Can We Take Loving Care of Ourselves and Still Reach Our Goals?

By GoGirlsMusic Co-Executive Director rorie kelly

I've been working hard for as long as I can remember.

Somewhere during the course of growing up, I really had the message hammered home that if you want to reach your goals, you have to work hard. You can get there, but you have to struggle first. I think a lot of us got that message--at least in America, where I grew up, the "pulling yourself up by your bootstraps" thing is a really powerful part of our cultural mythology.

I have to be honest here: I'm pretty over it.

My bootstraps and I have burned ourselves out pretty thoroughly with constant hard work. Only in the last few years, when I started to really prioritize my own self-care and happiness, have I started to make the kind of progress I’ve always wanted in my career. And I’m still working hard--really, really hard, to be honest--but I’m no longer willing to make myself sick and miserable with work.

Here’s what workaholism looks like: You start off working hard for what feels like a good reason, and you really firmly believe that the work is going to get you where you need to go. The harder the work, you figure, the faster you’ll get there. Over time, though, constantly pushing yourself becomes a way of life. You start to lose interest in other areas of life. All of your emotions become very tied up in your work--when you hit a goal you feel a brief, sweet victory, but when things are going poorly it can be devastating. When you work so hard that your health suffers, you feel regretful--that is, you regret that your health is getting in the way of the work you need to do. But you feel proud of yourself for pushing through it anyway.

Until you hit a breaking point.

A few summers ago, I spent a summer regaining my sanity and learning (in my late twenties) the basics of self care. I began scheduling actual days off where I was not allowed to do any work. It felt crazy and revolutionary. I also realized I was awful at happiness. Faced with a day with no agenda but pursuing my own joy, I realized I had no clue how to do that. What even brought me joy? I realized I didn't know anymore, although ostensibly the reason I'd been working so hard for so long was supposed to be about happiness.

I went rogue. By the way, "going rogue" to a workaholic looks like ignoring your to do list and email for an entire 48 hours, getting enough sleep for days at a time, doing yoga and perhaps even getting a massage--totally wacky stuff like that. I also bought a netflix subscription and rediscovered reading--two things I had not made time for in years.

At the end of it, I rediscovered that the reasons behind my work were sound. When I got past the mess of conditioning screaming at me that it was not OK to relax, and re-learned how to pursue my own happiness, I remembered that the reason I was trying to make a living from music was because music made me feel better than anything else could. I realized (again) that I would never feel whole unless I was truly devoting my life to my true calling. But I also knew that losing myself in so much work that I forgot about joy was a dead end.

The last few years have been a little like a seesaw as I've scrabbled to make progress at two goals: the music career I've always been focused on, and learning how to treat myself well and bring myself joy. I'm no longer willing to put off joy until I reach my big goal. (I also suspect I could set bigger and bigger goals for myself, endlessly, continuing to put off joy indefinitely.)

At times I feel downright allergic to responsibilities and I do what I can to honor those feelings, drop the work and take care of myself. I've turned a critical eye on all my work processes--is this truly needed, or is this just busywork that lets me feel like I'm Working Hard? Does this really match my goals and my personality, or is it just something I feel I "should" be working on because some music industry blog said so?

I want to be very honest here: I don’t have it figured out yet, at all. I still fall into burnout traps, I still beat myself up for what I haven’t done or didn’t know to do, I still push myself too hard some days and I still have other days where I fully intend to relax but just can’t get myself there. But I still know who I am and I haven’t lost the lesson. I’m just taking my time learning how to apply it in my life. It’s a journey full of small choices and I do my best with each day.

Two key mindset changes have occurred that really allowed me to level up in a way I couldn’t when I was in full-on worker bee mode.

  1. I’ve opened myself up to the idea that I don’t have to do everything myself. I have a supportive community now, and a husband that helps me both by taking tasks off my shoulders and being there for me when I’m overwhelmed. Now that I’ve stopped viewing other musicians as competition, I’ve formed a few really important friendships with other women musicians. We help each other out by passing on gigs to each other, supporting each other emotionally, pooling our skills and talents, and sporadically goofing off and doing nothing in particular together.
  2. Now that I believe my day-to-day happiness is as important as my success, I completely bail on gigs or business relationships that make me feel undervalued or used. And you know what? Better gigs and better humans have taken their places--I’m making more money AND I’m enjoying myself more. By passing on "opportunities" that always ended up making me feel foolish and incompetent (you know those gigs--where you’re playing for "exposure" but you’re supposed to provide the crowd, too?) I was able to open my eyes to other options that were actually more in line with my goal.

I am someone who never gives up--I’ve proven that to myself over and over, sometimes even in harmful ways. But I think at this point in my life I can take that trait and apply it to the stuff that really matters. I’m great at working hard, and I can apply that to any goal I choose. Now that my goals are primarily about happiness (both short term and long term), I am not just working hard but working with heart. It makes me feel a lot more hopeful than I used to--after all, I’ve got a smart go-getter looking out for me every single day.