How to Keep a Setback from becoming a Reset

Day 0: The set-up

I’ve spent the last 10 days stuck in bed with the omicron variant of covid-19. My whole family has been sick and stuck at home pretty much this whole time. For me, it has been very fortunate that my husband has been home because I have been laid out so he’s been doing 100% of the cooking and taking care of the kids.

Unfortunately though, all this has meant that
a) our housekeeping has fallen way behind (note: my husband has also been doing more than he normally does in this arena, while also being sick himself, but with all of us at home it’s just too much for one person to keep up with) and
b) I have not been keeping up with my routines AT ALL

This is what always happens, right? You start to make progress, and then eventually - maybe really early on, maybe once you’re starting to really feel your groove, or maybe once it’s started to feel set in stone - eventually, something will happen that gets in the way of your routine. It prevents you from following through, prevents further progress, and often even undoes the progress that you have made so far.

Your streak is broken, and you feel like you’re starting all over from scratch.

For me, this manifests in one of two ways. Either I refuse to accept that I’m sick and push myself way beyond what I should, or else I coddle myself and act overly protective, not moving a single muscle until I’m certain that I can do it all. Both of these are direct results of perfectionism, and both draw my illness out longer than it needs to be.

Note, I’m saying “illness” here because that’s what I’m currently dealing with, but you can substitute mental health setbacks, upheavals in your home or personal life, etc… Because what happens is an intersection between a real-world circumstance that is influencing your ability to keep going, and the thoughts and feelings you’re having around that emotion, which further impair your abilities.

So that’s all just background. What do you actually do? Well, over the course of the week I’m going to talk through that as I do it myself. The short answer is that you do the things you were already doing, a little at a time. You do them imperfectly. I fully expect that among other things that I’ll have progress and setbacks and then in the end, I’ll have something to show for it.

To start, I planned out the tasks I hoped to accomplish for the upcoming week, my regular Sunday routine. I didn't try to make any advancement toward those tasks. All I did was try to set up future-me for success.

Hang out all week and watch the progress.

And stay home if you can. The “milder” Omicron is no joke, even in breakthrough cases like in my house.

Day 1: The Foundation

What we’re looking for here is a compromise. On Day 1, it’s as much about what you DON’T do as about what you actually accomplish. And for me that started with NOT carrying my phone in my hand all day.

When I was sick, there wasn’t really anything I could do but play on my phone - sometimes not even that. Honestly I didn’t even have the energy to pull out my tablet for days straight. So it was a lot of one-handed scrolling of facebook, the typical pattern I fall into when things get hard. And that’s fine, because I couldn’t do anything else!

But that was also where I had to start when transitioning back into my normal life. I did two things to this end: First of all I signed out of facebook on my phone and tablet. (It’s still logged in on my desktop so it’s not like I’m going full detox.) Secondly, I reinstated my rule of no devices for the first hour after I wake up. No more rolling over and checking my email (or worse, social media) before I even get out of bed.

I do this normally anyway, but this was a super important first step because it didn't require me to DO anything. No matter how much my brain protested that it was too hard and I wasn't ready, I could laugh (kindly) at it and say "ready for what?? I'm literally asking NOTHING from you." This ability - to listen to your mind without believing it - comes in really handy later on.

After that, my main goal for the whole week was to do my morning routine each day. That’s the foundation. Exactly what I do is walk downstairs in the morning, set a visual timer for 60 minutes so the whole household knows it's running, and use that as the kind of kick-off for my morning routine. The timer itself isn't really linked to the routine, but just turning a knob does feel like the start of something, so it works well to make my brain feel like I'm "turning on" the morning routine.

Other than that, the only big thing I added to day 1 was doing the dishes. This is HUGE because getting the dishes washed early on will pay dividends all week. When things are going well, my goal is to wash dishes “every day” (in quotes because “every day” for me always means “more often than not” - I’ll come to this again in a couple days. Embrace imperfectionism!) and so that's where I started the week.

For the kitchen, I set a timer for 30 minutes, not really expecting to make it to the end. But after I finished loading the dishwasher, I decided to tidy up some and wipe down the counters, and made good use of my full 30 minutes. If you don't feel up for that, set it for 10-15 and do what you can in that time. Something is always better than nothing.

So that's Day 1:

That's it. Even the small bit of writing I did for this post, I did in my bed. All the other things around my house - the messy living room, the piles of laundry, I actively chose to not wear myself out doing those things. They will be there when I am ready. For now, I am still healing.

Day 2: Reawakening

Day 2 was unusual for me to plan around because it’s Imbolc - the pagan holiday marking the point between the winter solstice and spring equinox. As a newly practicing witch, this year is the first time I’m observing most of the sabbats (except for Samhain, Yule, and to a greatly lesser extent, Beltane). This year it also happens to mark the new moon and thereby, the lunar new year. Because I planned out my tasks for the week before I actually got started, I had an idea of my goals and and where I wanted to be by the end of the week, which allowed me to make this day mostly about the holidays.

