How can I learn to stop and smell the roses?
September 10, 2016 6:43 PM   Subscribe

Like most human beings, there are people and things I cherish. Why do I keep neglecting them in favor of work and school? I am talking about basic things like eating for example. Is there anything I can do to get my priorities straight?

Before you ask, I am not depressed. I have been before, and now I'm pretty happy. I work full time and go to grad school, and I am very happily married. I love my life, except for this issue. I think I might be perfectionist to the point where it's really interfering with my life. I love my job and LOVE grad school, but I feel like a slave to my tasks, and I put in ridiculous amounts of work and overachieve to the point where it's affecting my health and my relationships. I think I am missing out on life, but I don't know how to change. For example:

I love my family. I know a simple phone call would mean so much to them, and yet I am busy and I just can't get around to pick up the damn phone. I have to end up forcing myself to communicate with them, which is insane because I genuinely love them and enjoy talking to them.

I forget to eat. Okay I don't forget, but I put it off. I do this very frequently and I feel so neglectful because I love my body. I do have breakfast every morning (at around 6AM), but almost every day I put lunch off until 5 or 6, and then it's pretty much dinner time so why bother with lunch. I am actually starving by the time I have dinner but I can't bring myself to stop working. There is diabetes tendency in my family so I know I should be eating regularly, but all the evidence in the world can't make me stop and EAT. When I do have lunch (once or twice a week). I just shove it into my mouth in 5 minutes and don't bother with the microwave. This is sad because my husband packs my lunch every day with lots of care.

I also put off bathroom breaks (not good!) and drinking water. Very frequently I stop working only when I start feeling faint (hunger or thirst), and only because feeling faint = lower work quality. I know how insane this sounds, trust me.

So what can I do? I have talked to a couple of friends, but they end up laughing at me because they think I'm lucky and they tell me I'm just type A. I think my brain might be type A, but my heart is type B. I hate being a workaholic, what can I do?
posted by Tarumba to Human Relations (15 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
You might look at the concept of hyperfocus as something that happens in ADHD and some other conditions. The suggestions they give for regulating attention (set a timer, set reminders to pop up on the computer screen, enlist another person to physically walk up to your desk and get your attention, etc.) might be helpful for you regardless of diagnosis.
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:56 PM on September 10, 2016 [7 favorites]

I work full time and am in grad school (again) and basically something has to get lost. I rarely see people and just work all day and study "in my free time" and every weekend. If your husband is nice enough to pack lunch, you should set an alarm and eat it at the same time everyday but basically your life isn't 'normal' because you are doing two (I assume) full time things at once (one that you LOVE-as I do), which takes a great deal of time and mental energy, while still maintaining a relationship- that's why your friends think you are lucky!:) Once you graduate, you will have more free time, (and/or more mental space for actual meals and time with family and friends) this is a temporary situation, at least that's what I tell myself.
posted by bquarters at 7:23 PM on September 10, 2016 [8 favorites]

Perfectionism resources.

This is common for gifted individuals. There are lots of driving factors. One is that there is lots of social pressure on bright people to be perfect. Another is that getting the best grades is normal for them, so failing feels like there is something seriously wrong with thwir life.

I got over this by nearly dying and getting diagnosed with an incurable condition, at which point I decided I needed to make more Bs. I do not recommend that as a method.

But maybe trying to spend a little time volunteering at a hospice or cancer ward or similar would help give you some perspective second hand.

Additionally, ADHD and other issues are so common in the gifted community that some people refer to them as comorbidities. You could try to briefly get familiar with that aspect of it.
posted by Michele in California at 7:25 PM on September 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

"I know a simple phone call would mean so much to them, and yet I am busy and I just can't get around to pick up the damn phone."

I calendar this -- like once a week, it says "call someone." (Not anyone in particular, just someone in the constellation of "family I ought to call to chat more often.") That way it's an Official Task so I remember to do it. (I also have a once-a-month "mail to grandma" and take some of my kids' latest pictures to mail to her (my grandma, their great-grand) because it means so much to her, it takes 30 seconds, and it's so easy to forget in the busy-ness of life.)

