In case you haven’t tried it, I assure you that getting burned out is the fastest way to downgrade your quality of life. If you want to experience a rapid downfall in your creativity, productivity, and well-being, just get insanely busy, heap a senseless number of projects onto yourself, and keep at it until you start seeing doubles.
Usually your body will kindly give you warning signs when your limit is approaching, warnings signs such as these:
1. You feel tired, tense, and unmotivated.
2. You’re multi-tasking a lot, but being present at none.
3. Declining quality in your creative work.
4. Your mood is turning a soggy, dark shade of gray.
5. Sore neck muscle, lower back pain, and ridiculously persistent skin problems.
6. You’re less patient with everyone on the planet, from the president of the United States to the squirrels.
Unless you’ve got the sensitivity level of a baseball bat, these signs are not exactly hard to notice. Yet every day many of us walk straight over our endurance cliff, fully knowing that the cliff is there, fully knowing that the way we exploit ourselves, just like the way we exploit the planet, is neither civil nor sustainable.
The good old advice from zen masters is to “be more, do less”. Yes, you’ve heard of that one before. In fact, do-less-be-more has become a personal development fantasy of our busy time— a honorable aspiration that, just like the speed limits on Highway 66, everybody knows about but few actually practices.
It’s not that we don’t have a choice in the matter. Unless you’re a 10 year old working in a Cambodian sweatshop—which, if you’re reading this, you are not—most of us don’t busy ourselves into the ground because our physical survival depends on it. Although it may seem otherwise, most people living in the developed world do have a choice in what we do and how much we do. But that’s not what you hear if you talk to people. Most of the time if you tell someone that they’re too busy for their own good, they’d say, “Yeah, but…”, followed by a lengthy to-do list they assure you that absolutely must get done.
I have my own “yeah, but” list. And having been burned out so many times, I finally started to see what’re really behind those yeah-buts:
1. Yeah… but stamina and will power should be worshiped. Success through stick-to-itiveness is an archetype we as a society collectively adore. Why, too many times we’ve been told by the great men who walked before us: “If you’re going through hell, keep going! — Winston Churchill”, or “There isn’t any other quality so essential to success as…perseverance…it overcomes almost everything, even nature. — John Rockefeller”. We admire perseverance so much that denying the needs of one’s body, mind and soul in pursuit of some external goal is seen as super-humanly virtuous. And yes, if you’re persistent enough, you can indeed overcome nature— your natural instinct towards balance and harmony that has ensured the survival of human species for eons.
2. Yeah… but we believe our self-worth depends on how much we do. Though nobody ever says it out loud, most people feel better when they’re overly busy. We believe that the more work we can cram into a day, the more deserving a person we are, as if our individual existence itself is not already miraculous enough, beautiful enough, or amazing enough. We judge others by how much they accomplish, because this is the way we judge ourselves. It is a belief so much ingrained in almost all industrialized societies in the modern world, that most of the time we don’t even realize it is there. Sometimes it takes a dramatic blowup of life as we know it to knock us out of our illusion and discover our innate value. But mostly, we’re content with using shiny accomplishments to embellish a self that we otherwise perceive as vastly ordinary.
3. Yeah… but being busy gives us a sense of control. We like progress and growth; we fear stagnation and dormancy. It doesn’t matter if we are just circling uselessly around the same spot, that busyness gives a sense of advancement nonetheless. The more uncertain and fast-moving our environment is—this world you’re living in certainly qualify— the more we’re propelled to do, because even if we were just shooting blind arrows into the dark, it makes us feel safer than simply sitting on our hands. You see this clearly when disasters strike, be it a terrorist attack or a natural calamity. The first thing people ask is: “Why isn’t the government doing anything?” Because to most of us, a government that does, no matter how stupid or counter-productive its actions are, is way better than a government that does not.
These are our “global beliefs”. They are powerful bits of our collective consciousness. All of us carry some of them around no matter who we are. Like all beliefs, they are neither good nor bad. They simply are. Sometimes they’re useful, other times they do you harm.
And being aware of these beliefs is far from being cleared of them. I know the ridiculous reasons why I can’t seem to get my hands off a to-do list. But that doesn’t prevent me from feeling guilty whenever I’m idling around. And despite all my good intention to not judge myself, my inner critic is still ready to rip me apart if I’m not being productive for half an hour.
But the good news is that you can change your behavior in spite of what you believe. When you take new actions in place of what your habitual patterns would dictate, it automatically weakens the hold of your old conditionings. And one simple action that can free you from the blind busyness is this:
Ask yourself what you need.
Ask yourself, at this very moment, what your body, mind and soul need. Then shut up and listen. Your body has an intelligence so astute that no IQ test can portray. Your soul has a wisdom so profound that no words can do it justice. But these superpowers of yours have a subtle voice. And for many of us, that voice is muffled amid the loud clattering of our social conditioning, of our learned ideas about good and bad, right and wrong, “should” and “should not”.
But if you listen with respect, you will hear the truth about what you need, not what you need to live up to the imaginary ideals approved by your ego, but what you need to live in harmony, health, and joy. If you’ve censored it for long, the voice of truth may not speak to you for a while. But eventually it will, if you sincerely listen within. It may not present itself as a voice, but as a feeling, a knowing, a desire, or a whim coming out of nowhere.
It may tell you that you need to go lie down for twenty minutes, right now. It may tell you that you need to go to that little park near your office at lunch time and watch the birds. At times it may not be something you’d expect— it told me, on a particularly exhausting Tuesday afternoon last week, that I needed to drop the 75-page research document I was reading and go pick up a novel.
Now here comes the hard part. You need to trust the message you’re given and follow its lead as much as you can. Your inner knowing will only grow stronger if it’s taken seriously. Besides, what good does it do to have all the wisdom in the world, but not follow up with action? But it won’t be easy, at least in the beginning. The shackles of your existing belief structure will try to protest. Your self judgment will try to trap you in fear and guilt. They will give you a thousand reasons why you absolutely cannot afford to go take care of yourself, at least not in the next 24 hours.
Here’re some of the reasons I was given last Tuesday, of why I couldn’t abandon my task at hand, when I had a sudden inspiration that I needed to go read something for fun:
“Are you insane? You don’t have any time to waste!”
“The deadline for finishing the xyz report is tomorrow morning!”
“You’re such a slacker. You should be ashamed of yourself!”
I hesitated. Although I was tired, it didn’t feel good to be called an irresponsible slacker. Still, I grabbed my kindle and started on J.K. Rowling’s Silkworm. My inner critic would probably never go away. But after countless trials and errors, I knew I needed to trust that quieter, calmer voice inside of me, the real guardian for one’s highest good.
Three hours later, I was thoroughly enjoying myself, immersed in Rowling’s novel, when I had another inspiration— it felt like a good time to go back to work— which I gladly followed. Now that I was refreshed and relaxed, work no longer felt like drudgery. And I didn’t miss my deadline after all.
Ask yourself what you need. And take action to give yourself what you need. In the end, everyone wins…with the possible exception of your ego.
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