What to do when you can’t do it all

There was an interesting little discussion on the forum this week about the perceived pressure to do everything, and to do it all right now. That fits with the concept of the insecure overachiever that is actively sought out for certain high demand jobs (and was the topic of a recent radio 4 show) and also the concept of Imposter Syndrome, where you constantly feel like a fraud who might be found out and identified as inadequate for the job. There is a widely perpetuated narrative in modern society that people should be willing to work longer and harder, and there is always a mythical person who is doing more than you. Whether that is more revision before exams, or more prep for their clinical application or assessment day, or more voluntary work, or managing to juggle more things in their working week, it always makes you feel a bit guilty and inadequate no matter how much you are doing or how hard you are trying. The truth is we are in a profession where demand for our services will always exceed supply. The early stages of the clinical psychology career path are competitive, and there are lots of people who claim impossible workloads and huge amounts of experience that can make you feel like you’ll never measure up. So how do we tackle this pressure to do more?

There are probably lots of layers to the answer. Some are political, as this culture springs from job insecurity, underfunding, and the focus on attaining wealth and status – so the ideal is to change the game, rather than trying to win a game that is rigged against us. Another layer is to communicate with others and band together, as this undermines our personal insecurities that see it as our own personal failings, and allows us to normalise our experiences and work together to resolve the systemic issues that underlie them. But even at a personal level, there are things that we can do.

So this blog is about my top ten suggestions to tackle that feeling of having too many plates spinning and not enough time, and the cognitive distortions that maintain the belief that we should do more. I’m not saying I’ve got all the answers, or that that I’ve resolved all these issues in my own life. Far from it! I’ve mentioned many times that I’m not a good role model in this regard. I think I am a bit of a workaholic, and whilst other people say I’ve achieved a lot, I always feel like there is more I could/should be doing. However, the things that have started to help me change my own patterns are:

1) Know when you are taking on too much. Having had a minor car accident, the physical repercussions made me cut down my work to a more manageable level. They remain a good reminder if I’m overdoing things, as I get aches and pains in my ear/jaw and shoulder. Obviously, I’d not recommend having an accident as a self-care strategy to others! The bit worth sharing is to be aware of your own physical and mental state, and to learn to recognise your own signs of stress as early as possible. Then you can be responsive to your own needs, and learn to stay within your own limits. It is also a good reminder to ensure that you build self-care and exercise into your routine.

2) Fit in friends and fun. Giving higher priority to the people and things you enjoy and are recharged by. We all need to have support networks, and family and friends need to be given enough time and priority in our lives to perform that role. I can’t persuade myself to “do less work” or to leave gaps in my diary, but I can put in commitments to the people and activities I value in my life that compete with work. I make it a personal rule that I finish work at 4pm on Mondays to take my kids to their swimming lesson and do my 30 lengths. Every evening the 7.00-8.30pm slot is time I always give to my kids’ bedtime routine, and 8.30-10.30pm is time I always spend with my husband. I’m also trying to cook with the kids twice a week, to fit in a creative activity each month and not to work on weekends. My advice it to start small, commit to something for at least a month and then build on good routines once they are established. Once in a while make time for fun or frivolous things like having a spa day, or sneaking out for a cinema or lunch date with my husband, or booking a holiday.

3) Sleep. No matter what else is going on, make sure to get enough sleep. For me that means eight hours per night. I’m a night owl, so I often work until the task is done, even if that means resuming work after everyone else in my house is asleep and working through until the small hours. Then I often have to get up and fulfil work commitments the following day. If I could stop doing those extra bits of work after everyone else is asleep and get a proper sleep routine where I sleep during the hours of darkness and get out into the sunlight more in the daytime, that would have positive knock-on effects on my energy levels, mood, appetite and attention span. You can see from the fact I’m drafting this post at 2am that I’m not managing that yet, but for now allowing myself to have at least one lie-in on the weekend is a lifesaver.

4) Use your time better. Stack commitments together with similar content, that involve particular colleagues or that you can do in particular locations. Get the right kit to do the job efficiently. Travel less. Use video chat rather than meeting in person. Minimise your commute, or use it for something relaxing like reading a novel or listening to music or audiobooks. See if you can work from home even if it is just a small proportion of your time. Work out what the blocks or bottlenecks are in your process, and how you can solve them, For me having templates of common reports and letters was one helpful step. According to where you are in the power structure, you can also look at how you can draw in support or what you can delegate to others.

