There’s a lesson I keep coming back to when I think about how I use my energy and navigate time, and I’m always reminded of it when I pull the 9 of Wands. It’s all about pacing and sustainability, and I think it might resonate with those of you who struggle with what you “should” be doing at any given time, or feel like you’re always behind on your goals.

It comes from these questions as a starting point:

  • What does it mean to work steadily towards a goal, with determination, but also sustainably enough that you don’t get burnt out and lose hope?
  • What’s the best way to incorporate rest into timelines, and when is it advisable to sprint?

In the popular Smith Rider-Waite version of the tarot, the 9 of Wands is a card that shows a figure hunched over but determined, carrying their bundle of nine sticks. Some readers interpret this card as perseverance, determination, and pushing through. Others focus on the inevitable burnout that comes in the next card in the sequence, and see it as a warning sign. My teacher, Lindsay Mack, relates it to sustainable pacing and how we need to not just focus on big rest or pauses but also on how we weave rest and work together. I find this weaving to be crucial, but also highly personal.

The Lesson in the Form of a Story

A couple of years ago I took a six-week sabbatical from work. Like many people in the years following the 2008 crash, I’d gone through a long period of unemployment and underemployment before I found a full-time job in DC, and after about three years of work between two organizations I found myself underemployed again for a full year. While those periods were highly financially stressful, they were also periods of writing a lot and pursuing personal projects, and so after four years in the same organization my brain started going “…hang on. When do we get that again?”

Given the cycle of work hard for a few years, then have no job for a year, I hadn’t been taking vacations and was fortunate in that fourth year to have enough saved-up PTO to take off between the November and December holidays my organization offered, adding up to a total six weeks without working. I expected this break to be busy, but also refreshing. So much of my desire for a break was about the study and creative projects I wanted to do when I “had the time,” and I expected these passion pursuits to refill my energy for the new year.

In reality I was surprised by how contracted that expanse of time actually felt. I was frustrated when my experience of “break” didn’t actually feel that much different from my workday evenings and weekends, so there wasn’t a clear sense of refresh. And of course I no longer had any “excuse” for exhaustion, having just taken that long break! I didn’t feel like I could say a damn thing about being tired in January or February, given that my colleagues had been working just as hard as ever through the holidays.

So what happened? Well, without paying attention my usual weekend activities of reading, writing, tarot, and astrology had quickly expanded to fill the new amount of space available. I only actually did tiny sliver of the “break only projects” I’d intended, and didn’t have any exciting achievements to show for my time off. Furthermore, I didn’t build any real recovery into my schedule—while my activities were joyful, they were still goal-oriented and about ticking off boxes or “catching up.”

It was a little scary to realize that I wasn’t returning to work feeling brand new like I had after longer periods of underemployment, but I was also able to reframe this realization from a bummer into a gift: maybe the problem wasn’t actually that I needed a dedicated container, exactly, or a “break.” (Something that I wouldn’t always have the luxury to afford.) Maybe the lesson was that I needed to weave rest, learning, and joy into my routines rather than putting them off. And doing this would have to mean taking myself out of automatic mode and redefining consistency.

Leaving Automatic Mode

There will always be more things to read, to watch, to listen to. There will always be new project ideas and friendship opportunities. If you put things off “for a break,” then your break just becomes a long lists of things you want to do when you’re not working. I realized that my “for a break list” was really about denial—denial of how important it was to build non-work activities into my life, denial that my inability to do so between work and massive amounts of sleep was actually a major health warning sign, and denial of how long my “later” list was actually becoming.

I had to admit that I had been primarily operating from in a kind of automatic mode, rather than autonomously choosing how to spend my time. I didn’t want to face the fact that doing everything of interest was impossible, so I’d grab at the first thing in front of my face. I was offloading the choices to avoid the pain of making a decision, but ultimately that meant my life was haphazard and unsatisfying.

After that break I got a little more intentional about pacing, and a little clearer about what my priorities were for any given period of time. I stopped mindlessly going through queues of things I wanted to do without regularly evaluating my current priorities and what fit into them, because I had to admit that those queues were running me.

Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination. That sabbatical resulted in a first layer of letting things go, a first round of culling my lists down. In the last four years there have been at least six major layers of that release work, not even counting all the little ones in between!

Redefining Consistency

There were also other things I needed to understand to really feel into sustainable timing and meaningful rest for myself. Figuring out my mounting chronic fatigue was huge, as was understanding the way ADHD makes my attention flow in waves. Both of those things in turn required building a stronger observational practice, noticing when I’m doing something that isn’t filling me up or serving a purpose as well as noticing when I actually need physical rest or just unstructured time that isn’t oriented towards a goal. Shifting into a new career also helped me come to terms with how I’d been sidelining my passions, rather than finding a way to make them the core of my work.

All of this changed my relationship to consistency. I learned a lot about how I need consistent tending to my “inner flame.” For me this means not only being intentional and clearing out things that aren’t serving but also makings sure I get to feel little sparks all throughout my routine. Consistency isn’t just checking off every item on a list, it’s including space to follow the meandering path of my curiosity.

Tending to that inner flame is part of what holds me.

Take a moment to consider: what holds you? What does your inner flame need to stay lit?

Grounding in Flame

We don’t normally think of fire when we think of grounding, do we?

We tend towards the earth element, something I’ve had plenty of this whole time. Structure, lists of things to do… these aren’t bad, but they need a little bit of “oomph” to sing.

I pulled this version of the 9 of Wands from the Lilifer Tarot reversed in a spread for the New Moon in Gemini and the image really sang to me. The way I read it in that moment intuitively was that the figure (representing me) is grounded in the flame, in the consistency of those seven wands at their feet. Thus they’re able to hang upside down with one wand at their belly to tune into the fire of their body and the other thrust outward to see what their spark might attract.

This image makes me think of hanging upside down from a tree branch or the monkey bars, the joy of that rush of blood to the head and the freedom of swinging upside down, but with the certainty of my knees hooked on the branch or the bar. Upside down is a new perspective, with a kind of movement you can’t access from a standing position.

Integrating joy and play and things that make me go “ooh!” in both big and little ways throughout my schedule helps my body to trust that we get to come back here. This means attending to curiosity and the desire to roam and try new things. And it in turn makes bold action easier, makes the scarier things easier, because my body doesn’t expect to be punished if it goes badly. I have the child-like confidence of my legs hooked around a monkey bar.

I recently learned (from Ixchel Lunar, who does amazing work on changing your relationship to time) that the body gets into a state of creative flow faster if you actually stop “flow work” when you’re at a peak (typically 75-90 minutes in). I’m going to be trying out the strategy of cutting myself off at 90 minutes and then engaging in 20 minutes of something joyful and connecting to see how this works for me! My hope is that it might loosen up my fear relationship with effort a little bit, and help my body to feel more resourced and trustful through this integration of rest and play.

So what’s your relationship with consistency? Do you work sustainably, or do you tend to put everything into a big push and then burnout? Is there space to feel into this a little, to try small or big adjustments? If you struggle here, are there stories of how much you “have” to get done or what “normal” pacing looks like that might be holding you back?

Of course, if you need some support on this, I am so here for it! I’d love to have a free, no obligations half-hour consult with you to get to know you and chat about options for support. As a change doula, I can give you some quick tips in this container whether or not your needs match what I’m offering, and I also have an awesome referral list, so come say hello! You can find the link to schedule that on the Work with Me page.