Working this summer, planning classes, trying to fit in 4+ daily hours of studying for board exams (NPLEX), devouring books, writing in this blog, attending various meetings, attempting to get into shape and eat properly, seeking artistic and creative fulfillment and, through it all, trying to maintain a long distance relationship have me juggling hundreds of concerns, checklists and worries on a daily basis. And, like most of my colleagues, not only do I insist on keeping up this juggling act, I insist on doing it well. The result, of course, is a feeling of being completely overwhelmed and stretched incredibly thin. I spend most time looking forward to the future, simply to appease the worry that everything might not turn out right.
The problem with this juggling act isn’t so much the amount of things I have to juggle. Most of us fill our plates with dozens of activities on a daily basis, our minds buzzing with great velocity, and some of us even manage to maintain a bright and enthusiastic vigor while tackling all of these tasks. The problem with the juggling act is the mental talk that often accompanies it.
I can’t just study for NPLEX, I have to obsess about NPLEX. “What if I don’t pass this round? Well, if I don’t pass this summer, it’s not the end of the world, at least I’ll have worked and made some money for the school year, I can always take it again in February, it will cost me $400, but still, and then will I have time to complete my third year assignments and find time for preceptoring hours if I have to write NPLEX in February? What if-” And so on and so on. Before I’ve gotten into the first half hour of study time, my mind has already set the needle on a record playing run-on sentences detailing future grievances that haven’t even happened yet. Instead of quieting down and focussing on learning about musculoskeletal issues, I’ve already engaged in a thought process that has taken me more than 6 months into the future and is planning for a scenario in which I have failed the very board exam that I am supposed to be concentrating on. Sounds paradoxical doesn’t it? And yet we’re all guilty of this from time to time. My mind is so overwhelmed from constant activity that it can’t seem to settle the internal, negative voice and immerse itself in the task at hand.
I decided to create a space where my worries could go, so that they didn’t have to circulate through my mind like hot blood in my veins. I decided emulate what people in al-anon call a “God Box”, a place to put your fears, worries and other concerns that you can’t control in order to let God (or the universe or some other higher power, call it fate or destiny, time or nature, whatever your preference) take care of it. However, I decided to use a mason jar (for the sake of environment).
I took out a few pieces of paper and started to write. I wasn’t sure how to word the sentences so I instinctively began with “I wants”. “I want to pass NPLEX in August,” I wrote. Then I triumphantly folded up the paper and popped it into the jar. What else did I want? “I want to be an excellent teacher this summer,” I continued, again popping the little piece of scrap paper into my jar. Soon enough, my pen took hold and my little mason jar was filled with roughly 20 wants, wishes, worries and concerns that had been loading down my poor, busy mind. I could take action to make these things work out for the best, of course, and I was doing that, but there was little I could do to control the actual future outcomes and worrying about them certainly wasn’t going to help. Giving my thoughts a place to go was a symbolic gesture in unburdening my mind from worries about the future over things I don’t have total control over in the present.
The next day I went to the library and, despite the inevitable distraction of summer students loudly lounging around the public spaces, I found I was able to delve into my work with more efficiency, less anxiety and even, much to my surprise, enjoy what I was doing. Because I wasn’t fretting about the future (all my worries were safely contained inside their little house of glass) I was able to live in the present.
Now that little jar sits dutifully on my desk as the willing recipient of every odd or random obsession that passes through my brain and threatens to steal my attention with it. In a few months’ time I plan on opening up the jar and reading those little slips of worry-filled paper. I wonder how many of them my future self will reflect on as having been “no big deal”. I look forward to finding out.
Do you have persistent thoughts that you wish you could just put away?