Over the weekend, I had a chat with a close friend of mine about the challenges of modern family life. Rebecca (not her real name) is a dependable doctor, supportive wife, and dedicated mother of two active little boys. With all that responsibility on her plate, she takes life one jam-packed day at a time, feeling a sense of achievement in the evening over what she had been able to pull off in the previous 18 hours. She thrives on the challenge. Yet, she was concerned about subtle but chronic feelings of fatigue, irritability, and self-doubt. That is until recently, when she tried something revolutionary: taking time for herself.
Rebecca took up jogging. She ran twice a week for several months and eventually got into good enough shape to run a half-marathon. It was a glorious experience that filled her with a deep sense of connection to herself and her family. From her first slow 3-k runs to the moment she crossed that finish line at 21k, it was a project for herself, by herself, and with herself. Yet, she felt an even deeper connection with her family and friends than before. Why had it taken her so long to pay attention to herself?
Sure it was tough to run off the weight she had gained from two pregnancies. Sure she had to arrange for someone else to look after the kids while she trained. Sure it was tough to get going on those cold April mornings. But the biggest obstacle she faced was getting used to the idea that it was worth it. She was worth it.
How many times have you said, about an activity that you know would be good for you, something to the effect of “I really should do that, but I don’t have time”? This story is an argument for why it’s time to reassess your priorities and make time for yourself.
There is no doubt that stress, fatigue, and irritability create a drag on productivity. Though it’s difficulty to quantify this drag, but the science is clear: anxiety interferes with cognitive functioning and emotional reactivity complicates life’s problems. There is also compelling evidence that a certain class of activities are effective in reducing these states. These activities involve taking time out from the daily grind, connecting with sensory experience, and cultivating kindness toward oneself. So, it stands to reason that the time it would take to meditate daily, go for a run several times per week, or listen to music on the weekend will pay off in greater efficiency the rest of the week. Taking a break may actually save you time!
There appear to be health benefits to these activities as well. The health benefits of exercise are widely reported. But meditation, as another example, has been shown to reduce stress, improve immune function, reduce blood pressure and heart rate, and control pain. At the same time, it appears to promote well-being: meditators report increased sense of calm, clarity of vision, and compassion for self and others.
Rebecca is an intelligent person. It’s not that she didn’t know about the benefits of exercise. It’s just that she was operating under the faulty assumption that she didn’t have enough time for it. She was never able to get down to the self-care items on her to-do list because the other items came first. She understands now that the energy rut she was in was a consequence of that problem. But, since carving out 40-minutes for herself twice per week, she has renewed energy, creativity, and confidence. She also considers herself to be a better doctor, wife, and mom now. The small, seemingly selfish act of taking time for herself, turned out to be an excellent investment for everyone.