When you don’t take your own advice

Chuck and I are going on a trip, but before we leave I have eleventy billion tasks to complete. I’m not entirely sure how I got here, but I’m certain it has to do with the number of times I said yes compared to the zero times I said no. 

This is exactly what I tell others not to do. 

When I should be looking forward to our vacation and planning itineraries, I am managing tension headaches and working at my desk from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. almost every day scratching items off my to-do list.  In between assignments and the professional work I’ve committed to, I’m training for my 21st race, getting the boys to their respective places,  and tending to myriad daily details, such as making food for people to eat.

Some of this is expected. There’s always a rush of tasks before a trip, and if you’re like me, in order to leave with a clear head, everything must be in order – from finishing laundry and restocking toiletries to paying bills early and thinking of all the things that could happen and mitigating potential disasters ahead of time. 

It’s nonsensical.

Something’s gotta give, so I’m going to spend the next few weeks discerning what needs to change because since our school year started I’ve spent exactly zero minutes writing fiction. I’ve spent no time querying. I’ve done the bare minimum when it comes to race training, so I’m legitimately concerned about suffering an injury on the days I increase mileage to double digits. I’m not cooking the kind of meals I prefer to feed my family and instead am piecing together quick and easy bites. That’s fine sometimes, but…

Something’s gotta give.

Maybe the problem is more about how I manage my time and less about the assignments I accept (or give myself). Or, maybe I’m just doing too much and my inability to handle the workload proves that I am, in fact, not Wonder Woman. 

I could’ve sworn I was.

I deleted my professional Facebook page last week, which is a start, because I no longer want to advertise photography and work with strangers. Instead, I’ll keep photographing friends and family as my schedule allows and leave it at that.

I also need to devise effective strategies for assignments I give in the four co-op classes I teach. It is a colossal mistake on my part to assign papers in three classes with due dates at the same time. The single thing I dislike about teaching is grading, so I do myself no favors to have 40+ papers to read and grade in only a few days. (Seriously, Jennie! What were you thinking?)

I will never be the girl who gets up at 5 a.m. to run, but I need to reevaluate my exercise routine and carve out non-negotiable time to focus entirely on running. Despite reaching my goal of running 20 races by 40 years old, I have no reason to stop. I’m running my 21st race on Sunday and have already registered for a local half marathon in December. I love it, it’s good for me, and I need to make it a priority.

Finally, I need to be selective about the freelance assignments I accept so I can be more available to help the boys with their co-op classes. (High school is no joke.) This is probably the most essential reconfiguration because it’s the main source of time suckage. 

I am desperate for downtime, fleeting moments when I can turn off my brain and let it rest. Recently I interviewed a professional with a local Alzheimer’s foundation and she said the constant go-go-go and juggling ten thoughts at once (which is basically the description of every mom I know) is not good for our brains. Instead of strengthening our brain function, it’s taxing. It was like a two-by-four to the head. Not only does my frazzled disposition shift the energy in the house, I’m actually hurting my own health in the long run.

So, all this is to say that if I tell you no in the near future, it’s not personal to you. It’s personal to me. 

Part Three: Don’t Waste Time

You can start here if you like. You can also start with Part One where I talk about the importance of self-care and move through Part Two, which is about caring for those closest to you, but starting here is fine because this is a rule I adhere to with fervency. I push it onto everyone I know. I am the pusher of Don’t Waste Time. It is likely I’ve said this to you in person if our paths cross in any way.

A history: I am a recovering Yes Person. I spent my 20s working in church nurseries because I was asked to. I helped with children’s choir, despite the fact that I cannot sing. I agreed to participate in groups and outings and events because I felt obligated to. I went places I didn’t want to go and did things I didn’t want to do because I was a people pleaser, and HEAVEN FORBID SOMEONE NOT LIKE ME.

By my 30s, I began to recognize that I have certain skill sets and running children’s choir was not one of them. By the time we joined our current church almost six years ago, I was able to say with confidence, “I am not interested in working with children, but I’m happy to help with communications and photography.” This wasn’t just about using my time and talents wisely; rather, it was about recognizing that I had wasted a lot of time doing things that were not meant for me, and I no longer wanted to do that.

