On Treading Water
It’s okay to just “tread water” sometimes.
This post is about those moments where — somehow — life’s circumstances seemingly prevent you from moving in any particular direction.
Maybe you’re at work, and day after day, all you can seem to do is keep up with everyone else. Maybe you’re in school and you’re struggling, submitting assignments late, procrastinating constantly, and performing poorly. Or maybe you’re self-employed or freelancing, only you can’t seem to inspire yourself to move forward in any particular direction: seeking new contracts, working on that big personal project, or even putting in hard work on any major tasks in front of you.
When I was in my first two years of university, I was treading water constantly. I didn’t know what to do for an undergraduate degree, and the random selections of courses I had chosen to study left me feeling purposeless. At the same time, I had no real roles to fill anywhere else in life. Nothing was inspiring me or pulling me in - I was stuck.
Those days, weeks, and months are horrifying. You’re keeping up, but you’re not going anywhere. You want to go places, though. You have goals! You have ideas! You’ve done this before! What’s wrong with you?
You’ll keep asking yourself that question — “what’s wrong?” — only this might be the worst part: you never have a real answer, an answer that resonates with you. You’ll sit down at your favourite workspace with your favourite drink and some inspiring music (or no music at all, whatever works) and then you’ll get up a few hours later with the guilt of knowing that whatever was supposed to happen… didn’t happen.
The first thing to realize is that these moments - however long they last - are okay. Don’t panic. Sometimes, panicking is exactly what you need - those boosts of adrenaline kickstart you into kicking ass. If you’re treading water, however, panicking won’t help.
That said, you don’t want to tread water forever. So what can help? How can you swim to safety?
First, be vigilant, and keep treading. Trying to take off in one direction arbitrarily could be futile - worse, it could lead you even more astray than before. Instead, watch all of your horizons. Pay attention to your responsibilities, your goals, and the things that you *could* be doing, and look for a beacon: brilliant work that inspires you, that sparks your passions. Or look for land: stable, foundational work that you can stand on, that enables you to catch a breath. Or, finally, look for a ship: work someone else is doing that you can contribute to, so that you might get away.
These pieces of work could be smaller components of larger tasks: it’s important to be precise, to really focus on the details in order to gain an accurate picture of what’s on the horizon.
Second, gain momentum. As soon as you can guess which direction to go in, go for it! Get there! One of the reasons why these “treading water” moments are so difficult is the lack of a feeling of progress. So reach goals - even little ones - and then build on those from there.
Eventually, all of the little things I had found myself doing in university started to draw together. My involvement with the Memorial chapter of Engineers Without Borders led to a realization that I wanted to learn more about behavioural change and industrial psychology: suddenly my course work no longer felt meaningless.
One final note. In smaller moments of treading water — hours or days of procrastination, of avoiding whatever you know you’re supposed to be doing — work on anything at all. It doesn’t matter if you have an assignment due next week that you haven’t started. If you can’t make yourself work on it, sitting idly at your desk is a waste of time. Instead, dive headfirst into something that catches your eye. Do it, and do it successfully. Then, use that momentum to pivot back to your responsibilities.