When small steps are all you’ve got

Hello, it’s been a while – again! I’ve been busy collecting data and trying to get things into shape for the last slog on my PhD. I’m nearly on the home stretch! In this post I wanted to reflect on what it can be like when we’re only able to take small steps, what that can do for our confidence and how we might choose to reframe our ‘unproductive’ times.

I’ve just started to ’emerge’ from a few days of being completely floored by some symptoms from a health condition I have. These symptoms vary, but this month they completely knocked me off my feet. Literally. I have spent the last four days mostly on the sofa or in bed due to a combination of absolute exhaustion and intense pain.

Though I did not work over the weekend, I did attempt to get some work done across the last two days when I had a reprieve in my symptoms. During this time I was reminded of how important it is to let the body have the casting vote, but also how humbling it can be to be reminded that we might not always be performing at our best – and that is ok. That there might actually be some treasure to be found in it.

Sometimes small steps are all we’ve got in us. Whether that be down to time constraints, mental constraints or an illness or health condition. Sometimes we’re just simple tired, frustrated and unmotivated – and all we can give are our small steps.

And that is ok.

Yes, really, it is. It might not feel like it. But it’s ok to have moments when you’re not firing on all cylinders and actually, from my PhD journey so far, I’ve realised that it might actually be really vital to have these low energy and low productivity moments.

Because during these times, if we can avoid beating ourselves up and chastising ourselves for the way we feel, we can get some jobs done that we might not otherwise have prioritised. We might also be reminded of the importance of taking steps, no matter how big or small, towards our goals – as I was reminded of earlier this week. This period of time can also be a fantastic way to regroup and to actually rest, yes, that’s what I said, rest. So that you can return to normal levels of productivity with a bit more energy and focus.

I am reminded here of the ‘slumps’ I used to get when training for an endurance cycling event. Around the 36-40 mile mark and the 65-68 mile mark, I would slump. I would feel like my legs were starting to turn to rock and my lungs didn’t want to work anymore. Of course, there would be times when I would crack the whip and try to push myself even harder, but what did that result in? More exhaustion and more mental chatter telling me ‘I can’t do this‘.

But, those moments when I told myself it was ok to just cruise along for a little while, or even stop and grab some sustenance – those were the moments where I was able to refill my tank, and after a few miles of that I could get back to my normal grind.

And that is what small steps or these low periods are all about. They can be incredibly fulfilling if only we can learn to stop and drop the fighting. Pushing on or through is only delaying the inevitable crash and takes far more energy than just giving in. I spent a whole morning battling with this – telling myself that I needed to get up and work as usual. This meant I stayed in bed and really didn’t want to get up. But the moment I said to myself ‘lets just see what we can manage today okay? Just take things one at a time’ I was able to get up. The irony here is that trying to force myself to be super productive meant I did nothing, tell myself I could take it easy resulted in me getting work done.

Pushing past these warning signs is asking yourself to function when you might be close to, or even already running on empty. Would you expect that of your car? No. You’d refill the tank. And how often do we let our car fuel tanks run out completely? Ideally – we don’t. We preemptively refill them, we keep an eye on the fuel gauge and we definitely make an effort to stop if we get to our reserve or our fuel light comes on. Because letting the fuel tank run out completely can damage the engine. We’ll need to get a tow to the garage or we’ll need to walk to the garage to get some fuel.

So maybe, when we’re feeling our minds and bodies starting to slow down bit. When all we have to give are the small actions, when the only steps we can take are the small ones – perhaps this is our sign that we’re on our reserve and we’re nearing empty. Perhaps this is the sign that if we stop and refill now, we can avoid complications and damage later down the line. We can avoid having to call in the professionals to help us out.

For me, my signs that I am nearing empty include; headaches, feeling a bit tearful for no reason, being irritable, feeling like the smallest jobs are mountains to climb and wanting to withdraw socially. My symptoms are also a big slow down sign for me, especially when they are at their worst.

What are some of your personal signs that you are nearing empty?

Can you reconceptualise your times of lower productivity (whether that be due to a health condition, personal issue or just general from being go go go all the time) as moments where you have an opportunity to slow down, sink into a change of pace and recharge your batteries ready for the next burst of productivity? Can you drop the ‘I’m not good enough’ and the ‘I’m going to be so behind‘ and the ‘I’m lazy if I don’t get my normal amount of work done’? These are all thoughts I battled with over the last few days until I came to my senses and realised that if my body runs out of fuel completely, if I don’t look after it and let it rest – I’ll be completely ground to a halt and it will take more than a few days of rest to get myself going again.

It can be really, really difficult with a mental or chronic health condition (particularly those that are invisible) to ‘justify’ taking time off or reducing your schedule, but honestly, for me, it’s become a complete necessity. Sadly society isn’t particularly encouraging of this, with the idea of needing to be switched on all.the.time. And it can be very difficult to not feel like your mind or body is letting you down, but what if it isn’t? What if it is simply giving you some messages about what it needs? That changes things a bit doesn’t it? For me, it allows me to be more compassionate towards my body, which is reaching out and trying to tell me it needs something, and not seeing it as getting in my way or trying to sabotage me.

We can make choices to look after ourselves, regardless of what society and those around us think of us. In fact, we must make the choice to look after ourselves. Because at the end of the day, we are the only ones who can, and we are the ones who live in our bodies 24/7, no one else.

So in those moments of small actions and only being able to take small steps, I wish you courage to slow down and listen to what messages your mind and body are trying to give you, despite external influences telling you that you should do otherwise. And I give you permission to stop if necessary, knowing that you’ll only come back to things brighter and stronger.

Take care of yourself, until next time 🙂

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