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Last Tuesday, my alarm went off at 7 a.m. like usual. Sigh, groan, audible “nope.” I hadn’t even opened my eyes yet and I could tell I was ready for the day to be over. It was just one of those mornings. Normally I snooze once or twice, but I didn’t even bother. Through haze-filled eyes, I shot my hand over, grabbed my phone, and shut off my alarm completely, to turn another on for an hour later.
While I was hopeful the extra hour would allow me to hit the ground running—wake up on the other side of the bed and all that—8 a.m. did me no better.
More like 8:18 did me no better, by the time I actually made it up. My first work meeting was a mere 12 minutes away, so I quickly threw a blouse on over the sports bra I slept in, grabbed an extra strength Tylenol for the migraine that was still raging from the night before, hopped back into bed (thankful for the white wall where a headboard should be), and perched my computer on my lap to open up Zoom.
That was when I saw, staring back at me with the words “Join with video?” underneath, not one, but two cold sores bubbling up around my mouth.
Sigh, groan, audible “nope” again. It was a camera off kind of day.
With no more need to make eye contact with the computer (although definitely still paying full attention to the work happening on the screen), I started my usual mindless social media scrolling routine. Open Instagram, nothing new, open twitter, nothing new, open instagram…
I was just about to call it quits and open Facebook, for goodness sake, when one of those “how long have you…” infographics popped up on my explore feed and caught my attention.
I know we’ve all seen those posts—the ones that show you how many days/months/years of your life you’ve spent doing something. This one told me that at the age of 26, I have spent approximately 8.6 years sleeping, 2.2 years looking at a screen, 1.5 years eating food (knowing me, that’s probably a low estimate), 33 days laughing, and 14 days getting ready to go out (also a low estimate—my hair takes forever to blow-dry).
I’m a big numbers person; I find those types of stats so fascinating. So, in between ‘muting’ and ‘unmuting’ myself for the four comments I made in my meeting all morning, I started thinking about other ways I have spent large portions of my time.
The first things that came to mind: reading, attending gymnastics practices, sitting in class lectures, and watching Mean Girls.
Not even joking. I have probably spent close to three days of my life watching Mean Girls, which is a lot considering it’s only an hour and 37 minute long movie. Adding in all the time I’ve spent quoting it, laughing at memes, and counting down the days until October 3rd, I’m probably at just under a week.
It’s the comfort food of movies for me. Some of my favorite memories growing up include sitting with my sisters on the big, black felt floor pillows in our upstairs TV room, rapping along with Kevin G or rolling our eyes at Janis. While most of those three days of watch time occurred during my middle and high school years, there are still times nowadays when I get an urge to pop in that pink dvd, curl up in bed, and say “eh eh, I’m sick,” to anyone who texts or calls.
It was at that point, waving goodbye to my colleagues on the screen out of habit, knowing full well they couldn’t see me, that I realized it wasn’t just a camera off kind of day—it was also a Mean Girls kind of day. Which meant that my stress, which was presenting itself internally through my headache and externally through the blisters on my lips, had to do with something more than just the uneven curtain bangs I cut on myself over the weekend.
As I have recently embarked on a quest for self-discovery, I spent the rest of the day trying to figure out what the problem was. If I wanted to become my best self, I needed to be in the best headspace.
With all of my dedicated thinking, I came up with a number of solutions:
Maybe I was overwhelmed because I spend too much time staring at a screen each day. I would feel better if I spent even 10 of those minutes of screen time meditating instead.
Maybe it was because I spend not enough time getting ready in the morning. Look your best to be your best, right? If I could get myself out of bed 15 minutes earlier, fill in my eyebrows, curl my new bangs, and put a blouse on over a regular bra and not my pajamas, I wouldn’t feel so drab.
Or maybe I was feeling off because of how often I spend wishing away time. Patience is a virtue, one that I definitely don’t have. I would be happier if I was more present, recognizing the value and beauty in each passing moment.
Yet none of those felt quite right. It was only after hours getting lost in my mind, trying to understand what I wasn’t doing enough of, what I needed more of, how I could do better, I… I… I… that a silent but pervasive thought popped into my head:
How much time do I spend thinking about myself?
The limit does not exist.
I think about myself constantly.
Once I recognized this, it easily became clear how many of my external experiences I translate into thoughts about myself.
Having an email from my coworker come through my inbox at 7:03 p.m.: Am I working hard enough? Getting a text in my sibling’s group chat and seeing only gray bubbles as I scroll through the conversation: Am I giving enough attention to the people I care about most? Eating a 1 a.m. quesadilla for the umpteenth time since quarantine started: Am I treating my body, internally and externally, with the respect it deserves?
These types of thoughts have seemed to heighten recently as I started working to discover more about who I am and how I want to grow.
Self-awareness is imperative in any personal growth journey. If you were to take five minutes to Google “How do I improve myself?” I’m willing to bet the number one step in any post you click on is something along the lines of “know yourself, see yourself, recognize your areas in need of growth.”
You can’t change if you don’t know what you are changing, and you can’t grow if you don’t know where you are growing from.
To give myself a quick pat on the back, I do think that self-awareness is one of my strengths, one that has been cultivated over years of both attending personal counseling and training to be a counselor in my higher education programs.
