I apologize if you have sent me an email and I have not responded yet. Same for voicemail. You see, I am very busy. I am very important and in demand, and I have so much work to do that I am just swamped. But of course I want to help you; let’s get together soon and talk about it!
This is how I used to live my life, back when I thought being busy meant I was valuable. A long, long time ago in a cubicle far, far away, I learned the snarky way that replying to emails too quickly gave the impression that I must not have very much work to do. And, that my job must not be very important if it didn’t generate enough work to keep me busy all day. “Must be nice,” a co-worker would comment when hearing chatter in the break room. Being busy, and therefore inaccessible, became a badge of worth. So I stayed busy. You better believe I never let on when my work load became more manageable. Oh no, I was very busy. And I never replied to an email too quickly, lest I be perceived as dispensable.
I quit that job. But not until after I had been hospitalized twice for exhaustion and so stressed out that I became sick. You see, that toxic work culture had seeped into my personal life, too, and I began to be uncomfortable with the feeling of not being busy. Free time felt lazy, and I felt guilty if I wasn’t making myself useful. Some of my drive for achievement was my DNA, but I had lost the zest I had for it. The need to be busy, and therefore valued, had replaced the sense of satisfaction I felt when worked hard to achieve a personal goal. So I scurried.
But I wanted off of that crazy train. Being chronically busy isn’t just exhausting, it’s unhealthy. Studies show that those of us in the fast lane eat more unhealthy food, smoke more cigarettes, experience more feelings of depression, have less quality sleep, and our bodies respond with obesity, hypertension, muscle spasms, ulcers, and sometimes the development of cancers.
Signs that you are too busy include feeling overwhelmed, overreacting to small disruptions in expectations, waking up feeling tired, chronic headaches, vague feelings of hopelessness that you will ever be able to catch a break, and resentment about it all. I had some of that writing on my wall, and I didn’t like what it said.
So I started doing something that felt very scary: admitting that I had free time. Well, that’s not completely true. First I created free time, by deciding to stop doing so much. It wasn’t easy, but the words of that emergency room doctor were still ringing in my ears, and I didn’t want to be a hypocrite of a wellness coach teaching others how to live in balance while I was so obviously off the rails. So I said a little prayer and did triage on my to-do list. What really needed to be done? What was a choice?
Then I had to face the real fear: being okay with not being busy, not being as busy as other people, and remembering that I was pulling my weight in life even if I wasn’t scurrying around, too busy to return a phone call. As a business owner, having free time was unnerving. Shouldn’t I be working? Shouldn’t I be capitalizing on an opportunity? There was guilt, especially when my mom friends vented at soccer practice about how busy they were. Between working full-time, managing the kids’ activities and school work, volunteering, trying to maintain a marriage and social life, and of course keeping up the image that they were handling it all just fine and raising a beautiful and adorably monogrammed family, they felt like their lives were a speeding train and they were just trying to hang on.
That’s when I started to feel sheepish, because I must be a bad mom to be so selfish with our time. Then I started to feel scandalous, because it felt good to go home and sit on the porch with my family and play Jenga. Then I started to feel rebellious, because I knew I was breaking the rules. And finally, I felt liberated, because nothing feels more natural to me than breaking the rules. This was something I could do well.
You can break out, too. My life is less busy, but more full. And I don’t feel guilty about it anymore. This week, say a prayer and let something go. Resist the urge to tell someone how busy you are. Recognize when you are truly being a responsible person or just choosing to take on too much. Be the rebel that is brave enough to admit that there’s not much going on today. “Must be nice,” they say? Yes, actually. Yes, it is.
Being called a control freak isn’t usually considered to be a compliment, but these days I am proud to be one. Don’t worry, I’m not going to start bossing everyone around, at least not any more than usual, and try to micromanage the decisions of the people around me. No, I’m focused on what I can control in my own life, because that’s where I can make the most progress on my health goals.
As a wellness coach, I hear a lot of “if/then” statements. If it’s not raining, then I can go for my jog. If the kids are in bed on time, then I can go to the gym. If I bring something healthy to the cookout, then I won’t overeat. These statements are somewhat productive and important, because they show a way of thinking that is focused on positive outcomes. I like that they demonstrate the way that that things could go well, rather than on the obstacles.
But, these statements are a deceptive, too. What if it is raining? What if the kids are up past bedtime? What if you don’t have time to pick up healthy food? What then? The flaw in this way of planning is when we rely on circumstances beyond our control, and fail to have a plan that can be executed regardless of what else happens.
I’m on the lookout for these if/then goals when I am working with my clients, and challenge them to take things one step further and fool-proof the goal. How can that workout happen even if the weather is bad? Is there a time you could go to the gym that doesn’t depend on the kids being in bed or your spouse being home from work on time or anything else out of your control? That’s when it is time to be a control freak.
From the time the alarm rings in the morning until we lay our heads on our pillows, it doesn’t often seem that much is in our direct control. We control more than we think, though. Not in the magic-wand-wielding your-wish-is-my-command kind of control that we think we want (be careful what you wish for), but rather, in the approach that we take towards the day, and whether it sets us up for positive outcomes.
