Those who keep themselves too busy also surround themselves with mini monuments symbolizing who they would be if they only had time. A few years ago, I talked to a woman named Nancy who imagined herself as a mother who participated fully in her children’s lives but who wasn’t actually doing that. Emblems of her imaginary self, like the maple-syrup equipment she had dreamed of using with her kids, lay unused in the basement of their country home. Another parents I talked to bought an expensive van to take his kids camping in, but it never left the garage.
In the homes of workaholics across America, unplayed guitars sit in attics and unused carpentry tools rust in basements. These objects cost money that workers spend time to earn. But there they sit, symbols of another kind of poverty.
It’s easy to fool ourselves, even when we have a lurking sense that we’re doing so. Why? Perhaps we don’t want to believe our staying too busy might be a cushions that protects us from the two things that scare us: silence and ourselves. But what would happen if we stopped and became a little less fearful of what we’re feeling?
That’s what Nancy, the maple-syrup mom, did. When I ran into her two years after we first talked, she told me she had resigned form her job, gotten some therapy and gone back to school for an advanced degree. She seemed as spunky as I’d remember her, but she was also calmer, more thoughtful, more wise about what lay at the root of her need to do too much. “I was ducking my relationship with my husband,” she told me. “My overwork was a way of telling him, ‘Your needs overwhelm me’ But actually, it was my own needs that overwhelmed me. Once you have a real conversation with yourself and your mate, you don’t need to send indecipherable smoke signals through overwork.”
Whatever our overwork is about at its core—the belief that activity alone can fulfill us, the need to make ourselves feel valuable, the desire to get another’s love—what is clear is that when we don’t slow down, we stand to lose. Our health may wane. Our best friends may not remember the last time they had a good talk with us. Our ideas of time spent with ourselves becomes five minutes in the shower. So let the holdouts log on after midnight to get their Workaholic Day cards. Let them greet their colleagues with stories of overwork. The rest of us should get to the bottom of what will bring us meaning and get on with our real lives.
More Ways to Slow Down
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