I’m very good at doing lots of things, and I’m very bad at doing nothing. For the past decade, my recurring pattern is filling my schedule to the brim, coasting off adrenaline and dopamine, and appearing to be wildly productive – and then crashing. After these semi-annual crashes, which look like an odd fight or crying spell or reticence to get out of bed, I resolve to do less and be more.
I’ve realized that my propensity to busyness stems not just from unrelenting passion and desire to help others (as I would love to believe), but also from fear. Fundamentally, I’ve been afraid that people won’t like or love me if I’m not adding tangible value to their lives/organization/project. I’ve made myself useful to more people than I can count, often at the expense of my well-being. I’m also afraid of who I am without the identity signposts of a dizzying resume and multiple titles.
While I’ve been inching closer towards living as a human being rather than a human doing, my latent fears surrounding complacency were recently shattered by one of the kindest things anyone’s ever done for me. My partner, Donald, staged an impromptu ‘busyness intervention,’ expressing that he hates to see me burn myself out doing too much for too many people. While my ego initially responded with anger (“who is he to tell me how to run my life?!“), I realized that I had indeed just arrived home late from an evening meeting, in which I promised all sorts of unnecessary actions, after a long Monday of mostly-voluntary meetings following a weekend in which I acted as a therapist for several people. Objectively, he was right; I was spending the majority of my time trying to help other people, and I was not allotting nearly as much time, energy, or attention for myself. He gently asked me to do less for him and more for me, and he lovingly posed the question, “who[m] am I doing this for?” to help frame my decisions. Once I started asking that question, in addition to prioritizing my health, energy, and happiness, everything in my life has been brighter.
I never considered myself a workaholic until I read this recent HBR article, “Resilience is about how you recharge, not how you endure,” which defines workaholism as:
“being overly concerned about work, driven by an uncontrollable work motivation, and investing so much time and effort to work that it impairs other important life areas.”
Hmm. Doesn’t everyone’s work spill over into other areas of their lives, sometimes making it hard to sleep or truly pay attention to someone? Perhaps this is the norm in my high-achieving peer group, but I don’t want to be a workaholic. I don’t want to pursue professional and athletic endeavors at the expense of my relationships, health, random fun adventures, and happiness.
This article, which is totally worth the read, goes on to define one’s ‘performance zone‘ of working/achievement and ‘recovery zone,’ in which you’re truly relaxing and restoring (not just scrolling through Instagram). The amount of time needed for recovery is proportional to time spent in performance (ie the more you do, the more you need to rest). While this concept is surprisingly intuitive and has been extremely well-proven in athletics (interval training, HIIT, sprint/recover, etc), I had never thought about applying HIIT to the rest of my life.
So how am I applying this concept? I’m deliberately taking time out of my performance zone to put into my recovery zone; for instance, I resolved to go outside for lunch, without my phone, and take breaks every 90 minutes at work (at least to walk to the water cooler). On these breaks, where I try to notice as much as possible about my surroundings, I realized that I am bad at doing nothing – but that’s okay, and I’m improving. Leaning into the discomfort of doing nothing is part of my growth. I opted out of some engagements that were a negative ROI for my health, energy, and happiness, and the world didn’t fall apart and no one was angry with me. I’ve said no to ‘catching up’ with people who drain me, and I asked for an unplugged weekend at Kripalu for my birthday.
Similarly, I’m realizing that in the achievement mindset, there will always be more to achieve such that I’ll never be done, and I won’t enjoy my present circumstances. Therefore, I’m writing on my to-do list to celebrate my wins (Donald correctly pointed out that I don’t reward myself for performance-based achievements like landing my dream job or publishing academic papers).
Perhaps most importantly, I’ve resolved to opt out of the work-until-I’m-depleted game; my habit was to fill any empty space in my schedule (created by finishing something early or having a meeting moved) with more tasks centered on productivity. Now, instead I’ll watch a bunny video, tune into my breathing, or head home early (imagine that!). Instead of giving my all to work, I want to leave fuel in my energy/enthusiasm tank for myself and for the people I love.
And guess what? My short experiment of doing less has caused me to not only be more, but also to achieve more. I’m realizing that busy is a state of mind, and I’m choosing to cultivate more loving and restorative states by identifying and prioritizing recovery zone activities. Is there something you’re doing on auto-pilot that you could let go of to allow more time in your recovery zone?