Why Are We in Such a Hurry to Get Nowhere?
How one author moved to Estonia and learned how to quiet the debilitating, work-focused voices in their head.
Time and I have always had a tenuous love-hate relationship. Like many of my colleagues, I’ve measured my life by the clock, and my happiness has been in no small part dependent on how productive I am day by day. Yet recently, I’ve realized the fatal error of this mentality. I recognized that I was caught up in "the cult of speed," which was the trigger for me to take pause, take stock and reassess my life after being in the workforce for a quarter-century.
In recent years, I’d found myself experiencing a general malaise about work, life and everything in between. By the week's end, I was left drained and more than a little demoralized. Even worse, on Sunday nights, anticipating of the week ahead, I was so highly strung about returning to another Groundhog Day week that I could barely sleep. So I drank a bottle (or two) of wine and prayed for even a moment's sleep.
My prayers were rarely answered.
I knew something had to change and that I alone was responsible for making that happen.
So I bit the bullet and negotiated my role into that of a remote, part-time worker. Then I did the one thing that needed to happen if I was to give myself the best chance for a real-life "post cult": I packed up my house and bought a ticket to Estonia.
I Got Frustrated When My New Lifestyle Became Too Slow
As a writer, I find that books often play both a practical and a poetic role in my life. They inspire me to action, and likewise impel me to seek more adventurous paths—intellectually, morally and physically. After rereading Tim Ferriss’s New York Times bestseller The 4-Hour Workweek, I was (I admit somewhat naively) emboldened that Estonia was indeed the panacea that would help me reclaim my life as my own. I worked in new media; they were famous for it.
Within days of arriving in Tallinn, I discovered the hard way how badly I’d bought into our cultural predilection and esteem for being productive and constantly connected. All too quickly, I became frustrated because the pace was too slow and my calendar was too clear.
Looking back, nothing could have prepared me for the "barrage of me," the moment the clock’s hold over me waned. I found that days once filled with a seemingly endless stream of tasks demanding my attention—days that, all too often, stretched into weeks and months—suddenly became quieter, simpler. But this silence became deafening.
The first sign that there was trouble in paradise was when I noticed a nagging self-doubt had surfaced. A new inner voice emerged; it asked me: What was I doing wrong? What had I achieved today? Did I still offer any real value? Was I doing the right thing?
I began to fear quiet moments.
The Overwhelming Free Time Allowed Me to Appreciate the Small Parts of Life
I’ve had a 20-year love affair with efficiency and speed. Every time I had a quiet moment for reflective thought, I almost immediately avoided it by escaping to my mobile devices. So, as many of us do, the first thing I did when I found myself doubting my life choices was to overcompensate. I discovered, much like a recently released prisoner, just how much I crave structure, the safety of routine, the known—even if it’s tedious enough to make you flee your home country.
I filled my calendar with little tasks—minor missions to accomplish—just to have the satisfaction of ticking off another item on my to-do list. At the same time, I noticed that small things took on near-epic proportions. My recently overextended brain went into overdrive trying to fill the void, seeking distractions. The truth is, the sheer volume of free time is almost as overwhelming. Almost.
But something interesting happened between the nagging inner voices and the time wasted fussing over small things. I started appreciating small moments: The way you’re pulled out of your head by the feel of snow against your skin as you cross the street; the taste of different foods in a country on the opposite side of the planet; wandering down quiet, uncluttered city streets.
As enough time passes—after you experience a few of these moments of fleeting happiness—you begin to let the voices in. You hear them, and then you start to challenge them. When I started the journey, I was awaking around 6 a.m. and realizing I didn’t have anything particular to get up for.
The thought was simply terrifying.
The same thing happened this week, but this time, I laughed and let the thought go.
Being Unplugged Takes a Strong Effort, but It Can Be Worth It
Living a simpler, unplugged, four-hour workweek lifestyle has turned out to be a blessing and a curse. It’s forced me to stop and listen to the voices that are far darker than I could have imagined. Voices that are deeply rooted in a Western mindset that does not favor quiet introspection. Yet these very same voices—these softly spoken doubts that result from our ingrained mindset of being focused and productive—reveal the inherent flaw in our thinking.
We’ve become a hyperfocused species, yet our point of focus tends to be external.
Too often our attention is focused on something "out there," with our attention turned toward someone, some goal or something outside of ourselves. Similarly, we’re so focused on the return we get from the investment of our time—on our productivity—that we’re fundamentally blind to the benefits of the moment and the inherent value of downtime.
We’ve inadvertently become a species that needs to be constantly distracted and entertained, almost as if we fear confronting our own realities. Yet if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my time away, it’s that there’s immense joy in being unplugged and spending time disconnected.
Those considering the nomad life need to be aware that it won’t always be comfortable or easy. But what would you give to have the opportunity to discover a quiet place within you that is yours and yours alone? I gave up an entire life, and I think the price I paid was fair.