July 11, 2023

This is about saying yes to yourself, not saying no to them

Incomplete tasks are benign in isolation.

It’s only when all of those open loops accumulate over time, that they cause us suffering.

Because each one uses a little bit more of our total processing power. Incrementally chipping away at our energy and motivation. Until we look up from our work and realize:

Oh shit, I’m completely overwhelmed right now. How the hell did that happen? I’m not even doing that much.

If you have ever found yourself in that situation before, then you know how torturous it can be. Chinese philosophers coined a word for this process several thousand years ago called lingchi, or, death by a thousand cuts.

This slow process, aka lingering death, aka slow slicing, was a form of torture and execution used for centuries. Apocryphal lore says it began by carving out the eyes, rendering people incapable of seeing the remainder of their torture.

Next up came the condemned person’s ears, nose, tongue, fingers, toes and genitals being chopped off, before the executioner moved onto the thighs and shoulders. Apparently entire process was said to last three days.

What’s fascinating to me is, we read about these psychopathic medieval practices and think, who would do such a thing? How could humans impose such torment on one other?

And yet, we do it to ourselves all the time. People perform the equivalent of torture on themselves every day.

If you want to see this in action, go to your company’s shared calendar and look at people’s weekly schedules. Not out of nosiness, but more out of curiosity to see just how insane people’s schedules are.

One of the salespeople at my company literally has a meeting or a phone call every thirty minutes for ten straight hours, every single day. He actually has a reminder at six each night that says, order dinner.

I’m sorry, but if you’re so slammed that you require a notification to remind you to feed yourself, something is wrong. That’s the modern form of lingchi. You’re killing yourself through death by a thousand cuts. And the cumulative stress exposure throughout your life course is only going to accelerate your physiological deterioration.

Slack, the communication platform, was originally launched to allow team members to communicate without the use of email. The company even ran a survey of two thousand users who said they saw an average of fifty percent reduction in email, along with a twenty percent drop in meetings.

Good for them.

But what the survey fails to mention is, it’s just another goddamn thing to keep up with. Whether it’s a new instant messaging program, a project management system or the latest social media platform, they’re just replacing one problem with another.

They’re basically chain smoking at alcoholics anonymous meetings. Creating new versions of chaos that envelops the very systems meant to keep us organized. Still death by a thousand cuts, but they’re using a different blade. The open loops haven’t closed, they’ve multiplied.

To make matters worse, we exacerbate the pain into full blown suffering by layering boundary guilt over our inaction. We kill ourselves doing everything, but the minute we stop doing anything, we tell ourselves that we’re nothing. We slice and dice ourselves, only to apologize to the world for bleeding all over it.

I was thinking about this guilt once when my coworker asked to borrow my phone, since his battery had died.

No problem, use it as long as you need, I said.

When he came back to my desk fifteen minutes later, he thanked me, but also asked a follow up question.

By the way, where is email app on your phone?

And my response was, oh right, I deleted it five years ago. Personal policy. No work on my phone.

Dead silence. He looked at me like I was a circus freak.

My colleague couldn’t help but probe further.

Wait, but what if there’s an emergency?

I laughed and said, you know, it’s never come up.

Now, it’s interesting, because there’s a younger version of me that would have been wracked with guilt in that moment. I get it. Checking email at midnight can give you one hell of a dopamine hit. You feel needed and important and connected. What’s not to like?

But my whole thing is, I’m already clumsy enough that I hurt myself accidentally on a weekly basis. There’s no need to proactively torture and mutilate myself any further. Life will do the cutting for me. I just have to make sure I don’t bleed out.

Are you unnecessarily torturing yourself? What if you didn’t feel guilty about setting healthy boundaries?

Believe me, it’s hard to get over the hump initially. When you first start imposing limits on your time and energy, you fear disappointing others and getting shunned from the tribe as being labeled as worthless.

The good news is, once you unhook from the cycle and start making your needs known and closing those open loops, the habit becomes positively addicting. Boundaries are almost like a streak you don’t want to give up.

And the best part is, people will actually respect you more for it in the long run. They’ll likely be disappointed at first, but remember, people’s expectations are their problem, not yours. It’s not your responsibility how they react to your boundaries.

Because this is about saying yes to yourself, not saying no to them.

Listen, I’ll be the first person to agree that some degree of suffering is not only important but necessary in this life. Meaning is thy byproduct of pain, and I’m all for putting myself through the existential wringer.

But we all need to pay attention to the things that we choose to torture ourselves with. There are many fiendish instruments of torment devised to bedevil the days of all men, so let us choose our knives carefully.

In a world where great fiery lashes crucify the skies, there’s no reason to add another thousand cuts to our sentence.

Rather than slow slicing ourselves into a lingering death, let us keep the blood on the inside.

To quote the ancient scripture, poison cannot penetrate the hand that is free of wounds.

Are you creating new versions of chaos that envelops the very systems meant to keep you organized?