Spiritual debt

If we have a short-term cost to cover, we sometimes take on a loan to spread that cost over a longer period, and then make regular payments to pay off the monetary debt we owe.

Engineering organizations have the concept of technical debt, where a feature is coded in a slipshod way to get it done quickly, but that will later have to be refactored into a more maintainable form. Such technical debt is often budgeted for in the resource planning stage, acknowledging that it is worth investing time in work that doesn’t create new functionality so that the codebase stays functional and stable.

After this past pandemic year, I suspect that many people are experiencing spiritual debt, where they have been surviving through short-term hacks that are not sustainable spiritually and emotionally. This could include working past the point of burnout, accommodating a toxic coworker or boss, or just never giving themselves a chance to recover.

Americans often glorify “hustle” culture, which is focused on working hard and staying busy. But that assumes that we have the mental and physical resources to “hustle”, which seems like a broken assumption in light of the past year unless one had tremendous privilege. I hope that writing about spiritual debt might give people permission to allocate their resources towards rebuilding their reserves and paying back their spiritual debt by investing in their own emotional well-being.

The analogy I like to use is that if you had a machine that your entire business depended upon, you would make sure to keep up with its maintenance so that it didn’t break down when you needed it most. And yet most of us don’t treat our minds and bodies with the same respect that we treat our machines. When we run ourselves into the red zone, and keep pushing, we run the risk of burning out completely.

But what’s the alternative? There’s still too much to do!

I’m trying to learn to be more realistic about my capacity, so that I don’t overcommit myself. I often convince myself I “should” be able to do X number of tasks, when if I pay attention to what I’m actually getting done, it’s more like half of X. And that stresses me out, because I’m not delivering on what I think I should be able to do! So instead of saying Yes to 5 things and delivering on 3, I’m learning to say No to everything except my top 2 or 3 priorities.

Part of the challenge for me is accepting that I can’t do as much as I used to. WHICH SHOULD BE OBVIOUS! I’m in my late 40s now rather than my 20s or 30s. I’m chasing two young kids in addition to working full-time. Of course I don’t have the energy to read non-fiction books and write blog posts consistently the way I used to! And yet, part of me continues to beat myself up for not doing it, saying that if I was really committed to reading and writing, I’d do those things regularly. I’d also ideally meditate and journal and exercise every day, and spend more time creating awesome activities to do with my kids. But that’s just not realistic for me right now, as keeping up with my coaching and my family uses all of my energy.

So my version of facing spiritual debt is recognizing that I have overcommitted in holding myself to an unrealistic standard, and maybe it’s time to declare “bankruptcy” and reset expectations to what I can comfortably deliver. When I’m able to do that, I feel so much better because I don’t feel that constant cloud of obligations hanging over me. I don’t even normally realize what a drag it is, but last weekend, I gave myself permission to take a full day off and do nothing, and it was spectacularly relaxing. I even did some reading! Giving myself more opportunities to recharge this summer rather than continue to schedule myself full is another way I hope to start paying back my “debt”.

What spiritual debt might you be carrying from this past year? What is realistic for you to commit to right now, and can you give yourself more recovery time?

P.S. I started this post a while ago, but was motivated to finish it after reading a couple other articles advocating for using this summer for recovery:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *