Just One More Block: Sometimes, the Only Way is Through

Many years ago, before Mr Girlymicro walked me down the aisle, we went on a trip. This was rather a special trip and involved him, mummy Girlymicro and me taking the trans siberian express from Moscow to Beijing. As a way to meet my mother, it could be said to be a rather extreme introduction! At one point, in Ekaterinburg, we had gone shopping and brought a LOT of food to last us the next train leg. It was hot, and to be honest, I wither in anything above 23 degrees. Our collective Russian was pretty poor, and so there was no choice but to walk from the supermarket back to the hotel. It quickly became apparent that we were unprepared for carrying so much stuff in the rather excessive heat. Mr Girlymicro was in charge of directions. Every block he  would turn to us and say ‘nearly there, just one more block’. Every time we believed him until after 17 blocks we made it back. Thus, the phrase ‘just one more block’ was born in our household as a way to tackle a challenge that feels truly insurmountable.

The last few weeks have been pretty hard, and this phrase has been used quite a lot. I’ve not been feeling great post COVID, and when I don’t feel great physically, I also struggle mentally. I tend to spiral about interactions and struggle to find the perspective to determine if anything I’ve done is any good. At the same point, I am aware that this is a transient state, and I’m cognisant that I am in it. It’s just, weirdly, sometimes knowing that doesn’t make it feel that much better. The thing is though, life doesn’t stop when you’re not at your best, when you’re not having your best day. Life continues, and sometimes you just have to put on your big girl pants and deliver anyway.  Sometimes, the only way is through. So, here are some of my thoughts on just making it through the day when the world gets tough.

Take one step (or block), one action at a time

Sometimes, when I’m finding things very challenging, I have to focus on super short term goals. Sometimes that can be getting through the week, sometimes that can be getting through the day and frankly sometimes that can mean I take the world 10 minutes at a time and focus my world down to a pin point. This may seem a little crazy, but it’s the way I trick my mind and stop being either physically or mentally overwhelmed by the big picture. I may not know how I’m going to survive running a week long course when ill, but I can picture myself surviving the next 10 minutes. All I have to then do is rinse and repeat.

If it’s workload that is overwhelming me, I do the same thing, just with tasks. Instead of focussing on all the things I have to achieve and feeling panicked, I make a commitment to myself that I will complete a single thing. That single thing can then flex depending on my capacity, it could be as simple as making a single call or sending a single email, it could be as complex as reading through a PhD thesis. It’s not the complexity that matters, it’s the commitment to a single act. Doing enough of these then means that without worrying about the whole, I’m still making headway. Now, obviously, in an ideal world you would do this in order of priority, but frankly some days that just doesn’t work for me. Sometimes, I’m just in too deep. Something is better than nothing.

Progress is not always visible, find/make what markers you can

The more senior I become, the less able I seem to be to be able to see progress. So much of what I do now can feel really amorphous. Sometimes, I really miss the days when I would spend a Friday Sanger sequencing, with the radio on. I would start the day with nothing and end it with results that I would phone out to support patient care. The achievements were visible. They felt tangible. The world I live in now is more strategic and tasks run for months, if not years often. It’s harder, therefore, to KNOW you’ve achieved or made a difference. This is the nature of the work, but I’ve learnt that I need some form of progress markers, just to maintain momentum. I therefore try to make sure that I make some milestones, even if the project as a whole doesn’t require them for reporting.

This sounds easier than it is sometimes, and to be honest, I’m still a work in progress on how to do it well. Mostly it’s challenging as this takes time and space to reflect in order to determine what these milestones should be, and this is not something I always grant myself until necessity hits. If you make the time investment in the planning phase it does make it easier in the long term to see the wood for the trees. These milestones may need to be a little inventive as not all long term tasks lend themselves to this process easily. Mine can be anything getting X to produce document Y (or even seeing a draft), to managing to pin A down for a meeting that’s been cancelled for the last 3 years. Whatever it is, it’s about acknowledging that just managing to get that small piece of the puzzle in place is progress.

Acknowledge that you don’t have to spend every day changing the world

I’m super guilty of this one, I have delusions of superhero status, but I am not wonder woman, and neither are you. Some days, everything comes together, and we make massive leaps forward. What we often don’t acknowledge in these moments of great success is the the number of days it took to get us there where it felt like zero progress was occurring. Any big change is not a single moment. It’s many much smaller, less visible moments that suddenly come together in a way that is apparent. In the words of Hamilton, ‘I’m not standing still, I’m lying in wait’. It can be hard to recognise and value those ‘waiting’ moments however.

