What to do when you are not doing enough

This week I had a major ‘you are not doing enough’ moment or rather series of moments. The voice just kept coming, loud and true, ‘you not doing enough’ ‘and more to the point, you are not enough’.

It started on Monday evening as I was trying to get my toddler to bed. Monday is a rush job and if one thing comes from last week maybe it should be that Mondays just need to slow the bobbins down. Every Monday is busy at work. The cycle of life of a school Principal seems to start with good and busy intentions on a Monday, seems to have reached a frenetic urgency by hump day and by Friday I am winding down with all the good intentions that a weekend of work and a new week ahead will surely clear the back log.

We have a Monday staff meeting every week. It’s a good moment to capture the needs and desires of the staff for the week ahead and to make collective plans to get things into motion. It is my job to make sure that everybody feels they have had time to speak and to make sure that folk feel listened to. It is also my job to make sure that the business of the day gets attended to.

Unfortunately Mondays are also one of two days that my little boy attends childcare outside of our home. This means that by 5.00pm I am feeling anxious about his tiredness levels, knowing that he is ready to be picked up by his Mama and taken home. It’s an intense feeling and I need to focus all my energies on being there for my staff in this last half an hour of the school day.

Last Monday was like all others in this regard. I headed to the childminder at 5.30pm to pick up the little boy, had a chat with her so as not to make him feel that everything we do together must be at a frenetic pace and then headed home with him. Once home we made dinner and I got to work on the order of the evening.

The evening procedure usually consists of some moments of play before we head upstairs. Some more play ensues while the bath is running. We then have a bath and a laugh together before Dad gets home, there’s then some more play before getting ready for bed, reading a book, a bottle and so to bed.

Sometimes it goes to plan and sometimes the little one is too excited for the ‘and so to bed’ moment, so a few moments of reading become a few hours of chatting! On Monday evening my one minute on form toddler became quite suddenly, in the next moment, rather unwell. He’d clearly caught a stomach bug and four changes of bedding later, in the wee small hours, I realised that there would be no going to work for me that day.

And then the guilt started. I felt guilty because if I were a really good Mum my first and last thoughts on the matter of the little one’s illness would have been; ‘He’s ill and he needs me’. Unfortunately my internal dialogue ran a little more along the lines of; ‘He’s ill, he needs me but I should be at work, but he’s ill, but what will work say’. I felt at once the longing to care for my child and the pressure of the mantle I have assumed as a school leader. The conflicting voices raged on for a few hours and for a moment I was caught in the grip of the realisation that I was not good enough, for if I were then…hmmm oh yes, if I were then my child wouldn’t be ill. And suddenly it didn’t make sense.

So what do you do when you are not doing enough?

1. Write a list of what ‘enough’ looks like in this situation. Sometimes when you demarcate what ‘enough’ is you realise that the expectations you have of yourself are cripplingly high.

Doing enough for my boy when he was poorly included stocking the house with all the nourishing things we needed to get him well. Heading up to the allopathic pharmacy and talking to the doctors. Washing all the sheets and towels and clothes and getting our environment spick and span in the wake of his nasty illness. Finding books and songs and games to play with him to cheer him up. Soothing and calming him by napping with him or holding him while he napped. Lightening up so he felt he had the space to be looked after. Being 100% there for him for this childhood is short and he is precious.
Note, there is nothing on my ‘enough’ list that refers to work, school leadership or the world of education.
Further note, I did actually manage to do all of the above and keep up with emails and keep in constant touch with the school by phone. Giving myself permission to achieve my ‘enough’ list allowed time for this.

2. Tick off each of the things that you are doing from your ‘enough’ list.This just helps you keep focused on the things that really matter and, let’s face it, if only half of your list gets ticked off — this is progress. In the example I give below, laundering a huge pile of towels and bedding might be a forgotten task but this was an important and time consuming part of what needed doing

3. Note the difference between what you are not fully able to do and what you can contribute a little towards. As I said above, I was able to keep the school ticking over (with amazing support from my senior leadership team). Thus, while I didn’t get loads of work done I made a good stab at keeping involved in what was going on at work. This shifts all that you are not doing into bonus tasks that you have partially achieved.

4. Explain to yourself why you are not able to do it all. It’s sometimes good to have this conversation with yourself out loud. ‘ I can’t do everything because my expectations of myself are overly ambitious. Right now I need to focus on the following things … these things are enough given the circumstances and I can’t do anything more as I don’t have [time], [emotional resources], [energy] etc. This narrative forms a useful anchor when facing what you imagine to be the potential criticisms of others.

5. Be kind to yourself and remember ‘this will pass’. ‘Not enough’ is a fleeting thought about yourself and need not be a perpetual voice in the head. Remember it will pass and please notice and realise that it has when it does!