"I also put off bathroom breaks (not good!) and drinking water. "

If you work at a computer much of the day, I've used a program called "Workrave" to remind me to rest my eyes every half an hour and stretch my legs every hour or so when working at the computer -- you can customize your work/break lengths (there's a long break period and a short break period), and it'll give you stretchy exercises to do if you want, but I usually get up and walk around. You could use it to remind you to drink every 20 minutes and go to the bathroom every two hours or whatever. There are also a lot of water-drinking apps (in particular) for smartphones; I imagine if you drink a lot more water the bathroom break problem will solve itself eventually!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:43 PM on September 10, 2016 [8 favorites]

Set an alarm, in whatever way you can. Respond to the alarm (i.e., don't just hit "snooze" or the snooze equivalent).

Work on realizing that a burnt-out starving person with recurrent UTIs and no family support is not who you want to be, and on prioritizing things other than work. Some people struggle with that because they under-estimate their abilities and think if they don't pour all their time into work, their work will suffer; others struggle because they believe they're so important that if they don't pour all their time into work, the world will suffer, while their family and friends and stomach and urinary tract will wait. The first group needs to work on their confidence, the latter on their humility. It may be worth thinking about whether you fit into either of those groups. (Others, as others have pointed out, may be dealing with the hyper-focus of ADHD, and a therapist can help with any of the above issues.)
posted by lazuli at 8:35 PM on September 10, 2016 [3 favorites]

If you are a list keeping person, put very specific things like "drink 6oz water" "call [specific family member] and speak for ten minutes; if they don't pick up write them an email of 200 words or more including three questions about how they're doing" "move to a different location and eat food for fifteen minutes" and so-on directly on your lists. Treat these tasks like any other work task. Cross them off. Feel satisfied.

Also related, the moving to a different location thing can be a big help. I need to move to a different location to get work done, but my type A friend needs to move to a different spot to stop doing work. Find somewhere in the same building or within a five minute walk that feels different from where you do your work. It's even better if you have a few different places. Always only let yourself do non-work/school things in these places. And then when you catch yourself hyperfocusing and being dehydrated and feeling awful about it, go immediately to one of these places. This will associate the change of location with the change of mode, and allow you to voluntarily structure yourself in a more healthy way.
posted by Mizu at 8:38 PM on September 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

I do this a lot, particularly things like putting off calls to folks, even ones I really want to talk to, and not eating for long periods of time. For me I think it's a combination of ADHD diagnosis related hyperfocus, and a difficulty noticing body sensations like hunger and thirst until they're so strong that I feel terrible.

I think I've definitely gotten better at this. Here are some of the things that have worked for me:

Setting pop up notifications in my Outlook at work to tell me things like, "WATER" and "SNACK"

Writing or typing these things into my daily to do list and having the satisfaction of crossing them off

Re-prioritizing my various obligations. This was a long process, and sprang out of the sudden realization that my lack of care for my basic needs was massively impacting my health (didn't eat, low metabolism, not strong, easily fatigued, iron deficiency, etc etc.) I feel like at least for me, it was kind of a moment where I said to myself, holy shit, you need to be more responsible to yourself. These things, eating, sleeping well, drinking water, connecting with people, aren't just things you have to do sometime or other in order to remain alive, they ARE life in its most basic form, and all the lofty things I want for myself, like productivity and accomplishments, and recognition for my hard work, can't fully be achieved and enjoyed if I'm not well in body and spirit.

