avoiding burnout

Take Care of Yourself By Making Small Changes (Guest Post on NewMusicBox)

If you’re feeling a little overwhelmed by making changes in a new year, you’re not alone! I’m scaling way back on the amount of goals and aspirations I’m setting in 2019 (more about that in my next post), in favor of honoring rest and detaching myself as much as I can from being achievement-focused. That doesn’t mean I want to do nothing, but I do want to make sure that I execute goals and new habits in a sustainable way.

I got to write all about that in a guest post (Take Care of Yourself By Making Small Changes) for NewMusicBox, the online magazine of NewMusicUSA!

I talk about some of my favorite topics like mindset, burnout, rest, habits and routines, and self-compassion (the biggest game-changer), and this stuff works no matter the time of year.

Hop on over to NewMusicBox to read it!

Holiday Self-Care Roundup

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Somehow it’s December again? I don’t know what happened.

I also feel like it’s already been winter forever (since I live in Minnesota and it actually did snow on October 14 this year). So, you know what that means:

Time to up our self-care!

(And we probably need more than we normally give ourselves, anyway!)

Here’s a round-up of useful blog posts and podcasts that I hope will help you stay more grounded and present this holiday season:

This is one of my most popular posts ever, and it has plenty of applicable stuff for creatives of all types, not just musicians.

Tracy Benjamin from Shutterbean has some great quick tips, and I love the visual style of her blog, especially her handwriting!

Angela Beeching, a career consultant for musicians, highlights gratitude as a way to not only de-stress, but ultimately to help your career. I love how she focuses on mindset.

We always talk about what to do during the busy lead-up to the holidays, but Lauren Cummins of StarHaus Psychotherapy, who created the Self Care Solitaire decks that I really like, wisely focuses on how to take care of yourself afterwards, as well. She also has some good ideas about how to embrace winter here.

PODCAST EPISODES

If you’ve been following along with my posts for any length of time, you probably know how much I love Mara Glatzel’s work and podcast. In my opinion, the most important factor in taking care of ourselves is knowing what we need and giving ourselves permission to go after it.

I loved this episode because it focused not just on being over doing, but also talked about rituals as a way of connecting to the winter season (I’m all for trying to make friends with winter!)

This episode with physician Beth Ricanati focuses on baking as a ritual for self-care (since that’s what her book is about), but encourages us to give ourselves permission (there’s that word again, why is it so hard sometimes?) to take time for self-care.

EDIT: I also did a Facebook live about holiday self-care, which you can watch here!

I hope that these resources are helpful for you - they certainly have been for me, and I’m revisiting them this season (because self-care is a practice, and wellness is always a moving target).

If you need extra support to keep yourself feeling like a full and healthy human during this season, I offer a few different ways of working with me through Coaching for Creative Wellness, including email coaching for people on a budget or with less time to schedule a call.

I also have some free resources available here, as well as my weekly newsletter which is chock-full of supportive real talk about staying well while doing creative work. Sign up at the bottom of the page!

What do you do to take care of yourself during the winter and/or holiday season? Let me know in the comments!

5 Tips for Creatives to Bring Wellness Into Their Lives

Anyone who’s ever talked to me about nutrition in the last year has heard me sing the praises of Lucia Hawley from Essential Omnivore, who I worked with to revamp my diet last summer. Or you might have seen me feature her in a Sunday Shout-out early this year. Her mission is “to teach diet perfectionists how to bring calm back to their bodies from the inside out”, and I totally appreciate how she keeps it real while helping people make sustainable changes to their overall health. 

Lucia invited me to contribute a guest post over on Essential Omnivore, 5 Tips for Creatives to Bring Wellness Into Their Lives, which you can read right here. We could all use more wellness in our lives, right? Especially in an easy and actionable way? (Yes!)

I’m also going to be a guest on her podcast this fall, airdate TBD - stay tuned for that!

(Edit: Here’s the link to my episode of the Essential Omnivore podcast!)

This is the album cover!

This is the album cover!

In album-related news, I submitted my artwork and master this week, so my CDs have begun production! 🎉🎉🎉

The official album release date is coming up soon on October 24, and you’ll be able to buy and stream it through all of the usual places - stay tuned for more details on that.

And, if you’re in Minneapolis/St. Paul, you’re invited to my album release show on October 18, featuring all of the guest musicians on the album (Tim O’Keefe, percussion, Jenny Klukken, marimba, and Laura Harada, violin). I’m also planning on live-streaming it. More details here.

If you want to stay in the loop on the album and upcoming gigs, be sure to hop on my gig mailing list here!

