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If we could pick only one emotion to represent 2020, it would be exhaustion. We don’t know anyone who hasn’t experienced it at least once this year. Physical exhaustion in frontline workers. Mental exhaustion in all the people trying to figure out how to navigate an ever-changing set of problems and risks when there isn’t a good option. Emotional exhaustion from the never-ending stress.
If you want to skip down to what to do, click here. But if you want to read more about mental and emotional labor, keep reading.
Parents are exhausted from never getting a break from their kids. Singles are exhausted from the isolation. No one knew that back in March, by choosing new roommates or leaving a relationship, each person deciding a “bubble” that they’d be stuck with for the rest of the year and beyond…or go to enormous and complicated efforts to change.
We regularly tell our kids that someday they will be insufferable adults. Children they know will complain about being bored and having nothing to do and nowhere to go, and they will say, “You think you’re bored and have nowhere to go, let me tell you about the pandemic….”
So what’s to be done about the exhaustion?
The first thing is to acknowledge it. Pretending that the exhaustion doesn’t exist would be just as silly as Monty Python’s “just a flesh wound.”
A lot of people are afraid to acknowledge exhaustion because they think that will make them give into it. But the opposite is usually true–if you ignore it, you’re letting it win. You may be able to push through just a little longer but you won’t get through the whole marathon that way.
Instead, acknowledge it and make a plan. “I’m [emotionally/physically/mentally] exhausted. As a human, I need to recharge in order to keep going. In order to do that I will..”
Have you ever noticed that even the top marathoners look completely used up by the end of a marathon? They may be happy and proud, but they have obviously put their body through something extreme. That’s important to remember when people say that this period of life “is a marathon, not a race.” It doesn’t just mean that we’re in it for the long haul. It means our goals are different. Simply finishing a marathon is a major accomplishment. We’ve never known anyone who actually wanted to win a marathon–everyone we know is simple proud of actually running one and hopefully finishing it.
So let’s dig in to the marathon analogy a bit further.
This Year Has Been a Marathon…
People usually train for marathons but that wasn’t really an option for this one. We just discovered in the midst of it that we were running it.
To get through a marathon, people have to pace themselves. But not knowing that we were running a marathon, most of us didn’t pace ourselves at the beginning. We did crafts, baked sourdough, and waited in line for hours to get a coveted package of toilet paper. It felt like a weird two week enforced staycation with nowhere to go.
And then we discovered that life had changed forever.
Now that we’ve realized we’re running a marathon, it’s time to change tactics.
How to 2020 Like a Marathoner
Pace Yourself What is the ONE THING you need to accomplish today? Focus on that ONE THING. Celebrate your success. Yes, we know there are actually lots of things that have to be done. Food cooked, laundry washed, money earned. But pick the one thing that you will spend energy on. Everything else may need to be done, but give the rest less than your best. If you are planning a fancy meal for someone’s birthday, skip some other chores and do the most mindless part of your job for the week. If you’re teaching 2nd graders all morning, spend quality time with your own kids by lying in bed and coloring rather than setting up a science experiment or baking cookies.
Fill Up Just as marathoners have snacks and fluids specifically designed to keep them going, you need the type of sustenance that keeps you going in extreme circumstances. Our hunch is that low-yield methods like mindlessly clicking around Facebook aren’t going to be enough. Our systematic approach to sorting out what fills your bucket (and what empties it) will help you be more efficient with your limited self-care time.
Celebrate Milestones If you were running a marathon and focused only on the finish line without celebrating the intervening miles, the end would seem very far away. Instead, runners celebrate every mile. When they get tired, many celebrate more often–every quarter mile, or every tree or intersection. Make sure you’re celebrating as often as you need in order to keep going. Some days, just getting everyone dressed and fed is worthy of a celebration. Other days, you’ll have more to celebrate. Either way, give yourself credit. What we’re all doing right now is hard.
Run with a Friend If you’re the only person you know running a marathon, the training can get very lonely. No one understands what you’re going through. But if you join a running group, have a running buddy, or even have a supportive family member who doesn’t run, you have someone to cheer you on, someone to talk to when you’re discouraged. 2020 has been isolating…fight the isolation and find a place of mutual support.
Have the Right Equipment Certainly there have been standout marathoners who ran barefoot or in their regular street clothes but most find that good shoes and athletic clothes make it easier. Keep it simple but think about what would help. A $10 backdrop from Amazon has made Robin’s job teaching on Outschool so much easier. The mess is still there, people can walk through to get to the back door, but her students never know. It seemed like a silly purchase before we knew what a difference it would make in our lives. Good basic headsets for the kids to do online classes have been a gamechanger too, especially when there are five people in 1000 square feet, each doing a different zoom session.
Take a Break The Tour de France is a bicycling version of a marathon and last 23 days. To make it through 23 grueling days, riders have to have excellent rest at the end of each day. If they were staying up until midnight doing housework or binge watching a new show on Netflix, they wouldn’t be at their best. While late night binging has its place, prioritizing sleep when times get tough is critical.
Document Your Experience Races of all sorts are opportunities for group selfies and collecting mementos. Hopefully the pandemic is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so treating it that way–taking photos, journaling, and collecting contents for a time capsule are all ways to treat this like the historic experience that it is. We’re keeping gifts for our kids simple this year but we are making sure to give them each a special 2020 ornament that will help them remember this unusual holiday every year. Robin started using Qeepsake this year. We haven’t ordered a book yet but it’s nice being able to just send a quick text to keep up with the kids’ memory books. Poor Eleanor doesn’t even have a baby book so this is our first successful attempt at a photo album for her. We count it as success since all we have to do is order a book for her to have one!
Just Staying in the Marathon is Winning. There isn’t a winner to this particular race. Just staying in the marathon is a huge accomplishment. We don’t care if you’re barely walking, taking a break along the side of the road before moving forward again, or running a completely different route than you were planning. You’re still putting one foot in front of the other and that’s HUGE. Give yourself credit for something incredible.
What are you doing to get through this marathon of a year? What are you doing to celebrate that you’re still trying?
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While Robin is a board certified family physician with a decade of private practice behind her (and Tim learned a lot at the dinner table), nothing on this website is medical advice. Anything with her viewpoint on this website is written from her perspective as the wife and mother of a neurodiverse family.