On burnout.

After years of honing, these are my essential practices to avoid burnout in an age of busyness.

I’ve had burnout on the brain lately, because the topic is everywhere: in my inbox, in the books I’m reading, in conversations with friends.

A few days ago, I recorded a podcast with Elizabeth Foss for her Restore Workshop, which begins today. When I say I want to be Elizabeth when I grow up, I’m only kind of kidding—even though our lives are decidedly different. She’s Catholic; I am not. She’s devoted to homeschooling; I’m ambivalent; She has ten kids (and a grandchild!); I only have four. But she is so wise, and I hope to grow into that kind of wisdom one day.

The Restore Workshop focuses on burnout, or more precisely, recovering from it. Elizabeth began by asking about a time where I felt burnt out, depleted, and overwhelmed. She said she assumed I’d had a time like that. Of course I have—haven’t we all?

I’ve experienced circumstantial burnout: I’ve gone to bed a weepy mess because I didn’t want to face another impossible day at work. I’ve had whole seasons when the intense mothering was just too much. There have been whole years when I felt pushed to the very edge—when I consistently lacked the rest I needed.

And there have been times I brought burnout on myself: when I pushed too hard, took on too much; when I literally made myself sick with my own unrelenting drive.

Just a few weeks ago, I was flirting with burnout of my own making: I pushed myself a little too hard, and I felt myself teetering on the edge between normal tired and I-need-to-read-for-5-days-straight-to-get-over-this tired. I recognized this in time (that wasn’t always the case) and pulled back, and fast.

I don’t love using the word balance in the work/life conversation because it implies that things should be equal, like on a see-saw, or a scale. That’s not the kind of balance most people seek. But I do need to stay balanced in another sense: I need to stay on my feet, metaphorically speaking. Burning out is like falling down, and it’s a lot easier to just stay upright than it is to get back up after you wipe out.

For me, wiping out looks like overwhelmed in every possible way. I’m hurried, frantic, snappish. Things that usually don’t bother me (like cluttered kitchen counters, or the sound of a kid raking through the LEGO bucket) make me crazy. I have no grace for myself or anyone else.

When I fall down, I can’t just bounce back up. It takes days to recover.

I’ve finally internalized the obvious lesson: the easiest way to deal with burnout is to avoid it in the first place.

JoyPhoto source

I just finished reading The Fringe Hours, which was just released yesterday. I know Jessica from her blog and a little bit from real life, and I enjoyed getting her perspective in book-length form. The book’s subtitle is making time for you: its focus is how and why to create “me time” in your life. The “fringe” hours are those limited pieces of time that appear on the margins of a day, but that’s not all. Fringe is also used to make a garment more beautiful, and fringe hour pursuits do the same for life.

I imagine two types of people will read this book: the kind to whom the hows and whys of “me time” are a revelation, and the kind who don’t need any convincing because they’re already making plenty of time for themselves.

Many of Jessica’s tips and insights are second nature to me now, but that wasn’t always the case. It took me a long time—and a lot of falling down—to finally absorb the important lesson that I am not last. My hope is that The Fringe Hours will smooth the path for other women. This isn’t a lesson anyone wants to learn the hard way!

I don’t flirt with burnout much anymore. I’ve learned how to keep clear of the edge, even if my biggest challenge remains actually doing those things.

After years of honing, these are my essential practices to avoid burnout in an age of busyness.

When Elizabeth and I talked, she asked for my go-to practices that bring a sense of calm and rest to days—or a season—that might leave me prone to burnout and depletion. After years of honing, these are my essential practices to avoid burnout in an age of busyness:

Embrace routine. I’ve built regular rhythms of work and rest into my days, weeks, seasons. I stop to read every day at 2:00 (which, admittedly, is often work-related—but it doesn’t feel like it) and at bedtime. I walk the dog to the park. Will and I drink tea or wine and debrief the day after bedtime.

