Managing health when you're overwhelmed
Today's blog comes right from my personal life as of late.
Being busy is my bread and butter. I really enjoy working and accomplishing tasks, crossing things off lists, finishing projects. I also don't mind (and actually enjoy) working a lot, namely because I am more apt to give up normal "fun" things to get my work done.
Everyone is different in how they balance work and life, I have had jobs where I punch in and out and it is fantastic to be able to disconnect the moment you walk out of your work. No phone calls, emails, clients bugging you or worrying about what happens when you leave. Jobs like that make having an active lifestlye much easier. If you want to exercise 5-6 days a week, hike all weekend and spend a few nights a week out at bars, you can do it. Having the psychological and physical capacity from not "taking your work home with you" allows for more stress and adaptation outside of work.
When managing stress, you have to modify your behaviors and habits. If you are stressed to the gills and don't sleep enough, then sleep should be your top priority. Manage how you spend the last couple hours of each day, get to bed earlier, work on sleep hygiene, get a consistent sleep/wake time; the usual.
But what if you are managing things well in terms of lifestyle? You've checked many of the boxes that are top priorities like sleep, good nutrition and hydration and you have well-structured training. What if you simply have too much, even if they are well-planned and structured events? Maybe you just joined a book club you don't have the actual time to committ to, simply train (even with a solid program) too much or are working on the side but it's taking up all your relaxation time?
Here's how things usually go when you have too much on your plate.
-You start by doing everything
-You begin doing some of those things half-assed
-You stop doing those things alltogether
-You feel guilty and frustrated for failing
Luke Leaman made a great point on a recent podcast I listened to. He said if you give people a lot, they will step their game up. But when you give them too much, they do nothing. Most of the time it starts by slacking on a few key things because you feel like you don't have the actual time, energy or interest to finish them. Because the task is not being done well, it's eventually not done at all.
From this, it's easy to feel like a failure and beat yourself up. I've seen and experienced it many times and it almost always comes from trying to do too much, even if it's all "good" stuff.
My personal reason for posting this is because I had been trying to work 60+ hours a week while training 5 days a week and I'd end up missing a session each week, which I had pretty much never done my entire training life. I knew deep down 5 days per week was too much but I didn't want to feel like a slacker for scaling back, so instead I shot higher than what I knew I could do and ended up not doing it at all. It started, as I wrote above, with missing the 5th session here and there, then I simply never did it.
This can be anything: committing to a social event you know is just cuttting into your recovery time, taking on a project around the house or deciding to become vegan overnight. Sometimes these positive things still become negative experiences simply because the energy they take to accomplish pushes past your ability to recover.
In Precision Nutrition's habit-forming section, they discuss how to get client's to adhere from the get-go. Many times it begins by asking them to simply take fish oil or a multivitamin every day for 2 weeks. It's so easy that failing is pretty much impossible. And that's the point. Starting with something that is pretty much guaranteed to be successful allows you to build on that and pretty soon you are also training 4 days per week, sleeping better, drinking more water and meditating on top of the daily fish oil. Adding habits or goals in manageable layers allows you to scale back if it becomes too much without dropping everything.
Towards the tail end of the summer, I just stopped going to the gym for about 6 weeks. I had been feeling extremely stressed working, we were also building a new kitchen and it meant long days, hoofing equipment and building materials back and forth for weeks on end and of course, spending money like it was going out of style on all of this. Growth is great but it can also be stressful. I was training a lot, working a lot and not really taking care of myself in terms of sleep duration, hydration and relaxation time.
One late summer day I started to warm up and I felt this overwhelming desire to never exercise again. It was so strange, I have been lifting weights for over a decade and never once felt like that. But in the moment I realized I simply didn't care about it anymore, in terms of the stress I could manage it seemed like the easiest thing to dump. I had driven to the gym with my wife so I told her I would meet her at home and I simple walked home.
