During the past couple of years, I started focusing more on myself and when I burnt out last year I decided to put myself first. Since then I’ve taken on so many new responsibilities, adventures and stressors, but since making the decision to put myself first I’ve been in a much better place mentally and emotionally. By making conscious decisions about what I devote my energy to and by not letting myself feel bad for spending time on myself, I’m not only in a better place mentally, but I’m happier than I’ve been in a long time and truly enjoying my life.
My Origin Story
The week leading up to my 21st birthday, I’d just started working fulltime, had just interviewed 50 and then hired 30 staff, was running regular training sessions, planning the 21st party I was going to have that week and was preparing to go back to studying the next week. Then to top it off, on the Monday afternoon I got into a little fender bender (my fault, no injuries, just a few dents) and the woman in the other car physically assaulted me. At my 21st party I didn’t drink because I’d been taking painkillers every 3 hours due to my throbbing head (the woman had punched the back of my head several times as well as yanked me around by the hair), I could no longer drive my car because the right blinker was smashed and when my parents sent me birthday flowers to work as a surprise I burst into tears in the middle of the office (5 minutes before running a training session). The next couple of weeks involved managing a team of 30 staff, starting a new degree, trying to find and then buying a car (as well as applying for my first loan to make that possible), planning another 21st on the other side of the country then flying across, dealing with family (including my grandma who manages to triple stress) and preparing to move house the week I got back to Perth. I didn’t realise at the time that I had burnt out and I almost ended up passing out at my second 21st birthday (and no, I wasn’t drinking, it was a high tea). And although I had a lot less happening after this, I didn’t take any time off to let myself recover, and so it took me a long time to get back to normal.
So last year I was able to recognise that I was burning out again. I was working at an agency and it’d been a very tough few months, there’d been various people taking leave and there were a lot of projects going on so I picked up the slack and for a period of 2 months was working 60-70 hour weeks, getting in early, not taking lunch, working late or at home and working on the weekends. This was on top volunteering for a community group and doing freelancing on the side. I was stressed, I wasn’t sleeping properly (most nights I fell asleep in front of the TV), I couldn’t control my emotions, ended up crying in the bathroom most days and was irritable. This all came to a point a couple of weeks after Geek Mental Help Week when I started getting dizzy and nauseous most days and I decided to listen to the advice given at the Fenders Presentation night, and I went to see my doctor. It wasn’t until that point that I realised I’d burnt out twice at the age of 23, something needed to change. So with a doctors note for the week off and a referral to see a psychologist, I made an appointment to see someone that weekend and I took time out for myself. Then on the Thursday afternoon I got a call from work to ask me to come in for a meeting the next morning even though I was sick, I expected the worst and made plans to meet a friend for coffee after the meeting.
When I met the psychologist, he’d been given the referral from my doctor so asked me about my work stresses and I laughed. After I finished explaining everything, he asked me:
Psychologist: So this was just yesterday?
Psychologist: You’re surprisingly ok with this
And this was when it dawned on me, less than 24 hours after being made redundant, I was relieved, this was probably a good thing.
Good Worry v Bad Worry
I have a tendency to overthink and worry about things a lot and here I was with no job and money to cover me for the next fortnight (maybe month if I was lucky), but to my surprise I wasn’t worried. It was then that I learnt the difference between useful worry and useless worry. While worry has a lot of negative connotations, it can lead to something useful - worrying about money was useful because I planned and prioritised and then I looked for more work. But worrying after that isn’t useful, after you’ve done everything you can, any further worry just leads to stress.
During the past year, I keep coming back to that difference, is this worry useful or useless? When I was trying to find a job, the worry led me to apply for every one I could find, and after that the worry wasn’t being useful anymore, so I stopped. And don’t worry (😂), I can’t just turn my worry on and off. When I say I stop worrying, I mean I make a conscious decision and continually remind myself that the worry isn’t useful. It’s really hard to do, but gets much easier with practice.
During the last year it’s gotten easier, I’ve found that I’ve had less useless worry, and I’ve used the useful worry to my advantage. Right now I’m preparing to give my first conference talk, and I’m giving the locknote so unsurprisingly I’m worried (and freaking out). But rather than worrying excessively, I went straight back to the drawing board and planned my talk out from the top level down, I spoke with a bunch of friends and started lining up practice talks, starting off with an informal one with a couple of friends and including several big groups with local companies. I’ve taken my worry and my overthinking and used it to make sure I’m as prepared as I possibly can be.
