The Extraordinary Gains That Come From Letting Go

More is not always better.

He was forty years old. He had “made it” professionally, and only four weeks before, he had been awarded his community’s highest honor … “Successful Businessman of the Year.” That must have made him feel good, real good. Right?

Not necessarily. As he related somewhat privately, “I wonder what it’s all about. It seems to me that life is just a continual round of demands. There are deadlines to meet, bills to pay, responsibilities to perform, people who depend on me, and no place to turn for relief. Sometimes I feel desperate. I want to escape. I want to leave everything — my marriage, my children, my home, my job, my friends, everything — just to catch my breath. It’s crazy … because in letting go of all those things, I would be emptying my life of the very things I love the most and for which I have worked the hardest. All I know is that the way I’m living now is breaking my back and destroying my spirit.”

Do you ever feel that way? Too much pressure and not enough time? Many people feel that way and live that way.

Unfortunately, this man needs to realize that unless he makes a conscious decision to give up some of the less important things in his life, he may, in the not-too-distant future, be forced to give up all the things he cares about. To wait for the pressures to build … until he explodes, burns out, or makes some stupid decisions … makes no sense at all. And yet that’s exactly what a lot of people do.

So what’s the answer? Actually I give several answers in my keynote and seminar on “Take This Job and Love It! Managing Stress, Preventing Burnout, and Balancing Life … On and Off the Job.”

Here are a few answers for starters.

1. Reject the notion that MORE is always better.

In their book, “Letting Go: Uncomplicating Your Life,” Adams, Otto, and Cowley say, “In a culture like our own we are bombarded with the illusion that the answer to all our dilemmas lies in the acquisition of MORE and MORE — more money, more education, more activities, more relationships, more possessions. But try as we may, we are ultimately confronted with the fact that multiple diplomas and advanced degrees don’t guarantee good judgment. A closet full of clothes does not make one feel attractive. A bulging bank account does not insure a sense of security. Having numerous relationships does not make one feel loved and a calendar stuffed full of activities does not make life feel full. It seems painfully clear that mere accumulation is NOT enough.”

Most of us have learned how to acquire more and more things. And that’s not all bad. Acquisition can be fun, challenging, and rewarding. But too few of us have learned the equally important skill of elimination. To have a healthy and balanced life, we must also learn to let go of some things … and realize that sometimes LESS is better than MORE.

2. Recognize the drag that MORE puts on your life.

It’s a weird trap, but the harder we work to get more of the things we want, the less time we have to enjoy those things. I know lots of people who have some really nice things, but they don’t ever use them. As they say, “Sure, that car … boat … cabin … digital toy … or whatever … is nice, but I’m so busy getting MORE that I don’t even have the time to enjoy what I already have.” Sounds a little pathetic. And it is. I know. I used to fall into that trap.

To make things even worse, the MORE we have, the more worries we tend to get. For example, when I drove my grandmother’s 23-year-old Chevrolet I inherited, I didn’t really care where I parked it or if someone scratched it. When I bought a 3-year-old Lexus, which was the nicest car I had ever had, I worried about where I should park it every time I went to the store.

On top of that, the MORE we have, the more things we have to take care of … the more maintenance we have to perform. And how do we find the time to paint the house, tune up the car, upgrade our computer, and on and on and on?

Or if we do have time to enjoy some of those nicer things in life, we may fall into the trap of defining ourselves by how many things we have. Indeed, we begin to wonder how we could ever live without some of those things. And that’s not a healthy place to live.

3. Recognize the confusion that MORE adds to your life.

We live in a time when we seem forced to choose between competing and equally important values. What will it be … success in the home or success on the job? We wonder how we can possibly excel in our desk-bound jobs and maintain our physical fitness at the same time. We wonder why we get promoted for our technical skills on the job, but then we’re expected to lead with excellent interpersonal skills that no one ever taught us.

It’s confusing, to say the least. We get so caught up in the feverish pace and the ever-growing demands that we don’t even stop to think about what we really, really, REALLY want. And we fail to develop any guidelines for letting go.

We end up feeling like one 48-year-old career woman who said: “Even though I am cheered by the crowd for all my accomplishments, I find it hard to figure out what they are cheering about. It’s true … I’ve been accomplishing things all my life, but now I’m starting to ask myself what the accomplishment really is. I have no time for genuine relationships, and I use my work as an escape from solving my personal problems. I just go from one project to another without thinking about why I’m doing it all. It’s crazy.”

