I often feel pressure, like questions are burnt into my brain by endless repetition:
Am I contributing to the world right now?
Am I making enough money?
Am I deepening myself, learning new skills and growing as a person?
You might think that achieving any of these goals would be sufficient, but sometimes even when I manage one of them feels like it’s not enough. While I’m learning something valuable, I still feel pressure that I’m not contributing, or earning, or… or… or…
Part of me sometimes feels like I need to be contributing to the world, earning money and bettering myself, all at once.
This makes relaxation a little tricky, to put it mildly.
Must We Do Anything?
Each of the pressure questions contains an implied should. And each of these shoulds is important. Of course we all want to make an impact on the world, to be financially successful, and to grow. But a life spent purely in service of should is draining.
It’s also important to give ourselves permission – at least sometimes – to simply have fun.
The prevailing culture looks down on fun. We’re made to feel like productivity is the most important goal, which all other goals must be subservient to. BOW TO THE GODS OF PRODUCTIVITY, O MEASLY HUMANS.
But productivity and self-care/happiness/fun (however we want to think about it) are equally important.
(Arguably, if it’s a happy life we’re after, fun is even more important than productivity. As Alan Watts points out, if we work to earn money just to finance our lives so we can go to work… what’s the point?!)
To counterbalance valuing productivity above all else, here are some ways to give ourselves permission to have fun. Fun for no reason. Fun for it’s own sake.
NOTE: This isn’t so we can re-energize ourselves in order to be more productive. That kind of thinking is part of the problem: it still makes productivity the highest goal! We don’t want to put fun in service of productivity. For a moment, I want to allow fun to be the Highest Good.
Learn for No Reason
Do you have an interest that you never let yourself play with because you “can’t justify” it? Ever say to yourself, “learning to sew would be fun… but it won’t help me,” or “dance classes won’t make me better at my job”? Or anything like that?
Take the pressure off, and stop justifying every use of your time in productive terms. Give yourself an hour. Learn something for no reason at all. It’s alright!
Create Without Purpose
There’s something beautiful about monks creating mandalas – amazing artistic works made in sand – only to destroy them afterwards. The mandalas serve as a reminder that nothing is permanent. I like that the monks decouple the act of creation from any need to be anything in particular.
In a similar vein, you could:
- Write without worrying if anyone will like what you’re writing.
- Paint without wondering if anyone might pay for your painting.
- Create without fearing that anyone might even see your creation.
It’s freeing, healing, and inspiring to create without purpose (and if you accidentally create something amazing to share with the world, that’s a fantastic bonus).
Rest Without Guilt
I’m sure we all know this, but guilty rest isn’t restful.
It can be hard to truly switch ourselves off, especially if we’re in the habit of living with constant internal pressure: that litany of shoulds in our heads.
Of course, rest can be difficult for external reasons too – juggling work, family, and routine. But whatever your circumstances, you can surely find at least a few minutes (or hours, or even days) to allow yourself to rest.
However long it is, try marking that time out in your schedule, vow to ignore any internal pressure, turn your phone off, and have a little guilt-free rest.
I’ve noticed just how resistant I am to this idea, even though I know it’s good for me. Sometimes we have to get over our resistance in order to live more healthily.
Free Yourself from “Should”
If we’re in the habit of shoulding ourselves, it feels unnatural to stop justifying everything we do. But there’s no justification needed. There’s no must. Sometimes the best thing to do is to just play.
[this article was originally written for Puttylike]
Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a tale about a magical shop which sells human personality traits. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, speaking about mental health, computer programming, public speaking and everything from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you said hello.