It happens quickly, like this–one moment, you’re on top of things and the workflow systems that you’ve designed meet the needs of what is being asked. You’re good with batching tasks; you know where you can cut corners and where impeccability cannot be negotiated; you know the importance of setting deadlines and padding time; you are able and willing to burn the midnight oil if it means getting something important done; you know that you’re here to live this life with passion, so you enthusiastically say “yes!” to that which calls to you.
Parents, entrepreneurs, and people who have a tendency to take on fifteen different creative projects at once understand how to do all of this.
Then, almost imperceptibly, the willingness to say “yes” becomes something else entirely. We cross a threshold, saying “yes” to something different. What is it? What happened? Why did that passion for a new project, or something as simple as “making a nice family dinner” suddenly turn into the monster that overwhelmed you and had others resenting how you were treating them?
What We’re Really Saying “Yes” To
When that threshold is crossed we’re not saying “yes” to life, anymore.
We’re saying yes to something else. Pains me to name it.
We’re saying yes to Ego. Ugh. Like many of you, I want to be all, um, past the point of having an Ego that runs the show. (This desire is, of course, just more Ego).
We’re saying yes to our Story that (repeatedly) sacrificing our health, our stress levels, whatever–is “worth it.”
We’re saying yes to the Story that what we DO is more important than who we ARE. We’re validating the Story that there is something we can DO that will make ourselves or our lives important.
Of course, we’ll all have those nights where we really need to push through in order to finish something that is important to us. Sometimes a passionately lived life means moving at a whirlwind’s pace and being in the joyous, ecstatic flow of all of it. New parents have months of those nights. Important work projects come along that have deadlines.
The point is that those nights end at some point, and one returns to their regularly scheduled program. By contrast, I’m talking about the kind of relentless “saying yes” and taking on ever-more projects, adding in just one more thing, making what could be simple into a grand event, that many entrepreneurs and workaholics engage in.
For instance, I recently realized that I had not been cooking for myself on a regular basis since 2009, when I shifted my part-time “hobby business” into a full-time up-scaled mission. It’s been about that long since I last picked up a camera and shot pictures just for the hell of it. Nights spent working to “get ahead” on a project have become a norm. Working right up until bedtime keeps my head going and then I’m in bed thinking about what I was working on or where I’ll pick up, tomorrow–a recipe for insomnia.
It’s ridiculous. It’s unhealthy. And what’s it for? Ego. Ego says, “Gotta have the website updated,” and then reminds me (over and over). Ego makes a small project into a mammoth event. Ego doesn’t want to wait until a few months later to start something new–the time is now!
In those moments when Ego is running the show, when the work is not about a sense of internal pride but about a nose to the grindstone and white-knuckling to get things done, what happens is this:
I’m filling a hole. You’re filling a hole. We’re all filling holes, somewhere, until we find out what behaviors are driving us.
For workaholics like me? We take on more, and more, and more, to fill and fill and fill. It certainly starts from a good place–I genuinely enjoy creation and being of service. In Tipping Point-speak, I’m a maven, who loves to learn stuff and then share it. Or the art studio overflowing with unfinished projects came out of a real love of life and living, and being inspired by the world around us–or the family dinner that turned into this entire “event” originally started from a desire to connect the family.
Then there’s an insatiable need to take on one more thing that keeps us up late at night, or taking on yet another art project that requires buying more supplies, or the dinner that takes hours of time and effort to cook for only 45 minutes of sitting down together, plus now there’s an entire kitchen of dirty dishes to scour and clean. Is it really worth it? Ego will certainly say so. The truth is, however, that it’s a happier life when people get sleep, aren’t living with clutter and unfinished projects, and can eat a meal without having to scour dishes for hours afterwards.
Worthiness, baby. It’s all worthiness.
In my daily life, I generally feel worthy, loved and appreciated. And yet, I also find myself taking on too much, agreeing to too much, and generally doing too much.
There’s some line that is crossed, like the alcoholic who just wants to have fun and relax but then takes one drink too many. I take one drink/one project too many. Other people do the same thing, just not necessarily with work.
Then the precarious position–do I go back on my commitment to the person I agreed to collaborate with? Or do I go back on my commitments to myself to not eat canned lentil soup every day for dinner and actually make more time to meditate?
Guess which one a workaholic will choose? I bet you’ll get it right on the first try.
How Does One Course-Correct?
I’m not new to any of this; we all have our challenges and this has been mine for a few years. I work with it. I like to course correct by taking a break–a break where I quit everything. Stopping everything is like Workaholic Rehab.
Yes. Everything. I call it, “Work hard, play hard.” I work really, really hard, and then I take a trip or leave the computer turned off. The cell phone is on silent. I turn an auto-responder on for email.
And then what happens?
Generally, there’s an initial silence that feels uncomfortable. It’s hard to be with, at first. Usually, my Ego pops up to tell me what a stupid idea it was to quit everything, and how I didn’t really need to do it. (P.S. This is what the Ego will say to just about anything new or scary).
Then, sometime around day four, I relax into the new rhythm. The quiet is staggering in its beauty. I’m reading more Pema Chodron. I start to drift.
“Well, I can’t do that.”
Of course you can. I don’t know how, I only know that somehow, some way, there’s a way.
I’ve done it on a teacher’s salary of less than $30,000 a year (which is really saying something if you live in the Bay Area, where my monthly rent has always been close to $1,000). When I’ve done it on my teacher’s salary, I’ve saved up money for an entire year with the express purpose of knowing that I wanted to give myself a long break with no agenda. I’ve couch-surfed; I’ve written hotel reviews at four-star hotels in Italy in exchange for a free night’s lodging; I’ve put $50 a month away until that added up to cover the salary I would miss while I was gone.
I know mothers who have done it–taken two weeks away from their kids and stayed at zen centers or in ashrams where they could get food and lodging in exchange for working in the gardens or cleaning a temple.
I know extraordinarily busy people–people who have even more responsibilities than me–who have taken off to travel. They simply make the choice: let go.
Silence is Golden
The reason why I advocate taking a break is this: you learn something more about what was pushing you to get so busy in the first place. You learn more about the addiction of over-work, and about the wounded places that are still in need of healing, and why those wounds tell you that if you just take on one more project, they’ll be okay. I learn more about the fallacy of that thinking.
In the silence of a break, suddenly we can hear the voice within, and hear it clearly.
It has so much wisdom. We don’t even really need anything else to happen, but to listen to what’s happening within.
There will always be a hundred reasons not to take a break, and none of them will ever add up to more than the one very important reason why over-committers like myself need to do it: because we reconnect with ourselves in stillness.