So, here’s a disturbing phenomenon I’ve noticed recently—I can no longer relax or enjoy my life if what I’m doing in the moment isn’t something I consider “productive” or hasn’t been “earned” by a completed to-do list.
Creepy, right? For a while now, I’ve been scheduling every hour of every workday—sometimes, every minute of every hour—to maximize my daily output. And then, somewhere along the way, I added weekends, too. This doesn’t feel oppressive, either. It feels good. It’s a timed checklist and I get a dopamine hit every time an hour passes and I’ve actually done what I’m “supposed” to do…according to taskmaster me.
This may sound normal or even enviable to you—after all, productivity is seen as a positive thing in our society—but it began to alarm me when I realized I no longer derived pleasure from vacations or the rare days on which I shunned the checklist to, you know, live. (Yes, I’d rather complete a to-do list full of busy work than lie on a beach—seriously!) And when you couple this with the fact that I’ve burned out from every job I’ve ever had and yet can’t seem to stop trying to over-deliver to the point of never wanting to deliver again, I have to wonder why the eff I’m addicted to not just productivity, but to achieving more generally.
Serendipitously, I discovered I’m not alone in this experience (to which you may be thinking, “duh”) just as I began to think more about its origins and implications. This summer, Lee Tilghman, AKA Lee from America, posted this Instagram snap calling attention to her tendency to tie self-worth to productivity. “I noticed on days when I couldn’t get it together that I was really harsh on myself, the same way a dieter is harsh on themselves if they ‘cheat’ and eat a piece of cake,” she says. “And I was like, ‘What is going on? Who is this voice in my head?'”
She figured she couldn’t be the only person dealing with this issue. “And the way that post performed, it seems as though a lot of people were like, ‘I needed to hear this,’” she says. Um, same.
Keep reading if you can’t stop, won’t stop achieving.
Why won’t we get off the hamster wheel, even when we know it’s running us ragged?
That voice, says Melody Wilding, a licensed social worker and performance coach for high achievers, is born of many things. The first she and I discuss is gender. “It comes a lot from socialization,” she says. “Young girls are rewarded for being studious, competent, and for staying in ‘our place’ and doing what we’re told.”
So, she explains, girls come to identify with their achievements and with doing “a good job.” Wilding has a term for what happens next to such girls as they enter the real world: “I call it ‘having an honor roll hangover,'” she says. “It’s a deeply ingrained habit in terms of our identity, in terms of the way we approach the world, in terms of how we seek our self-worth.”
The current cult of productivity and, more broadly, America’s fixation on work as the centerpiece of identity aren’t helping deter this little-girl-grown-up from her addiction to achievement, either. “I think, culturally, we’re told you have to expend blood, sweat, and tears, sacrificing your family and your health so everything gets done,” says Tilghman.
The increasingly blurred lines between work and non-working life aren’t helping, either, says Wilding, though it’s not just in the career sphere that Tilghman notices this work-to-the-bone approach. “I see it with my friends who are mothers, too, even the stay-at-home moms,” she says.
It’s (at least a little bit) social media’s fault
As with seemingly all things, social media seems to be exacerbating the issue. “Social media makes what other people are doing so much more accessible. It reinforces that feeling that we need to keep up or that we’re falling behind—we literally have to do more to stay relevant,” Wilding explains. When she told me this, I turned into that “exploding head” emoji: I had never thought of it this way, but it made so, so much sense. We need to hit more milestones (engagement, marriage, children) and achieve more things (shiny new jobs, promotions, humblebrag-worthy achievements) just to stay in the “news”—or, newsfeed.
According to Wilding, social media—and, perhaps, the internet more generally—is also designed to turn us into productivity addicts. “That’s why Insta and Twitter have infinite scroll, because they’re psychologically-engineered to keep us addicted,” says Wilding. “You can stay on all day and just keep reading article after article about how to improve your life and then feel horrible because you have 100 things on the list—like, ‘I need to start meditating, I need to go to the gym, I need to eat all clean meals, etc.—and it’s just overwhelming.”
