As a college professor, I’m privileged to get nice, long breaks throughout the year — a month off between December and January, a week for Spring Break in March, and three months off over the summer. (Of course I use the word “off” loosely — plenty of writing and reading and course planning and even extra teaching gigs happen during those months. But by ‘off’ I mean that these are time periods where I mostly don’t have to go anywhere if I choose not to and have a lot of extra flexibility with my schedule. Call them ‘work-in-my-bunny-slippers’ days.)
As someone who loves to plan and set goals, these breaks stretch out before me full of beautiful, pristine possibility. At the start of my most recent winter break, I worked and worked on a Master Plan (capital M, capital P) for how I would use those 4 precious weeks to simultaneously relax and kick butt in every possible area of my life.
Modest goals, right?
Once the plan was in place, I came bounding out of my room, paper in hand, waving it eagerly. “I’ve got it!” I said to my husband. “I’ve made my Master Plan for winter break.”
Without missing a beat, my husband said, “Oh, you know there’s nothing I love more than your Master Plans!”
If you don’t know my husband, it’s fair to say that he’s the sarcastic type. His comment about my plan was about as true as the time when he we were about 14 hours into a 21-hour road trip and he told me, “The only thing I love more than Delilah’s radio program is Delilah herself.”
Okay, to be fair, he had good reason to be skeptical of my Master Plan. I do have a tendency to think big, to make overly ambitious plans, and go all in, occasionally dragging my family along kicking and screaming. I mean, why dive gracefully into life, when you can go for a full cannonball and splash all your loved ones in the process?
Historically, I’ve been an all-in, all-or-nothing kind of lady, drawn to the extremes in most aspects of my life.
My two approaches to meals: I can either cook completely from-scratch food for every meal and snack OR let my family live on frozen or boxed meals for an entire semester.
My two approaches to exercise: Exercise for 75 minutes every single day taking no days off OR let my gym pass go 3 months untouched.
My two approaches to creativity: Write a minimum of 1,000 words every single day OR don’t dabble in creative writing for a year.
Sound familiar to any of you?
In all of these scenarios, the first part describes a coveted Master Plan. The second part describes its inevitable failure. The truth is that I just don’t live very comfortably in the middle of these extremes, which stems from strong perfectionist undertones. Growing up, I considered this to be a sign of a strong work ethic. A point of pride. If I couldn’t do something 110%, 24/7, than it wasn’t worth doing at all. More recently, I’ve begun to conceptualize perfectionism as a form of self-harm.
As I began the work of redefining goals for my body and my life and making the move toward self-care , I knew that I’d have to loosen up on this tendency of mine. Because frankly, it’s not healthy or sustainable, and it sets me up for a fair amount of crashing and burning. When it came time to really begin taking care of my body, my mind and my spirit, I had to let go of the absolutes, and the unsustainability of the always/never thinking that can so often define our approach to wellness, wholeness, or balance. Statements like:
I’ll NEVER eat after 7 p.m….
I’ll ALWAYS go to the gym before breakfast…
I’ll NEVER eat gluten or sugar or drink soda or wine….
I’ll ALWAYS meditate before bed…
Even if these sentiments are rooted in good intentions, the nature of the always/never approach is inherently flawed. This type of polarized thinking doesn’t factor in the most precarious variable that complicates even the best-made plans: real life. Our plans and best intentions are affected by the weather, by broken down cars and traffic jams, by family emergencies and unexpected work crises, by emotional funks, by other people falling through on their commitments, by lost e-mails, by forgetting our laptop chargers, by children who’ve had a hard day that can only be cured by seven extra bed time stories, by ravaging flu bugs (side note to the universe: please, don’t let that random example be prophetic!)
Despite my darling control-freak tendencies, I’ve discovered that I can’t actually control the universe and live in a world of absolutes. And so it was that I learned to embrace the magic of ‘mostly.’ This word featured heavily in the goals I set out for myself in the new year: drink mostly water and tea, eat mostly foods I prepare at home, move most days, etc.
As opposed to the stark reality of always/never thinking, a ‘mostly’ mindset gives us permission to trust ourselves a little bit more. It allows us to lean in more closely and listen to the quiet needs of our bodies and our minds and our hearts. It lets us factor in each day, with all the beautiful and brutal (or brutiful, as my pretend BFF Glennon would say) components that complicate and enrich our messy/lovely lives.
A ‘mostly’ mindset can also prevent needless panic. After being super mindful of what I was eating this winter break, I went to a campus event last week that had catered food, and I felt an unexpected a wave of anxiety. The offerings were richer, more processed, less fresh than I’d been eating. I felt like I was giving up control over something that I had been really intentional about for a long time. And then I remembered my mostly mindset. It was just one meal. One food-related choice among hundreds of others that week, which had been mostly healthy and whole and balanced. And so I proceeded to enjoy a dinner that I didn’t have to make myself on dishes I wouldn’t have to wash afterwards.
Of course there are things that shouldn’t be done mostly. I shouldn’t show up to teach class mostly dressed, or only mostly complete my annual tenure review materials or mostly drive on the correct side of the road. But for so many other things, including the way we move and how we nourish ourselves and the ways we seek out comfort, mostly can be a very balancing mindset.*
This winter break I abandoned my Master Plan, and took a more relaxed, intuitive approach to how I should best fill my time and structure my days. Instead I made most of my own meals, went to the gym most days, was mostly silly and playful during my time with the kids, and filled in the rest of my free time with mostly historical romance novels featuring ornery rakes seeking the redemption that comes from the love of a good woman. And you know what? I’ve never felt more rejuvenated heading into a spring semester. I’d call that more than mostly a success.
*Some people talk about an 80/20 approach to diet, but since I’m adverse to both diets and quantifying things, and also because this philosophy is often linked to models and actresses (which seems like a surefire path to feelings of inadequacy,) I’ll stick to the magic of mostly.