In those rare moments when you find yourself with nothing urgent to do, what goes through your mind? You probably don’t consider diving headlong into a fun pastime or activity you’re passionate about. At least not for long. Because, very quickly, a voice pops into your head and says: Get busy! You need to get something done.
This is the albatross of performance identity: the belief that you are what you produce. When you get caught up in performance identity, your personal life gets shoved aside for what the performance-fixated mindset assumes is more important: making every moment productive.
The trouble is, measuring our worth by what we get done, by what our job title is, and by how much status we have, does not improve the quality of our lives — and often it has the opposite effect.
One study by Ronald Burke, PhD, professor emeritus of organizational studies at York University in Toronto, showed that the people who work the most have “significantly lower self-esteem” than those who are enthused about, but not captive to, their work. Other research shows that the thrill of a job promotion vanishes in two weeks. Then you’re back to however you felt before the status bump.
If you feel caught up in obsessive-compulsive productivity, don’t panic. You can develop the skills you need to reclaim your life and leisure time. Here’s how to get started:
1. Do A Guilt Detox
Focusing on activities that bring you pleasure, instead of 24/7 productivity, might initially spark feelings of guilt.
Psychologists say what we’re really experiencing in those “guilty” moments is anticipatory anxiety and manipulations by others.
The voice in your head saying that you should work until 8 p.m. or skip your vacation is not yours. It originates with other people — parents, coaches, bosses, the culture — but because we’ve internalized it, we feel compelled to follow its commands.
You can begin to eliminate work guilt by making conscious choices. Instead of feeling trapped and resentful by doing something you are “supposed” to do, make a deliberate choice — even say it out loud — to opt for refueling or time with your family.
Remind yourself that the work can be done on Monday, and staying healthy and connected to family are priorities.
Or, choose not to burn the midnight oil to finish a big project because you know that when you are short on sleep and energy, the quality of your work suffers. When you make something your decision, guilt begins to melt away.
Another big source of guilt is the false belief that free time has to be justified, because it’s a lesser realm that takes you away from production. But free time needs no justification.
When you feel like a slacker in a free moment, remind yourself that what you’re feeling is just the performance identity’s false spin on things.
If you really can’t shake the insidious and false feeling that your free time is a “waste,” assign goals and deadlines to your leisure time the way you do for work: “By the end of the night, I want to have practiced this song on the banjo.” Or, “My deadline for biking around the lake is the end of this weekend.
2. Know When To Say When
A study at Harvard found that the main component for successful business people who have true satisfaction in their lives is the “deliberate imposition of limits.” These folks set boundaries — an essential strategy for sustaining a rewarding balance of work and life priorities.
The key lies in establishing your own guidelines about what you will do and when — and in knowing when you’ve done enough.
How do you determine those guidelines? Ask yourself some questions: Does your productivity dive after eight hours? Does everything on your to-do list have to get done today? Will you produce better-quality work if you take deliberate breaks? Will you bring work home or leave it at the office?
We all have structural and energetic limits. When you set healthy boundaries that respect and honor your limits, you not only improve the quality of your work, you create much-needed time for leisure.
3. Choose Your Leisure Activities Wisely
It’s important to take your play time seriously. That might seem contradictory, but the most gratifying recreational activities require planning, persistence, skills, and a certain amount of strategy.
Research by psychologists Edward Deci, PhD, and Richard Ryan, PhD, both professors at the University of Rochester in New York, has shown that humans have three core psychological needs: the need to feel autonomous, the need to feel competent, and the need to feel connected to others. The best leisure activities satisfy all three needs.
Recreational activities are autonomous by definition. They’re optional. You choose them, as opposed to having them chosen for you (as often happens at work). When choosing an activity, reflect on your interests and passions and choose based on what really resonates with you. If your parent or spouse is more excited about an activity for you than you are, it’s not going to be the most meaningful choice.
The need to feel competent is satisfied by doing things that are challenging enough to stretch your limits but not so challenging that you get frustrated and give up. Being able to do things you’ve already mastered (driving a car, operating your smartphone) doesn’t satisfy this core need. And building competence at work feels great, but doesn’t do the trick, either, because it needs to be autonomous. The best way to satisfy this need is to learn a new skill or build on a skill you already have. Ask yourself: What have I always wanted to try? What type of activity would I find challenging and fun?
The third core need is to feel connected to others. You can accomplish this by signing up for group activities and classes, or even just training for an athletic event with a friend. It’s easy to bond with people in a class or group activity because you know that you share at least one interest, and that’s a great starting place for building camaraderie.
Whatever activity you choose, make sure you’re not doing it primarily for external recognition or some other down-the-road payoff. “Intrinsic goals [the kind that appeal to our authentic passions and values] are associated with higher satisfaction of our psychological needs, and that’s what makes us happier,” says Tim Kasser, PhD, chair of the psychology department at Knox College and author of The High Price of Materialism (MIT Press, 2003).
Most of us have vastly underestimated the crucial role leisure plays in health, happiness and the excellence of our work. It’s time we stopped. And if vegging out in front of the TV is your primary form of relaxation, it’s time you branched out. Instead, seek active, rewarding engagements that empower you to be or do whatever you want in your leisure time. These are the experiences that make our lives worth living.