The dollar analogy for difficult seasons
How I budget my energy and time when illness, injury, grief, or stress are affecting my capacity
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As you know, my concussion continues to play a role in my work capacity. This Christmas will make five years (insert crying emoji) and I still get flares during periods of stress, travel, lots of people, and having to be "on" (like doing media and events). At one of last year’s book tour events, someone asked, "How are you protecting your health during busy seasons?" What I immediately heard was,"How can we ALL protect our time, energy, mental health, and physical health during a difficult, stressful, or busy season?" (Ahem, THE HOLIDAYS.)
Life doesn’t always stop—not for illness, injury, grief, or stress. We may be able to take some time off or say no to some obligations, but I don’t know anyone who can take a complete sabbatical from work, kids, and life in general for weeks on end, especially this time of year. We have to show up. We have to find a way.
So to answer that person’s question (and yours), here is a theory I created many years ago, because I find even easier to conceptualize and share than "spoons.”
Spare some change?
Imagine I wake up every morning with $1.00 to spend. On a normal day, the gym would cost me $0.05 (it’s a little effort, but I love it), work tasks are $0.40 (quite expensive, as work tends to be), taking care of my son before and after school is another $0.20 (this would be more if I had a toddler, or more than one kid), and household obligations like meal prep, cooking, errands, and cleaning are another $0.15. That leaves me with $0.20 to spend on ME that day. Going out for lunch, browsing at Target, spending time on social media, hitting up an afternoon yoga class, watching a movie with my husband… I’ve got $0.20 to do as I see fit.
Last Monday—my first day home after traveling—I woke up with the same $1.00, but I was under-slept, over-stimulated, and my concussion was real bad. Because of that, everything cost more. You’ve been there—when normal things feel hard, hard things feel impossible, the tiniest thing going wrong can leave you in tears, and your entire day’s capacity is drained by noon.
On this Monday, I skipped the gym—I couldn’t afford it. My two Zoom meetings, proofreading, and writing cost me nearly double—$0.75. On a normal day, childcare tasks and household obligations cost me $0.35… but already, I don’t have that much. So I conscientiously scaled back (husband takes him to school, extra iPad time, school lunch tomorrow, heat-and-eat Whole30 meal delivery, laundry can wait, and my closet can stay a tornado) and gave my son and the house my last $0.25.
That leaves me with… nothing. Nothing for the gym, social media, hiking, friends, laundry, or an organized office. Nothing for writing an extra newsletter, staying up late watching Parks and Rec, a date night with Brandon, or even a therapy session, because even things that pay me back still cost something up front.
NOTHING. I’m broke.
One small gift to Future You
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Adjust your budget
And still, I had to show up all week long. I had more meetings, more podcasts, more school drop-offs and pick-ups, and preparation for our Thanksgiving travel. So I let all of that other stuff go, and made my life small.
Work. My son. Sleep. Repeat.
I limited social media to only the necessary stuff. I dropped a note into Substack to say, “There won’t be a bonus newsletter this week.” I let non-urgent emails pile up under an away message. I let my son watch Naked and Afraid while I made cranberry sauce and pumpkin bread. I ate Chipotle. I didn’t clean my room. I went to bed toddler-early. I made my life small, so I could do what needed to be done.
Work. My son. Sleep. Repeat. And that got me through the week, until we left for Thanksgiving and I could mostly turn off executive function and just be a guest at my parents’ house.
Know the price tag
My triggers may not be your triggers; my costs may not be your costs. For me, screen time, intense conversation, loud groups, heavy logistics or strategy, and cognitive processing cost the most right now. For you, it may be leaving the house, focusing on work tasks, or being on your feet. Your job might cost more, but parenting less if you have a live-in partner, family nearby, or a reliable caregiver.
The overarching theme is this: During times of grief, injury, chronic illness, or stress, MAKE YOUR LIFE SMALL, and use the $1.00 analogy to help you plan. Here are a few tips, from someone who’s been there:
BOUNDARIES. Never say yes automatically. If it’s not mission-critical, in fact, protect yourself by saying no now. Don’t give into the fallacy that Future You will magically have more capacity—make plans based on how you feel today. Try, "No thank you,” or “I can’t, but thanks for thinking of me," or "Normally I’d love to, but given my capacity, I have to say no."
Preserve your time, energy, and mental health fiercely, even if that means setting boundaries with yourself. This even applies to things you want to do. A movie night, morning hike, or a trip to Target might sound fun, but if it costs you $0.50, you’re going to come up short in other non-negotiable areas. Future you will thank you for setting limits to preserve your energy.
Overestimate how much you think tasks will cost. Add an extra $0.10 automatically, or double the cost for things you know are already going to be hard. Maybe you’ll end up with an unexpected dime at the end of the day—winning! More likely, you’ll make it through most of your day successfully, having said no pretty aggressively given your over-estimation.
Accept help anywhere you can. Now is not the time to be proud. Let someone grocery shop for you, watch your kid for an hour (even if all you do is nap), do your dishes, or bring you food. If someone offers to let you off the hook or step in and help with something you’ve already committed to, take them up on it and thank them gratefully. Yes, yes please, yes thank you. Take the damn help.
Outsource where you can. Hire someone for a one-time house cleaning. Hire a Task Rabbit to meal prep for 2 hours a week. Instacart your meat and produce, Amazon Prime your household staples, Thrive Market your pantry goods. As for kids, let yours buy lunch at school, arrange carpool for soccer practice, microwave hot dogs for dinner, and give them extra iPad time when you just can’t even. (They’ll be fine.)
Keep self-care manageable. You’ll charge yourself an extra dime every time you beat yourself up for not doing more self-care, so please don’t. I didn’t have capacity to do a lot of self-care this week, but I did go to bed toddler-early, kept screens out of the bedroom, took a cold shower in the morning to boost my energy, kept my Food Freedom plan tight (not much is "worth it" right now), and ran through a short morning meditation even though I didn’t work out. These strategies are effective, and don’t cost me a penny.
Back in the black
I have a few more weeks of this busy season—we’re gearing up for the January Whole30, which is like our Superbowl plus the Oscars plus tax season for accountants, rolled up in one. In the coming weeks, my life will remain quite small, so I can ensure capacity for everything on my plate between now and the new year.
Once my concussion symptoms start to abate, I’ll slowly expand as my health and capacity allow. I’ll return to a regular workout routine (but moderated), I’ll take as much down time as work will allow, and I’ll spend a little more on my son, husband, and household. The more I rest and recover and the smarter I am about where I spend my pennies, the faster I’ll get back to having extra money for the fun stuff. And if that takes a month, or two months, or longer, SO BE IT. Health and recovery won’t arrive on my timeline, unfortunately, but I’m secure in my strategy to get through this season successfully.
I hope this helps you navigate your next difficult season. May it be short, may you remember your power, and may you have so much grace for yourself during this (or any) challenging period.