Do you ever feel like I do?
Like you should be accomplishing more with your days?
That no matter how good and productive and successful a day you had, you could have done more?
Do you ever feel that way?
I do. And I bet you do too, more than you care to admit.
And those are the days when you feel good: full of energy, physically capable, emotionally strong.
But what about the days when you’re feeling less than your best? When you’re sick, or hurting, or tired, or depressed?
You cut yourself some slack, right? You adjust your expectations to fit your circumstances? You accept that you did what you could, and you’re okay with that?
If you’re like me, you tend to beat yourself up about it. You tell yourself you should have done more. You compare yourself to others who are able to push through illness, or survive on three hours of sleep a night, or who on their worst days seem to accomplish more than you do on your best.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that we should just give up striving and accomplishing and growing to sit on the couch, watch TV, and eat Cheetos…
I am saying we should listen to what our bodies are telling us, and learn to work with the rhythms that are a natural, biological part of who we are.
Understanding Our Natural Rhythms
Our ancestors, whether hunter-gatherers or farmers, were connected to Earth and the rhythm of the seasons. In both cases, our ancestors worked heavily through the spring and summer and fall, preparing for the winter when food was scarce and winter cold kept them inside and warm. Even in places where winters were not so harsh, Earth’s rhythms created times when food was plentiful and life was easy, and other times when hard work was necessary to hunt or fish or gather enough to live.
Now that most of us are far removed from the rhythms of nature, we find it hard to know when to stop working. We just work and work and work, with no mind to how the seasons are changing, and how those changes affect our mood and energy. We don’t listen to our bodies, but seek always to be productive.
Twenty-first century farming has all but forgotten nature, too. Because now chemical fertilizers “enrich” the soil in which crops grow, farmers can plant a field every season, with the same crop. Instead of rotating crops to allow fields to rest, or letting a field lie fallow for a season for the nutrients to rebuild naturally, we pump the fields full of artificial “nutrients” and keep that ol’ field a-crankin’ out the corn…
Most of us are much the same at work. We replace good, nutritious food, good sleep, and relaxing down time for hyper-action fueled by sugar and caffeine. And we’re expected to do more, run faster, don’t stop until it’s done, produce more, produce better, add value, sell, sell, sell…
Until we’ve completely exhausted ourselves, and wind up sick, depressed, and ultimately empty.
Unlike our ancestors, who balanced periods of hard work and short periods of stress with equivalent periods of rest and fallowness, we are always “on.” And we pay the price for it: physically, emotionally, in our relationships, and in the things we do produce.
We spend so much time charging ahead that we don’t leave time to care for our own health, to build or nurture important relationships, to learn new things and expand our creativity so that what we produce is the best of what we can, rather than what we must get done in the moment to meet the deadline.
Other parts of the world are better at this than Americans, who’ve chosen to trade time for money and possessions. Many other cultures recognize the importance of intangible rewards, such as family and connection to nature and the benefits of hobbies. They recognize the importance of downtime, of holidays and vacations, of good rest and good food and good experiences, as a means of recharging their souls so that when they do work, they are giving their best.
Isn’t that what we all want? To do work that we can be proud of, that represents the best of who we are, rather than what we felt obligated to accomplish?
Always Do Your Best
I’m reminded of a lesson from the book The Four Agreements, by Don Miguel Ruiz. The fourth agreement is “Always do your best.” He says, “Under any circumstance, always do your best, no more and no less.” He goes on to explain that our best will be difference in every moment, for who we are in that moment and what we can bring in that moment will be different. Our best will be different when we’re in a good mood versus a depressed one, when we’re healthy and full of energy as opposed to sick and run down. He also warns us not to overdo—what he means when he says “…do you best, no more…”
I hear Ruiz telling us to acknowledge our rhythms, the ebb and flow of our energy and creativity and power, just like our ancestors honored the rhythms of nature and worked within them to produce what they needed to survive and thrive.
If you’re sick, allow yourself ample time to rest, and use that time to listen to what your body is telling you.
If you’re depressed, spend that fallow time exploring why you feel depressed, and what changes you might make in your life to improve your outlook.
If you’ve been working hard on a project and you’re not sure what to do next, let it sit for a while. Put it away, and work on something else. When you come back to it, you’ll do so with fresh eyes and fresh energy, ready to again do your best work.
None of this is an excuse to do nothing, to avoid our responsibilities, to sit in our comfort zones instead of fighting our personal Gravity. It’s knowing that sometimes the battle against our personal Gravity will be easier some days than others, and the best way to fight it is to understand where we are in the moment, to accept that place in the cycle of our lives, and to bring our current best to bear on the struggle.
Finding the Balance
This past week, in the throes of a job search (what a draining experience—rejection therapy, but the Hulk-sized, gamma-irradiated kind…), I realized that I needed to listen to my own rhythms, and focus on things that were important to my health—like eating well, and getting enough sleep, and taking walks outside. I needed to put some projects on the back burner (let them lie fallow), and focus the energy I did have on the few tasks that were most important, and do my best on those only. I will get back to the others soon enough. They’re not going anywhere. And next week, or the week after, when I’m again filled up with energy and grace and creativity, I’ll tackle them.
And you know what? I feel better. I feel healthier, better rested, and I have more energy and resilience, even though I’m still struggling through the job search. And I was more productive this past week than I was in the previous two weeks, when I was trying to force myself. This past week I had more downtime, but I also got more done. And it was better work—my best effort.
Do I still feel the twinges of “You should be working harder. You should be accomplishing more. You should be achieving great things like this person or that person.”?
But when I remind myself that today I did my best, I feel a sense of accomplishment and peace, and an excitement about what I’ll accomplish tomorrow.
And that’s what keeps me going forward, running some days, walking most, and even crawling sometimes, too.
As you enter the next week, I encourage you to listen to your rhythms, and allow yourself opportunities for fallowness and rest and contemplation to balance those times of intense action and productivity and achievement.
And as you understand and embrace the rhythms that are in you, remember to do your best every day, with the knowledge that, every day, your best will be different.