By Nicole Centeno
I have two kinds of busy: the kind where I’m moving from one task to the next with relative ease, and the kind where I’m frenzied, overwhelmed, and feel friction with each movement. In both, there’s a lot going on, but with the first (what I call healthy-busy) I’m in command, I’m engaged, and I’m relaxed. Busy gets a bad rap because the word conjures the frenzied version. But there really is a healthy way to be busy, and I’m going to lay out my tips for how to get there.
There are two important phases to maintain a healthy-busy: 1) Preparation and 2) De-escalation. Preparation increases your chances of being in a healthy-busy flow state, and is about how you structure your day and feed your body. De-escalation is the emergency button, or the tools you need to cut the frenzy and get back to healthy-busy.
Preparation: This is most of the work, and if you master this, you’re 90% there.
- Busy segments: Take a look at your week. When are you busiest? (Note to new moms and caretakers -- this might feel like every minute of every day, so try starting from the other side -- which moments are you not busy?) Write down the days and moments you are go-go-go and the moments you have a little more space. For me, busiest is Monday-Friday 7:30am to 7:30pm. This block of time is kids-work-work-work-kids and it is generally jam packed. My evenings and weekends are more spacious. Again, new moms and caretakers might be jam packed 7 days a week with only a few hours of open time each day. You need both: the busy segments to get shit done, and the spacious moments to rest and recover. Write them down and move to step 2.
- Calendar: Create boundaries in your calendar to contain your busy segments and protect your spacious segments. For example, my day begins as soon as I wake up and begin taking care of the kids (busy) and then ends as soon as my kids are in bed (7:30pm on = spacious). Note to new moms and caretakers - again, start from the moments you have more space and create boundaries to protect those segments of your day and week. For example, when I was balancing naps, breastfeeding, and a new business, I identified times when I had a sitter, when my husband came home from work, when my mom would be in town on the weekends. These more spacious moments were reserved for meditation, exercise, showers, and naps.
- The Uniform: busy is often synonymous with being overwhelmed. There are only so many decisions we can make in a day before our cognitive ability starts to diminish, and when we don’t think clearly we make poor decisions which leads us to feel out of control and overwhelmed, leading to more poor decisions. To prevent this downward spiral, I rely on a uniform that reduces the number of decisions I need to make during my busy segments. The uniform also adds known structure to each day. The brain loves knowing what comes next and the uniform increases a sense of safety and confidence (powerful allies to maintain a healthier busy!) The three components of the uniform:
- Wardrobe: I love clothes and expressing myself through what I wear, but nothing bums my buzz more than trying on loads of outfits. I organize by color and buy separates that all mix and match, so I can start with a single piece and build quickly. Some people even have several versions of the same 5-7 staple pieces and just rotate daily. Whatever works for you - stick with it.
- Food: This is non-negotiable. You will spiral rapidly into frenzy-overwhelmed busy if you are not eating well. Not eating, or eating too many simple carbs and sweets are the main culprits here because it puts the brain in panic. You need complex carbs (read: fruits and veggies), healthy fats, protein, lots of fiber, lots of water. Frankly, this is one of the main reasons I started Splendid Spoon, so I happily lean on my ready-made meals throughout the day. The only thing I’m choosing at breakfast and lunch is what flavor of smoothie or soup I want. We keep whole fruits and veggies, hummus, and nut butters at the office for the in-between snacks.
- Daily grounding ritual: For many people this is exercise. For me it is meditation. You need a reset button every single day that you will always (and I mean always) come back to. Make it something you crave. I will meditate in the car on the way to the airport if I have to. I know people who wake up at 5am just to get their workout in. Maybe it’s a journal ritual, a tea or coffee ritual, or a call with your mom on the way to work ritual. Think of the grounding ritual as a daily clean-up -- throughout the day we are focusing on our work and our family, and we have little worries or judgements that drop in like bits of dirt on the windshield. The grounding ritual lets you acknowledge the bits of dirt and then sweep them away so the glass is clear again.
De-escalation. We all know the symptoms of feeling overwhelmed. The heart races, we sweat, the pace of our breath quickens, and our mind is erratic. It’s panic mode, and you will not get anywhere until you de-escalate. The key is to ground yourself so you can get back to your busy moment with a sound, fully functioning mind.
- Pause. In fight or flight the body is afraid and will do anything to feel safe again. The first choice is usually wrong and involves sometimes unhealthy coping mechanisms: lashing out in an email (fight), saying fuck it and sinking into a sweet snack (flight). If you do nothing else, pause before you act. The habit of pausing will start to move you into healthier coping mechanisms, like those in steps 2 and 3.
- Breathe. In panic, the sympathetic nervous system is engaged. This is fight or flight and the body is in survival mode. Oxygen signals safety to the body and moves it out of panic mode. Breathing deeply for one full minute makes an enormous difference.
- Grounding Ritual. Taking a 10-15 minutes for an abbreviated version of your grounding ritual is always (seriously, always) worth it. Maybe it’s a jog around the block with the crying baby in the stroller, or a break from the super stressful string of emails to call your best friend. What you achieve here is perspective. Perspective helps you see that you are overwhelmed, and helps you prioritize yourself. Think of panic as your body’s way of screaming: pay attention to me! Instead of continuing to run, stop and pay attention.
Want delicious food to help keep your busy healthy? Check out this week's Splendid Spoon menu.