Because trying to do too much is a surefire way of getting nothing done...
OK, so it might seem a bit radical that some people touting a website full of online courses and self-development inspo are telling you to ignore any pressure to do self-development stuff. It might, in fact, seem like we’re shooting ourselves in the foot. But hear us out: our point is that, as humans, we put huge pressure on perceived milestones. Quite frankly we blame childhood – the whole thing is tracked via milestones and it doesn’t stop there. By the time we reach adulthood, we’ve mastered most of the practical stuff (walking, talking, wiping our own bum…) so we end up seeking out other things to feel competitive about – whether it’s with ourselves or our peers.
So, then what happens? Well, we lay on so much pressure that when we don’t hit the milestones like we visualised, we convince ourselves we “haven’t achieved anything”. In reality, many of those big moments are so damned busy and stressful that of course we can’t effortlessly get fluent in Japanese on the side; it’s like we’re setting ourselves up to fail. Quite often, the best time to try something new – whether it’s working on your mind, body, soul or all three – is when very little else of consequence is happening at all. The pressure’s off, nobody is watching and you’re not doing it just to tick a box on your mental (or actual) list of things you feel like you should have done by now. We’re not saying you categorically shouldn’t get stuck into some self-development stuff during these big life events, but we’re saying that if you do, it should be because it makes you happy and not because you feel like you should.
Oh, and we apologise for the rather depressing life trajectory here – and the fact that the only inevitability is the last one…
What you think: “I’m going to travel the world and make life-defining friendships while sporting an amazing tan and some cool jewellery of mysterious origins. By the time I get back, I’ll know exactly what my life’s purpose is.”
The reality: An internship in your dad’s mate’s office followed by a stressful fortnight on a Greek island where you sever a few life-defining friendships, lose your phone and burn your shoulders. By the time you get back, you do indeed know exactly what your life’s purpose is – anything but this.
The takeaway: You have your whole life ahead of you, you didn’t waste that summer or that year at all. Soon enough, you’ll find your path (and hopefully your phone).
What you think: “I’ve got enough cash to last a couple of months so I’m going to use this time to learn some awesome new skills that will make me super-employable.”
The reality: You spend three weeks deliberating over the most appealing font for your CV, then start panic-applying for any job you’re vaguely qualified for. You beat yourself up for not finishing – or starting – that creative writing/coding/Spanish/creatively coding in Spanish course.
The takeaway: It’s incredibly hard to work on yourself when your confidence has been knocked and there’s financial pressure beating down on you. A better use of time would be to structure your day, alongside job-hunting, with a combination of things and people that make you feel good. The things (whether exercise, baking or terrible reality shows) will boost your happiness and the people will help you talk through the work situation and potentially lead to some tangible opportunities. Applying for jobs can feel like a full-time job in itself, so unless you have unlimited funds and time to play with, there aren’t too many opportunities for navel-gazing.
During a global pandemic
What you think: “This is shitty, but I’ve got all this time at home! I’m going to become a fitness influencer, reorganise my whole house, take loads of courses, start a successful business, write a novel, breed some adorable puppies and master the art of making my own pasta.”
The reality: This is shitty.
The takeaway: None of us were prepared for this. You might feel like you’re surrounded by people who have managed to achieve stuff during lockdown(s), but that’s because they’re a vocal minority who are, understandably, showing off about it. Most people are just drained and that’s OK. The good stuff comes next, right?
What you think: “Wow, what a privilege to have this relaxing break from work. I can finally do all the things I’ve put off for years because I’ve been just too busy.”
The reality: You are exhausted and can barely manage to write your own name, let alone a screenplay. Your hopes and dreams are even lower on your to-do list than “sell baby clothes on Facebook”. Your definition of busy has changed from “packed schedule of meetings, drinks and weekend getaways” to “trying to find time to down a coffee and spritz some dry shampoo into your hair between nappy changes.”
The takeaway: Having a kid is a huge deal, one of the biggest shake-ups anyone goes through, and the “mum-preneurs” of the world are exceptions – and who wants to be called that anyway? It’s more likely that your time to shine will come when you have two things nailed: sleep, and childcare.
What you think: “I’m going to be debt-free and madly in love with my future soulmate by 30, running my own six figure business by 40, living by the sea mortgage-free by 50. I’ve got it all mapped out.”
The reality: As those big birthdays draw closer, the pressure you put on yourself to cross things off the bucket list can really start to grate and it can feel like the postman has slipped an existential crisis in with your cards.
The takeaway: Marking the passing of time by treating yourself to an online course, personal trainer session or creative retreat (or whatever floats your boat) should feel like exactly that – a treat, not your final stab at happiness. Milestone birthdays can be a good time to take stock of where you are in life and where you want to be, but try and throw in some celebration with your soul-searching – you made it!
What you think: “Finally, I’ve got some closure and can move on with my life and do all the things I’ve felt held back from for so long. In the wise words of Martine McCutcheon, this is my moment. And I’m gonna change my hair.”
The reality: You’re weeping along to Martine McCutcheon because you remember that song coming on in the pub during one of your first dates. And you’re so bogged down by life admin and the changes to your old routine that focusing on yourself on both a logistical and emotional level can be extremely challenging. Cool haircut though.
The takeaway: Play the long game. A big shake-up or break-up can indeed be a great time to list out your priorities – whether in your own head, on paper or in a conversation with a friend or even a professional – but actioning them might be more of a long-term goal. Plan now, reap the benefits later.
What you think: “Wow, this is the life. I can finally do that life drawing class, go on lots of joyfully life-affirming country walks, help the homeless, read great novels, travel the world, cook everything from scratch and spend quality time with my loved ones.”
The reality: While this is a great time to take up new hobbies, and probably the most spare time you’ll ever have, it turns out you’re quite tired. Many decades of tired. And it’s amazing how all those little jobs you’ve put off for years can fill your day. And your knees are a bother. And sometimes you wonder what’s the point in trying something new at this stage of your life anyway?
The takeaway: Give yourself a break, you’ve earned it. Trying to do too much is a surefire technique for not getting anything done at all. Structuring your days is usually a good starting point, but just try to do one of the things you love, rather than ten. And as for there being no point in trying something new… rubbish! If you’re doing things for the right reasons – because it might make you happy – there’s always a point.
What you think: “Death sounds rubbish, I don’t really fancy it tbh.”
The reality: You’re dead.
The takeaway: Nobody important will fixate on how much you achieved in your life, they’ll just miss you because you’re ace.