“Most of us try to do too much because we are secretly afraid we will not be able to do anything at all.” ~Rick Aster
I’m standing in my art studio. My palette is loaded with paint. My canvas has been prepped and ready. There is a paintbrush in my hand, but I can’t move. I don’t know what color to pick or what shape to make. I start questioning my color selection, the size of my canvas… and everything else under the sun.
A few months ago, I wrote myself a reminder to allow my art to flow through me. Making art is a refuge for my mind—a mind that struggles with anxiety, depression, and “Hamster Wheel Syndrome.” You’re not familiar with that malady? Let me explain it to you with an example of what my brain sounds like when hamster wheel syndrome kicks in:
“Do people really like pinks and greens together? Is it too feminine? Should I make my shapes big and bold to contrast against the girlie palette? Maybe I should do a test on a smaller canvas first? Maybe I should just pick a different pallet. It’s cold in here. I’ll get a hoodie. I think I need more coffee… Man, this art table is messy. I’ll organize it first… I only have three hours until my dentist appointment… The grocery is near by the dentist. I’ll plan on going there too…” And on and on it goes.
According to UrbanDictionary.com, hamster wheel syndrome is “when someone just keeps running in circles (and making the same mistakes) in their life instead of progressing.”
I believe that this only really scratches the surface about what it truly means to feel my wheels spinning, with no break in sight, for days at a time.
When I’m in my studio, brush in hand and ready to go but I can’t move forward due to my brain throwing ten different options at me every three seconds, I feel paralyzed.
I am a highly efficient person with a creative mind. I’m an abstract painter, essay writer, and fastidious business owner. I can get more done in two hours than many get done in a day. And I’m not saying this to brag. It is a blessing and a curse.
If you’re like me, you know how exhausting this type of hamster wheel efficiency can be. IT NEVER STOPS. If I’m not checking things off my to do list, I’m compiling them into spreadsheets, using new methods of organization that I thought of while I was trying to sleep at 3am.
I am addicted to efficiency. It makes me feel productive and useful. But as there can be too many cooks in the kitchen, there can also be too many ideas and tasks to process at once.
When the multitude of ideas leads to overwhelm, paralysis is the result, and for a person like me, when I’m stagnant, I get even more anxious. If I stay in that state for too long, depression kicks in. Then I’m really in trouble.
I begin to feel guilty that I’m not getting enough done; like rest is a failure. Sometimes it’s hard for me to sit down at the end of the day, so the pace continues until bedtime, even though I know where it will lead.
Now I’m no psych major, but I believe hamster wheel syndrome is a compulsive disorder that at first makes me feel efficient, but then yields the same negative result every time—an inability to move.
I’m so addicted to coming up with things that will keep me busy in order to have a feeling of accomplishment and, more importantly, for others to see me as accomplished. I put a lot of pressure on myself!
I am a wonder of time management and productivity. I get up early in order to exercise before making breakfast and getting everyone off to work and school. Then I’m in my office at 8:00am, checking off tasks from my to-do list, and yes, I’m the type that if I’ve done something not on the list, I’ll add it just so I can cross it off.
Then, when I’m nauseated because I forgot to eat, I shove food down my throat and move to the art studio where I now have to flip into thoughtful and creative mode, and there I stay until 5:00pm.
The problem is that when I’m not moving at that horrendously cray cray pace, I’m comatose, lying on the sofa, binge watching Law & Order and denying the fact that I will, indeed, have to get up and be productive again. And if I get to this point I’m happy, because it means that hamster wheel syndrome hasn’t reduced me into a tornado of indecision, just that it has made me too tired to function.
I have two speeds: To-Do List Annihilator and DEAD.
After just coming out of about a four-month depressive period due to over working myself, I realize that this pace isn’t healthy or sustainable. So, what do I do? Well, I’m way too fired up about my art and my business to slow down. I think the solution is to be rigid about both my work time and my relax time.
I work with a business coach and recently, she has put us into three-people “accountability groups.” These groups are meant to help us stay on task. I realize that a common problem for artists is that they just can’t get themselves out of the art studio to give their art business attention. This is not my problem.
At first, the others in my accountability group were proposing only evenings and weekends for our weekly meetings. Since diving into my own business, I’ve heard many people say that I’ll now be working twenty-four hours a day and through the weekends. That entrepreneurs have to work longer hours to yield any sort of progress. That we are supposed to eat and breathe our work all the time.
