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A new theory of getting things done

This story starts with burnout.

You see, I’ve been trying to recover from burnout for what seems like forever. Some days it feels like sleep I lost a decade ago still haunts me today. Some days it feels like I carry a weight of exhaustion so heavy it will never be lifted.

And on other days I feel great. Sometimes I even feel great for several weeks in a row.

But always, inevitably, it seems like there comes a point when I crash again. When the sweet zing of excitement wears off and I come staggering back into my body to discover how deeply, truly, and utterly tired I am.

Maybe you have this problem, too. Maybe you, too, have the skittish, delicate kind of energy that can take you oh so far — but only if you treat it oh so gently and carefully. And only if you put it to bed often and for longer than any body should reasonably “need” to rest.

Or maybe you are nothing like me and your energy is strong and robust, in which case you should tell me all your secrets in the comments below. For years I longed to have the kind of strong, robust energy that I so admired in others.

But the truth is that I don’t — I have the quiet, delicate energy of a dreamer. And my constitution requires a lot of rest, a lot of time for night-dreaming, and a lot of time for day-dreaming and quiet contemplation.

Which is why I need a new theory of getting things done — because my old way was clearly not working.

My way of pretending my energy was strong and robust. My way of gritting my teeth and digging my heels in and just pushing through. My way of shouldering should-dos and have-tos until I felt like Atlas with the weight of a life lived by other people’s rules resting on my shoulders.

For the past couple of months I have been experimenting with a new way of doing things.

It’s a way that I shan’t take credit for inventing, but it’s new-to-me and it seems to be working — so this week I’d like to invite you to try it, too.

The new way involves not-doing more than it involves doing. The new way means sitting down and resting when my back hurts even though the cooking isn’t done yet. The new way means typing out this missive to you because I felt the words pattering in my heart even though I didn’t “have time” to write to you today. The new way means trusting that I will find the time I need, that I can write this missive and that things will work out anyway. And, most of all, the new way means sleeping — it means a lot of sleeping.

The new way looks nothing like “working” the way I’ve always conceived of working — the slogging away, the grinding through I’ve always envisioned and pursued.

But here’s the thing. For the first time in possibly forever, I achieved everything I set out to do in March.

Since last summer I have set goals at the start of every month, and at the end of every month I reflect on what I achieved and what I didn’t achieve and I recalibrate and set my goals for the coming month.

Every month I note that I failed to achieve roughly ⅔ of what I set out to achieve.

But in March I did it all. Even the wishy-washy, maybe-if-I-get-around-to-it stuff I thought would be nice but didn’t really plan to achieve.

In the spirit of total honesty, my top priority in March was to rest — so maybe some of my success is just that I’m getting better at setting more attainable goals.

I don’t think that’s the whole story.

I think there’s a kind of magic to living this way. Free of rules and have-tos and should-dos. Free to rest when you’re tired. Free to do whatever you want when you’re not. Free to play and go for a walk and take a nap and write a book.

I think that getting things done works like this:

Motivation + inspiration = joy

Motivation – inspiration = toil

Inspiration – motivation = guilt

If we want to get things effortlessly and joyously we have to align our doing with our inspiration.

And in order to do that we need to give ourselves permission to rest. Because no one feels creative and inspired when they’re tired.

We need to give ourselves permission to tend to our quiet, delicate dreamer-energy and care for our bodies and our needs. We need permission to break the rules. Permission to be imperfect and flawed. Permission to suck at it — to fall back into our old patterns and habits and to realize we were still following rules without realizing it.

Because permission is the key to everything.

And when we give ourselves permission to live like this we unlock the door to getting things done in a way that feels easy, playful, and joyous instead of hard, burdensome, and exhausting.

After all, who wouldn’t want to live their life like that?

Much love,

P.S. If this sounds brilliant but you’re not sure where to start, I’d love to invite you to work with me as a private coaching client.

How to find joy

I believe in joy. After all, who doesn’t? And yet so often joy is something we think of as elusive.

Joy is the mirage we chase our whole lives — always searching for it around the next corner, the next raise, the next promotion.

Soon, we think. Soon I’ll have everything I could possibly want.

Soon I’ll have everything I need to be happy.

And then we get the job or the raise or the promotion — and inevitably it doesn’t turn out like we’d expected.

We’re disappointed.

We might be angry or frustrated. We might even feel betrayed.

There was a time in my life when I felt betrayed.

I felt like the way we talk about success and happiness in America had betrayed me, had led me down the wrong path — a path that had promised happiness but had ultimately left me mired in misery.

That time was post-MIT when I’d sunk everything into pursuing a dream only to look up and wonder whose dream it was that I was chasing.

I’d wrecked myself on sleepless nice and a ceaseless cascade of stress — and in the end it seemed that my suffering had bought me only what I didn’t want: a desk job I didn’t love, a paycheck I didn’t spend, and life in a city I dreamed of escaping.

And for a while, I felt betrayed. Angry. Hurt. Bitter. Exhausted.

That misery was the fork in my road, the moment in which I had to decide whether I thought that joy ultimately lay just a little farther down the path or whether I was going to have to venture off into parts unknown in order to find it.

I was pretty sure that joy didn’t lay farther ahead down the same well-worn path — but the problem was I was afraid to venture off the path.

I was afraid I might get lost.

But here’s the thing. I’ve been venturing off the path for a while now — in some ways for years.

And joy isn’t out there in the woods somewhere and joy isn’t on the path.

Joy is locked away in your own heart and the easiest way to find it is to stop looking and notice.

I can say this because I still haven’t moved far from the path.

I’m still working a desk job that increasingly I find I enjoy.

I’m still living in a city I wish I could move out of — but increasingly I find that the city is also beautiful in it’s own impenetrable way.

I realize now that I volunteered myself for suffering because I wanted the world to approve of me and of my choices — and I’ve learned that the only approval I really need is my own.

And you know what? The magic of it is that often these days I’m just ridiculously grateful and happy.

So often these days I just sit quietly and feel myself marinating in joy.

And what I’m learning now is that when you find joy within yourself first, it stops seeming so scary to venture off the path.

Now it’s your turn! Have you quit seeking happiness? What simple pleasures of everyday life bring you joy? Let me know in the comments below 🙂