It’s a simple fact of being alive: There is more to do than can ever be done.
It’s especially true if you’re committed to an abundant life – with ambitions to live out your dreams, create a positive impact with your work, and then somehow also fit in your loved ones, health, wellness, and regular oil changes.
It’s the denial of this reality, and our culture of hyper-achievement, that leads to some significant negative mental and physical health outcomes.
In case you’re wondering, you might be in denial if:
- You own 10+ books on productivity or time management
- You block out your calendar in 15-minute chunks
- You’ve tried 3 or more project management platforms in the last year
- You have more than four lists that feature stars, highlighted items, and exclamation points scattered by your bedside and/or across your desk
When we don’t feel like we do enough, have enough, and that ultimately we are enough, we experience overwhelming toxic stress.
The kind that steals hours of critical sleep, explodes out onto our children and friends in destructive ways, and – here’s the kicker – ultimately undermines our productivity anyway.
Toxic stress erodes everything – our health, relationships, and work. It’s corrosive.
The pot is only so big, and it boils over. Again and again.
I’m a poster child for stress at it’s highest potential.
My toxic stress load became so great in 2015 that it kicked off an autoimmune response that led to Type 1 diabetes. I must now inject insulin into my body at least five times a day in order to simply stay alive. The problem: I was already at a good simmer – right up to the brim of my pot, and then life threw a curveball. I had zero room for the added heat and so I lost it all. A complete meltdown was inevitable.
I have to remind myself: this toxic stress companion of mine can do much worse.
The celebrated Type-A personality in our culture is not only clearly and undisputedly linked to heart disease, this tightly wound, control-oriented approach to living is associated with heart attack death without any prior history of heart disease.
Straight to the graveyard, no grace period to make an adjustment.
Running myself into the ground in a vain effort to do more, be more, and achieve more is not sanctimonious. It doesn’t serve anyone, especially me.
Now, here’s the positive.
First, it is an enormous relief to simply work on accepting, deep into my bones, that there is more to do than can ever be done. To start lowering the bar to a realistic stretch that leaves room for me to be at my best – free of that latent guilt and shame of not achieving more the day before, the year before, the decade before.
This is why my little whirlwind universe started to shift to a calmer version when my first meditation coaching session resulted in a personal mantra of:
I am enough. I have enough. I do enough.
It’s simple, and yet filling. It seeds a mindset of abundance and gratitude, allowing my work to be an exciting opportunity, rather than an avalanche of overdue tasks.
When I drift away from that mantra, my mindset returns to a dark and twisted shame playground where I am alone, spinning around and around on a creaky merry-go-round on the wrong side of town. In the dead of winter. And someone has stolen my coat.
No abundance here, just that all-too-familiar sensation of being trapped, and blaming myself for winding up there: I’m not good enough, and I for damn sure didn’t do enough.
It’s impossible to negotiate a fresh start with a mental terrorist.
Second, my efforts can shift from doing more, to being more intentional. If I’ve accepted that there’s more than I can ever do, then I am forced to start being selective; to sift the endless tasks and ideas so that just those that are meaningful within my bigger picture rise to the surface. Think gold nuggets instead of wheelbarrows of dirt.
In the reality of limited to-do capacity, I must identify and test out my priorities, deciding intentionally where to invest my time, letting go of tasks that don’t make the cut and letting lesser but necessary tasks be completed when they reach good-enough status.
I get space to consider opportunity costs: If I do X, what am I now unable to do? Like the higher priority task that could make a real difference, or spending quality time with my kiddos.
Or even: If I keep up this kind of work-style, what will I lose in terms of my sanity? (hint: a LOT in my case)
Some surprising insights often result.
For instance, I accomplish 2-3x as much in a given day if I have a forced deadline to wrap up. I used to look forward to the wide open days. Kids are at their dad’s, no meetings…I should be able to accomplish that entire darn overdue list, plus some yard work.
Not so much.
When I plug in a committed yoga class, coffee with a friend, or some other deadline around 3 or 4 pm, I get down to work earlier and I work more efficiently. And I actually have time and mental space for the yard work (which I love).
Magically…a short run, yoga, yard work, or just organizing a closet moves me into the bigger picture of my life. Priorities rise back to the surface, I become grounded in the most important next steps for me, and I have a half-dozen creative ideas.
Those big picture spaces for not working are the most valuable investment of my time.
When I don’t have this deadline, when I’m wide open to work until 2 am if I have to…I will absolutely end up working until 2 am, even though I desperately need more sleep.
We are self-sabotaging beings. At least I am, 5 days out of 7.
In order to be intentional, instead of flipping on Netflix at lunch fully aware that I am throwing any momentum and willpower out the window, I’m learning to prioritize those big picture spaces.
My short morning run takes precisely 15 minutes: 2 minutes to throw on running shorts and a sports bra, 1 minute to plug in headphones and trigger my Pacer app, 9 minutes to run a mile by the lake, and 3 minutes to quickly rinse off in the shower and throw on my work-at-home comfy clothes.
I have no excuse. I can always fit in a run, or if I’m sore from a workout, I can do yoga for the full 15 minutes and toss the shower and wardrobe changes.
I will be the first to admit that it’s hard. It’s easier to get caught up in the whirlwind and shut off that higher level thinking in an attempt to wrestle the to do list into submission.
(Spoiler alert: The to do list always wins that game.)
There is more than can ever be done, and I’m tired of wrestling. Plus, it’s actually enormously gratifying (read: fun!) to go through those shame-filled lists and delete the tasks that I am mindfully screening out.
Improving by removing.
Let the light back in. DONE.