How Getting Fired Improved My Mental Health
Being pushed out of the workforce pushed me to think differently.
My recent firing was unexpected, not pandemic related, and not indicative of my value to this particular company. It was just time to part ways; a truth I wasn’t going to act on myself. In many ways I’m thankful it happened, it gave me the opportunity to slow down and reevaluate my priorities. I finally admitted that my life had been completely out of balance. And, because my mental health was suffering, my family’s quality of life was suffering too. Now, being unemployed has taught me lessons and habits I wish I had put in practice while I was working.
In this phase of life, I’m still working toward that ever-elusive sense of balance, something I didn’t come close to as a mom with a job in marketing. As a people pleaser, my motivation everyday was keeping everybody else happy: my family, my co-workers, my clients. I thought if I was adding value to others’ days, that would be enough to satisfy me. But satisfaction is far from happiness. And while I’m already much happier after resetting my personal goals and expectations of success, the right balance will always be a work in progress. Here are the lessons I’ve learned to help me get there:
#1: Having a personal ritual is key
While working full time, I had a schedule, but not a routine. I would never wake up early enough to avoid a chaotic rush. The morning tasks were the same every day, but there was never a system to auto-pilot. The kids would be dropped off at daycare at inconsistent times. I was always racing to work. The big thing missing here was time for me to stop and think about what I wanted to accomplish in the day — and not just the to-do list at work. I went from get-ready rush, to work rush, to pick-up and dinner rush, to bedtime rush.
With a new routine, I have created time and space to be thoughtful about what needs to happen each morning to set everyone, most importantly me, up for success. This routine not only gives me time to think, but it creates boundaries around how I spend my time so there is no ambiguity or free for all. Specifically, my personal ritual every morning is drinking 20 oz of water before my coffee, stretching to wake up my body and mind as soon as I’m out of bed, and walking 2 miles between Kindergarten and Preschool drop-offs with my son in the stroller. Along with getting kids ready and lunches made, it’s a simple routine I’m finally able to execute with little effort or stress. I’m finally exercising regularly because my daily walks aren’t a choice I have to make, they are a habit that happens without question.
Why we benefit from a routine
In his book, “Thinking Fast and Slow,” Daniel Kahneman explains that our brains have two ways to process thought. System 1 is our automatic, mechanical response system, where we act and process things instinctively with little cognitive effort. Routines, mental shortcuts, and impulsive reactions are included here, i.e. things on auto-pilot. System 2 is thinking that requires more focus and attention to detail, such as problem-solving or trying something new, i.e. things that require more cognitive effort. According to Kahneman, most of our time is spent thinking in System 1 which leaves a lot of cognitive capacity for System 2 thinking. So, it stands to reason that when more thinking action shifts to System 1, more energy becomes available to spend on more important things.
#2 Focus on Macro over Micro
Those more important things are those that bring me joy. In my corporate life, feeling productive or having accomplished something brought me joy. What I’ve discovered since is that feeling wasn’t joy, it was satisfaction in not feeling like a failure. Again, satisfaction is not happiness.
In the days leading up to my firing (I knew it was coming), I thought: “If I’m not thinking about work, what will I think about?” That was a big red flag that I didn’t have a healthy mindset. My brain was consumed with things on my to-do list that were left unchecked, the things that never made it to my to-list, and also trying to think ahead of that to-do list so I didn’t fall behind. At no point was I thinking about things to actually benefit me.
The lesson in this new life? I don’t do well micromanaging my days. Even now I have the best intentions in making lists in the morning, but it’s more likely that I will lose focus on every line item that isn’t time-sensitive. Instead, I set monthly goals and weekly priorities and forget about those daily items. (If you haven’t guessed already, I’m not Type A.) I have about three or four hours a day that is my focus time, and I’ve set boundaries around that time to work on anything I want, as long as it’s supporting a goal. And I’m surprisingly productive. I’ve yet to binge on Netflix.
