Framework of life for anxious beings

Is it just me or is every one of us going through some kind of existential crisis all the time? It’s never been easier to make a better life for ourselves. But there is a feeling of listlessness that has pervaded our generation that we simply cannot explain to our parents without earning their disdain (“You have electricity, running water, and shoes, what more do you want?”).

I felt liberated only in the sense that the shackles holding me back were invisible.

I loved my job (a statement my father wouldn’t have dreamt of saying about his) but I was not satisfied by it. I felt a lot of pressure, internal and external, to be passionate about my day job and then have a smaller passion to pursue as a hobby, and somehow build that into something that can make money, and then invest the money and ‘make the money work for me’. All the while taking care of my skin, eating healthy, seriously considering going vegan, finding ways to reduce the carbon footprint that following my passion, or even going vegan for that matter, would inevitably create.

Instead of being content with my cushy job, great coworkers, good friends and a mostly happy relationship with everyone important to me, I felt threatened by anyone choosing a path that deviated from mine. There were voices in my head listing down other paths I could have taken towards greatness and never did. I felt like a loser no matter what I did.

The ever-growing voices of regrets paralysed me. Whenever I had some free time, I’d go nuts trying to prioritise what I wanted to do but I’d end up doing nothing at all. God forbid I spend a weekend watching television, the voice would berate me for not doing something ‘productive’ like cooking and eating healthy. I would hate myself for being a human and wanting to rest my mind with a chick flick after working hard all week. But if I did succumb to the voice and spend the time cooking, the voice would go “how’s this going to help you ace the presentation tomorrow?” The weekend would be over and I’d go to work and the voice would lament that my job adds nothing to the society. And so, the voices induced me to steadily develop anxiety throughout my twenties.

The best thing about going to the office and seeing my work family was that the voices used to quiet down when I was around them, doing the best work I could.

Then, the pandemic happened.

I was forced to hang out with the voices and I didn’t like the company. This was around the time I got pregnant. With the added pressures of bringing in another life into the world when I wasn’t sure of my place in it, I was cooked from the inside every day.

The only way to stop the negativity was to simply let life happen to me. I did things on autopilot – wake up, throw up, lie down on the bed and work, lie down on the sofa and work, sleep, repeat. Around this time, my parents came to live with R and me to help us out. After a week of watching me shuffle between my bed and my sofa and looking forlorn, my mother said, “You are pregnant, not sick.”

Something snapped into place that day. I was not sick. I could do something about my situation. I was about to turn thirty for crying out loud and I did not want to carry the voices with me into the new decade. I definitely did not want to pass on my anxieties to my kid.

I decided to set up a framework for my life. A way to always know where I am and where I am going. A way to know myself so thoroughly that I could shut down the guilt trips before they began. The framework would act as a sort of quality checking decision tree that would filter my thoughts and only bother me with the ones that matter.

It started with me finding a great resource for goal setting by a writer that I admire, and whose life, I’d decided, was much harder than mine. So she’d know what she was talking about.

It went like this: Write down your aspirations or the things you want to accomplish in a year. Then break them down into quarterly goals, set weekly milestones based on those goals, and then split the milestones into daily tasks. At the end of each day/week/quarter write about your accomplishments – what went well, what could have been better. Take the lessons and modify the tasks/milestones/goals moving forward. Standard stuff.

It could be done for a longer time frame but I stuck with a year. I was clearly not one of those people who could give a convincing answer to the standard interview question: “where do you see yourself in five years?”

What I liked about this method was that her yearly aspirations included all aspects of her life – career, relationships, home, habits, and her writing.

I wanted to do the same because it meant that I could value everything that made my life fulfilling equally and feel a sense of momentum overall even if I were to make progress in any one aspect of my life.

So I got off the sofa and began this exercise of self-discovery. Only, my aspirations list for a year would be impossible to accomplish by three people in a decade if I made it without processing the potent mix of guilt, FOMO, and existential crisis in my head. It was time for the voices to come to an agreement about who I was. In other words, I needed to be brutally honest with myself.

Weeding out

So I made another list of everything the voices think I should be doing or should have done, no matter how big or small. Most of these were dreams from my childhood and college days. Others were things that I wanted to do because people I admire did them.

It was a list of all possible life choices that the voices used as missiles against me. Once I saw it in writing, it was indisputable that I was putting too much pressure on myself. One person cannot do everything on the list, not well. No matter how many motivating posters say so.

Then I had a non-judgemental look into what my values in life are, the kind of lifestyle I liked to lead, and struck out paths that didn’t align. Then, I took the list to task.

  • I struck out dreams towards which I hadn’t taken a single step. This is a good measure of how serious I am about something because I am impulsive enough to take at least a few steps toward ideas I am passionate about. I once travelled five hundred kilometres to take the Air Force Common Admissions Test with absolutely no preparation just because I entertained the thought of joining the Air Force for like a month. So, knowing me, if I did absolutely nothing towards a dream in thirty years, it was not a dream. It was simply a whim.
  • I struck out dreams that were only there to satisfy my childhood wants. I thought, at some point in my life, I’d leave my corporate job and go teach with an NGO. A secret that I kept close to my heart to feel better about going to work every day. But, the simple truth was that if I wanted to be a teacher I would have been teaching already. I could have taught the neighbourhood kids or even put out videos online. It was just one of those dreams I had as a child when I saw good teachers in action. Off it went.
  • I struck out dreams that I felt like I had to do rather than something I wanted to do. The voices wanted me to be involved in social causes because all the ‘good people’ did it. But the times I had been involved, I had felt hopeless and belittled. So I accepted the fact that by my own estimate, I was not that good a person. And that was okay.
  • I struck out revenge dreams. I wanted to study English literature in college but I was pressured into doing engineering. Since then I had wanted to stick it to the society by getting my dream degree. I used to spend quite some time looking up universities for years. I could see, when I was honest with myself, that I wasn’t interested in an English degree, I only wanted vengeance. I wanted to relive college with a choice I made.

