Running on Empty

My first car was an AMC Spirit. This photo is not my car, but this is what it looked like. The passenger door would fly open as I took left corners. The dashboard was my speedometer, the steering wheel and dashboard would shake if I went faster than 55 mph. There was no warning light for my gas level. With that car as a frame of reference, I consider my current SUV to be luxurious and fancy. I get a gentle warning light when I have enough gas to make it 50 miles.

For the past 3 weeks, my SUV’s warning light has been on. Where I live, it is possible for a vehicle’s gas lines to freeze in the winter if the gas level gets too low. When temps are around -10 to -40, I keep my tank half full. That habit serves me well. A colleague of mine who was born in the Virgin Islands thought that gas lines freezing was an urban myth. Unfortunately, it is not, and he learned the hard way.

Right now, the gas gauge warning doesn’t concern me because a biweekly trip to Target is less than 3 miles round trip and it is warm. Old habits and warnings that suited me well no longer apply. I currently live in a world where a cough or a sneeze causes more concern than a gas gauge. I am ignoring gas gauges, and build out the habit of stepping back when talking to neighbors and washing my hands the right way.

I don’t mind building out new habits and letting go of old ones. As a recently single mom, I have been able to re-work multiple habits in my home. I can wait a week to run the dishwasher. I’ve taken over my ex’s chores: I take out the garbage and pick up the mail. I’ve removed the habit of mowing the lawn altogether by paying a lawn service. I’ve reorganized cupboards and closets based on what gets habitually used. I’ve introduced new morning habits to feed the dog and new puppy and water the plants. I stopped my morning Starbucks wonderful, easy habit. I miss those days.

Part of my going to work “pre-corona” routine was to stumble out of bed, do all the morning stuff, and finally get dressed by grabbing a shirt off the stack of folded t-shirts in my closet. I work in IT, in an company where almost everyone wears a t-shirt with some type of event name, conference name or technical product name on the front. My favorite t-shirt has a Gremlin on the front. My second favorite is swag from a conference and says: “I’m Here Because You Broke Shit.” Kind of weird dress code for a woman in her 50’s but that is just the way it is. My commute was barely mindful and my morning breakfast followed a mindless, low calorie consuming routine. This is why habits exist – our brain is saving energy for more important decisions.

My habitual, pre-corona breakfast was supplied by the wonderful Starbucks people in my office. They knew my order, they knew my Starbuck’s name – I use my son’s name “Max” because who wants to try to groggily explain how to spell M-I-C-H-A-E-L-E (no that is”A-E-L-E”) and then having to answer polite, well intentioned questions (“No, I’m not really sure where it came from” or “Yes, it is unique, thank you”) then to re-explain the pronunciation to the busy person trying to call out my name when my order is ready. Barista’s lives are complicated enough with all of the light-ice, dash of cream orders. Everything about the my ordering process was set up to minimize thought and reduce friction. Caffeine. Food. Done.

I miss the seamless ease of those Starbucks interactions. I miss the Vanilla Sweet Cream yummy, yummy Cold Brew that was an integral part of my wake-up routine and morning habit. Some days, my breakfast just magically appeared after the Barista uttered the two word phrase: “The usual?”

This is the problem with being intentional right now. Things that used to be automatic, safe habits now require extended thought experiments and a flow chart to determine whether I should wear a mask and/or gloves. “What is the risk of getting a Starbucks coffee?” “Do I need to wear a face mask if I’m using the drive up?” “Should I allocate extra time?” Answer to that: YES. “Should I leave an extra tip?” Answer to that for me: YES.

The cognitive overhead is overwhelming. Now I understand why the brain creates habits. Thinking through every daily decisions is exhausting. The 6th Agile Best Self principle is not always applicable:

Agile Best Self Principle #6: The most effective way to be your best self is to be mindful and intentional.

Sometimes it is good to let a habit kick in and just let things go. The paradox is that we have to be intentional and mindful about being intentional and mindful.

How many of you have done this: start washing your hands prior to preparing food just to realize that you also have to go to the bathroom? “Bathroom + Wash Up + Food Prep + Eat” is much easier on rough, dried out hands than “Wash Up + Food Prep + Eat + Bathroom + Wash Up.” Just to avoid boredom, I’ve switched up the birthday song. Every pet’s birthday in my house gets celebrated. The dogs: Thor and Jade and all of the fish with names: Dahm, Richard, Cory 1; Cory 2 and Cory 3, Gourami 1, Gourami 2, Gourami 3.