It was a personal prison, and it wasn’t exclusive to volunteer or work-related choices. I’d hung on to friendships that weren’t really friendships. I engaged in conversations that were not my concern, and I spent a lot of energy worrying about inconsequential, unimportant things. I cannot calculate how much bad television I have watched. 

It nagged me as my 30s unfolded. Why hadn’t I learned the power of No earlier? Perhaps that’s the natural progression of things. You don’t understand how necessary No is until you’ve wasted so many Yeses.

Then something happened in our family that anchored Don’t Waste Time so deep in my gut that I started saying it loudly and clearly to anyone who would listen. My sister-in-law, Tami, died suddenly at 47 years old. One day she was moving along in her wonderful life. The next day, gone. Just like that. At 47.

What. the. hell.

In the shock of her death I stamped out an email to my closest girlfriends telling them all sorts of things that should happen if I die suddenly – an actual list of things to do – and OH MY GOODNESS how does this happen to someone who is ONLY 47.

From that moment on, to the best of my ability, I have not wasted time. I’ve said no to the things I don’t want to do and YES to the things I know will be good for me or good for others. It’s rampant, I tell you. I AM ALL ABOUT IT.

No, I will not serve on that board right now, but ask me again in a year.

No, I will not teach elementary age classes at co-op, but yes, I will teach high school.

Yes, I would love to take a group photo for your non-profit for free.

No, I will not watch This Is Us anymore because I’m tired of being manipulated each week.

Yes, I will accept this freelance assignment, but no, I won’t accept that one.

On and on it goes. My No is No and my Yes is Yes. Occasionally, I will take time to consider my options and make a decision after some thought, but my instincts are strong. I know what’s meant for me and I know what is not. When I’ve been unclear, a quick chat with Chuck or my sister or a close friend clears it right up.

How does this connect to self-care?

In a dozen different ways. Consider your time and energy like a bank account. How much you spend and where you spend it is a reflection of your priorities. Are you investing in what matters to you most? Or are you blowing your precious, limited time on a bunch of life-sucking nonsense because you lack the confidence or courage to say no?

Hear me: Don’t Waste Time.

Don’t waste time on relationships that aren’t mutual and restorative. Be friendly to all and be generous when you can, but don’t dig into the reserves of your time and energy when the returns aren’t there.

Don’t waste time on projects, activities, and other participation-based events that don’t align with your priorities, talents, and availability. Don’t say yes out of obligation. Don’t agree to something when your gut is screaming no. Please, oh please hear me on this. Say yes only when you know you’ve got the time, energy, and passion to devote to it.

Don’t waste time on bad television, bad food, and bad company. Junk in, junk out. It’s that simple.

Don’t waste time wishing something would come your way. CLAW AT IT. Be aggressive. You have a dream? Turn it into a plan. What in the world are you waiting for?

Don’t waste time scrolling. I’m still learning this, if I’m honest. I enjoy social media, but at the same time, I despise it. We are meant for personal connection, and social media is not personal connection. People are not interchangeable with screens.

A few more things…

Rest is not wasting time. Rest is restoration, a necessary recharge. How I rest may not be how you rest, so I won’t tell you how you should rest. Just know that it’s important to find a way to log off, shut down, and be still.

Time spent thinking and waiting is not wasting time. Did you know that Bill Gates schedules time specifically dedicated to thinking? He weeds out all distractions and funnels his energy into thinking. He’ll read, go for walks, have light, easy meals, and think. There’s a lesson to be learned here, especially since our society is entirely too focused on glorifying how busy we are. If you need time to think, take it.

Finally, trying something new is not wasting time. Don’t be too quick on the no. Say yes to things you’re not sure about because you may learn something. Don’t like it? Never do it again. Love it? Make it your new hobby. Going through the experience of trying something new, no matter the outcome, is time well spent.

I think I’m done here. I’ve written down all the things I keep saying to people in real life. It is from my deepest heart that something has resonated with you or helped in some way. God bless you for hanging in there and reaching the last paragraph. I hope, sincerely, that I’ve not wasted your time.


Part Two: Caring for Others

Read Part One first.

The reason to take care of yourself first can be summed up with a simple analogy: You can’t draw water from an empty well.  How well (or poorly) I care for my family is almost directly connected to how well (or poorly) I care for myself.

If I’m not good mind, body, and soul, they suffer for it. It’s that simple.

