i've heard so many people state matter-of-factly so many times that they don't have time to take a vacation and that it'll just make them anxious because they'll just be worrying about all the stuff they're missing out on anyway so why bother.
saddd. how is it that so many people genuinely believe there's no time to take a break? :/
i thought about why i seemed to be able to make time for vacation every year and (mostly) sleep 7-8 hours a night while others struggled, especially when it felt like i had just as many things on plate as the next person.
the first thing that comes to mind is that i try hard to make sure my actions mirror my values, and in this case, my physical and mental health are much more important to me than the optics of working all the time and the good feelings of a job well done. but the more concrete reason is that i changed the way i think about time. yes, time is a precious resource, but guess what? (for me) energy is far more important when it comes to being productive both in work and society -- i'm more creative, i come up with more ideas, i’m noticeably more eloquent, i'm more engaged in my conversations, i make fewer mistakes, i'm more thoughtful, and i'm less likely to accidentally overlook important details.
i've encountered a buncha resources on budgeting your money and managing your time, but i haven't come across much (usable) advice for managing your energy. i've had excellent role models when it comes to spending my time wisely and never running out of cash, but i know few people who consciously make an effort to manage their energy.
but, gail, haven’t you heard of all the stuff about self-care and preventing burnout?
we talk about the importance of preventing burnout and engaging in self-care, yes, but from what i've observed in self-described "fast-paced environments", many of us simply value the rewards of working really hard and minimizing fomo (rewards include things like status, wealth, satisfaction, helping others) over the benefits of slowing down and taking care of ourselves (rewards include--actually, i'll leave the list of benefits as an exercise for the reader*).
my issue with the advice and tips i've received from others and found on the internet is that they mostly treat self-care as if it's just another thing to slot into your schedule. clocked in a zillion hours this week? spend your next free day at the spa! been chained to your desk all day? grab dinner with some close friends! working on a big presentation for an important client? hold a different yoga pose every half hour!
if i view self-care as yet another thing to pile onto my stack of toDos, then of course it won’t help with rest, and i’ll be anxietying my brains out.
and while i've heard so many times "this is a marathon, not a sprint", i still haven't seen an up close and personal example of how this is supposed to play out in real life. so. my best attempt at managing my energy first and time second was to take a break from stuffing my calendar to the brim and start paying more attention to how various events affect my energy meter.
going from autopilot to manualpilot so that manualpilot becomes the new autopilot
when i'm on autopilot (i.e., defaulting to time-first thinking rather than energy-first thinking), here's what "managing" my energy looks like:
accept all the invitations and then flake when i inevitably realize i'm too tired to socialize
keep working on whatever i'm working on until i finish, no matter how long i've already been working or how unimportant the thing is because the dopamine rush will be worth it
trade sleep for time; attempt to sleep in on the weekend (but can't because circadian rhythm's too strong)
buy a plane ticket somewhere so i'd have a socially acceptable excuse not to socialize during a fixed time period
not take precautions to prevent illness during flu season so that if i got sick, i'd be physically forced to rest and not work
skip exercise when i'm mentally or emotionally exhausted
fulfill all the obligations and duties of a good employee/ coworker/ friend/ daughter/ partner so i don't have to endure hearing what a bad employee/ coworker/ friend/ daughter/ partner i am (mostly from my own inner voice, but partially from others)
muster up the energy to push through an activity by telling myself a shitty story, everyone else seems to be able to do ________, so i should be able to do _________, too and then pay for it later with sudden overwhelming urges to mope and wallow all day
binge on games/ tv/ reddit (low energy activities) to postpone processing my feelings (high energy activity)
most (some?) of these strategies don't seem so bad when i consider them individually, but the list as a whole points to a type of person i don't really want to be. so i've been experimenting and trying harder and getting better at managing my energy in ways that do line up with the type of person i want to be.
luckily, it turns out that the same heuristics i use to manage my other resources (time, money, social capital) also apply quite well to managing my energy:
understand the costs before committing
spend first on the things i value most
don't spend more energy(/ time/ money) than i generate (/have / earn)
invest in whatever gives me more of it in the future
the heuristics themselves seem obvious, but the concept of applying them to anything outside of time and money wasn't so obvious to me.
okay, gail. so… how’d you apply these heuristics to your new favorite type of resource management?
heuristic 1: understand the costs before committing.
determining the energetic cost of an event isn't as easy as checking a price tag, but you probably already have a good enough idea of what affects your energy levels. the first thing i did was pay attention to how my energy and mood would change during and after various activities and interactions. after awhile, some patterns emerged.
i noticed, for example, that these things use up non-trivial amounts of my energy:
daydreaming about being outside in the sun instead of inside a dark building throughout the day
talking through conflict with a partner
speaking up in a meeting when i disagree with someone who has more influence or power
events that require lots of small talk, even if i'm having a good time
being around passive-aggressive/ pessimistic/ angry/ quick-to-criticize people
navigating ugly or confusing websites
working on an interesting problem
dreading talking to my therapist
and that, in general, these are things that tend to:
require a lot of willpower, focus, or thinking
trigger my fight-or-flight response
and i noticed, for example, that these things usually energize me:
watching well-written tv
cuddling with my cat
sitting by myself in a cute, quiet cafe
playing in the sand and water at the beach
lying in bed
talking to my therapist
in general, these are things that tend to:
not involve other people
allow me to safely express my feelings
feel good on my skin
once i started weighing the costs of my work and social activities, i had a much easier time saying no to energy-sucking activities and found myself padding my calendar with energy-breeding activities whenever i knew i had a draining event coming up.
