Years ago, when my kids were little, I vividly remember attending a talk on physician burnout. I sat there listening to the expert telling me all the reasons why physicians get burned out. My mind started drifting and I imagined myself being the one giving the talk (since let’s face it: I think all doctors are experts on the why of burnout). In my mind, I presented a graph of the demands on me over time. It looked something like this:
Maybe your curve isn’t exactly the same, but I bet you can relate to the relentlessly upward trajectory. This curve looks (and felt) like a mountain to climb. At every stage on that graph, I started in a place of feeling overwhelmed and had to reach a new equilibrium of how to do more, with the same 24/7 envelope of time. Then when I progressed to the next stage, I had to figure it out all over again.
And at every stage, I did more. I got better at doing more. I got more focused. I got more realistic. I read books on time management and how to get things done. I put systems in place. I figured out what to delegate. What to hire out. What to stop doing altogether.
To make matter worse, at each stage, I thought that the next stage would be a magic arrival point where my life would get easier. But I was wrong.
All of that climbing brought me to The Energizer Bunny Model of Time Management.
Somewhere in my quest to keep going and going and do more and more, my to-do list became a relentless taskmaster. I learned to have very high expectations for myself for “being productive”. I started putting things like maintaining friendships and hobbies on the “optional” list. Then as I climbed higher, self-care like sleep, exercise, and eating healthy stopped being priorities. My idea of “leisure’ was limited to collapsing exhausted into bed after midnight when I literally couldn’t keep going because my batteries died.
For years I believed that pushing myself was necessary. It was simply what was required in order to meet all the demands on me.
Even vacations became an exercise in “optimizing”. Just ask my kids about our trips to Disney when I had an algorithm on how to do as many rides as possible in the shortest amount of time. (One time I transitioned us from Toy Story Mania immediately into the miraculously short line for another attraction. It included riding in the dark while scenes from various famous films were acted out by live actors and animatronics. My “go, go, go” approach backfired when the Al Capone shoot-out followed in short order by the Alien re-enactment scared my 5-year-old to tears.)
Now, I’m a lot smarter. I’m learning to approach my day-to-day with self-compassion first and foremost. I’ve corrected the erroneous thought that self-care is unproductive. It is what recharges my batteries and allows me to accomplish as much as I do. I’m re-connecting to the friends and hobbies that enrich my life. And as a result, I’m accomplishing more than ever.
I still really enjoy checking things off my to-do list (and I probably always will), but now I take time to celebrate all the many things I get done every day instead of focusing on the few that I didn’t. And some days I do nothing much, on purpose.
If you’ve been feeling overwhelmed with all the demands on you and thinking that you need to wind yourself up like an energizer bunny every morning until you collapse into bed exhausted each night, I can teach you a better way.