Want to find time for your most important life goals? In our new feature, Timehacker, we match readers with the right coach to help them find that time, develop new habits and get started. Then we check in on Day 21 to see how it’s working out.
THE SUBJECT: Gini Nelson, 61, is a self-employed attorney in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Like a growing number of Americans, she and her sister care for their elderly mother, who is slowly deteriorating with Alzheimer’s disease.
Between the time she spends caring for her mother and sister–who herself now has some serious health issues– and a heavy workload at her job, Nelson found herself hopelessly behind. She was unable to keep up on maintenance on her 1950s house and behind in tons of tedious-but-necessary tasks to keep her life running. And she never made time to take care of her own health. “I’ve survived on a day-to-day basis for the last few months,” she said. “I’ve been utterly exhausted.”
THE GOAL: Gini wanted to find time for a healthy personal life. “Now that I’m in my early 60s, I wonder — if not now, when will I develop better patterns and schedules?” she wondered. “To wait until full retirement would not be healthy, and it would be a waste of living.” She initially wanted help finding time to nurture her full emotional and spiritual well-being, but decided to boil it down to one goal. “I need exercise.” She had already resolved to get to the gym she’d been paying for three times a week. But going to the gym felt like work, so she never went.
THE TIMEHACKS: Gini worked with time management coach Melissa Heisler to try to carve out time to at least get her body moving again. Heisler suggested four timehacks:
1. Think of exercise as a gift. Not work. If exercise becomes one more thing on the To Do list, it’s hard to get and stay motivated, Heisler said. “It’s more about having the intention to exercise than having a resolution,” she said. Setting the intention is an easier way to start, rather than feeling the pressure of keeping a resolution, and the disappointment if you can’t.
2. Start Small. Work movement into your day. Heisler suggested that Gini work exercise into her routine throughout the day. She suggested taking a walk at noon, playing in the yard with a neighbor’s puppy, finding ways to walk instead of drive on some of her nearby errands like getting to the mailbox. Heisler also suggested downloading an app for a seven-minute exercise routine, or doing sit-ups.
3.Take Breaks. Gini loves her work and can sometimes get lost, spending hours and hours at her computer without a break. Heisler suggested she set a timer and, every hour, get up from her computer to just walk around, or even do a household task. Heisler also suggested standing for some of the time while working, perhaps doing emails or scheduling on her laptop instead of sitting at her desk.
4. Once a month, Go Big. Heisler asked Gini to make a plan once a month to spend the entire day focused on exercise she really likes – getting outside, going hiking, giving a tour of the Mesa Prieta petroglyph drawings in Diablo Canyon, where she has loved volunteering as a docent.
THE PROGNOSIS: Gini’s main block is seeing exercise as work. “Gini sees it as a task, or something she feels she had to do,” Heisler said. “This is common. Individuals know they need to take better care of themselves, but use the stick instead of the carrot to make it happened.” Heisler said Gini would need to learn how to shift the way she thought about exercise in order to make time for it – to see it as a “gift” instead of a task.
“In matters of caring for our bodies, we are usually very harsh on ourselves. We say we are fat and should go to the gym, making us feel bad about ourselves. Then we reach for comfort food and the addiction of television to hide. Afterwards we feel even worse about our physical appearance/ability and the cycle continues,” she said. “When we view caring for our bodies as a gift, it is not about weight loss or appearance, but it is about how we feel during and after … feeling better about ourselves gives us the motivation to continue.”
Gini decided not to take on new clients for a few months and has been catching up at work and on home projects. She’s working with her family to set boundaries and provide help in a way that won’t overwhelm her anymore. She’s giving herself permission to take care of herself again, and she’s moving. “I realized I was seeing that as frivolous, like frosting on a cake,” she said.”But it’s like the oxygen masks on a plane, how can I take care of others if I don’t take care of myself?”
Gini said one of her big “Aha!” moments came with the realization that doing something, no matter how small, was better than doing nothing. She began to set an alarm on her computer to go off every 90 minutes so she could take a break, get up and move around.
She began taking a regular break to play with the puppy next door out in the yard. She began finding ways to move as she worked in her garden. And she downloaded the app Heisler suggested for the 7-minute work-out, even if all she does are the first few exercises.
“I took the pressure off myself. I gave myself grace. I thought, ‘OK, I’m not going to get to the gym three times a week. I’m managing work, managing my home, managing complicated caregiving relationships with my family, I’m managing life. It will take awhile to build up longer exercise routines. And that’s OK.’ Doing something is better than nothing. I just concentrated on breaking the inertia of doing nothing. Then I can build on that.”
Another big moment, she said, came when she began to think about exercise differently. “In some sense, it was a form of violence when I would say, I’m going to MAKE myself get exercise. I HAVE to. I SHOULD. IT makes it harder when you’re already exhausted, and then when you don’t, you feel real bad about yourself because you didn’t do the thing you said you ought to do,” Gini said. “But Melissa helped me reframe how I thought about it – to think, I GET to get up and move. I GET to get up and away from my computer. That helped.”
It also helped to see how moving her body was part of a healthy personal life. “I reminded myself that by moving, I will be able to be more flexible and limber, and have more freedom and energy as I age,” she said.
Her biggest realization came, she said, when she gave herself permission to Go Big and get outside again. She loved to hike and backpack when she was in a previous relationship. But once that broke up, she lost the motivation to go. Once she began making time to get out to Diablo Canyon again, she realized how much she’d missed it.
“By taking the pressure off that I had to get into the habit of getting to the gym, and then having time to reflect instead of feeling guilty all the time, I realized that the bigger thing I really wanted and needed was to get out into nature again,” Gini said. “To get to a place of beauty. To feel the air on your face. See clouds, hear the birds. When you’re in nature all your senses get used in a way we forget when we’re inside all the time.
“Doing the small things gave me momentum,” she said, “to find the things that give me joy.”
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