heuristic 2: spend first on the things i value most.
after awhile, i started to become hyperaware of how much energy i have left my in stores and the price tag for routine activities. this helped me be more diligent about spending my energy on the things that matter.
eating my frogs.
sometimes i put off doing important things because i dread how much energy it's going to take. so i procrastinate... which means i end up spending energy on extraneous things like worrying about the thing in the back of my mind and feeling guilty later when i end up doing a subpar job on the important thing because i was too tired to do my best. so. wasteful.
to combat this, i've been trying to eat my frog (i.e., do the dreadful but important thing) early in the day when i'm almost always guaranteed to have enough energy to do it. this prevents any "i'm too tired" or "i don't have any time" excuses to be used later when energy is low.
choosing my battles.
i end up feeling guilty or ashamed whenever i realize i've used up my energy on things that don't matter and so have none left over for the important things. when someone drops by my desk to talk through an important project, i'm tempted to continue working on that important project instead of focusing on an even more important project.
if i only have enough energy to do my best work on one of them, then i have to catch myself and protest the part of my brain screaming, "but... context switching sucks, wahhhh!!!". it’s better to put energetic-gail on the most important project and not-as-energetic-gail or tired-gail on the less important ones.
friends > acquaintances.
there was a period of time when i spent a lot of my energy during the day soothing coworkers, nodding and listening to them rant only to come home feeling oversocialized and not wanting to hang out with the people that mattered more to me. the kind of friend i want to be takes energy, and it can be a bummer hanging out with tired-gail all the time. as i've become better at setting boundaries with acquaintances, i've been able to devote more of my energy to people i love. yippee.
heuristic 3: don't spend more energy(/ time/ money) than i generate (/have / earn).
before adding more things to my calendar or toDo list, i first ask myself questions like:
if i add this to my plate, will i have enough energy to do a good enough job on all of this?
will i be oversocialized if i say yes to this invitation?
what's my threshold for stimulation? how much previous stimulation would make me flake out on this event?
if i do this thing, how will it affect my mood afterward?
if i say yes to this thing, what are the chances i'll be grumpy during whatever's next on the schedule?
if i canceled my entire day, how ecstatic would i be?
if i could only keep one item on the docket, what would it be?
if i pull this all-nighter, will it be worth risking the quality of whatever i need to do the next morning?
and as a result,
if i know i'm drinking with friends saturday night, i'll make sure i have a block of time to recharge the next morning.
if i'm feeling especially excited after a fun dinner with lots of things to think about, i'll make sure i don't engage further in stimulating activities an hour before bedtime.
if i have a small-talky event i need to attend, i won't make plans with acquaintances during that week.
if i'm feeling especially anxious, i'll recharge by doing mundane things (e.g., folding laundry, organizing my goodreads shelves, watching my cat).
if i know i need to have a serious talk with someone, i'll do my best to schedule it after an important project deadline.
heuristic 4: invest in whatever gives me more of it in the future.
hmm, biggie taught me mo money mo problems, but seems like (at least, in my case) mo energy fewer problems. i try to be on the lookout for ways to free up more energy. for example:
sleep, healthy diet, and exercise are the most obvious energy boosters. i'm not the best at the healthy diet thing, but i've sorta learned to live with that tradeoff. this'll probably change as age shrinks my energy meter.
i have a low tolerance for doing tedious repetitive tasks if the energy i put into them doesn't match well with the reward of doing them, so even though it might take more energy to figure out how to automate the task, i do it anyway knowing that i'll be less irritated and whiney in the future.
i heed the advice of the alcoholics anonymous serenity prayer by accepting the things i can't change and using the would've-been-wasted energy to change the things i can. why squander precious energy on intense road rage, judging others, and crying over sunk costs?
i minimize the amount of time i spend around people who put me and/or others down, always find something to complain about, attempt to squash others' autonomy, or are otherwise unpleasant and unwilling to change.
i practice being mindful, paying attention to my thoughts, and observing my reactions. this is probably the most important skill i've been working on; step one for making any kind of change (i.e., breaking habits, building habits, learning) usually comes in some form of 'notice what's happening when ______'.
welp. that's about the extent of my inner workings when it comes to resource management. i hate the way blog posts end with some sort of call to action for the reader, but i sincerely wanna hear any advice you can offer on the topic or examples of people who are really good at managing their energy. hit me up.
a side note for people-pleasing introverts with questionable boundaries:
i used to have two strategies for people who would ask to make plans together and demanded an answer to their invitation on the spot: either avoid them or say yes knowing i had no intention of showing up later. i often like i'd been guilted into attending events i didn't want to attend because i couldn't come up with a good enough rebuttal to statements like, "but the party starts at 9pm -- you said your only plans were dinner at 6pm!" or "but you said you've always wanted to take a day trip down the coast; that's exactly what we'd be doing!".
i'd hear myself think "because i don't feel like it" followed by "i can't say that; that seems mean/ they might feel hurt" followed by "ugh. fine. i'll just go.". i wish i'd learned way earlier in life that "that sounds like fun, but i don't think i'll have enough energy and need some alone time" is a totally acceptable answer and that the people who respect your answer are the ones you wanna keep.
*okay, but seriously, did you think about what rewards you'll get if you choose self-care over burnout? i had a hard time coming up with major benefits that involve tangible, visible rewards. :/ no one's gonna be impressed if you present a timeline that's realistic instead of ambitious, no one's gonna give you a promotion for being happy, and no one's gonna praise you for skipping the team offsite to get in some alone time. our society is too in awe of self-sacrifice and too apathetic toward self-love for my taste. guess that means it’s time to be the change i wanna see.