So why, when talking about self-care, do I even consider other people? They aren’t me, nor do I expect them to be like me, but their lives are wholly intertwined with mine. These precious people – my husband, my children, my dearest friends – are an extension of me. Their wellness, on varying levels, is directly connected to mine. When they hurt, I hurt for them. When they need help, I want to offer a hand. When they need a hug, I want to be first in line.

Because my personal hierarchy of care moves from me to my husband, we’ll go there next.

You might read these questions and think, “Wow, girl. Sounds like it’s all about him!” That would be true if 1) I wasn’t already taking care of myself, and 2) he wasn’t already an attentive, connected husband.

In truth, caring for my spouse works because he is caring for me in tandem. These things parallel each other in an ideal world – we’re both listening to each other, we’re both making one another a priority, we’re both saying what needs to be said and keeping quiet on stuff that doesn’t matter. We aren’t perfect in this arena but THANK THE SWEET LORD ALMIGHTY we have learned from our mistakes and try hard not to repeat them.

[Note: In fractured marriages, it is exponentially difficult to know what to do, what to say, and how to behave. When matters are dire, a check-list of questions for self-awareness isn’t enough. Seek help. Go to a professional. Yes, take care of yourself, but please – move outside the circle and wave a red flag.]

In our house, the marriage comes before the kids, barring emergencies and individual circumstances. We are careful about this too, rotating between family trips together and vacations where we leave the kids with family members to run off by ourselves. We balance date nights and family outings. We consult each other on big decisions because even if we know what the other parent will say we want the boys to see that Mom and Dad are a team. Over and over again we’ve put this hierarchy to the test and it has never failed us. Not once have we regretted it.

So what about the kids, these little people who require so much of our time, energy, and emotional strength? They have needs, big and small, and for me to be the best mother I can be, both my marriage and I need to be in their best possible shape.

Raising kids is hard, y’all. HARD, HARD, HARD. What makes it manageable, however, is being intentional, present, and willing to work through whatever is thrown our way. If I want to care for my sons in the way I feel called to, then I must pay attention to their whole being. I need to make clear our household priorities are and then draft a workable plan. I need to be flexible (because plot twists happen) and I must be willing to back up, re-evaluate, and try again.

Have I mentioned that parenting is hard? Wasn’t sure if I made that clear. (Now you see why self-care is crucial.)

If my home is at some level of peace (we aren’t talking high scores here, folks. We’re talking manageable), then I’m best equipped to care for my dearest friends and family. My tribe of girlfriends is precious to me, and they have carried me through low times. When I am healthy, I am able to help carry them. Like a marriage, these relationships work in tandem.

To have a tribe of people outside of your spouse and children means you have a touchstone for celebrating good times and a reliable place to land when everything crumbles. These relationships do not exist without their own need for nourishment. When I invest in my friendships, the returns are incalculable. 

All of these thoughts and questions were born from a couple of hours with a notepad. They may not be grand revelations for some of you, and I realize certain situations call for different questions.

However, the importance of self-care can’t be overstated. No one can take care of you like you can. Before you run on empty caring for everyone else, fill up your own tank. Invest in the short, sweet life you’ve been given and stop wasting time on what’s not meant for you.

Part Three: Don’t Waste Time.

Part One: On the Importance of Self-Care

I’ve been sitting on this post for a while. Sometimes it’s hard for me to know when to share something or if I should keep it to myself altogether.

Today is both Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday, a perfect combination if you think about it, so it seemed like the best possible day to speak on vulnerable things. 

Last summer, sometime around my birthday, I started doodling on a notepad. I was deep in thought about how to take better care of myself – a mundane topic for some, but monumentally important to me. As someone who’s always struggled with a depressive side, it can take an extra effort to move through the day intentionally, to resist the urge to crawl into bed and introvert so hard that a sturdy wall builds between the rest of the world and me.

Years ago I talked about this depressive streak with my grandmother. She, too, lives with the same little curse. She said, “I guess I’m just turned this way,” and it was then that I realized depression isn’t a cold. You don’t catch it a couple of times a year. It’s always stirring under the surface. Sometimes you feel it coming on slow and steady like a hurricane, and sometimes it pops up like a tornado, fast and furious, and you aren’t prepared at all.

