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Red light, yellow light
What if we prioritized rituals over habits, and prized adaptability over control?
Mindset Mastery is a free monthly newsletter about the psychology of small business ownership for freelance creatives from Jenni Gritters. If you’d like to support my work, I invite you to become a paid subscriber for $5/ month! Paid subscribers receive monthly journaling prompts, along with other perks.
Also: You’re invited to join my new, non-traditional business coaching program for creative entrepreneurs living with constraints. We start in April!
Last week, my 3-year-old son projectile vomited onto me as he was getting ready for preschool.
I had a whole workday planned. Every Sunday evening, I sit down for 20 minutes and map out the week ahead. I look at the different things I need to do and set priorities. I talk to my husband about who will handle the kids’ drop offs and pick ups, and when I might have time to exercise or walk the dog. I walk away with a pretty clear idea of what I need to accomplish and how it might happen.
And then the toddler gets sick and throws all of those plans out the window.
Frankly, I’m still learning how to handle this sudden priority shift. Rarely do I wake up and have the day that I planned to have. Caring for two small children often feels directly oppositional to capitalism, hustle and order. In fact, the only thing I can trust about taking care of an 8-month-old and 3-year-old is that nothing ever really goes according to plan.
On that day last week, I realized that I am getting better at practicing resiliency, or coming back to groundedness after being slammed by something outside of my control. I’ve spent 18 months of the past 3.5 years chronically ill with hyperemesis gravidarum during my pregnancies, and that condition taught me that I could never predict how I would feel — or what I would need — on any given day. The same goes for my mental health. As I navigate a recent diagnosis of panic disorder, I don’t know how my nervous system will feel when I roll out of bed each morning.
The reality of running your own business while managing a complex human life is this: You must contend with chaos every day.
The idea that we will wake up each morning and have the ability — or the desire — to enact the same routine is hyper-masculine and incredibly ableist. People who menstruate live in bodies that operate cyclically, with different feelings and energy levels on different days. Those of us with chronic health conditions experience peaks and valleys of symptoms that are completely out of our control. As human animals, we are inclined to feel different ways during different seasons; we want to hibernate during the winter months and adventure during the summer months.
So often, my coaching clients come to me asking for a daily routine. They feel ashamed that they can’t show up every day and do the same thing. Honestly? Not doing the same thing every day proves that you’re normal.
Lately, I’ve been challenging my clients — and myself — to rethink that desire for “routine.”
What if society’s focus on consistency is a mismatch for a life rife with humanity?
What would happen if we were all more inclined to be committed to a long-term vision of what we want to build, with the flexibility to adapt on a daily basis, versus maintaining rigid systems?
What if we prioritized rituals over habits, and prized adaptability over control?
Frankly, I struggle with this re-orientation. I am a person who loves control; a huge part of my identity up until now has been based on my tenacity, my ability to get through anything. I have white knuckled my way through work hundreds of times (running events, showing up to coaching sessions and keeping quick deadlines), even when doing that work caused me to suffer. But you will notice that I am speaking about that version of myself in the past tense; I am no longer willing to suffer in that way.
When I was pregnant and sick with HG, my therapist suggested that I create a system for determining what was possible on a given day, based on how I felt that morning. This system helped me recalibrate my expectations so I didn’t feel like a failure. It helped me acknowledge what was possible, versus what I’d planned to do before I knew the actual facts of the situation. Here’s how it works:
A red light day was a day when I was too ill to work. I needed to ask for help caring for my toddler. I needed to cancel all of my meetings. I would know that I was too ill to work if my nervous system was amped up, if I threw up right after waking up, if I struggled to eat breakfast, and if I felt dizzy. If I was ruminating on whether or not I should/ could take client calls and battling myself, it was a sign that I needed to take a day to rest.
A yellow light day was a day when I felt somewhat sick. I could eat a little, and I wasn’t actively throwing up. I didn’t feel great, but I didn’t feel terrible. The result was that I would pare back my work day and move some deadlines to later in the week (or month). I could still take a few meetings, or work on a story. But I’d take those meetings via phone, from my couch. I’d prioritize a nap.
A green light day was the best kind of day. I woke up with enough energy to accomplish what was on my calendar, without suffering. I could show up for my toddler, be present for my husband, and get a reasonable amount of work done.
More times than I’d like to admit, I woke up to a red light day and plowed forward anyway. Then, I’d find myself so sick that I had to cancel meetings for the rest of the week, or the quality of my work slipped. But after nearly eight months of this, I finally found myself adapting. And now that I’m on the other side of this illness, but with new constraints — mostly, sick kids and a new mental health diagnoses — I’ve found myself using this system over and over again.
When my son puked on me last week, I sat down on the floor and closed by eyes while he was in the bath. A yellow light day, I said to myself.
First, I had an emotional response to the situation. I was mad because this kind of thing feels like it happens constantly with small children. Why can’t I just have the day I want to have!!! I wailed. I was overwhelmed, frustrated and sad. I used the nervous system regulation tools I have in my back pocket, like taking a few huge belly breaths and shaking out my entire body. This made me feel a little better.
After I’d experienced these feelings, I moved into recalibration mode. My Sunday night plan had been a broad strokes plan. Yes, I had meetings that day (which I would have to reschedule), but I knew which assignments had to be completed by the end of the week. A yellow light meant that I would have to reorient, but I could still get some of my work done.
Then I called in my support system. I asked my husband to come home from work halfway through the day to watch the toddler so I could attend at least one afternoon meeting. I called our nanny and asked her to come for an extra day at the end of the week. I texted a group of mom friends letting them know what happened, because I needed solidarity.
And finally, I let go of the expectations. (Whew, this is the hardest part.) I sat my toddler in front of his tablet, and I made plans to take a walk outside with him mid-morning. Then I did what work I could do. And y’all, it was actually an enjoyable day. In the version I’d originally planned, I didn’t take a walk or snuggle a tiny sick person. Both of those things made me feel like I was exactly where I should be.
It’s not perfect. I’m still behind on several projects. I had to work a few evenings last week to make up for that missed day of work. I also had to push back a few deadlines, which I don’t love to do. But I’m also a human being with a life; I have a lot going on. Admitting that to my editors and coaching clients feels like integrity.
The arch of our careers is long. Allowing ourselves to suffer less — and yes, I do mean allowing, because most often the permission to take a break is permission that only you can give yourself — is a full-on rebellion. Our capitalist society tells us to push through, to keep going, to prioritize work above all else. And I want to imagine a world, instead, where we are kind and supportive when our peers are facing difficult life circumstances. I want to live in a world where it’s okay to not be at your best every day. I want to live in a world where we are all able to embrace the rhythms of our bodies, and the needs we have, without shame.
That world is a world I’m trying to build here and now in my own life and business. It will, possibly, mean losing clients or causing other people some measure of frustration or disappointment. Sometimes I worry that changing course day-of — canceling meetings, moving deadlines — will threaten my reputation. People might think I’m flakey or unreliable. But what is true is that I am now able to rely on myself to take care of me (and the tiny humans I’m in charge of). I’m choosing us. I’m admitting that I can only do what I can do, and that’s enough.
I’ll take that priority switch any day of the week.
PS. My new business coaching program is focused on *waves hands* all of this! It’s called ADAPT, and it’s a program built for creative entrepreneurs living with constraints.
If you’re a caregiver, a person dealing with mental or physical illness, someone with a disability, a person who’s going through deep grief, or you’re experiencing some other kind of constraint: JOIN ME. We’re going to rebuild our businesses so that they’re more aligned with our needs, through different seasons. We start in April.