Many of us put off taking pleasure in our everyday lives to some time in the future. We’ll work super duper hard … and maybe by next vacation, maybe when the kids move out, maybe when I retire, we can do those pleasurable things that we love.
But not before all of the work is done, good and faithful servant, and you have earned your blessed rest. (Cue: a string symphony and your personal martyrdom.)
Is this you? Or are you dating a workaholic? Are you married to a workaholic?
I used to work myself pretty hard. I worked hard to get what I thought was success in my life, including my own office, a job that included lots of travel, my Master’s degree, a handsome husband, a baby, a specific time in a running race, a number on the scale.
But as soon as I achieved a goal, I’d stop working on it. I’d sit in my office in a daze. This was before social media was really a “thing,” so I’d get into long email conversations with my friends or look out the window.
After the hard work of bringing a baby into the world (pregnancy and round-the-clock infant care), I’d try to escape the responsibilities of motherhood with an alcohol buzz or excessive social activities.
This childhood bookworm even stopped reading and writing for several years after getting her Masters’ degree, because she was totally burned out on cramming for exams.
I systematically fell out of love with everything in my life that mattered.
I didn’t take time to revel in what I’d accomplished because I was on an eternal quest for the next high. This resulted in an unhappy person who was spinning her wheels.
Letting Go of Goals
If I hadn’t broken this messed-up cycle, I’d still be out of shape and miserable. My marriage and family life would be in a shambles. I would have let go of the things I loved most without even realizing what had happened and it was too late.
I never would have slowed down enough to start taking yoga classes. I wouldn’t have re-discovered my passion for reading and writing, one that goes back to my grade school years. I would never have left my corporate job and tried my own thing as an entrepreneur. I would have kept skipping moments with my husband or kids in lieu of moments spent behind my laptop.
Why Are We Such Workaholics?
I think this cycle, where I’d achieve a goal and then move on to something else, stemmed from the fact that I was raised with a strong work ethic, to see pleasure and rest as evil forces that would inevitably wreck me.
Don’t get me wrong! A work ethic serves us well and is important to develop. But to have a happy life, you need a balance.
When you’re working too hard, you always put aside pleasure and focus on being productive. You think only slackers take breaks and have fun. The slut always dies first in the horror movie. Daydreams are for losers.
Problems are inescapable, and pleasure really is unnecessary for a good, moral, productive life. Right?
But then why are we hard-wired for pleasure? Our brains’ reward circuit, reliant on the neurotransmitter dopamine, lets us know almost immediately whether something is enjoyable or not, and reinforces the desire for more.
I believe this is why so many of us workaholics are also susceptible to disordered eating and addiction issues. We mistakenly think we can get the energy we need to keep us going from a source outside ourselves like food or alcohol.
Overeating, overdrinking, over-anything only throws our bodies and minds further out of balance, which leaves us craving the next high.
I thought doing more, faster, better was going to make me happier. I was willing to sacrifice my health, everything for the “success” I craved. I wanted to be a high performer, the consequences be damned.
With all this success-seeking, Brendon Burchard’s book High Performance Habits eventually crossed my desk. I was excited to learn what this new-to-me sage of high performance had to say, and discover how I could grind better, faster, harder.
You can imagine my surprise when I learned that Burchard’s quantitative studies show the highest performers actually value their own well-being more than any other demographic measured. Instead of focusing on work, work, work they take time for health, relationships, mindfulness.
Compared to their peers, Burchard’s study found that high performers:
Are less stressed
Are more likely to exercise
Report higher levels of happiness
Report having more positive relationships
I was stunned to learn that the highest performers didn’t sacrifice, grind and hustle like me. This realization blew my theory of working harder, smarter, and delaying pleasure out of the water. These high performers had the ability to not only take care of business, but care for themselves, even love what they did.
When Your Ladder is Against the Wrong Building
I now believe that my fits and starts happened because there was no thought of pleasure in the process, who I was becoming or my “why” for going after things in the first place.
My ladder was usually against the wrong building.
Fixing this had everything to do with aligning what I was doing day-to-day with my life’s purpose. Not some big, grandiose purpose. Just the simple purpose of feeling good. Enjoying myself. Feeling gratitude for what I had. Being present, and loving my life for what it was in that moment. Because that is all we ever really have.
Many of my goals were only there because achieving them was about how I looked to others. Achieving them made me look successful, normal, important. But none of them had anything to do with who I really wanted to be.
So once I accomplished these goals, the goals were no longer there to motivate me. I had my trophy, I got the praise and recognition, and moments later I’d start on the next goal never feeling truly gratified by my accomplishments. It was an endless cycle of fits and starts, one that I was no longer enjoying.
3 Methods That Helped Me Break the Cycle
1. Immerse Yourself in the Practice
I used to run in a lot of races. I started with 5Ks, then 10Ks, then half marathons. I wasn’t a particularly good runner, but I became obsessed with getting faster. I’d feel a momentary accomplishment, a runner’s high the day of the race when I improved my time, but I always knew I could do better. So I’d set a goal to get a better time, run a longer race and quickly find and train for the next one. I made myself increasingly nervous, anxious and angry about running to the point where I didn’t want to do it anymore.
