Being too busy is, for me, often the first step on the path to deteriorating mental health. I have made many changes to build a life where I manage my mental health. One of the most important disciplines I have started to build is the practice of less.
I always associated the idea of less with things being worse: less money, less time, less opportunity. This is not surprising; the world continually tells us we need more. We are shown and told in every media outlet how to get more. 8 ways to get more out of your day, 5 days to maximise productivity, 10 super-saver tips to get the most on your grocery shop, 3 ways to have a greater social media reach, how to get more attention for your business… the lists go on.
To actively seek less is counter intuitive. But as I choose the practice of less I have ended up with an abundance of things that matter most to me*. Busyness impacts my ability to manage my mental health.
It goes like this. I have a week which is unusually full, or a month with increasing activity. Birthday parties, meetings, deadlines, school concerts, anniversaries, numerous visitors to stay. A mix of the necessary and the special. Good stuff mainly, alongside a few things I would rather avoid.
My diary is full
I start to squeeze the time at either end of the day to get through the essential things. Packed lunches, laundry, online grocery shopping, homework (kids’ not mine!). The non-essential things get put to the side. They sit and taunt me when I stop for a cup of tea: dental appointments I haven’t got around to booking, general clutter that is accumulating on every surface, borrowed crockery that has not been returned, emails that should have been answered weeks back.
I end each day with a list of things I have not achieved. I end each day with a list of my failings. After a week or so of this increased demand for adrenaline, my body starts to help me out by producing more. My body is demanding it to help me achieve the unachievable expectations I have placed on myself.
I start each day wired
Heart thumping, body primed for a fight. My brain, imperceptibly at first, shifts to a state of high-alert, hyper-vigilance, trying to stay on top of a too-much world. Eventually my sleep is also affected.
I have never suffered from insomnia but I know if I have too much on for too long my brain doesn’t seem to get to the deep restorative part of rest easily. I find myself waking in the night, thinking about the next day’s to-do list, or remembering something else I didn’t manage to complete the day before. My body doesn’t allow itself what it really needs as I push it beyond what it is really capable of.
Soon the feelings of failure start to take hold. My self-worth plummets. I feel I am letting everyone else down. I compare myself to all the other people who, in my sleep-deprived eyes, have it all together and never get themselves into this state.
And, just like that – boom- I am there: depression and anxiety knocking at my door.
Too busy to manage my mental health
Let’s just remember how this started. With being too busy. Busyness seems like a little thing, a minor inconvenience. We quickly convince ourselves that we really can fit in one more night out, one more appointment, one more coffee, one more deadline. But being too busy, for even as short a period of time as a couple of weeks, can trigger me into the downward spiral. This prevents me from being able to manage my mental health.
Over the past few years I have learnt some lessons that have helped me to live with the discipline of less:
Use a diary
I am a reluctant diary user. I used to think only squares had diaries and I could live spontaneously, holding all the information I needed in my brain. And for a while this worked. But now I know I need to plan to make sure I have enough time to myself, enough nights in, enough time to unwind and rest. Get a diary and use it. Look at the coming weeks and make sure there is enough blank white space. And remember – cancelling is allowed.
Lose the FOMO (Fear of Missing Out)
I used to think if I missed out on an event or meeting or party or if I turned down a piece of work I would be seen as flaky or I would be forgotten. I would have fewer opportunities and my life would count for less. Now I know I am creating a life of meaning by curating and editing it according to my values. I prioritise the things that matter most to me.
Embrace the JOMO (Joy of Missing Out)
By re-framing the idea of a night in, while others are out at some (apparently unmissable) event, I have discovered that these (usually pyjamas-clad) evenings, are a treat. Rather than feeling I am living less of a life, I use these times to love myself more. I manage my mental health, by not going out and giving myself the rest I need. (All the better if I plan some nice food, a good book and a long bath.)
I used to think everyone should be capable of the same relentless activity. That anyone who took time out, who cancelled or declined an invitation, was somehow less. Now I know everyone is different. We have different capacities for activity, and our capacity alters at various stages of life. We are made different, with different skills, and that is good.
I used to think my worth was directly related to my capacity. I thought the more I could do, the more worthwhile or loved I would be. Now I know I am worthy of love and acceptance because of who I am and not how much (or little) I do. **
It is not my activity or productivity that defines me or decides my value.
And the same is true for you.
Don’t fall for the lie that says, ‘a busy man is a good man’.
Our busyness in no way determines our worth, and understanding this helps me manage my mental health.
If your week ahead is looking too busy, why not get the diary out and cancel something? Get a little JOMO in your life!
*Peace, health, joy, time with those I love most… to name a few.
**(At one point I needed JOMO in my life so badly, my friend made me this jumper to remind me!)