How do you keep yourself from cracking when you don't even realize you're about to burst?
As a former burned out TV producer, this lesson pops up for me in the most unexpected ways.
Here's one example.
A few years ago, I was in the middle of stress-cleaning before a news writing shift when I heard it, an innocent sounding pop under the kitchen sink.
I had just propped a pizza box in the recycling bin but decided it wasn’t full enough to warrant the trip downstairs to the building recycling. The door wouldn’t close completely, but I thought “it’s just cardboard, I can shove it closed.”
And then “pop”.
The pipe under the kitchen drain sliced in half, buckling under the pressure of a cardboard box. Literally reinforced paper was too strong for my corroded kitchen pipe.
And of course it was a Saturday.
The mental stress list started immediately.
I have to log on to work soon, I can’t deal with this right now. I don’t even have a plumber. Getting a plumber on a weekend is going to be so expensive I still have to get someone in to check the dryer. I’m supposed to be saving for a bathroom reno. And that budget is already double what I was hoping to spend. I’m never going to afford new furniture.
And so on.
By the end of my catastrophic list I had decided life is just too damn expensive, it’s not worth being a home owner and it’s going to be impossible to protect my emergency savings if everything is going to break down.
There was a time a setback like this would paralyze me for weeks. Decision fatigue is the quiet cousin to burnout. Your brain can only handle so much at a given time. If you’re constantly filling up on thoughts and worries, you’re not making room for new things — ideas, creation, problems.
And it’s not always negative stress that’s the problem. For years I would fill my days with fun and exciting things. I would train for a marathon, travel to new countries, take day trips, spend time with friends, watch all the shows, and work long hours at a demanding (but exciting) job.
I was living life to the fullest and was feeling pretty good about life. But I kept putting off important tasks, like filing a health claim at work, filing my taxes, claiming rental car damage on my insurance. These bills, that could easily be paid, accumulated into consumer debt that cost me hundreds in interest every month. All because I didn’t have the bandwidth to fill out paperwork.
My brain was full of all the things, both good and bad, all the time. Adulting just became a fog of things I should do and things I want to do, but never having time to figure out how to complete either list.
Until I discovered two tricks. The first is simple and, of course, based on a parable: how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
The idea being any large task can be broken down into manageable steps — bit-sized pieces of achievement you can pace out until you reach your goal. Whenever I find myself in a fog of anxiety I pause and identify each worry into one line item. On Saturday the fog of “I’ll never be able to afford a beautiful home” was broken into:
The pipe under the kitchen sink is broken
Someone who knows appliances (ie not me) needs to take a closer look at the dryer
The bathroom reno needs some tweaking
I’d love to replace the pee-stained couch with a more dog-friendly fabric
The next trick I’ve applied countless times when I feel overwhelmed with work and money. The Eisenhower Matrix is new to my life and it’s a total game-changer. You take your list of worries/priorities and then rank them on a matrix divided into things that are important and things that are urgent. Anything urgent and important is dealt with first. Then you go down the list until all you’re left with are things not urgent and not important.
My main overarching worry with a list like this is cost. For the first time in my life I have a healthy emergency account. I have six months living expenses socked away to help cover when freelance gigs and my business income can’t. Luckily I haven’t had to touch it yet, but I would never have the courage to branch out on my own if I didn’t have it.
The only reason I have this money is because I lost my job a fews months earlier. Granted, before the pandemic I was working on building this savings account to one day work for myself. But that was going to take years. I’m a disciplined saver, but it’s always tempting to drain this account to pay for things that aren’t really emergencies. Like a bathroom reno. Really wanting something isn’t the same as dealing with an emergency.
Now that I have it, I feel the need to protect it. I see it as a one-time gift to pursue financial freedom. I’m able to now save for the things I really want and leave the emergency fund for its state purpose: emergencies only.
The Eisenhower Matrix in the case of my list of home-repairs is broken into things that are urgent and things I can afford.
The kitchen sink is an obvious choice to deal with first. It’s a high traffic area of cleaning and sanitation. It’s where I wash my dishes, rinse of produce, and wash my hands every time I come in from outside (thank you Covid). At the time of this writing a plumber has already come and gone.
Total cost? $209.
The dryer is another urgent matter. The air isn’t hot or intense enough to dry anything. So it takes three to four hours just to dry some towels. The hydro costs from working at home are already pretty high. So paying someone to clean out the filters I can’t reach is worth the cost of running the dryer constantly. I expect this visit will cost a few hundred dollars again. If I need to replace the dryer, well, I’ll worry about that cost when I know more.
So far these expenses are within my monthly budget and can be dealt with now. I have a non-emergency savings account I can dip into for the rest of my dream-home wish list. But on the Eisenhower Matrix, these are not urgent upgrades.
The bathroom works fine. It’s the only dated space (about 20 years old) but I’m not selling or renting this space out for a while, so there’s no urgency. And the couch? I can keep covering it with a blanket.
Now, the ball of anxiety is broken into bite-sized pieces and a manageable schedule. I may never have an HGTV-style dream home to walk into. But I’m also not confined to living in a nightmare home that doesn’t work.