Tired of Being Tired? How To Create a Joyful Family/Life Balance

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Nothing ruined my day…my week…and even my month like being overwhelmed.

When I used to get overwhelmed, NOTHING seemed to go right because I couldn’t focus – and mostly because I have so much going on in my head that I didn’t know WHICH THING TO FOCUS ON! So because I didn’t know WHAT I should be focusing on, NOTHING got enough of my attention and energy to actually go right.

In the past, I’d let overwhelm rob me of enjoying time with my kids because, instead, I would spend my time attending to my overwhelm instead of being in the moment with my kids. It also caused me to feel “stuck” in my life: with my business, my career, and with so many important relationships. This is because I had so many (and often competing!) thoughts about something that I felt paralyzed to make a decision or to move forward in an area of my life.

So, instead of making a decision, I stayed stuck. I didn’t place the ad to hire that amazing therapist that would complement my Southern California practice. Or I didn’t reach out to that friend that I hadn’t seen in a while, and our relationship further withered away. Or I didn’t sign up for that writing course that I’ve been drooling over.

In the past, I’ve stayed stuck like this because overwhelm flooded my head with a beehive of buzzing thoughts and ideas, and I wasn’t able to just focus on one thought long enough to deal with it.

Overwhelm also made me SO TIRED!

You know, we don’t give enough credit to how much psychological energy it takes to manage uncomfortable feelings like overwhelm. We only have a finite amount of energy, so when all our energy goes to managing the buzzing thoughts in our head, the less energy we have for the other areas of our lives.

When I was saddled with overwhelm, I’d feel like a zombie walking through my life instead of actually being a participant in my life.

I used to get overwhelmed a lot, but not anymore. I got tired of waiting to feel better in order to really enjoy my kids and my life. I wanted to enjoy my kids – and to feel like a good parent – RIGHT NOW. I got tired of wishing I could make some great things happen with my career, and I wanted my dream career to happen RIGHT NOW.

In order to do this, though, I had to tackle the overwhelm demon in my life – and I was able to do that by diving into the research on overwhelm and creating a life plan for myself that eliminated 95% of the overwhlem in my life.

And in today’s article, I want to share with you the strategy that I used to finally take charge of my overwhlem that brought peace, joy, and productivity back to my life. And I know YOU struggle with overwhelm too, because most parents that I work with at MPS talk about overwhelm at one point or another.

So let’s get started tackling your overwhelm once and for all.


Do YOU Really Matter?

Here’s the truth: you don’t have to be overwhelmed with life!

If you can’t give yourself that permission to stop being overwhelmed, then let ME give that permission to you. As a seasoned child psychologist, I’ve witnessed so many parents crave permission from SOMEONE – ANYONE! – that allows them to stop feeling overwhelmed. And I’m happy to be that person for you if you need this.

Usually, I’ll have a parent sitting on the green couch in my office, and they’ll be close to tears detailing to me all the things that they have on their plates. It’s a foreign concept to them that being a parent doesn’t have to equal being frazzled and overwhelmed. Many parents – including myself – have figured out how to create strategies and mindsets for ourselves that allow us to be present for our kids AND FOR OURSELVES.

Look, I preach this concept all the time: YOU MATTER TOO!

It always makes me so sad when parents lose their individual identities and feelings of worth once they become parents. Being a parent should ADD to your personal confidence, enjoyment, and self-worth, not take away from these areas.

Does that resonate with you?

Do you feel like you’ve lost a little bit of yourself since becoming a parent?

Then let’s start getting you back on track by tackling your feeling of overhwlem so that you can plug back into the important areas of your life again.

 (Ok. Still feeling too guilty to work on your overwhelm? Then let me convince you that working on your overwhelm actually makes you a better parent. When you actively refuse to let overwhelm take over your life, and you use strategies to take control over overwhelm, then not only are you modeling healthy behavior to your child so THEY can adopt these same health strategies, but you’re also becoming more calm and present when interacting with your child. You’re actually doing your child a disfavor by NOT getting your overwhelm under control!)

So, are you ready to learn the strategies of eliminating overwhelm? Then let’s get started.


The Four Burner Theory

Years ago, when I decided that I had to eliminate overwhelm from my life once and for all, I turned to my favorite source of information – expert research.

Now, I don’t want you to spend tons of time researching the topic, so I’m condensing all the best information that I learned about this topic into this article for you. I spent months reading books and psychological articles so that I could develop the best strategies for myself. So, everything that I’m going to talk about in today’s article is what I believe is the most important thing to know about this topic, so I’ve done all the work for you.

