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Make your life small

  • February 24, 2020
Melissa Urban XO, MU

At the beginning of February, I announced I’d be stepping away from work to focus on my health (ongoing post-concussion symptoms + related immune challenges). Yet the week of February 10th, I still participated in two all-day strategic planning sessions with the Whole30 executive team and our consultants. I had 8 people flying in from across the country for these meetings, which had been planned for months. These two days would plan and drive our projects for the entire year.

I had to show up. And I was incredibly sick.

Life doesn’t always stop—not for illness, injury, grief, or stress. We may be able to take some time off or say no to some obligations, but I don’t know anyone who can take a complete sabbatical from work, kids, and life in general. We have to show up. We have to find a way.

Here’s what I do, in four simple words: Make my life small. And to help you envision how this could work in your own life, allow me to illustrate.

Imagine I wake up every morning with $1.00 to spend. On a normal day, the gym would cost me $0.05 (it’s a little effort, but I love it), work tasks are $0.35 (would be more, but I love it), taking care of my son before and after school is another $0.30 (I’m a single parent), and household obligations are another $0.10. That leaves me with $0.20 to spend on ME that day. Going out for lunch, running leisurely errands, spending time on social media, hitting up an afternoon yoga class… I’ve got $0.20 to do as I see fit.

This Monday, I woke up with the same $1.00, but I was sick. Because of that, everything cost more. You’ve been there—normal things feel hard, hard things feel impossible, and your normal day’s capacity is drained by 3 PM.

On this Monday, because of how I felt, my all-day strategy meeting was going to cost me double—call it $0.80. I also had my son this week. Remember, on a normal day, before and after school costs me $0.30… but already, I don’t have that much. So I conscientiously decided to scale back (no museum, no friend over, just one game after dinner, only one story at bedtime) and gave him my last $0.20.

That leaves me with nothing. Nothing for the gym, social media, work emails, friends, or housework. Nothing for staying up late watching Parks and Rec, nothing for a date night with Brandon, NOTHING. I’m broke.

But still, I had to show up. So I let all of that other stuff go, and made my life small.

Meetings. My son. Sleep. Repeat.

I didn’t go to the gym. I didn’t post or answer DMs on Instagram. I let emails pile up under an away message. I let my son watch Teen Titans while I made his lunch and snacks for school. I ate freezer meals. I didn’t clean my room. I went to bed every night at 8:30 PM. I made my life small, so I could do what needed to be done.

Work. My son. Sleep. Repeat. And that got me through my meetings, and the rest of the work and parenting week.

My triggers may not be your triggers; my costs may not be your costs. For me, screens, intense conversation, and cognitive processing cost the most right now. For you, it may be leaving the house, focusing on work tasks, or being on your feet. Your job might cost more, but parenting less if you have a live-in partner. The overarching theme is, during times of grief, injury, chronic illness, or stress, MAKE YOUR LIFE SMALL, and use the $1.00 analogy to help you plan.

A few more tips, from someone who has been there:

  • Overestimate how much you think tasks will cost. Maybe you’ll end up with an unexpected dime at the end of the day—winning! More likely, you’ll make it through most of your day successfully, having said no pretty aggressively given your over-estimation.
  • Protect your energy, even from yourself. Be firm about saying no to everything negotiable (and be liberal with “negotiable”). Try, “I wish I could, but my capacity is too limited right now” or “Normally I’d love to, but I’m in a difficult season and need to say no.” This even applies to things you want to do. A movie night may be fun, but if it costs you $0.30, you’re coming up short in non-negotiable areas. Future you will thank you for holding your boundaries.
  • Accept help anywhere you can. Now is not the time to be proud. Let someone grocery shop for you, watch your kid for an hour (even if all you do is nap), do your dishes, or bring you food. Yes, yes please, yes thank you. Take the damn help.
  • Outsource what you can. Hire someone for a one-time house cleaning. Hire a Task Rabbit to meal prep for 2 hours a week. Instacart your meat and produce, Amazon Prime your household staples, Thrive Market your pantry goods. As for kids, let yours buy lunch at school, arrange carpool for soccer practice, microwave hot dogs for dinner, and give them extra iPad time when you just can’t even. (They’ll be fine.)
  • Keep self-care top-of-mind, but manageable. I didn’t have capacity for the gym or my acupuncture appointment this week, but I can go to bed toddler-early, keep screens out of the bedroom, take a hot Epsom salt bath at night to relax, use my red light therapy, take all my supplements, and take a cold shower in the morning to stimulate my immune system. These strategies are effective, and don’t cost me a penny.
  • Above all, keep your food aligned with your highest-interest Food Freedom plan. (My “is it worth it?” right now is basically a “nope” across the board.) Now is not the time to deep-dive into fast food, chocolate, or wine—not with your immune system upregulated and stress wreaking havoc on all your body systems. Plus, keeping my food tight helps me feel more confident, and quiets the voice in my head that occasionally chimes in with, “You’re a mess.” Shut up, brain. I’m eating a frittata and doing JUST FINE

Now that meetings are done, I’m back at the gym but taking it easy, taking as much down time as work will allow (and then some—I still have emails sitting in queue, and they’re going to have to wait) and spending a little more on my son—which expands my life a little, but not much. Which is okay, because the more I rest and recover and the smarter I am about where I spend my pennies, the faster I’ll get back to having a extra money for the fun stuff. And if that takes a month, or two months, or longer, SO BE IT. Health and recovery won’t arrive on my timeline, unfortunately, but I’m secure in my strategy to get through this season successfully.

I hope this helps you navigate your next difficult season. May it be short and provide more lessons than pain. Remember, you can always reply to these emails and share how they made you feel.

XO MU

P.S. The “dollar” concept isn’t too far off from the “spoons” concept put forth by those in the chronic illness/autoimmune community. I find the concept of a dollar more concrete, though, which makes it easier to estimate and plan where your energy is going.