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Ask Sahaj is a series from The Lily with Sahaj Kaur Kohli, a therapist-in-training and advice columnist. She answers questions about identity, relationships, mental health, work-life balance, family dynamics and more. If you have a question for Kohli, please send her an email.

Dear Sahaj,

Before the pandemic, I was spread thin. It felt like between my job, creative work, relationships and basic self-care (which I was bad at) I never had enough time. I managed to fulfill my obligations to others, but rarely to myself, and was only able to do so by calling upon some manic “hustle” energy. I knew it was unhealthy, but it was the only way I could get it all done. Then the pandemic hit, and I couldn’t do it anymore. I had to slow down and, for a while, the world asked less of me. My pace felt “normal,” but it was an act of survival, not self-love.

Now that things are shifting back to some semblance of “normal,” my obligations are piling up. That familiar anxiety of “always being behind” has returned, and I feel unable to accomplish what I need to in a day, let alone recharge myself for the next. Some of these concerns are practical; I have days that are truly relentlessly busy. But a lot of days I just don’t have the energy or mental fortitude to “hustle” as I did before. I know it wasn’t a sustainable approach but it was the only one I knew.

I try to make time for myself by doing things like running in the park, meditating or seeing friends, but I often find things take longer than expected. These activities are either the first thing to go when stress hits or become the fixation of stress when other things come up. Some days I get the balance right, but it feels like more a fluke than a thing in my control.

How can I find time for both my external life and mental health? Or, when I can’t spare a moment, how can I reframe my thinking around time?

— Time Keeps on Slipping

Pandemic fatigue is real. Even if you’re doing the same thing every day. Even if things are “not so bad” for you right now. We’re in a collective state of fatigue, and even though as humans we are resilient, it doesn’t mean that we’re not tired.

Sahaj Kohli. (Sam Hall Media)
Sahaj Kohli. (Sam Hall Media)

You’ve subscribed to hustle culture for so long, and trust me, you are not alone. Hustle culture perpetuates this idea that what you can offer or provide to others is how you prove your worthiness. It promotes this idea that work and career are more important than family, connection and self care. It encourages folks to, like you said, put themselves last. We exist in a system that compounds on our learned fear of missing out and creates this scarcity mentality where everything has a sense of urgency attached to it.

These mindsets are further complicated depending on how you were raised: How work and productivity were modeled to you. What expectations and barriers have been set up for you because of your background, gender, race and so on. To release the shackles that productivity has placed on you, I would encourage you to consider what you need to unlearn about your mind-set and narratives around productivity. Self care is not a luxury and does not need to be this grand gesture we provide for ourselves.

I find your ultimate question interesting because it suggests that by living life and by being a human who works, has creative pursuits and hobbies and has friends, there isn’t time for mental health care.

Of course when we say yes to something, we are saying no to something else, but often, the self-care and mental health care practices we need to feel rejuvenated are different depending on where in our lives we feel depleted. If seeing friends feels more like an obligation and less like a time to connect with loved ones, feel accepted and ultimately fill some of your cup, then I would ask you to reflect on what this is trying to tell you. Are you someone who needs time alone to feel recharged?

There are many different types of self-care that promote mental health. You mention a few in your question but I’ll list a few more here with specific examples: physical (exercise or nutrition), mental (mindfulness or reading), financial (saving or budgeting), emotional (therapy or learning coping skills), social (connection and social media boundaries), environmental/space (decluttering and designated spaces for rest) and work (email boundaries and project management). If you had to create a bucket for each of those, how do you fill them? Where do you feel most neglected? When do you find yourself engaging with these different self care practices?

There’s a lack of feeling in control I sense in your question. That things are happening to you and you don’t have any authority over them. Yes, of course there are times when things really are just piling up. But a lot of the time we allow that piling up to happen because we don’t — or more realistically, don’t know how to — say no. Self-care is not an all-or-nothing mentality. You can stop checking emails at a certain time every evening, and you can be really successful and good at your job. You can be a really good friend, and you can set limits around when or for how long you are available.

Try breaking down your never-ending to-do list so you aren’t feeling constantly overwhelmed by everything at once. Have a weekly to-do list that you divvy up into daily to-do lists, and create a hard maximum that gives a generous amount of time for every activity or action item so as to not feel like you are constantly behind schedule. Don’t underestimate the power of checking everything off your daily to-do list. This helps you feel like you’re being productive while also building your own sense of being able to do it again the next day. If you still struggle with prioritizing tasks, the Eisenhower matrix is also a great tool to categorize tasks.

You’re right that the more time that goes between filling these buckets for your mental health, the longer it takes to fill them back up. So many of us live by our schedules, stressing out over how every minute will be spent and feeling guilty if we a) don’t get everything done we expected of ourselves or b) decide to take a bit of time to slow down thus convincing ourselves that we are “wasting” time. I’m hearing you put so much pressure on yourself for having to self care in a certain way that if you don’t, it just compounds on the stress you already feel. But it’s a myth that self care needs to look a certain way. It’s also a myth that caring for yourself will always immediately make you feel better. Remember: Self care can be reactive, something we engage in when we are burned out and need to cope in a crisis or state of overwhelm. Or self care can be proactive, something we engage in to set ourselves up for the long run.

Reflect on some of the ways you are taking care of yourself that you may not pause and appreciate. Instead of considering self-care this big burdensome beast you have to tackle and schedule for, consider how you can integrate these self-care behaviors so they are a more seamless part of your routine. For instance, what are morning routines you can have that you do everyday to the point where it’s a habit and it’s restorative. I’m not talking about scheduling morning meditation or trying to do something you don’t necessarily want to do first thing when you wake up. I’m talking about having 30 minutes where you wake up and lay in bed, not on your phone. Or ritualizing how you make your coffee or go outside to get it while listening to a song/podcast/book. The same goes for how you routinize the few minutes between working your day job and signing off to have your evening. And also that hour before you sleep.

Schedules are something you need to keep, check and manage whereas routines are natural ways of engaging in certain behaviors at certain times. They may feel small, but no matter how slowly you put one foot in front of the other, you are still moving in the direction you want to be heading. There is no such thing as small self-care behaviors when each item adds up in your bucket. Integrating smaller ways to care for yourself into your external world will help you feel more in control of your time and build a foundation for caring for yourself.

And lastly, just a reminder: Your self-care and mental health practices sound like they are attempts to make you more productive. You don’t have to earn your self care or rest. You deserve to enjoy your days, feel rested and calm and be intentional with where your time goes. Full stop.

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