The problem with ‘clear my plate’ reasoning

Last summer, when I began the work of considering what self-care would really look like for me, I set a small goal for myself:

I wanted to figure out how to read a novel in the middle of a messy house.

It seems like a laughably simple goal, yet it’s been anything but easy. I’m not good at sitting amidst The Things That Need To Be Addressed and ignoring them for the sake of my own health or wellness or relaxation.

One of the things I’ve noticed during my exploration of my own self-care practices is my tendency to rely on clear-my-plate reasoning. It looks something like this:

I can’t ______________ until I’ve ________________. (i.e. I can’t paint until I’ve cleaned out the basement.)

Or inversely:

Once I’ve _____________, then I can finally ______________. (i.e. Once I’ve prepped all of my classes for the next three weeks, then I can finally get back to writing my novel.)

Clear-my-plate reasoning is a false type of restriction, where we convince ourselves that random household or work tasks should always take precedence over something done purely for our own pleasure.

In my own world, this reasoning also relates to anxiety about pacing myself. As a professor, one of the places in where this often comes up for me is grading.

Let’s say that I get a stack of 50 essays to grade one day. In my head, I’ll say: Okay, Jessica, pace yourself. Grade 7-8 essays a day for a week, and you’ll be home free! So Day 1 arrives, and I think, “I’m going to grade my 7 or so essays, and call that good for the day. I’ll trust my strategy, and pace myself, and relax a bit when I’m done.”

Day 1 goes okay, but then Day 2 comes along, and I start to get twitchy. According to the schedule, I should just grade 7 more essays. That’s what I allotted for the day. And yet, who could possible just lounge on the couch and read a novel when she has 36 essays sitting there, HOVERING OVER HER HEAD LIKE AN OMINOUS AND JUDGMENTAL CLOUD?!

So then comes the crooked bargaining. I think to myself, ‘Wouldn’t it be better if I just plowed through my work that first day or two, and then I could just really be done with it and finally, truly relax with it off my plate?”

This twisted reasoning paves the way for an ugly, no good, very bad plow-through day, during which I attempt to clear my plate of the big task at hand, but also inadvertently/predictably manage to:

1. Get completely out of whack.
2. Work too many hours and stay up too late.
3. Get cranky.
4. Make my family’s day harder.
5. Eat junky convenience food and skip the gym so as to not hamper my productivity.

Yes, I finish the grading in fewer days, but not without a physical and emotional cost. And here’s the kicker: the plow-through-to-relaxation approach never pans out. What happens instead is that come Day 3, I get the notion to plow through some other big ‘should’ on the horizon, so that maybe (for real this time!!) I can relax once the weekend arrives. (Spoiler alert: this never happens. Saturdays and Sundays pile on a whole bunch of new and different tasks to my to-do list.)

The ‘shoulds,’ they just keep a’coming. In some ways, I feel like I’ve been plowing through most of the last five years of my life.

The truth is, it will be a long, long time before my ‘plate’ might actually be fully clear for any extended period of time, especially given the fact that I’m an early-career professional in academia and I have a large family consisting of many little people (toddlers, amirite? Whose idea was it to have two in the house at once?!) At this particular point in my story, the “personal life” faucet and the “professional life” faucet both seem to be endlessly running, pouring a never-ending flow of ‘shoulds’ into my life in a stream that sometimes threatens to drown me.

owl quote 4But an “unclear plate” doesn’t change the fact that I must allot time to rest and recharge. In fact, it is in those moments where the “shoulds” grow so high in number and become so daunting that I probably most need to find an outlet to relax.

I have to learn to accept that there is not a perfect window that will open up days from now, allowing me to guiltlessly relax courtesy of a lack of a “should” (or 20) hovering over my head. If it will ever happen, self-care must happen now, amidst the stacks of dishes and the dust bunny colonies beneath the dresser and the five dozen library books scattered around the room and the never-ending mountains of laundry. The equation needs to change to:

I will allow myself some time to ___________, because it’s essential to a whole, healthy, balanced life.


It’d be easy to blame other people or cultural expectations for the difficulty that I face in allowing myself to relax even when there’s work to be done, but I’ve come to realize that a fair amount of the pressure I feel to be dutiful comes from nowhere but my own head. Sure, my own thoughts are weighed down by the stories our culture tells about a woman’s work and her obligation to her family and her home. But sometimes it’s just me, refusing to put my own interests first, despite a supportive husband, completely indifferent kids, a non-judgmental mama, and girlfriends who would never criticize me for a stack of messy dishes or piles of laundry on the couch. (And on my bed. And on the guest bed. And in laundry baskets all over the house.)

Part of self-care for me means learning to sit amidst the mess. To let the ‘shoulds’ wait a few hours. To stop looking at my surroundings as tasks to be accomplished, but rather as a space for rejuvenation. To remind myself that the voice in my head telling me what I MUST do is a figment of my imagination. To stop perpetuating the myth that a woman is most valuable when she is a martyr for her family.

Slowly but surely I’m getting more comfortable doing this. One surprising benefit that has kept me motivated is seeing my sons see me relax. It’s been a good reminder that I am their primary example of what a woman does, and how she takes care of herself, and what she’s responsible for, and it’s high time that I give them a more balanced, humane picture, while securing myself a more balanced, humane existence in the process.


Ever watchful,




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