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!


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