Weeding out was not done in one sitting. Each dream I struck out took a lot of deliberation and a short period of mourning. In fact, I had been processing this in my mind for almost a year. But it was only during the pandemic that I shut the door firmly on the paths I will never take.

This process might look like I am giving up on tough dreams and resisting ways of bettering myself. But for me and anyone with anxiety, the negativity of unmet dreams can be debilitating. It helps to have a firm grip on who you are, what you are capable of and what you enjoy doing. To me, the dreams that remained in the list were exciting even as they made me nervous. For one year, I had to operate as if everything on the aspirations list were exactly the things I am meant to do. In restricting myself, I felt freedom.

One such dream that remained on the list was to write a novel. I liked to write but I wanted to know if I would enjoy writing fiction that may never see the light of day. So I gave myself a year to experiment with the process of writing a novel. It became a part of my aspirations that year.

Quarterly, weekly, daily goals

I split the new, weeded out list of aspirations for the year into the following categories:

  • Work goals
  • Writing goals
  • Relationship goals
  • Baby goals
  • Habit goals
  • Hobby goals

This helped me touch upon at least one aspect of each category regularly. For example, I was really bad at keeping in touch with friends and relatives. It used to be the first thing I would sacrifice when I had too much going on at work. But by making it a part of my goals, I gave it value and structure. It made me want to make time for a phone call or a coffee with someone I wanted to be in touch with.

Then, I split the aspirations into quarterly goals. Aspirations are notions that cannot be measured, whereas goals need to be quantifiable. So I made the language precise with a clear understanding of what it meant to reach that goal. I also made sure to be practical and generous because I didn’t want to be guilt-tripped by my own goals.

The goals for the first quarter looked like this:

Quarterly goals

The quarterly goals then went into a fancy kanban board on Notion because I was having too much fun with this process. This is what the board looked like by the end of the quarter:

Goal attainment at the end of the quarter

At the beginning of each week, I made weekly milestones and a rough daily task list based on the quarterly goals. It looked like this:

My first week after setting goals

One key step in this process that I rarely got around to doing was journaling every day. However, I did a weekly retrospect to see how I felt that week and what my biggest wins were.

I knew my mind enough to know the trip wires with this process. So I set up some rules for myself even before I began:

Rule #1: Work goals and life goals were equal

Setting yearly and quarterly work goals was already a part of my job. Integrating them with personal goals would take a lot of unlearning and relearning. But I didn’t want to slip up and design the whole process just to make myself successful at work.

I found the balance by tackling easily achievable work goals when I was having a difficult time with my personal life and vice versa. For example, interviewing candidate after candidate for my team was very stressful as I am an introvert. So that week, I didn’t hold myself accountable for not writing. I tried to accomplish my reading goals or relationship goals instead.

Rule #2: Don’t get caught up in the process

Goal setting is about going into a day or week with intention. It’s not about striking things off a list. When I was sick, or exhausted (pregnancy-related and otherwise), I won’t complete any of the daily tasks. But I will write about my day, about what emotions I was feeling that day that made me incapable of completing my tasks. This made sure that my internal narrative was not taken over by negativity at the sight of unchecked boxes.

Rule #3: No questions asked

I didn’t allow myself to second guess anything on the aspirations list. I made the list after a lot of deliberation. So during the period of consideration, I was not allowed to wonder if I made the right choices. Aspirations would be reconsidered only at the end of the year and I was quite the bureaucrat in implementing this rule. I was ensuring that I would give any goal my best shot before I consider abandoning it.

Did this framework change my life? YES!

There was an immediate change in mindset and a spike in positivity in the first quarter. It tapered down as time passed but even on the toughest days I was kinder to myself than I had been before. I became more productive too. It turned out that I could get more done when I wasn’t constantly berating myself for not doing enough.

The true test of the framework came after I had baby T. She changed my life and my dreams completely. I quit my job and became a stay-at-home mother. This meant that I was forced to reevaluate my dreams again, this time including the motherhood related dreams. My yearly aspirations list ended up being significantly different the very next year. The work goals looked different – I didn’t plan course launches, I planned family meals. The writing goals were delayed by my motherhood goals. And incredibly, I was able to welcome these changes with positivity thanks to the framework.

My mind used to be a festering pit of guilt, negativity, and anxiety. It’s not anymore. It’s still a part of me but I allow it to coexist with my confidence in my abilities. This framework has caused a night and day difference in my behaviours.

  • I still have anxiety but they are mostly related to motherhood. It’s a work in progress. But the framework and this way of thinking helped me eliminate many other unhealthy motherhood goals before they could become a part of the voices.
  • I don’t get bored as often because there is always a tiny task in my weekly plan that I can take up and complete.
  • I don’t dump my anxieties on R anymore. I don’t rely on him as much to give me reassurances anymore.
  • Relaxing still comes with guilt but not as much as before.
  • I rarely think about the roads not taken. And when I do, I am relieved that those burdens are not on my shoulders.
  • My computer is filled with story ideas, post ideas, and half-finished novels, none of which will probably be published. But it still makes me happy knowing that I am working towards something.
  • Work used to be a big part of my identity. I would not have been able to quit to take care of my daughter if it weren’t for this framework. It helped me understand who I am outside of work and I am so grateful for that.

This is not philosophy, it’s homework. It’s the hardest homework I have ever done and it has helped me navigate the most stressful times in my life and make big decisions without completely unravelling. I have shared the journey with you in the hope that it would help you as well.

So the next time you feel bogged down by negativity, remember that you are not sick, you are just pregnant. Ha ha JK.

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