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
I have a natural tendency to ignore stressful things until they go away. (Which they don’t.)
It’s not really a natural tendency. I think I learned it through some very tough young adult years full of confrontations and stalemates. But I want to say it’s “natural” to give myself some credit: It’s not “The New Me.” I’ve been trying to kill it for years. It’s putting up a good fight, though.
I’ll call this tendency “Avoidance.”
A breakthrough in my fight against Avoidance came a couple years back when my insightful manager started using a kind of a mantra with me: “Rip the Band-Aid off!” It was excellent advice. She helped me see things in a new way. Dealing head on with a stressful issue is always, always, always (always) less stressful. It’s like when you were a little kid wiggling at your Band-Aid, tears brimming in your eyes. It hurts less if you just rip it off–no matter how scary.
But dealing with problems is not always as quick and easy as “ripping the Band-Aid off” sounds, so I want to explore this idea a little further and in a bit of a different way.
Sometimes you have an extra difficult choice to make, and it’s one that looks less like a quick fix and more like a long, exhausting journey. And you can choose to avoid it.
Picture yourself at the most out-of-shape you’ve ever been. I remember gaining 75 pounds after I got back from Africa 6 years ago. A bachelor, full of emotional stress, not sleeping, and eating free burritos every day. Suddenly my body was almost 150% its former size. I felt stupid and unattractive. I felt incapable. Defeated. You know how I felt and you know how hard it is to make the change I needed to make.
I dreaded seeing myself in the mirror, putting on clothes, letting my family see who I’d become, being shirtless in front of my girlfriend. Painful feelings–fear and disgust.
But here’s the thing. I couldn’t just “rip the Band-Aid off.” When I have to tell my landlord I accidentally put a hole in the drywall–that’s a Band-Aid I can rip off. 75 pounds, on the other hand, is not a Band-Aid you can rip off. That’s a giant mountain you have to move.
So I’m 75 pounds heavier than I was just a couple short years before. Feeling ashamed and insecure. I want to be fit, I could be fit, but I’m just not. And I have two choices. I can start my long, hard journey back to a healthier me–or I can avoid dealing with this problem. Tell myself not to worry about it–it’s okay.
Avoiding it means I also get to avoid dealing head on with how I really feel about myself. Avoidance means a lot more time on the couch for me, a lot less time sweating and feeling insecure at the gym in front of a bunch of people who the world tells me are a hell of a lot “sexier” than me. Avoidance tastes more like pizza and less like broccoli. Avoidance is way easier.
But the stressful issue of my weight remains. It’s not going away. And the longer I avoid it, the worse it’s getting.
Dealing head on with the thing I dread is my other option. I can start the journey I know deep down inside I really want to start. I can start making healthier choices in what I eat, how much I exercise, and when I get to sleep.
So I choose to make the change. I tape up a piece of notebook paper in my closet. Every day I weigh myself and mark my new weight on the paper. Then I pull the hanging clothes back in front of my paper because I feel embarrassed and I don’t want my girlfriend to see my struggle.
I lose 5 pounds and I feel excited. Inspired. Then after the weekend I step on the scale and I’ve gained it back plus a little to spare. I feel my heart in my throat. This happens a few times and I give up.
Avoidance is easier.
After a few sad years of feeling ashamed, powerless, and out of control, my girlfriend helped me make a change–just a couple months before we got engaged. We committed with each other to be in this for the long haul. We completely restructured our day to day lives. The dreaded problem become one of our top priorities. We fought it every day. Not sadly or without a little fun and relaxation here or there. We fought it in a positive light, with excitement and ambition. We fought with consistency and dedication. With focus. It became a major priority.
It no longer was a dark cloud always in the back of my mind. It was my challenge. I felt good about how I was dealing with it. Yes, it was still hard and stressful. But I was dealing with it.
Work is really the same way.
Why do heart attacks occur most often on Monday mornings? (It’s true, Google it.) Because we dread going to work. Because there are big, scary, stressful, depressing issues at work. There are the things that cropped up yesterday and there are the things that have been simmering for a long, long time.
Usually when it’s a situation that came out of the blue, you can rip it off like a Band-Aid.
But then there are the underlying realities at work that make our jobs stress us to death. Unrealistic sales goals. An unfair boss. Self-centered co-workers. Irresponsible employees. Our own bad habits. There’s always a mix of these, but usually there’s the big one: When you leave work thinking “If only…”–what’s that “if only?”
Let’s say for example that this is why you dread work these days: “If only my boss would actually listen to me.”
How did we get here? The first time your boss cut you off, you didn’t immediately lose all motivation. So how did it become the big thing you dread about work? I’d argue it’s a mix of two things:
1. It’s happened a lot.
2. It’s become your “mental model.” The way your mind knows and explains how your boss functions at his core.
Sure, it’s your boss’s fault that he keeps talking over you and won’t give you the time of day.
But maybe it’s your “fault” that you’ve let it happen to the point that you think it’s just the way things are, your boss is a jerk, and it’s not going to change.
Notice that this is not a Band-Aid you can rip off. You have so much pent up frustration, and your boss is so entrenched in his habit, that it’s going to be a long, slow, painful, stressful journey to a healthier relationship. You have to retrain the mental model you’ve created for how and why your boss is who you think he is. You have to keep addressing the offense, patiently and positively.
If you start working on it today, and I mean really working on it–making it one of your very top priorities at work–it will slowly get better. More importantly, you’ll feel better–sometimes immediately.
Or you can avoid it. Avoidance is easier.
But it will get worse, and worse, and worse. And one day you’ll suddenly realize, “I hate my job! This is killing me!” And you’ll find yourself completely incapable of dealing with it anymore. And you’ll give up and walk away, battered and bruised.
And then the process will start over with the next “big thing” that goes wrong at your replacement job.
Avoidance or chasing the solution without delay. . . .
What if every morning you felt yourself stressing about work, you asked yourself: “What do I dread about going to work?” And then made that your #1 priority for the day?
We can make a practice–a habit–of immediately dealing head on with the things we dread, or we can let Avoidance rob us of time and happiness and continue in a cycle of failure and broken relationships.
What big thing do you dread? What can you do about it today?
Picture two different worlds a year from today: A world in which you started dealing head on with your big “what if” today, and a world in which you put it off a little longer.