There's an app for that!
Lasting sanity. Where did it go and how can you get it back?
The idea that we can improve our productivity is ubiquitous these days. It’s been on the radar for years, but a decade ago it was more about how to get the most out of your work hours or your business resources. Now, almost daily, I see resources that address productivity in many aspects of life; I even recently saw one related to vacationing! I have always felt that getting the most out of a vacation is about being less productive.
The desire to be more productive is a growing trend, but why? I can’t say for sure, but I find the correlation between the growing frenzy to do more and increasing stress and dissatisfaction to be quite disturbing. I started reading to find out what is going on, and it didn’t take long to realize that not being (or not being perceived as) productive has a significant amount of anxiety attached to it, which makes it a great marketing opportunity, but not so great for the North American psyche.
Got a productivity issue? Chances are that there’s an app for that… or a book, or a course, or a checklist. But do we need all of those tools? What’s the issue, really? Some might say that the issue is fatigue, or laziness, or procrastination, or lack of focus, or the simple fact that there aren’t enough hours in the day.
In the article, “Why time management is ruining our lives,” Oliver Burkeman (The Guardian) basically says that time management strategies are just making the situation worse. We become efficient at something and then we do more of it because we can, or because expectations increase.
We free up time only to fill it with something else. Almost everyone talks about being busy. It’s as though there’s status in it – that somehow, if you aren’t busy, then you’re also not important. Let’s take a look at how self-concept can play out in terms of commitments.
I have turned down really good invitations because I was already committed, and then I felt bad about the invitation I had said ‘yes’ to because I would rather have done something else. That was my thing, but not anymore.
After a few years of general dissatisfaction in my social life, I realized that if there was any glory in being busy, it didn’t translate into anything that made me feel good, so I dropped it. Actually it’s an ongoing process of dropping it – like any addiction (and I believe that being busy is an addiction) you need to commit to the lifestyle change every day. The pressures are there to cause me to revert back, thereby relieving the pressure to conform, to feel as though I fit into society a little better, but none of that leads to happiness, just busy-ness.
Time management is certainly the key to getting more done but we, as a society, mistakenly assume that getting more done is the key to feeling satisfied. It’s not. In Burkeman’s article he mentions the “…irritating friction of daily life - shopping, laundry, eating…"
My first reaction was shock! However, before the shock even passed, I had a memory of having felt this way. “If only I didn’t have to prepare a meal; I could get so much more done if I weren’t hungry. I’ll just do a few more minutes.” An hour later, completely ravenous, I’d snack on junk food, prepare something quickly and go back to work. There was always more to do, there were never enough hours in the day, I was never finished, work leaked into every aspect of my day, and I was never satisfied. On top of that I was eating poorly, not sleeping enough, not getting enough exercise, and neglecting my relationships.
Almost 5 years ago the New York Times published an article called, “The ‘Busy’ Trap,” in a section dealing with anxiety. The contributor, Tim Kreider said that “…it isn’t generally people pulling back-to-back shifts in the I.C.U. or commuting by bus to three minimum-wage jobs who tell you how busy they are: what those people are is not busy but tired. Exhausted. Dead on their feet. It’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve “encouraged” their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.”
What have I learned in the last 5 years? This phenomenon is not disappearing; in fact, the articles touting strategies are certainly more prevalent. Maybe that’s a sign that we are waking up to what we are doing to ourselves. I hope.
It seems that there is growing awareness that fulfillment doesn’t come from doing more. It seems that more and more people are tired of being tired and are looking for solutions. I hope that is the case, because bucking the trend is exhausting and can make healthy relationships a challenge to find. You may find yourself, envied or admired, but envy and admiration are ways of keeping people at a distance, not drawing them closer in meaningful ways.
Do you sense that life can be more fulfilling? Well, it can.
I was recently teased at work for asking too many questions about some chocolate that my colleague was offering. “Just eat it!” “No!” I said. “I don’t need the calories or the sugar, so it needs to be really good. Life’s too short for anything less than Awesome.” People laughed, but I realized that that phrase is the motto I have been living by for a couple of years now. Life is too short for anything less than awesome. If I eat something crappy and get strung out on the sugar, then if something good comes along I can’t have it because it will make me feel sick, so I’m just going to wait for good stuff. Awesome treats, awesome work opportunities, awesome social engagements, etc..
