FBLA Q & A: Nora Isaacs and Finding Balance

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Nora Isaacs, a San Francisco-based writer has published her first book, Women in Overdrive: Find Balance and Overcome Burnout at Any Age. FBLA chatted with her about writing, connecting and finding a balance.

Q. Did this subject have roots in your own experience?

A. Yes! When I was pregnant, women approached me and said things like, “Oh you think you’re tired now-wait until you have the baby and you don’t sleep more than two hours in a row.” Or “Get used to it. You’ll be tired for the next 18 years.” So I started thinking about my life as a modern woman: First the fatigue of my 20s, working day and night to start my career in publishing. Then taking care of young children in my 30s. Next comes the likely scenario in my forties of caring for my aging parents. With the fifties comes all of the very dramatic hormonal changes that menopause brings. Then I realized that modern women are aging so much better that we aren’t slowing down as we age anymore. So I thought, is this it? Is this the beginning of decades of exhaustion that will effectively leave me physically and emotionally depleted for life? I wanted to talk to women of all ages to understand their experiences and help me find out the answer to my question.


Q. Any stories surprise you while writing the book?

A. Part of the book talks about the big stresses that women face; breast cancer, death of a parent, the sandwich generation (taking care of both children and parents), older motherhood, illness of a loved one. I was shocked at how many women were grateful for adversity, because it finally taught them to slow down and be present to their lives. With my book, I want to let women know that you don’t have to wait until a major life transition or tragedy happens-you can start right now.

Q. What’s the single biggest cause of overdrive?

A. A lack of unstructured downtime. As women, we take on too many projects, believe we have to fill up every ounce of our time, and can’t think of anything that we are willing to give up. So we are doing everything, but many of us are not enjoying any of it! Even if you fill your time with fun things like going on a trip or socializing with friends, they take effort, planning, and energy. We don’t build in time for doing nothing. When we create space for “nothing,” something invariably happens, whether it’s creative ideas, connections with other people, deep rest, or spontaneous daydreaming. But when we schedule every moment, we lose the opportunity for these things to arise. It’s like that old bumpersticker, Magic Happens. But we have to let it.

Q. Two things we can do right now to stop overdriving?

A. 1. Start the day off quietly. If you wake up with a jolt, start thinking of all you have to do, jump out of bed, and check your email, in the first five minutes, it’s likely that your day will be hectic. But even if you have a zillion things to do, you can wake up slowly, take three deep breaths, maybe do a few stretches, set an intention for your day. This sends a message to your nervous system to relax, and starts you off calmly. You’d be amazed how it changes the tenor of the day.

A. 2. Stop multitasking. I used to do ten things at once-and do them all poorly. Now I try to focus on one thing at a time. It’s much less taxing, and you feel so much better because when you direct your attention to one thing. So if you are writing on your computer, don’t continuously check your email. If you are making dinner, don’t talk on the phone. This way, you can stay present. I’m not one of those people who says, if you pay attention while doing the dishes, you will find joy and serenity while see the Divine in every sud. But I do think if you move more slowly and deliberately, you’ll find you feel much less frazzled by the end of the day,

Q. Are women more vulnerable to this than men? Or are men just better at hiding/coping?

A. As women, we have difficulty saying no. We crave deep friendships, often take care of children and run the household, and experience far more dramatic hormonal changes than men. I see many women feel intensely competitive at work and that they must prove to their spouses, friends, and bosses that they can do it all. All of those factors add up to a lot of time and emotional output.

Q. Our pioneer ancestresses did everything: cooking,cleaning, kids, etc. So why can’t we cope?

A. They had one focus–taking care of the home and family. Now we do this, plus have so many other demands on our time like work and bringing home money. And anyone, male or female, living in modern society can tell you that today’s pace is decidedly faster than it once was.

This has a proven physiological impact: In the old days, our bodies went into the “fight or flight” response only when we sensed immediate danger: The body floods with stress hormones, the heart rate increases, and the blood pressure rises. In our fast-moving modern society, however, we perceive “danger” multiple times a day when we get stuck in traffic, our kids annoy us, or we face a deadline. We are stuck in this state of increased alertness, which taxes our cardiovascular and immune systems, among many other things. So that’s why it’s important to get out of overdrive. Not just to enjoy life more, but to stay healthy while we’re living it.

Isaacs, who’s very soft-spoken, with a soothing quality, wrote the book while pregnant with her son. She said she worked half time on it and the rest of the time on her other free-lance gigs. But writing a book has a big plus, she said. “I enjoyed the space for my words–with magazine writing, you’re always condensing and cutting, but not in a book.”

This book grew out of an idea her editor had after reading one of Isaac’s freelance pieces. As an instructor for mediabistro.com, Isaacs tells her students who want to write about health and wellness–“Think outside of the usual places. Everyone wants to pitch Yoga Journal, but this is getting mainstream–think about Business Week.” As Isaacs started writing about tech companies during the dot-com boom, and then became a yoga instructor, she knows both sides of the yoga mat, so to speak.