Hi guys! The older I get, the more I realize how important it is to me to reduce stress in my life and protect my peace. Granted, I’m only in my thirties, but I’m also the breadwinner for my household and a single mom to a busy (and very smart) 7 year old. I manage a team of scientists, engineers and veterinary professionals at my day job, so my ‘9-to-5’ is more like a ‘7-to-5’ (when there are no fires to put out). The other time that I have is spent growing my blog and social media platforms. To put it plainly, I’m kinda busy. There are plenty of opportunities for stress to creep in and burnout to get its foot in the door.
Thinking back over the past several years, I can see many times when I was burned out but pushed on anyway. There were some times when I didn’t have a choice – you do what you gotta do. But over the past year and a half, I’ve been working to be more intentional about scheduling time to rest. I had been just taking rest when I could or when it was convenient, but quickly learned that this was a essentially a plan destined for failure. Let’s be real, I can barely even take a shower without a little knock on the door and a ‘Mom, can you help me with this?’… ‘Mom, are you almost done?’… Planning to rest just ‘when I could’ meant there was not much rest to be had.
At first, I thought the issue was that my schedule wasn’t organized enough. I had a decent amount of structure to my everyday, but everyday had a lot going on. So, I thought that if I could become more efficient with what I was doing, then I could organize my time a bit better so that I wasn’t feeling as tired or overwhelmed while taking care of everything that needed my attention. I tried reorganizing my to-do list. I tried block scheduling. I made a new cleaning schedule to make my housework easier to keep up with. (In case you haven’t seen it, I have a detailed blog post about that here). Those things did help, but I still felt like I was constantly going without a good break. I was perpetually tired.
After talking with my Mom, I realized that I was not intentionally setting aside any time for rest. Now, I don’t mean that I was not sleeping at night; I was getting some sleep. However, most every day was packed – even portions of the weekends. I was doing a poor job at setting aside time during the day to take care of myself, do something I enjoyed, or even take a nap if I needed it, and it was taking a negative toll on my mental health. I was getting cranky, felt stretched too thin, wasn’t eating well, and exercise was non-existent.
Here’s what I did to change all that.
I started paying attention to my stress levels and what triggered them. I did need to work at it a little bit because it wasn’t natural for me to do that. It’s almost like taking a step back and looking at yourself from the third person. When things would happen, I would ask myself how it made me feel. What was my honest to goodness reaction. For the most part when I was stressed out, I’d know it because I was already there. I was already stressed out. What I started doing though was to try to catch the stress BEFORE it happened – slow down enough to figure out the points where my toe was dipping in the water before I looked around and found myself in the middle of the pool. Once I better understood what my triggers were, it was easier for me to figure out how to deal with them. And it didn’t take anything drastic.
Deep breathing has done WONDERS for me. I haven’t researched the science behind it and don’t know to what degree the effectiveness is, but pausing for a good 30 seconds or so to take deep breaths and oxygenate the cells has had great calming effects for me. The situation itself doesn’t change just because I take a deep breath, but I’m able to think more clearly and the tension in my body is released when I do this. I’m able to pray, make better decisions, and jump back into whatever it is. I didn’t realize how cloudy stress can make your ability to think. It’s really amazing.
The last thing I started doing was incorporating regular mental health days into my life. My job is not for the faint of heart. It can be tough managing a high-performing team – not impossible but tough. I am always on-call (even when on vacation depending on what task the team is working on at the time); a 40-hour workweek is a short week; and I’m responsible for the people themselves as well as the work that they do. I manage the budget, new contracts and contract modifications, and complete weekly and monthly reporting on various topics. I’m the hiring manager and a mentor. I complete the performance evaluations, review and monitor personnel goals and develop performance improvement plans. In addition to all this and for the better part of 2020, I was also supporting about 25 meetings a week on average. It can be a lot to handle. I’m usually running on fumes by the end of the week. I get some time to recharge on the weekends, but I’m still pouring out. My son needs me, there’s usually a little leftover housework to do, groceries need to be picked up, meal prepping needs to be done – adulting is an everyday thing.
So, I’ve learned that the best way for me to keep up with my life without stretching myself too thin is to have a regular mental health day. A day not to necessarily do anything but refresh and re-center. I sleep in if I feel like that’s what my body needs. I’ll cook if that’s what I want to do. I’ll curl up with a good book and read for hours. I consider it my self-care day to do whatever I feel like self-care needs to be for me at that time. I try to do this at least once a month. Eight months of the year come with federally recognized holidays, so I make use of those days off that I already get. For the other four months, I pick a day in advance to be my mental health day and request the time off from work. I’ve been following this schedule for just over a year now and am very happy with the difference it’s made in lowering my stress levels. It keeps me refreshed, has been keeping the burnout at bay, and keeps something there for me to consistently be looking forward to. In addition to this, about once a quarter, I try to take at least two days off instead of just one. Resetting is still the goal, but I try to make the focus around things my son wants us to do together – a time for us to intentionally reconnect too.
I was pleasantly surprised to see that these short breaks away from work really don’t put me behind much at all. I’m coming back with a full tank and usually caught up within two days. In my opinion, these regular breaks have made me more productive and a better, more attentive mom and manager. It’s made me more intentional with the way that I spend my time every day and pay more attention to what I give my energy to. I’ve also been much happier overall.
I highly recommend you all give regular mental health days a try. Figure out a way to schedule them into your regular routine, then track your results. I promise you’ll be glad you did!