Whether you work full time or part-time, or work from home, the energy demands of work and family life, combined with the fog of sleep-deprivation, make for a potent combination. But feeling like we are the victims of unmanageable workloads or of sleep-deprivation is as bad as the thing itself. Neuropsychology tells us that we need to believe that we have agency and autonomy, otherwise the costs to what physical and emotional energy we do have are significant. So, even a small amount of time and space to strategise can make all the difference. Inspired by the incredible parents I know and speak to, here are some of the ways of doing it:
- Focus on the bigger picture.
Knowing and working with our values and the ‘big picture’ of what’s important to us in our home and family lives, gives purpose and meaning to what we do, which also increases our energy and motivation to do those things. It also means that we can prioritise – in fact, one colleague said that she channels the grumpiness of fatigue to help her to cut to the chase and get things done. Another colleague explained that she has an ‘urgent-important’ list and an ‘non-urgent important’ list: things that aren’t important don’t make the list. And what about tasks that are important but not necessarily interesting? Having systems for (or even outsourcing) the less glamorous, every-day tasks where you can (meal planning, cleaning, packing bags, picking out clothes…) means they take less energy and leave more time to focus on more motivating things.
Perspective is a way through the fog, whether it be through coaching, journaling, meditation, yoga, walking, having a ‘real’ conversation with a trusted friend or sitting down with a cup of coffee, even for a few minutes. And perspective also helps when teething and tummy bugs and coughs seem endless and the nights are at their worst. A phrase from a poem written by Ginger Hughes (@nomamasperfect) has become my mantra: the nights are long; but the years are short. (I wish it was the other way around.)
What are you most proud of being, doing or having, despite lack of sleep and energy? A year from now, what would be your ideal answer to this question? What are the important things for you to spend your time and energy on at work and at home? Which one of these things would it benefit you most now to prioritise?
- Work out what you can let go of.
Things that invade our space drain our energy. These things might look like: physical mess, too many emails, too much time on phones or social media, negative relationships, too much alcohol or caffeine, being too busy and not having clear boundaries around what we are doing. So physically and mentally clearing away the clutter is a way of boosting our energy.
Boundaries mean we can be authentic, because we are drawing a line between what’s our concern and what isn’t. They are a way of saying, ‘I’ve done enough’, whether it be by leaving work at work, taking emails off your phone, finishing at a set time or by learning to say ‘no’.
Being able to say ‘no’ is a topic people commonly bring to me in coaching sessions, and too often, I also recognise myself in my 18-month old son who gets upset when he can’t climb the slide because he won’t let go of the sticks he’s picked up on the way. But it’s no wonder we struggle to say ‘no’, as our brains don’t understand negative commands. So, what can we do about it? Focus on what we want instead and know what we are saying ‘yes’ to. That way, it’s easy to recognise the things that don’t fit and let them go: ‘thanks for asking me to pick up these sticks but I’m going on the slide.’
What drains your energy at work and at home? How could you improve or remove these things to minimise their impact? What else can you let go of? Where can you put boundaries in place to protect your time and energy for the things that are important?
- Maximise self-care.
Self-care is much easier to say than to do. But maybe that’s the point. Like wellbeing, it’s the being bit that’s important; if it becomes one more thing that we have to do, it is self defeating.
Some aspects of self-care are about the physiological things that promote wellbeing, like daylight, fresh air, exercise, healthy food and being around nature. But it’s also about planning things to look forward to and time for the specific things that we personally enjoy, whatever those things are: playing music, having dinner with friends, craft activities, massages, movie nights, lie ins, reading books. The same logic applies for work: our days and weeks need a balance of things that are enjoyable, motivating and give us energy, as well as the admin and things that need to be done. And being creative about restricting aspects of our work we struggle with to a small and particular window of the day can lessen their impact.
Sleep should be on the self-care list, too, but doesn’t feel great to be reminded of how important sleep is when it is in short supply, does it? Instead, I tend to focus on how I can make the most of the sleep that’s available. One thing that strikes me is how clear we tend to be about the importance of our children’s bedtime routines to help them to relax, without necessarily applying the same principles to ourselves and wanting to get to bed at a certain time isn’t the same as actually doing it. One reason for this may be that the carrot is mightier than the stick. Telling ourselves we should go to bed at 10pm feels like a deadline or curfew, so it’s worth thinking about what would make bedtime more motivating. The quest for more sleep has led to many short-term experiments and longer-term strategies in our house, including using candles, red light bulbs and lavender oil, keeping screens out of the bedroom and co-sleeping, as well as breathing techniques and strategies to get back to sleep again quicker (apparently there are even Apps for this, if that’s your thing: Pzizz aims to help you sleep, nap or focus and Sleep Cycle alarm clock aims to help you to wake up feeling more rested).
Changing our physiology also changes our state, so even small things like a different posture can put us in a more resourceful state. One colleague told me that when she’s at a particularly low ebb, energy-wise, she will dress very smartly and makes an extra effort to smile.
But maybe the most important aspect of self-care, is being kind to ourselves. This starts with becoming aware of our self talk, so that we can interrupt the negative voice (which tends to shout loudest when it’s sleep-deprived) and make a conscious effort to counteract it with positive things, such as listing our successes or recalling something lovely someone else has said about us.
What one thing, however small, could you do to take care of yourself over the coming week? What would really motivate you to commit to doing this? What one thing would make you feel more rested over the coming week?
- Get help.
A culture of silence at work around the issues of managing work and family life on very broken sleep isn’t helpful to anyone. As one colleague put it, saying, ‘I’m exhausted’ is not the same as saying, ‘I’m incapable of doing my job’ – and during those times, we need to be able to be honest with those around us, and to be able to ask for help. The more specific we can be about what we need, the better. At work, this might be a flexible working request, or even just a cup of tea. At home, it might be a lie in or a meal cooked for us. I’ve even gone as far as giving my husband a script to say when things are at their worst and I can’t even tell him what I need.
At these times, being surrounded with people I trust, who know and understand me, who will stroke my hair, bring me cake and not ask me to make any decisions, rather than people who question my decisions about parenting or work, diagnose my problems for me and tell me what to do, is what I need.
And if family, friends or supportive colleagues are lacking when you need them, reach out to other support networks. To name just a few, in Cambridgeshire, for example, we are fortunate to have an incredible network of Doulas who offer loving, practical and emotional support and information. There are also many supportive groups through social media – one particular source of parenting inspiration for me is the A Beautiful Childhood Facebook page and its founder’s blog, Frida Be Mighty, and if you are a teacher with a family, The MTPT Project – connect! Facebook group is full of supportive teachers. Finally, if the questions I’ve posed have got you thinking about the right path for you right now, coaching could support your journey.
What sources of help and support do you already have? What other sources of help could you tap into?
May this Christmas season bring you opportunity for rest and renewal: physical, mental and emotional, amongst the festivities.
A shorter version of this blog was published for the TES online, which you can read here.