• Take the long view. Because my schedules for work and play vary so much from day to day, I need to plan in weeks, not hours.

• Get out of my head. I often feel overwhelmed … until I get my to-do list out of my head and down on paper. It’s much more manageable when it’s written down.

• Work hard, rest well. I work when I’m supposed to be working, and I rest when I’m supposed to be resting.

• Screen-free rest. It took me a long time to come to this personal rule. Because so much of my work takes place behind a screen, I need a clean break when it’s time to rest. When I’m behind the computer, it’s too easy for me to pop open my email to do one more thing. My eyes need the break, too.

• Plan to relax. I have a standing monthly massage appointment. It’s already paid for; I just need to show up. This felt really indulgent when I first signed up last year, but since I have an old sports injury and I type too much, it makes a huge difference to how I feel.

• Simplify. If I have a tough week, or a busy month, we eat really simple foods. We schedule extra nights at home. We might even skip a few kids’ activities.

• Real food matters. I’m a grouch when I don’t eat protein, and sugar is always bad news for me.

• Consider opportunity cost. When I’m thinking about staying up late to finish a project, or writing when I’m supposed to be resting, I ask myself what it’s going to cost me. Then I may go ahead and stay up late anyway—but I usually don’t.

• Get help. If we have a busy season, we book our regular sitter for more hours (and have her do the grocery shopping), or get someone to clean the house. Sometimes I need a different kind of “help,” like making the time to catch up with an old friend even though I feel like I don’t have the time.

Am I the only one who has a history of flirting with burnout, or just plain falling down? What are your strategies for avoiding it? How do you step back from the edge?

Back to the beginning.

Back to the Beginning

I am not a digital native, darn it, but I’m close. I don’t remember a time when my family of origin didn’t have a home computer. When I was in grade school, we bought one I was actually allowed to use—and my brother and I spent the next five years fighting over who got to play Brickles.

For the past few years, I’ve been using a MacBook (my first). During back-to-school season, we bought an iMac to replace our aging family PC.

In short, I am surrounded by machines I don’t know how to use.

It took me a few years to realize my own ignorance, because I could do what I needed to do, for the most part. But as I accumulated ever-more data on my machine, problems began to emerge: problems even I could recognize.

My biggest problem with my computer was simple organization. Technically speaking, it’s what you call a “disaster.” Or perhaps the more precise term would be “absent.”

When we bought the iMac, I cried uncle. I coughed up the extra cash for the One to One sessions, so I could learn how to actually use the thing.

Last month (yep, four months later) I finally signed up for my first class: iMac basics. It was humbling to check the box for the beginners’ class, since I’ve now been using a Mac (two Macs!) for nearly three years. Until I signed up for it, I assumed those classes were offered for people like my grandmother: extremely intelligent people who are nevertheless clueless about technology. Nope, it turns out they’re for people like me.

I showed up with my laptop and told my über-patient instructor that I’d been using computers for nearly thirty years without knowing some very important basics. When my computer was new, I didn’t know I had a problem. But as I continued to save more and more work, finding anything in my unruly hard drive gave me a headache.

I explained all this in a very grown-up way, I never once said “stupid” or “idiot,” and I carefully avoided the word “remedial.” I did say that I needed to go back to the beginning and learn some best practices.

And that’s what I did.

back to the beginning

Don’t get me wrong: I still have a lot to learn. But after just a few classes—like, three hours total—my progress is evident every time I turn on my computer. My once-cluttered desktop is bare, the files now neatly sorted into folders. (Bonus: now my computer runs faster. Who knew?)

When I need to find something, I hit “command + space bar” (like a boss) and can find it in, literally, one second, because I indexed all my files.

I’m slowly working my way through my photos, splitting events and creating folders like a pro. Or at least like a non-novice. My old awkward workarounds—the ones I used because I didn’t know any better—have been replaced with speedy and mostly-sure workflows.

