I just reread my New Year’s post, and while it ended on a positive note, it was definitely a bit of a downer. I was excited that things were trending upwards, but also afraid that they wouldn’t stay that way. What calamities were still to come?! But I’ve now gotten through February, and things have indeed been getting better and better. As I’ve discussed with my therapist, I keep thinking, “ah, now I’m back to the way I used to be!”… and then a few days later, I feel better still!
I hesitate to say I’m totally better, as I recognize that there are still some areas of my life where I’m not operating the same way I was back in 2021 or 2020. But those are mostly areas where I’m still questioning whether I want to go back to the way things used to be. And from discussing with friends, it sounds like a lot of people are feeling the same way, with a big line between the pre-COVID and post-COVID world. It’s hard to tell if it’s really about COVID, or more general life changes… so let’s unpack that, shall we?
At my job, I really enjoy the flexibility of working from home. It is so nice to not be traveling 200 days a year! But I also miss being in a team room, taking clients to dinner and getting to know them outside of meetings, and generally interacting with so many more people than I do today. I’ve learned that while it’s really convenient for me to wake up and be sitting at my home office desk in 10 minutes (especially for 6am meetings), I need to have some in-person human interaction each day, or I get pretty lonely.
So, that means making my own fun and forcing myself out of the house at some point every day. On weekends, that’s obviously easy enough; on weeknights, I’ve been trying to book plans with friends or dates after the workday ends. (Now that I’m based in Colorado, it’s much easier for me to wrap up work by 6pm or so, since I usually start pretty early, so that helps a lot! I do not miss the days of still being at the office at 10pm.) The days where I bounce from one thing to the next, and especially when I get to interact with a bunch of people, are the days that I feel the most productive and alive. But that careful planning to ensure I have weeknight interactions brings me to the crux of my “midlife crossroads” (love the rebranding of midlife crisis, courtesy of Midult cofounder Annabel Rivkin).
In my personal life, I used to be a big time planner. Back when I was traveling four days a week for work, one of my favorite activities on the plane was making to-do lists of everyone I was going to see and everything I was going to do when I finally went home on Thursday night. I made detailed schedules for my weekends: run at 6am, meet friend A for breakfast at 9am, do chores around the house, meet friend B for lunch at 12:30pm, do some volunteering, get errands done, meet friend C for coffee at 4pm, stop by the grocery, and then cook and host a dinner party for a group of friends at 7pm. To many people that sounds exhausting, but I loved my life!
Then in 2021, I got burned out. And when my town literally burned shortly after I hit my breaking point, I finally forced myself to step back and take time off to focus on my mental health. With the sudden influx of free time, my first instinct was to fall back on my planning habit and figure out how to make the best of it and be productive. Never mind that I had a half-burnt town to govern; I thought if I was off work, I ought to use that time to write a book, clean out my closets, make home improvements, or do a million other “someday” projects. My therapist told me in no uncertain terms that I should not try to make my leave productive, and instead encouraged me to get comfortable not doing things and not having a plan – the opposite of what I’d done my whole life. Slowly, I followed that strategy, and slowly, I came out of crisis mode and went back to work.
But the life I was living while on leave was the complete opposite of the life I was living before – and I feel like I missed the part where I was supposed to gradually ramp back up and slowly transition my new habits to my old life. Instead, I’m in this flaky no-man’s land, where some days I schedule all.the.things and other days I overcompensate and have absolutely nothing going on. Sometimes it feels nice to have unplanned time, entire weekend days where I have no obligations or commitments. But I usually waste a lot of time on those days I have nothing going on (ugh, the amount of social media scrolling I do these days is appalling). And while my therapist says I don’t need to beat myself up when I’ve wasted time, I genuinely don’t feel good even while I’m doing it – not because I have guilt about what I should be doing instead, but because, let’s be honest, scrolling through an Instagram feed just isn’t that pleasurable.
In 2022, when I forced myself to just do nothing, I was pretty miserable. At the time, I chalked that up to my IVF-induced depression. Lately, though, I’ve been questioning that. What if I’m someone who genuinely thrives on being busy and productive, and the problem was that by doing very little, I wasn’t being true to myself? Would I have recovered faster if I leaned into being busy instead of away from it? I can’t fix the past, of course, and however I did it, I’m just thrilled that I finally came out of that miserable period. But I do need to figure out the right balance for me going forward, and I’m still not sure how I want to design that life. The days I’m feeling the most like “myself” now are my busy days, but I’m leery of burning out again if I don’t do things differently this time around. As Winston Churchill pointed out, those who don’t learn from their mistakes are doomed to repeat them.
Recently, I was really struck by a recent Bloomberg article: Poor, Busy Millennials Are Doing the Midlife Crisis Differently. In short, millennials are poorer and can’t afford the classic midlife crisis (getting a divorce, quitting your job, buying a sports car). Instead, we approach the big 4-0 milestone by doubling down on exercise and adventure as a way to feel young. And rather than making cataclysmic Big Bang shifts, our new normal is “a constant, quiet reassessment and iteration, allowing [us] to recalibrate without upending [our] lives entirely.”
That kind of gradual transition certainly resonates with me. I’ve always been one to test the waters for any kind of big change, whether that’s putting all the training in before I commit to registering for an ultra, or becoming a ski instructor part-time to fulfill my passion for teaching and the mountains rather than up and quitting my full-time job. I think that’s why my leave last year was so frustrating for me – it was a massive change that upended my life, rather than a more subtle recalibration. Now that the burnout crisis has passed, I’m better equipped to iterate and reassess what makes me happy, both short term and long term.
So that’s where I am now – still thrilled to have put 2022 behind me, but also still figuring out what 2023 (and beyond) should look like. I am feeling so optimistic about the fact that I’m refreshed and ready to tackle big goals again! But certainly operating with a great deal of caution before I commit to what they’ll be.
Ideas and thoughts welcome 🙂