Finding anchors in chaotic times
points of stability to help navigate difficult times and anxious thoughts
I used to feel overwhelmed and anxious far more than I do these days. A combination of cutting back on caffeine, being in a healthy and supportive work environment, improving my home life, and getting lots of sleep seem to have worked. Whereas before, I used to just think I was a worrier or was often anxious, I can now catch myself when anxious thoughts come up, because they just don’t as much.
In my stream-of-consciousness morning pages this week, I described what my anxious thoughts feel like:
I can recognize when I feel anxious when the thoughts roll around in my head, even when I don’t want them to. When I start creating all sort of connections around random things that feel very very important, when my rational brain questions its relevancy. I need to figure this out before I can do any of this, but it relies on a few people, so I’m going to have to figure out what this person wants first, and then coordinate with everyone, and then what if they don’t get back to me, and it feels so overwhelming to have so many things so interconnected. When the truth is that those things are not necessarily connected. There are ways to disentangle but my anxious mind connects them all in a knot of tangles, and presents them to me in the middle of the night, asking me to roll the big ball of threads around in my hands, wanting me to pull on a thread or two. To try to work out this puzzle that’s not even a puzzle.
I’m getting better at making space to be curious about these thoughts - sometimes I can make sense of them, and sometimes I can’t. At the least, I can usually recognize them as anxious thoughts, and prioritize them accordingly, which wasn’t always true.
But they can still take up space, and this past week, I found it hard to focus and get work done. I ended up canceling a few internal 1:1 meetings to take an afternoon off to rest.
I marveled at all the things that had to come together to make that happen. To work at a company where the response was unilaterally (including from my manager, the CEO), “absolutely, take care of yourself.” For me to unlearn the message I grew up with that the way through was to suck it up, toughen up, and just struggle through it. To have had many past experiences of coming out of periods of overwhelm and focus, and knowing that resisting it only makes it last longer — knowing that what we resist, persists. To have that reassurance that it will pass, and I will not, in fact, never be able to work and be productive ever again.
This week, I was also fascinated about all the reasons our brains come up with to resist taking time off. Here are just a few that came up for me:
Other people (namely founders) have it way worse than I do in terms of workload
Other parents have it way worse in terms of sleep, childcare, time, etc. — as a divorced parent, I only have my kids half the time, so I already have plenty of time to myself
Other professions have it way worse than I do, working from the comfort of my home.
I haven’t been that productive, so I don’t deserve more PTO.
A lot of this comes down to comparative suffering, and the tendency to try to compare our own suffering to others’ to try to legitimize it, when it is of course valid on its own.
What’s been helpful for me this past week is finding anchors amidst the chaos and uncertainty. I wrote about this in Lead Dev a few months ago, in the context of leading teams through uncertain times — towards the end of the post, I suggest helping teammates find anchors. Whether the anchors are mindsets, projects, relationships, or skillsets, they help provide points of stability to lean on when it feels like other things are changing rapidly around you.
My anchors this week have been:
Healthy habits - cutting out caffeine and doubling down on getting enough sleep helped a lot.
Focusing on what’s important - for me, that’s being on the same team as my partner Naveed, and providing a safe and loving home for my two kids.
As a leader at a company that builds tools to help humanize remote teams, by giving myself permission to sometimes be struggling and not always be super-productive, I make space for others at Range (and through the product, Range users) to take care of themselves as well.
The past few years have brought a lot of changes to my personal life, and especially as someone who always gravitates to joining early-stage startups with less than ten people, finding anchors and ways to feel settled in the midst of changes and things that feel out of my control has been an essential tool for me.
More of my writing on the internet!
Two recent posts and interviews published this week:
Being a first-time exec at an early-stage startup (Field Notes)
Suzan Bond interviewed me for her wonderful newsletter, Field Notes. I talk about the VP role and how one of the biggest differences (compared to an engineering manager role) is how much it changes over time. Also a little about how I ended up joining an early-stage startup as a VPE in a pandemic, with kids at home!
This was a post that had been rolling around in my head for a few months now. With the Great Resignation and job shuffle, how do you figure out what’s important to you, so that you can make decisions you feel good about, rather than constantly be wondering if you should be doing something else?
I’m hosting a panel in early March, and would love to extend an invite to you! It’s part of a series of panels and talks called Lead Time Live.
It’s February, which means probably those annual goals you set in December are fading in the distance. We’ll talk about checking-in on goals, how to track progress towards goals, and how to balance progress towards goals with other competing priorities.
I’m honestly not a very goals-motivated person, so this topic is fascinating for me. Hope to see you there!
Other things I’ve been enjoying
More Sunday soup! These few weeks, I’ve been enjoying making a big pot of recipe-less chunky vegetable soup (usually some water, chicken broth, carrots, daikon, leafy greens, crushed tomatoes) - and remixing it in different ways for weekday lunches. With nutritional yeast, with a fried egg, with a chopped up turkey burger, etc.
Audio-only meetings and phone 1:1s - these really help reduce Zoom fatigue. Audio-only meetings means you can move around your office area while listening and participating. Phone 1:1s means you can go for a walk or do mindless house stuff that’s not sitting in a chair for yet another 30 minutes!
Good morning huddles - at work, we’ve been experimenting with adding in a layer of casual, social interaction. Inspired by Harper Reed, we added in optional morning Slack huddles. Usually about 3-4 people will show up for audio-only chat. So far, we’ve talked about pandemic athleisure, Pioneer Woman, baby milestones, the Olympics, and more. It’s surprisingly nice to start off my day making some tea or breakfast with some friendly conversation in my ears.
Digital morning pages - In January, I hand-wrote all my morning pages (3 pages each morning). I enjoyed how disposable it felt. This month, I’ve been typing all my morning pages (about 750-800 words), and I enjoy the speed but also the ability to go back and read it, since my handwriting is illegible.
Long runs - I am shocked to add this to my list, but I am starting to look forward to my increasingly long Sunday runs (half-marathon training). It feels good to do something challenging but doable, and to lean into slow but steady and enjoying the process. 10 miles tomorrow…
Thanks for reading — I plan to continue publishing these every other weekend (on my no-kids weekends).
If you have a moment, I’d love to hear from you. Feel free to share one of your anchors that helps you feel settled when a lot of things are changing around you.