Do you feel like it’s hard to make plans? You’re not alone. Many of us feel more powerless over our lives than we did before the global Coronavirus pandemic. Earlier this month, the New York Times published an article entitled, How to Cope When Everything Keeps Changing, which offered tips to help people restore their sense of agency during these uncertain times. One of the suggestions is to “take action, no matter how small.”
Small steps can certainly work. They aided me greatly in recovering from burnout and grief earlier this year. And, they’ve helped me as I’ve hesitantly welcomed two adult children back home due to the pandemic. But, the best small step I took this year was grounding myself in the rhythms of the natural world. I know this sounds overly simplistic. But paying attention to the most fundamental ones – daytime, nighttime and the seasons – can help reset your primary human rhythms: waking, eating and sleeping.
The Power of Rhythm
I first became aware of the power of intentional rhythms when I had newborns. Juggling new motherhood and work, I needed to develop my children’s circadian rhythms so that their wake, eat and sleep tied to the cycle of day and night. This rudimentary setting, also known as our internal clock, is essential to our physical and mental well-being.
As my babies grew to be busy toddlers, I wanted to foster an active household that had some kind of natural structure. That is, one filled with days, weeks and months that had some sort of regular cadence to them without being overly prescribed.
Being an educator, I turned to experts in the form of Maria Montessori and Rudolph Steiner (the educational philosopher underpinning Waldorf Schools). The answer I was looking for started with the seasons, another ultimate phenomenon of our natural world.
Seasons offer magical predictability: leaves fall, fruit ripens, new buds transform into flowers. As such, even today – despite the modern conveniences we’re used to – if we tune into the seasons, it’s easy to build a life that adapts to its rhythms.
So, with the seasons as the backdrop, we quickly formed weekly and daily rhythms which grounded our lives, activities and our meals: leaves, harvest, pumpkins and apple picking in the autumn. Snowflakes, winter greens, gathering wood and indoor forts in the winter. Spring flowers, seedlings, wellies, raincoats and chrysalises in the spring. Sunflowers, garden bounty, s’mores and fireflies in the summer.
Parts of our day were active, others less active or quiet.
My children quickly caught onto our rhythm. They learned what each day or week might bring, and, therefore, felt some control over their young lives (which is very helpful with two and three-year-olds!).
Predictable patterns of play and rest helped to avoid over-stimulation and foster our creativity. As a result, my children were highly engaged, and we became partners in crafting our days. And, me, I was happily freed from having to make so many decisions about “what we might do” on a given day.
Doesn’t it sound so idyllic when we talk about the lives we try to create for our children? These beings that we aim to nurture with joy, love, learning, security and success.
But what about us – the adults? Why is it that we don’t always remember to set our lives up in the same way?
Around the world, schools, workplaces and life, with all of its rules, have moved us away from natural rhythms. Technology enables us to be available to everyone at almost any hour, so we’re never entirely done with sending that last email. Electricity provides daylight all night long, so we extend our workdays into the night and while our playtime is cut short. Many stores are open late, or, in the US, even 24 hours a day, further enabling us to stretch our time thin. We can easily buy bread, out-of-season fruits, herbs and vegetables year-round, rendering the rhythm of the seasons irrelevant to our daily lives.
For all of its benefits, modern conveniences allow us to maximise our time and expand our days such that most of us regularly forget to pace ourselves. Of course, now we face a pandemic that’s overstayed its visit. It’s wrenched most of us from our offices, schools, churches, friends, demolishing well-established life routines in the process.
The good news is that the rhythms of nature mostly stand firm, even when our view of them is blurred. Like a steady friend, they’re right there waiting to help us regain some semblance of agency over our lives.
But how? As Tasler says, we need to start “stupidly small.” We need to get back to basics.
This starts with healthy routines around waking, eating and sleeping. These are basics that most workaholics struggle with; trust me, it takes one to know one. I’ve learned that it’s crucial to arrange your days so that you can alternate between periods of activity, rest and quiet. This rule goes for workdays and weekends.
At work, replace twelve-hour days of back-to-back calls with smaller chunks of time that let you alternate between meetings and doing work. Put a 15-minute buffer in between each session; a 30 minutes break for lunch and a step outside; and, adopt a workday that lasts no more than eight consecutive hours. Most importantly, disconnect from technology for parts of the day; Zoom will still be there when you get back.
Spend time outdoors – even just a brief morning and afternoon walk. Importantly, break from work for all meal times, and establish concrete points of reconnection with yourself and loved ones throughout the day.
I find it helpful to punctuate my workday with an activity that brings so much enjoyment I don’t want to continue working: exercise, listening to music, taking a lesson or, my favourite, aperitivo hour.
Establishing order from chaos supports brain functioning and enables us to think. And joy, well, I’ve found that life just isn’t the same without it. So, think of this as a time to remove all but the essential activities from your life. Keep only the ones you must do, the ones that bring you joy, and those that pay the highest dividends in your relationship with yourself and others. Try some of these simple activities to easily connect to the seasons: picnics; weekly trips to the nearest farmer’s market for seasonal goods; or games or a sport that you loved as a child.
Of course, we all have things we just need to do outside of work – cooking, laundry, food shopping, etc.. Sometimes these activities drain our energy. While working on my well-being this year, I decided I wanted to see whether I could get them to generate joy and peace. I now call this act, “transforming everyday activities into mindful moments.”
Instead of being on autopilot, I intentionally slow myself down periodically throughout the day, anywhere from 1-5 minutes, being present while engaging in an otherwise routine activity. Those few minutes help me to reset and refresh my energy for the day.
I’ve also simplified these jobs and made a deal with myself that I won’t pile too many of them into a day. I cook on the grill when the weather is good, so I don’t dirty the kitchen. I’ve committed to easy weekday meal prep and clean-up and adapted a cleaning house routine that’s paced and way less fussy than in the past.
Individually, these activities may seem “stupidly small,” but they are part of a bigger picture. Daily and weekly practices form the rhythm of your life; if you’re intentional, that rhythm will restore your sense of agency and further ground you. Give it time, and you will be revitalised and stay more balanced.
Peppering your life with daily moments that you intentionally choose, look forward to, and in which you are fully present, is a game-changer for your well-being. It’s about adopting a life rhythm that includes everyday moments that build mindfulness, the act of paying attention on purpose in the present moment. So you become resilient and can fully experience your life and the world you inhabit.