This is a hard process and I'm still working on it. Reading other answers with interest as well.
posted by fairlynearlyready at 11:37 PM on September 10, 2016 [9 favorites]

Alarms can really help. But are you a person who responds to internal pressure or pressure from others? If you're not a person who will respond to an alarm, do you have a colleague you can enlist to pressure you to take a lunch break with you? I've found great advice from the "Happier" podcast by Gretchen Rubin. (She also has a book "Better than Before" about making and breaking habits, that I think might be helpful. I like her work because she describes different techniques for different personalities). I promise I do not receive paybacks from this podcast - I just truly enjoy it. One of the techniques she uses to stay in touch with loved ones is they send brief updates to each other every day. One-sentence emails like, "Nice walk to the bus today" or "Ugh long meetings all day today." The rules are to try to send it daily and to NOT respond or feel pressured to respond to any of the messages. An idea I had while reading your post is you could take a photo of your lunch and text it to your loved ones each day. Tell them you don't expect responses or have time to send any further responses. I know, who wants to see a photo of a lunch? But well, thousands of Instagram and Facebook users apparently would. And as a mom, I have to say I dislike those photos on social media, but if it was my kid sending it and I knew it was their small way to connect, I would like it. So now you've had lunch and connected... What do you think?
posted by areaperson at 6:09 AM on September 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

To be honest, that is a problem that a lot of people have. And it always comes down to acknowledging that you do need to give a reasonable amount of time to self care including but not limited to eating healthy, nutritious meals, exercise, sleep, non work people in your life. And then how to achieve that always comes down to taking a step back and taking control as opposed to reacting to external inputs all the time.

Give you an example, i work long hrs, so do most of my colleagues. This being Europe though I do get to take vacation and I ended up visiting a friend for a week, we live on different continents. The deal was that I'd stay at her house, I'd largely entertain myself and we'd have dinner together. She also planned to take 2 days off during my visit. When she mentioned that I was doubtful. In the end she ended up taking half a day off and was late for dinner every day.

Now, I knew this would happen from knowing her, her job the corporate culture. And I am not having a go at my friend - it was great to see her again and she did spend her precious spare time with me, which is all I had hoped for. But my friend chose to finish whatever she was finishing those evenings and chose to not enforce a boundary with her boss around taking those days off. It doesn't always feel like a choice. All too often we just react to all the various demands placed on our time but we choose to react as opposed to take a step back and take control.

And I am as guilty as the next person - I have refused to commit to regularly scheduled activities because I really struggle to get away in time to make the activity and the thought of doing it every week stressed me out more than anything else.

At the same time I am sitting here on my sofa, at 3pm on Sunday, in my dressing gown. I could have got up and worked all day to make a dent in my work to do list. But so far I've spent the day on things that I needed to do for me and my personal life. So I slept in (because sleep is important and it makes me happy), I have done laundry, I have baked fairly healthy breakfast muffins for the whole week, cooked another fairly healthy meal for the week/freezer. I also cleaned up the kitchen after all that cooking and gave myself a manicure and pedicure. And I am yet to do my father's tax return (which should take an hr but I've put it off for 3 months) and FaceTime my cousin. So yes, my work week is going to suck and require very early starts because I've not spent the day working. But I'll eat well and I'll have spent time on people who matter and I've slept so the sucky work week at least starts with me being adequately rested.

What does any of that mean for you? Different things work for different people. Exercise first thing in the morning for sure - no matter what else requires your attention that day you have got that out of the way. And then what works for me is to schedule personal stuff.

My cousin and I schedule FaceTime, I call people when I'm on the train or when I'm in a car (handsfree obviously). I schedule meeting friends. I look at my travel schedule, because my work is not really office based and I work with people all over my region. And I find times and locations that work for medical appointments and getting my hair cut etc. As a result my hair salon of choice is in a town 60 miles away from my home but it works because it allows me to get my hair done at the beginning or end of the work day and not at weekends.

If I look at my schedule and notice that my week is getting full I say no to things or rearrange work things to free up time. There need to be gaps in my diary where I can actually produce the outputs I have to produce and to deal with all the stuff that comes up because I have supervisory responsibility and need to support and coach people on the job or whatever 'crisis' my clients have that week.

