January 30, 2021

When Work is our Drug of Choice—How “Always Being Productive” Harms Us.

There’s an old proverb that says, “Rolling stones gather no moss.”

I grew up understanding this to mean that we must keep moving, keep busy, and always be staying productive in some way with our time and energy. Being lazy enough to “grow moss” was looked down on. Hobbies were not considered “productive” for anyone old enough to work—only things that made money were.

As an adult, I looked up that proverb and discovered that, in its original context, it actually means exactly the opposite. Moss needs a chance to grow—it’s considered beautiful. Being so busy and moving so fast that moss can’t grow is not a beautiful life. My own experiences have proven how wise that perspective is.

In my 20s, I was young, building my career, had two kids and a household to run. I was already busy. I willingly walked into the Western trap of idolizing productivity, but it wasn’t just work for the sake of earning a living.

For me, work became my go-to drug of choice to numb out, hide, and cope with a life that wasn’t working. That I was praised and respected for the number of hours I put in, only made it worse. If I wasn’t working, taking care of everyone else, and doing “it all” with a smile, I wondered, would I still be loved or valued?

Getting laid off the first time was both a relief and a blow. I hated that job and was miserable under the pressure. Yet, we needed the money. Getting back to work proved difficult.

Swallowing my pride, I joined the list of those seeking “handouts.” What I saw sitting in those waiting rooms were a whole lot of really decent human beings who were either desperate to find work or were working but still couldn’t make ends meet. It was the first time I realized that media stereotypes were all wrong.

I was too young to question too much though and left that world behind as soon as I could. I got busy again, took it all on, and strove to build a career that could save my life.

By the time I was laid off the second time, I’d left an abusive relationship and became a single mother. This time, I found work quickly, but even putting in 40-plus hours per week didn’t cover rent, after school care, and put food on the table.

When that job disappeared too, I found myself living at my mom’s. Unable to support myself, I was deemed homeless by the school district to allow stability and support services for my kids.

I didn’t understand. I was staying busy, working hard, and doing all the things I’d been taught my entire life were supposed to work to build safety, security, and a good life for me and my kids. Why wasn’t it working?

I didn’t know, so the cycle started again. I found work that filled my days, but allowed me to work from home, giving me flexibility to be there for my kids after school.

Then, when they were 12 and 15, my kids divorced me. I went from being a single mother who oriented her life around her kids’ needs to not knowing who I was, why I mattered, or what I should do next.

Work was no longer a necessity that produced money; it filled the void, kept me busy, kept me focused, and gave me value when I felt like I’d been discarded.

Five more years have passed. Now, in my mid-40s, I’m tired. I’ve built a life in which I work six to seven days each week. I still work from home and love the flexibility it gives me to work from anywhere, take off some time when I need to, and make some new choices.

But recently, I’ve realized that I’m still guilty of using work as my drug of choice, a coping mechanism to keep me inside my comfort zone and avoid giving myself the time, energy, and opportunity to explore my full potential.

So, I’m choosing differently. I’ve abused work for over 20 years, so I know the relationship won’t change overnight. I’ve made agreements with others that I can’t back out of—yet—because I want to honor my word.

But, I am also choosing to say, “No” to taking on more. I’m choosing to find ways to ask for help and adjust the agreements I’ve made so that they consume fewer hours. I’m taking a hard look at my to-do list to evaluate what’s actually working and what is simply filling time.

In short, I’ve decided that our Western value of “always be productive” is not one that works for me—at least not in the way I have lived it.

So, I’m bringing my to-do list into alignment with my inner values rather than society’s values.

Being a mentor, I know how valuable they are in times of transition, so I’ve hired one to help me too. Breaking old patterns isn’t easy; creating healthier ones often takes outside perspective and support.

While I began the process of realigning my life many years ago, it’s an ongoing journey of peeling back layers, sometimes running from what I’ve found at first, but then returning to heal it, learn from it, and unlock another pocket of potential.

Addressing my addiction to “busy” is the latest layer I’m healing, so that I can create the life I envision living: a life of joy, a life of adventure, a life of service, and a life fully aligned with who I was born to be.

What layer are you peeling back this year? And, what will healing it give you that you don’t have now?


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