It’s a defense mechanism
This addiction to success, like other addictions, can also be a way of hiding from emotions, says Wilding. “Throughout the day, when you feel anxious or fearful, the parts of your brain responsible for decision making, concentration, and focus shuts off and the more primitive parts come on, so you almost send yourself into this flight or fight state,” she says. “And when you’re in that state, the tendency to control and just do more starts to surface.” This rings true for me—the anecdote to my anxiety? Doing something. Anything. Even if it’s just busy work.
Is there a cure?
Wilding says it’s important to understand that being achievement-oriented is a strength; however, just like with any other strength, you can have too much of a good thing. “Think of strengths as being on a dial, so [for example] it’s great to be empathetic, but not if you go too far,” she explains. “Achievement is the same thing—if you let it go too far, it becomes this blinding thing, and you put too much pressure on yourself and push yourself until you run out of steam.” Luckily, it can be dialed down; here’s how.
Be less busy
Not to burst your bubble (or, mine), but busy is not the same as productive—even if it feels that way. Petra Kolber, author of The Perfection Detox, tells me that one of the reasons we’re so busy all the time is that we’re rarely fully engaged. “We think we’re being so busy but in reality, we’re partially on our phones, we’re partially thinking about social media, we’re partially with our kids,” she says. Kolber suggests being mindful of this time-wasting multitasking in order to alleviate some of the pressure on your schedule. “Imagine if you cranked out four hours of really focused work—you would probably allow yourself to get so much done.”
Equating busyness with productivity can be more than a waste of time, too: Wilding tells me it can actually hurt your career. “I hear from a lot of women who are like, ‘I’m the doer at work, I’m the one who gets things done,'” says Wilding. “That’s great, but often [this means] you’re getting things done that have less visibility and sometimes less impact, so very tangibly that can hold you back in your career because you’re not getting access to high-visibility opportunities that can lead to promotion, that can lead to getting in front of senior leadership, that really affect the bottom line.” To remedy this, consider when you can not do the thing that won’t get done if you don’t do it, where things can be delegated to other members of your team, and which work should be shared by colleagues who aren’t currently participating.
Tame your to-do list
The next bit of advice may hurt a little for to-do list addicts like myself—Wilding says to run an audit ASAP by evaluating the motivation for each item on your list. Has it been added in order to avoid doing—or feeling—something else? Is it there because you’re a people-pleaser? Then, delete tasks accordingly.
Tilghman, meanwhile, tells me she trims her list down to just three tasks per day, advice she borrowed from productivity guru Tim Ferriss. “I feel like [long to-do lists are] so similar to people who set intentions for the new year like, ‘I’m going to go to the gym every day.’ No, you’re not, so maybe you should start with the goal of going twice a week instead. That is so much more attainable and you’re therefore more likely to feel better about yourself versus saying you’re going to go to the gym every day, not doing it, feeling bad, and giving it up all together,” she says. A shortened list, Tilghman explains, will help you avoid burnout and feelings of incompetence while helping to better prioritize your life.
Operating with the false belief that her business would fail if she did anything less, Tilghman says she was, at one point, closing in on burnout after working all day, every day, seven days a week. Then, she set boundaries. “I handle my job like it’s a store,” she says. “I wouldn’t be in the store at 9 p.m. on a Tuesday—I’d probably be in the store from nine to five.” And while she’s not able to end office hours at 5 on the dot every day, she strives for that more traditional time frame. She also takes time to perform a morning routine before getting started each day, which is a far cry from the days she would log on at 6 a.m. daily.
If you need help drawing the line between where work starts and post-work life begins, Wilding suggests a ritual. “I have a client who showers at the end of every work day,” she says. “For her, that’s a symbolic way of washing the day away and transitioning into the evening.”
