There are many things in life that will suck away ALL of your time, energy, and life, if you allow them: Your kids, school, work, etc.
The trick, then, is to recognize that there is ALWAYS more you can give, and that it will NEVER be enough. Settle on a standard of “Good Enough” and strive for that. I espouse the philosophy of Good Enough in my personal and professional life, as my website puts it,
“Good Enough” Design is my philosophy of art and living. In a nutshell, reaching for perfection, constantly striving to better your technique and craft, to hone your skill, is what we should all be doing as artists and as people. Regardless of what you do, you should always try to be better, to do better, than you were/did yesterday. HOWEVER, we should recognize that this is an ongoing process, and NOT fall apart when we make or do something that falls short of that ideal (as it inevitably will).
Muslim artists traditional included a deliberate flaw in their work, as a recognition that only God can achieve perfection. Bloomingdale’s Department Store used to employ knitters to hand-knit very expensive men’s socks, and they were hired with the express instruction to include flaws in every pair so that they could be recognized as handmade. So why do so many of us berate ourselves and denigrate our work for its imperfections?
I am not saying that if someone hires you for a custom project you fob them off with work you know to be substandard. Set standards for yourself and hold yourself accountable to meet those standards. But don’t make those standards so impossibly high you will always fail.
Good Enough is recognizing that while you have not achieved perfection, you have done your work to the best of your ability and you find that acceptable. Since you learn from everything you do, you know that next time it will be better, but you are satisfied with this piece right now. It is essentially recognizing that you have reached for the moon, but you are okay to have landed among the stars, to paraphrase Les Brown.”
When I started law school, I had very ambitious plans of doing all the reading, summarizing it, drafting case summaries, and reviewing the material weekly in preparation for final exams. School started in early August, by mid-October I was way behind, I was burnt out, and I was dead. I gave up totally – I just didn’t have the energy. And I noticed that I was still doing ok in class – I could answer questions, think on the fly to cover my studying shortcomings, and only very rarely was caught totally unprepared. I found a happy medium where I did just barely enough work to be prepared for class, and gave up on everything else. I immediately became less stressed, I made it a priority to keep doing things I loved – going to concerts, the occasional art project, socializing with friends, etc. And life got a lot better.
Most of my classmates kept working hard, and gave vastly more time to their schoolwork – with no better results. I quickly accepted that I wasn’t going to be the star pupil I had hoped to be, but that graduating with my sanity intact was far preferable. I did ok, my grades were good enough to be acceptable, and I performed well in class, I got involved with many extracurriculars, and even managed to cram my schedule so tightly I could graduate an entire year early – also saving my sanity. Did I suffer by not being the top student in a very competitive environment where top students are rewarded with lucrative internships and job offers? Maybe, but if I had killed myself to get there, would I have gotten those offers? Probably not – I’ve learned that being “old” and female, especially in combination, is deadly in this industry and results in fewer opportunities. But I also made peace with the fact that my younger peers had less going on in their life – fewer obligations, fewer distractions – and therefore could afford to devote more energy to this than I could.
But I also remember learning this same lesson in undergrad, and spending a lot of time on a wide variety of extracurriculars and doing just enough of the readings to get by, and doing just well enough on my exams to get where I wanted. The truth is there is always more you could be doing. At least in law school, professors have said that for every hour you spend in their class, they assign 4-5 hours of homework. Multiply that by the number of class hours you have in a week, and you quickly find that it is actually almost impossible to do everything – especially if you are a slower reader, or trying to take notes as you go. Perfection is out of reach for all but the lucky few whose brains are wired for the topic, or who are willing to completely sacrifice their life in pursuit of perfection.
I don’t want to sacrifice my life in pursuit of any single goal. I will never be the internationally-recognized top expert in any field. I will never get the top award for the most brilliant work. And I am ok with that. Instead, I have chosen a life that is rich in other rewards – the joy of spreading myself thin over a variety of interests and passions, making time for concerts and theater (in the non-covid world), making time for social engagements with the family I care about and enjoy the most (and giving myself permission to be too busy for the people I do not enjoy), focusing on running on my own business, traveling, reading, always learning, and always exploring the world around me in various ways.
So I strongly encourage you to think about what your goal is with school – do you just want your degree, do you want a specific class standing, do you want to get in to a very competitive position, and plan your time and life around your goals, rather than allowing life to force you into a schedule not of your choosing. People tend to get caught up in the expectations they face, and don’t stop to articulate what they really want and where they should make sacrifices. I had classmates who drove themselves into the ground, but never wanted to be the top student, they just got caught up in the routine of “we are in law school, this is how we study”. One student I know would skip class if she had not entirely finished the reading – both a waste of her time (since class was far more useful than the readings, which you could always read later), and a massive source of stress for her – unnecessarily. (And no, you did not need to finish them to come to class.)
I think the biggest act of self-care is to decide where your priorities are, figure out what the BARE MINIMUM you need to do to pass is, and then allocate your ‘additional’ time accordingly. It’s nice to say, “be sure to take time for yourself”, but it’s meaningless if you haven’t figured out what your bare minimum is, and also what activities actually replenish you. Being in school/Having a new baby/Major life change is a WONDERFUL excuse to cut people and things that are weighing you down out of your life. Like Marie Kondo’s “Does this object bring you joy?”, you need to ask that about the people who are in your life, and the activities you do. We tend to get stuck in routines that include having relationships with long-term friends or family members that you have outgrown or diverged from, or do things because we always do them that maybe no longer serve your needs and interests. People who would not otherwise accept you pulling back from the relationship and activity are very understanding when you cite school as the reason you no longer have time or energy for something (and Covid is certainly helping! It’s actually the good, caring, and responsible thing right now to avoid people and group activities!)
The last thing I want to say is to reiterate that failure and quitting IS OK!! There is a popular attitude that “failure is not an option!” or that “only losers quit”. Failure is a key way we learn! If you aren’t failing, it means you are never taking risks, never stretching yourself, never growing, never trying new things, never trying to master new skills. Edison failed ONE THOUSAND times to create a lightbulb, only succeeding on the 1,001st effort! And as for quitting, it is ABSOLUTELY OK to decide that something is no longer working for you, that it is not the direction you want to go in, that it is simply wasting your energy to pursue and to quit! In our society, that may be a revolutionary act, and it can be a very courageous act.
Recognizing that you are no longer served by the path you are on, or the method you are trying, or anything else, and quitting and refocusing your efforts on what DOES serve you better is the most healthy and intelligent choice to make!