Yoga helped me see my impatience and anxiety around goals for what it was. The simple act of slowing down to focus on my body’s movement and taking deep breaths without agenda helped me detach from outcomes and goals. It helped me see myself and my situation more clearly. I began to feel gratitude for where I was, in the moment. The races I ran after discovering this mindset became a true celebration of movement and where I was in that moment.
I really got into yoga. It wasn’t my goal, but I eventually became certified as a yoga instructor. Teaching was never my intention. It was a joyful, logical outcome of my passion. The result is that I’m now able to share this love of yoga with others.
Meditation, breathing exercises or any activity you can enjoy doing, not for a specific outcome, but for the sake of doing the activity, can have a similar effect.
I decided yoga, writing and my family life would be different from all my previous pursuits. They are things I want to do well for the rest of my life, not burn out on.
So instead of focusing on my failures as a wife or Mom, how I still can’t stand on my hands as a yogi, or the fact that I haven’t published my book yet, I take the perspective that my journey has only just begun. I have the rest of my life to practice. (That’s why it’s called a yoga practice.)
In that practice, I’m able to let go of my past failures, or stress about the future. I’m more able to simply delight in the present moment, which I’m beginning to see is what life is really all about.
2. Find Flow
In a world full of hustle, I became fascinated with the idea of “flow.” The most obvious examples are professional athletes who achieve top performance when they lose themselves in the moment. Yoga is often referred to as “yoga flow” because it’s designed to put you in a flow state, where you lose track of time and simply exist in the moment.
I took a course in Positive Psychology at the U Penn to learn more. Scholars define flow as a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.
The social scientists who study flow (including Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) have scientifically shown that people are most creative, productive, and even happiest when they are in this state of flow.
Studying flow allowed me to discover that a lot of my anxiety had to do with regret and worry. I often felt regret wasting my life doing mundane tasks. Worry came from not working towards these big, loaded goals I had set up for myself. So I’d catch myself feeling bored, resentful or frustrated when doing the dishes, commuting, self-care (ugh do I really have to blow dry my hair … again?), shopping for food … all the things I needed to do to make working toward my goals possible.
And then when working toward my goals, I’d worry that all of my hard work would never amount to anything. I’d wonder what it was all for, if it was really worth it.
Most of us do mundane activities on auto-pilot “just to get through”. At work many of us go on auto-pilot, doing those same reports, calling back those same clients, churning out those price quotes or any number of repetitive tasks. Some of us disengage from our families, spending time on Instagram instead of being present when we’re face-to-face with the ones we love. I have even found myself mentally “checking out” in yoga class or while I’m on the ski slopes. Even when I’m doing my most beloved activities, I’m already searching for the next high!
We can create flow in everyday life when we imagine all the positives related to the things we are currently doing.
I‘m training my kids in this habit. For example, brushing our teeth isn’t particularly enjoyable, but when tell my kids how clean, white, slippery and beautiful their teeth will be, I can help my them get a little more satisfaction out of this self-care activity.
This practice has totally transformed even my most mundane activities. Instead of just feeding my family dinner in the quickest, most utilitarian way possible, I now regularly lose myself sampling new spices, fresh herbs and flavors from around the world. I have discovered great pride in introducing my family to new cultures and flavors through food. I love finding new ways to use the vegetables my husband grows in our garden. I delight in eating the beautiful, colorful meals I prepare for my family.
Even cleaning toilets can start to feel a little more enjoyable when I take pride in and have gratitude for owning my own home, my beautifully clean bathroom and the luxury of indoor plumbing. Instead of wishing the time away planning the next big thing, little thoughts like these help me be more “present” during big chunks of my life that used to be wasted.
3. Take Legitimate Pleasure
Workaholics typically love practical things like checklists and plans. I personally get a lot of pleasure from checking things off my list, or seeing my well-laid plan come together. But I’m making an intentional shift lately to fall in love with more superfluous things, like flowers, candles, art and dilly-dallying. I now believe these simple pleasures might be the whole point of life.
Sure, I still have a to-do list. But I can always add something pleasurable to it. Instead of using checklists and plans like workhorses, I’m now using them to help me show up and create a pleasurable life for myself. I’ll schedule picking up a bouquet of fresh flowers at the store or taking a walk on a snowy path outside. If I can block off hours or even days to be spontaneous, for solitude or self-care, even better. As long as I’m making pleasure my top priority, this works so well!
Practicing pleasure doesn’t have to be selfish or hedonistic. It might be necessary to access creativity, higher purpose, our very “why” for being on this planet in the first place.
Forget Productivity; Get Better Results by Practicing the Forbidden Art of Pleasure
We think of pleasure as frivolous. An afterthought. A distraction. But what if it’s the whole point?
Instead of back-to-back-to-back meetings and social events, I make sure my calendar is full of plenty of downtime and hedonism. I schedule time for baths, sex and chocolate. I still love accomplishing everything on my list or calendar, but I give myself a break when it doesn’t all go according to plan. Because you can’t control pleasure! Simply creating the space for intentional, legitimate pleasure means I’m now better at shifting, at listening to what my heart and gut truly desire.
When I can just “go with the flow” more and control less, everyone is so much happier, including me. Through practice, flow and legitimate pleasure I believe we can all create the unique lives we want, according to our own values.