The Way You’re Relaxing Isn’t Relaxing

Woman lying on sofa with remote, eyes glazed over.

When you hit your busy season, how do you stay healthy? How do you make sure you’re ready to go when the time comes?

If you aren’t paying attention and following through with a few basic disciplines, you could wind up driving yourself into the ground–even when you think you’re taking time to relax.

If you have been feeling exhausted or like it’s time for a 3-year vacation, it’s time to take stock and start building a life for yourself that you can actually live instead of the one that’s grinding you down every day.

Practice self-compassion.

I have noticed that, when I am feeling my most frazzled, I can often trace it back to self-criticism more than just being busy. The problem is, the busier I am, the more my self-criticisms pile up and become this constant negative chatter in the back of my mind. I compare myself to others and to the unreal perfect performance I seek from myself.

Pioneering self-compassion researcher Dr. Kristin Neff suggests taking frequent selfcompassion breaks.  Self-compassion is not the same thing as self-pity or self-esteem, and it’s being proven to offer immediate and lasting benefits.

When you take a self-compassion break, you simply pause and breathe deeply for a few moments to calm your thinking, and then intentionally change the way you talk to yourself. Acknowledge mindfully that you are experiencing suffering. Remind yourself that suffering is a part of life and that we all struggle in our lives.  Seek to speak to yourself in ways that express kindness and gentle caring.

Learn to say no.

Saying no strategically doesn’t come from exhaustion and turning everyone down. It comes from paying close attention to what energizes you and what does not, and saying yes to those things that give you energy.

When your energy dips, that’s a signal. Maybe that’s a task you need to delegate.

Pay attention to your energy. Learn to say no.

Focus on activity that pays you back.

Some people call these activities “high return on investment.” They’re things like strategic planning, professional development, sleep, exercise, and relationships.

Often, when we are depleted, it’s because all of our energy has been invested in activities with little or no return. Greasing the squeaky wheel. Answering email. Poorly designed / planned meetings.

Planning takes time, and it helps to ensure you get something for the time you’re investing.

One of the most important ways to focus on activity that pays you back is to intentionally create opportunities for your own learning.

In 2009 I attended an event where I was surrounded by people who were smarter and more educated than me, and I had the most amazing experience. They listened to me. They were interested in my opinion. And I felt poorly prepared for that opportunity.

I realized I’d been playing entirely too small. Before I left that event, I made a commitment, that I would invest time and money in my own learning so I could contribute meaningfully.

It does take time and money. It also takes risks — the risk that maybe I won’t be the expert. The risk that maybe I won’t have as much money for incidentals as I thought I would have. The risk that I’ll have to delay watching the rest of Transparent.

Some risks are bigger than others.

But I need to take those risks and make those investments in myself if I’m going to grow and develop and contribute meaningfully.

Recognize when comfort has become numbing.

We’re surrounded by easy entertainment. Streaming video, social media, snack food, and cell-phone games. And while I can’t think of any reason any of those could be considered bad in and of themselves, we can lean on them too much.

Shame researcher Brené Brown has illustrated this with chocolate truffles. One truffle is comforting. Ten truffles is numbing.

Too often we numb ourselves with entertainments that are comforting for about a minute. And it’s tempting to swear it all off, but unless we’re going to join the Amish community (which believe me is tempting some days!), they’re going to be part of our world.

What can you do? Pay closer attention to how you feel from the moment you begin an activity to how you feel 10, 20, or 30 minutes later. Most of us experience comfort or joy with the first engagement (the first 5 minutes of Facebook; the first TV show, the first bite of comfort food). From there, it’s diminishing returns. When you notice how long it takes for you to start experiencing the diminishing returns, you’ll know how long to enjoy the activity and when to quit.

What’s a risk you’ve been holding yourself back from?

What would it mean for you to invest in yourself–in your own learning–instead of numbing?

How can you be kinder to yourself today?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. How do you relax? How do you know it’s working?

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