Want a Happier Version of You? Avoid The Obligation Creep.

If you're a regular reader, you might have noticed fewer posts of late. It’s because I've been feeling increasingly overwhelmed and I've chosen to take a step back to reassess what I'm doing.

Why? Because my time has started to feel like it’s not my own. And, I have only myself to blame.

My latest trip had a powerful effect on me, but the reason it did started long before the trip itself. I was starting to feel lost earlier in the summer. Lost in the sheer amount of stuff I'd undertaken, lost in self-imposed obligations that were sucking the life out of me (creativity, clarity and, most importantly happiness). 

Most of this feeling of overwhelm came from the need to be “productive”. I felt I needed to be doing something every single moment of every day, something that I or someone else could measure. And, to ensure I was “productive” I'd essentially scheduled myself to death. I had far more on my plate than what makes sense for a happy and balanced life. 

In the contemporary money culture, to be at leisure, to be idle, is to be irrelevant.
— Daniel Gross

My old thinking had been rearing its ugly head and I started feeling and thinking as I used to a mere 18 months ago when I was part of the corporate machine. I essentially turned what were a number of fun, educational and/or interesting pursuits, including this blog, into a *gasp* more than full time job! I needed to do more/fancier stuff and I was starting to displace activities that bring a great deal of value to my life in favour of what would make me most “productive”.

I'd broken my own rules for happy living…and deep down, I’d known it for a while. 

How did I go so wrong?

After giving it some thought over the last number of weeks, I can narrow it down to a few root causes.

I was:

  1. Measuring myself by the amount I produced.
  2. Turning output into a new measure of “stuff”.
  3. Discounting the value of what brings me joy.
  4. Calling “busyness” productive.
  5. Starting to view pure downtime as laziness.

1. Measuring productivity: I started to feel the need to measure everything from how I spent my time to how many “widgets” I produced of whatever I was working on. In a way, this measure is not in and of itself a problem, but it is when it isn’t tempered by something else. Quality was often compromised for quantity.

2. Output was my new “stuff”: I started hoarding the volume of stuff I was doing. I kept a mental tally of what I’d done, articles I’d written, books and online resources I’d read, the paperwork I’d processed, the feedback I’d provided, etc. I was replacing my need for material possessions with checkmarks on a never-ending list.

3. Discounting what brings me joy: All of a sudden, something that felt wonderful but “took too much time” did not make it into my day, whether it was taking a walk to do my grocery shopping, cooking some of my favourite recipes from scratch, spending an afternoon gardening or walking the dog, spending time with loved ones...

One physician has said the modern drive toward fast-paced busyness is a pathology…’time sickness’.
— p. 48, "Overwhelmed" by Brigid Schulte

4. Calling “busyness” productive: I was incessantly checking my smartphone notifications, perusing favourite sites for new information, reading and responding to emails, etc. instead of choosing an activity and focusing on that one thing and making it as good as I know I want it to be. The latter is true productivity one can be proud of. The former us just noise that sucks the meaning out of how we spend our time, and robs us of being in the moment.  

5. Viewing downtime as sheer laziness: I felt the need to be doing something at all times, and better yet, I had to be multi-tasking to feel like I was maximizing every single moment:

  • If I was walking, driving, vacuuming or gardening, I had to be listening to a podcast.
  • If I was folding laundry or cooking, I had to be listening to/watching a documentary.
  • If I was reading a book, it became more important to read it efficiently than to soak in the information or the story and give myself time to think about its meaning and main messages.
  • If I was just choosing to sit and be still, have a cup of coffee, or do something just plain fun, a weird anxiety would wash over me to get up and do more, more, more…
The way you live your days is the way you live your life.
— Annie Dillard

When I compare my quality of life now to what I'd discovered as a new balance last summer, I've lost significant ground.

And the worst part? 

There was no winner in this game because I may have “produced” more but it was often inferior to what could have come from doing less but more thoughtfully and completely. It has left me feeling empty, like I somehow wasted many opportunities to make my life happier and richer. 

True leisure, the Greeks believed, free from the drudgery of work, not only refreshed the soul but also opened it up. It was a time and a space where one could be most fully human.
— p. 10, "Overwhelmed" by Brigid Schulte

I’m grateful that I’ve become aware of my creeping bad habits and destructive beliefs and that I’m doing something about it: I’m refocusing on allowing myself to be the best version of “me” that I can be, one moment at a time. 


This better version won’t be measured by my output by volume. It’ll be measured by how I feel about what I’m doing and whether it adds value to my life.

The winners? Loved ones, a healthy mind and body, quality writing, being of service to others, fun times, and creating lasting memories by seeking out and living unique experiences

How are you feeling about life these days? Have you fallen into "busyness"? Or, if you’ve managed to avoid it, do you have any tips for those of us who sometimes struggle?

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