You know those people who seem to accomplish an inordinate amount of tasks in the space of a week? How on earth do they do it?
I’m well aware that social media is a constructed reality – I preach that to my students often enough – but I keep finding myself bemused and not a little awestruck by the people who seem to manage to work full days, exercise, prep food for the week ahead, read endless books, listen to podcasts etc etc…all the while I’m staring at my day wondering how on earth I can possibly squeeze more out of it. As my 30th birthday approaches, it feels like such a milestone and I keep wondering ‘have I done enough?’, ‘have I accomplished enough?’, ‘am I really getting enough out of my day?’.
In mid-September, I felt like I was struggling to keep my head above water and my anxiety started to flare up again. I’d just gone through a really bloody awful summer medically and when I looked at what I was actually managing to do with my week, I basically felt like an utter failure.
I had a full teaching load to plan and prep for, but I also needed to keep up with the academic reading for my subjects, as well as scouring the news for relevant content to sign-point students to. I hadn’t manage to finish a single book for my own enjoyment for a month (having averaged four a month at the start of the year) and was behind with my stuff for book club, I wasn’t managing to practice my violin often enough, I hadn’t exercised for weeks…and how was I ever supposed to finish my novel if I didn’t have any time to write?! On top of that, trying to fit in time to just chill out with my husband, see my family and my wee niece, fit in my volunteering time with Befriend a Child and try and maintain even a small amount of a social life – it was like trying to tread water and slowly being pulled constantly under every time I managed a breath.
There was only one solution that I could see to this problem… if I wanted to get more out of my day, clearly I would just have to spend less of it asleep! It was simple enough right? Plenty of successful people survived on a minimal amount of sleep. After all, I’d read enough biographies about Napoleon to know he got by on a couple of hours and he was running a country and conquering half of Europe. I only had a lecturing job…surely I would manage, right?
On the first week of term, I set my alarm for 4am each day and went to bed at midnight . If I got up and got straight in the shower, I reasoned, I would be ready in plenty of time to do lots of reading before work, check the news and then catch up with emails. If I used my lunch breaks to write, then did violin practice when I got home, that would surely work. By the end of the week, I’d have done so much more than usual!
For a few days, it worked.
I finished both my books for book club. I wrote a full further chapter of my novel. I managed to get a good grasp of Colours of the Wind on my violin. I didn’t leave an email ‘unread’ in my inbox for a single day. I caught up on some life admin. It felt amazing.
But then, by the Friday, it all caught up with me. Getting out of bed started to take Olympian effort. I seemed to have an almost constant headache. I felt like I could genuinely have slept in my office during a couple of tea breaks. I wound up falling asleep in front of the TV that Sunday and wasted a whole afternoon.
I managed another week and by the end of it I felt like I was dying. I’d ticked so much off my to do list but I was bloody exhausted and my ability to concentrate was non-existent. I felt like absolute garbage. I had to give up.
It took two weeks and an almost burnout for me to realise that it’s actually not possible for me to do absolutely everything. There are days when I come home from work and I’m so tired all I want to do is watch Dad’s Army and How to Train Your Dragon…and you know something? That’s ok. I’m not a Pinterest super professional. I can’t survive on four hours sleep and still function.
We talk a lot about self-care now, as mental health awareness begins to become more prevalent. People post about Epsom salt baths, and cheeky slices of chocolate cake, meditation…but sometimes self-care just means realising that you can physically only do so much. It means accepting your limits and cutting yourself some slack every now and again.
I’ve realised I can’t do absolutely everything – but right now I’ll just settle for managing as best I can.
Today is World Mental Health Day. Give yourself a break. We don’t have to be perfect. Let’s just be kind.