Now all YOU need to do is learn the strategies and start implementing them.

Now I’m mostly going to borrow from a theory called the Four Burner Theory. This theory really helped me dominate my overwhelm, but there was a little bit missing from this theory because it was originally developed to address the need of the individual, and I thought that it left some gaps when it came to parenting. So I added my own “spin” on this theory, and I added 2 additional strategies as well.

So what exactly IS the Four Burner Theory?

David Sedaris, a popular writer and humorist, first proposed this theory in his essay in The New York Times. His essay asks the reader to imagine that their life is represented by a stove that contains four burners, and each burner symbolizes one important aspect of your life: family, friends, health, or work. Sedaris stated that all human beings only have a finite amount of energy (just like a stove has only a certain amount of energy to power the burners), and if we want to be successful in life, we need to turn off 1 burner in order to shift that burner’s energy to the remaining three.

AND…he went on further to suggest that if we wanted to be REALLY successful in life, then we should turn off two burners and shift all remaining energy into the remaining two burners.

Sedaris wanted to challenge his readers to think about which areas of their lives were most important and what sacrifices we were willing to make in order to make those important areas successful.

But who wants to make tough choices like that, right? Can’t we find a way to balance all four important areas of our lives instead of cutting things out of our lives completely? AND…are these the right 4 areas that we should be focusing on?

Next, enter James Clear, another popular writer who specializes in writing about habits, decision-making, and continuous improvement. He took this theory and ran with it. In his book called Atomic Habits (which is GREAT and I highly recommend it!), he states that he doesn’t want to cut off important areas of his life just to be successful in only 1 or 2 areas.

And I agree with him wholeheartedly!

Clear believes that we can create systems and habits in our lives that allow us to keep all four burners burning in a way that brings us joy and happiness.

So that’s the goal for this article today – to identify the four important areas that bring joy and happiness to most parents’ lives (our burners) and the strategies needed to ensure that we have the right amount of energy to keep these four areas healthy at all times.

So, first let’s identify the parents’ four important areas.


The Four Important Areas For Parents

When David Sedaris originally wrote about his four burners theory, he proposed that the four most important areas for every human were family, friends, health, and work.

As a parent and psychologist, I don’t think these areas are complete, so for the sake of this article, I propose the four important life areas are Family, Connection, Health, and Purpose/Passion. When we allow all four of these areas to function in our life, then we experience optimal happiness.

Let’s dive into an explanation for each area now so that you know exactly what I’m talking about.

Family: Over and over again, researchers have found that when individuals feel a close bond with their family members, they experience only positive effects.

For example, one of the largest and most thorough studies on adults and happiness came out of Harvard University. This study spent decades watching a large cohort of adults and studied them at important intervals in their lives. They found that the participants who reported a close and positive family bond experienced better self-esteem, higher levels of happiness, and better overall well-being.

This study is similar to one that looked at adolescents and happiness. This study which was published by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that children who were raised in homes with close family relationships experienced fewer instances of negative outcomes such as drug use and mental health issues, but they also experienced higher levels of happiness as well.

So a close family bond is important to our happiness.

Connection: Connection is when an individual experiences a sense of belonging with another individual or group of individuals.

We have the opportunity to experience individual connection within most of our relationships: with our kids, our spouses, our friends, our extended family members, our co-workers, our doctors and therapists, etc.

We can also experience connection when we belong to groups. For example, we experience a sense of connection when we participate in religious activities, friend groups, social clubs, and on sports teams. We can also experience group connections at work, at college, within school parent groups, etc.

When we feel a connection – whether it is with an individual or a group – we feel understood and accepted, and that also promotes happiness, joy, and well-being.

Health: The area of health is an important one, because when our health suffers, so does our happiness – and our feeling of overwhelm certainly goes through the roof. 

The health area encompasses more than just physical health, too. A truly healthy individual ensures that they are spiritually and mentally healthy too.

Again, research tells us that when people feel rooted in their religion or spiritual beliefs – whatever those beliefs may be – they feel happier. This may be due to the fact that spiritual beliefs provide a sense of structure for the individual and typically offers a group of people to connect with over similar beliefs.

Staying mentally healthy is another aspect of overall health. When we identify times of elevated levels of anxiety or depression – and we go to the effort of using coping skills and strategies to address these times – then we’re setting ourselves up for a much happier life.

Purpose/Passion: So both David Sedaris and James Clear believed that the last burner was all about work – but I disagree with them. I believe that expressing and participating in natural talents and passions provides us with the purpose needed to be truly happy – and research backs me up. Multiple studies show that people with hobbies and interests are less likely to suffer from stress, low mood, and depression.