Not just that, though. We can’t function at 100% all the time, we’ll at least I can’t.  If you try, it means that you end up with huge peaks and troughs as you drain your battery. I’m rubbish at doing this in practice, but I acknowledge that what is needed is consistency in order to create impact. Small steps often get you further than single huge leaps. If we set all of our energy on trying to leap tall buildings rather than putting one foot in front of the other, we may actually be making life both harder for ourselves and be less effective. We have to know when to look at the sky and when to look at our feet.

Don’t treat yourself in a way you wouldn’t treat a friend

My inner critic is not kind. Right now, for instance, I’m having a real ‘you don’t really achieve or do anything’ inner dialogue. The thing is, I would never treat someone else the way I treat myself. I would remind someone else of all the progress they’ve made, I would remind them of their benchmarks, I would give them a reality check on their expectations of both themselves and the environment they are in. I would remind them that mistakes and failure are human and, in fact, a crucial part of learning and having a growth mindset. I would do all these things for others, but I struggle to do them for myself. I guess writing this blog is often my way of having kinder conversations with myself.

The way we speak to ourselves matters. Our self-talk, our inner monologue really does impact on how we see the world and how we respond to challenges. I’m trying to be cognisant of this and (between blog writing) actively pep talk myself when trying to manage challenges, or sometimes just get through the day. I’m also super lucky to be able to reach out to Mr Girlymicro for a ‘just one more block’ conversation when I can’t get there myself.

Know who you can show your real face to

Sometimes, as I mentioned above, our inner critic is just too strong, or the external forces are too overwhelming. In this case, you may not be able to get there on your own. You may have to reach out and have that moment of vulnerability with someone else to get through. I love a good sounding board, I think they add so much value, and I’m fortunate to have a number of people who I can show the true unpolished version of myself to who will take the appropriate cues of what I need in the moment. I also have you guys who give your time to read my rambling thought processes and always support my thinking and discussion around it.

Reaching out can be a double-edged sword however, you need to know who you can go through this process with. If you are at point where you are already slightly crushed by your inner dialogue, the last thing you need is someone who will escalate that voice. At the same point, you need to have someone who you trust to call you out if that’s what’s needed. There are times when you just tea and sympathy, there are times when you want coaching, there are times when you want advice, there are times when you need someone to call bullshit on your excuses and push you over the hump you’ve created. You need to know that you are with someone who can pivot to what is actually needed in the conversation, and who knows you well enough to be able to read what you need. Either that or you need to be able to reflect enough and go to the right person for the right things. There’s nothing worse than really needing a sympathetic ear and ending up with a lecture on how to do it better that echoes all the criticism you’ve already been giving yourself. Support is invaluable, but choose your route wisely.

Bribery works, for me anyway

I’ve already talked about breaking the world down into manageable chunks of time, or tasks, in order to be able to move forward by inches if needed. If you are strong of mind and have will power this approach on it’s own may be enough, I however still feel like I have the mind of somewhat upset toddler, and so sometimes will power enough doesn’t cut it for me. Sometimes I need to bribe myself. This shouldn’t work as I know as an adult that I can just decide to get these things anyway, and yet for me it still does. I bribe myself with anything from a biscuit and a cup of tea if I manage the next 1000 words to if I make myself run a half marathon I can buy myself that dress I’ve been lusting after. Sometimes completion of the task in itself is enough reward, especially if getting it off my list leads to a decrease in stress level, but honestly right now I just move from one immovable deadline to the next and something more is needed.

There is also something to be said for celebrating some of the milestones, for celebrating progress rather than waiting for the pay off or success. This means that you are more aware of those milestones happening and value them, instead of using an end point to determine how you feel about a task or yourself. Sometimes you might not succeed at the end goal, but you will have learnt a lot along the way, by celebrating the milestones you can therefore remember progress made rather than focussing on the failure.

Some days, it’s merely the act of showing up that counts

If all of the tips and tricks don’t work, if all the chocolate on the globe still wouldn’t cut it, sometimes you have to remember that you are still showing up. You are still working on being present. You may not make the progress that day you wished to make, that deadline may have flown past with you barely able to engage with it, but there is always tomorrow and the hope that it will be better than today. It may not be the perfection that you wanted, but that doesn’t mean that what you’ve produced doesn’t have value. Finally, and I mean this with every ounce of my being, your value as a human being is not tied to what you produce. You have value irrespective of your successes and failures. You have value in just being you, and there is no deadline on that.

All opinions in this blog are my own

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