There are two ways to apply this concept. Let’s start with the more pragmatic approach: switching from “if/then” to “even though”. Challenge yourself when making plans for healthy eating, food preparation, exercise, or other healthy habits to fool-proof (or reality-proof) your goals. Avoid making if/then goals, especially those with a heavy emphasis on the “if.” When you notice that you’re relying on something out of your control – the weather, your workload, other people, traffic – in order to take the next step in your goal, stop and find a way to make it an “even though,” goal. How can you make it so you have a success story even though a bunch of stuff happened? Sometimes the end result of this approach is a less impressive goal. That is okay! It’s better to have a smaller goal that is achieved on a consistent enough basis to generate change than a big impressive one that is never reached.
The second approach is in how we create our environment. We cannot control the person in the next cubicle but we can control how often we smile at them. Did you know your brain can’t tell the difference between a real smile and a fake one? Nope, it feels the rush of happy chemicals either way, and those happy chemicals make it easier for you to do good things for yourself later. We can’t control the weather, but we can control whether we have a backup plan for exercise. We can’t control the food someone else makes for a gathering, but we can control how much of it we eat. I know that one is hard, but yes, it is within your control. We can control whether we approach the day assuming good intent, looking for opportunities to succeed, or if we stomp around brooding about the ways things are unfair. Yes, these approaches to controlling our environment do just as much as the pen-to-paper work we do to achieve goals, because they put us in the best mindset for success to happen in the first place.
This week, be a control freak. Take control of how you set your goals: focus on the elements that you can actually influence, avoid falling into an if/then trap, and set your mind on creating an environment where success can happen by expecting the best. Step away from the rest. When you’re in control, none of that matters.
When I pick up my son from school, I walk by a car with a bumper sticker that says, “if it can go well, it will.” It’s a nice reminder to let go and let things happening, remembering that everything always works out okay. But sometimes I still fight it, especially when things don’t seem to go my way.
Like the other day. I was stuck on a project so I decided to make myself a snack. I toasted some bread, and spread some peanut butter on top. I reached for a banana to slice and make myself a nice pb&b, but knocked the jar over, landing it right in the peanut butter. I righted it and went back for my banana, but this time I managed to knock the bread right off the counter. I caught it right before it hit the floor, then it fell out of my hand and landed on the kitchen rug, peanut butter side down. “Hm,” I thought, looking down at my failed snack, “I think maybe I shouldn’t be making a snack when I am not hungry.”
Last week I was on the phone with a client who told me that he would have no problem with his goal of not eating any more ginger snaps because his dog had eaten all of them. He came home from work and all that was left was a few scraps of the box and a guilty dog. “Wow,” I said. “Sounds like the universe did you a favor.” He laughed and agreed.
It was then that a different idea occurred to me. Maybe the universe wasn’t working against us, after all. Maybe it was working for us, like a guardian angel protecting us from our stupid ideas.
My friend and his workout buddy headed to the gym one morning, only to find that every machine they usually use was being repaired, reupholstered, or being used by someone else. They had to change their plan and use different equipment. As a result, they found some new exercises they liked better and felt like they had a better workout than they expected. It seemed like their guardian angel was hard at work, too.
All of these blessings disguised as annoyances reminded me of one of my favorite songs, “You Got It,” by Roy Orbison. Whenever I hear it, I crank it up and sing along because it feels like a love song from the universe to us:
“I’m glad to give my love to you.
I’m glad you feel the way I do.
Anything you want, you got it.
Anything you need you got it.
Anything at all, you got it, baby.”
Call it what you want – the universe, a guardian angel, that inner voice, a higher power – but pay attention to those times when it gently turns you away from a choice that can sabotage your health and back to the straight and narrow. It may seem like an annoyance, an obstacle, or like things just not going your way, but sometimes the best course to a healthier path isn’t knocking down the obstacles, but honoring them. The trick is in knowing the difference.
Luckily, that’s pretty easy. That tricky little angel on your shoulder isn’t trying to thwart you, but pave the road for your success. Let it do its job! Knock down the obstacles that block you from progress, and obey the ones that keep you on the right path, even if a detour looks appealing.
If the Girl Scouts are out of your favorite cookies, don’t settle for less. Make a donation and consider it a gift. When your favorite television show didn’t get recorded by the DVR, don’t turn on Netflix. Head outside for a walk. When there’s a 45-minute wait to get into your favorite restaurant, don’t have a seat at the bar. Go somewhere that offers a healthier meal on your schedule. When we listen to these nudges the first time, oh, the rewards are so incredible.
Anything you want, you got it. Anything you need, you got it. Anything at all, you got it. If you’re letting it all work out.
About This Blog
Each week, I write the "Healthy Heather Blog" in the Tallahassee Democrat. It is republished here in case you are not a subscriber (what???). Sometimes it is really good and other times it is just okay. Thanks for reading it regardless of your opinion!