Updated: Aug 17, 2021
Ok, so this might sound counterculture of everything else I preach! Usually, I say rest, rest, rest is a necessity, not a luxury. But you know, I think we all have periods in our life where we just have too much on and we have to figure out how to get through it all and survive.
I want to give you my top tips for not only surviving periods of your life like this, but also ways to thrive in these times too. Ways so that it just doesn’t feel like so much of a struggle.
The idea for this has come out of my experience of doing my full-time teaching job and building my business on the side. Most people when they ask me about this respond something like ‘I don’t how you do it all or fit it all in’. The truth is, I do have a very good answer for this. It’s not going to sound overly comfortable to most people, but actually when we remove the limits of what we believe to be possible, actually we can serve, contribute and achieve so much more than we initially believe.
Let me give you some context. I teach chemistry full-time in a secondary school in North Yorkshire, and that’s quite an intense experience. I teach approximately 400 students each and every week, and to give you an idea of how busy school is, you often can’t even go to the toilet in your own time. I then do 20 hours of contact time with one-to-one clients through the week, fit in my own exercise, planning for the upcoming week for both jobs, admin, food prep, and occasionally see my husband!
It’s hard, but it is possible. I don’t advocate it long term (and when I leave teaching I have an action plan for rest and recuperation, and to balance my nervous system again - I know it’s a little out of whack now). This is how I get through it.
Protect the valuable
There are absolute non-negotiables in my life that are about protecting my health. If my body breaks down, then I break down. Sleep, movement and nutritious food must happen, and they get prioritised and protected.
For example, no matter how busy I am, 10/20/30 minutes of movement is happening. To do what I need to do, I need a strong, resilient, dependable body. And that comes from looking after it, and that means movement. Nothing fancy, no specific programme. This also has to happen first thing in the morning, because that reflects its priority in my life, before the rest of the day and its demands creep in.
Nutritious food is another; I take time each Sunday to food prep. All five days worth of breakfasts, lunches and dinners! And no, it’s not boring. I make big batches of granola or overnight oats for breakfast and just add frozen fruit daily. I roast massive trays of veggies and add protein for lunch. And to be frank, dinner is a mixture of big batch food made by me, and pre-prepared meals from the shop with a ton of extra veggies microwaved and added. I do recognize that in coaching nutrition I have a lot of tools and knowledge to draw upon that keeps me aware of balance; fibre, protein, fruit and veggies, salt etc. are all thought about. I also take the time to prepare or make available yummy treats; because it's important my food isn’t just fuel, in such a busy life it also needs to be a source of joy and satisfaction. One of my favourites is a protein cookie.
Next, sleep. This is one component that I do find it a little bit harder to manage, simply because my schedule starts early and finishes late. Weekdays I sleep on my own and screens get cut off at a certain time and then I have a bedtime routine that literally does not change; I journal, sometimes a bit of light reading, do a tapping meditation, and then listen to a Headspace Sleepcast. Never fails.
So if you want insane energy levels that sustain you through a crazy hectic pushing-you-to-the-limit schedule, then you have to keep your basic biology working for you. A fit, healthy frame gives you the stamina to keep going. I often see self-care as the first item to go in a busy life, when in reality this is the last thing that wants to go.
Finally, relationships. There’s nothing like a really crazy period of life to find out who your true supporters are (and vice versa!). For me, it’s my husband and spending time with him takes priority over everyone else. The connection we share is top priority; and that connection is vital for being able to keep going. When we isolate, we break down under the weight of what we’re carrying.
If your crazy period of life is relatively short, then honestly communicating this with the people in your life will help and ultimately allow you to pick things up where you left off with them. If it’s longer, then maybe some of those less strong relationships fade out of your life; there is definitely grief and sadness attached to this, but for me, nothing is worth sacrificing the my relationship with my husband, and therefore what time and energy I do have for relationships is going to go in that direction. As much as it would be nice to spend more time with friends, work colleagues and even family, it's often not possible. So figure out WHO is that person or people are for you, and focus there.
1. Boundaries, routines, systems and habits.
Routines are sexy. They automate so much which leaves me free to devote my energy to what I need to; serving my students and my clients. It’s hard to hold space and energy from someone when you are so mentally frazzled you can’t even be with them.
For me, this means plan, plan, plan. In a season of doing too much, it’s important to not re-invent the wheel; it’s setting a system in place and then letting it do its job. It’s not a coincidence my business name is ‘the plan’!! Plans can be flexible and fluid, but ultimately they remove the mental effort out of a lot. And when decision fatigue is real, it helps to have the go-to meal, workout formats for my classes, small restful habits that I know wind me down etc.
