Do you remember the busiest month of your life? A time where you over-committed yourself for a few weeks? Maybe it was a project at work, too many classes in school, a bunch of events–or a mixture of everything. A time when you felt like every day you just woke up, immediately hit the gas pedal, and didn’t slow down till you fell into bed at the end of the day. How did that time of intense busyness make you feel? What state did it leave you in? Stressed? Exhausted? Crabby? Anxious? Lonely? Burnt out?
All of my life’s experience has left me with this big piece of advice to give: DON’T commit to an insanely busy schedule. Being overworked and overly exhausted messes with you in a lot of ways. BUT–SOMETIMES we agree to cram our schedule full for a while anyway. Sometimes there’s an opportunity to grow or to contribute or to do something you love, and it’s too good to pass up, so you take the leap and book your schedule absolutely full for a week, or two, or three, or maybe for a month.
What happens when you do that? Well you already know, it will probably bring with it stress, exhaustion, crabbiness, anxiety, loneliness, and burn out. You may gain a few pounds, you may hurt a few feelings, and you may do a little more retail therapy than you wish. It may still have been totally worth it, but the bottom line is that it won’t be a walk in the park. So how do you make it through as healthily and happily as possible? How can you make the best of a tough period of busyness?
I recently got to experience this when I participated in a three week work project with an absolutely brutal schedule and workload. Long hours, working straight through the weekend, and it was the type of work that just didn’t slow down until you get in your car and drive away. Even then, unwinding took almost until bedtime–if you were lucky. I’ve gone through other times before when I was overly busy, and sometimes it’s gone better than others. This last time I didn’t do so well at staying grounded and positive deep down inside. It actually ended up being much tougher by the end than I had expected. So it left me thinking afterward: What could have made it go better? What will I do differently next time?
After reflecting for a while, I came up with 8 suggestions that I’ve learned by trial and error in my experience. 8 strategies for when you’re just way too busy for a while. Try as you may to maintain balance in your life, I’m sure you’ll find yourself facing another of those exhausting months at some point down the road. I hope some of these tips help you make it through happily and healthily.
When you’re facing a period of extreme busyness…
1. Show yourself compassion and support.
Cut yourself some slack. This is going to be a tough time and you’ll have bad days. You’ll be stressed and overwhelmed and you might not feel like your best self. Accept that this is normal when you’re overly busy. It would be weird if it didn’t affect you. It may help to think about how being overwhelmed and overly busy affects you particularly. Remind yourself on the rough days that you knew it would be hard, and be compassionate and accepting toward yourself.
2. Ask for help and patience from others.
Remember that this isn’t just going to affect you. There are other people in your life–spouse, significant other, kids, co-workers–who will also be affected by your busyness. The closer they are to you, the more they may find your stress directed toward them, no matter how hard you try to stay positive. Talk to them–even ahead of time–about what’s going on. It may feel awkward to say “I might be a little mean to you this month.” But if you don’t talk about it, they may not understand what’s going on and may not see a light at the end of the tunnel. Ask sincerely for their patience and help along the way.
3. Pick a couple things you can’t lose touch with.
Pick one or two or three things that will help you stay grounded and happy. Lifelines. Walks with your puppy. A TV show with your spouse. Daily meditation. Half an hour at the gym. Play time with the kids. What is a thing you just can’t lose touch with? A lot of things are important to you, but if you just try to keep up with as many as you can, you may find them to be so much that you end up keeping up with none at all. So pick just a couple and absolutely commit (meaning plan ahead and don’t budge on your plan) to keeping up with them.
4. Choose sleep over keeping up with other activities.
You’re going to really miss all the stuff you can’t do while you’re overly busy–stuff you normally have plenty of time for. It’s very tempting to give up a couple hours of sleep every night so that you can keep up with all your life stuff. DON’T! You need sleep. This is already going to be a physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting month, and being sleep deprived will make it worse. Besides, you’ll find those life things aren’t that fun when you’re sleep deprived anyway. So keep your sleep, keep your health, and keep your energy, so you can actually enjoy the couple routines you do get to keep up with.
