Jerry Seinfield, apart from being famous for his sitcom, is also well known for popularising the concept of the “habit chain“: you complete one thing you really want to accomplish for the day, mark a giant X on the calendar, rinse and repeat everyday. Soon enough you’ll have a chain of Xs which makes you not want to “break the chain”.
I was a big fan of this concept, and over the years I used apps with this feature to track the habits I wanted to form. I managed to swim, read, write, run for hundreds of days in a row without a break using this tool. It really helped me to have structure, which made me feel grounded.
However, a migraine would disable me for days. Even so I would still try to do things like run because I didn’t want to break the chain (or streak). So I would drag myself to the park and try to run through the pain. On hindsight, that was extremely silly. But I didn’t know better. I would blame myself for breaking the chain even though I was sick, so it made things worse.
But in recent times I deviated. I grew more aware of how I felt with my body, made sure I journalled about my symptoms every day to see if there were any patterns before an attack. I was most prone to a migraine a few days before my menstrual cycle, during the cycle, and when I am close to ovulation. I don’t actually know the scientific reasons why – googling doesn’t help much either – but the body seems extremely stressed out during those times. It takes so much energy to expel the lining and to release an egg that it kicks me out of homeostasis and impairs my other bodily functions. My glucose metabolism goes haywire, I become extremely dehydrated and fatigued, and my body aches like I just ran a marathon.
On “normal” days my body seems to self-repair and maintain homeostasis pretty well. During cycle-related days every little amount of stress makes it go berserk. It doesn’t matter if it is physical or emotional stress.
I used to be stressed everyday so I didn’t actually know I was stressed. I only became aware of how stressed I was because I started to have non-stressful days. I am not very good at knowing where are my energy boundaries. I don’t know how to take breaks and rest when I am tired, because I don’t know when I am tired. I was used to being tired all the time, so being moderately tired and very tired felt the same to me.
Doing things through fatigue seems to be the norm. People still run and work when they are tired. In fact it seems to be like some invisible test where being capable of working through tiredness seems to be one of the most validating things you can do as a human being. If something matters so much to you, you have to do it regardless of the state you’re in right? That’s a sign of mental strength.
See, that’s why we have people burning out and going into depression. Even dogs know how to lie flat on the floor when they are tired.
I don’t know when it started, probably around this year, but I started to experiment being a lot more careful with my energy levels. I think the last straw was when I broke into an extremely debilitating migraine after I went out for a consecutive few days (something that wouldn’t trouble a normal human being). I started to wrap myself in cotton wool thereafter. I track my cycle, so each time I am close to “danger days” I take slow walks instead of any intense exercise, I try to stop being so demanding and judgmental of myself. I try to understand my body is going through something taxing.
This is not something that is easy for me to learn. I am still learning to watch for signs every day. Things that seem innocuous like taking the train for thirty minutes or so can have a detrimental effect on my fatigue levels. I believe I have undiagnosed sensory processing difficulties. Writing uninterrupted for hours can be enough to trigger a migraine.
I think it has been an interesting journey for me to experience how traditional “productivity” hacks or advice may actually be unhealthy or unsuitable for me. I still love keeping streaks: I have an unbroken daily bullet journalling streak for almost six hundred days and I love it. But I have to be aware what are the things which I am capable of doing, which of these are worth doing, and when to have recovery periods.
These days, even athletes modify their training according to their bio-signals like heart rate variability. I do use my own HRV data as a guide to make decisions on my exercise regime, but through my own experience the data still has to be viewed with the context of my cycle. For example, my HRV tends to be really high during the first day of my cycle, which my apps would interpret it as a good day to do intense exercise, but I now know it is because my body is extremely stressed and my parasympathetic system is trying to calm it down. How do I know this? Months and months of trying to live my life as per normal during days of my cycle and ending up with a migraine at the end.
It is a lot of trial and error, a lot of self-denial also. It is difficult to accept that I can’t have the same routine, energy, health or creativity every day. The week before my cycle I am almost useless. It would have been much better if I had simply accepted it and design softer activities for that week instead of trying to brute force myself into doing things. It is hard when there is a ongoing momentum – like I had a couple of good weeks on working on this website so I was so excited for it to continue, only to be feeling unwell the next week.
Our metabolism is considered healthy if we’re metabolically flexible: we can easily switch to burning fat or glucose anytime without repercussions. I think it is the same for mental/creative flexibility – to not be so fixated on one particular way of doing things but to switch quickly according to the situation and context. I spend too much time feeling bad about the things I cannot do.
So I am trying to learn to be more flexible. It is not easy because I realise I can be quite set in certain ways of thinking. Think of traditional farmers working with seasons. They plant, harvest and rest according to the seasons. They don’t insist that the crop grow during winter. It is just unrealistic. But why do I insist on trying to do the same things everyday? We’re organic creatures with organic rhythms, but somehow we insist on treating ourselves like robots.
what tiny changes can amount to