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Get Out of Reactive Mode & Get In Control | Six Tips for Moms

The other day, I was reminded of a phone call with my cousin Heather six years ago. At the time, I was 27 and running my own consulting practice.  I was childless but still had responsibilities - mortgage, business to run, and two dogs and a husband who relied on me to put feed them (my husband would just eat an entire bag of jalapeno chips for every meal if someone doesn’t watch him). I felt very, very busy. Heather had a one year old and a three year old, as well as a full-time job that regularly demanded 13hr days. She was understandably frazzled. I tried to think of a way to help. Even though I had no idea what her day to day life felt like, as it was so different from mine, I tried to ask her the right questions, and empathize.


I started out tentatively.


“I mean, I feel like you’re in reactive mode. Is that fair to say?”


“Oh my God. Yes. Yes it is,” she replied, exhaling deeply.


“So, it seems like you need to step out of the endless flow of daily activities and find some time to kind of, “zoom out,” and do some forward planning and thinking.”


“I totally agree - I just don’t know how to find the time to step aside and get that distance.”


We talked through this “how” a little bit, but each of my questions and suggestions was met with a very reasonable reason why No - that wouldn’t work.


The endless childcare stress. She had gone through four nannies in the span of three months, as she and her husband - who also worked full time - tried to patchwork together care while also keeping their jobs, and interviewing new folks to watch their babies. The preschool viruses and the endless birthday parties and the travel for work and the skyrocketing grocery bills and the hours sitting in traffic trying to be on time for pickup. It sounded suffocating.


“I think this is just how it’s going to be for awhile,” she said, sighing.


Hearing her voice tremble throughout our conversation, this seemed like an unacceptable option to me, and I also didn’t understand. There must be ten minutes in the day to do some thinking? Write a list? Talk with her partner? It wasn’t that I thought she wasn’t “trying hard enough” - it just seemed to me that there had to be a way out of that feeling. I just couldn’t access what it was.


Fast forward two years. I was working with a coaching client who was a stay at home mom with her 18 month old daughter. She was constantly fighting with her husband, who expected her to have the house cleaned and dinner on the table when he got home from work, with all the food and supplies for the next day organized and ready to go (I won’t even go down that road here). While his expectations were outrageous and archaic, her disorganization did cause her a great deal of stress and upset, so we worked on it together. We talked about how she felt like she was endlessly preparing and cleaning food - wiping down oatmeal bowls, preparing farfalle with butter, hunting down pouches in cupboards and string cheeses in the back reaches of the fridge, finding old half eaten yogurts in diaper bags and rinsing them out, defeated. It took her almost an hour to get out of the house in the morning, by which point she’d missed whatever group she was going to in order to have some interaction with other kids and, hopefully, a bit of adult connection and conversation too. I realized again this was uncharted territory for childless me, but tried to walk her through some options for prepping breakfast and lunch before going to sleep, so getting out of the house would be easier. I thought of how I would do this for myself when going to school, when time was tight and mornings were sleepy.

She just sighed.


“I’m getting the sense this maybe isn’t sitting with you right, Allie” I said gently. “What about this is rubbing you the wrong way?”


She paused before speaking.


“I’m just - I’m just so tired” she finally admitted, her voice cracking as she held back tears.


It wasn’t until I had my own daughter that I finally understood. Running my own business had equipped me with strategies for those terribly busy stretches, where I had five events and three deliverables all back to back across ten days. I would plan weeks in advance when possible. I would break down tasks into smaller pieces and plot them on my daily agenda, chipping away at things bit by bit. I would focus just on what was directly ahead of me until I could could check that event, that report, that project, that launch off the list, and fully focus on the next thing.


But once a baby came into the mix? Fuck that!


I had a beautiful, wonderful, magical baby. Who didn’t sleep. I also had no childcare while working full-time running my business. I was up with my baby from 4:30am until 12pm, at which point I would run out for meetings, return at 4:30pm to nurse her, make dinner, walk our dogs, nurse her again, put her to bed, clean the house, and then sit down to work and pump a bottle for tomorrow afternoon’s excursion away from her to attend meetings. By the time I went to sleep it was usually midnight, and she was up in an hour or two to nurse again.

Here's a good example -  rushing home, and instead needing to stop to take a coaching call on a random bench outside someone's house while also nursing my 4 month old baby because she looked at my well planned schedule for the morning and was like ha, that's cute.

working mom

This was some 24hr nonsense. There was no time to step away. Let me also mention, my little angel didn’t nap unless she was strapped to my body or in a stroller, moving - not a stroller parked at a coffee shop where I could work, or journal, or reflect, or stare into space - only if I was vigorously walking and working up a frothy sweat could my sadistic infant slumber. So there were no little corners of the day to step out of reactive mode and do some bigger picture planning. It felt like every minute was accounted for, full, booked with somebody needing something from me.


