanted to re-energise, although I wasn’t sure what that meant. All I knew is that the intended outcome was to have an energy surplus.

After decades of having been conditioned to feel like time well-spent had to be time being busy – I didn’t know what to do with the 50-60 hours that were suddenly available at my discretion. For the first two weeks, I gave myself full freedom to go with the flow, and listen to my heart. It took me a week to learn to sleep well at night again, despite grappling with the implications of COVID-19 during the day.

Two weeks in, I felt the old urge to be productive, keep myself busy. I figured that would give me something to tell my curious friends and acquaintances. I signed up for two courses – both in line with a new direction I was exploring. I wondered if I should be doing more. I threw in learning a new language too, gave myself a timetable to follow.

While the courses were interesting, and I was learning something new after a long time – I realised I found myself dragging my feet. There were books I wanted to read, documentaries I came across and wanted to watch – but I couldn’t because my timetable said I was to be doing something else. This break was supposed to be re-fuelling time, so why was it feeling like the opposite?

So, two months in – I decided to park this need to be productive. I learnt to be comfortable with not ticking all the boxes on my “ideal routine”, if one day I wanted to spend the day reading in a park. I walked for hours around an empty London, seeing the city as if for the first time, without the people and the commotion. I read, and wrote, and slept, and doodled, and roamed. I was happy.

It was three months into my downtime that I felt like my mental battery was up from reserve to 80%. I felt new ideas coming to me, and my mind moving from “survival mode” to “engage mode”. Looking back, I know for sure that I would not have experienced that reset in the middle of the pandemic had I not let go of that need to chase productivity. Doing is not a replacement for being.

2 // Fear is the lighthouse at the end of my comfort zone

In previous years, I have confessed in those rare conversations where one shares truths held close: “I live with a lot of fear”. People imagine that to mean “big” fears like – fear of heights, fear of speeding, fear of death etc. Yes to all of those – but I am more inhibited by the “micro” fears. The ones that hold me back in little ways on a day-to-day basis – and snowball into a limited state of being. For example, I talk myself out of sending a cold email to someone interesting on LinkedIn for fear that I may ask the wrong question or sound stupid. I hesitate to try anything that I have never done before, big or small, fearing that I would be bad at it. Being bad at something means that I would have failed. (lies, I know – but this is how my brain works)

Fear of failure is hardly a novel concept. However, it really sunk in after I read ‘Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself‘, by Dr. Joe Dispenza. Our brains are wired to guide us away from unknowns to keep us safe. Our brains are literally keeping that fear of the unknown going, because ‘known experiences’ are safe, and safe is good. Do you see what I mean? Your brain would rather have you continue to sit in a pool of self-sabotage or anxiety or addiction if that’s what is familiar to you. Because it is known territory and so trumps daring to venture out into healing.

* two minute silence for internalising that *

I then realised that whenever I find myself faced with some form of fear at the thought of something, it is really because I am faced with new territory. Big or small. My brain is trying to put the spotlight on everything that can go wrong in order to scare me into staying put within known territory. Which means…….I am on the edge of my comfort zone. And beyond that fear lies growth: the discomfort of stretching into new experiences.

My mind lit up the day I realised I could use fear as a metaphorical lighthouse, to keep me directed towards growth and experimentation. I am still learning to venture beyond that fear into the newness beyond, but I am glad to be standing at the edge to start with. Time will bring progress, I am certain. Can you see how this could change the way you go about your life? Like wow, I am still mind-blown.

3 // Gratitude is grounding, and being grounded is pivotal in times of uncertainty

One month into my break, I had started having good days and not-so-great days. I had gotten over the frustration of having my once-in-a-lifetime plans overthrown, and had adapted. However, I was faced with several levels of uncertainty, especially being on a visa tied to my previous employer. The uncertainty drove up anxiety. Some of the questions on my mind included:

“when do I absolutely need to leave England? If I need to leave, what if India’s borders are still closed – where can I go?

“Are my family going to be okay back in India? Will mum be able to manage taking care of the family without help?”

“Will I be able to see my friends one last time before I have to leave the country?”

You see what I mean? Levels of uncertainty. Enter: bullet journalling. I thank the lovely Sadia from Pick Up Limes for sharing her structure. Inspired by her, I built in daily gratitudes as part of my otherwise-minimalist bullet journal structure – and it has been a GAME-CHANGER. Every morning, I write down one thing I am grateful for. Just one. (Why? Because even on your worst days – you would be able to think of atleast one gratitude) By the end of a month, I find that I have a page with thirty unique, real, personal gratitudes. It is just not possible to feel resentment at the universe, or stay bitter for long when I re-read that list and am instantly reminded that I have so much to be grateful for. Yes, there’s a lot that is uncertain – but being aware of everything to be thankful for creates a beautiful positive mindset.

This one, two-minute daily habit is probably the single reason why I have gotten through the tight lockdown months with my head on and heart open. I have had my days of anxiety and low mood – but I have not been bitter. Because whatever has happened, however my days could have been better, they could have been so, so much worse – so I am thankful. Interestingly, it also quickly shifted my outlook to be more focused on the positive, even amidst the COVID-19 shitstorm. We could all do with more of that (positivity, not shitstorming), no?

I’ll give these ideas some time (or a month, given my pace – ha) to softly dance around, barefoot, in your minds. Don’t hesitate to reach out with your thoughts / experiences / rants.

I’ll follow up with the second part – sooner than a month, I promise.

(links shared in the post are not affiliated or sponsored, only sharing what helped me in case you find it interesting too)

xx ~M.