In an open-concept office, in front of 50 colleagues, I burst into tears.
“I’m sorry, Trupti, I just couldn’t…” I was blubbering so hard I couldn’t even finish my sentence. Nevertheless, I had the clarity to think, This is bad. This is really, really bad.
I’d just ended a call with a client because our relationship had deteriorated to a point where we could barely speak to each other. Listening to the call was supposed to have been training for Trupti, a technical support person. I’m afraid she didn’t learn much.
“It’s alright,” she said, and gave me a hug, but I knew it wasn’t.
Recovering addicts often talk about “hitting bottom”.
I was a workaholic, and in that moment, I hit mine.
It wasn’t that I spent a gazillion hours at the office. I mostly worked 9-5, Monday to Friday, but as soon as I walked in that door, I was on. I was focused. I was not goofing off or wasting time. I was on task after task after task after task. If you interrupted me, I’d smile patiently and do my best to help, but I’d be thinking, Please go away so I can work more.
I exercised 10 hours a week. I avoided dairy, sugar, coffee, pork, soy, wheat, and saturated fat (except when I binged once or twice a month). I got up at 5 am every morning to write for an hour before getting ready for my job.
And then there was that moment in the office, and I knew I’d had enough of pushing limits.
From burned-out professional to full-time writer
Fast-forward to the present. I’m writing this from an outdoor kitchen in a small town on the Southeastern coast of India. My boyfriend and I are travelling the world, both working full-time on our respective creative projects. I’m editing my first publishable novel, finishing a bunch of short stories, and blogging about the creative process.
I’m the happiest I’ve been since before I started kindergarten.
Let me be clear: I’m not telling you to avoid pushing limits.
Turning writing into a full-time job has forced me to stretch the boundaries of what I thought I could do, but it has required I do so intelligently, which means both challenging and nurturing myself.
That disastrous client call began the process of learning how.
I loved and respected my employers, and I didn’t want to let them down. I didn’t realise that, by taking on too many clients and trying too hard to please them, I had let the company down. My employers cared about me, and “balance” was one of their core values.
I overexercised and dieted because I wanted to be pretty for my boyfriend, but in failing to recognise his feelings for me weren’t primarily related to how thin or clear-skinned I was, I let him down, too.
I thought, if I could just work hard enough, then maybe I could be good enough.
For what, or for whom, I never quite knew.
Learning how to expand my limits while respecting them has been a process of learning to appreciate who I already am while keeping in mind where I want to go.
I cut back on my working hours and number of clients. I moved out of busy Vancouver and arranged to work remotely from Fernie, the little ski town in the interior of British Columbia where my boyfriend lived. I relaxed my diet. I exercised less. I tried harder to listen to my boyfriend when he told me to slow down.
I got healthier, both mentally and physically. My relationships improved. I made more time to daydream and read. Story ideas started dancing in my head.
My boyfriend and I made a plan to create the lives we wanted. We kept our well-paying jobs for a year and saved enough money to keep us afloat for a few more. Then, we gave our notice.
I won’t tell you I’ve mastered the ability to live a balanced life. I still overdo it sometimes, but every day I get better at recognising and respecting my limits.
Why it’s important to know when to stop
As Runner’s World puts it, “the secret is in the recovery.” When we push our muscles harder than we’ve pushed them before, we damage them. Strengthening is a result of the repair process, and we have to rest for that process to occur.
Intellectual accomplishments work a similar way: executing ideas requires concentration, but new ideas come through when we let our attention drift.
In a world of “harder, better, faster, stronger, better-looking,” it can be hard to know when to stop, to recognise when our attempts to build ourselves up are grinding us into the dirt. Here are some of the strategies I’ve learned.
6 Ways to expand your limits while respecting them
Choose and prioritise small daily challenges.
Think about what you most want to accomplish, and commit to one small daily action that’ll bring you closer to your goal.
If you want to be a writer, for example, you might get up half an hour early, set a timer, and challenge yourself to write for 30 minutes without stopping. Don’t worry if you think you have nothing to say. Just start moving your pen over the paper or your fingers across the keyboard, and be open to whatever comes.
Chelsea Dinsmore’s post “10 Ways to Do Your Own Impossible Daily” has a ton of other great suggestions for simple ways to push your limits.
My current goal is to make a living as a writer without burning myself out. To that end, my daily challenge is to choose only two main tasks per day. I’m always tempted to over-commit, but I when I tell myself, “OK, if I complete only these two things, I’ll have had a successful day,” in the end, I accomplish more and stress less. I still usually do more than two things, but additional tasks are bonuses, and I’m not allowed to do them if I feel myself getting tired, stressed, or anxious.
Recognise the difference between distress and eustress.
For the sake of our health and sanity, it’s best to avoid distress if we can. It’s the stress of overwork, strained finances, and toxic relationships.
Eustress, on the other hand, is a good thing. It’s the stress of self-expansion. It’s the discomfort of running a little farther or faster than we usually do, of starting a blog in spite of doubts about our writing abilities, and of staying open with people we love, even when they seem unsupportive.
Don’t let challenges take up your entire day or week.
As important as it is to experience a little eustress, it still qualifies as stress, and we can only take so much of it.
In addition to limiting my daily challenges, I find I need to schedule at least one “challenge-free” day per week. If I push myself physically six days per week, I need at least one day to sit on my butt. If I push myself mentally six days per week, I need at least one day (preferably two) during which I don’t have to think very hard.
Be alert for signs you’re overdoing it.
Insomnia, mysterious pains, skin problems and digestive issues are all signals you’re pushing yourself too hard. Other red flags include irritability, emotional fragility, and a loss of enthusiasm for things you used to love.
Question your motivation.
If you’re exhausted, ask yourself honestly why you’re pushing so hard. Is it because you’re afraid of what’ll happen if you stop? If so, think about the absolute worst-case scenario. Is it worth sacrificing your well-being to avoid it? Most of the time, it’s not.
Celebrate your accomplishments.
If, day in and day out, you stay committed to pushing your limits in small and consistent ways, and if you stay just as committed to knowing when to stop, you will do what seemed impossible.
And when you do, don’t gloss over it, because the more you celebrate what you’ve already done, the more possible the next impossible thing will seem.
Featured image: Photo by Kevin Urbanski.
Now, I’d love to hear from you: what’s one small way you’re going to push your limits today, and one small way you’ll continue to respect them? Share a comment and let us know!
PS: I’m writing a book about the creative process. Subscribe to my blog for free, and when it’s done, I’ll send send you the first chapter.