When’s the last time you felt truly in love with your work—when you felt 100% focused on the things that really matter, when you were overflowing with creative energy, when ideas seemed to pour out of you without any conscious effort on your part?
If your answer is something like “this is how I live most days,” then congratulations! You can stop reading and get back to doing amazing work.
Most people’s response is probably closer to “sounds like some woo-woo pipe dream. I live in the real world, where in order to win you need to hustle and grind, then rinse and repeat. Success requires forcing things to bend to your will, and pushing yourself past your limits every single day.”
In other words, most people believe that in order to succeed in life, you need to be able to do it all, and do it non-stop. But what if trying to do it all is really just an addiction to busyness, a distraction from doing the things that actually lead to success?
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Defining Success For Yourself
Let me start out by challenging the belief that causes so many people to grind themselves into a nub.
Yes, there are plenty of entrepreneurs who’ve become financially successful at the cost of their health and happiness. And yes, in our culture, “financially successful” basically means the same thing as “successful.” And yes, yes, yes—those YOLO examples of success are what get the most attention.
But does that mean that working yourself to death is a prerequisite for success, financial or otherwise? It really depends on how we define what financial success actually means.
Money can be used as a tool to help us:
Gain status: Success equals competing with others. Having more money than we had last year, and more than our parents or neighbors or co-workers make, and more than enough to buy an even bigger house/nicer car/better vacation.
Live our purpose: Success equals autonomy and choice. The freedom to focus on living a creative, meaningful, fulfilling life. Having enough money to cover our basic physical needs—as well as a reasonable amount of material comforts—so that we can focus our energy on the pursuits that bring us joy.
If you define financial success as “status,” then grinding through life is generally the go-to strategy. From that perspective, more = better. And if “more” is the path to success through status, then more stress, more hours, more grinding makes perfect sense.
But what if you relate to the “purpose” definition of success? One that requires an abundance of space, creative energy, and inspiration? Would adding more stress bring you closer to that kind of life, or would it just deplete you of the very energy required to do your best work?
The trouble is that even if you’re driven by a life of purpose, you’ve likely also been conditioned to chase the “status” version of success. So you end up split down the middle, spreading yourself incredibly thin by trying to pursue both purpose and status at the same time. Instead of focusing on what actually matters most, you try to do it all. To have it all.
When your aspirations are split, it’s much harder to distinguish “the vital few from the trivial many” or “make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter,” as expressed by Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.
From McKeown’s perspective, essentialism “isn’t about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done…making the wisest possible investment of your time and energy in order to operate at our highest point of contribution by doing only what is essential.”
The good news is that an essential-focused life, one filled with an abundance of creative energy and enthusiasm, doesn’t conflict with a life of achievement or success (financial or otherwise). In fact, it may be the most direct path to the type of success you crave.
What’s Essential to You, and What’s Getting in the Way?
Think about your work-related essentials—the vital few activities that allow you to make your highest contribution. Now, be honest with yourself: How much of your energy every day is invested in these vital few activities? Are you bogging yourself down with extraneous things that are getting in the way of those essentials?
If you answered yes, then dig a little deeper. Is it possible that the root cause of feeling burned out is internal? Your own habits, fears, and limiting beliefs like:
- Buying into cultural myths like “more is better” and “if working 8 hours a day is good, then working 11 hours a day must be really good.”
- Habits like focusing on action for action’s sake, or unconsciously reacting instead of consciously responding.
- Confusing stress for status (when’s the last time you “complained” about how many hours you work or how many meetings you have to sit through?).
- Addiction to busywork (you can’t think of anything better to do with open, unstructured time. So you fill it with pointless minutia like obsessive email checking).
- Feeling guilty if you’re not constantly stressed out, or spending every minute of every day knocking things off of your to-do list.
- Feeling uncomfortable with silence, or without constant input and distraction.
- People pleasing and feelings of obligation. When you’re uncomfortable saying no to others, you end up overcommitting and failing to maintain healthy boundaries.
- Assuming that everything is equally important and equally urgent.
The Way Out
As long as these unconscious patterns rule your life, you’ll have a hard time breaking free of the unhealthy and unproductive habits that have led to your current condition.
If you’re feeling burned out and spread too thin, the solution isn’t to expend more energy or try to accomplish more in order to dig yourself out.
The solution is to simplify.
To make a conscious decision about your definition of success, rather than continuing to try to live up to other people’s status-based definition—winning by accumulating more stuff.
The alternative is having the autonomy and choice to focus on living a life of purpose. To focus your energy and time on the things that actually matter to you.
What that looks like is up to you. How you get there is also up to you.
It’s your life. Live it your way.