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The Invisible Epidemic of Life Deficit Disorder

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The symptoms are under the radar, but you'll probably recognize them. A friend says, "How are you?" and you tick off a litany of projects you're working on. A rare free moment touches off the alarm to get busy. Someone asks you what you do for fun, and you can't think of anything.

These are all telltale signs of a growing affliction in 24/7 times -- life deficit disorder. You've lost that livin' feeling. More and more of us are too busy to live, or so we think, and when we do get some living in, we're too guilty or out of practice at it to enjoy it. The culprit is a mammoth identity theft that has taken over our brains -- the performance identity. It has convinced many of us that we have to be in task formation every minute of the day, or we're terminal slackers. This interloper is dedicated to keeping you as consumed as possible with output, every shred of which, it would have you believe, is of life-or-death importance. In comparison, your life off-the-clock appears to be a sideshow, an interruption in productivity.

The performance ID makes you think you are what you do and forces you to go through gyrations to justify getting some life in. It dictates that all value comes from output. Step back from nonstop performance, and you are valueless. You feel twitchy, fidgety, in other words, guilty as charged for violating the rules of the competition to have less of a life than the next person.

Production is a good thing -- we all need to feel competent, accomplish things, provide valuable services -- but not to the exclusion of the whole point of the production, the experience of life actually lived. It's very difficult to get life in your life when the performance ID is in control. The compulsion is to keep filling time, instead of finding ways to make it fulfilling, which is what our brains want.

Depend solely on performance for validation, and you can't really live, because the imposter ID is programmed only for output. The work mind can't play, since enjoyment is a realm of input -- about experiencing, not outcome. Using the work mind to produce fun is like having somebody keep minutes at your picnic. I know a woman in Arizona who spreadsheets her vacations down to the last hour. Whoopee. Surveys tell us many people will be returning from Labor Day vacations disappointed that they didn't get everything "done" or seen on their trips, as if they were expecting some kind of holiday performance review. We wind up doing life as if it was work.

The performance ID has no idea how to generate fun and aliveness. It knows only how to keep you running from the productivity police. You want fun? How about a little inventory metadata? Don't you need to check email you just checked five minutes ago? You can never let up, because there's always something next on the list.

Life deficit disorder is aided and abetted by the reflexive work style that prevails today, in which the premium is on acting before thinking, amped by the false emergency of time urgency and the ADD circus of tech tools run amok. It's all counterproductive to the work as well as your life. Multitasking actually slows you down, numerous studies show. You're not doing several high-thought tasks simultaneously. You're switching back and forth between them. That slows you down. Time urgency fuels rushing and rushing fuels mistakes and stress, not to mention heart attacks.

Performance-based worth is also a loser. It creates only the need to validate through more performance. The reality is that the job is only a small part of who you are. It's what psychologists call a persona, a mask that describes your social role, but it's not the whole you. When you think it is, you lose track of the authentic person behind the mask and that character's needs, interests, values and even the abilities necessary to live your life.

Stanford's Mark Cullen told me about research he did while at Yale's School of Medicine with some of the most successful executives in the country. They had achieved considerable wealth and status, but a couple days after walking out the door into retirement, these no-longer-execs felt worthless. They weren't producing anymore. That's how fragile the performance ID is. The men in Cullen's study had no leisure skills and didn't know what to do with themselves. So after working their whole lives to be able to have the freedom to live, they didn't know how!

Contrary to every message we get, living a rich and fulfilling life takes skills, which I detail in Don't Miss Your Life. As long as the performance ID is running the show, we can't develop those skills, because everything must be done for some "instrumental purpose," as the University of Rochester's Edward Deci terms it, a demonstrable external payoff. We blow off avocations and diversions, because what would we really get out of them? Where would they get us? These are the kind of cockamamie questions that lead to life deficit disorder.

The evidence shows that the production ID is a flop when it comes to creating real value, which comes from a broad, self-determined view that you are competent and worthy to enjoy life, and from the actual experience of same. The thrill of a job promotion is gone in two weeks. Then you have to find a new notch to pump yourself up with. Performance is an external gauge, so it wears off quickly and doesn't move your internal meter.

Define yourself by how busy you are, and you will never have time for life. What's going to matter in the end is not how booked-up you were, or the tally of tasks handled, but the experiences that let you know that the living you made yourself was actually indulged in. As psychologist Erik Erikson put it, when you look back you'll want to know, "Did I get what I came for? Was it a good time? Did I do what I wanted?" Reclaim your real ID from the performance con and the answer can be a resounding Yes.

Joe Robinson is an author and work-life balance trainer and speaker whose new book, Don't Miss Your Life, is a samba-dancing, dragon-boat paddling, rock-climbing ride through the science, skills, and spirit of full-tilt living. The book comes out Oct. 25. For more info, visit twitter.com/worklifeskills, dontmissyourlife.net (Sept. 14), and worktolive.info.

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