Nevertheless, as time wore on, I did learn a few strategies for snapping out of this endless cycle feeling, and gaining a little breathing room to actually be able to zoom out and see the forest for the trees. It wasn’t until I became a mom myself that I understood how the endlessness of being needed and responsible makes it feel so much different from just “being busy.” It doesn't matter if you're a mom who works outside of the home, a stay-at-home mom, or somewhere in between - being a mother is a huge transition, a bit of a mindfuck, and a real trip. And too often, we're so good at just getting things done that we don't admit how threadbare it can get us feeling.

But there are ways out - I promise. So, ladykins, fi you’re stuck in that hamster wheel right now, let me share a few things that worked for me, in the hopes they’ll work for you, too.

  • 1. Realize that this situation isn’t permanent, or unfixable - it’s in your head.
  • Ok, you might hate me for this and say “Justine, you don’t understand, I am so busy and there is so much to do that there literally isn’t a moment in the day for me to breathe.” And I’m going to say I totally believe that you are, in fact, overbooked, overworked, overtired, and over it. And, that it truly feels that there isn't a tiny corner in the day that is open - I still feel this way sometimes with a toddler! - but it truly isn’t real. I’m not talking about finding a weekend to go to Kripalu for an Ayurvedic Cleansing Past Life Regression Bootcamp. I’m talking about finding five minutes a day to carve out a little mental space for yourself. Five. Like, this could be on the subway going home. Or when you get in the car, writing something down (I’ll tell you what to write in a moment), think about it while you drive home, and then jot down notes on it when you’re in your driveway, for ninety seconds. This could be part of your shower routine, thinking about something specific in the shower and then jotting down ideas in a notebook that you rest on the sink while you brush your teeth. This could be five minutes while you’re in bed before you turn off the light. Five minutes exist in your day - I promise you. Hell, if it needs to be while you’re going to the bathroom, make it so.


    1. Look at where you’re wasting time and burning energy

    We all do it. Sometimes we’re being pennywise pound foolish, trying to save a buck and wasting hours of precious time. Sometimes we feel like we’re the only one who can do something - often when it comes to the baby too, am I right? And sometimes we’re so frazzled and just trying to get things done that we don’t even realize that we could be working smarter, not harder. So I’m going to suggest this - write down five things that irritate, tire, or drain you throughout the week. Next to each item, write down how much time you’d get back a week if you didn’t have to think about or deal with that thing. And now see if there is even one item on that list you could delegate to someone else, automate, or press pause on. Everything doesn’t all have to happen at the same time. And you don’t have to personally do everything. If there are things that are driving you crazy, they’re going to be taking up a lot of the bandwidth you could be spending on making your life happier and better. And they’re most likely things you can get off your plate, even if just for a few weeks, to help clear your mind and get into a new headspace. Again - this doesn’t have to be a forever thing. Three weeks. Try it. And if you’re thinking “I can’t afford to hire someone to help me with this stuff, and I don’t have anyone to delegate to,” then that’s totally fair- but saying “yes, but not now” to something is free, and still leaves the task on your list. Pressing pause is a free option, as is doing something at 50% for a week or two, and resuming it full title once you’ve had some time to clear your head.


    3.Deal with the lowest hanging fruit first


    I know sometimes the impulse is to burn it all down and start from scratch. Sometimes I start thinking about how I’d like to buy a new calendar planner to get more organized and three minutes later I’ve decided what I really need to do is throw out all my clothes and renovate my entire kitchen and dye my hair red and start a new company and pull my daughter out of school and make a Montessori classroom in our basement and screw it let’s move into a Tiny House and homeschool her on the road to Portland. OK maybe that’s just me. But, I’d imagine that sometimes the bigger things that gnaw at you, especially, can feel so big and confusing and tiring to change, that you don’t know where to begin and end up changing nothing. So I always try to notice when I get into apocalyptic mode, and pick three things that bother me, are relatively easy to fix, and when I imagine them crossed off my list, I believe I will feel a big sense of relief and satisfaction. These do not need to be life-changing items. They can be ordering paper towels from Prime and fixing the faucet in the powder room. They can be finally writing a thank you note that’s been dangling for weeks, and responding to those two emails that are haunting you in your inbox. You’ll get to the deep stuff later. But if you can knock out a bunch of these distracting items that are taking up mental space and energy, you’ll clear out a lot of space for thinking about the bigger issues that need your full attention. Write down three to six of these brain cloggers, and just focus on getting them - not the bigger existential questions - accomplished. You’ll feel relieved and productive, which will be a big boost when you get cracking on the deeper stuff.


