On over-commitment, re-commitment, and self-care

sunshine-300When I’m over-committed and writing it all down on a to-do list is more scary than not putting it on paper, things can go from bad to worse as fast as you can say, “where did January, February, March, and April go?”

One of the things that made this latest spate of “I can’t do this anymore” worse was that as I went to bed later and later each night, trying to squeeze extra work hours out of each day, it became impossible for me to make it to my triathlon swim group on Tuesdays and Fridays at 6 a.m.

Swimming started to slide shortly into the winter session. At first, I would set my alarm for 5:15 a.m. and then play it by ear when the alarm went off in the morning. I did everything else right — packed my post-swim clothes the night before, set out my swimsuit so I wouldn’t have to think in the morning, put a banana and a handful of almonds on the kitchen counter so I could get a pre-swim nutritional blast before heading out to the Y.

Week after week, I found myself unpacking the clothing at home later that morning, hanging the unused suit back up on its hook, and eating the banana and maybe the almonds too as part of a fuller breakfast before heading out to work.

Soon, I got more realistic the night before. If it was after 10:30 when the lights went out (and it always seemed to be after 10:30 or even 11:00 when my head finally hit the pillow), then I didn’t even bother setting the alarm for 5:15 because, truth be told, adequate sleep started to feel like commodity more precious than even my swim.

Finally, I just took the swimming out of my calendar altogether. Better not to have it there than to have there and keep skipping it.

But the thing is this: sleep and swimming are both part of my self-care. According to the Fort Wayne Resource Center for Women’s fact sheet on the topic:

Self care is care provided “for you, by you.” It’s about identifying your own needs and taking steps to meet them. It is taking the time to do some of the activities that nurture you. Self care is about taking proper care of yourself and treating yourself as kindly as you treat others.

In “My lifelong love affair with swimming,” I talked about how much swimming calms me:

Swimming laps calms me like no other activity I do. In 1988, when started as a PhD student at MIT, the first thing I did was look up the pool hours. I used to go swimming every morning at 8 a.m. I did 40 lengths of the 25 metre pool. Just enough to keep me in the water, suspended in a thought-free state, listening only to the rhythm of my breath and the splash of my arms for about 20 minutes.  It kept me grounded in the early months of  what was for me an extraordinarily stressful PhD program. It has a meditative quality that I have spoken of before.

I also declared: “Swimming I love you and will never leave you again!” And yet here I’ve been, flailing around and feeling stressed out and ready to snap, and what did I drop? Swimming (also meditation).

Granted, I dropped it for sleep, which is my second great love. And every time I did, it made sense that I did. That in itself was an act of self care–choosing to prioritize sleep. But both sleep and swimming fell by the wayside because of a more insidious and complicated relationship–my relationship with my work.

I’m a person who strives for balance but finds it elusive.  When I am so over-committed with projects and tasks, things that will fade from memory as they get completed and then replaced by the next set of projects and tasks that will also one day get completed and fade from memory nudge out self care.  Like, besides not sleeping, not swimming, and working too much, I’ve also had cereal for dinner more times in the past four months than I have since…ever.

The idea that self care is treating yourself as kindly as you would treat others has resonance for me. I would never tell a friend: You cannot go swimming! You must work more! And here, have a bowl of cereal for dinner while you’re at it. And by the way, you’re not allowed to go to bed until you can’t keep your eyes open any longer.

Okay, so you get a sense of how over-commitment in one area of my life translates into poor overall self care.  Where does re-commitment come into the picture. I agree with what most of Susan said in “Forget commitment, just go!”, especially the part about “It isn’t a failure or a breach or a great reveal of your inner slovenliness. You just didn’t go and here’s the super cool thing, you can always go again.” I’m all for that — you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone more convinced that doing less is a great solution to all sorts of real or perceived problems.

And yet for me there is a role for commitment, especially when that commitment is a commitment to myself to do something that makes me feel good. It’s a way of being kinder to myself.

I signed up for the Tuesday and Friday triathlon swim session that starts today. And I’ve made a commitment to it because I’ve tried the fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants approach lately and it’s working against me, not for me. Instead of feeling down on myself for what’s past, though I’m a little bit sad about dropping what I love in favor of an obsessive relationship with my work (which also has aspects that I love, but you know what they say about too much of a good thing, right?), I’m feeling quite energized about a renewed commitment to swimming.

As I write this the night before the first session, I am already strategizing bedtime: prep starts at 9:00, lights out at 9:30. And things are in place for tomorrow morning: I’ve set my alarm for 5:15 a.m. The clothes are packed. The suit is out. The banana and almonds are on the kitchen counter. And we’ll be about to start our warm-up laps at exactly the same time as this post posts: 6 a.m.

Good morning!


7 thoughts on “On over-commitment, re-commitment, and self-care

  1. Love this. Glad you decided to recommit. You love swimming! Hope your first day back was wonderful.

    1. It was wonderful! Thank you. I feel 100% better than I did yesterday and the only difference is enough sleep and a swim!

  2. I see recommitment, but I don’t see what you are dropping.
    It sounds like you are just making one more non negotiable and energy needing activity.
    So, what are you taking off your plate?

    1. Working late into the night is coming off the plate so I can get more sleep. I need to contain the work hours even if it means things will take a bit longer to get done.

  3. It’s so great to read about the processes you’re going through with trying to balance work, sleep, and physical activity, knowing that all three are of basic importance in your life. Committing to a plan rather than playing it seat-of-the-pants makes a lot of sense. The latter doesn’t tend to work for me, either. Thanks as always for a great post!

  4. I love reading this. I have a term for this that I pinched from the Navy vernacular – “load shedding”. On a warship when the generators are under too much load (demand for power by systems that are on line) they automatically drop power to non critical items – aka ‘load shedding’. Hotel services (aircon) and the like are the first to go so that radars and combat systems keep their power (while the engineers frantically bring another genny on line).
    In life sometimes we need to load shed (where and when we can, i realise sometimes its just not an option and we have to make do until we can see clear to drop things – or ask for help) to protect our critical items (sanity, health). Looks like swimming and sleep are essentials for you – I hope you can find the efficiencies in other areas that mean you can swim, sleep and maintain the output in other areas of your life that are important too in the long term.

  5. It sounds like you and I could relate–if we could find the time, of course! I think it was a smart move to take it out of your calendar, rather than set yourself up for disappointment. I know, too, that the quality of my sleep is worse when I am anxious about getting up or not getting up or maybe getting up the next morning. I hope that the warmer weather and longer days help you get that extra energy to tackle it all, Tracy!

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