What spoons can teach you about stress

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Happy spoons lined up together

Listen on Mental Health Moment

Sometimes we just have too much on our plates. There’s constant tension between what we need to do and what we have the energy for.

Learn how an approach for chronic illness can help you manage your energy and stress.

Listen to this episode right up here. 👆

Read the full article 👇

Life in the 21st century feels like the state fair. There’s a lot of brightly-lit activities, some cool animals, and a carnival of thrilling and terrifying rides.

But if you don’t have time to stop and enjoy a giant pretzel somewhere, what’s the point, really? 🥨 🤭

I think we all know instinctively that we’re trying to take in too much and do too much.

It’s the scourge of our modern life.

Even on the days where things come together well, we still leave some things on the table.

And that can create anxiety if we don’t frame it well.

When I think about my previous corporate life, one stressor stands out above all the others – the relentless, daily focus on output.

My task then was to get big stuff completed and out the door every single day. (My actual job description involved words like “synergies,” “cross-functional” and “liaison” but this was basically the job.)

The high pressure environment around me at the time demanded this. My inbox was full of emails every day from my boss about where this or that project was and when could they expect to see it.

My day wasn’t successful unless I had delivered all of the things on my list that day. ✔️✔️✔️✔️

Really, Lori?

I’ve spent a couple of years trying to unravel that perspective for myself.

Don’t get me wrong. I still believe in creating output because at the end of the day I really like to make things.

But I know now that I was trading the best of my energy and focus every day for small returns.

I would start each day feeling as if I had limitless energy and focus. I was legendary for it.

I even labeled it “Releasing the Kraken.”

(I’ve never actually seen Clash of the Titans but I surmise from the movie trailer that there is a beast unleashed that is to be feared. For some reason I want to relate to that.)

So it was hard for me to understand how this little Kraken could fall so far behind by lunchtime.

At the end of the day, after scrambling all afternoon, I was exhausted emotionally and physically. I felt like I had very little to show for the effort I had just put out.

Was it poor time management?

Maybe. I’m never dedicated to one specific system for very long, and I think that hinders me.

Was it unrealistic expectations from my boss?

Uh, yeah.

Working in a high pressure environment means that you learn to redefine certain phrases like,

  • “I’m pretty sure there’s no way in H-E- double hockey sticks I can pull that off today” and
  • “I’m leaving for lunch.”

But the reality for me centered mostly around how much I thought I could really do.

I assume I could have pushed back on my boss’ expectations because I was very good at what I did. They needed me to continue to come to work every day.

But I didn’t value my energy enough to negotiate those expectations at the time. I really thought I could pull off those high expectations. My pride didn’t dare let me show that I was vulnerable to this kind of stress. 😰

In a way, much as I hate to admit it, the burden of that stress rested with me.

I didn’t understand how to allocate and spend my daily spoons. 😳

Allow me to explain.

The Spoon Theory 🥄

The spoon theory was first shared by Christine Miserandino in describing what it’s like to live with a chronic illness. In her case, the illness was lupus.

She was trying to describe to a friend what it’s really like to perform daily functions with an unrelenting sickness. In her analogy, people with a chronic illness or disability start the day with a finite amount of energy for tasks the rest of us take for granted.

She illustrated this by presenting her friend with a handful of spoons — 12 to be exact.

She asked her friend to describe tasks she would undertake daily, like showering and getting dressed. If you have struggled with an illness or  disability or know someone who does, you know that just two simple acts to start the day can take hours.

It may feel like the biggest thing you accomplished and yet you still have the rest of the day to go.

Her friend lost a few spoons just in completing these first tasks of the day.

For every subsequent daily task her friend described, Christine removed more spoons.

At the end of the exercise, her friend was shocked to see that she had almost no spoons left and her imaginary day wasn’t yet over.

She was almost out of spoons. Where would she have the energy to make dinner if she also ran errands on the way home from work?

Christine was trying to get her to understand the kinds of decisions she would have to make throughout the day to ensure she had enough energy to get the important things done.

And to help her know how much tradeoff and planning Christine had to put in to every day to just do the basics.

It’s a powerful analogy. I encourage you to read the full article.

The Spoon Theory can be applied to stress and our daily lives

Even if you don’t have a chronic illness or disability, you really only have so much energy and focus to dedicate to all the things in your life. Sorry, Marvel Superperson but that’s just how it is.

And our modern life is making it harder for us to quantify where our best energy is going.

So make sure you’re devoting your spoons to the things that will give you the best return on the things you value most.

1. Be intentional about who and what you give your energy to.

If you’re giving someone your time, you’re also giving them your energy. I don’t think that’s just my introvert brain talking. I think that’s how it is for most people.

When you offer someone your time, you are giving away a commodity you cannot replace. As far as I know, time travel back to Marty McFly’s 1985 is still off the books.

That 15 minutes you spent helping someone turn off that annoying setting in Outlook is time you can never get back.

This is serious business. Not everyone and everything deserves your energy equally.

I’m not saying don’t help your Outlook-challenged friends. Your goodwill helps establish a stronger bond on your team and makes you a valuable part of a good culture. That’s important.

Just consider the cost for everything that crosses your desk and your to-do list.

This especially applies for those humans who cross your desk to gossip. 😑

Gossip is a ginormous energy sucker, and serves the purpose of also being negative. There are no winners in gossip world and it also keeps you from your work, so that’s not helpful.

Ask yourself how many of your spoons you want to devote to others today and how you will allocate them.

2.  Don’t use all your spoons every day. 

Pace yourself. Just because you started today with 12 spoons doesn’t mean you have to use all 12 spoons today. It’s okay to reserve one in case you need it tomorrow.

Keep one spoon in tow so you can build some margin in your day.

John Maxwell says that as much as 20% of his day is spent in margin time. How is that possible? Do you know how many spoons John Maxwell must have thrown at him every day? (I’m now imagining him with his hands up defensively, deflecting incoming spoons. 😂)

He understands that his energy and time spent in non-productive activity and reflection is key to his success. It must work because in spite of his busy schedule, he has managed to write more than 50 books. Granted, he makes use of a certain spoon named Charley Wetzel, his writing coach and co-author.

But I’m guessing he realized he needed help with his work when he was participating in that margin time he sets aside each day.

Margin is where insight happens because we’re not so focused on making things or getting things done. This is a great way to reserve some of your energy and maybe have a little more for tomorrow.

3. Understand that you simply can’t do everything.

I know you tell yourself this, I do too. Every freakin’ day.

But on those days when you’re completely frazzled, look back over your day. You’ll see you tried to hold on to every spoon at all costs.

In fact, during the day, use your frazzled-ness as a trigger to stop right where you are and start reflecting.

This happened to me just last week.

I was falling back in that old pattern of measuring my energy and success by how many widgets I was going to gaze upon at the end of the day.

I was so excited about being little Kraken-girl again. I may or may not have talked some trash. 🙊

But it was not to be.

The obstacles who stood in my way and blocked my widget production got the full force of my energy.

And it was pointless. It didn’t change anything at all.

My week ended up exactly the same as it would have if I had just let it go.

That day, I guess I just got six spoons. That’s okay. I still had six spoons that I did spend well.

At some point, you have to decide what you are going to let go of.

Identify those things that are most important to you, and use your precious spoons to scoop up those things.

Happy spoons image by congerdesign on Pixabay.


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