I’ve become increasingly aware recently of how much time I spend in “achievement mode”: worrying about using my time efficiently, whether I’m being productive, and feeling guilty about all the things I could be doing that I’m not. I’m even doing this a lot of the time when I’m not technically “working”, either feeling like I should get back to more productive things, or stressing about whether I could be using my ‘down time’ in a better way.
I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this, that this is a common state for driven and ambitious types. Just in case it needs saying, I really think it really isn’t healthy to be in this state too much of the time. This isn’t to say it’s not useful to sometimes be focused on achievement: but if you get to a point where you’re constantly putting pressure on yourself, and have difficulty switching this mindset off, I think it’s a real problem. For me personally, it fuels these cycles leading to burnout and overwhelm, and means I gradually lose touch with what I’m actually feling. I also strongly suspect it makes me less productive than I otherwise could be – that ironically, I’d actually achieve more if I weren’t so concerned with achievement.
I think I really need to do something about this; to spend some time figuring out why this is such a problem for me, and how I might fix it. So I recently started trying to analyse the problem: writing down thoughts and trying to build a better model of what was going on, and somehow… all of this just made me feel even more stressed out.
It seems obvious now, but the problem was that I was turning this into an intellectual project itself, another thing for me to stress about not achieving, another thing to worry about failing at. When I realised this, it first left me feeling quite helpless – my general strategy for solving problems wasn’t going to work, and even worse might just be feeding into the problem itself. I couldn’t use my analytical, high-achieving brain to solve the problems created by those ways of thinking, but I also didn’t really know any other ways of solving problems.
Eventually I realised that I didn’t necessarily need my analytical skills here, because I already understand the problem pretty well. I’ve spent most of the last 20+ years in ‘achieving mode’ without realising it – it’s so rare that I allow myself to just be, without thinking about what goal I’m moving towards. I thought that identifying this problem and setting my brain the task of solving it was a step in the right direction. But actually what I was doing was simply adding “figure out how to put less pressure on yourself” to my list of goals to put pressure on myself about.
Instead what I need, I think, is to actually carve out time and space in my life where I allow myself to just be, without striving for any particular goal.
This is easier said than done for someone like me. There’s a real risk I’ll slip into making “not striving” the goal, and then start stressing about whether I’m achieving that or not. There’s also a little voice in my head that’s sceptical, worrying this might just be an excuse for laziness or self-indulgence. Who am I to talk about my struggles and the need to spend time just doing what I feel like, when there’s so much worse suffering in the world, and so much I could be doing to relieve the suffering of others? It’s hard for me to ignore this voice entirely – I do worry that if I let go of the pressure I put on myself I’ll end up doing less good for the world. But another part of me thinks it’s more likely that I’ll fail to have any impact because I burn myself out. I think I need to learn to switch modes, to compartmentalise the drive and pressure, so I can apply it in a more targeted way to what’s most important – rather than having it operate on a low level, constantly in the back of my mind.
My plan now is to experiment with allowing myself to be not achieving things, and to carve out a much clearer distinction between my time that’s achievement-focused and that which isn’t. This seems so obviously a good idea, and I’m sure I’ve heard variations on this advice a billion times before, but somehow I’m only properly internalising it now. I only now properly see how rarely it is that I manage to switch the “goal-focused” mindset off, and how big a problem that is. I’m going to try making this distinction much more explicit in my daily schedule, and to pay more attention to how much I’m striving and how it feels.
At least to begin with, I’m actually going to keep the achievement-focused time fairly minimal – fewer hours than I’d ideally want in the long-term. I think I need to practice not-achieving right now much more than I need to maximise the number of hours I work. I also think having a limited amount of time in which to be productive is likely to help me prioritise better. Ideally, I think my default mode would be non-achievement – with the ability to explicitly schedule in as much time as necessary for pressure and effort and achievement – rather than the other way round. I think this is going to be bloody difficult, but that it could also be really important.