On balance

In my ideal world, I would have unlimited energy. On weekdays, I would always wake up refreshed, do yoga, shower, have breakfast, then head to my desk at home or in the office. I would be extremely productive, completing tasks, coming up with ideas and solving problems without so much as a yawn. After work, I would have dinner in good company before going to an exercise class, reading or watching something. I would get a reasonably early night, then repeat the process.

For a while I managed that routine, plus frequent trips between Oxford and London. I kept up appearances, but after every day spent working that little bit harder, I felt a little less like myself – the person with ideas and enthusiasm. I rarely took breaks from my desk and was often too tired or ‘in the zone’ to eat properly. I felt guilty and anxious when I slowed down. Eventually, I crashed. Hard. I recently described the feeling to a friend as like being perpetually hungover despite having not had a drink in months.

These lines from Anne T. Donahue’s recent newsletter rang true with me: ‘I was working under the assumption that I was the exception; that if I work EVEN HARDER THAN EVERYONE ELSE I will succeed forever and everything will be fine after I finish this one last thing, get through this hangout, get through, get through, get through.’

That relentless ‘tunnel vision’ approach has its benefits and drawbacks. I admire people who pursue goals and care about their work, but I have more respect for them if they also make time for relationships, hobbies and occasionally doing very little just because they feel like it. Burnout is brutal and shouldn’t be set as the benchmark for success. We’re all human and we need time off – actual time off during the evenings, at weekends and for entire weeks. A holiday is not a holiday if you are secretly checking your emails in the bathroom.

If you have hit that point of exhaustion, this piece by Esme Wang has some useful tips on working with limited energy. I know that I work best between 8am and 11am, so I try to do my most creative or demanding tasks during those hours. (I completed my dissertation by writing for a few hours every morning over a couple of months.) I also know that I prefer having meetings, scheduling social media and answering non-urgent emails in the afternoons. This arrangement isn’t always possible, but when it is, I notice that I feel more productive and less drained.

2016 has been my favourite year yet, although I could have looked after myself better from the start. As I resume work and begin studying again, I’m facing the task of chasing that elusive balance with a busier schedule. I want to have the energy to give to people and projects I care about whilst reserving some for myself. I’ll work hard, but I’ll also pay attention to getting and staying well. Using up a lot of energy with no reserves is unsustainable and running on empty means not giving the best of myself to anything or anyone.

Earlier this year I shared my favourite self-care methods. I still use these and I’ve become more intuitive with my needs for food, rest and fun. Yesterday I took a nap at lunchtime and ate chocolate before dinner without worrying about it. I now have an elaborate set of phone reminders that nudge me to take my supplements, drink more water and step away from my laptop screen for a while. If work-related tasks are on my mind during the evening, I add a reminder to sort them the next day. That’s progress.

I suppose the key lesson I’m learning is to pace myself, because I tend to take on too much and test my limits. I see other people doing great things and I think, ‘That’s so cool. I can do more. I should be doing more. Why am I not doing more?’, when I’m already doing more than enough. Recently I’ve been countering this by appreciating where I’m at. I like now. I have professional and personal ambitions, but I’m not in any rush to fulfil them. I don’t want to feel like I’m doing things just to tick them off a list. Instead, I’m saying yes to situations that feel right and I’m stepping back from ones that don’t. I can’t control everything, so I’m letting myself see what happens and taking naps along the way.