Discipline vs. the Joy of Wasting Time – A Difficult Balance
I grew up valuing discipline, and have become very efficient and goal-oriented in pretty much everything I am doing. However, this accomplishment came at a high price. When I was 23, I realized I had become so disciplined that I could only get pleasure by ticking off that goals or tasks I set out for myself. I had become unable to enjoy the moment, or even the activity, even when I was doing something nice like meeting friends. The only thing I could enjoy was the fact that my plans went through. I fell into a mild depression, where I couldn’t feel anything anymore, not even hunger.
For almost a year I only ate because I knew I had to. While my discipline enabled me to reach all my goals, I realized that something had to change. I completed my Master thesis 2 months earlier than anyone else, even though my supervisor told me it was impossible, and so I had 3 months of summer holidays. I knew I had to spend a lot of time by myself to find peace again. To avoid falling victim of my discipline, I had to literally train myself to not do things in an efficient way. What I needed to re-learn, instead, was to “waste time” – doing things in an enjoyable, but not necessarily efficient way.
“Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.”* This is what I kept telling myself when my brain screamed that I was being so inefficient.
Those 3 months turned out to be exactly what I needed. At the end of that period I experienced feelings of joy I had never sensed before. These feelings, which seemingly came out of nowhere, were so intense that I couldn’t even describe them. I realized that the source of these wonderful feelings was simply the fact that I was enjoying the moment. It was a condition of “being“ instead of one of “doing,“ similar to what Anita Moorjani describes it in her amazing book “Dying to be me”. I can highly recommend that book to anyone who wants to discover their inner self and enjoying the moment, instead of rushing through life.
More than 3 years have passed since that experience, and I am still working on myself to listen to my heart more often instead of solely my brain. It’s not easy to find a balance between the two. While I can’t always do what I feel like, I am becoming better at determining when I can do it.
A first example of balance is my attitude towards things that are pleasurable but potentially harmful. In my case, there are times when I crave a particular, not so healthy, food. A few months ago I was crazy about peanut butter stacks and I could have eaten them every day. Indeed, I allowed myself to eat them whenever I passed by Starbucks. But, why? Because I know and trust myself now. A few years ago I would have been worried that by allowing myself to indulge my cravings, I would have lost control over myself and become unhealthy, fat, and poor. Today I know that my cravings tend to last about a month, and I trust things won’t get out of control. In the last weeks I have been eating nougat bits every day for breakfast, and I have enjoyed every single one of them without feeling bad about myself and without feeling the need to discipline myself.
A second example is how I handle recurrent activities that are healthy but demanding, like running. I love running and I usually go 3-4 times a week. In the past, if I had cancelled my plan to go running because I didn’t feel like it, I would have called myself lazy and I would have beaten myself up for days about it. Over the past couple of years, however, I noticed that when I cancel my plan because I really don’t feel like it, I feel proud of myself because I have come to realize that once in a while I deserve to cut some slack. Apparently I have been able to free myself from the traps of excessive discipline, and learned to gain pleasure by following my inner core.
A final example is how I address things that are optional but extremely enjoyable, like writing these blog articles or watching a movie. I now realize that these kinds of things depend on my mood. Only my heart, and not my brain, can tell what movie I’d like to see, what song I want to listen to, and what book I want to read in a particular moment. At the same time, I can’t force myself to write a blog article because that too needs to come from a moment of inspiration where I have access to my emotions regarding a certain topic.
Things are much harder when it comes to work, where my brain still dominates and tells me what to do and how many things I have to accomplish a particular day. I would like to learn to trust my inner voice in this regard too, and make my work not only efficient, but also enjoyable.
Finding trust in myself is what this process is all about for me. I now trust I won’t end up only eating peanut butter stacks and nougat bits until the end of my life just because I allow myself to indulge my cravings once in a while. I trust I won’t remove running from my program just because on a particular day I simply don’t feel like doing it. Developing this trust is a step to loving myself. Today I feel I am treating myself (and my cravings) with love and acceptance, instead of being ashamed and trying to repress them. Sometimes I let my brain decide and sometimes my heart. I am still looking for a balance, and I know it will be a long journey, but I also feel it is worth it.
How are you doing with respect to your balance between discipline and joy? Share your thoughts in the comments below or via direct message!* The attribution of this quote is highly debated. Some claim John Lennon came up with it.
Written by Julia Heuritsch | Last edited: 15th June 2022