Mindful Q&A: Don’t Get Addicted to Busyness

In the first installment of Mindful's relationships Q&A series, Dr. Cheryl Fraser answers your questions about managing work and life.

Photo: Dollar Photo Club

Q: I’m a wife, mother, and bank manager and these days I feel like I am failing at all of it. I meditate each morning and do yoga, but I’m still tired, stressed, and cranky and I drop more balls than I catch. Why am I so lousy at having it all?

A: You can have it all, providing the “all” includes a nervous breakdown. Forget life-work balance. Whoever came up with that concept needs to straddle a see-saw for a few moments and discover that a balancing act is inherently precarious, exhausting, and impossible to maintain. Many female patients come to me for help with anxiety and exhaustion. They are wracked with guilt that they can’t find time to make homemade cupcakes for the school bake sale because they have a year-end report to write. Just like you, they are sleep deprived (yet find time for hours of junk television—hmm). They tell stories of their own mothers—women who baked and sewed, kept house and met their women friends for long lunches—speaking in the awed tones of a mythic storyteller.

I remind my patients that their moms did not wake up before dawn to hit the gym, or run three children to fifteen different after school activities, or cope with the new career demands. And mom didn’t hear the ping of her work phone at 10pm, either. Researchers at the University of Toronto found that boundary-spanning work demands (work contact during family or personal time) have harmful psychological health effects, and when women have to respond to work-related phone calls or e-mails outside of normal work hours they feel higher levels of guilt and distress than men do. Oh, right, that. Sound familiar? You are trying to do too much. So stop.

The practice of mindfulness can help. By sitting and focusing on the breath without an agenda, and without judging your experience as good or bad, you can develop the ability to “sit still” within the maelstrom of daily life. No, it is not a magic cure for busy-ness, but it is a way to train the mind to be more calm and more realistic. Mindfulness also helps us re-examine our priorities. In other words, what really matters to you?

The simple truth is that a working woman with a family cannot achieve balance between her competing demands. Think of it this way. Yes, you are juggling quite a few balls. There is the marriage and family ball, the health and wellness ball, the career ball, the social life ball, the financial ball, and so on. But most of the balls are rubber. If you drop them, they will bounce and can eventually be retrieved and put back in play. Only two of the balls are made of glass; the family ball and the health ball. If you drop those, they can break. No amount of career success or painstakingly handmade cupcakes is worth damaging your health and family over.

Instead of buying into the popular but ludicrous idea that a woman should have it all, choose to have less. Do some soul searching and decide what really matters to you. Is it more important to have extra time to cuddle the kids or to gossip with a negative friend? To make love with your partner or run an errand that can actually be clustered into a single weekly trip to town? To hike with your women friends or waste time on Facebook looking at snapshots of your friends hiking? You must set priorities and then become ruthless with the psychological pruning shears. A lot of things you are doing are wasting your life energy, and they simply have to go. Rather than trying to do everything well, do a few things exceptionally, most things adequately, and let a significant portion of your to-do list become a never-mind list. And when in doubt, sit.

Tips for the Recovering Superwoman

“No” is a complete sentence. Women need to learn to use it. The sentence is not “No I am so sorry but I can’t I feel terrible well maybe I can try um okay…” Decide what you can commit to and say no to the rest.

Don’t check work messages when you are on personal time. Smartphones have an off switch. Use it often. If you can’t, invest in a second personal phone so you can separate home from office.

Become what I call capital S “Self-ish”. Invest care and time in yourself. Seek solitude, get a pedicure, meet your girlfriends for a monthly lunch date. Replenish the emotional well so you can offer love and energy to others.

Meditate. Commit to 10 minutes every morning as a start. Why? Because you’re worth it, and a trained mind is a happy mind.

Stop beating yourself up. Donate the superwoman cape to the Hallowe’en box. You are pretty great, just the way you are.

Send your questions about life, love, and mindfulness to Cheryl Fraser at [email protected].

This post was originally published on Mindful.org in June 2015