How to Move Forward? Stop.
How to Move Forward if “Letting Go” Makes You Anxious
As a personal life coach, I talk to a lot of driven go-getters. My Denver life coaching clients often have an insatiable appetite for constant-and-never-ending personal growth, achievement, and self-improvement. They are truly amazing, talented, and incredibly successful people with an unquenchable thirst for forward progress and success. Does this sound like you, too?
First of all: thank you. The world as we know it exists because of people like you. Your motivation, your drive, your vision, and your optimism are the psychic fuel that runs the engines of our civilization. Thank you for being you.
And…if you are like most strong, naturally driven, and forward-focused people, there are also not-fun times when your energy flags, your focus becomes diffuse, and your wheels spin. And spin. And spin. And for naturally focused, driven, achievement-oriented people that “down time” can be very anxiety-provoking experience.
In fact, many of my coaching clients show up for help when they have this experience because they feel like something is wrong. They’ve lost their sparkle and their clear sense of purpose. To an uber-achiever, this can feel like they are losing themselves, or even falling apart.
Of course, if you are achievement-oriented, your natural instincts are to hit it harder. Make positive changes. Buckle down. Get up earlier. Grind away until you manifest the force of your will. But during certain periods, you just can’t gain traction. You stay busy — to everyone else you look as productive as ever — but on the inside you feel the anxiety of mediocrity.
Feeling so listless can feel like doom for a go-getter. It feels like your endless drive has stolen your car, and absconded to parts unknown…with your optimism riding shotgun and inspiration sprawled across the back seat. You imagine them speeding down an arrow straight highway through the desert, windows open and radio blaring…while you sit at your desk and think about things that you should probably be doing but don’t feel like today. You probably criticize (perhaps even berate) yourself for your self-indulgent lethargy, but no matter how sternly you talk to yourself it doesn’t matter. You just don’t care that much anymore.
What to Do When Your Get-Up-And-Go Has Got-Up-And-Went: Let Go
I myself am a recovering perfectionist and have an achievement orientation too, so I will wince with you as you read this:
Sometimes, if you want to get ahead, you have to let things go.
And by letting things go, I mean to stop trying so hard for a while. Visualize yourself shoving all the scribbled notes with the grand plans in a drawer, clearing your calendar, saying no to everything and everyone, putting down the quad-latte, and just allowing yourself to do the bare minimum for a bit. Coasting. Being.
My guess is that idea might feel really scary. Unwise. Dangerous even. Here’s the problem: if I told you that the path to salvation was to get up earlier, stay up later, implement some novel new strategy to get more things done in less time, do a draconian cleanse, or retrain your brain to think more successfully you would probably like that. It makes you feel energized and hopeful, and like there was something you could DO to turn things around. But we both know that you’ve tried that. In fact, you’ve probably spent years getting up before dawn, sacrificing your sleep, self-care, and possibly even relationships in the service of getting things done. Continuing to grind away is not always the solution. It’s time to do something radically different: like stopping…for a while.
This is not just my opinion. Check out a compelling article that was posted in Scientific American about the benefits of turning your brain off periodically to your memory, creativity, and emotional wellbeing. Many, many research studies have shown that your brain simply requires downtime in order to consolidate information, achieve clarity, and work efficiently. The author of the article puts it so beautifully:
“Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life. A wandering mind unsticks us in time so that we can learn from the past and plan for the future. Moments of respite may even be necessary to keep one’s moral compass in working order and maintain a sense of self.” — Ferris Jabr
And… as great as it sounds in theory, resting the mind can be extremely difficult for over-achievers to actually DO. I believe that part of the reason for this skepticism is the fact that truthfully, sometimes working to the brink of exhaustion actually is the solution. There are seasons of achievement that are activity intense. If you are actively launching a start-up, finishing a dissertation, or embarking on a new chapter, there is often a lot to do.
In the springtime, farmers really do have to work their butts off for 16 hours a day to plow fields, spread fertilizer, plant seeds, and get things going. But there is an ebb and flow to productive activity. Other phases of achievement are like a “tending” phase, where precarious, fragile plates are kept spinning in the air: farmers watch, water, keep the bugs off, pull weeds, fret about the weather, and let the grow-ee do it’s thing.
Then there is the necessary insanity of the harvest time, when farmers are back to driving tractors around in the wee hours of the morning before the sun comes up, pulling things out of the ground frantically at just the right moment – not too soon and not too late. There are seasons of busy-ness for everyone. Accountants have tax season. Families have newborn babies. Students have the end of the semester. Real-estate agents have summer. Everyone has big explosions of necessary activity sometimes.
But it’s easy to overlook a crucial, necessary part of the growth cycle: dormancy.
In the fallow, still period of winter nothing obvious is happening. Even the most on-the-ball farmers are laying around eating Cheetos and watching Deadliest Catch reruns while the soil in their fields gently decomposes itself, gets churned by worms, and the rain falls and freezes. Nothing is happening, but everything is happening. The earth is doing the necessary work of preparing itself for another burst of growth and glory.