5. Use a little transition ritual to stay grounded.
It is so easy to lose touch with all of your Why’s and all of your What’s when you speed from one busy thing to the next without slowing down to think. Try building a couple little grounding practices or rituals that you can use when you move between tasks or between sections of your day. For example, before you start a new task you can close your eyes for ten seconds and ask yourself the question, “Why am I doing what I’m doing today?” Or you can set aside five minutes after each meal to stand outside in the fresh air and breathe deeply or daydream. Just slowing down and re-connecting with yourself can keep you from getting lost in your whirlwind of a schedule.
6. Waste a little time at the end of your day.
Your brain needs rest. Sometimes, and for some personalities more frequently than for others, you need to let it shut down and waste some time. Not be going-going-going, not worry about accomplishing or being productive. This might mean when you finally get to the end of your ridiculously busy day, you turn into a couch potato for a few minutes. Twenty minutes of mind-numbing TV might be just what the doctor ordered. Don’t get stuck in a cycle of not-having-accomplished-enough. Give yourself a break.
7. Celebrate and reward your hard work.
No matter how stressful or frustrating this busy period ends up getting, you’re doing an impressive thing by working through it and taking on so much all at once. Even though it’s not easy, you’re pushing through, because you’re doing this for a reason–to better yourself, to contribute to a cause, whatever it is. So why don’t you celebrate? Reward yourself a little for all this hard work. Bragging to your friends about your hard work, or getting yourself a favorite treat can help make a tough experience a good one. What if you promised yourself a relaxing spa day at the end of the crazy month?
8. Accept and prepare for recovery to take some time.
This is one step you might not have expected, but it will really help to understand ahead of time. When you overwork yourself for two or three weeks, increasing your stress of all kinds–mental, emotional, physical–it’s probably going to leave you in worse shape than you’d like. You might feel anxious, crabby, out of shape, lonely, disconnected from your closest people, and a little burned out by the time life slows back down. Here’s the thing–those things won’t suddenly feel all better when you stop being too busy. It may take you several days or a couple weeks to feel back to normal–back in touch, on top of your game, and in sync with your relationships. Expecting all the burnout to go away on your first day off will only lead to frustration and blame. Accept the shape your busyness left you in and allow yourself plenty of time and space to recover.
What else works for you?
Happy life-ing and good luck!
P.S. For your inspiration…
“Get yourself grounded and you can navigate the stormiest roads in peace.” – Steve Goodier
When you’re tired and worried, sleep.
When you’re hungry and worried, eat.
When you’re bored and worried, have some fun.
When you’re overworked and worried, go home.
When you’ve got a headache and you’re worried, find some pain relief.
When you’re lonely and worried, talk to someone.
One of the best pieces of advice I ever got about being worried, overwhelmed, stressed, or anxious, is to deal with the other problem. You probably can’t fix the overwhelmed part when you’re sleep deprived.
One of two things might happen: You might wake up feeling refreshed and ready to deal with your yucky feelings. Or you might wake up worry free and realize the yucky feelings were just there because you were sleep deprived.
Like most kids, I had a plethora of career plans by the time I was about 7. I was going to be a zookeeper, I was going to pilot a spaceship, I was going to be a cowboy, and I was going to be a detective (I even had my briefcase picked out–a plastic hot wheels organizer). Most of all, I was determined to be a soldier back in World War II.
All that had changed by the time I was a young teenager. I knew I had one calling in my life–the best calling–to be a pastor. I attended conferences for kids who were going to be pastors and I bought hundreds of books on theology. I obsessively chased that one life goal.
Granted, when you’re a teenager, getting to the bottom of your feelings can be hard. So I’m not sure if this was the driving cause for my ambition or if it was just a piece of the puzzle, but looking back, this definitely screwed up my thinking: I thought that being a pastor was the “highest calling” a person could have. In other words, being a pastor is better than being other things. Now I would also say, somehow, that every other “calling” could be just as meaningful and good in its own way. But somehow I lived with this cognitive dissonance in my head, where still, in one sense–the most important sense–being a pastor is best.
As I grew older I reexamined a lot of my thoughts on the subject. I discovered that I wasn’t really sure that’s what I wanted to be. I replaced the narrow-minded “pastor-is-best” idea with a more progressive “helping-people-deeply-is-best.” That meant I could be a pastor, a therapist, a life coach, a writer, a leader… as long as my life’s purpose was to help others deep down inside, I could be happy.
