A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about motivation. Motivation and self-care are really popular topics at the moment. So popular they run the risk of any buzzword—meaninglessness through overuse and overextension. Aside from becoming a word everyone uses and no one understands, there’s another serious risk lurking in both of those terms I was reminded of this week. The risk of the silver bullet fallacy—the idea that with the right motivation or the right self-care regimen we can push harder and transform into the people we want to become.
Can I be really real with you for a moment, dear reader? No amount of motivation will overcome sheer exhaustion. No amount of self-care will make-up for constantly overextending ourselves. In fact, some self-care will overextend us further.
Last week I started a new job. It’s a job I’m passionate about doing and one I’m highly capable of doing, both in training and personality. And while two jobs and graduate school might sound nuts to some, on paper it’s not even terribly overambitious. Though I’m often guilty of taking on too much, I did the math before taking a second part time job and everything came out about 42-50 hours a week, including all transit time. It’ll take some time management to keep everything on track, but it’s not even close to the life-and-soul-eating work habits Elon Musk suggested earlier this month.
But in all my careful figuring I hadn’t accounted for how draining it is just to learn any new job. Learning requires a lot of sustained focus and memory. There’s a ton of excess energy expended on doing things that will later just be rote tasks. And if your new employer is the third largest library in the U.S., there’s also a lot of extra energy spent just getting lost from point A to point B. I don’t have a pedometer at the moment, but I’m sure the number of retraced steps is easily nearly a thousand.
What the pedometer couldn’t have told me, my feet let me know loud and clear. In fact, my feet were only slightly more tired than the rest of me. I finished out my days with a whole body fatigue familiar from a hour of laps in the pool. I’d forgotten, in two years of near-hermitage and online-only-interactions, how draining it is working with the public. Desk work has its own set of challenges, as does working at home in isolation. My body and psyche had gotten used to those—neither were prepared for seven hour days of customer service. (And if anyone tells you that no one uses libraries anymore, I need you to laugh loud and long with your whole body directly in their face. Because it’s a seven hours that is ceaseless and constant.)
Anyone who’s known me for more than five minutes has heard me say that I’m horrible at resting. That’s not much of an exaggeration, as my wife can attest—I’m much more practiced at powering through and finding a way to get things done. It’s actually my secret weapon on the race course. By nature of my physical build, I’m at a disadvantage in nearly every sport in triathlon, but I will just keep going. But the more I trained with that bullish mentality, the more I learned that my secret weapon was also my weakness. I had the tendency to “just keep going” until I injured myself, which could sideline me for days, months, or even years. Experience taught me what all my coaches had been trying to tell me all along: pushing limits is how we get better, but knowing when to stop pushing lets us push again tomorrow.
Whether it’s rest between sets or a recovery day in the training schedule, most exercise science will tell you our bodies need downtime to get stronger, as much as they need regular increasing challenges. Muscles develop through the process of tiny tears, that grow and develop as a part of the healing process. It’s what makes us a little achey after exercise, giving us the catchphrase “no pain, no gain.” But too much pain will mean no gain, leading many disciples of that aphorism into endless sessions of PT or even surgery.
So, over the past two weeks, I’ve listened to my body. I’ve skipped a few workouts. I’ve had dinner delivered. I’ve watched silly Christmas movies instead of writing this blog. Each and every time I’d feel a little guilty about it, but I also knew—from my writing life, from endurance training, from knee surgery recovery, even from marriage—that there are just seasons that require more downtime. More doing nothing. More space to just be—to be a person I can value when I’m not “productive.” A person who can “afford to lose” time because I’ve pulled my head out of capitalist society’s pervasive tally sheets and worth indicators.
Dear reader, hear me say this. Maybe you need to hear it. I certainly need to hear myself say it.
Sometimes our lack of motivation is telling us something important. Sometimes our best self-care isn’t about doing one more thing. Sometimes the muscles we’re trying strengthen are best built by letting them rest. Sometimes the people we want to become require us to do less, rather than more. It’s a lesson I keep having to relearn, and one I invite you to learn or relearn with me.