I was so embarrassed when I signed up for that class, and a little bit angry, to be honest. I have so many new things I want to learn and do and read and write and think; I didn’t want to waste my time going back to learn things I should have already known. I resented my lack of knowledge and the its subsequent demands on my time and energy.

Being dissatisfied with where I am doesn’t make anything better. But when I admitted that I needed to go back to the beginning, I began to learn all kinds of things that are making my life much easier.

I’m just talking about file organization here: this isn’t exactly life or death. And I’m not going to pretend that everyone is as technologically incompetent as me. But I would venture a guess that most of us feel like we’re missing something important—something we wish we’d known a long time ago—and we don’t want to admit it, not even to ourselves. Maybe it’s something small, like you can’t remember the name of that nice guy you talk to at church every week, or you don’t actually know how to do that thing at the gym. Maybe it’s something huge that’s foundational to your work or an important relationship.

Being dissatisfied with where you are isn’t going fix anything. But admitting that you have some gaps to fill in—that might get you somewhere.

Stop a second and think: what are YOU supposed to be competent at, but you should really go back and learn the fundamentals, again? I’m looking forward to hearing your answers.

P.S. While we’re speaking of best practices, go check out this deal from ePantry, if you haven’t yet.

Every ten years you have to remake everything.

Sometimes the reshaping is not big, not audible; not a move, a marriage, a child, a heroic change of course. Sometimes it is only here inside, how you make sense of things. Sometimes it is only about who you know yourself to me.

Lauren Winner’s book Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis came out nearly three years ago and I’ve been meaning to read it ever since. (Can we pause to acknowledge the emotional baggage the phrase meaning to read holds for me? Hope, anticipation, and a whole lot of guilt.)

Two things conspired to bump it to the top of my to-read stack: Winner’s new book coming Wearing God hits shelves March 31, and the whispers I’ve heard about it from well-connected friends have been effusive. And then there was last month’s National Readathon Day. If it had been the tiniest bit sunny I would have dragged the family out for a Saturday hike, but it was 33 degrees and rainy (the WORST combination) so we built a fire, poured giant mugs of coffee, and cozied up with our books. Still was mine.

Still won’t make my list of favorite spiritual memoirs. I skimmed quickly through a few lackluster chapters, looking for the good parts. But the good parts are good, and I found myself taking copious notes.

One of my favorite chapters was short—just two pages. In it, Winner shares a conversation she had with a friend:

My friend Ruth’s mother once told her, “Every ten years you have to remake everything.” Reshape yourself. Reorient yourself. Remake everything.

Sometimes the reshaping is not big, not audible; not a move, a marriage, a child, a heroic change of course. Sometimes it is only here inside, how you make sense of things. Sometimes it is only about who you know yourself to me.

I found myself quickly scanning the landscape of my own life. Was she right?

Ten years ago I was smack in the midst of a brutal two-year period. The stuff that’s easier to say about that time: we had a house we couldn’t sell, we had a string of expensive and rattling car wrecks, I had a yet-to-be-discovered allergy that was turning my face into something out of Phantom of the Opera. At no point during those two years did I sleep through a whole night.

And ten years before that I was a teenager, in high school. I was remaking (making?) myself, all right, but weren’t we all when we were sixteen?

But there was plenty of action in the intervening times, too. 21 was a formative year that fundamentally changed me. At 31, I went to counseling and spent the year taking things apart, so I could put them back together in a stronger, healthier shape.

Lauren Winner Still

Ruth’s mother isn’t wrong, but my pattern has been every five years, not ten.

When I was younger, I thought “remaking yourself” was the stuff of fashion magazines. But my college prof gave me a framework for this remaking way back on the first day of sophomore year. He explained to a roomful of 20-year-olds that if we felt a little undone, it was because we were supposed to. Freshmen think they know everything. Then you begin to study, and realize: you know nothing. The work of the freshman and sophomore years is to crack your worldview apart; the work of the junior and senior years is to put everything back together. You emerge intact, stronger, humble. Or that’s the idea.