But as I'm not a doctor I can be certain that nobody will die because of anything I do/don't do at work that week. And I have confirmed plans with friends two nights this week as well so there is stuff to look forward to.
posted by koahiatamadl at 7:28 AM on September 11, 2016 [4 favorites]

Not to be flippant, but mindfulness sounds like it could be really nice for you. Not the sit down and meditate all day type of thing, just the occasional check in to see what the palms of your hands feel like or to notice whether your nostrils feel warm when you breathe out, for example.
posted by Chrysalis at 7:44 AM on September 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

Just creating tiny little spaces in your day. Just noticing for a moment or two.
posted by Chrysalis at 7:46 AM on September 11, 2016

FWIW, I just wrote this note to myself last night to summarize a portion of a book* I was reading, because it seemed to address a recurrent problem I have with balance in my life:

You will always lose something; either what you surrender or what you cannot obtain because you are too busy guarding what you will not surrender.

* Chapter 6 of "The Anxiety Toolkit" by Boyes
posted by forthright at 7:47 AM on September 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

I do this too, though not to the same extent.

One thing that I didn't spot on this thread so far is the Pomodoro Technique. I use a free app on my phone that times me for 25 minutes of work. Then I get a five-minute break. (I use Block and Flow but there are lots of free apps).

During that five-minute break, my jobs are literally "bathroom, water, stretch." If I do those and have time leftover, I can check Instagram or whatever. I obviously don't have to pee every 30 minutes, but it forces me to think "Do I have to pee? Nope, I'm good, okay" rather than just ignoring my bladder for hours and hours.

When being very good, I also write this down. So I have a list that looks like this:
* Pomodoro 1 - write
* B, W, S
* Pomodoro 2 - edit
* B, W, S
* Pomodoro 3 - check email
* B, W, S
* Break for lunch, 30 minutes

And, as others have said, I cross those things off, which is its own psychological reward.

You may already use the Pomodoro Method, as it seems to be popular in academia - if so, consider structuring your breaks to encompass those "human things" you need to do like drinking water, etc.

I must admit that I am not always great about using this method, but when I do, I get a *ton* of stuff done and I feel way better. Like the difference between "Wow, I finished my to-do list in half the expected time, so I'm going to go exercise and then tackle my nice-to-do list!" and "Ugh, I'm shaky and tense and my stomach feels like it's eating itself, probably because I haven't eaten in 7 hours or gone to the bathroom since this morning, and I just blacked out while standing up and I think I'm going to pass out and/or throw up now." I highly recommend the Pomodoro Method and the former approach :)

Good luck!
posted by bananacabana at 12:02 PM on September 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

- make yourself a big thermos of coffee or tea or mexican hot chocolate and hook yourself up with a water bottle. put them on your desk and use them liberally. you'll def get up to pee.

- can you work standing (at least part of the time)? my physiotherapist told me to stretch every 20 minutes while working on a computer (thats thrice an hour! i cant believe anyone gets anything done!)
bodies dont like being static. he was scary enough in his description of all the possible things that could go wrong that i got a damn exercise ball to sit on.

- stretch. look around. make an effort to see something you havent noticed before and leave your office/desk/whatever to eat that lunch (seriouslyomgiwishsomeonemademeluncheveryday!!!!)
..and eat with someone! who knows, taking a break from your work might actually make you do better work

- try doing stuff out of your comfort zone on the daily. get off the bus a stop or two earlier. use a printer (that bathroom!) on another floor (go crazy) to make life a little more difficult and it'll force you to break patterns.

- tell people you suck at calling, so if they could call you. like right now. on your lunch break. which you are taking. hell, maybe get snapchat. order your SO a pizza to their work place. connect in different ways. doesnt always need to be a phone call?
posted by speakeasy at 1:17 PM on September 12, 2016

Thank you everyone!

I have been using your tips and they really have helped. I am setting up alarms and reminders to stop and stretch, call my family and eat.

I do have ADD so hyperfocus is very likely a factor, and I also have this mentality where I have to wow everyone because I don't want to disappoint them. I think they kind of expect it from me so now it's like a pressure to over-perform.

Anyway, I really appreciate your ideas and just acknowledging that this is a problem has helped me put my priorities in order. Thank you!
posted by Tarumba at 9:31 AM on September 21, 2016

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