Let me make this clear. I don’t find relaxing very relaxing.
If there’s anything my twenty years building businesses has taught me it’s that the greatest feeling on earth is the rush when things all come together.
The perfect product release, an elegant code fix to a complex problem, hitting $10 million in revenue, closing an important partnership, national media coverage, or even just an email from a happy customer or words of confirmation from a team member.
That’s my drug of choice.
Being busy working in any of these directions is clearly a worthy cause. Relaxing on the other hand, being unlikely to lead to any of these outcomes, is hard to appreciate.
In observing my own workload over the last year - while I haven’t been running a company and have had some time for introspection - I’ve noticed I have a bias toward busyness. Moments of sitting quietly end up becoming opportunities to rehash my to-do lists. Whatever feels most urgent captures my attention and drags my mind and body back into action.
Moments intended for relaxation end up fostering feelings of anxiety, hopelessness, and guilt as my mind races through all the ways I could, or should, be spending that time.
Maybe it isn’t just that I don’t like relaxing, maybe I’m not good at relaxing.
I’ve found that professional life - although seemingly consistent from a distance - actually occurs in ebbs and flows. Despite my best attempts to keep my daily workload under the limit of work I can produce in a day, requirements of my time surge and recede rather unpredictably.
Like anyone, I know what to do when twenty five urgent emails hit my inbox at the same time. I determine the most important items and get to work. I stop when the work is done even if that means staying late at the office, eating dinner at my desk, or taking my laptop to bed.
But what about the morning I wake up and find nothing urgent in my inbox, and my only meeting for the day has requested to reschedule?
As a busy person, I find this a little unsettling. I’ve always got something I could be working on, deadlines coming up, large projects with endless pieces to move forward, or books I’ve left half read.
I could just recapture some of these unexpected minutes for myself. Go for a walk, take a nap, meditate quietly. But none of these things are likely to lead to the gratification I’ve learned to chase with reckless abandon. So they’re out of the question.
Over a few decades of being busy I’ve deeply etched a pattern into my neural pathways that looks for free time and promptly interjects, delivering me back to productivity because my brain so deeply desires the outcomes that productivity creates.
In fact my desire for the rewards of productivity is so strong I often find myself using a finite amount of free time to make uncapped commitments of my future time, just to stoke my sense of excitement about future rewards to come.
One unit of free time is sold at the cost of ten units of my future.
I’m talking about projects that might require my attention for days, weeks, or even years into the future.
I’ll share a few examples of bad commitments I’ve made in moments of unexpected availability.
o) I emailed a friend and offered to write a weekly column for a local tech journal
o) I started a financial review process that required four team members to invest an hour of their time with me every month
o) I started a new business
If you haven’t done the third one before, you’re probably not an entrepreneur. We’re cursed in this way. The fact is, busy people are dangerous when they have nothing to do for more than about a minute.
I had to ask myself. As a busy person, who often trades personal time to meet the demands of professional commitments, are the fruits of infinite productivity worth the purchase price?
Some people are described as “live to work” people who spend more time working than playing. Others identify more with the “work to live” philosophy where work is a necessary evil in support of their multifaceted pursuits of personal enjoyment.
I’m a “work to work” person. I spend my personal time finding new ways to work more.
Looking at this from a distance it’s hard to imagine what set of incentives could make this type of life make sense. But digging a little deeper I realized that working to work makes sense if I value positive thoughts from others more than I value positive thoughts from myself.
Try it out for yourself right now. Which feels better, situation A or situation B?
Situation A: You did a great job today (said by a boss or co-worker)
Situation B: I did a great job today (said in your head)
As it turns out, I like to be busy because I’m addicted to rewards that come from other people. I value these rewards so greatly because I value input from others more than I value my own thoughts and opinions.
This is a big problem. Believing in the thoughts of others more than my own makes me vulnerable to all sorts of self abuse and it undermines my own agency to make a positive change in the world as I best see fit.
I wanted to beat the busy bug, the mental pattern that wasn’t serving me. In order to take back control of my actions I first needed to change my beliefs.
Positive input from other people feels good and makes me happy, so I started by making a list of all the things I’m able to do that make me happy.
These weren’t all solo activities, but each one had to directly result in me achieving the feeling of happiness, without relying on feedback from any potential co-participants. The work had to be the reward, not the outcome.
Some of the activities on my list included playing basketball, mountain biking, jogging, writing, playing acoustic guitar, and sessions of mindfulness. These were activities I could own. I could control. I refined the list down to seven activities I felt made me most happy.
Now, I had the perfect playbook for unexpected downtime.
Got a free hour in my schedule? That’s enough time to write, meditate, pick up my guitar, or go for a short jog. Two hours just opened up? That’s a nice hike, a mountain bike ride, or a few games of basketball.
I used to believe that I needed other people’s validation in order to experience happiness. Now after 426 days of recording my participation in activities that bring me happiness on my own, it’s clear that I control my happiness.
For me it’s been an extremely successful new pattern.
Instead of using downtime to stir up future commitments that may or may not yield happiness, because it’s never possible to fully control the feedback someone will give me, I do something right now that makes me happy and it feels great.
I feel like I’ve discovered the art of the spontaneous recharge.
In fact, doing things that make me happy right now doesn’t have to be limited to unexpected downtime when it’s randomly provided by the universe. When my mental energy is running low, or I’m feeling low emotionally, I cancel a commitment to create new time for an activity that brings me guaranteed happiness every time.
One criticism of this new way of living could be that I’m less productive. I think that’s possible, although potentially a very reasonable cost of being happier, but I think it’s actually the opposite.
When I dig in on projects to which I have committed my time I now have heightened energy, excitement, and creativity. Those additional resources increase the likelihood the project will be successful which increases the chance I’ll receive positive feedback from the world.
While I now rely on my internal ability to create happiness in my life, it’s always a nice bonus when someone else likes what I’m doing too.
I think it’s possible to say I’m working smarter than I’ve ever worked before, and for the first time in my life I’m in charge of the happiness I receive while doing it.