How I Plan To Live Better By Doing Less

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“Drowning in work, life and everything in between.”

It was November 3rd when I posted this on Facebook. Not very reassuring for an executive coach whom people hire, in part, so that they don’t have to feel this way.

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Photo by the author
Overwhelmed and drowning (metaphorically)
Photo by the author
(At the Nam June Paik show at the Asia Society)

Facebook is a place where I go to see my friends’ kids and pets grow up. I share and collect everyday moments—like my kids tracing freckle-constellations on my cheeks with their fingers, the whiff of underarm odor in the NYC subway on the first hot day of the year or the time I wore my fancy pants to see a client, and had to buy bigger pants on the way there because I couldn’t breathe. This is not a place I go to complain to everyone who happens to be in my path.

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Friends texted, “Are you okay?” Moms at school pulled me aside at the playground. “Do you want me to take your kids one day this week?” Two clients (yikes) whom I forgot were my Facebook friends emailed asking, “Do you want to skip this month?” It took extra time and lot of smiles to let folks know I wasn’t having a breakdown.

On the day I posted that status update, I felt at a loss as I sat down to figure out what task to perform next. I’m pretty efficient. I’m rather good at being in the moment, being present. I try my best to prioritize ruthlessly, know my deadlines, build effective lists of to-dos, someday projects and items I’ve delegated. (Shout out to Getting Things Done by David Allen!)

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But there was just too much. I did not need a better method. I needed to do less.

Why do I do this to myself? Why do we all do this to ourselves?

Even in Germany, where every worker gets at least four weeks of vacation and works — on average — 35 hours per week, people are starting to feel the pain and stress of being “on” all the time. Advances in technology and growing economic pressures are giving many German employers permission to ignore the culture of work-life balance. This has prompted German Labor Minister Andrea Nahles to call for an “anti-stress regulation” compelling companies to reduce stress in the workplace. It would also ban employers from contacting employees after hours. Under German law, it is already forbidden to contact employees on vacation.

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For nonprofit workers who may be working to serve often immediate and survival needs of others, the pressure to be “on call” all the time while leading a satisfying home life may be especially challenging. One commenter named John C. on my previous post, “Why Nonprofiteers Fall In and Our of Love with Work,” says:

Whether it is child abuse, alcoholism or drug addiction, dysfunctional families, major mental illnesses or any other arena, those in the helping professions cannot help but be impacted by the seriousness and sometimes the hopelessness of the issues with which their clients must deal on a regular basis. Burn out is not uncommon, unless we find ways to take care of ourselves.

But I no longer have a traditional, full time job. None of my clients expect me to call them back immediately. I’m not a doctor, therapist or civil rights attorney who needs to answer a page to save a life. Nobody demands me to send out timely holiday cards with that perfect family photo. For me, the pressure to do more is not from a job or any other external source.

It is from me.

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It is I who wants to take on interesting new projects. It is I who wants to volunteer, I who wants to create and document special memories for my kids, and I who wants to go that extra mile for a client who is preparing for that transformational meeting. I who wants to look good for my age, and I who wants to cook a healthy meal for my family as often as possible. And I really, really want to do all of those things.

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But there is just ONE Caroline. And I can’t do all those things, at least not all at once. Nobody except me wishes that for me. This is something I was reminded of after posting that status update, and being met with the support of my friends.

I was reminded that priority means priority. It seems that when I have more than three priorities for the quarter, for the month, or even for the day, I no longer have priorities. Everything becomes important, and yet nothing is. I start doing what seems urgent but not the important thing, and I do the important thing but thinking about unimportant thing that’s not getting done.

In the new year, I hope to do less. I hope to practice the art of discerning what’s most important and meaningful: to me, to my loved ones and to the world, and to keep re-evaluating what and how much I can do.

In the spirit of doing less, I offer no special insight or additional research. Just a heartfelt wish that we all claim periodic blocks of time on our calendars with nothing written on them in 2015. That everything we do get enough time and space to be done well without chipping into our well being. That we give ourselves permission to let our bodies, minds and spirits rest from time to time. That we give ourselves permission to do and to be just a couple of things at a time, most of the time.

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Here’s to doing less in 2015. Way less.