How I Keep It Together When I'm Busy

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Well, it’s springtime (only according to the calendar - several inches of snow are forecast for MN this weekend 😫), and that means crazy schedule time!

In the next 2 months, I’ll be: accompanying lots of recitals, playing many/various gigs, practicing and rehearsing for said gigs, planning out my summer teaching schedule, going to Boston for New Music Gathering May 17-19, marching in the May Day Parade, and attending a few family events.

Add to that: planning a recording project (for my first album!) and a Kickstarter (launching May 29), which is awesome, but overwhelming! I have to be really deliberate about how I spend my time, to avoid burnout/meltdown.

Earlier this week, I was thinking, “I don’t know what to blog about this week, I’m feeling really overwhelmed...clearly that’s what I should write about.” So, here is my arsenal of ways that I keep it together during crazy busy times (like right now):

SYSTEMS!

I would be the most hopelessly disorganized person without systems - my brain needs them!

This app is where all of my to-dos live. My system is loosely based on the book Getting Things Done, structured in columns (Today, Working On, This Week, Next Week, Waiting On, Planning Ahead, Done). I’m a really visual person, so I like being able to drag each card from one list to the next.

  • Zooming out to get the big picture

At the beginning of each month, I list all of the upcoming projects and events coming up in the next few months (including preparations like practice/rehearsal). I like to print out monthly calendar sheets and plot it all out. Then, I make cards in Trello for each task or project (you can also add checklists), and add due dates. It also has a calendar function, to visualize all of your due dates, but I don’t do this much because I like the analog version.

  • Reminders

I use the iPhone Reminders app all of the time for repeating tasks that I don’t want to forget (like making copies for teaching, or quarterly taxes), and also for things that I need to remember, but don’t want to take up space on my to-do list. If I’m out and about, I’ll set a reminder for a time that I know I’ll be home and at my computer, then I don’t have to worry about it.

TIME/TASK MANAGEMENT

  • Writing my to-do list in order 

My planner has a space to write the 3 most important tasks first, and if I’m being really strategic, I write things in the actual order that I’ll do them, to avoid indecision.

  • Manageable to do list 

I almost never succeed at this, but ideally, I would make a list that I could actually accomplish in a day. On the upside, I no longer beat myself up about not getting it all done.

  • Time blocking

I’ve tried this in the past, but I don’t do it very often, because it made my days feel too chopped up into pieces, and stressed me out a bit. I do schedule my piano practice time in the morning, though.

  • Pomodoro technique (4 cycles of 25 minutes of work, 5 minutes break, then a longer break)

This works really well for me when I want to harness the power of a time deadline. Bonus: if I actually get up from my chair to take those breaks, it’s really energizing.

  • Create barriers to procrastination and distraction

If I have to, I put my phone in another room, use the Self-Control app (free!) to block distracting websites, and close my email tab until a specified time (email is not an emergency). I also have almost all notifications turned off on both my phone and computer.  

  • Scheduling according to energy

I gauge how I feel each day, but generally plan on doing tasks that require more complex thought when I have the most energy (for me, that’s in the morning, or right after a walk), and save tasks like email for mid-afternoon when I have less energy.

  • Batching tasks

I plan all of my lessons for the week at one time, try to write multiple blog posts in a row, etc. Studies have shown that each time we switch tasks, we waste 17 minutes in the process - if that’s true, it’s a wonder that we get anything done?  

  • Embrace external accountability for important but not urgent tasks -

I have Obliger tendencies (see Gretchen Rubin's 4 Tendencies for an explanation), so I either say publicly that I’ll do something, or I also have a friend that I check in with monthly for accountability and mutual encouragement!

PRIORITIZING

  • Figure out my non-negotiable tasks, habits, and activities

For me, this is exercise, cooking breakfast, spending time with my partner (he’s also super busy, as a grad student), etc. I may have to let some things go temporarily (like seeing shows, social events, or starting new projects), or even permanently.

  • Stop overcomplicating

I have a tendency to make things harder than they need to be, so I try stop and ask myself if I’m overcomplicating, and whether I need to be doing everything I originally had planned on! 

  • Simplify non-work areas of my life 

Let’s be real, this translates to me wearing the same clothing more often, and cleaning less often, but it could also apply to delegating or postponing things until I’m less busy.

MINDSET

  • Be kind to myself

This one is the most important! Being hard on myself when I can’t do it all (no one can!) does not help at all. 