I’ve rebuilt my hand washing habit to do a quick check-in with myself and my surroundings. Before I turn on the water, I ask myself: do I need a bio break first? This has helped me avoid several extra hand washing sessions a day. This is the perfect spot to bring in the under-represented, yet absolutely critical principle around science.

Agile Best Self Principle #3: Build daily self-care habits.

This covers more than just the novel coronavirus science but also understanding why Zoom Fatigue and inability to effectively track time are a problems for many of us in addition to cognitive overload. The cognitive load I’m experiencing just thinking through a Starbucks visit and making lunch is beyond some vacations I’ve planned.

Empty fuel warning light in car dashboard. 3D rendered illustration.

This extra cognitive load – in the middle of a VUCA world – is running me ragged, and I’m sure many of you are feeling it too. The main problem is that I can tell how much energy I have left when I’m feeling the extra cognitive load. It is like the nitrogen narcosis that scuba divers have to be aware of. By the time you can feel that you are on running on empty, you’ve lost the ability to make good decisions. To manage this, I’m going back to some simple rules of thumb. Mask in public even if no one else is wearing one: Yes. Washing hands: Yes. Feeling slightly tired: Slow down. Nap time: Yes (if I’m thinking I need a nap, I need a nap). Music: Yes. Can it wait? Yes (I’m home more, the dishes, laundry, sweeping can all wait). All of these new habits are helping me keep my cognitive load low and my emotional/cognitive gas tank full. Filling up my car can wait.

Copyright © 2018 – 2023 Michaele Gardner and Brian Hackerson

Published by MichaeleBestSelf

Connector, Catalyst.

2 thoughts on “Running on Empty

  1. First, I’m. It sure why anyone would subject themselves to Starbucks when there is perfectly good, tasty, unburned coffee elsewhere. In the metro where you anD I live, Michaele, that’s pretty much literally anywhere else. But you do you. 🤣

    Completely agree on the concept of needing to build daily self-care habits and mindfulness, while a good idea anytime, is absolutely necessary in this environment of deep change and VUCA-amped-up-at-least-an-order-of-magnitude morass in which we all find ourselves! I also know that I personally need to take a page from Agile and remember to do things in smaller bites.

    Instead of telling myself I absolutely am going to tackle 5 things during the day – absolutely and without question will not to go to slumber until they’re each and everyone done – I now plan by thinking of the 1-3 things I plan to try to do in a day, but my horizon is smaller now. I work on the one of those three things I consider most important and drive it to ground before moving on to the next, etc.

    That focus has seen me finish about 60-75% more things than I would have in the time before our current incarnation of Planet of the Apes (or is this world more like some other book/movie/tv show? Maybe Logan’s Run, Soylent Green, 1984, or The Handmaid’s Tale???).

    It’s not easy, since my priorities are often not congruent with my boss’ priorities, my staff’s priorities, my family’s priorities, or the chosen priorities of half-a-hundred other people. Nonetheless, I have relearned in this time who’s priorities need to matter most to me. That person’s name rhymes with “you have to love yourself before you can love anyone else.” Well, it doesn’t really rhyme with my name – but I bet you understood what I meant, anyway!

    My first car was an 11-year-old 1969 Dodge Dart. Or, more like what was left of one of those. Car ran great. It even stopped pretty well if I pumped the breaks enough. If I could get it to go straight down the road, that worked well enough…so long as I didn’t mind have to turn the steering wheel half a turn every few seconds (there was a LOT of ‘play’ in the steering gear). Boy, though, could that car corner. On its own, I mean. Letting go of the wheel while moving was an exercise in which it was apparent that I meant to find the nearest obstacle on a random one or the other side of the road. Not going in a straight line intentionally was only marginally better than doing it no-handed. Oh, and the car had gotten really light. The body was more rust holes than sheet metal, Those were the days. They were, indeed, the days. Of white knuckles. And terror. But they were good days. Like I’ve often said about my home town, those days are good days to be from. 🙂

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