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4000 Weeks

Well hi there stranger, long time no see. A very long time actually. My last post on the blog was January 4, which is about 12 weeks ago.

I'd like to say I've been too busy to write but strictly speaking that's not true at all.

Today's post is technically a book review but more specifically it's a bit of a candid life update. I've always been open on this blog (which really should be renamed 'Rhi's diary') and I'd like to be honest today about how I've been feeling lately.

My usual method of talking about my mental health is with the power of hindsight. I've been open about my struggles growing up, about the mess of my teens and about how I've clambered my way through to the other side. I've talked about anxiety, about my worries for the future and my fears about what might happen if my plans don't go... well to plan I suppose.

But I've never talked about how I'm feeling when I'm in the midst of things being bad.

Because in reality it's just not very fun. It's hard to admit when you're struggling. I have no issue talking about when I've struggled before because I can always say something like 'it was a lesson' or 'I'm doing so much better now' so it lessens the blow of sadness. But right now, I'm struggling and I'm not sure I can see the lesson in it yet.

Recently I was gifted a book by my very good friend Kim.

It's important to note here that when we do our long runs together they sometimes go over an hour and we use it as a bit of a therapy session to unload our feelings and worries. So out of all my friends, Kim knows a bit more about how I'm feeling than most.

So she gave me this book. It's called Four thousand weeks: Time management for mortals by Oliver Burkeman.

When she first told me about it I was sceptical. I didn't want to read another self-help book and this one scared the crap out of me, mainly due to it's back cover where, in large letters, it read:

What if you stopped trying to do everything?

This felt a little too personal to me. I'm a planner. I'm a goal setter (see my many posts on here about setting targets) and I'm also a self-diagnosed overachiever. I've designed my life around being busy.

But this isn't by accident. I was one of those "high potential" kids. Passionate and dedicated to achievement. I collected medals, awards and badges in school like they were bargain deals I couldn't afford to miss.

After I left school I started a degree and then had my first real existential crisis when I realised it wasn't what I wanted to do.

But I picked myself up, got a full-time job and enrolled in a different degree. I started making money, more money than my peers, and I kept pushing through at uni. I kept trying to fit it all in. A social life, a boyfriend, a career, my novel, this blog, uni, my dog, my fitness, my mental health, my family, travel. If anyone could do it after all it should be me.

If I had a dollar for every time someone said "How do you do it all?" I could probably afford to pay for all the therapy I've had over the years, and so I started defining who I am on being a bit known for doing everything.

So, when I read the back of this book I had an uncomfortable feeling build in the pit of my stomach. I didn't want to be told that what I define myself on was a problem. In fact, if she'd given me this book for my birthday last year I would've sped through it, said thanks, and been back to piling tasks into my to-do list.

But, it turns out right now it's the book I need.

In around August last year I had a moment of crystal clarity where I woke up and thought "I hate my life".

I wasn't depressed at the time. As far as anyone could see my life was in tip-top condition. I had absolutely nothing to be unhappy about. But I couldn't get that thought out of my head. So I tried analysing it. What exactly did I hate so much?

Was it work? Friendships? Fitness? Family?

Which part of my curated, planned, existence was falling short?

I complained to Kim that life was feeling a little like a simulation, that I was merely going through the motions, living on auto-pilot. I thought maybe I was missing the drama of my old life before I got my shit together.

But it turns out, seven months into trying to analyse the problem, that it's a little of everything.

My life feels like it has lost all meaning. I cried to my mother a few weeks ago when I realised the problem. I told her I couldn't write, I couldn't run, I couldn't study. It was as if everything I was doing suddenly just felt pointless. I was doubting what I had built. What the hell was I doing any of it for? What was I working towards?

It felt like a relief to understand the problem I've been grappling with for over half a year but now I was (and frankly still am) grappling with a bigger problem. What to do about this feeling.

That's where this book comes in.

It talks about a lot but my three key takeaways were the following:

People have a tendency to treat everything they do as valuable only insofar as it lays the groundwork for something else

When I was having my crying session a few weeks ago with my mum I was telling her how I felt horrible because I hadn't been able to get myself to run. Which meant I hadn't been training. Which ultimately made this half-marathon I'm supposed to be doing in April basically unachievable.

She looked at me with confusion and said "but you ran one last year?"

My immediate thought was 'my god she just doesn't understand' but then I sat with it for a moment before saying "but I made it one of my goals for this year - I'll be so embarrassed if I don't do it."

I think part of the reason I can't seem to get myself to run at the moment is because when I set myself my running goals for this year I basically resigned myself to the fact that I needed to run to achieve something. By setting a target I told myself it was only valuable to run if I was working towards a race. And so, running right now has lost its joy for me.

It's the same with my writing which I used to love so much. I told myself I should've finished my first draft already, that I can never be an award winning writer if I don't finish this manuscript. My writing, which I used to just do because I loved it turned into a chore. I had to write because I needed to be done with the manuscript within an arbitrary deadline I'd set myself. And so, writing lost its value to me.

Patience is a form of power

I once had a frank conversation with my father where I told him I wished I could just be old and have it all done. Have the career achieved, the marriage done, the kids off enjoying life and me just sitting on a porch somewhere knowing I did it. He told me he knew how I felt, he'd felt it too when he was younger.

If there was one word to describe me it would be impatient. I don't know how to just be. I'm always trying to get to the next place, plan the next step or rush something to its (in my mind) inevitable conclusion because why waste the time in-between. It's been a killer for my relationships which I seem to refuse to enjoy unless we're in agreement that there is a five-year plan in place.

I make a lot of impulsive decisions. I change course regularly to some new horizon because I get impatient with the stagnancy of where I am. But as is talked about in the book, the solution to never feeling satisfied is to 'stay on the bus' to push through the uncomfortable trial-and-error phase of something and be patient. For me, right now that means staying put. I accept I have no idea what I'm doing but rushing to get on the next bus isn't going to help me right now.

I need to stay here and sit with the uncomfortable feeling of not trying to get anywhere. To try and take each day as it comes and (also as the book says) to do the next most necessary thing.

Accept your cosmic insignificance

This one is my favourite.

The major point of the book is that we all, on average, have about 4000 weeks to live. Our lives are ridiculously short and our time is therefore finite. Which, for a lot of us, means we stress about making the most of our lives.

We overvalue our existence and create and unrealistic idea of how we should be using our limited time in order for it to be somehow 'worthwhile'.

But in reality we fail to accept that, in the grand scheme of things, our individual lives amount to a tiny mini little flicker in the timeline of all time.

To quote directly because I simply couldn't say it better, accepting your cosmic insignificance is:

"The feeling of realising that you'd been holding yourself, all this time, to standards you couldn't reasonably be expected to meet. And this realisation isn't merely calming but liberating, because once you're no longer burdened by such an unrealistic definition of a 'life well spent', you're freed to consider the possibility that a far wider variety of things might qualify as meaningful ways to use your finite time. You're freed, too, to consider the possibility that many of the things you're already doing with it are more meaningful than you'd supposed - and that until now, you'd subconsciously been devaluing them, on the grounds that they weren't 'significant' enough."

So to conclude, things are a bit shit for me at the moment. I'm coming to terms with the fact I won't be able to do everything, and even if I did it wouldn't bring me the satisfaction I crave. It's a big thing to wrap my head around and it's going to take me some time to work through.

But for now, I'm going to start approaching each day a little slower, trying to practice patience, trying to value my relationships a little more for the small joys like being around someone that makes me happy, without thinking about what comes next.

And more importantly, I'm announcing that this blog is going on official hiatus while I focus my time on other things. Adios!

Rhi xx

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