5) Diarise the in between stuff. Don’t just fill your calendar with the face to face stuff and expect to fit in the admin and support tasks in the cracks, because they either escape into non-work time or don’t get done.If you have to write a report between appointments, give yourself a diary slot to do it in. Need to read the papers before a meeting? Book the hour beforehand for that task. Want to write up a paper? Diarise three days for it. Then make sure that you keep that time for that sole purpose. Book an admin slot at the beginning or end of each day, or a half day at the beginning or end of the week. Check out how much time you need and when you are most productive. If that is a time that is earlier or later than other people work, make sure that you take the time back somewhere else*.

6) Prioritise, then focus on the key tasks. Isolate yourself if you need to get something important or time critical done. Turn off your phone and your email alerts, ideally unplug from the internet, and prevent distractions. Then give it your full attention. Work out what is interrupting you, and then stop it so you can get work completed in one steady sprint, rather than having to come back to it again and again after dealing with phone calls, emails, other people interrupting, or diverting onto the internet. Deal with the quick stuff straight away. But then make yourself a task list and work down it. Prioritise the important stuff over the seemingly urgent but unimportant. Try to check email and messages at the beginning and end of the day, not every few minutes. When you need to get something done turn off social media, email alerts, etc. Turn your phone onto silent and then put it out of sight.

7) Clarify your goals, and how to reach them. Envisage where you are trying to get to, what the steps you need to take are, and what barriers are preventing you getting there. If you wanted to lose weight you could picture yourself thinner and see how it would play out in your life, then think about what you need to do to consume less calories or burn off more. Then see what is stopping you. You could identify that you aren’t getting to the gym if you go home from work first, or that you are always tempted when there is cake in the office, or buy unhealthy snacks when you don’t take a lunch to work. Once you recognise them, you can then make an informed choice, and if the benefits are worth the extra effort you then need to address the barriers. One of my goals is to make my business self-sufficient enough to continue even if I went off long-term sick, and could provide me an income in retirement. So I have been thinking about how to recruit and train others to sustain the business, and create products that can utilise my skills and knowledge without me having to deliver everything in person (eg can I train others to deliver training, deliver it as a webinar, or make videos of the training available to subscribers).

8) Get a better bubble. They say that we are the average of the five people we spend most time with, and whilst that isn’t a scientifically validated concept, I think that it has some merit to it. We are all normed by those we spend most time with, so I’ve actively chosen to seek out the company of people I admire and want to learn from, and who will challenge my assumptions and habits. More specifically, I’ve been trying to spend more time with other social entrepreneurs, rather than the long-term NHS, education and social care professionals I already know, so that I move away from the common assumptions of this kind of work, and can be more creative and less risk averse in how I look to create impact. You also need to enlist the support of the key people in your life so they reinforce your goals, rather than unwittingly draw you back into old habits.

9) Get reflective. Use your supervision, your trusted confidants or keep a journal. If you want to take it one step further, why not seek out therapy, or coaching, or personal development opportunities. Give yourself time to think and regroup, particularly after stressful or emotional experiences. As well as the benefit of some wonderful supervisors, I’ve had various coaches and mentors since I left the NHS, and I’ve attended various groups and training programmes. Each one has helped me understand myself better, and refine my plans to make them more likely to success. It is really good to take time outside the pressure of spinning all the plates to look at why you are spinning them, which are most important, and how they make you feel. It can help you to consider the pros and cons of different options, and to identify goals and actions.

10) Be kind to yourself. Remember that you need to attach your own oxygen mask before you can help others with theirs. Take time out when you need to, and find the things that replenish you. Be realistic about what is possible or what you have capacity for, and learn to say no to unreasonable demands. Don’t be too self-critical. Seek out and remember the positive feedback, and the things you have already achieved. Take the time to note the positives and be grateful.

And above all: Enjoy the journey. There is no rush to get to the destination. Dance whilst the music is playing.


*with the agreement of your manager, of course.

Why did I think that?

On Sunday morning I moaned to my husband about the fact I always seem to wear the same familiar items of clothing over and over in rotation. He pointed out that this might be because I had less than half of my clothes in circulation, as the rest hadn’t been unpacked since we had moved – two years ago! How had I not noticed this? It suddenly made sense of my nagging sense of absence in my wardrobe. Looking back I could identify that over the last couple of years I had felt short of smarter clothes to wear to work, and aware that I was wearing more of the casual comfortable clothes I had previously worn at home even when doing work activities. It wasn’t a huge problem because I have been doing less court work, and doing more work from home. But I had sometimes felt self-conscious about whether I would appear too informal*. However, instead of having recognised that these feelings reflected a genuine shortfall, I had just acted on the vague sense of deficit by buying replacement items. When I retrieved the missing clothing from the packing cases and sorted through my total wardrobe I had bought more than ten pairs of work trousers since we moved here, and as many new work tops – meaning that when combined with my rediscovered store of clothing I suddenly had an excess of them. Doh!