I started off with the foundation laid yesterday. I still did my morning routine, and washed the dishes - though it’s crucial to note here that because I already did the dishes yesterday, doing them today was trivial. The only thing I added for today was my Imbolc/lunar celebrations.

As it's my first observance, I began with study, and came to understand that Imbolc is about the slow reawakening following the deep dormancy of winter. It's the time when the first buds and sprouts start to reappear, and it's a time for inner growth and intention setting.

Any of that sound familiar?

Imbolc is all about this exact journey - coming back from a period of deep rest, but doing it slowly and safely. Where I live, we have winter storms coming later this week, so if the plants just took the longer days as a sign that it's safe to charge full speed ahead into spring, they would be quickly set straight and buffeted back by the whims of late winter and all that winter dormancy would have been for naught. Instead, spring comes on slowly - a little bit at a time - just like I'm doing.

I find this so fascinating and so fitting. It's a deviation from the setback recovery I would've otherwise followed, but it's exactly the one that I need!

Tomorrow I take another step forward.

Recap Day 2:

Day 3: Repetition

Let’s talk about those routines. One of the really big dangers with a setback like this is if you look at a broken streak and think of it as starting over.

This is why apps and trackers that actually track streaks over a long time can be so demotivating when circumstances outside of your control (or fuck it - even circumstances that theoretically ARE in your control) lead to a broken streak and there’s no choice but to start over from zero - or worse, pay them money so you can keep your streak alive.

Your insecurities are the basis of their business model. Not that that’s anything new.

When I was sick, I wasn’t brushing my teeth every day. If you’ve been around for a while, you know the place brushing my teeth kind of holds for me. At any previous point in my life, this would've been devastating. If I'd been streak-tracking, I would be starting over at zero.

But last year when I decided it was finally fucking time to start brushing my teeth every day (twice a day, actually), it was important to me from the start that I didn't track it in this way. Instead I changed how I was talking to myself about it. I started thinking of myself as someone who does brush their teeth, instead of someone who doesn't, and from there, actually brushing my teeth came easy, because that's what I expected myself to do.

And something magical happened here in the present - that ease continued. Because I wasn't basing my belief in myself on some "hard data" (exactly how many days do you have to brush your teeth in a row before you get awarded with the "daily toothbrusher" badge - and do you they take it away anytime you miss a day?) I was able to continue believing that I'm a person who brushes my teeth every day, and now that I feel up to it again, actually brushing my teeth still comes easy.

Today I continued doing my morning routine every day, and also washing my dishes every day. I also added in just 5 minutes of picking up around my house. I personally multitasked this one. One of my morning routine tasks is "movement" which just means "get 1000 steps for the day before moving on" (although I've cut that back to 500 for this week) and just 5 minutes of picking up the trash and clothes my kids leave scattered across the living room floor each day can be a substantial part of that - combine with putting away the clean dishes and I'm usually at 500 already.

These are daily tasks that I would've been doing every day in the same way even if I never got sick. This is the key to starting back without starting over. Slowly - as you feel up to it - adding back those repetitive maintenance tasks that you would've been doing anyway.

This doesn't immediately tackle the big problem areas that have cropped up - that's the whole point. Instead it eats away at them slowly while you regain your strength (or at least your footing.) When you're back at 100%, feel free to dive into the big projects. By then you'll have a strong foundation built back up to support that big work.

Recap Day 3:

Day 4: Repetition

After a setback, it can be hard to see the trees for the forest. If you can't see all the little things you can do, instead of only seeing one big disaster, then you're likely to either push yourself too hard to get it all done at once, or else run and hide, putting it off until later (meanwhile, the problem growing even larger.)

You have to look at it as not getting back to where you were, but just tackling the day right in front of you, and nothing more. This is where restraint comes in. One way to do this is to specifically pick the things you’re NOT going to do. I started with that on day 1, by not using my phone in the morning after waking up. But it’s more than just that.

Look at the looming tasks around you, and tell yourself in no unclear terms, "Not today!"

In the days before I got sick, I was in the middle of a big decluttering kick. I was making huge progress in my house, and most of the first floor was staying tidied every day as my kids were learning to pick up before they got out another toy. But after 10 days without this kind of supervision (my husband’s focus was on all of us surviving the week, not keeping the living room tidy), there was a thick layer of assorted toys all across the floor, including a pile of puzzle pieces all mixed up along with art supplies, train pieces, and a heaping serving of play food.

When I started back on Monday, I saw that big mess and my first instinct was "ACK! I've got to clean that up!" - but instead of allowing that thought to stress me out, I took a step back. "No, I've decided to take it slow and start elsewhere for today." The responsible thing was actually to NOT pick up the living room right away, but to practice restraint.

