How to waste perfectly good downtime & burn yourself out

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You’d think that having a To Do List done for the time being would be a pleasant feeling. If you knew how much I long for downtime, you’d think I’d be happy to have this week’s calendar pretty open. And I am… for about a day of it. Then the guilt creeps in.

A little while ago, I tweeted that I usually say I’m a “social media sprite” (it’s actually in my Twitter profile) — but today I feel more like a social media slug.

When you’re self-employed, it’s hard to let go of the idea that you must drive/accomplish 100% of your days. Inevitable burnout.  — Me

Don’t get me wrong — I love the work I do — when I’m working on it. I’m on point, paying attention, following up, thinking ahead. Everything you’d want from someone taking care of a project.

That’s probably part of the problem.

The Manager Me always can think of a dozen items on a To Do List that has nothing to do with a client’s business, but everything to do with my own. “Write a new blog post” would be on that list.

Manager vs. creative

Manager Me has a list of Should Do’s for days of downtime. Work on the blog, line up appointments, whatever. Creative Me: I don’t want to! — Me, again

The Manager Me would say that I shouldn’t be telling you that the Creative Me doesn’t want to do the things that we’re constantly told or advised to do by people who are all about successful business, entrepreneurship, freelance stardom, and being self-employed. The Manager Me (a specialist at lists) has a Should List in addition to the To Do List.

The Creative Me  just wants to be left alone, to stare into space or watch snow fall or read a book that has nothing to do with improving anything. The Creative Me actually likes to do mundane household tasks — vacuum, fold laundry, trim up the climbing rose for winter. The Creative Me is part Ferdinand the Bull.

(Manager Voice: You need to blow those leaves to the curb for the next city clean-up, by the way! That’s mundane AND you should get it done! Kill two birds with one stone.

Creative Voice: Get stuffed.)

Last night I went to a reception for nominees for the ATHENA Award for 2013 in my community. These are women who accomplish more in their professional, volunteer and mentoring lives than you can imagine. I attended it because I’m one of those women who received this award in 2004. As I listened to the profiles of each nominee read, I felt — as always — astounded by each of them. And I wondered — as I have since 2004 — how it came to be that I actually had been chosen to receive an award like that.

Where had I gotten that energy to accomplish enough? I wasn’t feeling it, sitting there in the audience last night. I was thinking about getting my high heels off in the car (I brought my fuzzy Crocs to wear for driving), driving home in the sleet and getting into bed to veg out on TV.

“How are you?!” people asked me at the reception. “Busy?”

The soul-killing “B” word.

In our society, being Busy is the equation for being OK, especially if you work for yourself. If you’re not “busy” that means things are slow. Not much work. The implication is that it can only be a bad thing. If you are not busy, you are not OK.

But if you’re to be creative, to have imagination, to play with ideas, to go forward with something new, you need the space to play. And play and imagination often come out of doing nothing in particular.

Never feel guilty about taking time for yourself. Recharging is necessary! — @catherine_delia on Twitter, responding to my tweet.

Every creative, intelligent person I know on social media — whether they work for themselves or not — will support the idea of needing and enjoying downtime for their peers. God knows I’m always preaching it to others. And then this is what we say:

Now if only I could do the same for myself. ;-)   — also @catherine_delia, on Twitter

So. How did I spend my precious down time today?

  • Thinking what tasks I could accomplish (mundane or otherwise).
  • Not doing any of them.
  • Feeling sluggish and uninspired.
  • Yelling in my manager’s voice at Creative Me about not accomplishing anything today.
  • Tweeting about how sluggish I felt.
  • Appreciating the support and kidding I got about it from Twitter peeps.
  • Deciding that writing about all of this might make a decent blog post — thus satisfying Manager Me that I accomplished at least one thing.

Was it a smart thing to do? Depends on which of me you ask. Not using downtime/free time — really letting go of the need to “accomplish” instead of just Be — is the perfect prescription for burnout.

As I talk to myself about this, I’m thinking about you, too. We all have to “stop the glorification of Busy” as the saying goes.

Or at least admit when we’re flirting with burnout. Because when we do admit it, we find out there are plenty of people who are ready to give us permission to float for a while and restore our resources.

So maybe today I didn’t do so well at using my downtime for Just Being. But tomorrow is another day. I have one thing on the calendar, and that’s a social gathering at a local pub to remember a very very productive and busy guy who dropped dead on his treadmill one year ago. He died too young and much loved.

If that isn’t a rap on the head to give validity to Doing Nothing When You Have Time, I don’t know what is.


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