You can’t pour from an empty pitcher. Of all the advice my mother gave me growing up, this is the phrase she repeated most frequently. For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a part of everything, wanted to experience anything. No opportunity past up, no adventurous road untaken. Of course, opportunities frequently come with responsibilities and obligations. Although over-obligated teenagers have become de rigueur, I like to think I started the trend in the 90s.
I never really learned to slow down and stop accepting new opportunities. It was only at times of great loss and disruption, that I was forced to stop saying yes and just concentrate on survival. It was in these forced interludes that I learned the importance of my own needs. I realized the importance of saying yes to the opportunities that fed my soul, and no to the possibilities that merely emptied me of time and passion.
Sometimes, a crisis happens and you don’t have the luxury of stopping and slowing down. Sometimes, the entire world is turned upside down by a global pandemic and we have to concentrate on survival and existentialism simultaneously. Sometimes “opportunities” like e-learning and working from home are foisted upon us and we are robbed of the option of saying no.
Sometimes….like now. We are a year into the pandemic and what I’m hearing and feeling from so many colleagues after a year of isolation and stress is a significant lack of inspiration. We dug deep at the onset and began meeting patron needs in ways we didn’t anticipate, in record time. Strides were made every day. It was a banner time for innovation. But, lately, I’ve noticed a dearth in new ways to connect with students and faculty. Enthusiasm for electronic replacements for human interaction have waned. There is a lack of meaningful content creation. Many of the very activities that previously filled me with the most passion have me feeling the most ennui. We’ve been surviving, but there are a lot of empty pitchers at the reference desk lately.
How do we recharge when so many of us do not have the choice to cut back on any of our responsibilities? What’s the answer when saying no isn’t an option?
My answer: say no. Just do it in a different way. Lately, I’ve been trying, “Not right now.” I’ve improved my inspiration at work by concentrating on anything but work.
So many of the problems contributing to professional burnout have very little to do with my position, and everything to do with my outside of work hours. For instance, my sleep patterns became erratic during the lockdown and I’ve consciously worked on establishing morning and nighttime routines to give structure to my day. No longer is the week a never-ending flow of professional and parenting responsibilities. My days have a beginning and an end.
Speaking of structure, I’ve developed a work schedule that does not involve complete access to me and my time. Previously, I was desperate to work whenever I could. Fitting tasks in between e-learning activities, and emails in between laundry loads. The result was I was always working, always stressed, and not particularly productive. Now I have designated periods of the day when I am working. If a task comes through outside of those times, it can wait. My days are a little longer now, and sometimes you’ll get an email from me in the middle of the night, but I’m saner. By forcing myself to not worry about work constantly, I’m better able to accomplish tasks when I sit down to do them.
I’m also taking my vacation time. I’m not going anywhere. But I put my out of office message on and I “step” out of the office. I go roller skating. I do spring cleaning. I’m more present for my kids. I read for pleasure. And sometimes, I even get inspired.
These strategies are not a magic fix. They haven’t made my days less full, in fact, my days are often longer. My obligations and responsibilities haven’t changed, but my mindset has altered. When I stopped thinking about work all the time, I was able to start getting work done. These tips are not cutting edge, many of them have been touted since the 90s when I was that over-scheduled teenager. But sometimes the words we’ve been told over and over are just what we need to hear.