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When Goals and Plans Are Eclipsed by Survival Mode

I worked myself into a lovely pickle at the end of 2016.

I gave my manager feedback that I’d love to have a session on career planning and goals for my role in the company. I love these sorts of chats!

Well, I used to.

I’ve been so knee-deep in survival mode during my son’s first year of life, wrangling a puppy, and finding out that I was pregnant with number 2 when my son was 9 months old that I suddenly realized, while preparing for this chat, that I had no short- or long-term goals.

“Well, what do you want life to look like in five years?” my friend asked as a prompt.

After pondering this for an hour or so, all — and I do mean all — I could come up with was: “I want to sleep through the night, for more than three hours at a time.”

Is that reaching too far?

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Goals, plans — never in short supply

Rewind another 10 years and beyond. I was the straight-A student, the very nerdy girl riding horses (working at barns to pay for her horse habit) and writing novels in every spare moment.

I was the one involved in 3–4 clubs or nonprofits at a time. I directed two musicals. I served on a rodeo court and was crowned for a state title as “Miss Teen Rodeo” in my first year of college.

I was the news editor and editor-in-chief of the college paper. I was editor-in-chief of the college magazine. I won several national awards for my writing in college and even won trips to conferences and such. At the same time, I freelanced for the local newspaper and several state-wide publications.

Ambition, plans, side projects were never in short supply.

Dreams become reality

This continued as I entered the professional work: I continually took more on in my roles and shaped my jobs into what I wanted them to be (and what the organization needed.)

I knew that when it came time for me to start a family, I wanted to work from home. I started a side business while working full time at a university, hoping to accomplish this.

Landing a job here at Buffer was an avenue I never anticipated — but something far better than my plan of making my business self-sufficient. (I have always worked better with teams than working for myself!)

And all the while I still worked my dream job in my dream environment (home office!), I continued to work on some side projects and write novels.

I’ve never not had 3–4 “jobs” at once. I thrive under the constant yearn to explore more, learn more, test a new skill.

The tipping point: Hello, baby

I remember the moment when my side projects, novel wanderings and drive faltered.

It was April 24th of 2015. I found out I was pregnant with my first child.

This didn’t manifest in an instant cosmic shift. We were elated about the news and new plans and tons of new projects swirled in my head.

I dove into every baby and parenting book I could get my hands on, and when that initial freak-out stage passed, I attempted to dive back into the projects and novels I’d been working on.

But it was like a dam had been erected. There, square in that exact part of my brain where my fiction writing and freelance design work resided.

For months I battled this dam, but I felt like I was poking a thousand tons of concrete with a needle. I couldn’t even get a drop through.

Oh, a year has passed?

Then came baby, and somehow I blinked.

It’s been a year beyond my biggest dreams, being able to work from home and raise my child at the same time. I’m so grateful for this every day and the lessons it continually teaches me!

Now we’re a year into this wild adventure of parenting and as I look back on 2016 and ahead for 2017, I had a strange stumble.

What do I want out of 2017? A year ago, I had the dreams: a family, a career, a side-passion-project of writing a novel a year. Well, the side project never quite happened and I sometimes feel like I’m barely holding onto the career and family.

So, for 2017? I want sleep. I want an afternoon to myself every now and then.

And then I shake myself a little. Who is this person? Where are my goals of publishing novels? Why aren’t I involved in a dozen nonprofits? Sleep? That’s not a “goal!”

Coming to terms

The hour of pondering my goals for 2017 led to a few hours of panic, then a half a day of mourning for the woman I once was.

And a few days later, I’m at peace.

This past year flew by, and I wouldn’t have traded a single baby snuggle for more writing time or more time on the laptop. I know the next few years will go by just as fast, and I’ll welcome that lofty-goal setting person once more.

Until then, I’m on the journey of being more content with smaller (but equally impactful and more realistic) goals.

I’ll work on being a better parent and teammate. I’ll strive to live more in the moment and less in my to-do list. I’ll let go of the things that don’t matter and hold to the essential.

So, what do you do when life gets in the way?

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This will look different for every person, in each walk of life, at every different company. But after a few weeks to think back on this event and seeking lots of advice, here is how I plan to get through the next instance of survival mode eclipsing all else:

  1. Slow down and breathe. Like most phases in life, the panic, the frustration is fleeting. Time really does make a difference.
  2. Identify that you’re in “survival mode.” Consider this a “get-out-of-jail-free” card in the sense of a “get-out-of-your-head-for-now” card. The more I pushed myself, the more I felt paralyzed. Sometimes, you can’t force yourself out of a situation.
  3. Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. It’s important that your supervisor is aware of what you’re feeling – the highs and the lows. Sometimes it’s easiest to put on a brave face and convince everyone that all is well. And this could set you up for failure when things get a little too rough.
  4. Seek mentors, colleagues and friends to talk to. For me, it was a comfort to hear, “Oh, I’ve been there. It’s okay.” When we bottle up our feelings, it’s easy to think we’re the only ones who’ve ever experienced something like this. Thankfully, we’re not. There are so many wise people out there who can encourage you.
  5. Seize the moments outside of “survival mode.” January brought with it more than I could have ever expected in December, while I was trying to map out my ideal 2017. I found moments of inspiration and clarity (and lost a few more days to no sleep and lower productivity.) That’s okay. That’s life.
  6. Remember: Survive! If you’re in “survival mode” in your life, don’t ignore the most important thing: your wellbeing (and those close to you)! Running yourself into the ground won’t do you (or your work) any good.

