January is a dangerous time for me. I don’t mean Australia’s spiders, jellyfish, snakes, sharks, crocodiles, mosquitoes, or even the weather extremes and increased risk of sunburn (curiously, the latter causes by far the most actual damage to tourists, and yet they continue to squeal about everything else while doing everything in their power to get sunburnt…weird…).
The danger that I’m referring to is the renewed energy I always feel at this time of year. The enthusiasm. The vigour. The excitement at new possibilities. All good things, but the concern is this: over-commitment.
It’s more than just New Year’s resolutions. Sure, plan to lose weight, get fit, spend more time on the things that matter. Pfft. Who’s to know when, by January 4, you have had a lunch of chocolate-covered blueberries before returning to the computer, your loved ones having nicked off to watch Australia and England slug it out on the cricket pitch (…or was that just me..?)
I’m talking about serious commitments. The sort of commitments when People Notice. And not only that, but There Are Consequences, not only for yourself but also for others. Things like “Yes, I’d love to join your choir”, “Your committee is desperate for new members? Not a problem, I’ve always been interested in what you do.”, “A vacancy in your music teaching load this year? Yay, I’ve been wanting to get back into my double bass lessons”. Et cetera. I’m 54 years old, and you would think the last…oooh, 40-ish?…Januaries would have taught me something about realistic workloads.
What this says about my intelligence and ability to learn from past experience is perhaps a little worrying. It’s not a question of lack of insight. Some years back, a friend and I were reflecting on our shared dilemma – life is short, and there’s lots to fit in. We both consider ourselves capable and curious women – itself a dangerous combination, because people seeking volunteers pick up this combined ability and interest with a ‘sixth sense’ usually attributed to the non-human animal world. We discovered a shared tendency to say yes to requests, even though we were already overloaded, because (a) we possessed the knowledge and skill to do said tasks, and (b) they sounded interesting/worthy/fun. We used to meet regularly and practice a little mantra we developed: ‘I’m sorry, I’d love to, but I can’t just at the moment’. (Hi, I’m Postgradpanda, and it’s 5 days since my last acquiescence.)
In January each year, previous deadlines have general been met (or irrevocably missed), the crazy social whirl that is Christmas/Hanukkah/New Year/whatever has subsided, and the memory of November (and many months preceding it) has faded. I feel refreshed, and the days seem longer and more relaxed. Of course I can fit everything in…I’ll have time for A now that I’m not doing B any more… conveniently forgetting why I dropped B in the first place.
So if it’s not about lack of insight, why do I keep finding myself in this same place every January? Well, I think there are a few reasons for me – there will be other reasons for other people.
1. Upbringing. I’m not blaming my parents, but they do share some responsibility, being busy and overcommitted people for as long as I can remember. I’m the eldest of four – my dad was doing his PhD when I was born and my mum went to night school between babies 3 and 4 to complete her secondary schooling, after which she went on to do further studies in midwifery, Infant Welfare (as it was then) and finally, once all her kids had grown up, a Masters in Health Education. When we were kids, they led a youth group for many years, and have both been, and continue to be, very active in many aspects of church leadership and pastoral care. On their ‘retirement’, they picked up the pace, incorporating viola lessons (dad) and art lessons (mum) into their schedules. Needless to say, I’m incredibly proud of them both…but, really, there is no growing of grass under their feet.
2. Reward. I get something of value out of every single thing I do. A friend (not the one mentioned above) told me the other day that she does nothing unless she is paid for it. She has reasons for taking this approach – she’s in a very different phase of life to me. But I was still a bit taken aback. Apart from the obvious thing that everyone who works in the not-for-profit sector would immediately pick up (the entire sector would collapse if we all took that approach), there are so many non-monetary rewards worth pursuing. Social connectedness, a feeling of self-worth, the joy of learning new things, the knowledge that you have made the world a slightly better place for someone, even if that’s a very indirect benefit (a good policy is a beautiful thing. I mean it. Good policy work makes the world a smoother, happier, safer place to be.)
3. Fear. Fear? Yes, fear. Fear of what it will mean if I’m NOT overcommitted. Of course, it could mean that I actually do the most important things, more effectively, and reach December 2014 in good shape at every level. But what if it also means that something worthwhile didn’t happen that could have, had I only stretched myself that little bit more? And, further below the surface and a bit embarrassing to admit, what if I discover that things carry on perfectly well without me???
Well, let’s try it. In the course of reflection as I wrote this blog post, I decided I need to do more than just reflect. I need to make some changes, and the changes I am going to make are not earth-shattering. Basically, I am going to try REALLY, REALLY HARD to simply walk my own talk. I have a calendar – I will use it. I have separate workplaces for paid work and study – I will use them. I have a couple of very good apps (more about that in my next post, I think). I will use them. And I have a brain and some insight into the sneaky ways I trip myself up. I will use them.