Do you feel like you are on a hamster wheel? Running faster and faster but going nowhere. Most people experience this at some point in their lives and expats are no different. In fact, we might even be more prone than the average person to this overwhelmed feeling as, each time we move, we are starting again, learning to do the same old tricks in new ways. Of course, if you’re in this race without end, it seems inconceivable that you’ll ever be able to do anything else. There’s a fear that if you slow down or stop, you will only find yourself even further behind and even more stressed.
Over the years, I’ve found myself racing to stay still on more than one occasion (usually shortly after a move or other major transition). Everything tends to run smoothly for a while but then something happens, a sick child home from school, an unplanned business trip for my husband or even just an unexpectedly bad traffic jam on the Brussels Ring and the whole thing comes crashing down because there is absolutely no room for the unexpected in my schedule.When I look back at how I’ve managed to successfully break out of the overwhelming cycle of madness, there are 7 distinct actions that get me there.
1. Give myself permission to STOP – for just one day, or even just a two or three hours if a whole day seems to stressful. I use that time to reflect and write down what it is I am doing each day and each week or month to create the craziness in my life.
What am I doing each day that makes life seem so busy?
Don’t forget to include the things you don’t even think about because they’re just part of everyday life. They all take time!
2. Consider the expectations and beliefs that are behind my to do list and schedule. A few months after starting my business, I found myself feeling completely overwhelmed. When I evaluated the impetus behind my impossible schedule I realised that, although I had a new major commitment on my hands, I really hadn’t let go of any of my other commitments. New expats often find themselves feeling overwhelmed because they expect that they should be able to get things done as quickly and efficiently as they did in their home countries. The reality however is that language and culture mean that even basic tasks take more time.
What expectations and beliefs are behind my need to do what I do? Are they realistic?
3. Consider the expectations others have of me and the expectations I have of them. Turns out that my darling husband thinks that when I agree to do something from our household task list, it means that I will do it pretty much NOW. However, I think that I’ll be doing it sometime in the next week or two based on my own assessment of its importance. You can guess how that one goes and needless to say, we’ve finally learned to verbalise our perceived priorities when we split tasks. I am also quite reticent about asking for help when I need it due a subconscious expectation/assumption that my friends will feel obligated if I ask them to do something. It’s not the way I think when I am asked to help so why do I expect it of others?
How do the expectations of others affect my life?
Do I need to renegotiate those expectations?
4. Understand what’s truly important – Once I’ve listed everything I do and considered the expectations that are behind it all, I then evaluate what’s truly important, what I can let go of and what I can restructure to make it more manageable. For example, for me, sitting down to a proper family evening meal is important but it’s not the end of the world if it doesn’t happen every night of the week. This part of the process is not solitary. It involves my husband and my children and sometimes even my friends so that I do not find myself eliminating activities only to find someone else’s priorities have taken their place.
What activities are non-negotiable?
What can I let go?
Who else needs to be part of the prioritisation?
5. I reset my schedule and to-do list to build in some room for the unexpected (yet inevitable) mishap and so that I can overachieve not underachieve. This is the hard part as it means backing out of commitments and it entails a commitment to myself to say “No” or, at a minimum, “I’ll think about it and get back to you” when new commitments come along. Many people lose their resolve when they reach this part of the process because they feel that they are letting people down when they relinquish commitments or say no, so keeping a clear picture of your purpose in your mind is crucial.
How do I stop myself from saying “yes”?
6. Make sure that there are times or activities in my schedule that energise me and give me the opportunity to replenish my reserves. I know that I am grumpy and less productive if I don’t exercise. I am very comfortable spending a lot of time alone but I’m also aware that I will feel isolated if I don’t have some time with friends and I know that I need to switch off for a while in the evening to be able to sleep well at night.
What do I need to replenish my energy levels?
7. Finally, I have learned to accept that it’s not a failure when I don’t get everything done. Having a to do list and schedule that is realistic and manageable means that most days I get to the end of the day having achieved what I wanted to but sometimes it all falls apart. When I feel like I am achieving most of the time, then even the occasional “epic fail” (my son’s words not mine) doesn’t seem like the end of the world.
How would I react if a friend told me she was not able to [insert whatever it is that you weren’t able to tick off your list today]?
If you’re expecting more of yourself that you do of others, ask yourself why?
Of course I’m not perfect at managing all of this – just ask my family or my business partner! But by creating awareness and by pressing the reset button using this process from time to time, I feel like I’ve stepped off the hamster wheel and am enjoying life’s journey.
What do you do when you feel as if you are running all the time but not making progress?
Evelyn Simpson is a personal development coach who works with the accompanying partners of expats helping them to transition to expat life and to find happiness and fulfilment in their lives overseas. Evelyn has spent almost all of her adult life living as an expat on 3 continents and in 5 countries. She’s been a working expat, an accompanying partner and has founded her own portable business, The Smart Expat, while overseas. Evelyn and her Australian husband have two children who have yet to live in either of their passport countries.
You can learn more about Evelyn and her work at www.thesmartexpat.com where she blogs regularly about expat life.