Consistency sucks. It's one of the hardest things for Messies to practice. If I had ever learned to be consistent about putting away my toys, I wouldn't have piles of papers on my desk, and the name of this site would be Tidy Boxes.
In general, I have arranged my world to allow for my inconsistency and found ways to make sure most people aren't affected when I'm flaking out. For some things--this blog, for example--I can leave it alone for a month and then catch up with new entries. I can even write entries when I'm feeling energetic and stockpile them to be released at consistent intervals. Unfortunately, not all of my commitments are quite so flexible.
Relationships rely on consistency
This semester I started teaching "Introduction to Leadership." Now a group of 25 undergraduates relies on me to be at my best every Tuesday and Friday at 12:30, with an engaging lesson plan in hand. More than that, I need to be a role model of effective leadership as I implement the lesson plan. I am reminded that consistency in leadership is vital.
Consistency makes people feel more secure. When you engage with others in predictable ways, they know what to expect and therefore trust you more. Think McDonald's. Even when the food isn't your favorite, you might choose to go there instead of a random roadside diner that you can't predict.
In general, I don't want to be the McDonald's of professors. But if I lean into my creative and flexible side too early in the semester, they feel like I have thrown them into the deep end of the pool before they learned how to float. Even if I pull them back into the shallows afterward, they don't trust me to keep their heads out of the water.
It's really, really hard for me to be consistent without careful planning and mindful execution. Authentic, I can do. Consistent is much more difficult.
Be consistent when it's important
Know what's important. Identify the areas where your job and your relationships require you to be consistent. Then identify the keys to self-care that will allow you to be consistent elsewhere. Taking your meds is non-negotiable, for example. For many people, regular exercise is just as vital. Also identify the things that don't have to be done on a rigid schedule, but are important--for me, that's where housekeeping falls on my list. Nobody dies or hates me if there are a few unwashed dishes in the sink. If you are having a hard time prioritizing, sit down with a trusted friend (or a life coach) and talk through your goals and priorities.
Get out your Messy Planner. Make a flexible plan for what you will do when, adding recurring items on your calendar for required items. Keep track of what you need to do and when you need to do it. Update your calendar. Set all your alarms. Review and revise weekly.
Say no and opt-out. We get distracted by new ideas and goals. If things are going along at an even keel right now, don't add to your commitments unless you can drop something of equal effort off your to-do list. It is easy to pile on more and more, saying yes to everything and everyone until you can't juggle one more thing and...Mary and her Little Lambs are up in smoke.
Talk yourself into doing the right things. When a friend calls to invite you for a beer, consider your schedule and your responsibilities. If you go with them tonight, will you really still have time to finish what you need to get done for tomorrow?
When you commit to someone, stick to that commitment. This doesn't contradict the "opt-out" rule. Opt-out when you haven't yet committed; stick to your word if at all possible, otherwise. That's part of being consistent and trustworthy for other people.
Get ahead of schedule and stay there. If getting ahead of schedule seems like an impossibility, then Mary and her Little Lambs are already in danger. Back up, consider what's really important, and opt-out of the rest. When you have made some space in your life, you'll be able to do the fun and spontaneous stuff without throwing everything else out of whack.
Seriously, you can do this. I promise.
I admit that my little lambs have been getting a bit scorched this fall. In addition to Messy Desk, I jumped into another side gig in late summer, added a weekly committee meeting to my work commitments, became chair of a regional committee, and started teaching that leadership class.
I followed my own advice about opting out before the semester began. I dropped two local committees and a national group when my term ended. Unfortunately, my time predictions weren't quite right and it has felt like I'm just barely finishing lesson plans in time to walk in the door and deliver them all month. In hindsight, I should have spent more time planning the class this summer; I procrastinated because I was distracted by the new and shiny psychology side gig. (And that side gig is on hold now, too, since it wasn't fully rolled out).
It still wasn't enough, so I had to back down on a few more things.
Last week, I made a plan to make more room in my schedule. I reduced my weekend writing and started working at least one weekend day on the leadership course. , and I've been working at least one day each weekend to get ahead on my lesson plans. I am up-to-date now, and fall break will give me time to smooth out the rest of the semester.
Keep your non-negotiables in place, but compromise where possible. Notice that I didn't cut back on time with my spouse. Diet and exercise stayed at my usual level. Sleep is fairly non-negotiable for me, but I did stay up one night until midnight. I compromised on my writing goals, allowing this page to fall behind and writing 6-word photo stories instead of more time-consuming researched writing.
The happy ending
With all these efforts I made to simplify this semester, nothing crashed and burned. The class isn't my best teaching accomplishment ever, but it will be better next time, and I'm not the worst prof ever. The little compromises I've made have allowed me to catch up and move forward without any major repercussions.
If you are hitting one of these times when you feel overwhelmed and overworked, there really is hope. Step back, devote a little time to prioritize and plan and you really can reset and get back to enjoying your life.
Do you need realistic help to keep Mary's Little Lambs safe or recover after a major burn-out? Are you feeling overwhelmed and need help making a plan to clear your schedule enough so that you can look beyond the next crisis? Book a free initial consultation with Marie and get at least three actionable ideas to help you get unstuck.