On escaping the trap of living too instrumentally…
— “Too Much Fun,” Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, 1974.
Having too much fun has never been a problem for me. No, really — I have almost no concept of what it’s like to have too much fun. It’s one of those things that “I never done,” as the song goes. My problem tends to be the opposite: I run fun deficits routinely — deficits so large sometimes that the federal government has nothing on me, certainly not when it comes to spilling the red ink of not enough fun. In my case, this is both a spending and a revenue problem: too much time spent on work and not enough time reaping the revenues of time spent having fun.
The last six weeks or so have been a perfect example. A solid period of nose-to-the-grindstone work with very few breaks was beginning to take its toll. The home stretch of my work marathon was in sight — just a few more big tasks to get done, and then daylight — but I had run out of mental energy. Semi-conscious rebellion — not unconscious because I was aware of it, but not entirely in my conscious control either — had broken out. Eating discipline, disrupted by travel and a succession of client dinners, had become undisciplined. Minutes spent in TV veg mode had turned into hours. So much time had been spent in the web surf that my brain was getting wrinkly. I was starting to get crankier and achier and unhappier. My mind was, in more ways than one, grinding to a halt.
This came to a head this past Sunday. I made a list of all the things I needed to do, estimated how much time each task would take, quickly calculated that I needed not an entire day but more like an entire week to finish them, and then proceeded to ignore the to-do list except for one item: take a walk. So I took a walk on the National Mall in DC to be inspired, clear my mind, sort things out, get things straight. It wasn’t working, although I did manage to get to the point where I realized that my fun deficit had gotten too severe, and that I needed to have more fun. I know what, I thought: I’ll make a list of all the things I could do to have fun over the next few weeks. I tried making the list in my head while walking, but I had trouble thinking of anything; my mind seemed incapable of clearing or sorting that out. The only thing that seemed to help clear my mind at all was recalling that old commercial where they sing the song “I need a vacation/like nobody’s business…” So I sang that song in my head over and over as I walked past the monuments through head wind and tail wind on a very blustery day.
Upon my return, list making with pencil and paper didn’t get anywhere either. So, back to wrinkling my brain some more by reading my Facebook news feed, during which I encountered a link to this article: The 5 Daily Rituals That Will Make You Happy. Normally I’m dismissive of such articles, but in this case I felt like anything could be helpful. I only got as far as the first ritual: “Take Recess.” That sounded like a good idea. This passage described an experiment by noted psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi which essentially confirmed the folk wisdom about all work and no play makes us dull, only far worse than that: 48 hours of all work and no play gives us clinical anxiety disorder.
But the word that struck me from this article — the one that provided me the nugget of insight I needed — was “instrumental.” “Most of what we do all day is ‘instrumental.’” That hit the mark for me because everything I’d been doing was instrumental. The Sunday walk on the Mall didn’t work because I’d framed it as instrumental, a walk with a purpose instead of a walk with no purpose. That’s what my semi-conscious mind had been trying to tell me: ‘if you won’t take the time to have some real fun, then we’ll just have to make do with proxy fun [all of which are definitely not examples of “too much fun”] — too much eating, drinking, watching TV, etc. Because I’m pretty much tapped out here…’ This even explains why the fun list went nowhere: as soon as I framed it as instrumental, my mind shut down — ‘nope, another task — no fun here.’
I needed more fun time, which is to say time distinctly defined as not instrumental: some time spent ‘off the clock,’ or even doing something which wasn’t near the top of my task list but which is fun to do. Like writing this blog post.
So this week I’ve been focusing on having regular fun time: an unexpected dinner with some friends, an unexpected stint in a pottery class at my son’s former school, and more on the way. Maybe even going out looking for an armadillo or two. Recess is not just for kids, after all…