From a Recovering Perfectionist: Stop Saying 'Wasting Time'

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Article by Megan Nicole O'Neal

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We learn certain things at a young age that we never seem to question. In particular, I'm thinking about all the lessons we learn about time: "When you're older, you'll wish you had more time." Or "Time is precious; don't waste it." Or as Gen. Z would 'gram it, "#YOLO."

As a young sponge, I internalized these sentiments early. A refusal to waste time eventually became a way of life that I followed dutifully.

I did everything I could to optimize my time. In a competition with myself, I never turned down an opportunity. I still remember running to second base with a leotard hidden underneath my baseball uniform because I'd rush straight from one practice to another. When you're young, people see this behavior as the mark of a high achiever, so I wore my affinity for multitasking as a badge of honor. "Sleep is for the weak" became a personal running joke.

Jokes, however, always have a bitter kernel of truth at their core.

The belief that I could do it all stayed with me after college. I was working full-time, volunteering, running half marathons, and traveling. I was a master juggler, and I did it all artfully and with a smile. The trouble is, life happens, often unexpectedly. Things change course. One of the balls grows heavier and threatens your rhythm.

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Refusing to slow down because "time is of the essence," I pressed onward. And onward. I blew past the recommended dosage of onward. When I finally took a moment to stop and look around, I realized I was trapped in a riptide of my own making.

I'd built my life with such momentum and so little wiggle room that I couldn't slow down — even if I wanted to. I was so married to the idea of living each moment to the fullest that I ran myself straight into an existential crisis — the kind that comes with answerless questions repeating on an endless loop: Why am I spending so much energy on XYZ? Am I actually making a difference? What is my purpose?

At 27, I was mentally and physically exhausted from running around in circles, and yet the idea of taking a mental health day made me feel ashamed.

That's a problem.

We overachievers pressure ourselves so much with the idea of greatness — as if there were only one definition of success. Many of us fall for the romantic notion of the brilliant entrepreneur burning the midnight oil, fueled by passion, pushing and pushing until their great idea becomes an absolute sensation. But this picture leaves out the important fact that being successful often means knowing when to push and when to pause. Singers meticulously plot out where in each line they will take a breath. Pilots have copilots to help steer the ship if they get tired. Why in business is it so hard to discard the idea that any time not spent productively moving toward a goal is a waste? Billable hours and timesheets are partially to blame for this compulsion to justify every minute, but I don't think they're the whole story.

During my painful self-prescribed relaxation (if you can even call it that), I came across Tarek El Moussa of HGTV's Flip or Flop. Like me, El Moussa learned the value of slowing down the hard way. Now, he lives by a simpler philosophy: Know what your time is worth, and spend it accordingly. It sounds easy enough, but it's actually nearly impossible to quantify what your time is worth without measuring each task against your personal values. I love this notion.

You can't buy or sell time, but you can spend it. As long as you spread it among things aligned with your values, even bingeing on Netflix can still be a positive investment. (I see you, Virunga.) While I believe grandparents everywhere have good intentions when they caution 8-year-olds to put their time to better use, I can't shake the feeling it does all of us a disservice. If someone had deemed tinkering on old computers wasteful, we might never have met Siri. Like beauty, meaning is in the eye of the beholder, and we should stop insisting time fits within one standard value system. When you're under an impossible pressure to squeeze the most out of each minute of life, you never get a chance to stop and breathe. Even the most determined flame can't survive without oxygen.

As a recovering perfectionist who wholeheartedly believed she could do it all and at once, I ask you to please take my word for it: You can't. More importantly, you shouldn't. As Sterling Griffin has said, "Success is a habit, not an event." Go slower. Make it a habit. Waste time to breathe. You might be killing time, but you'll be saving yourself.

A version of this article originally appeared on SUCCESS.com.

Megan Nicole O'Neal is a UCLA alum and public relations specialist with a passion for storytelling and a firm belief that only the right photo is worth 1,000 words. An avid adventurist, she's traveled to five different continents, all on an endless quest to find the world's greatest cup of coffee. Megan currently works at Havas Formula in sunny San Diego and volunteers for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, freelancing for the PR department.