How Do You Know If You’re Wasting Your Life?

by | Oct 28, 2014 | Defining Success | 22 comments

The choices seem small and insignificant, but they plague you.

Should you take a long walk outside or answer your email? Should you watch a movie or work on the book idea you’ve been talking about for years? And when are you going to finally enroll in that Spanish immersion class?

Every day you feel pulled in different directions, torn between the things you want to do and the things you feel you have to. And that tension, quite frankly, is wearing you out.

Instead of making a decision, night after night you allow yourself succumb to the things you think will make you feel less stressed. You watch TV. You splurge on burgers and a milkshake. You skim your email, read celebrity gossip, or play video games until it’s way past your bedtime.

Just before you drift off to sleep, you realize: I’m never going to get that day back. And I wasted it.

String enough days like that together, and you start feeling helplessness. You feel sick inside, like you’ve failed a final exam.

Leo Babauta, one of my favorite writers and thinkers, recently encouraged people to imagine how they would spend their time if they started with a blank slate. That’s a good question, but I find there’s often another problem you have to solve first.

You have to get to root of the expectations that are draining you.

I’ve written previously about my freaking never ending to-do list. As an overachiever myself, it’s a trap I’ve fallen into again and again. And in some of those self-induced stressful times, I had to stop to ask myself some hard questions.

Why am I doing all these things? Which of these activities are really important to me?

I was studying Spanish because I imagined I would feel more worldly and cosmopolitan if I could speak another language. I was taking Crossfit classes because it was presumably the best way to get physically fit. I was attending PTA coffees because I didn’t want to be seen as an uninvolved mom who worked all the time.

Not only was I overwhelming myself with shoulds, but these activities were crowding out the things that were truly meaningful. And yes, that tension drove destructive behaviors like unhealthy eating and compulsive internet surfing that meant I always felt busy and somehow still worried I was wasting my life.

Waste begins with the word “should”

Don’t get me wrong. All of us occasionally have to do things we don’t really want to do.

But an awful lot of the shoulds I felt compelled by were internal, not external.

The truth is that we have a lot more choice and flexibility than we realize. And when we fail to make good choices, we look for rational excuses that don’t make us feel bad, because let’s face it, we feel bad enough.

Gretchen Rubin calls these excuses loopholes and shows you how to spot them. She’s talking in terms of habits, but these scripts are the exact same ones that convince us to spend our time in less fulfilling ways.

Look at this description from a stressed out woman in Fargo, North Dakota, profiled in Brigid Schulte’s brilliant book, Overwhelmed

Dawson has five children, has written a memoir, made a film, runs a charity for orphans in the Sudan, and travels to Africa. “It’s like everything has to have a purpose,” muses Dawson, fifty-nine. “Maybe it justifies how you spend your time. When you’re busy, you’re saying, ‘This is who I am. I’m doing something important. I’m not just taking up space on Earth.’”

I don’t know Dawson, so I won’t make any guesses as to whether or not these activities came from shoulds or internal desires. But what I hear when I read her story is a person who’s hustling to prove her worth.

It relies on the assumption that someone who writes memoirs is somehow more worthy than someone who spends the weekend golfing. It implies that running a charity makes you more worthy than if you “simply” cared for your own family.

There are the things we do even though we don’t want to because someone else, like our boss, demands it. Then there are the things we do even though we don’t want to because we worry we will somehow be less without them.

In his book Essentialism, Greg McKeown argues we must discern the trivial from the vital.  The problem is, those “hustling for worth” activities are awfully hard to label as trivial. How in the world could we ever feel like we’re wasting our time if we’re helping orphans?

There are no inherently good ways to spend your time. There are only personally meaningful activities and ones we do out of obligation.

It’s not that I have anything against helping orphans, of course. Unless of course it means I can’t do the work that’s vital to me, like writing or spending relaxed, unstructured time with my family. When I fail to do what’s personally essential, I will always feel like I’m wasting my life, not matter how virtuous or important the other activities are that are taking up my time.

A wasted life is one dominated by obligation or fear

What I’ve learned is that the vital activities that make us feel alive instead of wasted look like this:

  • You enjoy the process as much as the product
  • You feel proud or happy for doing them, even if no one else ever knew about it
  • The activities are in alignment with your personal definition of success
  • You are healthier (in the broad sense of the word) for completing them

We know we can’t do it all. What isn’t so obvious is that we don’t even want to do it all. It’s obligation and fear that tells us we must do more … or else.

I think the above list is a pretty good way for separating out what you really want to do and what you’re subconsciously driven to do based on someone else’s idea of value.

Don’t think for a minute that pursuing essentialism is somehow selfish.

When you focus on what’s meaningful, you bring less stress into the world. Less angst.

Just one healthy, happy, and fulfilled individual has ripple effects you can hardly imagine right now.

It’s a pretty easy way to change the world actually.

Not that you should feel obligated to do that.

Unless, of course, you really want to.