Tips for Managing the Late-Winter Doldrums

Overall, our winter hasn't been harsh.  It's been cold, but not frigid.  We've gotten snow, but not excessive amounts.  We've experienced school delays for the kids, but not frequently enough to disrupt the semblance of a normal schedule.  It's been a typical, nondescript, run-of-the-mill winter in Pennsylvania.

In other words, it's been gray.  The sky is gray, the roads are gray, the cars (which could be any color, I'm assuming) are gray because they're coated with a layer of gritty salt-slush.  The whole visible world currently is damp and gray, except for those other parts that are damp and brown.

February is a month I slog through.  Nothing is actually wrong, except that I want to cocoon myself in a blanket, lay listlessly on the couch, eat ungodly amounts of carbs, and avoid human interactions.  This isn't alarming; it's just February.  February is a test of endurance.  Given this, I've made an unofficial pact with myself to endure the month well.

Here are a few steps I'm taking to manage:

Changing My Route.  Every morning I walk the same route between the parking deck on one side of campus and my first class on the other.  This month, I've challenged myself to walk a slightly different route each day.  (It's a large campus. This is feasible.)  I take obscure sidewalks, reroute my course around interesting buildings to view them from different angles, and walk through other buildings that I ordinarily wouldn't enter.  Rather than blindly trudging through my surroundings on autopilot, I look for what's interesting.

One morning I noticed thoughtfully staggered brickwork.

On another day I appreciated the contrast of materials, like a stone door casing, wooden doors, and a decorative metal window grill.

I pay attention to pleasing shapes, like arches, which for some reason always remind me of hobbit houses.

It's the simplest change, just a mere tweak in direction and a keener eye for detail, but the freshness even slightly new surroundings makes every morning better.

Remembering What I Actually Enjoy.  When I'm knee-deep in the semester, I don't always carve out time to do things that I love to do.  Sometimes this is necessary; assignments don't grade themselves, after all.  But sometimes it's because I lose touch with what I actually enjoy.

If a spare half hour appears, I can't figure out what to do with it.  Should I try to be productive?  Should I respond to emails, or clean a drawer, or make a meal plan, or fold laundry?  Or, should I simply enjoy the half hour?  Often, I fritter away the time with some halfhearted hybrid of productivity and pleasure -- sweeping the kitchen floor, then wandering aimlessly for a bit, and finally flipping through a magazine nonchalantly.  It's a form of down time, I suppose, but it doesn't rejuvenate.  

During the middle of this week, however, I took a more intentional approach when a spare hour materialized before I had to attend a meeting.  My teaching and office hours were finished, my grading was completed for the day, and to top it off, the weather was unusually warm.  (This appearance of a rare sunny day occasionally happens in February.  You handle it with a mixture of awe and caution, like how you'd approach a unicorn, because you understand it's a gift that won't last.)  I walked to the library, checked out a novel I had been wanting to read, and then sat on a bench outside.

It was glorious.  Even though it was a tease, the warmth provided the illusion of spring.  I heard birds.  I got lost in the pages.  I periodically stopped reading, watched people walk past, and let my thoughts wander about random things, like footwear.   

Why do cute shoes tend to be uncomfortable?  Or, more importantly, why aren't comfortable shoes often that cute?  Would it be unprofessional to wear Nike running shoes to class?  Students do it.  Why can't professors?  Do I even know how to wear shoes the right way?  I'm wearing cute boots with low socks because I think that's what people do, and they're rubbing my ankles weirdly.  Does that happen to everybody else, too?  Do I have overly sensitive ankles?

And then I'd return to my novel, read another chapter, and sigh happily.  Even though I still don't have answers to my shoe conundrum, I was doing something I loved: reading and observing.  I legitimately enjoyed this hour.

Looking Ahead with Anticipation.  While I don't advocate wishing time away, I'm a proponent of having something to look forward to.  Right now, I'm dreaming about the start of garage sale season and the treasures I'll find.  I'm envisioning working on projects in my garage, which is one of the most satisfying ways to spend an afternoon.  (It's like hosting my own HGTV show, except that only my neighbors can view it.  I'm still waiting to be discovered.)

When I look ahead with anticipation, I realize that I'm excited for a multitude of things.  I'm excited for the weather to break so I can go outside and spray paint a mirror that I picked up at Goodwill.  I'm anticipating the cilantro, basil, zucchini, and tomatoes that we'll grow this summer.  I'm not bemoaning the current days; I'm simply whetting my appetite for the good days ahead.

Giving in a Little, But Not All the Way.  Of course, one final way to manage the late-winter doldrums is to accept -- daresay, to own -- the inherent blah of the season.

For example, last night I admitted to myself that I was going to grab a blanket and hibernate on the couch with a box of Girl Scout cookies.  Then, I didn't feel badly because I knew that I'd eventually get up and become a mobile adult who functions productively in society again, even if wasn't going to be that particular evening.  (I'm not sure why, but lethargy seems less shameful when you give yourself permission to embrace it, rather than just slumping into it.  Like, I chose this listlessness.  It's intentional, people.)

February, this simultaneously shortest and longest month, won't last forever.  Let's endure.

Are you experiencing any late-winter doldrums, too?  What do you do to manage?  I'd love to hear from you!

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