A little later in the interview, this woman said, “I just wish I’d been smart enough to give up some of those projects when I was younger. My life would be better today if I had. Whether I like it or not, I have to let go of some things in my life or hang on to my feelings of internal collapse.”

Have you ever felt that way? Confused? Then it’s time to remember that a healthy work-life balance has two components … getting more of what you do want and letting go of what you don’t want. As I tell my audiences, “You can have anything you want in life; you just can’t have everything.”

Here are three simple things you can do to “let go.”

1. Let go of some home pressures.

Tell your spouse, partner, children, and/or roommates about the major pressures and demands you feel at home. Tell them, for example, that you feel the pressure to fight your way up the corporate ladder, earn an income, continue your education, clean the house, buy the groceries, prepare the meals, transport the kids, pay the bills, teach at church, volunteer at school, go to the gym, and so forth. ASK them for help. Again, as I tell my audiences, “If you want to G-E-T, you have to A-S-K.”

Of course it won’t be easy to share your feelings and ask for help. Just remember this: It takes a lot more energy to keep on living with these pressures than it does to deal with them.

And one of the best ways to start letting go of some home pressures is to use the Brave Question technique. As Pamela Nimz wrote, “A few years ago, I purchased your book on ‘The Brave Question Payoff’ when I was engaged, and the book gave us a deeper and more meaningful relationship as we progressed through the questions. But now let me tell you the rest of the story.”

“Both of us had been single for 20 years, and believe me it is tough to move from a glowing courtship to the reality of figuring out how to be married and actually live together! Alan, without the strong communication foundations we established by patiently understanding each other with the help of your ‘Brave Questions’ book, there would have been so many times when we would have retreated into silence, hurt feelings, and gross misunderstandings. Instead, however, we had learned to be open and honest with each other. (Okay, there have still been ups and downs; but they haven’t lasted very long!) Both my husband and I are so sold on your book that we have given it as a wedding present to one of our closest friends, and I have another book in my ‘gift closet’ just waiting for that next opportunity. Thank you, Alan! What a great gift you have given us all!”

If you don’t have a copy of this book or if you aren’t using the Brave Question technique, you’re missing one of the most powerful communication tools I’ve ever come across.

2. Let go of some time pressures.

You need to find spaces in your busy schedule to replenish your energy. Where can you find those spaces?

If you can’t take a vacation or a weekend off, find a few hours during the week that you can label as YOURS. Don’t use these hours to check your e-mail, catch up on your bills, wash your car, or shop for your kids’ school supplies. These are YOUR hours for personal regeneration. Do something with those hours that is special for YOU. YOU need to fill your own cup if you want to keep on being of any use to anybody else.

One tip: Look at all the things you’re doing now … or have done in the past … that are “supposedly” fun and recreational. Ask yourself if any of those activities no longer bring you very much fun. Let those things go and concentrate your hours on the recreational activities that bring you great joy and pleasure.

And by the way, you will be surprised at how much energy will be generated just by anticipating a chance to do something YOU really want to do.

3. Let go of some work pressures.

I could write a whole book on this point. Indeed, I am. However, let me suggest one idea you can start with to lessen your work pressures. Examine and possibly change your style of communication.

After all, your style of communication at work either makes things better or makes things worse. For example, if you don’t communicate with enough detail and clarity, you waste a great deal of time trying to straighten out misunderstandings or fix on-the-job problems caused by your inadequate communication.

So ask yourself, “Is there anything in your style of communication that isn’t working? Do you communicate too much or too little? Do you communicate frequently enough? Do you give people the information they want and need or only what you think they need to know? Are you too open or too closed in your comments? Do you over-rely on written e-mail communication when a face-to-face meeting or telephone call might be better? Do you come across as warm, friendly and professional, or do you come across as curt, short, arrogant, and too busy to be bothered?”

Start with your own self-evaluation. And then get some outside opinions from your co-workers, customers, friends, and family. How do they perceive your communication style? What do they see as your strengths, and what do they think needs to be improved? Listen, learn, and then change. As soon as you improve your communication style, you will at that very same moment let go of some of your work pressures.

Before you add anything else to your work or your life, stop and think. Remember that MORE is not always better. And if you’ve already got too much on your plate, learn to let go of some things before you add MORE to your plate.

Action:  Make a list of things you could, should, and will LET GO of at work and home.