  • Using positive mantras like "I have as much time as I need" to quiet my brain.
  • Accepting that I have less time for creative work

I certainly haven’t been writing as much music as last year, when I did 2 100 Day Projects, but these things go in seasons. I generated a lot of work then, and now I’m working on doing something with it, so naturally I can’t (and might not want to) be creating a lot (and that’s okay). These tips are super helpful for fitting in as creative time as possible.

  • Remind myself that resistance and overwhelm are normal.

If I expect that resistance is part of working really hard, it's easier to handle. I don’t have to want to do the work, I just have to do the work.

  • Thinking about only one thing at a time 

I know that I expend a lot of energy thinking about and projecting into the future, anticipating how overwhelmed I’m going to be, which actually brings more overwhelm to the present moment. This used to be really hard for me, so I started by making my daily walk a no-thinking-about-work zone.

  • Refusing to create more overwhelm

I can choose not to fixate on it, and not to rush while going places. This actually does help a lot.

SUPPORT MYSELF PHYSICALLY

Exercise, meditation, and eating good food are non-negotiable for me - it's even more important to support myself while super busy.

  • Prioritize rest and breaks (especially anything mind-focusing like meditation, short walks, stretching, etc.)

We’re not machines! I know that I can’t focus for long periods of time, especially when I’m already mentally or physically exhausted. I’ve noticed that when I’m struggling to work productively, that’s not just a sign that I’m feeling lazy, it’s a message from my brain that it’s tired and needs support (via food, water, movement, or rest).

  • Scheduling time to regroup

During a busy season like spring, I have to pace myself, or my brain will turn to mush. I actually schedule rest days on my calendar (yes, they say “CAT/COUCH DAY” - Rusty the Cat is my relaxation mentor.) And, if I don’t have time to regroup, that means that I’ve overscheduled myself unsustainably, and hopefully I will learn from that and not do it again.

I've written a lot about self-care for musicians, too - links here, here, and here

These are all things that I strive to do, but of course, this is all a process, and there are ups and downs! The good part is that healthy and productive habits build on each other, allowing more and more of them to happen. If your spring is as crazy as mine, I'm wishing you well!

What are your favorite tips for keeping it together and staying efficient during busy times? Let me know in the comments!

Let's Talk About Anxiety

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ANXIETY.

So many of us deal with it, especially since the lead-up to and aftermath of the 2016 election. So many of us in creative fields deal with it. And many of us you would never suspect (especially stoic Midwesterners). When I mentioned my anxiety to some good friends last year, they were shocked because they had no idea, but the more people I talk to, the more I realize that so many people I know have also dealt with it - this is not an exclusive club!

I’ve alluded to having a rough time with anxiety last year in previous posts, and since it’s been about a year since things really started ramping up, I’ve been reflecting on all that’s happened, the changes I’ve made, and I want to share my experience, in case it’s helpful to anyone (you’re definitely not alone!) Plus, I really think that our society just needs to be more open about talking about mental health in general. #endthestigma

Looking back, I’ve dealt with anxiety most of my life - I worried about lots of implausible stuff as a kid, got stomachaches on sleepovers, etc. I was also somewhat depressed in college (gray, gray upstate NY winters didn’t help), and didn’t realize it at the time. For me, anxiety and depression are kind of 2 sides of the same problem, but I personally see the anxiety manifesting a lot more.

In 2010, I experienced my worst bout of anxiety, during a stressful work situation involving the launch of untested software, while simultaneously flying around the country to audition for graduate programs in collaborative piano (3 trips in 1 month) - basically, having a quarter-life crisis. That anxiety really blindsided me because it was the first time things had gotten that bad. On the outside, it looked like I was functioning, but things were pretty bad - I almost always felt like I was going to puke and ate little more than bananas many days, while waiting to hear back from schools.

At the time, I wasn’t taking care of myself well. I ate whatever sugary snacks showed up in the office, didn’t sleep enough, and rarely exercised. I made some changes, and with the help of a great therapist (there’s zero shame in therapy, and I think that everyone should get to go), I was able to recognize that all of my negative thoughts were not automatically true - what a game changer! It took almost a year, but I finally started to feel better, then my dad had a stroke and was in the hospital for the better part of the summer (he’s much better now), so naturally the anxiety fired up again.

After my dad got home and things stabilized, I learned to manage the anxiety pretty well (the most important thing for me is not missing more than one day of exercise in a row), but it’s really sneaky and can creep up without you even realizing it!

2016 was an intense year with personal/family stuff (all is fine now) and the election/state of the world, while my constant pace of work was also catching up with me. (Thanks, music school culture and American workaholic values!)