I have one thing to say about that: SCREW THAT.
I didn’t start my own business to hamster wheel myself into a constant, walking panic attack.
I am passionate about my art and I want it out there, but I also love my family. I love to surf and hike. I love to watch movies and lollygag at coffee shops. What I don’t like is the exhaustion that hamster wheeling causes and the expectation that in order to be successful, I don’t have a choice in the matter. I’ll say it again: SCREW THAT.
So, in an effort to calm the rodent, here are five ways to slow the hamster wheel down:
1. Exercise, yoga, get outside and play
This really is on every single list I write. It is so important for me that when I don’t get up to do something active four or five days a week, I can feel myself getting wound up internally and eventually depressed. Just moving my body releases the bound-up thoughts and allows more grace to seep into my day-to-day life.
It's easy to get caught up in our heads when we spend all our time staring at work or screens. Getting outside and being active transfers all that energy from our brains to our bodies so we can feel energized and balanced.
I would think that due to my hamster wheel, seated meditation would be hard for me, but it’s not. I relish in the fifteen minutes when I sit, breathe, and be still. I’m pretty good about being consistent with it, but I’m also human, so I try not to be hard on myself when time goes by and I haven’t been active in this practice. I’ll start to notice that wound up feeling after a few weeks and start a daily meditation practice again.
The beautiful thing about meditation is that we can do it many different ways. If not seated meditation, try walking meditation or deep breathing exercises, even painting or gardening. Any mindfulness practice can help pull us from big picture overwhelm to a present state of calm and relaxation.
3. Lists, lists, and more lists
It helps me go into my day with less anxiety by simply knowing what I would like to accomplish in the next eight hours.
I have a huge master to-do list that I update on Mondays. Each morning when I get up, I make a daily list from that list.
Now, before you roll your eyes at me, hear me out: My daily to-do list is only time-sensitive items that need to be accomplished that day and pieces of larger projects that I’ll give some attention to knowing that it won’t be completed as a whole. The result is a slow and steady progress.
It’s so easy for us to get overwhelmed by the litany of to do’s associated with the big picture. By breaking it down into smaller pieces, we are able to look at projects in more manageable baby steps.
4. Stick to a realistic work week.
My workday is from 8:00am to 5:00pm. I put everything down at 5:00pm, with few exceptions. My weekends are my own. I shut down the computer on Friday evening and don’t turn it back on until Monday morning.
I simply refuse to allow my business to take over my whole life. My art is my work and I’m lucky I feel so passionate about it. When I stop on the weekends, it allows excitement to build for Monday morning. Plus, playtime is an important recharge!
Being passionate about our work is a gift, but when that passion takes over everything else, our self-care, family, and friends tend to get neglected. Playtime is important to recharge and we should all prioritize it as much as we prioritize our work.
5. Judge progress in years, not weeks.
For a while, I was thinking about growth in terms of what I’ve accomplished in the past month or two, and I felt a need to cram as much as possible into my days because it didn't seem like much. As a result, I was living in a constant state of fear, overwhelm and a feeling of failure. It wasn’t until I compared my current situation to where I was at this time last year, that I realized how far I’ve come.
We don’t need to work ourselves to the bone to see progress. Slow and steady wins the race, and it’s much easier to see accomplishments built over long periods of time than in the seeds planted over just the past couple of weeks.
I think that the above can be applied to anyone, in any type of work.
In the end, we all want the same things: success in our work life and a healthy, happy home life. I have absolutely no doubt that stay-at-home moms, lawyers, restaurant workers—really anyone—can fall prey to hamster wheel syndrome. We must take care of ourselves, mind, body, and soul. Otherwise, we fall out of balance and fall prey to anxiety, depression, and a host of physical ailments.
I yearn for the day that I don’t have to give so much attention to being a balanced person. However, I also want a career, to spend time with my loved ones, to go surfing and skiing, to cook my own meals, and to be able to tend to all the errands that come with life. That’s a lot to want, and so I have to put equal attention to the activities that will feed my energy.
I have to remember that the hamster is not in charge! The wheel doesn’t have to spin twenty-four hours a day. In fact, it isn’t reasonable to think that it can. The hinges that support that wheel will burn out quickly if they don’t get a break and some oil.
While I like to burn bright, I must remember that fires need to be fed. And with that, I’ve just reminded myself that I’m hungry, and so I stop. To be nourished so I can nourish.