If you’ve been a reader here long enough, you know that I believe that a core element of Modern Parenting is encouraging our kids to pursue their natural talents and abilities. This is so important because it creates a sense of purpose for our young people.

What is purpose? It’s when you believe that you have important talents and abilities to add to the larger world. Having a sense of purpose not only connects you to the individuals in your life, but it also serves to connect you with the larger world around you.

Science tells us that people who have a well-rooted sense of purpose experience lower levels of anxiety, depression, physical illness, and loneliness, and this contributes to our overall happiness.  

When we feel like we matter to those around us – and to the world – we experience more happiness. Some of us get this sense of purpose from our careers or the work that we do, which is great, while others get their sense of purpose from their hobbies, volunteer work, art, or connections with others.

Ok. Now that you know the four important areas in our lives that make us happy, how do we ensure that we don’t have to “turn off” one or two areas in order to be less overwhelmed with life?

Let’s talk about some strategies to keep all of these areas healthy – and avoid overwhelm. Now, I like to give credit where credit is due, so I’m going to discuss 5 strategies. Three of those strategies were developed by James Clear, but I bookended his strategies with my own, so the first and the last strategy are added because I believe they fully address the needs of today’s parenting overwhelm.


Strategy #1: Give Yourself Permission to Matter

The first strategy to combat overwhelm – and balance those four important areas – is to first acknowledge that YOU matter.

Yes! Believe it or not, YOU deserve a happy and balanced life.

I can’t tell you how many parents – especially mothers – who sit on my green couch in my office and recount to me all of the tasks and responsibilities that they have on their plates. When I suggest that being a parent isn’t synonymous with being overworked, I just get shocked and blank stares.

Somewhere along the line, Modern Parents have convinced themselves that being good parents means being overwhelmed too, but I’m here to tell you that that is simply not true.

We CAN be great parents and live a balanced, peaceful, and happy life.

We CAN be great parents and say no to things that don’t matter so that we have more time to enjoy our families.

We CAN be great parents even though we don’t look as busy as our friends.

We CAN be great parents and have a life for ourselves too – one where we participate in our own passions and talents (and experience a sense of purpose).

Have I drilled this concept into your head yet?

You are a great parent AND you don’t have to be overwhelmed all the time. This first strategy is simply where you acknowledge to yourself that you are no longer going to allow overwhelm to take over your life.

YOU deserve to figure out how to use these strategies to bring peace and joy back into your life.


Strategy #2: Outsource Unimportant Tasks

As parents, there are so many tasks that we need to tackle – and some of them are more important than others.

I suggest that you outsource the tasks that:

  • Don’t affect your relationship with your child or partner
  • Aren’t a part of your strengths (for example, if you’re not great at cooking, then why put yourself through that misery every night?)
  • Drain your mental, physical, or emotional energy.

Some parenting tasks that can be outsourced are:

  • Housecleaning
  • Laundry
  • Yardwork
  • Tutoring
  • Cooking (for example, signing up for a meal delivery service or trading this task with a family member or friend who likes to cook)
  • Grocery delivery or errand running services
  • Putting household staples on reorder through a company such as Amazon or Target.

Look, these are just some suggestions, and I know that at first glance they may seem like only well-off parents can afford these “luxuries,” but get creative. I had a mom trade tutoring for meals because she disliked cooking so much. She would tutor her friend’s child 3 times a week, and when she was tutoring, her friend cooked the family meal – and gave her half.

How do you start outsourcing? Examine your daily routine. What tasks tend to drain your energy? What tasks do you dread? Start with identifying ways you can take those tasks off your plate – and don’t feel guilty about it.


Strategy #3: Embrace Constraints

James Clear suggests that we should maximize the constraints that we have in life. For example, if we work from 9-5, how could we be most efficient while at the office? Assuming you only have 3 hours to exercise each week, how can you get the most from those 3 hours?

For parents, it’s a little different. We first need to acknowledge and be realistic about our constraints and then deal with them without judgment.

For example, if your child just told you that they need to bring two dozen cookies for the soccer team bake sale the following day, resist the urge to go to the store angry and stay up late baking fresh cookies. Embrace your constraint of having little time and buy some nice cookies at the store on your way to school the next morning. You’ll have more physical and cognitive energy to spend with your family when you make this decision.

Here’s another example. A common scenario that plays out pretty frequently in my office is that parents will want their anxious or depressed child to start feeling better overnight, and it just doesn’t work like that. I’ve got to have time to work with each young person to help them learn and use coping skills and to develop healthy mindsets before the parent will see any positive change.

