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Is Your Work Ethic Keeping You from Living Your Life?

12/07/2010 08:58 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

You wouldn't use a wrench to mow a lawn, or play basketball with the rules of football. Plenty of us, though, insist on playing the game of life with the laws of work. The trouble is that the work mind can't produce an extraordinary life, which is a realm of input, not output.

Using the production and speed-burning skills of the office for a realm that has no need for them is like trying to play hopscotch with a flow chart. As Alan Watts was fond of pointing out, the point of a concert isn't getting it done ASAP. It's about the unfolding melody. The point of a vacation isn't how many things you see or polish off but in your full participation in the experiences along the way. Many people are disappointed at the end of a holiday that they didn't see or do everything on the list. The work mind wants you to quantify your life, when it's the quality of living time that counts.

There's nothing wrong with being productive, and I'm a big fan of it -- at work. I conduct workshops on how to improve work effectiveness. But the rules we play by at work are largely designed for external bottom lines, not the internal ones that determine gratification beyond the office. Trying to "produce" our way to life satisfaction leaves us unhappy, though we don't know exactly why. The problem is we're using the wrong metrics and skills to live. It takes a different skill-set than the job defaults to make your world off-the-clock come alive. I call it "life intelligence," an acumen opposite from the work rules and a realm I detail in my new book on the power of engaged experiences, "Don't Miss Your Life."

Like Daniel Goleman's emotional and social intelligence, this collection of sensibilities and traits comes out of research that's pointing the way to a more skillful life. Life intelligence harnesses skills that are mortal sins for the work and performance mindset, such as unconditional engagement (not looking for a payoff); relying on your internal locus of control instead of the crowd; seeking out the unfamiliar instead of comfort; surrendering control instead of micromanaging; self-determining instead of spectating; and indulging in a behavior supposed to be worthless -- playfulness.

Why do so many of us do life like our jobs? The belief that every action must have some external payoff is drummed into us by performance-based identities and work habits like time urgency, a false emergency that makes you believe you have to fill every waking moment with productive endeavor or it's apocalypse now. That pushes aside most off-hours activities because they don't rise to the level of utilitarian value associated with output. Fun has no quantifiable dividend, but it has some pretty good unquantifiable ones -- joy, elation, satisfaction, flow, fulfillment.

The things that make you efficient and in control at work operate against you on the life side. Having everything figured out, never straying too far from routine, an aversion to risk and spontaneity -- it all stifles the full expression of life. The most optimal moments come from surrendering to your experience (a crucial feature of optimal experiences, or "flow"), stepping into the brand new, and not holding back.

A study of choral singers done by Cal State Irvine illustrates just how powerful putting it all out there can be. When the singers in the Pacific Chorale did rehearsals, researchers Robert Beck and Thomas Cesario found that a protein essential to fighting disease, immunoglobulin A, increased 150 percent. So the act of singing itself had a powerful effect on well-being. But it gets better: The protein soared 240 percent during live performances. Benefits rise in direct proportion to how much passion you put into the singing. Hum along in self-consciousness or boredom and you don't get the benefit the comes when you let it fly. This is such a great metaphor for the role passion plays in unleashing an extraordinary life.

Byproducts of the 24/7 workplace such as time urgency and nonexistent attention spans undercut the key building blocks of a fulfilled life -- time and focus. Hurry-worry mode gets you nowhere fast in your free time. You're either stampeded into the mental block of being "too busy" to break stride to indulge in your life, or you don't have the patience to let your best times and skills develop. Friendships and passions are not drive-thru affairs. You have to be willing to linger, hang out and practice pursuits for no discernible outcome other than the act itself. The life intelligence skill that overcomes time urgency and bottom-line mentality is the pursuit of competence, a drive for internal mastery, learning -- not to show anyone else -- that allows you to build enough facility to turn activities into passions and optimal experiences.

Researchers point to effort as one of the critical ingredients in creating satisfying experiences and happiness. That bucks the conventional belief that the supreme ingredient in off-hours enjoyment is a giant flat screen TV or a plush recliner. We don't associate effort with our free time, only with our work. It doesn't appear that there's anything in particular we need to do to make our lives happen, so we wait and wait. But life is a self-determined affair that requires proaction and skills.

Studies show the key components that drive effort are initiating and sustaining activities, which are both key life intelligence skills. In real estate, it's location, location, location. In optimal living, it's initiation, initiation, initiation. Initiating is a self-starter skill that propels you beyond the comfort zone to the experiences and friendships that will make up your life highlight reel. You're the entertainment director. If you don't direct the show, somebody else will, and that's not going to cut it with your core psychological needs.

After a long period of inactivity and seeing her weight and health problems balloon, Linda Imle, a Fairbanks computer technician and grandmother, initiated. She got on a bike and started riding. Soon her bottles of pills weren't needed anymore. She wound up pedaling the entirety of Route 66 on her 66th birthday. Cycling "is a coming together of mind, body and spirit," she told me. "It's one of the highest of all highs."

Getting permission from the performance identity of the work mind to slip into some life is hard enough for an evening. An ongoing commitment to an interest that could become a passion requires a full-on challenge to the productivity police. The production ID will tell you there's no time, and what's the big deal of walking away from something that's trivial anyway? It's easy to become a life dropout, unless you can counter the results obsession with the staying power of intrinsic motivation and the knowledge that this is not substandard time but, in fact, the time of your life, the experiences you need to satisfy your core needs.

So let's make a New Year's resolution to leave the production ID at work, and activate the skill-set of life intelligence, which puts us smack in the key of our best lives, as passionate as we want to be.

Joe Robinson is author of the new book, "Don't Miss Your Life," on the science, skills and spirit of full-tilt living. He is founder of Work to Live, and is a work-life balance and stress management trainer and coach.