Why I Don’t Take Time for Myself

When people notice how frantic, scattered or stressed I am from time to time, they sometimes suggest. “take some time for yourself!” I don’t follow this advice.

First of all, the conventional interpretation of this suggestion is to do something fun or enjoyable, with the implication being that the activity of choice should be something outside of my normal day or routine. Getting a mani-pedi, a massage, some shopping, etc. would all constitute “time for myself” under this definition. As implied in the phrase itself, taking such time includes carving out the time necessary to insert this extraneous activity into my regular schedule, whether that means letting go of a prescheduled event (I’ll reschedule that meeting so I can have lunch with my friends), or incorporating an activity that can be done concurrently with other tasks on your agenda, but will impact your schedule nonetheless (I’ll splurge on two bottles of wine tonight instead of my usual one bottle limit, and wake up an hour earlier tomorrow to accomodate my hangover).

When people are puzzled over why I don’t want to go to the spa for a facial, they fail to understand the point. A facial would be fabulous, but the stress of trying to figure out when I can possibly cram the spa appointment into my already bloated calendar would cancel out the de-stressing benefit that the facial is supposed to provide in the first place. And knowing myself, I would happily book the facial on a day that the present me thinks will be open, but the future me is panicking because I’ve been scheduled for back-to-back meetings around the spa in the interim, and now I’m going to be running late to most or all of those appointments. If the whole point of the trip to the spa was to relax in the first place, then it’s just not going to be worth the effort.

The persistent ones always make the same point next: “Well, you just need to block off the whole day! Put a buffer around the appointment so you have time to get there and just relax and not worry about the next meeting.” That would be a great idea, but I will either (a) shift my stress to the period of time immediately preceding and following said buffers, because now I feel like I have to cram everything I need to get done first into an even shorter period, or (b) build in the buffers as suggested, but then give in to that client or family member who needs something and end up being busy during that time anyway. I have even cancelled “fun” appointments at the last minute, just because I’m too worried about the hell I will inevitably wade through on my way there — or that I will be too far behind on projects with future deadlines if I do take some time off to do that fun thing.

But even with all of that said, there’s another strategy I use to de-stress, one that works every time and upon which I have relied for years: I get stuff done. I know that can be interpreted as just working and not taking a break, ever. And there are long stretches of my life that constitute just that. But I’m also talking about doing the longer-term projects, that perhaps aren’t urgent but are important, and buckling down to put them behind me and cross them off the never-ending to-do list. That sense of accomplishment and peace that comes from seeing the end of a big project has an enormous calming and mood-boosting effect on me. I will take drafting a complaint for a client ahead of schedule, or even just archiving and deleting my overflowing email inbox, over a trip to the spa any day. At least when it comes to stress relief and feeling like I’m taking back control of my schedule and my life, the opportunity to emerge from chaos and feel confident that I can get shit done is much, much more valuable to me than paying someone to give me pink nails that will start chipping the next day.

Finally, “taking time for myself” doesn’t really make any sense when taken out of its colloquial context. It implies that everything else I normally do – raise my children, serve my clients, volunteer, manage my household and love my husband – is not “for myself.” Rather, it’s for other people.

I think this is wrong. Yes, doing all of those acts of service are good for other people. But it’s not just for them; it’s for me too. Yes, I have responsibilities to my clients, but I chose this line of work in a profession that puts client service at the top of the priority list. Yes, my young children require me to sacrifice many things, like freedom, sleep, and my sanity — but I chose to have them. I benefit from caring for my children, making a comfortable home for my spouse, and doing good work for others. Those things are also for ME. My time is mine, so all of it is for myself.

I know, that last point is probably taking things too far out of context. But the point is that I don’t feel the need to introduce novelty into my life, at least if the goal is to unwind. What I do need, from time to time, is the space and quiet to really focus on achieving, not just striving toward, my personal and professional goals.

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