You break things, you put them back together. That’s how you remake everything.

Sometimes you break things on purpose so you can reassemble them, stronger this time. Sometimes they are broken for you, and you have to put the pieces back together.

Sometimes the pieces rearrange themselves so quietly, so gently, that you don’t even notice until the shape is nearly complete, and you suddenly realize that you are no longer who you knew yourself to be back then.

Looking back, I’m the person I’ve always been—and yet, I’m not the same. Here inside, how I make sense of things—that has changed dramatically with a regular, recurring five-year rhythm. If the pattern holds, I’m in a year of change right now.

And if the pattern holds, five years from now, when I look back on today, I’ll say about my present self: I’m still me, but I’m not the same.

Maybe the reshaping will be big; maybe it will only be here inside, how I make sense of things.

Maybe it will only be about who I know myself to me.

Do you resonate with the idea of “remaking yourself,” or do you think it’s crazy? Has it been every five years for you, or two, or twenty? I’d love to hear your thoughts in comments. 

How a photo can save a child’s life.

How a photo can save a child's life | Modern Mrs Darcy

From the archives. Please read and share and check your photos!

7 years ago, our baby boy was diagnosed with eye cancer because of a Christmas photo. He was almost two at the time.

That baby boy is nearly 9 now, and the story is becoming more and more his and not just mine—so I’m growing reluctant to go into the details with people now that he’s getting older.

But I have to share this, because we nearly didn’t find out there was a problem. The photographer knew that there was something wrong with our son’s red eye reflex, but he didn’t want to scare us or be the bearer of bad news. His wife, however, insisted, because she had read an article about an actress whose child had a very similar presentation (that’s what doctors call it).

We’re so thankful she did.

Our son was quickly diagnosed with retinoblastoma, a rare form of childhood eye cancer that affects 1 child in 20,000. That’s only 300 cases per year in the U.S. In 2005, we were one of those 300.

Now that it’s been 7 years and he’s healthy, we don’t talk about it much. But this Christmas I didn’t want to not speak up for fear of spooking someone or being the bearer of bad news.

But here it is: when you’re looking through your Christmas photos this year, pay attention to the red-eye in your flash photography. The red-eye appears when the retina reflects light. Pediatricians check for it every time they see you, and many cases of retinoblastoma are diagnosed at routine well-checks (though our pediatrician didn’t catch it because of the unusual way the tumor presented).

In that Christmas photo our son had red-eye in one eye and white eye in the other. A white or milky-looking pupil in a flash photograph is a classic indicator of retinoblastoma.  The pupil appears white because light can’t reach the retina at the back of the eye.

Note the white eye on the right: a classic sign of retinoblastoma.

Our son’s tumor was growing dead in the bottom of his eye, which meant that the vast majority of the time, his red-eye reflex wasn’t impaired.  We have dozens of photos from that Christmas that look absolutely perfect—even though he had late stage cancer. But my uncle snapped one photo when the tumor seeds were up and dancing around, blocking the retina and causing a white eye.

A white eye in a photo doesn’t necessarily mean the child has eye cancer, and it’s not the only sign. (Other signs can be strabismus, a drifting eye, or a red and irritated eye.) But we discovered our son’s cancer because of a Christmas photograph. 

I have no medical experience.  I’m just a mom whose baby had eye cancer.

If you have any concerns at all, ask your doctor. If you ever see a white eye reflex in a child, have it checked out with a dilated eye exam—it’s not a big deal and it’s not expensive. But it could save a child’s life.

And please, don’t be afraid to speak up.

I’m so thankful someone spoke up to me.

Friends, check your Christmas photos! If you have a child who's 5 or under you need to check your Christmas photos for one simple thing. It could save a life, literally.

photo credit: J Morley-Smith