Struggling to focus? Find what works for you
Don't fall for articles suggesting "THIS ONE THING ALWAYS WORKS" or the "MUST DO TECHNIQUE USED BY ALL CEOS"... Finding things that work for you takes a bit of exploration and support.
I’ve been very much feeling the effects of the ongoing ‘lingering lockdown’ over the past months - I don’t have anything especially bad happening in my life, I’m healthy, I’m working, I have good people around me, yet I’m exhausted.
The smallest of tasks can wipe me out, dealing with challenging conversations or complex projects at work is just almost too much at times, and being a single parent and self-employed, there are things which I _have_ to do: grocery shopping, laundry, school-run, homework, cooking, paying taxes, finding work, chasing invoices. Any of the things on the “nice to have” list are far from reach, and even the things on the “important to do” like rest or re-energising activities which create joy, also feel like they have to come after the “must/critical/essential” pile.
It’s not a matter of time - I’m not especially time poor, but rather the emotional energy required for each of the tasks. Emptying the dishwasher - low emotional energy required. Calling someone to chat - high emotional energy required (as an introvert, conversations and socialising drain me rather than energise me). Dealing with a challenging conversation I’ve been avoiding - super high emotional energy (and not just in the moment, but the fretting before and worrying after).
Some of the activities should be low emotional energy tasks - grocery shopping for instance. It’s just picking some things, putting them in a shopping basket, and checking-out, right? Yet for me, grocery shopping comes with a high emotional tax. When there isn’t a delivery time available (because I’ve left it too late), it adds an emotional cost. When I can’t decide what meals to make or just get what I got last week, I feel like a bad parent because I should be making better food for my kids, or can’t even figure out what to cook - which adds an emotional cost. When it arrives, and I’ve inevitably forgotten something really obvious, but also purchase loads of things which are not essential - I beat myself up - further emotional cost. And I know this is the process I go through, so even thinking about doing grocery shopping creates anxiety - which adds to the overall energy required to do grocery shopping - therefore, the actual cost of the task is way higher.
"my depression adds to the cost of most tasks, making the seemingly easy, harder than they should be"
I know that my depression adds to the cost of most tasks, making the seemingly easy, harder than they should be, and whilst there's probably no way of formally diagnosing it, I am burned out and have been for many years - but in recent months, it has moved from a sense of “oh my, this is really hard work, I don’t have the energy…” to “oh my, I have so many things to do, and I’m not doing any of them”, when actually the workload or list of tasks hasn’t changed since March.
Clearly it’s the amount of energy I have which is changing - so I started reading around to understand how to deal with feeling overwhelmed, and came across the concept of ‘spoon theory’.
The idea comes from writer Christine Miserandino, who lives with a long-term illness - and was explaining to a friend what living with chronic illness can be like - using the metaphor of spoons, representing the things she could do that day. Each spoon represented a task, for instance: getting out of bed, having a shower, cooking. Some tasks might take more spoons, others just one. When you’ve run out of spoons, that’s it, you don’t have any more energy to do any more tasks.
You can ‘borrow’ additional spoons from the following day, if you want to push yourself to really do that next task today because perhaps it’s essential - but it will mean you’re one spoon down for tomorrow. There’s only a finite number of spoons per day, and if you use them up, you can’t do any more.
Miserandino believes there’s no way to get more spoons, you’re limited to the amount of things you’re physically able to do - and for chronic illnesses, or where people are coping with ongoing pain, this makes complete sense to me. For those living with depression and anxiety, there feel like many parallels here - with the amount of spoons rapidly depleting when undertaking even the most basic tasks, or requiring more spoons than expected.
But the reason this really resonated with me was for its relation to covid and the ongoing lockdown. It’s not that we’ve any more tasks to do, it’s not that its taking away any of our spoons - but it feels like it’s made the spoons smaller for all of us.
The 200+ days of ongoing background stress of restrictions, media coverage, economic impact, other global events such as the US elections, civil unrest, societal and cultural inequalities, taxation changes, brexit, or even just the availability of loo roll, they all add up. Our spoons shrink in how much they allow us to do each day. What might have taken one spoon this time last year, now takes two - yet the list of things we have to do has not changed, has not shrunk, has not gone away.
