Self-care in chaotic times
Today I was asked by quite a few people how I managed to avoid burnout while I was working at NHS Test and Trace.
Know you can’t do it all. Know you can probably do less than you think you can, certainly less than you plan to do. Know you can probably do less now than you used to be able to do because pandemic.
Decide — in terms of time and brainspace — how much you’re willing to give without sacrificing your wellbeing. And design your diary around it. Whatever you need. I’ve been playing with:
- different start/end times to work with my biorhythms
- early (or on time) finishing so I can decompress before bedtime (when I’m struggling to switch off)
- a break for lunch or time outside — walk the dog, sit quietly, make some soup
- exercise time — to help regulate my stress levels and counter the rest of the sedentary day
- scheduling focus time in my diary, so I’m not squeezing it into weekends or evenings
- scheduling shorter meetings so I have a break in between them.
Once you know what you have to give, prioritise ruthlessly what you want to do with that time and energy.
Let’s face it — for most people this means choosing what you won’t do. Identify what is important to you, and prioritise that first. Then identify who you want to disappoint least, and prioritise their stuff. You have to choose who to let down — don’t push responsibility for that choice onto your team, and don’t choose them to disappoint.
Then manage expectations all round — your own included.
If you don’t, if you mentally overcommit and then disappoint yourself, then remember that a nagging sense of underperformance is better than the soul-deep weariness of burnout.
And if something is so immensely important to you that you’re going to give it everything you have, then remember that you still only have 24 hours in a day and 7 days in a week. You will still have to choose what you won’t do — it’s an inescapable decision. And you still can only work at that level of intensity for so long before you will break. Sacrificing your self-care short-term might be fine for a little while— some of my biggest personal and professional achievements have taken a big push at some point. But it is not sustainable and over the medium-term it becomes self-harm. Very few things in life are worth that.