Today, we try not to “waste” any time. When we’re waiting in line, we check email on our phones and maybe compose a few replies. When we have 10 minutes to ourselves, we try to cross off a task. When we’re at work or at home, we’re multi-tasking. We’re cooking and listening to productivity podcasts. We’re eating and texting. We’re taking work calls on our commute. We’re working on the weekends.
When there’s any “white space” in our schedule, we try to fill it with something else — anything but introspection, said Cori Dixon-Fyle, LCSW, a psychotherapist in Chicago, Ill., who works with individuals struggling with over-productivity.
She cited Brené Brown’s belief that excessive busyness has essentially become a “socially acceptable opiate.” Dixon-Fyle described it as “a numbing distraction from allowing ourselves to feel and experience emotions such as shame, loneliness or relationship problems.”
At her practice Dixon-Fyle sees clients shackled to “shoulds” as in they should overschedule themselves with work and other activities—without carving out space for rest. “I often see working parents who feel [guilty for] working so much that they then return home and overschedule their family to fulfill standards that have been set out for them on social media.”
And, of course, social media—Facebook, Instagram, Twitter—is filled with shiny examples of great jobs, perfect relationships and impressive accomplishments. It’s a comparison-making machine.
Dixon-Fyle sees people “wear their exhaustion as a sign of pride, strength and importance yet they feel empty on the inside.” So many of us assume that achievements will bring meaning to our lives. But it’s this very hustle that keeps us fatigued and unfulfilled. “I see this over-productivity leading to burnout, which impacts peoples’ relationships, physical health, professional success and overall emotional well-being.”
If you see yourself in these descriptions, here are seven tips to try from Dixon-Fyle.
Have a monthly meeting with yourself.
What is important to you? What are your values? What do you want to focus on? What and who do you love? What do you want your days to look like?
Every month prioritize what is important to you, Dixon-Fyle said. And reflect on whether you’re actually tending to these priorities.
Do a quick evening check-in.
For instance, you might envision your day as a pie-chart. You might ask yourself these questions every night, according to Dixon-Fyle, “What percentage did you spend on work, play and rest? If you are not satisfied with that combination, what can you do better tomorrow to feel more balanced?”
Set boundaries with work.
Think about the limits you need to set at work so it doesn’t overshadow your other priorities. Dixon-Fyle shared this example: Let your colleagues and clients know that unless there’s an emergency you won’t respond after 7 p.m. or before 9 a.m.
Keep a daily journal.
Journaling helps you to pause, pay attention to and process your feelings in a contained space, Dixon-Fyle said. It helps you gradually become more comfortable with sitting with your feelings, she said. For instance, “spend some time each night reflecting on your day and a few feelings or emotions that were brought forward throughout your day.”
This can feel scary and very uncomfortable at first. But the more you practice, the easier it gets, she said. And if you have a tough time identifying your emotions, she suggested checking out this list from Byron Katie.
Lastly, write down one thing you’re thankful for. Gratitude is something we tend to gloss over or take for granted when we’re too busy.
“When you schedule another activity, ask yourself whether you want to do this or if you feel like you should be doing this to keep up with those around you,” Dixon-Fyle said. Do you really want to take that kickboxing class, or do you think you should because it’s considered exercise? Do you really want to go out to that restaurant with that person? Do you really want to attend the fifth voluntary networking event this month?
Dixon-Fyle shared this example of what we might say to ourselves: “I really want to get down on the ground and play with my dog for a while. But I have some laundry and dishes to do. The cleaning will still be there tonight or tomorrow, so I need to give permission to be flexible with myself. I need to be aware of what is absolutely necessary to do immediately as opposed to what can wait until later. We don’t have to be constantly stressed and pressured.”
Explore your “shoulds.”
“When you feel the ‘shoulds’ or guilt coming on, explore where that ‘should’ is coming from and how it aligns with your priorities and values,” Dixon-Fyle said. Is it coming from the media? From what you saw growing up? From comparing yourself to others?
So many of us live by stringent, unrealistic standards. Try relaxing your sky-high expectations, and letting some flexibility in. Because rigidity only leads to burnout and tends to suck the joy out of life.
Build in mindful moments.
Let yourself be still with your thoughts. Let yourself focus on one task at a time. For instance, Dixon-Fyle suggested just being in the shower. As she said, “How often are we in the shower and mentally already in the office with all of our ‘to-dos’ on our mind?” Focus on smelling your shampoo and body wash. Feel the water cascading down your skin. Take several deep breaths. Savor the moment.
“If we are constantly being over-productive and hustling for worthiness and importance, we face the risk of physical, emotional and social consequences.” For starters, we end up not sleeping enough, which can contribute to everything from heart disease to diabetes to depression, Dixon-Fyle said.
If you have kids, you might be modeling the myth that over-productivity and over-scheduling equal success. Which makes kids think that “rest does not matter as part of a holistically healthy lifestyle.” (And, of course, rest indeed does.)
Plus, if we can’t sit with our own feelings, it might be more difficult to understand and relate to others’ feelings, too, Dixon-Fyle said.
And maybe even more importantly, when we associate over-working with success, we don’t let ourselves enjoy our lives. Consider loosening your grip on busy just a bit. Consider readjusting your priorities. Consider what you might gain when you do.