I’d often find myself getting to the end of the weekend having gotten nothing done and would berate myself for not being more productive. So not only had I gotten nothing done, but I then felt bad about it as well. But often I spent the day vegging out, because I needed it, so why should I feel bad about that? So I stopped, I let myself take time out for myself. It was really exciting then when I saw Ming Johanson speak earlier this year and she also encouraged taking time out for yourself, it validated my decision.
I’m now working for myself and in charge of my own schedule (more coming on that soon), and part of that means that I have time set aside every day for myself (and not just 10 minutes). I take a break in the middle of the day to give myself time to read or get outside and enjoy the weather (if it permits), I take time out each evening to relax and wind down and I take time to have 2 hours for breakfast every weekend.
Prioritising myself also means prioritising time with my friends. Whether that’s catching up with a friend for coffee, meeting a friend at the dog park (#multitasking), organising board games, a movie night or even trying to coordinate a night to have dinner with friends (have you ever tried to coordinate a night between 6 people? We’re lucky if one night a quarter works).
Spending time for myself even comes down to the little things, like the fact that every night I have a cup of chamomile tea in bed while I read a book. It may just be for 5 minutes, but it means I can unwind properly, relax after the day and I’m actually working my way through books fairly regularly which is a good feeling.
Drawing the Line
Boundaries are important to have in many areas of life, and I found they were important to have and the simple act of drawing a line (and sticking to it) made a huge difference. I started doing this with my freelancing work when doing contracting for a local agency. I was getting constant phone calls and emails and I found not only was I not having time for my other clients (and sometimes even myself), I found the stress crawling back, I felt myself tense every time I saw their name appear on my phone. Thankfully, another talk by Ming came to my rescue and I drew a line.
I set aside blocks of time that I was going to be completing their work and let them know when that was. Outside of those hours, I would only be managing my emails during a 1 hour block each day and while I was in the middle of a block of work I wasn’t going to be answering my phone (I found the context switching was wasting so much time, and I got so much more done when I could stay focused).
I drew the line, and I stuck to it (unfortunately this client didn’t but that’s a different story). The rest of my clients have no issues with this and respect it, they know that their email will be answered when I’m doing emails and if I don’t answer my phone I’ll return their call when I can. By removing a distraction, I’m getting so much more done than before, and by removing a stressor, I’m more relaxed.
Reallocating my f*cks
Disclaimer: Apologies to my mum who definitely won’t appreciate the language used in this section, but this is how the book talks about it
This year I read The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck and while it did seem to be one of those trending books, it covered a lot of really great points that I took away. You have a limited number of f*cks to give each lifetime, so make sure you’re giving them in the right places. How many times have you seen an old person who seems to care so much about everything, even the little things? Maybe they didn’t give enough f*cks at the start of their life and want to use them all up?
I thought about how I choose to allocate my f*cks (and I phrase it this way because it makes it almost sound like an official thing to do), am I giving enough f*cks where it counts? Am I giving too many f*cks on something that isn’t important or to someone who doesn’t deserve them? While we don’t get to make every choice in our life, we always get to choose where we’re giving our f*cks.
When I was contracting for the agency, I felt the stress coming back and I felt myself doing what I did last year and working insane hours and not looking after myself. So I thought about my f*cks, was this client worth them? Or was there something better I could spend them on?
A couple of months ago, I was talking to a friend at a conference after party, and I talked about how I was then to a year ago. A year ago I had a fulltime job and I didn’t have to worry about money, but I was constantly physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted. I was stressed, I was struggling and I wasn’t happy. Now I’m working for myself which has so many different unknowns, I’m responsible for every new piece of work I bring in, the money is sporadic and I’ve just had to lodge my first court claim over a client who’s refusing to pay me for several weeks of work that I’ve already done. But despite the fact that I’m still physically exhausted and sometimes mentally exhausted, I’m no longer emotionally exhausted. Even after a long week at work I have the energy left to spend time with my friends, I don’t have trouble sleeping (except when my dog tosses and turns or steals all the blankets) and I’m happy. And at the end of this conversation, my friend gave me the idea for this blog post, because everything I’d been doing along the way had been leading towards a more sustainable me (I’m kinda like the Earth, there’s only one of me).