There I sat doodling, drawing circles and lines and names, trying to discern how best to care for my mind, my body, my home, my relationships. Without medication (I’ve been there) and counseling (I’ve done that) and draining the energy out of my husband and closest friends (thanks y’all), I tried to figure out what is absolutely necessary to give myself the best possible chance of success in most circumstances.

While there are times when medication, professional counseling, and reaching out for external help are crucial, I have learned that how I care for myself has the greatest impact on how I move through the world. It is the core from which all the other stuff flows. 

Therefore, it starts with me, and since I’m married and view marriage as a fortress that must be rooted and built up, my husband comes next. Then come the boys, and after that, my closest friendships and family members.

This flow of care is controversial, no doubt. I know many moms whose flow of care is arranged differently, and I don’t intend to tackle or speak to their reasons why. Each woman (and man, for that matter) is capable of arranging her own hierarchies as she sees fit. Also, some of you are single with kids, or married without kids, or in various other ages and stages of life. The hierarchy shifts as life does. Of course!

WHICH IS TO SAY the hierarchy of care is fluid. There are times when care shifts depending on need, but when relationships are in good health, those shifts don’t shatter the system. Simply having a newborn shifts the hierarchy of the house temporarily. Basically, if I need to put more energy into myself, my husband, a friend, etc., I do.

So what does it look like inside each of the circles? I doodled those too.

Me First

While this goes against what we teach our children (“Others First”), I’m curious to know if we’ve made a wrong turn somewhere, like we’ve given no room for caveats. How can we care for others when we are not well ourselves? I keep coming back to this question: If I am struggling to stay above water, how can I be a reliable life jacket for any one else?

So, if my goal is to be the best possible person, the healthiest and most helpful to those I love, I need to address all aspects of my well-being (spiritual, emotional, physical, relational, and personal) with a list of specific questions.

First, the spiritual self.

This is the core of the core, the deepest heart space that needs the most attention. For me, it’s my relationship with God. It’s not a perfect relationship, but it’s an intentional one. When I feel the most disconnected from actual life, I can usually point back to a disconnection in my spiritual life.

Second, the emotional self.

If I let them, the burdens of the world will put me prostrate. Burdens I create for myself keep me comatose. Holding grudges, repeating mistakes, hanging on to shame – these emotional bags wear us down, so we must learn to recognize what’s poisoning the well and deal with them accordingly.

Next, the physical self.

Almost as important as my spiritual and emotional life is the attention I place on physical health. Yes, we live in a constant state of dying, but I’m not talking about physical fitness here. Body dysmorphia is my cross to carry in this world, so daily exercise isn’t about fitting into jeans or losing those last ten pounds. For me, tending to the body is the same as tending to the mind. Exercise is my best medicine, and there has been plenty of research to prove it can mentally benefit everyone. Additionally, physical care is about how we nourish our body and how we rest it. 

Then, the personal self.

We’re all given talents and gifts, passions and interests, and it can take a lifetime of sorting through those things to make the most of them. Whether they transpire as full-on careers, lifelong hobbies, or bouts of effort over periods of time, our personal work is important. I was lucky to discern my love and talent for writing early on, but it’s not always been clear what I’m supposed to do with it. When it comes to my whole health, though, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge how necessary personal work is.

Finally, the relational self.

We aren’t meant to move through life alone, which can be a challenging truth for hardcore introverts. Connecting with people isn’t what’s key; it’s how we connect with them that matters. Am I doing my part? Am I being used? Who or what am I neglecting? Living in conflict crowds the mind, and frankly, life is too short to let contention grow.

When one or more of these areas is out of balance, I’m not my best self and that leaves the door open for other areas of my life to suffer. It seems like common sense now, but it’s taken me years to recognize my poor attitude or season of depression was related to one or more of these areas being ignored. Never has my life been unmanageable, but many difficult seasons could’ve been better handled had I tended to my own well-being with intention. This may be old news to you, but for me, it’s been a two-by-four to the head.

I don’t think there’s ever a time when all of these questions are answered affirmatively. We are never 100 percent, are we? Yet, if working heartily on these areas of self-care with diligence, then we’re setting ourselves up to be better partners, parents, and friends.

Next up: caring for my spouse, my children, and those I love most.