    1. Find a productive venting method that really works for you.

    Maybe it’s seeing a therapist. Maybe it’s doing stream of consciousness writing. Maybe it’s guided reflection. Maybe it’s running and being alone. Maybe it’s talking things through with a friend at a coffee shop. And perhaps it’s all of the above combined. When we’re in reactive mode, we need to clear space so that we can be more intentional and stop feeling like we just have to put out fires. And part of clearing space is dealing with bad thoughts, hurt feelings, upset, anger, sadness, resentment, frustration -whatever gunky emotions are taking up a lot of your bandwidth. While kvetching is great, finding a method for getting things off your chest that is productive and healthy is way more useful than a bitch fest. So whatever helps you get the clutter out of your head and get some of the negative gunk out of your system - do it. Plan it. Like, make a time and put it in your phone and calendar and get a babysitter for it, like it’s a meeting for work. You won’t be able to think clearly with a lot of emotional clutter gumming up your system.


    1. Get to planning & visioning

    So, now that the smoke has cleared - what are some big items in your life that you’d really like to shift? Perhaps your relationship with your partner is a bit wonky since baby came along (toooootally normal), and maybe this is what you’d really like to focus on. Maybe your house is giving you hives, and dedicating some time and resources to getting your home feeling comfortable and pretty would do a world of good for your mental state. Or maybe you feel like you’re in a rut with your baby nugget, doing a lot of necessary tasks together but not spending fun quality time connecting, and you’d really like to shift this. Pick one thing in your life - whether it’s a relationship, your space, your work life, your body, etc. If you’re not sure where to start, this is where I like to use the Topic Cards from the Motherhood Deck, and either pick one at random (which always, magically, is just what I need to hear!), or lay all of them out face up and read them over, and see which ones stand out to me as needing some extra TLC.


    Once you’ve picked one area to focus on (just one, girl! I know you want to fix everything!), I like to write down a few things that are really bothering me about this area of life. I write them in a table, in the left-side column. I try to limit it to five so I don’t just start going into an unproductive vortex of overwhelm.


    Once I have these written, in the next column I write down what this thing I don’t like would look like if it were fixed. Try to be as specific as possible here. If you’ve got some time to do deeper reflection, this is where I like to pull some questions from either the Motherhood or Clarity Deck to help me dig deeper with my list items and get some fresh ideas for how to improve and shift these things that are bothering me. But if you’re more in get-shit-done mode, just move on to the next step.


    Once I’ve written this list, in the far right column I write down what would need to change to get me from how things are, to how I want things to be. When I reread this list, if there are things that are out of my control (like how my husband should think and feel differently), I sit with those for a moment and rewrite them to be something that I can actually control. For Example: “my husband should be more thoughtful” becomes “Ask him to plan two dates between now and November 1st.”


    I’m then left with a nice list of actionable items that will hopefully lead me to shifting something that is really bothering me. And if looking at that list makes my eyes cross, I pick one thing to tackle this week and come back to the list once that first bit feels taken care of, to find what I’d like to tackle next.


    1. Anticipate roadblocks and plan accordingly

    Sometimes shit just comes up and gets in the way - but more often than not, we can see some of the things that are going to get us in a twist before they happen. Like that week you have your in-laws visiting, and three birthday parties over the weekend, and a big presentation at work. How can you plan ahead to get some support, outsource things, or press pause on some non-urgent items, so that you can stay on track and not get back into triage mode even when things get hectic? Whether it’s getting groceries delivered, asking a friend to trade babysitting (and you can reciprocate when things are less busy), or putting off a task that isn’t essential until the smoke clears, the more you can resource yourself and keep from slipping back into busybusybusybusy mentality, the more you’ll be able to create a habit around doing some big picture life planning and being deliberate rather than reactive on the regular. I try to take ten minutes on Saturday to look at the week ahead and see where I might need to make some adjustments so I don’t explode. If you’re feeling like a boss, try looking at the whole month ahead as the last month wraps up, so you can get a sense for the tone of the weeks to come, and how to best equip yourself for what you’ve got going on.


    So, what about you, lady? Would these six steps be something you’d try to get out of reactive mode? What are some other strategies you’ve used that are helpful? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below - and best wishes in getting your head clearer! xo

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