I also struggle to part with old clothes that I love, even when they are quite worn out, or get damaged. I have particular favourite tops that have gained punctures or pulled threads over time, but these are not visible unless you look closely so it feels wasteful to throw them away. Our washing machine also seems to create small punctures in items from time to time – particularly just above the knee of thin cotton trousers. It isn’t that we can’t afford new clothes, I just don’t like the environmental and sociopolitical ramifications of buying cheap and disposing of things frequently. However, with my children I have a strict rule that if an item is damaged we fix it or bin it** (perhaps fuelled by having observed so much neglect, and a bit of parental indulgence) and we sort through their clothes twice a year to give away those that they have grown out of. It is a notable contrast that I find that process of review and quality control harder to implement for myself. As I said, I have a general preference for buying good quality things that last compared to buying often to follow fashions, and a strong dislike of wastefulness. Plus my body shape and size has been fairly consistent over time***. This combination means a lot of my clothes have been around for a long time – I still sometimes wear a T-shirt to the gym that I bought the week I got my A-level results, I sometimes wear hand-me-downs from my high school best friend that I haven’t spoken to in twenty years, and I only recently retired a long sleeve T-shirt I’ve slept in more nights than not since my teens (I’m in my early forties). That means that I have gradually accumulated clothes to the point they fill a two-metre hanging rail and two drawers, plus three smaller drawers for underwear and socks. I’m not convinced I need so many. Even when I had all of my clothing available to me, I didn’t wear it all and some items would get worn less than once a year, whilst favourites would get worn again each time they returned from being washed. So why do I buy them?

I also have a tendency to buy too many shoes. Part of the problem is that I am strongly attracted to shoes that I can imagine myself wearing in some kind of fantasy world where I don’t actually have to walk very far or stand up for very long or drive the car, but that I don’t choose to wear when faced with the reality of my plans for the day ahead. So I have about twenty pairs of shoes with wedge heels and/or platform soles in the bottom of my wardrobe upstairs, whilst I mainly wear sensible comfortable shoes/boots that I keep in the shoe rack by the front door. I also have quite a few sets of what I think of as silly shoes, as I have often been enticed by designs that are a contrast to traditional expectations in some way – perhaps as a small act of rebellion – that are sometimes practical enough to wear, but sometimes languish unworn in the cupboard. I’m not a big spender, as I mainly buy fairly modest brands and usually in the sales, so it isn’t that I’m wasting lots of money. But it feels quite contradictory to my wider values to be hooked into any form of consumerism. In particular, it seems to conform to stereotypes about women, and our willingness as a gender to suffer discomfort in order to appear more attractive that I don’t consciously endorse.****

So I have spent the day diligently trying on every item of clothing I own and sorting out those that are damaged to dispose of, and those I won’t wear to give to the charity shop. I’ve also sorted out ten pairs of shoes I have never worn that I intend to sell online in the hope of recouping some of the money I have wasted.

But, being a psychologist and being curious about this stuff, I’ve also been wondering about the thinking patterns that have put me into this situation. Why was it that my brain kept telling me to buy more work clothes without identifying that some of my existing ones were missing? Why is it that I set higher standards for the appearance of my children than I do for myself? Why is it that I repeatedly buy shoes that I don’t wear? I think it must reflect a discrepancy between my sense of self, and the reality. My inner sense of myself is younger, slimmer and more unconventional than the overweight middle-aged mum you see from the outside, and has almost infinite time and energy, so I have some positive delusions about myself. But, like many (most?) people, I’m also more self-critical, both about the things I don’t get done (both at work, at home and creatively), my disorganisation (kindly reframed by several people I trust as “taking on more than it is possible for one person to keep in order”), and of my face or body when captured in unflattering photographs (which seems to be pretty normal, given the prevalence of filters now in use, the selectiveness with which photos to share are selected from massive numbers taken, and the use of photoshop on celebrity images). The standards I set myself are high, and at some level I compare myself to an unrealistic ideal. That Miriam can dance about in fancy shoes without looking ungainly or falling over, and can fit in twice as many things as I do in a week, whilst appearing glamorous in photos, and coming across as organised and well-presented at all times. That Miriam can be the perfect wife and mother as well as running a business and having a load of creative side-projects. She can have a social life, be involved in the community and support the causes she is passionate about. And compared to her I will always fall short.

