WELLNESS
12/02/2015 07:48 am ET Updated Dec 02, 2015

How To Tell What You Want To Do From What You 'Need' To Do

Listen to your body.

Busyness is a problem. If you're like millions of Americans, you've developed a tendency to set yourself up on a never-ending treadmill of work, housekeeping, socializing, social networking... oh, and trying to make time for a relationship, family, and becoming your "best self." This busyness grind often leads to intense feelings of burnout that seem almost impossible to overcome. 

And then, in a rare calm, you're left with an hour of free time to do whatever you want for once. And it hits you: I have NO idea what I actually want to do. I can't even begin to tell. 

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The sensation is more common than you might think. Fortunately, mental health experts we spoke with were quick to offer solutions on this major symptom of busyness: the confusion about what one feels obligated to do versus what one wants to do. 

The first thing to understand about the confusion, they say, is this:

Staying busy is our way of avoiding pain.

In a moment when we're not busy, we might feel anxiety. Or loneliness. Or guilt, or a range of other unpleasant, painful emotions. Staying active is our way of quashing these before they start, says Christine Carter, a sociologist featured in JetBlue's recent mini-film on busyness.

Technology enables us to avoid those tough feelings. "If you're standing in line and a difficult emotion comes up, you can check your phone," Carter explains. "Any time you're feeling guilty or uncomfortable you can have a drink, check your Facebook or eat the whole pan of brownies. We become numb by not letting ourselves feel."

But in avoiding pain, we're equally avoiding joy. 

There's a tendency to become tangled in myriad little tasks -- paperwork, phone calls, social events -- that you believe you ought to do, but don't necessarily want to do. This is a major cause of burnout, says Michael Leiter, a psychologist who specializes in occupational stress. "When your heart isn't in (an activity), it doesn't give you much," he says. "It drains your energy and really shallows you out."

What's more, numbing negative feelings also suppresses the ability to feel good ones. "If you numb anxiety by staying busy, you're also numbing your ability to experience joy," Carter says. "You've narrowed the range of what you can feel." 

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But there's good news...

Your body already knows what you want to do from what you feel you "need" to do. Just listen. 

Ever feel so stressed that you can't pinpoint what you truly enjoy anymore? Don't worry, says New York University psychologist Gabriele Oettingen. Your body already knows; your mind just needs to stop doing and start listening. "When you're busy, you're reactive to demands from the 'outside' world," Oettingen says. "You need to take a moment to cut through the demands and decide what you really want."

Experts have varying strategies for achieving such moments. Some general steps:

1) Give yourself some time to do nothing, every day. Allow your mind to wander.

"Most of our brain activity, and certainly all of our nervous system, operates on an subconscious level," Carter says. "It does not speak in words. It can only talk to you in body sensations and emotions." So stop those numbing behaviors: Put down the phone, and literally stare into space. It could be while waiting in line, or it could be in the shower. Just 20 minutes of open brain time is all you need. 

2) Let yourself feel what you feel. Notice body sensations.

Notice what you're really feeling, and where those feelings physically occur. Is it a sad sensation, in your throat? A lonely ache in your stomach? Imagination is useful here, Carter says: Can you give your feelings a color or shape? Leiter recommends recording them in a notebook as they emerge.

3) Accept what you feel.*

Have a plan for when negative feelings surface, Carter says. Remember that physiologically, any emotion in your body will only last about 90 seconds.

Oettingen has a routine she calls WOOPing: During an introspective moment, identify a wish for either now (a worry-free evening, for example) or the future (a career in which you feel fulfilled). Then imagine the outcome of that wish, determine which obstacles prevent you from realizing that wish, and make a plan for getting past them. 

*And don't be afraid of BIG change. 

Ditching the busyness may lead you to realize you don't truly enjoy much of what you do, Leiter says. The majority of his clients with burnout completely switch careers after coming to understand what actually makes them happy. But this is a joyous part, and one that provides a huge mental payoff like increased creativity, productivity and attention span.

"So much busyness is driven by anxiety and performance for other people," Leiter says. "You’ve got to stop and reflect on just yourself."

And best of all, you'll be able to understand what you really, truly love to do. 

 

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