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Mindful : June 2015
seem to ourselves and, we imagine, to others.” Have you ever bought into this self-fulfilling prophecy? When we start to feel worthwhile because of our busyness, we start to believe the corollary: If I’m not busy, I’m not worthwhile. Most of our modern tasks are what resea rchers call “inst rumental.” They a ren’t fun; they a re produc- tive, stuff we “should” do, tasks to cross off of a list. The trouble comes when we eliminate the fun stuff in our lives, when play a nd rest get eliminated and we use a “get ’er done approach” to inst rumental work. This trouble is best illuminated by a famous study by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “chiek- SENT-me-high-ee”), the author of Flow. Csiksz- entmihalyi unintentionally induced textbook cases of generalized anxiety disorder in people simply by instructing his subjects as follows: From the time you wake up until 9 p.m ., he explained, “We would like you to act in a normal way, doing all the things you have to do, but not doing a nything that is ‘play’ or ‘non-instrumental.’” Research subjects could make the beds and wash the dishes, drive the carpool, go to work, come home and make din- ner, supervise homework a nd bedtime (any of this sounding familia r?)—skipping those moments of enjoyment in the day that bring flow or rest. They avoided those things at work they found especially gratifying, skipped the lovely breather they’d take when the kids were off to school, refrained from juicy-but-not-productive sex. Following these instructions for just 48 hours produced sy mptoms of serious a nxiety in research subjects—restlessness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, irritability, muscle tension—all by eliminating flow and play from their lives. In other words, we get anxious when we aren’t having any fun. The Alternative: Produce— And Grow—Like Olive Trees My great-grandpa rents g rew olives, and my brother runs the olive processing company they started, so I’ve learned a lot about olives over the years. Olives a re an “alternate bea ring crop,” which mea ns that they grow a lot of fruit one year, then mostly branches the following year, creating what is called a “short crop.” They produce less fruit in yea r one in order to produce a large crop in year two. We can all learn from the olive tree. In addition to being a sy mbol of peace, olives are also a metaphor for how rest and rejuvenation a re essential to productivity. In today ’s hyper-busy world, most people don’t rest or rejuvenate much. We don’t allow ourselves the “non-instrumental” activities in life. Resea rch does find that consistent and deliberate practice leads to elite performance. But focused work is → Now try saying something out loud that is true for you, and notice your body’s reaction. Try some- thing like “I love the ocean,” or “I love the feel of my baby’s head on my cheek.” How does your body respond? When I say something that is very true for me, or when someone else says it to me, I get “chills of truth”—the hair literally stands up on my arms. And if I’m g rappling with something hard, but the right answer comes up for me, I get “tears of truth.” Tears that tell me that something is profoundly true feel qualitatively different from the tea rs that come from grief or hurt. Just as we won’t learn to groove a golf swing by working harder at the wrong technique, we won’t find our sweet spot at work or at home by muscling through it. The tactics that most people use to cope with busy ness—multitasking and using technology to cram more into each day—tend to backfire, as they did for me, making me sick and exhausted and far less productive, happy, and intelligent than I am now. We find our sweet spot by understanding the architecture of our minds and the biology of ease. We change our lives for the better when we use tactics that flow with our brain and physiology, not against them. Full Plate, Empty Life We find our sweet spot not necessarily by mak- ing enormous changes to our life. We make small adjustments. That’s how I got my groove back in the yea rs following my hospital visit. Among the prescriptions a nd tactics I came up with for myself— and first on my list—is one we all remember fondly from when we were schoolchildren: take recess. It was a good idea then. It’s a good idea now. Everyone asks: How are you? And everyone answers: I’m soooo busy. “ We say this to one another with no small degree of pride,” writes Wayne Muller in his treatise on rest, “as if our exhaustion were a trophy, our ability to withstand stress a real mark of cha racter. The busier we are, the more important we When we judge our worth by how busy we are, we start to believe that if we’re not busy, we’re not worthwhile. Don’t let exhaustion become a trophy. 38 mindful June 2015 resilience