Yet if it was someone else, I’d be the first to appreciate them as they are, and tell them that their cup is quite full enough to not waste mental energy on comparing themselves to unrealistic ideals. When I see photos of friends and family I see the person that I love and their relationships, activities and emotional expressions, not the awkward posture, double chin, or spot on their nose that they see first. There are times I feel frustrated with others, but if they are apologising about being late or messing up a plan, the chances are I’m probably viewing that as trivial in the context of what they mean to me, and all the times they’ve been there when I needed them. So on balance I think I judge myself harshly, and my friends and loved ones generously, but I have a strong sense of them as an individual.

With people I meet through work, I don’t know them as an individual before we meet, and there is often a negative narrative that is being told about them, but I find empathy as I hear their story and see their challenges in the context of their (usually traumatic) history. That is true of the parents I meet through court proceedings or social services, as well as with the children and young people themselves. Even if the person has done some bad things, I can usually find something to like about them, or feel sympathetic about their experiences. Yet with a stranger or when thinking about a population demographic (eg “rough sleepers” or “brexiteers”), we don’t have these relationships or individual narratives to inform us, so we often fall back onto stereotypes, no matter how much we try to resist them – perhaps because we don’t have the additional information required to flesh out that initial impression.

That would tie in to lots of psychology research about how poor our judgements are about ourselves, and the fundamental attribution error. It also ties into our inherent prejudices about ourselves and about others. For example, it is fairly prevalent at the moment to associate being overweight with laziness, gluttony and lack of self-control, as I mentioned in my first blog, when in reality it seems to reflect socioeconomic factors, trauma history and low mood more than personality deficits. I’ve previously talked about my own excess weight as a security blanket after feeling at risk of rape in my late teens but I might not have mentioned that as a vegetarian fruit and veg junkie I actually eat very well, swim regularly and was quite serious about weight lifting before my minor RTA. I don’t care too much about conforming to social expectations of appearance, but I do like to feel like my body is healthy and has the ability to do stuff (and I get a lot of secret joy from having “ninja muscles” – a term I use because, like ninjas, unless I want to reveal them nobody else would know they are there) – yet this is the reverse of what might be perceived of me by others, who might associate my body shape with a bad diet or sedentary lifestyle. Weight lifting wasn’t something I had thought of before a friend trained as a personal trainer, but when I tried it I liked. The measurable gains were rewarding***** and it felt like it might become a way to shed the security blanket whilst still feeling safe, so it is something I am trying to return to. Building some hidden muscles made me feel strong and healthy, but also tickles the part of me that likes to buck expectations – as nobody expects a middle aged mum to be deadlifting a 19 stone barbell!

Having reflected on the way I see myself and others for a while, I think the challenge is to be more self-aware, and to find a way to be authentic. The process of keeping a reflective journal that we discussed on the clinpsy forum is one means to achieve that. Personal therapy can also serve a similar purpose. Or just having a regular time in which to reflect, perhaps as part of a mindfulness practise. It is worth being aware of the common cognitive distortions, so that you can spot them in yourself too. Having rediscovered some lost bits of my aspirational self, I think I’m going to try to be a little bit more playful, and a bit less self-critical. And maybe I’ll express that by being more mindful about the clothes I choose to purchase and to wear in future. I also want to express more of the positive parts of that inner self into the world – so who knows, the next time you see me maybe I’ll be wearing those silly shoes.

Footnote (added 25/5/18): I wore some of those fancy shoes I’ve been hoarding to visit the House of Lords the week before last. They seemed really comfortable when I set out that morning, but by 6pm I had quite severe blisters. I ended up walking back to the hotel barefoot before buying some flip-flops the following morning.

*For those who care about these things, I’m not referring to wearing jeans or T-shirts with pictures or slogans on them, or anything that is distressed or damaged. I tend to favour soft T-shirt like fabrics or those with a slight stretch built in, rather than very smart clothing that is stiff and fitted. I generally like to wear trousers and tops in warm dark colours that are either plain or bold prints. I sometimes wear print dresses or skirts – and I do own four trouser suits for court work – but my staple is trousers and a top. Thursday would be fairly typical of how I dress – I wore aubergine trousers with a jeans-like cut and slight velvet texture, coupled with a three-quarter sleeved plum coloured top and a longer open dark purple top over it like a twinset.
**Or more accurately recycle or use it as rags, as we try to be a low-waste household
***I currently weigh two pounds less than the day I first tried on my wedding dress in 1996, which would be impressive if I wasn’t already obese by then
****It is strange that as a gender we seem to have a shared perception that propping ourselves up on high heels makes us look taller and slimmer, and forces us into a posture more flattering to the legs and bum – and that we are willing to sacrifice not only comfort, but our ability to move through the environment at speed or on uneven ground to do so.
*****Something I think is also true when using outcome measurement to demonstrate the impact of therapy or interventions