Discover more from Vertical Development: How Grown-ups Grow Up
Our obsession with 'Doing' is burning out our bodies and stunting our inner growth.
Learning the craft of 'Being' might just be the cure we need.
Last weekend I’ve read an eye-opening article from Emma Gannon on “Taking a break as an online creator” (which could easily be read as “Taking a break as… you name it - coach, teacher, facilitator, leader, worker of any kind.). Taking the break is such a simple thing, and yet it it seems incredibly challenging for too many of us. And the reason is, I believe, that many of us suffer from an addiction to ‘doing’.
Emma writes openly and vulnerably about her burnout, and the lessons she's learnt from it that are now helping her recognise the early signs of ‘too much’, and heed that nudge before the body takes over and forces her to stop.
“I tend to get anxious, I start resenting people who ask anything of me; my exercise/swimming time slides; I start to think that I ‘should’ be doing more (a la productivity dysmorphia); and I start looking through my diary on repeat, worrying about everything that is coming up.” (Emma Gannon)
All of those signs Emma points to felt eerily familiar, but when I got to the words - ‘productivity dysmorphia’ - I felt as if struck by a ton of bricks. The relief of having language for something I have been witnessing in myself and others for years, but never quite been able to name, was immense. With it, came the shock that my prodigious capacity to make make things happen - my inner ‘DO-er’, whom I’ve long considered a superpower - has a very dark side I have not stopped to examine as closely as I could. And the bigger shock was that the dark side involved a seriously skewed lens through which I assessed (or mis-assessed) how much I am actually doing at any given time.
I have always taken pride in being an accurate judge of my performance (for better or worse). As a kid, I’ve been able to accurately predict the grade I’d get on tests or exams. I’ve never been one to chew my nails waiting for an external evaluator to tell me whether I’d made it over the line or not - I’ve always known it before the numbers came in.
Later in my career as a learning designer and facilitator, that capacity to self-assess helped me accurately spot and utilise my strengths, and also steered me away from the trap of complacency. It gave me the confidence to use my voice and trust the quality of my work, while keeping me aware of my stumblings and mistakes and humble about how much I still did (and do) not know.
And yet, while my inner barometer has proven accurate in pointing out the quality of my output, as it turns out, it’s completely skewed when it comes to the quantity of it.
Productivity dysmorphia is a term coined by Anna Correa -Rado, who used it to describe a relentless pattern of churning out work and yet feeling perpetually dissatisfied with how much you have accomplished. If this sounds familiar, you are not alone!
As it turns out, many successful people don’t feel internal satisfaction at their own accomplishments, despite their achievements being recognised, praised and celebrated by others. Quite often, these same people find themselves unable to fully enjoy milestones they have worked incredibly hard for, because the feeling of how much is still left to do is always there, like a relentless pressure that never eases. Louisa from Encanto sums it up so eloquently!
The roots of productivity dysmorphia are many and intricate - they lie in both personal history and collective, cultural context. Many consider it a Western affliction, although I think it’s easy to look around the world and see versions of this obsession with ‘doing’ pop up in many places.
For me, the essence of this thinking and living pattern sits in one sentence I heard my father use as a sort of mantra through the years:
“The best way to rest from doing one kind of work is by doing another kind of work”
He embodied it in his relentless work ethic as a surgeon - countless nights on duty in the emergency department over thirty years and thousands of patients treated - all of which, for my childhood self, was proof that working hard is literally life-saving. In his spare time, he’d read, study, and drive us, kids, to our many extracurricular activities. I can’t remember him not doing something.
His constant nudging to ‘do another kind of work’ focused mostly on intellectual pursuits - urging his children to nurture varied interests, stretch their minds, learn many things - all in the hope that a well-rounded education coupled with personal discipline would lead us to a fulfilled life. Only in hindsight did I realise that my dad was a feminist in a time and a place where that was not common. To him, the father of two daughters, endless productivity coupled with a well-nourished intellect was a path to freedom - if we, his girls, could forge our own destiny, we would never be dependant on any man. Industriousness and conscientiousness would our ticket to a life of freedom.
And they were. Both I and my sister have turned into independent women, each carving out a life of many choices and much personal freedom. But in the process, I lost touch with my capacity to know how much work is enough. I made ‘doing’ an intrinsic part of my identity and have had a really hard time learning the value of ‘being’ as the other indispensable ingredient of a happy life.
Burnout is the body saying: “You’ve done enough!”
