This week I thought I’d try something a little different. This post doesn’t really have a point – it’s basically about my life and what I’ve learnt over the past year and a half or so. I suppose the conclusion is “self-care is important and isn’t bullshit”, but you can make of that what you will.
Last academic year (2017/18) was hands-down the most stressful year of my life. Just to give a bit of context, I’ve always hated being bored (in fact it was always one of my top fears), and so the concept of “doing too much” wasn’t really something I was familiar with. I’d over-subscribed before, but I had always enjoyed it, or at least quit whatever thing it was that tipped me over the edge.
Last year was different. Just to give an idea, I was on the third year of my Ph.D at the University of Leeds. My husband was working in London, around 2h15 away on the train (to be fair quite a comfortable journey), and so I’d spend half my week in each city. A typical week would look something like this:
Monday: Work on Ph.D (usually in a London Starbucks)
Tuesday: Take a morning train up to Leeds, teach a class, take a meeting with my boss in Berlin, pick up marking, go to choir, post-choir socialising
Wednesday: Supervisor meeting, singing lesson
Thursday: Conducting lesson, conduct a choir, quick trip to pub to socialise with the team, catch the last train back to London
Friday: Work on VC deals
Saturday: Social engagement / evensong / concert
Sunday: Sing morning service in London
On top of this I sang with an additional 4 project-based choirs (I know, what was I thinking), planned a wedding in 8 months, and moved from 2 flats into our current house (2 weeks before the wedding. Great idea.)
The main stress of last year wasn’t actually the amount of work I was doing. In fact, all in all I reckon the hours added up to a regular working week. The stress came from two things: First the travel. Going back and forth between two cities every. single. week. is super logistically difficult. I had a toothbrush and toothpaste in each location, multiple sets of contact lenses, multiple deodorants, hairbrushes, and other toiletries, device chargers plus a travel charger, and a dedicated “travel bag” with things like makeup, the pill, etc. Every trip I’d stress about forgetting something important. You know that feeling when you go on holiday and you pack everything the day before and you worry you’ve forgotten something but you have to keep telling yourself that it’s ok and that it’s replaceable? I had that every single week. Twice.
And it sucked.
Second was the planning. Fitting so many “side-hustles” into every week, particularly when you’re completely in charge of your own time, can be a mammoth task. This was the year when I got really into bullet journalling – it was immensely helpful in making sure I was cramming as many things into as little time as possible. I also learnt that planning your time effectively can sometimes take as much time as actually using your time (mind = blown. So this is why jobs always go on about “time management skills”). As the old saying goes, it takes time to make time (wait, is that right?)
That was the year I learnt that you can, in fact, do too much. And so I embarked on the journey to self-care, as it were. I decided to stop saying “yes” to things. It’s difficult, particularly if you feel like you’re letting someone down by not doing as much as you can – but I’d say the best way of looking at it is to assume you’re not going to be doing something by default, and then only do it if you particularly want to (as opposed to the other way around, which was often how I’d look at things: I enjoyed doing X last year, I’m not hating it enough to quit right now, so I suppose I should keep doing it another year).
When it came to the 2018/19 academic year, I was all set to do nothing, and it was glorious. I spent days in a row just cleaning the house and watching Netflix. I tried as much as possible to keep every weekend free (actually impossible when you live in London but at least I tried). I started a blog (hey ho).
I even enjoy being bored sometimes now. I try to relish those moments, when I feel really restless because there are no messages to respond to or emails to answer. It makes it so much easier to avoid productively procrastinating and actually focusing on the task at hand, be that writing a thesis or tidying the living room or writing a new blog post.
Self-care is one of those tricky concepts, as it means so many different things to different people. I feel like it’s often marketed as “Buy those bath salts! Go get that manicure! Pay for that lavish holiday you can’t afford! Take a day off work! You deserve self-care.” I’ve always thought it was bullshit, if I’m honest. And let’s be real for a second: that type of self-care is bullshit. It’s become so fashionable that many people will market self-care as something you effectively buy (quite often in blog posts brimming with affiliated links), or worse, conflate this concept with the pureness of hygge.
But the self-care where you think of yourself first; where you don’t take on responsibilities you don’t have time to do; where you don’t do people favours on weekends unless you have the energy; that’s something worth holding on to. To me, self-care is essentially selfishness – it’s just selfishness that falls on the good side of “being a dick”. Selfishness doesn’t need to involve buying anything fancy, or putting on a face mask, or reading a book. (In fact, don’t “curl up with a good book” at all unless you actually enjoy reading!)
I think the biggest issue here is the guilt when you feel like you ought to agree to do something because you technically have time in your schedule – after all, if you can manage to fit it in, how can you justify saying no? It’s all about finding a balance, I think. Don’t be that guy who regularly pulls out of things last-minute, doesn’t reply to messages, and is basically an unreliable little shit. But know that just because you can take something on, doesn’t mean you should. A massive part of adulting is figuring out what your maximum comfortable workload is (Note: comfortable workload. The workload I did last year was below my maximum, but still waaaayyy higher than comfort. Draw a graph if you still need clarification.)
Essentially, it all boils down to this: you don’t owe anyone your time. (Unless you’re in a job contract, in which case, you probably owe some of your time to your job. But no more than that! And you probably shouldn’t flake on your friends either. Damn this balance thing is hard.)