With the chocolate it might seem easy - you can just say, ‘No thank you,” but when it’s personal it gets harder, right? Not really. Everything we say ‘yes’ to is essentially our prioritizing that thing (or person, or situation) over something else. Every time you feel dissatisfied, tired or overcommitted, it’s a sure sign that you are not prioritizing yourself often enough. Each instance involves a decision you are in control of, and you can ease yourself into a more satisfying life, one decision at a time.
I take a simple approach to social engagements. If the invitation doesn’t sound very good to me, I say “thanks for the invitation, but I don’t think I’ll be able to make it.” If it sounds okay, I thank the person and say that I will have to let them know. If it sounds great, I accept. No excuses, and no stories. If I decide to go, I can go. If not, I’m okay staying home or going out and do something by myself.
I value my alone-time, partly because I’m a classic introvert, and partly because staying home to do something I’ve been wanting to do is better than going out to do something I don’t want to do. That said, don’t assume the societal pressure to conform doesn’t affect me. It does.
It’s really hard to engage in small talk when your life isn’t full of activities. That leaves such topics as sports and current events. Sports I can talk about during some playoff seasons, but current events can be a challenge. In most cases I engage only peripherally because there’s so much negativity, which doesn’t contribute to my happiness.
So, what can you do to be authentically happier and more fulfilled in your real life, instead of engaging in activities that only contribute to the appearance of fulfillment, that get posted to social media? The short answer is change – if you want what you don't have, you have to change. I’m not talking about anything that looks like a crash 'diet' on activities or friends or learning or anything else. In my experience, it’s the slow and steady lifestyle changes that bring lasting sanity.
Here are five suggestions you can do slowly and steadily, if you want to break the busy-ness cycle. You don’t have to do all five. Maybe you will choose one to focus on a little this month, or even this year. If you have a high tolerance for risk, by all means, dive in. If not, the results will accumulate over time, which is my preferred approach.
1:) Say no. When you get an invitation (for example), if your gut reaction is not utter excitement, find a way to decline. The only exception I make to this is when, by showing up, I help to maintain or grow a relationship that is important to me. I go out of my way for the people who are important to me.
2:) Think about how you want to feel. I have trusted my barometer for satisfaction for a long time, but I didn’t really define what that meant until I read part of Desire Map, by Danielle Laporte. The essence of what she says is this: Think about how you want to feel. It could be anything. Maybe you want to feel rested or affluent, or intelligent, or connected or healthy. Once you decide on a short list of adjectives (max. 5), start aligning the activities in your life to them. If you engage in an activity that does not contribute to one of the feelings you’ve chosen, then perhaps that activity does not contribute to your life enough for you to spend your energy on.
3:) Prioritize how you spend your time and energy by aligning activities with your values. What do you value most? Family? Health? Earning Money? Once you decide, take a look at how you spend your time. If your family (for example) is your #1 value, but you spend the least amount of time with them, then you will certainly experience a significant degree of dissatisfaction. Aligning the quantity and quality of time appropriately with what we value brings greater satisfaction.
4:) Prioritize by recognizing what’s important, not just what’s urgent. Stephen Covey, in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, talks about how everything you need to do falls into a grid like this.
There are numerous resources available on the web that describe this grid in more detail, but the essence of it is this: The line between urgent and important is easily blurred. We need to ensure that we spend our time and energy on what is important. Something could be both urgent and important, but what is urgent is not necessarily important. Many of the tasks that call us are not very important (if we’re honest with ourselves). And if they are important, it doesn’t mean you have to do them. Maybe somebody else should. Maybe not… but maybe.
5:) The last suggestion for regaining some sanity is to compartmentalize. For me, work stays at work and home stays at home. Of course exceptional circumstances can arise from time to time, but the rule is clear and I stick to it. I also try to do one thing at a time. Incoming emails and phone calls do not make it easy to concentrate at work, so I generally dedicate time to specific tasks. If it’s not time to deal with email, I just don’t. And in face-to-face social situations, text messages and social media alerts make it difficult to focus and connect, so I put my phone away.
Life feels exhausting and complicated when it’s cluttered with things that are of little value. This could apply to your living or working space, your time, or even your thoughts. Lasting sanity comes from simplifying and prioritizing, which can be very challenging, but we are all responsible to ourselves first. Happiness, contentment or a sense fulfillment is not something that can be found out there somewhere; it comes only from showing up fully and willingly. The magic comes in simplifying, giving ourselves space to breathe and in being alone with our own thoughts from time to time, so we can feel what we feel, see what we want, recognize what we value and find the courage to make healthy decisions.
This months article on the Captain is written by our guest writer, Tamara.