Stop Killing Yourself at Work and Train Your Cat Instead
Every night before bed, my cat performs a series of tricks in exchange for treats (yes, like a dog.)
It started off solely as a bonding activity, but it quickly became a huge step in helping manage my post-college anxiety and stress.
I had just moved to Minneapolis and started my first “real” job. It was an exciting time – each day energized me with opportunities to learn.
Being consumed by new challenges, I would take projects home, both physically and mentally, working, thinking, and strategizing into the wee hours of the night.
Always being the "yes man” meant harder and more complex challenges began to pile up – but it just drove me more. I’d push aside my reservations, panic, and anxiety and charge forward until I’d somehow overcome those challenges as well.
I felt unstoppable.
But soon I learned there’s a fine line between ambition and drowning yourself.
After months of running at 200%, my love for work turned into stress I couldn’t escape. I had flown too close to the sun, and my wings were torched.
Rewind to when I first moved to Minneapolis. At this same time, I had adopted a scrawny black cat named Nutmeg.
He was a cute kitten with the tiniest, quietest little meow… until I brought him home.
He’d cry – no, SCREAM – sun up to sun down, sometimes keeping me up until 3am with his opera voice. By 6am, the show would resume, and repeat.
It got so bad that I would leave home early just to escape the constant cries.
Eventually the cries turned into bad behavior like getting into food and dragging garbage all over the apartment when I was gone.
This added stress was the cherry on top of my new anxiety-filled adult life.
One night after a particularly hectic week at work, I spent a chunk of my evening collapsed against my dishwasher, mentally exhausted, my stomach churning from anxiety.
As if on cue, Nutmeg came strutting by, screaming all the while.
After watching him pace back and forth crying and brushing against my foot, I reached out and he eagerly trotted up to my hand. Before I knew it, this once-screaming cat was purring quietly in my lap.
At that moment, I realized how lonely he must be.
I had taken this cat from his haven of toys and other cats to play with to leave him sit in my apartment alone most of the day. And when I was home, I wasn’t truly present – I was consumed by work most waking moments.
From then on, I made it a point to make time for Nutmeg each day.
This is when I started to teach him tricks. I had seen a video of a cat jumping through someone’s arms on command, and I figured I could learn how to make that happen too.
After a couple months of dedicated nightly “clicker training,” Nutmeg was doing more than jumping through my arms – he knew “up,” “shake,” “high-five,” “spin,” “down,” “wait,” and “kiss.”
Throughout this training, Nutmeg and I had become best buds.
He’d happily follow me around the apartment, sit on my lap all of the time, and snuggle up at night.
It may sound silly (crazy?), but the training sessions became something I would look forward to during the day, even on the most stressful ones. It was an enjoyable activity I was guaranteed to have because I built it into my schedule.
In this way, I chose happiness and calm to end my day and to break the cycle of “always-on” stress.
It kept me grounded. Work life was a blur, weeks would fly by, projects would blend together, and I was always checking my work email, but this was a simple and straightforward progress bar that I could clearly measure.
I’m not going to lie and say this solved all of my work-related stress – I’ve had to make tough decisions, learn hard lessons, and become very disciplined about my time, organization, and self-respect to work on that.
But the act of intentionally carving out time to appreciate the little things in life and to be present is a key staple in maintaining my mental well-being.
It can be really difficult, and it’s often not something you even want to do – when you’re exhausted, why not just collapse on the couch and flip on Netflix for the last 20 minutes of your day? But making it a habit could be a small step that cascades into a series of other beneficial habits, helping you stay sane in our crazy world.