For roughly the first 24 years of my life (I am turning 27 in less than a month as of writing this), I did not know how to find a balance between taking a break versus wasting time. One of these things is a critical component of working hard, being productive, and still living a happy and blameless life (though nobody is perfect). The other at best presents a temporary distraction and at worst, sadness and depression.
First I will discuss my experience at both extremes and then we will go into finding the path towards balance. The principles I discuss here are not new, but the fact that I have lived this as opposed to just learned from the wise (and I do try to do that as well), will hopefully make this more impactful and useful to you.
I grew up in a broken family with a great deal of dysfunction and substance abuse. I mention this entirely so that you can understand why it was so difficult for me to find balance. My early influences taught me two things that made my life a living hell:
- Happiness is in letting go of responsibility and distracting oneself
- Discipline and hard work are bad words which point to painful experiences
One parental figure (I say it that way because my biological parents separated early) was habitually bad at managing basic daily responsibilities and almost invariably caved into the demands of my brother and I to play video games or eat junk food.
The other parental figure was a terrifying and sadistic authoritarian from a working class background. This person came from an old attitude that work is not real work unless you are miserable. In almost any situation where my brother and I tried to have a good time while picking rocks, digging trenches, and the various other jobs one does on a farm, severe reprimands would follow shortly. After all, miserable narcissists do not typically like to watch the people around them be anything but miserable.
The result of this conditioning was that, in my adult life and up until recently, I more or less lived in one of two binary states:
- Living life like a leaf blown in the wind, with little feeling of confidence or security over my future
- Working so hard that I literally began to destroy my mental and physical health, and the relationships in my life
Every time I thought things were hopeless, I eventually got back on my feet and kept walking forward. Every time I thought I had the magic formula, I would relax too much fall down again. This story repeated itself for years, and though it has become much less frequent, there is always the possible of recurrence.
But things have changed over time, and despite still dealing with plenty of adversity and disappointment, my habit structures and mental qualities are thousands of miles ahead of what they used to be.
There is a way to find balance in the work (personal or professional) we know we must do, without leading us to unheath and failing to participate in the lives of those around us. It is very easy to say, but depending on where you start, seemingly impossible to arrive at.
A happy mind is a mind that is ready to do work.
— Luang Por Ajahn Jayasaro
The end goal (at least in my current stage of mental cultivation) is to watch the mind and body throughout the day. Both will give clear indications that I have spent too much time working, or too much time doing nothing at all.
Genuine tiredness manifests as a lack of mental energy even though the mind may still be actively interested in getting the work done. It can more often than not be fixed by taking a short break. More on what that means later.
Laziness, while it can present similar sensations to genuine tiredness in the body, is something different. Rather than a lack of mental energy, I see the mind lacking interest in the work it ought to do presently. The mind then begins to behave like an unruly child, constantly making thoughts about how boring this is, what else I could be doing, and when will this be over? The root cause of this problem is an disordered and unhappy mind. More on that later as well.
The Path To Balance
I see only two things that helped me find some balance. The biggest obstacle for me, since I had very little mental cultivation and a mind deeply disturbed by past conditioning, was that I was simply unaware of when my mind or body was giving me legitimate signals to take a break.
I also had no ability to generate stillness and contentment within my mind (which naturally lead to a happy and energetic mind), so I could not have done much even when I noticed that something was seriously wrong.
So what can I offer you apart from plainly stating that I had to spend about six years cultivating my mind before I could even get started fixing it? The concept of a schedule and personal standards; which we call policy in my profession of computation.
Immutability In Conduct
If you cannot rely on your abilility to constantly (or at least frequently) monitor your internal state and fix whatever is bothering you, then the only substitute is to follow a schedule.
The purpose of this schedule is to do the thinking for you at critical periods of the day where your mind will typically incline to activities which lead to short term pleasure in exchange for long term suffering. In my case I know that the most critical time is the first hour or two after waking.
How Do I Make A Schedule? I cannot give you a specific answer; you must try different things and understand that you will fail many times even with a great schedule.
Some people like to schedule every minute of their day, but if you do not prepare and accept that life will never let you follow your plans exactly, then you will always fall short of your expectations and suffer as a result.
I thought for a while that simply writing down a TODO list and following a basic morning routine would work, but that turned out to be not quite enough structure for me to spend more than about 2–4 hours building my business or improving myself as a person. Better than nothing, but I still suffered.
Whatever you decide, even those who are exemplars of the power of personal standards (I imagine Jocko Willink and David Goggins), you will still hear them say: Your schedule must include time for breaks and resting. Ignore that at the peril of your mental and physical health, and by extension your productivity.
The actual work output varies depending on what is most valuable to you. If I really need to, I can work for 8, 12, 16 hours in one day. But perhaps on a certain day I am to spend some time with friends and family, and in that case maybe 2 hours (really just following my morning routine) is appropriate.
Still, I could not consistently manage those long days without learning about the main idea in this article; proper rest versus leisure time.
What Is Proper Rest?
Finally we arrive at something else that I did not really learn until a year or two ago. Whether it is because I have hit a specific point in my schedule where I am to take a break, or I have simply noticed that my mind is giving me the signal that it needs to put everything down for a few minutes, we must understand the difference between rest and leisure. If a dear friend or colleague asked you for a break, would you not say yes immediately?
Again, owing to my interalized habit of distraction and escapism, I failed for years to understand what a proper break looks like.
I did not use my break time for taking a short nap to restore the physical body.
I did not use my break time to sit quietly or go for a walk for ten minutes; giving the mind some time to put down whatever it has been carrying.
I did not always recognize that sometimes the discursive, narrative faculty of my mind was completely out of control and untrustworthy, and that I could restore some control by listening to a meditation master, spiritual teacher, or otherwise skillful human being.
I did not realize that the very manifestation of doubt, restlessness, heaviness, and that which stops me from putting forth skillful effort, was a result of my incapability of generating positive mental states whether life was easy or diffuclt.
After all, from what I could see, you had to be stupid to be happy. Ironically, that was the worst delusion I ever arrived at. It was exactly why it took me so long to cultivate my mind.
I can only point a few things out here and there from personal experience, but you will never find the perfect instructions. What you need to fix, depends on what is bothering you at the time.
You may also wonder, do I take leisure time and allow my monkey mind a few hours a day to wander a bit, but not so much that it gets into trouble? Yes, I certainly do. The difference is in whether the leisure time is feels like freedom or an inescapable prison.
“There is no fixed teaching. All I can provide is an appropriate medicine for a particular ailment.” — Bruce Lee
Good luck my friend.
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