Developmental researcher Nick Petrie has recently been studying catalysts and mechanisms of burnout and also exploring its developmental potential. At the core, burnout is our body’s way of saying: “you’ve done enough!”.
The Burnout-growth curve that emerged from his research starts with, surprise!, ‘relentless work ethic’. It is the obsession of ‘doing’ and the absence of reflecting on the doing. In a podcast conversation we had a few months ago, Nick shared with me how he himself got caught up in that cycle, ignoring the warning signs in the lead-up to a big health scare.
An experience such as burnout can be life changing - like it was for Emma Gannon and so many others - and, as more recent evidence from Nick Petrie’s work suggests - it can actually become a very powerful developmental catalyst, if harnessed properly.
Nick writes that breakdown can finally take people off the autopilot of doing and get them reflecting very deeply on their motivations and aspirations, often leading to big changes in life direction. I would add that in the process, those who transform from a burnout episode likely re-discover a much neglected dimension of life: the elusive space of being.
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Most of us know well what ‘doing’ is all about - we can see it measured in tangible output. But when it comes to ‘being’, people get confused. What does it actually mean? What does it look like? Is it the same as ‘doing nothing’? Does it have any value? How do you grasp or measure something which, by definition, is a non-action?
In developmental theories, our relationship with doing and being might be regarded as a developmental line in itself. We start life in a full state of unconsciously being, then spend years learning how to do things as the way to become someone and then we get lost in unconsciously doing all the time. Finally, if we’re lucky, we re-learn how to be - consciously this time.
All young children are masters of being. They are fully immersed in the present moment - forever living in the eternal present - the Kairos dimension of time. They don’t think about the past or worry much about the future. They lose themselves in whatever it is they are doing in the moment, tapping into flow and engaging in life with wonder and joy. They are not seeking to do, but to experience. Children are explorers. They are driven by their curiosity, not by deadlines or dread of failure.
Then formal schooling starts and kids’ free spirits are moulded into the shape of Chronos - linear time. The week, month and year takes on a particular shape - with ebbs and flows of activity, with working days, homework time, school terms and fixed holidays. Spontaneity is slowly squeezed out of life and impulses reined in. Goals start to appear on the horizon. Actions have consequences and mistakes from the past can haunt you into the future. Exams loom large. Mental space devoted to the present shrinks to make more room for what has been and what hasn’t happened yet.
The doing snowball starts rolling downhill, growing ever bigger and picking up speed as the years go by. Life milestones come and go. Graduations. Leaving home. First job. Starting a family. Buying a house. Promotions. Building a business. Raising kids. There is always something to go through in order to get somewhere else. And in the process our connection to being is mostly forgotten, but for precious moments of grace, of connection, of leisure (many of which feel like indulgence).
Some stay in this stage their whole lives. In the research it’s called the Achiever (or Conscientious) stage. A way of life where doing is at the core of what we are. Our worth is measured by how much/how well we do. And in this stage, productivity dysmorphia is not even perceived as a challenge, but as an impetus to keep going. Always stay a little hungry. A little dissatisfied. Always crave another accomplishment.
Others outgrow the Achiever stage - usually with the help of a kick from life - a disorienting dilemma - served as burnout/illness/breakdown/loss - and start questioning the value of all that doing. They step into a stage developmentalists call Redefining. A stage of self-questioning, of seeking meaning, of pausing to zoom out and assess the big picture of one’s life, asking in earnest: What am I doing all of this for?
Slowly, in the later stages of development, we learn the craft (it is a craft!) of consciously being, and in the process re-discover something we all had been so good at a very long time ago.
What does it mean, for a grown-up, to just ‘be’? We can’t return to the innocence of childhood and simply fall in a space of wonder smelling a flower or watching the clouds go by, can we? And what of all our responsibilities? Can being and doing co-exist? If being is indeed a craft, how might we perfect it?
I’ve been on a quest to weave ‘being’ back into my life for years. It’s an imperfect journey. I find myself often taking two steps forward and one step backward. But I have seen the forward movement. And practice convinced me that being is indeed a muscle we can train, which, paradoxically, seems to work for a doer like me. Thinking of being as a skill turns it into something I can actually get better at, rather than an elusive state of grace I might only hope for.
Over time, I’ve discovered small habits that make a difference.
‘Being’ as unstructured time
The simplest practice to break the doing pattern is purposefully allowing for unstructured time through my day and my week. Time with no plan attached to it. Time with no goal or output. Very importantly, time that I choose to fill in ways that nourish me - whatever that may mean in that moment. It could be a walk. It could be an afternoon nap. It could be reading a chapter of a favourite fiction book. It could be calling my best friend, 16000 km and 9 time zones away, and chatting about life.
