I don’t know about you, but my world has been a little more stressful since… say, last November. Even without the continuous news updates — and the time I spend reading them, along with the various Twitter threads that try to game theorise them — I’ve got a lot to manage and balance in my life: I work part-time as an editor, my debut novel comes out this May, I’m completing assignments for a number of freelance writing clients, I teach writing classes and I’m a volunteer tutor. (And that’s just the work stuff.)
Illustration by Angelica Alzona.
A friend recently asked me how I keep my energy up with all of this potential stress; after all, I’m still hitting my work deadlines, I’m still meeting my personal goals, and I’m still getting my sleep (though I’m not always sleeping well).
Part of it has to do with optimisation and automation — writing effective to-do lists, turning habits into routines, offloading tasks to apps and tracking them on spreadsheets.
But I think the real reason I stay energised — which isn’t to say I’m always happy, or stress-free, just still moving forward — has to do with a lifetime habit of priority and practice.
Practice Doesn’t Make Life Perfect, But It Gets Things Done
My parents are both classically-trained musicians, which meant I grew up as a classically-trained musician (piano, French horn, voice). More importantly, I learned how to practice.
When you practice something, you not only repeat the same scales or arpeggios every day, you also repeat the act of practising every day. The idea that you’ll sit down with your instrument for 30 minutes, or an hour, or more — and that will just be something that happens every day. Usually at the same time, because it’s easier to think “I practice at 7:30 pm” than it is to ask yourself, every day, when you’re going to get this done.
And sure, you won’t practice every day. Some days are holidays. Some days you have a friend coming in from out of town. Some days you have extra homework, or your boss asked you to stay late, or your kids have an event, or your editor wants you to do a last-minute rewrite.
But the idea is that you know what a regular day looks like, and what you’ll be doing during that day, and how you’ll prioritise your time. For me, a regular day includes 20 minutes of yoga practice in the morning. It includes a breakfast of 1/2 cup quick oats, 1/2 cup raisins, one tablespoon sliced almonds, 1/2 banana, one teaspoon olive oil and one teaspoon honey.
Knowing that information — specifically, knowing what a regular day in the life I want to live looks like — helps me spend less time thinking about what I need to do during the day and more time doing it. It also helps me recognise when I’ve had too many “irregular days”, which is usually when the stress starts to pile up and when I need to start thinking about what aspect of my life is causing this stress and how I can fix it.
But knowing what I want in a regular day — enough time for a morning yoga practice, for example — is about choosing what to prioritise.
We All Have Different Priorities — So We Should Prioritise Them
My career is the top priority in my life. I don’t work, I don’t eat. I’ve also worked enough jobs to know the value of building a career, and the freedom it can offer. I’ve been a telemarketer. I’ve been a receptionist. I’ve stuffed envelopes and stayed in offices after hours to make photocopies for the boss. I like the career I have now a lot better, and I’m going to keep investing in it.
So, because I’ve chosen “career” as my top priority, everything else gets prioritised based on its ability to support my career. You may have a different top priority; there have been times in my life when “relationship” was my top priority, and you don’t need me to tell you that a lot of people structure their lives based on their ability to support the “family” priority, for example. (You also don’t need me to tell you that the modern workplace often fails to acknowledge that people have any other priorities, but that’s another topic.)
In my case, physical health is another major priority. It’s not just that freelance writers don’t get paid sick days; it’s also that I do my best work if I’ve eaten well, consumed plenty of water, and gotten my daily exercise. I also try to spend eight hours in bed every night, even if that doesn’t always correlate to eight hours of sleep. (There is a difference between priority and control.)
Although it sounds like I must devote a lot of energy to balancing all of that, the truth is that I don’t. The stuff you prioritise is actually the stuff you think about least, because it becomes a part of your regular day. I spend most days eating the same meals, which I’ve selected because they fit my caloric needs, my macros, and my budget — yes, I’m one of those people who pays attention to her nutritional macros — and which I can prepare in under five minutes each.
I know how this food will affect my body because I’ve eaten it so many times before; I won’t get the sugar crash or the carb bloat, and because I know what combinations of foods help me stay full, I don’t actually have to think about food between meals.
Instead, I have the energy to focus on other things — most often work, but also friendships, playing Stardew Valley, the book I’m reading (Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1, in case you’re interested) — the stuff that makes regular days interesting.
Turning my priorities into a daily practice also makes my life less stressful. I want to note that even though there is a correlation between regular exercise and decreased stress, for example, I’m not actually saying everyone needs to get their 10,000 steps (or 15,000, if you prefer), because I understand that everyone has different priorities.
Stress, for me, comes when I don’t know what’s going to happen to me and when I feel like I won’t have a say in what happens to me. (This is, no doubt, part of why we’ve all been so stressed since November.) Choosing what to prioritise, even if I don’t know what’s going to happen next, helps me stay focused on what I want to happen.
Know When to Satisfice and When to Maximise
I learned the terms “satisficer” and “maximiser” from Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project, and they have reshaped the way I think about prioritisation and decision-making.
Some decisions are maximised, or optimised to get the best possible result: What do I need to do to increase my freelance earnings, year over year? What do I need to do, in the hour before bedtime, to help me get the amount of sleep I want?
Other decisions are “satisficed”, or one-and-done: I do not need you to tell me the benefit of steel-cut oats over quick oats, because I do not care. Quick oats are quick and cheap and I like them, and I’m not worried that I’m missing out on some better porridge somewhere.
You may prioritise porridge, or have a favourite brand of olive oil that isn’t Safeway Select, and I will reiterate once again that what we prioritise doesn’t matter. The act of making the priority — of choosing what to maximise, what to satisfice, and what to practice — does.
So let’s go back to our current political situation, because I’ve been hinting at it since the beginning. I, like many of you, am very concerned about what might happen in the near future and in the slightly-longer-term future. I could very easily spend every evening reading a hundred different articles hoping to find clues that suggest we’ll all be safe, that we don’t have to worry.
And I did that, for a while, and I had too many irregular days. So I asked myself what needed to change and I decided that I needed to figure out what actions I could take to help: I could call my local member, I could make charitable donations that fit within my budget, I could march and I could continue to show up for the kids I tutor.
That would be enough. I wouldn’t ask myself every day what I should be doing, because I’d already know — and if something else came up that I could do to help, like getting out the vote for an upcoming election, I’d hear about it on Twitter and I could do it. Beyond that, it’s out of my control. (Once again: there is a difference between priority and control.)
So that’s how I keep my energy up during stressful situations. Physically, there’s sleep and some walking and a bunch of water, but it’s the mental decisions that I think really matter. I focus on what I want and what I can do, my choices and my boundaries, my priorities and my practice.
I’ll end this by noting that today could have been a stressful day. I slept poorly last night because I made the mistake of checking my email right before bed, and saw a work email that I thought about all night long; I got another work email that I needed to answer first thing this morning, which I try not to do; plus I have to work late tonight because a source I want to interview is only available in the evening.
And yet I did my yoga and I ate my porridge and I’m feeling fine. I don’t feel anxious about working late because it doesn’t happen often, and I know that if it starts happening every day, I’ll start looking for something I can change. I feel energised, ready, satisfied. I’ll have less free time tonight, but I also won’t check my email before bed, and tomorrow I’ll get to wake up, eat my favourite breakfast, and start my practice over again.