I recently worked with a client on her home office. She explained that the space used to work quite well for her – she could pay her bills, invoice clients, do her writing, etc. It was perfect. Then she got caught up in a legal dispute, needed surgery that limited her mobility for months, and had an existing medical condition worsen. On top of all that, her cat died. For about a year it was just one thing after another. Pretty soon her office wasn’t perfect anymore. Things stacked up. Paperwork wasn’t filed. The desk got covered in junk. She found herself avoiding the room completely. By the time I got there, she didn’t even want to go into the office if she didn’t have to.
It happens to everyone at some point. An interruption or major life event happens, and slowly the parts of our lives that used to work stop working. The problem is that once things have gone off the rails, we can’t bring them back using our old habits. Asking your maintenance systems to fix a year of built-up stress is like asking a handyman to build you a new house. The recurring processes and habits of daily life, such as dealing with the mail quickly or getting the desk clean at least once a week, only work so long as they keep moving. Interrupt those systems and habits for long enough and the machine gets clogged: the stack of bills is so tall you just avoid it, the package of paper towels begins to live on the floor. Your old systems can’t run anymore, and the clog only gets worse.
The life events that cause these interruptions don’t have to be huge. I just experienced one myself in these last few months. I had been blogging consistently during the summer, and I’d settled into a good routine of posting every two weeks. I had set up my writing program with ideas for upcoming topics, I’d color-coded it to ensure there was variety, and I had a procedure for doing final edits, posting, and promoting. But November was coming, and with it came National Novel Writing Month. I knew I wouldn’t want to be working on blog posts while also trying to write 1667 words every day for NaNo, so I tried to do a little extra work in October to prep the November posts. But this was an interruption in the system. It didn’t fit with the workflow I’d established, and I was only able to get one November post written and scheduled ahead of time. I decided one post in November would be fine, and went ahead with NaNo as planned.
But once November was over, I was burnt out on writing. That burnout kept me from jumping back into my old blogging habits. The system was interrupted, the old maintenance habits were clogged, and suddenly it was January 1st and I hadn’t posted anything in over a month. I was disappointed and embarrassed.
It was around this time that my client, fed up with her unusable office space, called me. She couldn’t say how or why it had gotten so bad, just that it was a big enough source of stress in her life that she needed help. And it wasn’t until I articulated the cause of the problem to her that I was able to see it so clearly in myself. What she needed was an outside professional to help her clear out the physical spaces that were getting in the way of her routines and habits. What I needed was to be reminded that I am susceptible to the same traps my clients are, and that I don’t need to be ashamed of that anymore than they do.
The skills and habits of maintenance won’t pull you out of the hole, just like they couldn’t pull me or my client out. We both needed something a bit bigger, a bit more drastic to happen in order to reset the system and get the machine working again. If there’s an area in your life that used to work but isn’t anymore, it might be because some big event got in the way. You need to match a big event with a big response. I can’t tell you for certain what that response is, but I can tell you how it starts: Acknowledge that being interrupted is not the same as failing. You can’t control what interrupts you, only what you do to get back on track.