I had an epiphany this afternoon while I was out on a run.
On my usual route there’s a portion where I can see ahead of me for over a mile, and there’s a large hill at the end of that mile stretch. I dread it. As soon as I realize that it’s coming I slow down. Today as soon as I saw it I slowed to a walk.
“Maybe I’ll just walk the rest of the way,” I thought. My brain was telling me that I was a quitter. The anxiety crept in like static and filled my brain with negative thoughts. If I couldn’t even finish my run, how could I finish the five quadrillion things currently on my to do list?
I noticed my thoughts and I stopped myself. What if, instead of thinking about this mile of road and that hill a mile away, I focused on right now instead? I started to jog again, slowly.
What if instead of worrying about how tired I’ll be going up that hill if I run fast, I run as fast as is enjoyable for me right now? I sped up.
“This is going to hurt going up that hill,” my brain said.
“How do you know that...” I asked myself “...when you’re not even there yet?”
And just like that, I took off at an enjoyably quick pace, keeping it up until I was over the hill, focusing on every single second and every individual breath. Whenever I thought about what I was doing, I started to slow down. But whenever I was in the moment, enjoying the movement of running, I sped up again.
And the epiphany hit me - If I turned off thinking about the future, it made things easier. I’d found the mental switch for Easy Mode. Before, I’d been running on Hard Mode.
To prove it, here are my splits:
Miles one and two felt hard even though I was jogging slowly because I was running on hard mode. Mile three felt impossible because I saw the big hill in front of me and my brain told me that it would be difficult and I should just give up.
The last mile and a half felt easier than the rest of the run, even though I was running over 2 minutes per mile faster than I had been running, because mentally I was on easy mode.
It’s all in my head.
I’ve been living my life on hard mode. I spend more time worrying about what I’m going to do than actually doing it. This makes things much more difficult, because I expect things to be difficult, and also because I waste my mental power worrying.
When I was in college I had to finish a screenplay that was going to be voted on as our classes’ senior film project. I was so anxious I couldn’t even start the project and I procrastinated until the last minute. I was nervous about having my classmates read my writing, and I thought it would be easier not to even submit a screenplay than to face the embarrassment of having my creative baby criticized by my entire class. Also, the length of the screenplay scared me. When would I have time to write a screenplay for a twenty minute film? Needless to say, I spent a lot of time thinking about the screenplay and not writing it.
At the time I had also broken my wrist, and I had a Percocet prescription for the pain. I took a Percocet and sat down to write. Suddenly the gate of anxiety dropped, and the words flowed out onto the page. I wrote the entire screenplay in one night, just in time to submit it for voting. To my shock, my screenplay got the most votes, and I also won a grant from Gerald Abrams (that reminds me that I still need to write him a thank you note).
I don’t advocate taking pain meds for clarity, but I think that what happened was that the Percocet made my brain so foggy that I couldn’t focus on anything except for the moment, and in the moment I forgot that writing the screenplay was too hard for me (obviously, it wasn’t). My takeaway is that the overall effect of anxiety makes me even stupider than the overall effect of Percocet.
Even though I was able to turn on the Easy Mode switch during my run today, I know it will take a lot of brain retraining to be able to live my life in Easy Mode. I’ll need to be mindful enough to notice when my brain is slipping back into Hard Mode.
I’ll also have to enjoy what I’m working on, and notice when and why I’m not enjoying it.
Keeping a comprehensive to-do list is important, because as long as I have my future tasks on the list I can forget about them and immerse myself in my current task.
Finally, making a project management schedule, not just for my work, but for my life, can keep me from getting too anxious about things. I’ll be able to complete things one small task at a time. It will also help me to get better at planning how long it will realistically take me to do something, so that I can prioritize things better.
Ok, I’m off to go live my life on Easy Mode.