On day 4, that restraint continues. I've been busy all week retraining my brain to be used to my old routines - the little daily things I would've still been doing if I'd never faced the setback. Today I had to apply restraint. Keep up those little things I've been working on, without adding anything new. Remember, we're trying not to build anything too fast. Give it a day to really let it sink in. Restrain and retrain.

Recap Day 4:

Day 5: Just do Something

Okay who feels like getting canceled today? Just me? Well then let's dive in! (CW for talk about menstrual cycles toward the end)

There's nothing worse to say to a person with Executive Dysfunction than "just do it."

That's literally the whole point. We can't just do it. If we could, then there would be no issue. And when we hear "just do it" that often triggers demand avoidance. Our brains refuse to do it just out of sheer spite, even if we were already intending to do it.

The problem is that despite the advice being absolutely terrible for us, it's contradictorily also exactly what we need to do.

Basically, the catch-22 is that we have to "just do it" but without using the words "just do it."

Still not sure?

Have you ever had the experience where there's something you know you need to do, so you keep telling yourself you have to do it, but the more you tell yourself to do it, the harder it is to get started on it, and it just builds and builds and by the end, not only have you not done it, you also haven't done anything else, and you're also FUCKING EXHAUSTED from trying to talk yourself into doing it all day? Bonus: when you eventually do it and it is super easy and you add on layers of self-hatred for not just doing it in the first place.

I've heard people say that they have to "talk themselves into" doing a task, but I have always experienced the exact opposite. My brain tends toward inaction, so if I start thinking about it, I'm not going to talk myself into it, I'm going to talk myself out of it, 95% of the time unless it's an emergency (and sometimes then too.)

I thought for decades that I hate doing the dishes - and don't get me wrong, there's plenty to dislike about washing dishes - but I don't hate it, not really. What I hate is THINKING about doing the dishes. So the more I try to talk myself into doing the dishes, the more miserable I feel, often right up until I'm too exhausted from thinking about doing the dishes to actually do it anymore.

So, okay, you can't "just do it" - but just do something.

You don't have to take perfect action, but just take SOME action. A great way to work toward this is doing the smallest next step. Often this smallest step is just… getting up. Don’t even expect anything more from yourself than that. Each step you take is a win. From there, if you still can't "do the dishes" - do the next smallest thing. Walk into the kitchen. Put one dish in the dishwasher. Put another dish in the dishwasher. Then one more dish in the dishwasher.

Take it one dish at a time. Usually, it only takes a couple of steps before I fall into a sort of rhythm - but it's okay if you don't! Because every step you take is progress even if the whole big job isn't finished yet.

Another beautiful form of imperfect action is productive procrastination. This is when you put off finishing that big project, but you get your whole house clean in the meantime. You may have a tendency to beat yourself up over that, but I say embrace it for two reasons.

  1. Your house gets clean. It's easy to look at the situation and think that you could've spent that time working on the project instead, but look back over your life. Was the most likely alternative actually finishing the project ahead of time, or was it sitting on the couch telling yourself that you need to stop binging Netflix and finally get to work - as you click "I'm still watching"? At least procrasticleaning means you get something done that makes you feel good about yourself. Plus it's easier to focus on work in a tidy environment. And you can keep watching Netflix while you clean, so… Win-win.
  2. Action begets action. It might be hard to transition from cleaning to working, but it's almost always easier to go from action to action than it is to go from inaction to action. (Spoons not withstanding - that is a related, but separate issue that I'm not the most qualified to speak on as I don't have a physical disability.) Just doing something, even if it isn't your top priority, means you're more likely to eventually get to the higher priority tasks than you are watching TV and berating yourself for it.

Another thought - if you're a person who menstruates (edit: or who has a monthly hormonal cycle sans menstruation, as I do now post-hysto!), follow your cycle. You may find that certain kinds of work come easy during some phases of your cycle, and are really hard during other parts. For example, I know the last phase in my cycle is a great time for me to tidy around the house, but that my mind is all over the place at that time so it's probably not the best time to sit down and plan the month to come. Just watch your own patterns and see if anything emerges.

Note: even if you don't have a monthly cycle, you still have a daily hormonal cycle so watch for similar fluctuations throughout the day in order to learn the most relaxing times to actually rest, and the times of day when you actually feel energized and productive. Once you start to learn how your hormones actually affect you, it's way easier to have compassion for yourself rather than getting angry with yourself for being unable to do something you're literally designed to not be able to do at that time.

It may take longer for you, or maybe you’ll come to this point sooner. Day 5 for me was when I was finally starting to really feel back to my normal self. I ran an accountability session in my Discord group, I had a couple of other virtual appointments scheduled. I didn’t know exactly where to start, so I just picked something and got started.

So when you start to recover enough where you think you can take on a little more - don’t second-guess yourself, don’t dwell on it, don’t convince yourself. Just do it.

But you didn’t hear that from me.

Recap Day 5:

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