2. Do just enough.
It’s time to embrace essentialism. Less but better. Simplify. You have to prioritize and focus on the needle-movers, and anything that would be nice to get down but is not essential, just needs ignoring for now. You have to let go of the idea of being perfect, and embrace the idea that in this season of your life, showing up is enough. Aim for just enough, and minimum possible to keep afloat.
For me, I’m pretty clear on what this ‘just enough’ looks like. At the time, it means prioritizing my one-to-one clients; they come first in my planning, admin, headspace and energy. It’s not that nothing else is important, and it’s not that I don’t show up for the other commitments in my life (for instance, I love my classes and would never not show up for them!). But it’s not possible to be the best that I can be in everything all at once and keep it going. Your enough, is enough. Showing up is powerful, and you don’t need to strain every nerve to be anything more than that.
Sometimes this also means narrowing your focus to the next ten minutes or one hour. Often we get overwhelmed by the enormity of our day, week or month, but we can all focus on what it takes to get through the next ten minutes. This might look like getting the children dressed and fed. Sitting down to feed yourself for a couple of minutes, or taking a shower. Believe me when I say that that is truly enough.
When your time and energy potentially opens back up again, that’s the time to consider the projects but on the backburner, the hobbies abandoned, and the 10,000 messages in your inbox. But trying to be perfect in everything will break you. So don’t. Do just enough.
3. Deal with the stress
To keep going, you need to deal with the stress daily, even if you can’t deal with or remove the stressor with your life. There needs to be practices in your life that help you release the tension from your mind and body.
When a lot of our stresses in our life aren’t physical, our body has a hard job figuring out when it is safe. Hence, the being stuck in survival mode, and the inability to switch off. An anxious body feeds an anxious mind and so on and so on until we’re stuck into this vicious cycle of high functioning anxiety day in and day out. If we don’t deal with the stress and hold it within us, when we get to the end of our busy period then we collapse physically and mentally; into illness, burnout and pain.
Any sort of movement will help your body release some tension, and this can be as simple as a few stretches, or my personal favourites, walking it off for a few minutes around the room, having a quick dance, or a good ol’ shake.
There also needs to be ways to protect your mind. Clear boundaries around work, and routines around sleep. There needs to be tiny moments of pausing in your day and remembering to breathe. A reminder on your phone can help prompt you to take 1 or 5 deep breaths. Mindfulness, however that looks for you, means taking the time to slow down, even for a fraction of a second, and feel. Notice, and come back into your body, observing your thoughts and feelings without becoming untangled.
I have dealt with a stressful lifestyle for nearly a decade now (thanks teaching!), and when I didn’t have these practices meshed into my life, I can tell you, my experience was entirely different. I had a lot more physical symptoms of stress and a lot more suffering in my mind. So don’t just power through. Take mini power downs. The only way to keep going is to take planned stops (and if you don’t your body will force you too!).
4. Have an exit plan
Living in survival mode feels sh*t. I am aware of missing components in my life (joy, space to breathe, full rest and not having a constant to-do list), and you can’t keep ignoring these forever. There will be a toll on your mind, your body and your nervous system. You need an exit plan. And that needs to be carefully planned and defended, but otherwise it’ll just wait until next month, after this deadline, until next weekend; which never comes!
When I leave teaching, then I have set aside 7-14 days to truly stop. And I am not being naive in that I think 2 weeks is going to fix the effects of a lifestyle of 9 years. It’s going to take many months of recovery for my mind, body and nervous system to come back into balance, whilst I invest in practices to help do this. I also anticipate that I am going to find this transition period very difficult. When we stay, or have to stay, too busy in our lives then it is a way to numb our emotions. We stay too busy to feel. And that means when we stop, the pain of the high and low points of our life; the sadness and the joy, can feel overwhelming. In fact, with a nervous system that is highly strung and prepped to see us through tough stuff, slowing down can feel like a threat. It can feel unsafe.
So plan for this. You must set aside a time when you can truly stop and do less. This might mean some tough decisions and saying no to some good opportunities. It might be stopping doing something you want to do. But if you don’t do this, somehow, sooner or later, you’ll be forced to. Plan also for how to slow down or stop. It might mean gathering the support around you to get you through the tough feelings that come with slowing down. It might mean making a list of restful activities or hobbies that bring you joy, deep relaxation and connection, so you’re not fidgeting around in frustration with nothing to do.
Remember, when we can always pretty much do more than we think. Humans are capable of incredible acts of stamina and strength. We can defy logic, science and expectations. But know that when we take on too much, we must also take on too little. Seasons of high intensity must be followed by seasons of lower intensity. We must balance doing with simply being.
I hope you have found some useful takeaways above and I’d love to hear what you found most useful, or about your experiences of doing too much and how you coped.
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