For many years, being tired was just part of my life. I woke up tired, felt tired all day long, and by 9:30pm I was grateful to fall into bed. I was tired in the week, tired at weekends, tired during the holidays.
But that was normal, wasn’t it? I was a working mother of two young children! Exhaustion goes with the territory. Certainly, whenever my partner raised the fact that I was always tired, I snapped back at him that it was no wonder, with everything I had to do. The days were full with work and childcare, at night I got as much sleep as I could to recharge my batteries. I was eating healthily – what more could I do?
As part of my second course of coaching, I kept an energy diary. On a scale from 1 to 10, I scored my energy levels each day. I also recorded specific incidents that gave me energy – ‘energy sources’- or that sapped my energy – ‘energy leaks’. For the first few weeks, I scored consistently highly, 7s and 8s. But, after talking it over with my coach, I realised that my internal scale was completely skewed. I scored a day with a 7 if I felt I was getting by. Once I had admitted this to myself, my scores plunged down to 5 or lower.
Keeping the energy diary, however, gave me more insight than simply confirming that I was tired. It showed me what was causing me to be tired – and that was often surprising. I could have a very busy day and have a comparatively high energy level, equally I could have a quiet day and be exhausted. It wasn’t how much I was doing that made me tired, it was what I was doing. An hour spent working hard in the garden gave me energy, an hour spent sitting in a meeting cost me energy. An afternoon of playing at hut-building in the park with my kids was an energy source, five minutes of my daughter throwing a tantrum at having to leave the park drained it all away.
Plugging the energy leaks
Over time, a pattern started to build up. Activities that achieved nothing, situations where I was ignored or overruled, incidents that made me doubt myself, emotionally fraught environments – these all wore away at my energy levels. Once I could see these patterns, I could take action to combat the energy leaks.
Simplest of all was to avoid the leak. For example, I was volunteering on the parent council of our daycare. Meetings in the evening, emails to be answered, and all with the feeling that we were only there to tick a box. I had taken the job on in the hope of giving something back, but I felt I was not achieving that. Easy solution – I quit.
However, I was stuck with many leaks for at least the short term, being unable to either change jobs straightaway, or to reasonably hope that my young children would turn into calm, rational beings overnight. But being aware of the leaks meant I could try to shift them around a bit. If I had already had a hard morning of unproductive meetings, then that afternoon was not the best moment to tackle a complex discussion with a difficult colleague. Instead, I would go and brainstorm with a colleague I got on well with, and save the tough encounter for another day.
Some leaks were also largely due to what was in my own head. I’ve discussed this at length in a previous blog post. Thinking the situations over in a rational way helped me to remove a lot of the emotional baggage that made them so exhausting for me. Understanding that clashes with colleagues weren’t a battle to decide who was wrong and who was right, but simply a meeting of different opinions and viewpoints. Seeing that my children weren’t throwing tantrums because I was a bad mother, but because that’s how children react when they are thwarted in something they care passionately about – and children care passionately about very different things than adults. Accepting that there were things I was unable to change, not due to my own inadequacies, but because they were outside of my sphere of influence.
Turning on the energy sources
This all helped to reduce my energy leaks. Even so, I was still tired. This was because I was neglecting the other side of the balance – the energy sources. In my way of thinking, activities cost energy, relaxation or sleep rebuilt energy. The trouble was, while I could sleep fine, I had serious difficulties relaxing. If I had a spare moment, I spent it doing something productive – cleaning, baking, planning our holiday. Even a short period of ‘down’ time, such as reading (my previously favourite hobby) gave me such a stomach-knotting sense of guilt that I soon stopped and went to do something ‘useful’. When I had a day off and treated myself to a long, hot bath, I climbed out more stressed than I had been before.
My energy diary showed me that activities could themselves be valuable energy sources – if I chose the right ones. An enthusiastic conversation with a like-minded colleague, a quiet moment reading to my daughter, a nature walk. Most of all – determining myself what I was going to do, free of the demands of others. This last one was tough to achieve, as it meant actively choosing for time for myself. This felt like a terribly selfish thing to do. Luckily, one Sunday, it happened that both my daughters were out of the house with friends. My partner was busy with his own hobbies. I consciously chose not to spend the time checking off tasks on my to-do list, but also not to spend it just relaxing. Instead, I busied myself with a variety of activities that gave me energy and that I would not normally have done. I went for a walk by myself, I cooked some of my favourite food, I spent some time writing. The next morning, I woke up to a strange sensation. For the first time in years, I was not tired.
‘Me’ time is great for ‘us’
Since then, I dare to allow myself more ‘me’ time, and my knowledge of my own energy sources helps me to spend it in a way that recharges my batteries. Amazingly, this has had a knock-on effect, not only giving me more energy directly, but setting up a positive energy spiral. When I am busy with positive activities, I am less prone to negative thoughts – the ultimate energy drain. When I have energy, I am more likely to feel up to undertaking something new and challenging at work – which gives me energy. When I feel good about myself, I am better at handling my children, and they respond with better behaviour – turning our time together from an energy leak into an energy source.
But the effects go further. My children get much more from me as a happy, fulfilled mother than as a stressed one. Deliberately stepping out of the hamster wheel of lunches, school forms and clothing gives time to spend with them in ways that they appreciate far more, reading my daughter’s self-made comic strip, playing a game of football or indulging on flights of fantasy about what we would do on our dream holiday. Having time for my own interests makes it easier to pay attention to theirs. I also have energy to invest in my relationship with my partner, so that time alone together is not just about breathing a sigh of relief that the kids are in bed, but about rediscovering the parts of ourselves from before we were parents. That selfish act of spending time on myself has a beneficial effect for my whole family.
I don’t keep an energy diary anymore. But I am still alert to my energy sources and leaks. When I notice I am getting tired again, I work on reducing my leaks, and make time for a few extra sources. My life is still very busy. I am still a working mother with two young children. But with a better energy balance, everything is just that bit more manageable – and enjoyable.
Especially once I discovered the ultimate energy source…but that secret will just have to wait until my next post.