Over to you

Have you had moments where just getting by (or getting enough sleep) were your main goals day-to-day? What were some things that helped you cope? What advice can you give others in that same spot? We’d love to hear from you in the comments!

  • Alison Baldyga

    Yes to all of this (from a mom POV)! I was the person doing a zillion side projects, plus working multiple jobs before my kiddo. These days (he’s 3) I feel like I’m still trying to find my groove. I appreciate every moment with him, but I also realize that I am doing my best. Balancing all that life has brought me, while honing in on less, but probably the most important things (my family, one job that really works for me, and maybe 1-2 outside interests) has been a journey. I beat myself up sometimes for not being able to do as much as I used to, but man, parenting changes your way of thinking, your outlook on life – everything! It’s a constant journey, and wonderful to hear about it from another mom. And congrats on #2! Sending wishes for some full nights of sleep before #2 arrives. :)

    • You’re so right Alison about how much parenting changes your perspective and what a balancing act life becomes. So worth it though! :)

      Thank you so much for your kind wishes and for reading this post! Really grateful to hear about what is working for you and that we’re all in a state of re-adjusting! :) Cheers!

  • Anne Marie

    Excellent post! Minus the baby (congrats!) I’ve had a similar year: As an author myself outside of my day job, I suddenly found myself juggling three contracts for books with my two smaller, boutique publishers, all due between August 2016 and January 2017. In addition, I was also working my 40-hour desk job, had somehow volunteered myself to be Vice President and Web Maven for a local writing group, and was working a second paying job after work as a freelance social media and marketing consultant for a literary agent/publicist and her clients. Once client in particular, who is absolutely lovely, just needed more time than I could commit to her project, and in my struggle to not drop any balls I found myself waking up at 5am and working nonstop until 11pm, with my only breaks being to drive to/from my office, work out on my lunch break, and eat (though I sometimes did that at the computer to save time). I didn’t realize I was in survival mode until I was one work emergency away from a breakdown.
    Your step 1 (Slow down and breathe) is a HUGE and VERY important first step. In one of life’s little ironies, the freelance client I was working my tail off for is writing about about compassion in the work place, and she stresses self-compassion in a lot of her articles. It took a month of working on her project for that lesson to finally sink in. You have to recognize when you’re pushing yourself too far and be willing to put yourself and your health first–something I’ve long struggled with doing. Suffice it to say, I learned a valuable lesson about self-care and learning that sometimes, it’s okay to say no. I’m MUCH happier with a healthy work-life balance :)
    Thanks so much for sharing your experience and everything you learned along the way, Nicole. It was an enlightening and enjoyable read.

    • I’m so amazed by all you’ve done and all you’re doing, Anne Marie! Really inspired by all your creative output!

      Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom about putting health first – it’s silly how easily we cast that aside, isn’t it? Thank you so much for reading and sharing all this here!

  • Lisa

    I so relate to this! I was also editor of my college newspaper and I have always had so many projects going! When I got pregnant with my son in 2013 and my daughter in 2014 (they are only 17 months apart!) I was thrown into survival mode for so long. I’m just now getting my feet back under me — going back to school part-time to earn an MBA and accomplishing big-picture goals at work. Sending strength to you as you navigate this pregnancy and having two-under-two. You can do this!

    • Wow, Lisa! What an inspiration you are! Best of luck to you also in all your projects and with your kiddos! :)

  • I can totally relate! I started working from home when my daughter was born and there have been highs and lows. I’m also expecting #2 in July so I’m anticipating more adjusting. You’re doing an awesome job!

    • Hi Erin!!

      Oooh congrats on your #2 as well — sounds like we’ll be in similar boats right around the same time! Here’s to going with the flow and for all sorts of new adventures to come!

      Hang in there, mama! We got this!