How I get things done:
I make a point to accomplish one or two things in each of my goal categories every day, in addition to those daily maintenance items:
- House + home
- Family + health
- Personal growth
I know what those things are without having to make an itemized list because they are the things I WANT to do to feel forward momentum in my life. It’s a mindset shift really — chores don’t feel tedious and daunting because they are a means to a positive, beneficial end. I want to have a nice, orderly home — it keeps me from feeling negative and overwhelmed in my environment. I want to be a good provider to my family — we collectively have less stress when things run smoothly. I want to develop as a writer — turns out it’s an ambition I never knew I had. And, I want to feel better in my body — it’s what’s going to keep me going.
So while accomplishing line items on a list is a great way to feel productive for some, I’ve learned that, for me, checking a box is a false sense of progress. My tendency has always been to tackle the smallest, easiest tasks first, check the box, and pat myself on the back for “being productive.” But, by kicking the bigger items down the line meant I wasn’t creating momentum. So now, I’ve given up on lists, and every day I work on making forward progress. Even if it’s a slow, small step and nothing is actually completed, it’s worthy of praise.
The Power of Small Wins
The Havard Business Review published an article in 2011 with this same title. While its main focus is motivation and productivity in the workplace, the same principles — namely the “progress principle” — apply to the everyday.
“Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions… the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run.”
The important thing noted here is “meaningful work.” It’s something everyone gets to define on their own terms. You get to decide what has meaning to you. Therefore, any incremental movement toward that meaningful goal, no matter how small, evokes positive feelings and further motivation to keep going.
But what happens when you don’t make as much progress as you wanted to on a given day?
#3 Find the pace that works for now, not forever
This is what I struggled with the most to start. After the break-neck pace came to a halt, I defaulted to the other extreme. Over the summer with the kids at home in pandemic mode, time moved so slowly, and so did we. By no means could anyone call me productive. A successful week was one when I managed to leave the house for a fun distraction with the kids. I was licking my wounds and using stay at home orders as a scapegoat. I wasn’t meeting my own expectations and the negative feedback loop cycled over and over.
Once Kindergarten and pre-school started, I set boundaries around these few personal hours to focus on growth. I would write and blog and publish on Medium and market my content on social media. I’ve done that to a degree but at nowhere near the pace I expected for myself. The problem was that I was expecting results to drive me. When results didn’t come to fruition, I blamed myself for not working hard enough and the negative feedback loop continued.
And then I cut myself a break because transition is hard and it takes a minute for pieces to fall into place. And maybe the pieces will never come together at once. So, when it comes to my writing goals, I’ve moved the goal post several dozen times. I know that soon it will stay in one place for a longer period of time, but for now I’m going to appreciate every inch of progress I’m able to make, even if that means writing for minutes a day instead of hours. Because that’s the pace that works for me today, and relieving myself of any pressure to think otherwise is a better strategy for the long game.
Separating progress from results
True, they aren’t mutually exclusive in every instance. Though to stay motivated and on the right pace, try not to define progress by any measure that is out of your hands. If acceptance or validation from someone else is what you need to consider progress made, you are letting others influence your perception of success.
Of course, the exception here is employers and instances of significant responsibility, but when it comes to our personal goals, we so often compare our accomplishments and successes against others. We judge ourselves against what we see online, and the affliction is beginning younger and younger. Instead — and this is a tough mental exercise — focus on evaluating your progress against YOUR goals and expectations. Then make adjustments, change the pace, and hold yourself accountable. When you aren’t rising to the occasion, resolve to try again. Give yourself grace. Results should be considered an outcome of progress, not an input to progress.
Shifting your mindset
There is a theme here. Sometimes all it takes is to think and act differently about the situation you’re presented with.
- Instead of being overwhelmed with all that life throws at you, create an easily-executable routine that relieves some of the decision-making.
- Instead of focusing on the minutiae of what needs to happen every day, prioritize actions that make progress toward a meaningful goal.
- Instead of self-criticizing a lack of productivity or accomplishment, make adjustments until you find a pace that creates the right momentum.
I’m putting these lessons into practice every day, and I’m in a much healthier mental space. Have I mastered these mindset shifts? No. But the progress I’ve made toward balancing family life with my personal growth goals has created enough positive momentum to keep me moving forward.