There are certain things taught to us at a young age that we never seem to question as we grow older: Eat your veggies; they’re good for you. Think to all of the phrases society repeats about time. “When you’re older you’ll wish you had more time.” Or “time is precious, don’t waste it.” Or as Gen-Z would gram it, #YOLO. As a young sponge, I internalized this sentiment early, to the point that a refusal to waste time became a way of life that I followed dutifully.
“If time be of all things the most precious, wasting time must be the greatest prodigality.” —Benjamin Franklin
I did everything I could to maximize my time. In a competition with myself, I never turned down an opportunity. I can still picture running to second base with a leotard hidden underneath my baseball uniform because I’d rush straight from one practice to another. When you’re young, people call this the mark of a high achiever, so I wore my affinity for multitasking as a badge of honor. “Sleep is for the weak” was a running joke I proudly adopted. But jokes have a bitter kernel of truth behind them if you pay attention.
This belief that I could do it all stayed with me after college—I was working full time, volunteering, running half marathons, traveling. A master juggler. Everything done artfully and with a smile. The trouble is, life happens and things change course unexpectedly. One of the balls gets heavier and threatens your rhythm. Refusing to slow down because “time is of the essence,” I pressed onward. And onward. And past the recommended dose of onward. When I finally looked up for air, I gulped a lungful of water from the riptide I’d unknowingly been swept into.
I’d built my life with such a momentum and no wiggle room for anything other than my best, even an emergency chute couldn’t reduce my speed. Originally I’d framed it as being determined, but I was so married to the idea of living each moment to the fullest that I ran myself straight into an existential crisis. You know, the kind paired with answerless questions that repeat on an endless loop. Why am I spending so much energy on XYZ? Am I actually making a difference? What is my purpose? At 27 I was so mentally and physically exhausted from running around in circles and yet the idea of taking a mental health day made me feel ashamed.
That’s a problem.
We overachievers pressure ourselves so much with the idea of greatness. As if there’s only one definition of success. Often this is romanticized to look a lot like the entrepreneur graced with the next great idea and maddeningly burns the midnight oil, fueled by passion, until their idea is a sensation. But a large part of being successful is knowing when to push and when to pause. Singers meticulously plot out where in each line they will take a breath. Pilots have a co-pilot to steer the ship if they get tired. Even Kobe routinely rested for the first four minutes of the second quarter in each game. So why in business is it so hard to shed the idea that any time not spent productively moving toward a goal is a waste? Billable hours and timesheets are partially to blame for compulsively needing to justify your minutes, though I don’t think it’s that simple.
During my painfully self-prescribed relaxation (if you can even call it that), I came across Tarek El Moussa of HGTV’s Flip or Flop, who also discovered this the hard way when starting his business, SuccessPath. Like me, he went from trying to do everything to living by a more simple philosophy: Know what your time is worth, and then spend it accordingly. It sounds easy enough, but it’s actually nearly impossible to quantify what your time is worth without measuring each task against your personal values. I love this notion.
Time is a commodity. It’s nothing you can buy or sell, though it is something you spend. As long as you spread it among things aligned with your values, even Netflix bingeing can still be a positive investment. (I see you, Virunga.) So although I believe the intentions of grandparents everywhere when they caution 8-year-olds to put their time to better use are pure, I can’t shake the feeling it does all of us a disservice. If someone had deemed tinkering on old computers as wasteful, we might never have met Siri. Like beauty, meaning is in the eye of the beholder, and we should stop insisting time fits within one standard value system. When you’re under an impossible pressure to squeeze out each minute of life like the last drop of coffee on a Monday morning—when there’s not a second to lose—you never get to turn off. Or breathe. And even the most determined flame can’t survive without oxygen.
From a recovering perfectionist who wholeheartedly believed she could do it all and at once, please take my word for it—you can’t. More importantly, you shouldn’t. As Sterling Griffin has said, “success is found in your habits, not your events.” Go slower. Make it a habit. Waste time to breathe. You might be killing time, but you’ll be saving yourself.
Megan Nicole O’Neal is a writer with a passion for storytelling, traveling and whenever possible, mixing the two. The UCLA alum lives in Los Angeles; more specifically westside coffee shops with equally strong wifi and dark roasts. Connect with Megan on Twitter at @megan_n_onealor her website mnoneal.com.