I started to question whether I should really be teaching so much - I thought that I would feel like I had “made it” when I had a studio of 30 students, but it turns out that for an introvert, that’s just a recipe for burnout, especially when you add teaching 3 group classes of 5-7 year olds, extra gigs, blogging, and composing daily.

In March of 2017, I was starting to feel the burnout, so I signed up for a class on rest with Mara Glatzel (which was great, but it turns out that you have to actually take the advice for it to work…) I spent half of my spring break in California visiting friends and family, and seeing Hermeto Pascoal in concert, which was totally worth it, but left me very exhausted (especially since I had terrible insomnia from anxiety 2 out of the 3 nights I was there). Then, I launched into a stretch of working over a month with no days off, because I need the income from accompanying during recital season to carry over into summer, when I don’t teach as much. It was no surprise that on my first day off after that stretch, I had a panic attack (on my birthday!) on the way to an acupuncture appointment. (Yeah. It’s kind of funny now.)

I thought that my lighter summer teaching schedule would allow me some space to rest and the anxiety would subside, but it didn’t - it kept getting worse, even as I tried a huge list of tactics: I was already exercising daily, eating almost no refined sugar, drinking almost no caffeine, getting acupuncture regularly and a massage monthly, and meditating occasionally, and then I also tried CBD oil, meditation daily, changed my diet (started eating meat again after 14 years without, and low carbs), examined if any foods or yeast were causing inflammation in my body, went back to therapy, used positive affirmations, essential oils, tried EFT (tapping), epsom salt baths for added magnesium, reducing stimuli (no podcasts or music on in the background, wearing sunglasses), Rescue Remedy, tulsi tinctures, kava stress relief tea, and probably more things that I’m forgetting.

So, I’d tried literally everything I could think of, short of medication, and nothing seemed to be making a dent in the anxiety. I was very resistant to the idea of trying meds, partly because I hoped I could control it on my own, and partly because I typically take a more holistic approach to my health as much as possible, but I was so miserable that I finally considered it.

When it came down to it, I was tired of my life feeling so hard, which feels ridiculous to say, considering the privilege that I have, but my brain was making every little activity difficult. If you’ve dealt with anxiety, you know what I mean - your brain is overreacting to everything, including normal stimuli. I felt triggered by sounds, light, seeing moving cars when driving on the highway, being out with friends (ambient noise), scrolling on my phone and computer, and had a hard time planning normal things like cooking meals or remembering what to bring with me to work - it felt like there was just no extra space left in my head. On the outside, I was fulfilling all of my obligations, so I looked like I was doing okay, but I was actually in survival mode for months (avoid this!)

In August I started taking Celexa, which gave me horrible insomnia on alternating days for 2 weeks and made me into a total zombie. I was cautiously optimistic that things were getting better at that point, when I left for California to visit family and go to California Brazil Camp, but flying and leaving my normal surroundings gave me a lot of anxiety. Halfway through the week at camp, after 3 weeks on meds, I suddenly didn’t feel anxious all the time (being off the grid from phones/wifi certainly didn’t hurt), and it finally felt like there was leftover space in my head. I am very grateful that the first medication I tried was the right one - not everyone has that experience, and it’s so difficult to wait for weeks while one’s body adjusts, not knowing if it will work.

How did the anxiety get better?

The Celexa definitely gave my brain a boost (bonus: I now have really vivid dreams that I usually remember in detail), and the lifestyle changes I’d started over the summer began to help, but I think that the main reason I feel better is that I started a personal spiritual practice, something I didn’t realize was missing from my life. My daily walk is essential - I use it to focus on a mantra or my breathing, or use it to gently untangle my brain if something is upsetting, asking myself what I need (and hopefully actually giving myself that). Doing self-compassion meditation has also been huge - we can be so hard on ourselves about performing well in all aspects of our lives, while also doing way too many things at once. We often don’t think twice about pushing ourselves to keep working, but would probably hate a taskmaster boss that did that to us!

Notice that I said “get better”, not “cure my anxiety” - I have no illusions that being on medication cures the problem, and I know that this is a lifelong issue that I will always be prone to. If my life gets more stressful and/or I don’t keep up my healthy habits, I definitely feel it, and it’s a learning process of awareness that I have to commit to. I’m certainly not perfect, and I’m still prone to workaholic tendencies, as much as I try not to fall into that trap (that Midwestern farmer heritage dies hard, as does the stereotypical musician lifestyle). Lisa Congdon talks about her experience with workaholism and anxiety here, and I relate to all of her takeaways. 

