The only thing I have to do today is write one article.
Not even that. It could be 755. That’s close enough.
And if I get to more than that, great. And if I don’t? Fine.
I already wrote it, in fact.
So I don’t even have to finish writing this one.
I can walk away right now.
About two years ago now, I was on assignment in Malta. Which is just a jargony way of saying that a magazine flew me to the little European island chain and paid for me to see some stuff and eat some stuff and write and photograph the experience.
I was there for 10 days with the magazine and extended my stay for another week just for fun with plans to spend some time on the small northern island of Gozo and hike the island’s perimeter one chunk at a time.
It was on my second day of hiking that things went terribly wrong.
My throat felt thick. My head started pounding. After just an hour or two of walking, I knew I was getting really sick really fast.
What I didn’t know is that the next day I’d end up in the hospital because I wasn’t keeping fluids down. That the hospital wouldn’t be able to diagnose my mystery illness. That I’d spend about a week unable to eat and struggling to stay hydrated. That by the time I got back to Switzerland, where I lived at the time, I would barely be able to make it up the stairs to my apartment.
My mystery illness was never diagnosed, but eventually a random cocktail of antibiotics chased away enough of the sickness to allow me to eat, to rebuild some strength, to start recovering.
Except, I didn’t really recover. Not fully. Not for over a year.
Instead, the symptoms stuck with me.
It was my Mystery Malta Illness that forced me to let go of the go-go-go lifestyle I’d been forcing on myself for years.
I was a weekend, evening, early morning worker. I took clients until I couldn’t fit any more in my schedule. I wrote four or five books in a single year (then another six or seven in the next couple). And then I forced myself to go out for drinks and lunch and events, despite being an introvert and desperately needing to crawl under the covers with a Harry Potter book instead.
But Mystery Malta Illness would have no more of that.
My lingering symptoms had become strangely tied to my work schedule and very clearly tied to my stress.
The more I pushed myself, the more I tried to go-go-go, the more my body said—louder and louder—NO. Absolutely and unequivocally NO.
It’s taken years to climb out of that go-go-go mindset, to shake off the guilt over and over again from that old Puritan-inspired upbringing that says our worth is tied to our work ethic. And our work ethic is about how much and how hard we work.
It’s taken years for my gut to agree with what my brain already knew: our worth is not tied to our work ethic. My output is not my value. Winning the Who’s Busiest Competition means precisely nothing.
For two years after Mystery Malta Illness, I’ve been climbing out of a deeply ingrained mindset, re-teaching myself what it means to work, what it means to offer something to the world, what it means to be productive.
The hardest part is the mindset, but it’s helped by developing new habits.
One, which I’m wildly imperfect at and need to re-implement, is No Technology Fridays—something I tried to do long before Mystery Malta Illness but that became ever more important after it. The practice is this: setting aside my Fridays for no-screen activities. No internet. No phone conversations. The only “tech” I can use is my Kindle—and only for reading, nothing else.
On those days, I usually try to plan something out of the house. I go hiking or cycling, to the park, or thrift store shopping, or to a food festival or a jazz concert. I step fully into the real, physical present moment and re-set. I give myself space to breathe.
Another necessary change was one no Puritan worth his salt would approve of:
Reducing my working hours.
As I struggled to keep my symptoms at bay and to still hit all my deadlines, I realized that there was simply no reason to put myself in that tense, stressful situation. I’m a senior copywriter and content strategist. I can charge a good enough hourly rate and live simply enough in my day-to-day life to make it sustainable with a 15- to 20-hour workweek.
Finally, the habit I mentioned at the start of this article—and one I swear by now—is what I call The Only Thing You Have to Do Today.
I used to keep a seemingly endless to-do list. Multiple pages in my notebook. Updated constantly. And—perhaps from a combination of that Puritan guilt, my long-ago diagnosed anxiety, and my recently diagnosed OCD—there were many days when I just couldn’t stop ticking things off the list. The fact that the list existed meant I had to keep on ticking and ticking and ticking until I collapsed from exhaustion or my brain simply wouldn’t go on.
Now, instead, my system is one of simple goals. A single-item list for each day. The ONLY thing I have to do that day.
Of course, most days I do more than one thing.
This morning, I wrote that article for a client. It was the primary thing on today’s list. The only thing I had to do. But it only took an hour or so. And now I’m here, writing this. And after this, because it’s still early and I’m still relaxed and I’m in the mood to write, I’ll probably draft some blog posts for another client.
But only one of those things was on today’s must-do list. And so if I’m suffering from mystery symptoms or if I wake filled with anxiety or if the day is just gorgeous and sunny and worth spending in the park, I have given myself a very doable and specific end point.
And it’s that end point that enables me to walk away from the rest of it without the guilt trip, the stressy buildup in my gut. I’ve already accomplished everything I needed to today. In fact, I’ve done 100% more than I needed to. I set out to write one article and I’m about to finish number two.
Funny enough, you could easily argue that releasing the go-go-go has actually made me more productive rather than less.
Since I started ratcheting down my working hours, putting only a single thing (or sometimes two small things) on my daily must-do list, prioritizing my health in a tangible way, I’ve made room in my life for some magical breakthroughs.
In 2016 and the first half of 2017, I wrote a novel—simply for the pleasure, the love, of it. It is something I’ve wanted to do since I was a child but could never quite fit into my life, never quite justify making the time for.
I’ve also become a better cook—spending my time on something decidedly physical and immediately rewarding and that I find centering and joyful.
Not to mention that after many years of singleness, I met someone. Or that I feel less anxious about my friendships these days. Or that I finally went to physiotherapy and healed an even older injury.
And so even as my Mystery Malta Illness symptoms have finally—finally!—started to fade into a distant hum in the background, I find myself firmly settled into a life that focuses on wellness above endless checklists, creative productivity above winning the Who’s Busiest Competition. And I’m better for it.
I’m not busiest.
Not by a long shot.
And that’s the way I want it.