Eventually, I became fully convinced that people can and should be happy with just about any kind of life they want to live. There’s nothing “better” about helping people as a therapist than about working for Disney as a junior animator’s assistant (is that a thing?). That it’s just as good and beautiful and amazing and meaningful to chase your dream of being a musician as it is to chase your dream of being a teacher. Movie director or rock climber. Cook or personal trainer. IT professional or pharmaceutical sales rep. A philosopher or a yoga instructor. There’s not a right and wrong choice. There’s not a “best.” At least that’s what I believe now. And I’ve believed that for a long time.
But here’s the problem. I shed my old narrow-minded views years ago. I got rid of my prejudice about “higher callings.” For everyone else in my life. But not really for myself.
I still had never imagined the possibility that I could be happy doing something that didn’t fit that “better calling” of helping people deeply, like being a therapist or life coach. I never let myself be truly free to consider being a happy chef, a happy pianist, or a happy movie buff. I was the biggest cheerleader my friends could have in chasing their own unique dreams, but I still held myself to a different standard.
I’ve been discovering lately that this is a very widely shared experience. Maybe you’ve known it or are just finding it out for yourself:
A big principle or belief about the meaning and value of lives and careers and dreams has changed in your mind. You no longer believe that it’s “better” to be a doctor, “better” to be a pastor, “better” to make a lot of money, “better” NOT to make a lot of money, “better” to make a huge impact, “better” to have kids, or “better” to do anything the traditionally “better” way.
So you’ve stopped holding other people to that standard. If your friend asked you for advice, you’d say, “Do what you want! Don’t feel pressure to be or do one thing over another! Find what really makes you tick! Don’t do what you’re ‘supposed’ to do, do what you really love!” You’ve grown out of your old prejudices for others . . .
But not for yourself!
Sometimes it can be totally subconscious: I don’t even realize I’m putting pressure on myself to have a “better calling,” to have a traditional family or relationship, etc…
Or maybe I’m totally aware of the pressure because I think it’s my own true preference: “I WANT to do this meaningful career. I’ve ALWAYS wanted to do this meaningful career!” . . . But was that preference shaped by a standard you no longer believe? If you let yourself truly feel free to be who you wanted to be, would your dream still be the same?
Maybe it would be. For example, I think I’m genuinely very happy when I get to help people feel happier or stronger, or when I get to help people grow or learn. I really think that’s me deep down. So no matter what path my life takes, I think I’ll always be looking for little (or big) ways to do that.
But maybe you’d find you have some new dreams. Maybe there’s a whole world out there that makes you tick that you didn’t know made you tick–because you only ever let the “better way”, the “traditional way,” or your “higher calling” make you tick. Maybe it’s the world of medicine. Maybe it’s the world of sports. Maybe dance. Maybe movies. Maybe food. Maybe education. Maybe family. Maybe business. Maybe volunteering.
We’re all different. I don’t think anyone has this one elusive dream that will make them the happiest, where if I never discover my love for that world, I’ll never be fulfilled.
But I do think a lot of us make choices every day–little choices and big choices–that are subconsciously guided more by old prejudices we shed long ago–standards we’d never hold our friends to now–that keep us living lives in a way we don’t truly want to live them–chasing dreams that “should” be ours, being who we are “supposed” to be.
You’re progressive. You’re a free thinker. You no longer hold anyone to some old prejudice you used to have. But maybe that old prejudice is still holding onto you. Maybe you haven’t let yourself be free yet. Maybe it’s time to re-reexamine your old beliefs.
The sooner you can let yourself be free of those “better-choice”/”better-calling” standards you don’t actually hold anymore, the sooner you get to discover worlds that make you happy and excited. And then you get to enjoy diving into those worlds head first.
There’s nothing wrong with being a movie nerd or a CrossFitter. There are so many amazing lives to live and love.
So free yourself. Reexamine every once in a while.
The other side of the coin is how we’re affecting others: Please be aware of the web you may be accidentally creating for the people who look up to you. Especially really young impressionable people.
Parents, teachers, mentors, leaders: Your words, the opinions you express, the things you do and don’t celebrate, the activities you require, the comparisons you make–these can all teach an impressionable mind that there’s only one “best” dream they should chase. Or instead, you can carefully choose the words to help a little mind know that they live in a big, beautiful world full of countless amazing things to explore and enjoy.
I’ll try to do my part, too. It’s a big world out there, friends. :)