So, when thinking about the improvements I hope to make, my list of growth areas very quickly becomes a novella. Be more patient. Stop comparing myself to others, especially when I don’t know their full stories. Create a three-year career plan that sets me up for professional success. Learn to be okay with uncertainty. On, and on, and on… I am easily able to pick out these areas that would improve my life if I focused on them.
Step one of bettering myself: done. I recognize my areas in need of growth.
So, if I am one step closer to achieving the goal of becoming the best version of me, why do I feel so much worse about myself?
Why does increasing my self-awareness feel like it’s brought more harm than good?
It took me a while to figure out, but I have slowly come to realize that, in my efforts to improve myself and my life, I have first and foremost become my own biggest critic.
Raise your hand if you have ever been personally victimized by Regina George.
Or, more importantly, raise your hand if you have ever been personally victimized by yourself.
I know I’ve been.
It’s harder to recognize when it’s in pursuit of improving the way I am in the world. But it’s there. When I repeat to myself throughout the day, be more patient, or any of the other mantras I have recently added to my repertoire, what I’m really repeating is that I’m not:
These thoughts become obsessive, in a way. How easy I’ve found it to fall into the trap of ruminating on myself. Ruminating, more specifically, on what I lack.
How come I didn’t get up when my alarm went off the first time? I’m not motivated enough. Let’s work on that. How come I can’t afford that turtleneck sweater I’ve seen all my favorite influencers posing in? I need to be more frugal. Add that to the list.
The list. Ugh.
The real reason I was stressed Tuesday? Not for any of the reasons I came up with, but because of all the reasons I came up with. Compiling, thought by thought, a catalog of all the ways I ‘should’ be better.
My own personal burn book.
Stop trying to make “fetch” happen.
I can’t do it all. Not at once, not in a day, maybe not ever.
Actually, definitely not ever.
When I was talking (read: rambling) through these thoughts to someone close to me Tuesday night, he shared a strategy that finally helped lift some of the weight off my mind. And so, I’ll pass it on to you now:
Warren Buffett’s 2-Lists:
According to the story, Warren Buffett, American investor and business mogul, was having a conversation with his personal pilot one day. The pilot, Mike Flint, was unsure how to best propel his career forward, feeling like he was being pulled in too many directions. To aid his pilot, Buffett pulled out a piece of paper, handed it to him, and said, “Write down your top 25 career goals.”
Flint did this, easily but thoughtfully. Then, Buffett instructed, “Circle your top 5.”
Taking a little more time this go of it, Flint made his way through the exercise again. He smiled when he finished, looking at the two lists he created—List A, his top 25 goals, and List B, his highest priority 5. He told Buffett he would start dedicating his time to List B right away, focusing only on the remaining items on List A when he had additional time, but still giving them the attention they deserved, as they were obviously important.
At this, Buffett shook his head and said, “No, you’ve got it wrong, Mike.”
What Flint didn’t realize at first, and what Buffett went on to tell him, is that List A is not the “when you have time” list. List A is the “avoid at all costs” list. Any time spent on List A takes away from achieving anything on List B. Only when everything on List B has been successfully completed can you turn back to those secondary goals you’ve created for yourself.
Maybe it is just because I’m a numbers person, but thinking about prioritizing goals in this way made sense to me. And I thought, why can’t I do that for my life goals?
Answer: I can.
And I did. I tried it out. I sat down with a piece of paper and, just like Mike Flint, easily but thoughtfully wrote out 25 of the things that had been running through my head all day and week. All things that I think will make my life better—both externally (things I want to achieve) and internally (ways I want to grow). And then, just like Flint again, I took a bit longer circling and identifying my top five, the ones that matter most to me at this point in time.
At the end, I sat looking at the paper titled “Things to Accomplish through 2021,” containing both my List A and List B. And I felt good.
In my hands was a visual representation of all the things I won’t be able to do this upcoming year. Things I won’t even try to do.
But also in my hands were five things that I knew for sure I could achieve with purposeful time and energy.
It was a pen-to-paper filter of all the thoughts that were draining me. Not any one on its own, but the weight of them all together had me feeling stuck, trapped underneath, left without the strength to move forward at all. And that doesn’t mean I’m lacking strength, it just means I can’t carry 25 things in my head and in my heart at the same time.
But I can carry five.
My new step one to becoming the best version of myself?
Get rid of the damn burn book.
You go, Glen Coco!
So, I have my List B—my prioritized personal goals. I am going to throw myself into them this year and let go of the rest. Not forever for many of them, but definitely for now.
The first? Acceptance.
Acceptance of where I am, at this moment. Acceptance of the fact that I can’t change everything I want to, no matter how hard I try. Acceptance of the damaging thoughts I have sometimes and of the innate strength I have to push them aside and recognize their lack of worth.
I won’t actually become fluent in a second language this year like I have been trying to do since I saw Arrival in 2016. I won’t write a novel. I won’t become significantly more patient or noticeably less quiet.
And that’s okay. Because I’m making room for myself—giving myself the space I need to stretch into those five places that are most important for me to be right now.
Know what I will do this year? Spend more time sleeping, eating, laughing, and getting ready. And, most importantly, watching Mean Girls.