Easy ways to treat yo self when you’re working too much

As a playwright, managing director of a theatre, and freelance writer, I’m constantly and gleefully shifting focus and zeroing in on a mountain of details. As is the case with many multi-hyphenates, applying the adjective “love” to my work is an understatement. But the intensity of around-the-clock creativity and entrepreneurship doesn’t usually result in a consistent feeling of personal healthfulness or contentment. It’s no surprise, then, that my emotions zoom from scorn to Pollyanna-style hope when I come across an upbeat article oozing with confidence as it declares that a work-life balance is possible. After three or four (or five or ten) days of unsuccessfully trying to have my self-care cake and eat it, too, I find myself back in that scornful place with the added sting of self-criticism.

I’m not a psychologist, nutritionist, or scientist of any kind, so I have no empirical findings to offer you. What I can do, however, is share the self-care tips that have made the most impact on me, as well as bring to mind the words of the late, great Irish dramatist Samuel Beckett: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” I’m nowhere near reaching the level of self-care I dream about, and I still beat myself up about how disastrous my attempts can be (no, Self: chips do not a dinner make). But when I allow myself to fully embrace the “fail better” end of things, I inch my way toward understanding what’s reasonable for me and how that understanding helps me celebrate the areas in which I do succeed.

Keep Back 100 Feet from the all-or-nothing mentality. Actually, make that 10,000 feet. What do I mean by this? When I exercise (full disclosure: it’s a rare occasion these days), I usually think about how I used to be in better shape. This quickly spirals into, “I’m a lousy person because my fitness level is the lowest it’s ever been in my entire life. I’m going to work out every day this week and in a few weeks, I’ll go from flabby to brolic.” Guess what happens when a mostly sedentary person flings herself onto a wildly irrational goal and pushes her body too hard and too fast? Strain (at best) or injury (at worst), which leads to even more time away from being able to exercise. Repeat after me: progression over time > speed at all costs. Granted, this is easier said than done. One way I practice this is by reframing my intentions. If I take a walk, I walk out the door with the intention of clearing my head after hours on the computer — not with the intention of getting in a cardio sesh. In the end, though, I accomplish both with the added bonus of shedding self-induced anxiety from unattainable expectations.

Remind yourself to eat. Seriously, though. On the surface, this may sound like an outlandishly basic suggestion, but think about all the days you barrel through lunchtime while working on a project, claiming “it’s not a big deal” and that you can eat “later.” Three hours later, you’re still working and can’t understand why you’re longingly singing Liz Lemon’s famed Night Cheese song to yourself—over and over. The big deal in the aforementioned situation usually looks something like this: hangry + exhaustion = sub par work + self-denial. Or, for the visually inclined:

I also find that taking substantive meal breaks (read: lasting at least thirty minutes) allows me to freely engage with my senses in ways that I simply don’t have access to while typing away in hyper-focus mode on the computer.  It’s often during the times that I’m preparing, smelling, and chewing food that some of my best ideas come to the surface. I know that for myself and many others, a schedule bursting at the seams with competing priorities and too little time is an unchangeable reality, and a thirty-minute lunch break is an impossibility for an even greater number of people, so don’t fret if you already know it’ll be a challenge to integrate substantive meal times into your work week. Why not aim for one weekend day or other day/night off per week when you can realistically schedule time to eat and think away from screens or phones? Something — even if it’s a mini-something — is better than nothing when you’re initiating a new habit.

And speaking of eating . . . Healthy snacking can be powerful, but lining every surface of your day-to-day life with portable snacks can be a godsend. When I know I’m staring down the barrel of a three-week rehearsal period for a play production and that “dinnertime” will be a fond, distant memory, I go into full-on preparation mode. This means that Larabars, almonds, and dried fruit will be waiting in my purses, car, jackets, and any other receptacle that’s on the go with me. Try as I might to fight for the merits of pizza and how it deserves its own section in the food pyramid (am I dating myself?), there’s no getting around the dullness and lethargy our bodies feel when we eat mostly nutritionally inefficient foods on a regular basis.

Know and no thyself. Entrepreneur, artist, freelancer, business-owner. No matter your title, self-employment results in a learning curve that never ends, because you are constantly adapting to the ever-shifting priorities ahead of you on a day-to-day basis. The more you accept and understand your personal inclinations and best conditions for working, the more overall empowerment you’ll begin feeling.

For example, my friends know that when I have an intense rehearsal period coming up, or lots of writing deadlines to meet, I do my best work by scheduling nearly all my time to accommodate that work. My friends also know, however, that once I’m out the other end of that hectic moment, my introverted self need several days to recharge alone, but I’ll soon enough be more than ready to hang out and make fun plans.

All these years of being unabashedly upfront about what I can and can’t do with my friends have made me feel confident in saying “no” (and, in some other case, “yes”) to various work events, because I know that I consistently spend time thinking about whether I’ve met my personal limits or whether I can push myself just outside my comfort zone. When you really consider those questions, self-doubt begins to evaporate. You might just be surprised by how many colleagues respond well to and respect your “no” answers when you deliver them with genuine self composure and no hint of self-deprecation. It’s incredibly liberating!

By now, it should be obvious that I don’t have any sort of sexy magic bullet for self-care, because—wish as I might—it simply doesn’t exist. Hopefully, though, you’ve begun to think about what a necessary role self-awareness plays in forging a path toward self-care amidst your unique daily grind. Our best selves exist and change from moment to moment. If you meet yourself where you are in any given moment, you’ll begin to notice how often the soft landings of rest, contemplation, nourishment, and delight present themselves throughout the day. One thing I can say with certainty: those moments are worth “failing” for.

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