Mental spring clean, step 1: Make space for good things
Written by Katariina Keinonen (2 Mar 2016)
It can be hard to detect when stress starts to feel like a real burden.
We often tend to notice that we're really tired only after the situation has gone from bad to worse. Luckily there are several steps we can take once we do realise that life has become dull and a change is in order. Here are a few that you can try both in your personal life and in your work life. We'll publish the steps in five posts, starting today. Spring cleaning can sometimes be achieved in one day, but it's worth taking a bit more time to do the mental spring clean!
Step 1: Make space for good things
One of the most easily spotted problematic mechanisms is clearing your schedule of everything "unimportant". It is very common to overcompensate: when we feel tired, the first things to go are the things that give us energy, improve our sleep and generally help us feel good. These may include exercising, preparing healthy food, social activities, personal projects and hobbies, you name it. Without us even noticing, we may suddenly notice that our life has become quite empty.
If you look at your calendar from the past few weeks, does it look like the calendar of someone who you would expect to have a nice, fun life? Or is it a recipe for a tiresome, unfulfilling life? What would like to include or exclude from your calendar?
Confessions of an overcompensator
Kirsikka got excited about spring cleaning and shares her experiences with this step.
Some years ago, reflecting on my calendar would have been an awful experience. I've had long periods when I drowned myself in work, always thinking "I'll relax and have a good time after this project". But there was always another project right away. All work and no play made Kirsikka a dull girl, and even though my work was most of the time interesting and satisfying with great colleagues, I was neglecting my personal life and relationships. So, I've actually done this calendar-checking a few times in the past and deliberately chosen to add things unrelated to work on my schedule.
Looking at my calendar in February this year was actually a nice surprise. Sure, workdays, meetings and deadlines filled up a lot of space, and some of the things were just necessities such as a dentist's appointment, but there were also plenty of markings about "unimportant" things: theatre rehearsals each Thursday, two role-playing game sessions, a movie evening with friends, finalizing a photography project, a friend's cat coming to stay with us for a week, two evenings with volunteer work...
I actually had so many activities filling up my evenings and weekends in February that I'm noting again the need to schedule time for "unscheduled time". Being with people and doing a lot of stuff is invigorating, but too much of a good thing can also wear one down. The "unscheduled time" allows me to, for instance, spend time with my partner just chatting and cuddling, immerse myself in books, dabble in handicrafts, cook and bake and, very importantly, go outdoors and exercise in the way that feels enjoyable. All these things take care of my recovery and make sure I have enough energy to also focus on work. (And of course laundry, cleaning and other household chores take time that is usually not marked on the calendar.) So, there's a balance to find to prevent overcompensating in the other direction. I'm getting there through trial and error.
Oh, and we have a wall calendar at home, in which we pen down the nice spontaneous stuff we do or experience, such as spotting five little squirrels on the front yard, baking, long walks together, or just seeing the sun (a rarity in Finland this time of the year). The wall calendar tells me there were three sunny days in February, which is much better than none – and seeing this brings those days back to my mind even on cloudy days.
Overall, this was a useful exercise for me. My calendar already looks fairly balanced and I want to hold on to various social activities and personal projects. But I need to keep an eye on the empty evenings in the calendar and make sure that at least one or two of them stay empty each week – and that I won't automatically convert them into work-time, which I've done many times in the past. Instead, I want to dedicate them to my own and my partner's well-being.