Teacher Wellness Practice #3: An Antidote to Just Muscling Through

We’re discovering anew each day how to navigate the rapids of this surreal and often overwhelming world health crisis.

But wait! If I recall correctly, life in the olden days (before the coronavirus hit) was not all serenity and bliss. Most of us were already spinning too many plates for comfort: work, home, family, community, a whole host of commitments we could barely squeeze in.

While we did many of these tasks with energy and good humor, some of them seemed either above or below our metaphorical pay grade, and we ended up doing them grudgingly, mentally complaining or mentally checked-out every step of the way.

So what can we learn that will ease our days, not just now, but on the other side of the crisis?

One thing I’ve been paying attention to is my relationship to tasks that are in some way unpleasant. It’s striking how often I find myself thinking, “If I can just muscle through this _________ (work task, household chore, family obligation, week, school year), things will be _________ (easier, better, more manageable, more pleasurable).”

Now I’m feeling wary of this mental habit. The public health crisis has underscored—in thick, black ink—what we already knew: This is it, kids! This is what we get!

If I keep reinforcing my habit of muscling through, I might feel a certain sense of strength or accomplishment, and that can carry me for a distance. But this approach can become a trap. Because there’s always another item to muscle through.

Every time I muscle through something, I’m reinforcing an approach to life that implies, “The meaning will come on the other side.” But what if, for example, I found out I only have a month to live? (Sorry to get heavy, but this is not a bizarre thought in a time when we are losing so many to the virus.) I think my attitude toward every single thing I do, even running a mundane errand, would change radically. I’d see that the main point is that I get to be alive. The meaning is right now.

Any given day of my life has potentially unpleasant parts to it. The more I develop the muscle to turn toward and be with unpleasantness, instead of tensing up and muscling through it, the fewer negative emotions I will feel. And if I feel fewer negative emotions, I and everyone in contact with me will be happier.

So what’s an antidote to just muscling through?

The possibilities are infinite.

I might start by reviewing everything on my to-do list. For me, a common motivation for wanting to muscle through an activity is that I simply have too much to do. Is there anything I can postpone and do later on—or that doesn’t really need to be done at all?

Even after paring back my to-do list, I might still want to muscle through some tasks as quickly as possible. What then?

I might revisit the way I’m approaching Task X. For example, I might tell myself, “Well, I’m not excited about some aspects of this task, but I’m committed to it, so I’ll focus on my sense of service and visualize the positive impact this task will have on others.”

Or I can ask the advice of someone I trust to help me understand what’s important about my doing this task.

Or I can reflect that life never promised me that everything would feel great all the time—and frankly, this is one of those things that doesn’t have to feel great.

Or I can promise myself a short break at the beginning (or middle, or end) of this task and see how that refreshes my mood.

I’m sure you have other tried-and-true methods to add to the list.

If you want to join me in investigating this topic, here’s a specific practice you can try. As with last week’s practice, you might wish to do it with a buddy for greater support and accountability–and to make it fun.

An Antidote to Just Muscling Through

  • Scan your upcoming day for those tasks you’re wishing you could just get through. In particular, keep an eye out for tasks that make you feel anxious, guilty, bored, resentful, or frustrated.
  • Pick one and ask yourself: Am I the only/best person to do it? Am I committed to it?
  • If the answer to either or both questions, at least for now, is “Yes,” think of one way you can inhabit that task rather than just enduring it.
    • One way you can develop your psychological muscle tone (the flip side of muscling through!) is in the way you approach the task. See “You might be thinking” below for ideas, and you might have others.
  • Run the experiment: do the task.
  • Did the exercise help you feel more present for your life? Did it reduce negative feelings and increase positive ones? What takeaways will inform tomorrow’s experiment?

I recommend that you check in with yourself or your buddy each evening to reflect on how it went and plan for the next day. After one week, reflect on the overall impact of the practice on your sense of well-being, and decide how you want to proceed.

Q     How did it feel to experiment with the tendency to just muscle through tasks we find disagreeable? Turn to your imaginary or real partner!

You might be thinking:

“I had to do this work thing I wasn’t excited about. I decided to focus on service—all the students and teachers who are going to be helped, however indirectly, by my performing this task well. It helped me feel more engaged.”

“I thought about how I didn’t want to fold the laundry. I decided to go all Zen and turn it into a mindfulness meditation. It became bizarrely pleasurable. Please do not share that with the people in my household!”

“Today’s to-do list included vacuuming, which I hate! When I thought about it, I realized I can delay it for a few days. It’s fascinating how daring it felt to challenge my long-held standard that I must stick to my cleaning schedule or else the sky will fall.”

“This week’s practice doesn’t resonate with me. I don’t typically bring negativity to my to-do list. But I liked last week’s practice on engaging wisely with news and social media. So I’m planning to stick with that for another week.”

“I took a break in the middle of my workday and took my dog for a walk instead of just powering through work like I usually do.”

“I was able to turn around my mood … but I’m still thinking I’m not the best suited to Task X. I’m committing to thinking about how, in the long term, I can no longer do that particular thing. I’m still unsure how that’s going to happen, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to keep shouldering that particular load.”

Does this practice seem right for you? Are you willing to commit to trying it for one week?

If so, I encourage you to bring the same sense of curiosity, wonder, and kindness that we all bring (on our good days, anyway!) to educating our students. Approach your thoughts and habits like a compassionate scientist conducting an experiment.

I’m excited about what you might learn.

Next week’s post in the Teacher Wellness Blog Series will focus on how quiet moments benefit our effectiveness and mood. Read it here.