Sleep and stress: the Achilles heel for the FTW

by Susy Natal

You know that you need to sleep more, but you also know that the to-do list is not going to complete itself. As a full-time worker and mother, the list of responsibilities is formidable and relentless. It is, however, the endless nature of these tasks, and how conflicting they may seem at times, which is bogging you down and eating into your time to rest. You not only have the actual tasks to manage, but also the feelings of overwhelm that creep in, which can destroy your ability to make decisions and take action, compounding the issue.

Then there is burnt steak syndrome, which refers to a mother’s tendency to serve the good steaks to everybody else in the family while she takes one for the team and eats the burnt steak herself. This mentality means you will deprive yourself of sleep for the sake of further serving those around you.

While this is noble in intent, it doesn’t actually help anybody. There is a logical reason flight attendants tell passengers to secure their own oxygen mask first in case of an emergency. It’s because, if your health falters then you won’t be able to help anybody else, so your efforts will be in vain.

To best help others you must first help yourself, and you are no true help to anybody else if you become sick. Chronic sleep deprivation and stress can, at best, lead to inefficiency and irritability, and, at worst, lead to a complete breakdown.

Here are some tips for breaking out of the cycle of overwhelm so you can do what you need to without your health suffering:

  • Delegate. Partners, siblings, parents, and your older children can all help, even if it’s just by doing small tasks. It is OK to ask for help and it is OK to insist that chores be done. You do need to accept that others will handle tasks differently to you. The people around you will be happier to help if they aren’t being pushed to complete tasks as you would do them, and the goal should be to achieve good enough, not perfection. If you struggle to ask others for help, I recommend reading The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer.
  • Set boundaries. You need boundaries with others and, most importantly, with yourself. Everyone understands that you cannot be late for work every day because there are repercussions. Every action has consequences but, because these are less immediately obvious for sleep and stress, there is a tendency to let things slide in the hope that you will get away with it. The danger of this is that you probably will for some time. However, eventually it will take a toll on your health. Your body is not infallible, so don’t wait to run yourself into the ground before acting. Begin by setting deadlines for major daily tasks, such as when you must put down any work to do, when the last meal needs to be eaten, and when everyone needs to be ready for bed. All changes to habits take time to stick, so once you’ve set these boundaries, understand that it may take months to get the hang of it. Remember, that’s just how change works and is not an indicator to give up.
  • Prioritise. There are always so many things to do, so placing these in a logical order will seriously help you manage each day. Urgency and importance are the metrics that will help you. Urgency means something is due right now and there are unacceptable repercussions if the task isn’t complete within the next 12-48 hours. Anything else doesn’t count as urgent. Importance means a task that matters and usually this is tied in with repercussions too. To classify as important, the outcomes of completing the task must carry significant weight. Then, you can use urgency to decide whether a task needs attending to today, and importance to decide whether a task needs attending to at all. Many tasks can go into a ‘for when there is a quiet moment’ box, or even be scrapped completely. Work Smarter, Live Better by Cyril Peupion helped me set up prioritisation and organisation systems.
  • Understand that you cannot do everything in one day. Accepting this is vital if you want to feel calm. If you are a FTW then you will probably never reach the end of the to-do list, but THIS IS OK. Not everything needs to be done right now, not everything needs to be done perfectly, not everything needs to be done by you, and not everything needs to be done AT ALL!


Here’s to getting a good night’s sleep.


Susy Natal is a qualified personal trainer with a background in psychology research, and is both a sporting and executive coach. Her approach to health and fitness integrates optimal and enjoyable movement, balanced nutrition and a positive mindset, as true health is achieved through an alignment between these three elements.