I noticed it’s important to be intentional about where I choose to put my attention in the unstructured time, lest it gets filled with doomsday scrolling through news feeds or checking on those emails I never had time to get to. When that happens, the doing creeps back and being is lost. And I know it’s lost because I can feel it.
‘Being’ as a feeling you can cultivate by shifting your attention from WHAT (action) to HOW (witnessing)
‘Being’ is, at its core, a state. I know I’m in that state because my mind feels spacious - there is distance between thoughts and they become like clouds slowly gliding through the sky of my consciousness - I can follow them and I can also choose to focus on the sky itself. When I’m deep in doing mode, I can’t really see the sky at all and the clouds are all jumbled up together - anxiety easily creeps in and there’s a sense of perpetual urgency, or the nagging feeling I’ve forgotten something or need to get somewhere and I’m always late.
Being, on the other hand, feels like I can breathe. It feels like a calm, relaxed body, no tension anywhere. It feels like no rush - a sense of pure contentedness with being exactly where I am in that very moment. No desire to go anywhere else. It is a feeling of gratitude for simply being alive. It’s easier to access that state when no emergency is tugging at my attention. The challenge is to cultivate it in-midst of day-to-day hecticness.
I’ve learnt to tap into this feeling at will by shifting attention from WHAT it is I am actually doing in that moment - talking to someone, writing something, sitting in a meeting - to observing HOW whatever is happening is actually unfolding. When I shift my attention to HOW I am feeling in that conversation, how the words are being used, how the energy of my partner is changing in the moment, how our body language seems to be mirroring what is not being said. When I do that, I notice how my whole perspective shifts from being caught up in the content of the conversation towards being present in that moment seeing the broader landscape and implications of that dialogue.
When I tap into being, I become aware of patterns playing out, of the context, the system I and the other person are embedded in. It often opens up new perspectives, allows me to see angles or viewpoints I had previously missed AND it puts me into a much calmer state that often leads to much wiser reactions in the moment.
This shift in attention from the WHAT to the HOW is something that Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky call “moving from the dance floor to the balcony” - the ability to cultivate a witness perspective on our own actions (or inactions). Taking that ‘balcony view’ means we shift from the doing into the being and, on a very practical level, often creates powerful moments of perspective-taking and precious insights we can then take back into action.
Practiced over time, ‘going to the balcony’ can be a very effective way to switch more easily from doing to being and back.
‘Being’ as long-term reflective practice
Finally, I’ve learnt that none of these behavioural or attention shifting tweaks stick unless we find ways to anchor them in some sort of a routine of reflection - a scaffold-building habit that allows us to create both the time and the opportunity to actively practice being as a craft. Paradoxically, a reflective practice is, in itself, something you do, but with the explicit purpose of training your capacity to be.
Meditation, prayer, Qigong (or any other kind of contemplative practice) practicing yoga, running, walking (not as sport, but as conscious movement) and journalling (a very powerful practice which deserves a separate article of its own) - are all ways to tap into being. For me, therapy and being coached have been two other avenues for gaining perspective and cultivating reflection.
More broadly, any activity you enjoy and that puts you into a state of flow - painting, dancing, playing music, quilting, gardening - can double up as practice for being. Nick Petrie calls these activities ‘the opposite world’ - something you do just for the fun of it and which puts you in a state which is the exact opposite of your hustling self - and has shown that these activities are in fact a powerful protector against burnout. My hunch is they are protective precisely because they give people that precious space for ‘being’, so they can recharge their batteries for more ‘doing’.
What’s your current ‘doing-being’ balance?
As it turns out, we are not designed to spend all our waking hours in doing mode. Most of us agree to this statement, and yet so many of us don’t know how or simply find it too hard to switch off. We don’t really know what to do when we’re not doing. And, God forbid - if we stop doing we might actually start to feel all those repressed feelings we’d been numbing for years! What will we do then?
I hope these musings about practical ways to tap into being have sparked some useful reflections. I’ve done my best to make the case for the value of balance, and I’m very curious what you think!
Do jump into the comments and share some of your own strategies for cultivating being! I’d love to hear how this state has helped you and how you tap into it in your own life. What have been your wake-up calls? How did you create habits to help you get off the hamster wheel? What have you gained/lost? What can the rest of us learn from your own experiences with being more and doing less?
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