  • LeeAndra Blicher Fouts

    My baby (and he is the last baby!) is almost 3, and I still don’t get a full night’s sleep. Not to scare you but just a head’s up. :) Congrats on #2! Better to get all the sleeplessness & diapering out of the way in one fell swoop. ;)

    ‘All I can do is all I can do.’ helped me out a lot when he was younger. Reminding myself that sleeping & eating were not things I could just pretend I didn’t need to do helped, too. Asking for help — SPECIFIC task-oriented help in my husband’s case :) — from my family & friends who no longer had babies & would love to spend a couple of hours cuddling one was something I had to remind myself to do. I’m an introvert & HSP so babies & toddlers are a bit ‘much’ for me most of the time. Driving around in the car for a few minutes for a break from being touched & needed was a great ‘reset’ button for me on hard days; this didn’t always put the baby to sleep but that was a nice bonus when it happened.

    • Hey there LeeAndra!

      Hehe thank you for your congrats and warning — I’ll make sure and keep my expectations in check about sleep! :)

      I can totally relate to you when it comes to just taking a drive to recharge and reset — thank you so much for sharing all this and for reading this post! Such a great reminder to ask for help with specific tasks and even remembering to eat!! :D

  • Krista Wiltbank

    Sleep is a function required for optimal health and brain function. There is NOTHING WRONG with that goal, because it leads to many other things that are essential for doing what you want to do.

    Secondly, motherhood is transformational. When you think back to your pre-child life, try to remember that she was a different person with different goals. Your goals now — sleep! — won’t be your goals for the rest of your life. There is a season for everything, and each new season of life will bring new goals.

  • Cathy Lanski

    Been there! When you manage to come up from under, someone shared a You Tuber with me, Rachel Stephen. She’s got a lot of solid guidance on outlining, story-building etc, so that when you do have a few minutes to write, you’re prepared.

  • My youngest turned 20 this week. Mind you, we’re still helping her through college, but there’s a mental transition that brings to all members of the family. The teen years are past. We’ve all got to function as adults and learn to be adults with each other. It’s a very different dynamic.

    You’re going to find those points happen throughout your family adventure. Sometimes the change is subtle. Sometimes it’s almost traumatic. But when they occur you may find that your goals and dreams afterward are starkly different, and that just says you’re evolving.

    The things that interest me and the things I enjoy haven’t changed substantially since I was in my twenties. But the way I pursue those interests and the role they play in my life and career choices bear little resemblance to what they used to be, and certainly, to the way I envisioned them back then. We learn new things as we go. Our priorities change, and we often find opportunities that we never expected. I had the good fortune to have a job that paid me to travel the world. It’s something I’d always wanted to do, but the way I ended up doing it was not how I planned.

    So the important thing to remember is that your current situation is by no means an absolute. “Survival mode” is part of having young children who rely on you for almost everything. But that doesn’t mean you have to postpone your personal development for 18-24 years either. My wife finished law school and passed the bar while our kids were in grade school. I continue to pursue my own creative projects, even though they have changed in scope and character. And yes, there are days when you’ll have to go back to “survival mode”, that may have to do with the needs of the children, but could equally be demands of a growing business, the process of completing and publishing that novel, or anything else that consumes your time and energy to the near exclusion of everything else. But it will pass, and you can come out the other side with the satisfaction of accomplishment and a fresh energy for the next set of life’s challenges.

    One final piece of advice: Don’t let the frustrations and exhaustion or the dreams and ambitions overwhelm or distract from the moment. You will learn all too quickly that the time with your children rushes past and will never come again. Seeing my daughters on their way into adulthood is bittersweet, but I look forward to all new adventures with them and the lives they will build. Carpe diem, and good luck to you.

  • Robert Kempton

    Our first, our daughter, was born Dec 2015. Got #2 due in early August now. Bought our first home a month ago. I’m really feeling this. I struggle just to finish a book these days.

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  • Natalia

    Thanks for sharing this, Nicole. So many of us can relate for sure. I was self-employed until about two years ago, so Yes, sympathies! I’m lucky I can work from home when I need to/wish, which really really helped while the children were younger (youngest is 5 now).

    Sleep, or the lack thereof, when you’re also trying to work, be a parent, work on goals/ambitions, and function as a woman outside all work/home duties can definitely affect us on a deep level. Youngest started sleeping through at 3.3yo ?

    I’m afraid I let stress take over for long and that affected me, my work, my health, etc, but balance can be achieved. If we have goals for our professional life we can also set them for our physical and mental health ? We can’t really pour from an empty container.

    Where we work can also help/hinder. Judging by what I learn daily about Buffer and your working culture, I’m confident in your case it’ll help ?

    Thank you for being open and sharing your experience. Best of luck with what’s to come and congratulations on your second baby!

  • Really candid @NicoleMillerbooks:disqus! I think it’s all about intent. As long as you’re living with the intent over your priorities and doing what’s important to you, that’s what matters.

    I think a lot of those negative feelings are created because a lot of us are natural people pleasers, and we want to just do so much for those around us and often neglect what is important – spending time on ourselves, and that in itself shouldn’t be seen as selfish (yet we all do!)

    As long as you’re living as you intend and as you say, communicate that to others, that’s what really matters!

    Thanks for the post! :)

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