Your creative process requires dormancy too. You might not think of yourself or what you’re doing as being “creative” in the oil-paint and poetry sense, but everyone who makes things happen is a creator. When you are engaged in any act of creation, from starting a business, to starting a family, to leading a team, to moving ahead towards distant goals, and making your inner vision a reality, you are bringing things into being. You are making something out of nothing, just like Michalangelo chipping David free from his marble encasement, or like a tiny tomato seed that miraculously pushes out a gigantic, sprawling bush with dozens of juicy fruits with nothing but a little water, dirt, and air.
To unleash true generative power upon the world requires intervals of deep rest.
Why? Because when you are constantly pounding away on the same problems with the same tools, you do not have the headspace to entertain new ideas. When you are ceaselessly doing, and doing, and doing you are often working yourself deeper into the same rut that you’ve been running in for weeks, months, or even years. It gets old and boring. And over time, your energy, inspiration and motivation flags and fails as a result.
Expansion requires space. When you are constantly doing and thinking and running around in the hamster wheel of your life without stopping once in a while to look at the bigger picture and regroup, you may be “getting things done” but you are not really moving forward. Even as fast as you can run, nothing is changing. You’re treading water and exhausting yourself without getting any closer to a meaningful destination.
It can feel catastrophic for driven-people to think about stopping. Overachievers (even if they know that it’s not rationally true) emotionally feel like letting go and coasting for a little while will lead to total collapse and something terrible will happen.
But your full creative potential will be blocked until you pause long enough for fresh creative energy to refuel you.
So, what do I mean by really resting and letting things go for a while? I don’t mean “vacationing,” particularly not the kind of snorkeling amongst barracudas/trekking up mountains/zip-lining through jungles/marathon-related vacations uber-achievers tend to have.
I mean spending at least a couple of weeks (yes, WEEKS) doing the bare minimum that you need to do to keep your life going, and allowing your physiological, psychological, and emotional stress levels to return to baseline.
Ask yourself what the basic-basics really mean for you and your family:
- Spending as much time engaged in non-productive activity as possible (i.e., “Playing”),
- Being with people you like,
- Giving yourself permission to spontaneously do whatever you feel like, in the moment,
- Doing as little work as you possibly can get away with and still meet your responsibilities and not create consequences.
It’s such a paradox, but it’s true: disengaging and not thinking about or doing anything productive at all for a little while will wipe your slate clean and create fertile ground for new growth to occur.
After you’ve been resting for a few weeks you’ll notice that you have little flashes of genuine inspiration and enthusiasm again. Authentic new energy, inspiration, and motivation will start nuzzling into your soul like tender daffodil shoots pushing out of the frozen, dead ground. You’ll know when resting time is over because you’ll have a new vision for where you’re going, and feel genuinely excited to get back to work.
You can’t make creativity happen. You cannot chase down inspiration and catch it with a net. You can’t tackle motivation and make it submit to your will. Cultivating motivation, inspiration, and enthusiasm––and sticking with those feelings––requires getting comfortable with the paradox of letting it all go. When you place your trust in the restorative power of doing nothing, they’ll show back up on their own accord when you’ve prepared the soil and given them space to grow.
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- Losing Energy and Motivation
- If you are a strong, naturally driven, forward-focused person who is always pushing forward, there are going to be times when your energy flags and your focus would not be as good anymore.
- Everybody goes through periods where their energy dips.
- Tendencies When You Lose Your Drive and Focus
- On the occasion where you lose your drive and focus, the natural instinct is to hit it harder.
- Many start criticizing or even berating themselves for not being able to get things done. This can lead to psychological problems.
- Difference between a Fallow Period and Depression
- Depression is accompanied by sad or hopeless feelings. It’s not just that you’re not into it anymore.
- When you’re going through a depressive episode, there’s a lot of black and white thinking, overgeneralization, and personalization.
- A fallow period is a natural downtime where you don’t feel as much energy, you don’t care as much as you usually do, and you don’t have that same passion to get things done.
- How to Get Out of a Fallow Period
- The strategy is to go ahead and embrace this fallow period.
- Continuing to grind away and do the same things that you always have done isn’t the solution.
- A wandering mind unsticks us in time so that we can learn from the past and plan for the future. Moments of respite may even be necessary to keep one’s moral compass in working order and maintain a sense of self.
- Difficulty in Taking a Break and How to Deal with It
- Taking a break is difficult because sometimes, particularly among very successful people, working yourself to the brink of exhaustion is needed.
- We tend to glorify and prioritize the activity phases of our progress and minimize how crucial and necessary seasons of dormancy are.
- Do not work in the evenings.
- Take a Sabbath, not in the religious sense, but in the sense where you don’t do anything.
- The creative process, any kind of growth process, requires dormancy.
- How to Take a Break
- Emotionally and mentally prepare to give yourself a couple of weeks doing the bare minimum that you need to do to keep your life going.
- Spend all the time you can in nonproductive activities such as playing.
- Effects of Taking a Break
- Disengaging for a few weeks wipes your slate clean.
- Authentic, new energy, inspiration, and motivation will start nuzzling their way into your soul.
- You’ll start to feel excited again. You’ll be thinking about things that make you happy. You’ll feel fresh, rested, restless to get back to work.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
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