I felt my anxiety ramping up again this week, as I’m nearing spring break (starting after my concert tonight!) and have gotten a bit fried from a busy month, but I am now MUCH more sensitive to the red flags of increased anxiety and impending burnout (feeling crabby/unable to handle work/stressful situations as well as normal, heart racing, feeling fearful for no good reason, feeling exhausted rather than energized after a walk, etc.) So, I won’t let things get as bad as they did last year, if I can help it.

How to deal with anxiety

If you deal with anxiety, too, here are the most helpful tips I’ve learned along the way*:

  • Don’t be afraid to seek professional help

Most of us don’t get a whole lot of emotional training in our upbringing, so going to a therapist or counselor is SO helpful for gaining these tools. They can also guide you as to whether medication is a good choice for you. And, of course, if you’re thinking about hurting yourself or others, call for help immediately: the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255.

  • Figure out what your triggers are

Sometimes as anxiety is creeping up, we don’t even realize that something is bothering us, especially when we’re too busy to process all of our daily experiences. When the triggers are happening, speak kindly to yourself, as if you were taking care of a child (this takes practice). Find ways to ground yourself, like breathing deeply, or petting a furry friend. If you feel easily overstimulated, try reducing stimuli with sunglasses, earplugs, avoiding screens, or whatever you need to do. I also feel really comforted by having weight on me via heavy pillows, blankets, or cat sitting on my chest. 

  • Find an anxiety buddy

Have a few friends or family members who either know what it’s like to struggle with mental health, who you can call or text when you’re feeling panicky. Here’s how you know that someone doesn’t understand anxiety - they ask you, “What are you so anxious about? You should just chill out.” To which I reply, that’s kind of the definition of anxiety: it often happens for no good reason - anxious brains aren’t reacting properly to normal stimuli. It can feel so alienating when you feel like you’re going crazy and no one understands.

  • Get regular exercise

Even a daily 20-minute walk makes endorphins that anxious brains like! Or, try a dance break?

  • Don't work through exhaustion for too long

Of course, working through exhaustion is often unavoidable, but I know that continuing to push through without enough of a chance to rest will lead to burnout and increased anxiety, so I have to be really careful (and even schedule rest days/parts of days on my calendar).

  • Try journaling

Doing a brain dump can help get these swirling feelings out of your head, but I also know that it’s hard to think clearly when you’re in a state of anxiety. Going back to read it later might be helpful, or maybe just the act of writing will make you feel a little better.

  • Look to your diet for clues

Cutting out sugar and caffeine are both immensely useful in managing anxiety, and maybe low blood sugar is exacerbating it, too. I highly recommend getting assistance with this process - Lucia Hawley of Essential Omnivore helped me SO much (and you can work with her online, wherever you may be!) Her recent blog post about anxiety + food (the first in a series) also has some really good considerations.  

  • Remember that seemingly negative qualities also have a positive side

This has been a hard one for me to come around to, but dealing with mental health challenges has forced me to be much more self-aware and to take care of myself better. Also, the sensitivity that makes me susceptible to anxiety is actually a superpower that makes me a good musician and collaborator. As many times as I’ve cursed my brain for its difficulties, making friends with it is much more helpful. And, I wish it wasn't this way, but giving birth to the next, upleveled version of yourself usually comes after a period of struggle.

  • Remember that seemingly fun or easy activities also require energy

If you’re an introvert or HSP (highly sensitive person) like me, be careful of overloading your schedule - even fun things take energy, so you have to weigh the fulfillment of that experience against the depletion of your energy and need to recharge. So...

  • Create white space in your schedule

I know, to overworked musicians, this one sounds hard, if not impossible, but you must! If you don’t have enough space in your schedule, you won’t have time to process all that’s going on in your life (which I’m betting is a lot!) I think that people with anxiety need even more time to process, as do sensitive people. Also, it takes a lot of energy to support others through teaching and performing, and we don’t give ourselves enough credit or leeway for that.

  • Give yourself a break

I mean this literally and mentally/emotionally - I’m sure that you’re doing a great job at so many things and pushing yourself pretty hard, so you deserve that little break for an extra cup of tea, a walk outside, or just to say kind words to yourself.

  • Figure out what works best for YOU

There are a million tips for managing mental health, but we’re all individuals, so ultimately it comes down to experimenting until you know what works for you personally (which can be frustrating, but necessary).

* Please note, this post is not medical advice, just a means of support. Seek qualified medical advice if you need it!

💗💗💗

If you struggle with anxiety or other mental health issues, I'm holding space for you - you’re not alone. I sincerely wish you the best in managing it, and hope that this post is helpful to you.

What are your best tips for managing anxiety? Let me know in the comments!