Remember when Tilghman said slacking off made her feel guilty? Me. Too. To remedy this, Wilding says it’s important to change the conversation you have with yourself about non-productive time. “What I find helpful to reframe, especially for overachievers because we tend to see downtime as a sign of laziness, is rest as recovery,” she says. “It’s a little more proactive and future-oriented, which us overachievers like.”
“Rest,” she elaborates, may make us feel like we’re giving up, whereas “recovery” is makes us feel like we’re thinking about what’s next and nourishing ourselves so we can be ready for the upcoming task. While the goal here is to stop being so obsessed with feeling accomplished in every moment, Wilding suggests putting downtime onto your to-do list if it’ll help you to actually, you know, do it.
Stop chasing perfection
Part of the reason some of us work ourselves to death is that we’re chasing an unachievable perfection, says Kolber, who adds that this is actually making us less successful. Here’s a good illustration of her point: Years ago, I wrote a script that an agent loved. He offered me notes for a quick rewrite. I wrote. And wrote. And then wrote some more. For an entire year. In the end, the script I refused to send until it was perfect ended up making it no further than my computer—the agent lost interest. I would’ve been a thousand times better off turning around a quick and imperfect rewrite than I was toiling away at some ideal that doesn’t exist.
This anecdote isn’t an outlier, says Kolber. And while you obviously don’t want to settle for mediocrity, there’s a difference between good and perfect. “When you strive to be excellent rather than perfect, you’re going to try harder, stretch yourself further, ask for help, be more curious, take more risks, delegate more, and learn to redefine what failure means,” she says.
Re-evaluate your goals
You’ve already put your daily tasks under the microscope, but what about your overarching goals? What if, Kolber posits, you’re working to achieve something you don’t even want? “Ask yourself, ‘Why do I have all these goals? Do my goals bring me joy or are they sucking the life out of me?’ And if they’re sucking the life out of you, why do you have these goals? Change them,” she says. This sounds simple but it can actually be profound—I eliminated over half of my weekly to-dos by asking myself this simple question.
Part of the need to achieve, says Kolber, stems from the feeling that you’re not good enough as you are. Here, she echoes Wilding’s earlier sentiment that it’s perfectly okay to want to improve or do or be—but your motivation matters. “I think we need to separate being better from not ever being good enough,” she says. “You know the saying, ‘I am enough?’ That’s okay, but I prefer the saying, ‘I am enough, but there’s still work I want to do.'” This statement allows for the perfectly acceptable and even admirable desire to evolve while emphasizing that such changes are a want rather than a need.
Kolber also suggests noticing when, throughout the day, you start to feel “a little crummy,” as often that’s when recurrent thoughts of not-enough-ness are arising. Then, she says, examine this self-talk with curiosity and compassion. “When you shine a light on something you perceive as negative, you’re taking the sting out of it,” she says. Then, find a mini mantra you can lean on every time “I’m not fill-in-the-blank enough,” pops into your mind. It can be something relevant and inspirational (like, “I am enough, and this is the work I want to do”), but something completely random (“pineapple!”) works just as well. “The mantra breaks the cycle of the negative thought so you can step into the next moments of your day with energy that would’ve been sucked out of it with that thought on repeat,” Kolber says.
Flip the script
Kolber says we live in a society wherein we’re really quick to remind ourselves of everything we’re not doing. “How about spending a day noticing everything you are doing, even without these additional goals?” she says. After all, what’s the point of doing, doing, doing if you’re never giving yourself credit for having gotten things done?
I employed this tactic in order to make my nights feel fun again, and it’s worked—even if I don’t finish my (not yet totally shortened, but trying) to-do list, I can relax myself by focusing on what I did achieve rather than what I did not. Still, there’s work to be done—or, not done—for me, and for Tilghman as well in terms of eradicating this addiction. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m not sitting at home all day meditating like, ‘Oh, no stress,'” she says. “I still get caught up in the rat race—that post was really just a way of holding myself accountable.”
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