In this case, I advise parents to embrace the constraint that mental health care takes time, and to celebrate small wins on the journey. For example, a young person who stays home sick less or interacts with the family a little bit more each day is a win.

When you embrace the constraints in your life – and avoid judging yourself that you’re a bad parent because of these constraints – then overwhelm remains at bay.


Strategy #4: The Seasons of Life

A common misconception about family/life balance is that parents should be giving equal amounts of energy and attention to all four important areas all the time – but that’s an unrealistic goal.

Our family lives have seasons, and it makes sense to strategically assign our energy into the four areas.

For example, a short-term season many families experience is a busy sports season for the child. When a young person must attend multiple practices and games each week for a period of a couple of months, this means that it makes sense for more time and energy to be spent on the sport and less attention on other areas like hobbies or connection (without guilt – remember strategy #3?).

Then, when the sport season is over, the parent reverts their energy back to a more equitable balance between the four areas.

This is true for long-term seasons as well. Parents who go back to school to get a 2-year master’s degree may need to pull back from hobbies and spend more energy on their purpose/passion which is their education.

A family with a newborn may need to spend more energy on health (sleepless nights can really do damage with our health!) and spend less time on connection or purpose/passion for a while.

The trick to using the Seasons of Life strategy is to:

  1. Don’t heap unnecessary amounts of guilt or unrealistic expectations on yourself (embrace your constraints – strategy #3!)
  2. Don’t take away ALL the energy from one of the other areas and devote it to another area – this is too much of an imbalance
  3. Make sure to have a plan for when you go back to a more equitable balance of all your life areas. Without a plan, sometimes parents forget to go back to their original balance.

So the takeaway for this strategy is that overwhelm stays at a manageable level when you acknowledge to yourself that this imbalance of energy is simply temporary.


Strategy #5: Become OK With Priorities and Boundaries

Finally, much of our parental overwhelm can be managed by giving ourselves permission to have priorities and boundaries.

Priorities are specific things that are more important than others.

Boundaries are the rules with which you operate. They are a system for you to use to make decisions and to feel comfortable with those decisions.

For example, attending your child’s piano recital is a priority for you. You want to be at the recital on time and in a calm and peaceful headspace so that you are fully present and you enjoy yourself. You use your boundaries to request time off from work to get to the recital on time, say no to the girl’s night that your friends planned on the same night as the recital, and to allow yourself to let go of any guilt or FOMO if your boss is annoyed or your friends miss you.

Do you see how priorities and boundaries go hand-in-hand and give us the freedom from overwhelm that we’ve been looking for?


Putting It All Together

Let me show you how all these strategies work together using an example.

Let’s say that your child is failing their 8th-grade math class because they usually spend most of the afternoon and evenings playing video games and avoiding doing homework. In addition, your other child just started playing hockey, which means they need to get to daily practices and weekly games. AND you work from home where you are expected to attend customer meetings when planned and produce a certain amount of work.

Immediately you begin to feel overwhelmed, so what do you do?

First of all, make a plan. You DON’T have to become a martyr or make yourself sick (strategy #1) to meet all of your family’s needs. Next, create a plan of action for the next month or so using your priorities (strategy #5). You choose that your priorities are helping your child pass their math class, allowing your other child to participate in hockey without feeling like a burden, and showing up for your customers as needed so that you are still in line for the promotion.

Now, make sure you have the right mindset. Acknowledge to yourself that this is a busy season for your family (strategy #4), but after hockey season and the semester are over, you will plan a much calmer season. Also, get your expectations in check (strategy #3). Your child’s math grade isn’t going to improve overnight, and this is going to take some time. You will still have work meetings, so maybe scheduling them before school gets out would work best.

Finally, what tasks can you outsource because you shouldn’t be expected to do it all (strategy #2)? What about trading carpool duties with other hockey moms so that you are only driving to practice once a week? What about hiring a math tutor? Can you devise a dinner schedule with your partner so that you both share dinner duties every other night?

Do you see how the strategies help to minimize overwhelm? The strategies honor YOUR personal priorities, gives you the right mindset so that you not heaping unnecessary amounts of guilt and anxiety on yourself, and allow you to be effective in the areas that need it in the current season of your life.


Take Home Message

Overwhelm robs us of our ability to enjoy our families and our lives.

You can eliminate overwhelm from your life by understanding that you only have so much time and energy to give. Remember the stove and burner analogy. My goal for you is to be able to maximize the energy that you have to keep all your burners going efficiently.

The strategies that I gave you today should be a starting point for you to begin addressing the overwhelm in your life.


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