Editor's Note: Chris Varano is 2016 graduate of Westfield High School and senior at the University of Maryland where he is studying neurobiology.
This past January, like most people I created a New Year’s Resolution. My resolution was to design and execute the most diverse and productive morning routine possible. I had spent the last few days of December imagining what kind of activities I wanted to engage in during the New Year and made it a point to begin incorporating these activities into my daily life. This was the routine I created:
Wake up between 7-8 a.m.
Make my bed and brush my teeth
Meditate for 10 minutes
Yoga for 10 minutes
25 minutes of LinkedIn Learning
30 minutes of Online Wellness Course
15 minutes on Babble Italian course
send emails to potential researchers
10 minutes of writing
20 minutes of MCAT
My approach to making this routine was to somehow squeeze all of my interests, such as learning Italian and email marketing, with my consistent morning rituals like making my bed and meditating. Jan. 1 rolls around and I completed the routine in roughly 2 hours. Time wasn’t much of a factor since I was on winter break and didn’t have much going on aside from working at night. After completing this routine for a few days, I was proud of myself for not only sticking to the routine, but for noticing results in the new activities I incorporated.
Although I began to notice progress in my new activities, I began to notice a significant decrease in my writing skills and my retention of MCAT material. I also had absolutely no time to talk to my family in the morning. I was surprised and disappointed. Bunching together my new interests with my previously instilled habits like meditation, came at the cost of dwindling progress in the areas that mattered the most to me.
Four days into the new year, I decided to scratch the morning routine entirely. I deleted my Babbel and LinkedinLearning accounts and was back to square one.
The following morning, I had no to-do list. After making my bed and meditating, I spent 45 minutes writing, followed by an hour of MCAT studying. To my surprise, I felt a deeper sense of progress and fulfillment than after completing my colossal routine. But how could this be? I spent less time engaged in “good” morning routine activities and bailed out on opportunities to become well versed in Italian and email marketing. Shouldn’t have I felt less productive?
This is when I realized that productivity and busyness are not one and the same. It is possible and extremely common to fill our schedules with tasks to keep us occupied all day. However, when we go about our day and don’t engage in the activates that bring us closer to our goals, we still classify this as productivity.
Busyness has become an epidemic. Our culture values achievement and therefore we admire those who seem to get through a multitude of tasks on a daily basis. However, let’s examine Arnold Schwarzenegger’s daily agenda during his first years in the U.S…
Gym (2 hours)
Gym (2 hours)
Nighttime acting classes
Arnold’s day was jam-packed. His time was so valuable and scarce that he barely had anytime to sleep! But what sets Arnold apart from the rest of the pack are his priorities. Arnold’s goals were well-defined. He wanted to be a bodybuilding champion and a Hollywood actor, so he budgeted large chunks of time throughout his day to make progress towards those goals. The rest of us unfortunately lack the same clarity with our own goals. Why was I trying to learn Italian every morning? Probably because I wanted to show off to my roommates one day. But ultimately this distracted me from making progress on getting into medical school.
But why do we decide to choose to engage in activities that distract us from what we really care about?
I was using busyness as a way to cover up the parts of myself I didn’t like. Like my good friend once explained, “if we want to build a magnificent house, we must dig up the dirt, and yes, it will be messy, but it allows for laying a solid foundation”. I was using busyness as a way to avoid my fears. My fear of not being valued. My fear of being labeled as lazy. My fear of investing my time and seeing poor results. These fears existed, but I decided to cover them up with the dirt of busyness. I had created this mound of busyness that occupied my time so greatly that it not only prevented me from addressing my fears, but ultimately prevented me from writing a spectacular article or making significant progress in my MCAT studies.
Even though we may know what goals we want to achieve and have a general sense of how to get there, that doesn’t mean we’re going to get there. Like Tony Robbins says, “what we focus on is what we experience”. So if our conscious or unconscious mind is focused on the fear of failing at a new task, our physiology changes and puts us into a state of distress, ultimately inhibiting us from taking action.
I could say that I got lucky on the day that I decided to throw my New Year’s resolution out the window and decided to study and write instead. I consider myself lucky because I improved my productivity in this area of my life simply by eliminating the activities that were not supporting my greatest goals.
There are, however, areas of my life and parts of myself that need addressing, and if I ever want to make improvements in these areas, I need to begin to dig up the dirt by asking myself the right kinds of questions. Whatever the goal is that I have in mind, I have to be willing to sit down with the ugly part of myself and discover why I continue to avoid pursuing my dreams. The choice is clear. I can either take the easy route and reenter the cycle of engaging in meaningless activates to avoid facing my fears that are holding me back. Or decide to find the courage to interrogate myself and face those fears that are halting my productivity and improvement.
My goal with this post was to clear up the confusion between productivity and busyness. But, I think it’s also important to realize that our behavior can be predictable and ubiquitous. We all have personal goals, but we also have fears that throw us off the path of meaningful progress. Coming to terms with this idea is necessary. But now it’s absolutely unacceptable to be aware of this phenomena and continue to not pursue our dreams. I challenge you to take some time to analyze your goals and see if the bulk of your activities and time are supporting the greater vision you have for yourself. If your goals and behaviors are not congruent, then you need to decide how you’re going to change your daily rituals to better support your dreams.
This activity will require your full attention as you enter a state of deep reflection. You will probably realize that your goals and behavior are incongruent, and for now that’s okay. How do you plan on restructuring your daily life to put you on a path towards personal growth? This process of self-discovery may not be pleasant, but it will lay the foundation for you to jumpstart your journey towards achieving your greatest dreams.