THERE WAS A time, in the not so distant past, when ‘being on top of things’ was not only realistic, but expected. Those days are gone.
We have to let go of our fantasy of getting back in control through better organisation; there is just too much information and too many demands on us, writes Tony Crabbe in Busy: How to Thrive in A World Of Too Much.
Buffeted by wave after wave of demands, we become overwhelmed, defeated and even begin to feel guilty. Accept it; you will never, ever be in control of everything again.
That should be hard for a recovering control freak to hear, but for me it’s actually quite a relief. Letting go has been a continuous thread through the talks I’ve had about this book project.
‘Pulling yourself out of burnout is about embracing your own capacity,’ Annika Fogarty of Mind Smart says. Embracing your own capacity. That to me hits the nail on the head of burnout and banana-level busyness.
You are probably a very capable person. But you have limitations. And that’s OK. That’s normal. We are not all Beyoncé. Even Beyoncé probably isn’t ‘Beyoncé’. If you can embrace and accept your own capacity, if you can lower your expectations (in a good way), it can take an awful lot of that pressure off you. For me, that release of pressure is where the magic of slow lies.
What can you take out of your life that is making you feel too stretched? Do you really have to make all the cupcakes for the parent–teacher meeting at the school again? Or can someone else do it this time? Or can you buy them in your local bakery? Do you absolutely have to work over the weekend to reach a Monday morning deadline or can you ask for more time, so that you can take a proper break and hit the ground running at the start of the new week? Do you really want to take on this project or are you just saying yes so as not to disappoint others?
Burnout and busyness are relative. But we have become competitive about our busyness, haven’t we? Take an honest look at how you feel when you send an email close to midnight or at dawn, or when you cancel another meet-up with a friend in favour of staying late at the office. Are you being a work martyr? Is that who you really want to be? Can you take a step out of the cult of busyness and forge a path at your own pace?
I think you can. There may be consequences. Maybe you won’t get a promotion. Maybe you’ll need to accept that you’ve reached the peak of your pay grade. Maybe you’ll have to embrace the power of no, and pass on opportunities. What is more important to you, really? Your health and happiness? Or your work and money? I’m not here to judge what your answer is. But I’m here to ask you this: what are the costs of burnout versus the gains of working all day, every day, without prioritising recovery time? Are you choosing work or life?
‘In the workplace,’ Carl Honoré, author of In Praise of Slow tells me, ‘those who will inherit the earth are those who know what speed to do things at. They know that certain things are fast, while other things need slowness. It’s about the dance between the two. The magic happens in that music as you move back and forth between fast and slow.’
For me, slow means calm and considered yet flexible, fluid and loosely controlled – anything too rigid feels like the enemy of slow. It definitely doesn’t mean coming to a complete stop. Instead, it’s about stepping outside the cult of busyness to gain some perspective on the way we are choosing to spend our work days and whether we have the power to change that to make it more sustainable. Personally, I feel much clearer about what choice I want to make. I’m choosing my health and happiness. I’m leaving the cult of busyness.
It turns out that the secret of slow work is giving ourselves the space and time we need to master the art of knowing when to go fast and when to go slow.
Aoife McElwain is a freelance food writer, food stylist and creative events planner who lives in Dublin. Slow at Work by McElwain is published by Gill Books priced €14.99. You can buy the book in all good bookshops or online from Eason orDubray.