When you’re self-employed, it can already feel like you have more tasks than spoons. Not only are you dealing with work, but also the additional tasks of running a business, plus your personal responsibilities in life. Lots of tasks become essential rather than nice to have. Instead of having one “boss” in a job, you’ve now got several bosses across multiple projects. And we so often prioritise the tasks we need to do to survive (you have to get that project done, to get paid, to pay the bills; you have to reply to that email to ensure the next project comes in next month; you have to update the website so people can find you so you can find the next project; etc. etc. etc.)
All with fewer or smaller spoons.
Whether you subscribe to the idea of finite spoons or not, two things feel absolutely true to me:
1. You cannot continually borrow from tomorrow’s energy levels, as it will only reduce your resources for tomorrow from the start. This is called diminishing returns, and you’ll soon be in energy debt, where you’re starting the day with nothing in the tank, and won’t be able to work.
2. Without being actively mindful around how much energy you have against how many tasks you have to do, you’ll likely not notice until you’ve burned out, and again: won’t be able to work.
And when you’re self-employed, there’s no easy sick day.
Taking rest and care proactively to prevent those days where you have depleted your energy to negative, and being actively aware of how much energy you have and not over-committing yourself to spending more energy than you have available, needs to be a critical part of your way of working.
And during this lingering lockdown - what we used to be able to achieve in a day, in a week, what we are used to being able to get done, is no longer possible. We have to redesign our workloads to suit the current reality, and build in more time for self-care.
“lifehacks” give us suggestions like “use a list to prioritise your tasks”, but they rarely address how to deal with all of the things you de-prioritised that still need doing"
For me, I know I need to tackle this in multiple ways - I need to be very mindful of what energy I have available; I need to recognise which additional tasks ask more of me; and I have be selective with the spoons I offer away; but I also have to recognise that I have a lot of hard work on the things which add the emotional tax on each task. Grocery shopping is a practical activity which comes attached with emotional stress. That’s not something which can be solved through time management and thinking about spoons - I need to work with a therapist to challenge some of the deeply held beliefs I have on my own value and self-worth, on who I look to validation from, why I hold myself up to such impossible standards, and why I don’t find it easy to accept help - perhaps spoons from others.
It feels like there’s so little in the way of holistic support for emotional growth for adults. “lifehacks” give us suggestions like “use a list to prioritise your tasks”, but they rarely address how to deal with all of the things you de-prioritised that still need doing. Articles around confidence say “shift your mindset and don’t listen to the shoulds”, as if a mindset is a lever you can push from left to right. Therapy provides a fantastic space to interrogate and understand what might be causing some of these shoulds, and helps you to challenge tightly held beliefs or unhelpful patterns, but it takes months of work to start seeing the changes. And for me - each of these steps to improve things are yet another task, another spoon-taking item on the todo-list - and when I’m already depleted, even seeking help is often beyond the energy I have.
That’s why we (as the collective community of people advocating for better mental health) so often say “just give yourself a break”, rather than providing tangible actions to take or techniques to follow. Because it’s hard. It take a lifetime of investment and work, but it can only start with being gentle with ourselves. Mental health isn’t something you ‘fix’. It’s certainly not something you think about one day of the year. It’s needs to be life-long investment in ourselves. Mental health at work likewise, work is such a big part of our lives, especially for the self-employed, that if your own mental health isn’t a critical part of your business plan, if it isn’t up there on the “essential” list, you don’t have a sustainable business.
It isn’t about having to commit hours of time every week, or hundreds of pounds in software or counselling - but rather a foundation of how you work, a consideration for how you design what you do. I don’t have all the answers, but I do know that making it an active part of your work, rather than something to worry about when/if things get bad, is always going to be easier than running out of spoons all together.
I also know I take way too much on my own shoulders and don’t find it easy to accept help or let others in - which holds me back in so many ways. But at least now I’m aware of that - and being aware is a very good place to start.
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