Reduce Your Work Stress And Focus On Self-Care, Your One True Priority
Self-care is not a chore that holds you back from success, it is the engine that drives your success
I recently hit a wall on the road to professional and academic success.
The roadblock was my own lack of ability to grasp the latest topic in my Computer Science degree. I didn’t lack motivation or enthusiasm for the subject, as I’ve been making my own iOS apps since before I decided to get a degree. Instead of playing to my strengths, I was tasked with using C++ and DirectX to control computer graphics at the most basic level. Instead of using natural language to describe what I wanted, I needed to spoon-feed the GPU with each piece of data it needed to render each individual frame.
It was like taking a time machine back to a time when computer programming was so difficult and tedious that I’m not sure I would have bothered becoming a programmer.
The problem was that even when I was forcing myself to sit at the computer and try to learn this stuff, the difficulty I had with it meant that I could work for hours and achieve zero progress. It doesn’t take many experiences of zero achievement during hours of intense effort to frustrate me. I gain a lot of pride from being a productive person and, if I put my mind to something, I usually get it done.
I’ve seen countless iOS app projects from initial ideas through to multiple stable App Store releases.
I’m not used to experiencing failure when I truly want to succeed.
I have ADHD that wasn’t diagnosed until a year ago, when I was 27. Focusing on a single task is very hard for me unless that task is fun or it’s something I’m good. Tasks that are boring are hard to even consider starting, let alone stick to for long periods of time to achieve an outcome that still isn’t very fun or engaging.
After a few weeks I started to distract myself from the torment of stagnant progress
I was allowed to use Swift to make iOS apps for some of my other subjects, so I focused on those. When I wanted to escape university work entirely, I focused on my own personal coding projects. I wrote posts here on Medium, and began to drift away from the subject of coding tutorials towards less popular (but more personal) topics.
Even in my writing I was desperate to escape the stress of coding.
My writing became stressful too. I wasn’t getting as much positive feedback when I wrote about new topics, so it didn’t feel worth the effort. My university work declined, my writing work declined, and my personal projects declined. I stopped doing any of my usual daily routines, and I slumped into a depression. I had scheduled my days around three types of activity, and they were all starting to cause me equal amounts of stress.
I signed up for Better Help so that I could have someone to talk to about my predicament.
After several weeks of counselling I realised something.
I’ve had my priorities completely backwards
I thought that making my apps and writing Medium stories were hobbies that made me happy, and they did to an extent. But I was focused on getting stuff done every day. Every day I woke up and said to myself “what stressful thing needs to be achieved today?” When I refocused and started tracking my daily routine, I found I didn’t need to code or write.
I knew that my daily routine had fallen apart when I stopped working on university work or personal projects because I was using the Streaks app. This app allows you to choose up to 12 tasks that you want to do every single day, and it tracks (you guessed it) your streak of consecutive days doing that task. After some limited success doing my routine for between 5 and 8 days, I was now doing virtually none of them for days at a time.
Once I refocused myself on self-care in the form of my Streaks app, I started beating my all time best streaks. The simple tasks of brushing my teeth, shaving and exercising were achievements I didn’t appreciate before. Now I was developing healthy habits, and I wasn’t trying to do any of the stressful activities that were usually the focus of my day. Like a stern parent, I was saying to myself “first you do your chores, then you can go and play.”
One of the things that had depressed me the most was seeing how I was unable to complete the basic tasks of my routine. I thought that it was my hobbies that made me happy, but I didn’t even do them as I focused on my routine. My daily tasks were now not just expected but mandatory. All else had become secondary. I was happy to succeed at looking after myself because that’s the real foundation of good living.
Not success, but true self-care.
Everything else, and I mean everything, is secondary to looking after your basic needs.
I thought self-care was some optional thing I could fit in at some tiny portion of the day when all my stressful tasks are done. Nope, it’s the complete opposite. Stressful tasks can wait until I do the things that make me feel like a real human being and not a work machine. This is why I’ve dropped out of university before, I kept forcing myself to work on things I found stressful until I had a literal breakdown. I became completely unable to do anything and became the kind of psychotic person who thinks a secret code can be uncovered and written about in a book that would make me both rich and famous.
I ended up staying on a psychiatric ward for 11 days, and was only allowed to leave after a tribunal with lawyers and a magistrate determined that I could leave if I continued to take anti-psychotic medication.
Like me, you might not be getting much exercise because you can’t motivate yourself to do it. but a lack of exercise actually causes the bad feelings or invasive thoughts to get out of control. Anxiety is a fight-or-flight mechanism, and if you can’t fight then you want to flee. That’s running, that’s cycling, that’s literally anything that gets your heart rate up. If I could give you one piece of advice it would be to choose some exercise routine however short or small and commit to doing it every single day, no matter how you feel, no matter what excuses you make to yourself.
The neurochemicals you get from exercise are exactly what helps you to feel accomplished and capable. That’s because you were capable of something and you accomplished it. Don’t diminish it because it’s not writing a million lines of code, or whatever the equivalent lofty goal is for you. The prioritisation of work as the barometer of success is artificial. All types of success are valid successes. Even doing chores is a success, and unless you recognise how much you’re doing, you won’t realise how successful you are as a human being.
- There are many kinds of success, many of which society (wrongly) doesn’t value highly
- Sticking to a daily routine wherever possible is not optional but essential
- If you’re not succeeding at one task, try another easier task and come back to the task you’re struggling with
- Find small indulgences that makes you feel good and do them regularly
- Break down giant, insurmountable tasks into achievable smaller tasks
Thanks for reading!