An Extra Girl’s Guide to Doing Less

It’s taken me about twenty years to acknowledge that I might have a problem.

Hi, my name is Ashley, and I’m…extra.

Ever since high school, I’ve been over-programmed, over-extended, and not surprisingly, overwhelmed. My teenage resume was longer than anyone’s ever should be, and as cliché as it was padded:

I was a varsity athlete, school newspaper editor, officer of multiple clubs, chair of our campus cancer walk committee, and president of the freaking National Honor Society. I took every AP class and emceed our pep rallies – all while working at least one part-time job waitressing or lifeguarding. I was your stereotypical suburban millennial go-getter, and honestly, I’m not even a little bit proud of it.

I’m listing all these “accomplishments” not to humble brag about my high school glory days, but to share a darker truth that very few at the time knew, or at least never said to my face:

I was a messsssss.

I don’t like to admit this, but at one point, I got a third job working at the mall…at The Gap. I was clearly not okay!

I now know that I stayed busy to “avoid feeling my feelings” as more than one therapist has since gently pointed out. I jumped at any reason to be at school or stay out all night because I didn’t want to go home, where I’d be confronted with the crushing reality of a recently widowed mom struggling to find her way as a single parent, a little brother I loved fiercely growing up without a dad, and my own inner self rocked by a grief I couldn’t control. So instead of facing my feelings, I stacked my schedule.

Only looking back have I realized how close I was to an edge I couldn’t see at that age, and how lucky I was to come out of it all as a relatively well-adjusted adult with this sparkling sense of humor. Yet still, I continued on with habitual over-achieving for at least another decade. It wasn’t until my late twenties that I sought counseling and started to understand my “ambition” as a trauma response.

For much of my life, I’ve very likely suffered from something along the lines of high-functioning PTSD – which still sneaks up on me today – and I’m now 37. In recent years, thanks to regular therapy and frequent flyer elite status to the bookstore self-help section, I’ve learned some healthier coping skills and wellness strategies:

My version of wellness involves building purposeful play and intentional time-wasting into every day.

The idea of wasting time on purpose might seem sort of backwards, but I see it as a necessary counter to our modern day hustle-and-grind culture. Wellness requires balance, which for me translates to a little less hustle and a whole lot more flow.

As a society, we’ve forgotten how – and perhaps more importantly why – to slow down. It’s something we know how to do instinctively as human beings, with rest as an actual requirement for staying healthy and thriving. And yet, getting enough sleep or even just pressing pause are a struggle for so many, myself included. We’re hardwired to need rest, but we have trouble getting it. So then, where are we going wrong?

While rest is critical, it’s rarely valued or applauded – usually quite the opposite. Leisure is often synonymous with laziness and downtime can be a dirty word. In fact, western society and capitalism steer us away from rest and toward productivity, with around-the-clock news cycles, a paper planner and scheduling industry worth over $340M, Pinterest boards perpetually tempting us to take on one more project, and MLM-ers showing us how to start a side hustle in these 5 easy steps. (No thanks!) There’s always something else that needs doing – and resting rarely makes the list.

The fact that there even is a list, is a big part of the problem. I’ve started to notice that “mindfulness” itself can start to feel like another chore if you’re not careful. At one point, I was stressing about finding time to meditate and beating myself up for not having a morning routine. It seemed like everyone else I knew was waking up to a sunlamp, sipping hot-water-and-lemon, writing in their gratitude journal, then starting a productive day of task smashing. Before my feet hit the floor, I was already feeling behind. Kind of missing the mark of mindfulness, don’t you think?

All you other “extra girls” out there already know that fighting the impulse to do more, truly knowing that you’re enough exactly as you are, and silencing those pesky “shoulds” is, ironically, really hard work.

But back to the why. Rest is not only critical for physical wellbeing, it actually fuels all the other parts of ourselves too – cognitive, creative, social, and spiritual. Some of the most prolific thinkers of our time across every possible genre were notorious for resting in all different ways – taking mid-day walks or naps, limiting work to short bursts, spending afternoons socializing in cafes – and doing whatever else they needed to stay inspired and energized.

Somewhere along the way with these historical figures, we lost sight of their process and started focusing exclusively on their products, which only tells part of the story. Both Charles Darwin and Dickens famously only worked four hours a day. President “Silent Cal” Coolidge enjoyed counting the cars passing on Pennsylvania Avenue from his desk. Virginia Woolf was an avid walker known to recite her drafts aloud while on a walkabout around town. Albert Einstein was a “super sleeper” who regularly got 10 hours of winks a night. Beethoven took several breaks during his day and brought a pen along incase inspiration struck.

The good news is, the pro-rest movement is on the rise. Like me, there are loads of other people thinking and creating in this space, with highly-regarded leaders from a range of sectors talking about these issues and championing things like leisure time, hobbies, the four-hour workweek, slow thinking, small teaching, and doing less. Here are just a few of the voices I’ve been most inspired by on this topic:

Somewhat ironically, I’m “actively” learning to embrace rest. While I’m reading up on the subject and following along with prominent voices on this topic, I’m also creating my own restful practice and building downtime and play into every day. I’ve discovered several ways to intentionally waste time in the spirit of getting inspired and energized, which I call my…

Extra Girl’s Guide to Doing Less

The basic premise of this guide isn’t just saying “no” to everything, or even to most things. Instead, it’s about balancing the necessary have-to’s in life (I see you, laundry) with more selective yes’s – the stuff that soothes your soul, sets it ablaze, or both.

My rules for resting are:

  1. Do less of the things that drain my tank, and more of the things that fill it back up.
  2. Play, every day. Let myself out for recess at least once throughout the day, whatever that means in the moment.
  3. Allow myself to “waste” time, on purpose. Do something each day for no other reason than that it makes me feel good.

Some of the pro-rest, playful, intentional time-wasting practices I’ve adopted for myself include:

  • Going to the gym – without working out. Instead I foam-roll, stretch, float in the therapy pool, soak in the whirlpool, or sweat-it-out in the steam room without ever setting foot in the group fitness studio, lifting a weight, swimming a lap, or hopping on an elliptical. (I do all of that good stuff other days of the week, but not on my dedicated rest days.)
  • Taking our rescue pups to the dog park just to watch them run free and share in their un-leashed joy while we walk 18-acres of prairie trails. Plus, we usually stop at a coffeeshop afterwards for whipped cream “pup cups” and I get myself a heavenly honey citrus mint hot tea.
  • Blocking time on my work calendar for “Meetingless Mondays” – a practice strongly encouraged by our forward-thinking company leadership as a way to create space for focused, inspired thinking or doing.
  • Putting on a record instead of turning on the TV.
  • Playing a game of Phase 10 or a quick round of Scattergories with my husband at home.
  • Watching something soul-soothing. For me, that’s often street magic or cake-frosting videos.
  • Calling a friend just to reconnect and check-in, with no real agenda.
  • Wandering around a farmer’s market without a shopping list and striking up conversations with the vendors.
  • Learning a new skill, for no reason whatsoever. Among countless other random dabblings, I’ve tried my hand at candle-making, improv comedy, and gardening, all for the singular purpose of personal enrichment. This one can be tricky, especially for extra girls, as you’ll have to resist every urge to monetize or hustle-ify your hobby.

Your guide will look different than mine, as it should. I invite you to take a break and start creating some restful rules and pro-rest practices for yourself. This year, do more things that bring you peace and less things that take it from you.

Some questions to get you started:

  • What do you lose track of time doing?
  • What soothes your soul and puts your mind at ease?
  • When and where do you feel true bliss?
  • What drains your energy tank and how do you re-fill it?