I didn't exercise at ALL for a couple weeks. Then I began by doing pushups and pullups at home, usually at night after work. I had no set time I planned on returning to the gym or intention to make myself go. I just thought if and when I felt ready, I would return. It took longer than expected and around week 6 I felt a nagging to go back and start lifting weights again. However, coming back was like starting all over; even though I had been doing about a hundred pullups and pushups every day I essentially felt like a newbie again, which was frustrating.
One great thing about this experience though was how important it was to remove added stress from my life. Not only did not going to the gym feel really good, not having a time when I felt like I HAD to go felt even better. I realized the scheduling and obligation of so many thingd actually made me feel like my life was on autopilot and I wasn't choosing to do anything because I wanted to, rather because I had to. Not a great feeling when you are doing the self-obligatory things for your health and wellness.
The onus was and still is on me, though. It was my own mismanagement of stress and time that pushed me to a place where I simply stopped going to the gym altogether. This set me back quite a bit in my progress as well. I'm grateful though because I needed to get to that breaking point to realize that everyone has a finite capacity and if you are miserable doing something that should be enriching, you are doing it for the wrong reasons.
Perhaps for you, there is something else you feel is eating up time and energy but you keep telling yourself it's a good thing. Or it's fun. Or you want to do it. But it's not really any of those things. So many of us sign up for activities and tasks that only steal energy but we give in to peer pressure or our own internal monologue that tells us we should be doing it and have no room to question it. If you've ever had a wedding, it's the feeling of inviting people you don't want to come but someone in your family expects you to invite them. Really, it's about you and your experience but you're willing to give up joy, money, time whatever to meet someone else's expectation. What's worse is it's often an expectation or approval you simply don't need. Not inviting your long-lost cousing from Romania to your wedding might make your Uncle Vlad angry but it's not about him (sorry Uncle Vlad). And if you signed up for a book club or a weekend 5K and you dread the thought of doing them, just resign from them in an adult way. Or better yet don't agree to things you don't really want to do or feel you have to do.
This parallels with nutrition as well. I've had clients who were leaning out quite well but heard one of their friends claim how quickly they lost weight by not eating dairy. So the question comes back to me of "should I cut out dairy too?". Where they had no previous issue with dairy and simple never even thought that dairy would interfere with weight loss, now they feel compelled to adhere to this new rule too. Suddenly adding restrictions that are unnecessary and possibly asinine simple add stress that wasn't there before. Your diet becomes harder, you over restrict and when you have some low-fat greek yogurt you suddenly feel like it's making you fat.
So much of our obligation is self-imposed. Managing health when you're overwhelmed is hard because most people will take care of themselves last.
Instead, commit to the minimum first and maximize the results you can get from that. If things are working, don't mess with them. Don't compare yourself to Instagram models or Facebook ads that show you all these people "grinding" 24/7 365, never give up, beast mode, boss mode. I call B.S. If you have a big goal, you are going to have to work hard, really hard. But you can't have and accomplish 10 big goals at once and see them all 100% to fruition, especially if some are just out of obligation.
I've been talking my wife OUT of training more for months. She's gotten insanely strong, lean and healthy by training three days per week, sleeping really well and adhering to her nutrition. Three days per week seems so little in the grand scheme of things but it's probably the ideal stress:adaptation ratio for her with how much she works. It doesn't mean she isn't susceptible to wanting to do more when she hears someone else who has goals like her is doing more. But dig deeper and that person is usually working less, way younger, has more training years, maybe uses drugs or simple knows how to work Instagram filters to make themselves look better. Once that little bug gets in your head, it's hard to get out.
Realize that optimal is best. Not more.
Manage your health by tackling the essentials first and maximizing the minimum. Excel in a few key areas like sleep, nutrition and a few good training days then see how far you get. You might not need to do more. In fact you might need to do things you feel guilty for doing, like sleeping more, meditating, taking up a FUN hobby and saying no to obligations.
Overwhelmed? Scale back, absolutely crush a few simple goals and know that doing 100% of a few is better than doing 60% of a lot.