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Life Lessons From the Psychotherapist Who Compiled the Bible of Chill

Don't 'musterbate' — and other work/life tips from Bryan Robinson, the author of ‘#Chill: Turn Off Your Job and Turn On Your Life’

Being “chill” at work is often considered a detriment to success, the demeanor of a slacker who doesn’t really care and/or an unambitious coaster. At the same time, nobody likes stressed-out assholes or co-workers who brag about how hard they hustle either, especially at a time when most of us are already constantly overwhelmed by an endless amount of ideas, information and stress.

According to Bryan Robinson, a psychotherapist and author of the new book #Chill: Turn Off Your Job and Turn On Your Life, such a cultural climate speaks to why menswear is currently obsessed with relaxed-fit pants and stretchy loungewear. We need athleisure in the office because the speed at which we’re living doesn’t allow for us to experience leisure any other way. Robinson is speaking from personal experience, too. “Most of my career has been a communion between my personal life and my professional life,” he says, adding that he’s been known to use work like booze or a drug — that is, something to binge on to distract from unpleasant or unwanted feelings.

#Chill is his attempt at an antidote, a yearlong guide to restoring inner focus and calm. To find some of my own #chill, I recently spoke to Robinson about how being #chill is as much a state of mind as it is cutting back the hours you work; the microchill exercises he believes can put your mind in such a de facto state; and why these stressful times stretch far beyond social-media obsessed millennials.

What was your working style like before you found your chill?
I used my work like my dad used his bottle. I hid it. I binged on it. I got high from it. Workaholism has a very similar trajectory as alcohol or drug abuse when you’re at the extreme level like I was. Work was everything. It almost ended my long-term relationship and caused me a lot of physical problems, too. So while I was getting a lot of accolades at the university where I was teaching full-time, the University of North Carolina, my personal life was crumbling. I didn’t understand why because I was in such denial.

There’s a story in the introduction of the book about how I was at the university working on the day of my father’s funeral, while the rest of my family was with loved ones and grieving. Again, my work was a way to assuage unpleasant feelings or experiences that I had. I didn’t even know I was medicating myself with it. A lot of us use work as medication and don’t realize we’re doing it. We say, “I’ll slow down once I get this project done, or once I get this promotion.”

This is true of both men and women. Traditionally, it’s been more common in men, but now we’re seeing some women — as more and more of them enter leadership positions in the corporate arena — experience similar kinds of things. It’s never enough. We keep digging in our heels and going further and further and further, just like an alcoholic who can’t get enough alcohol.

A lot of the time, too, workaholics earn positive reputations as diligent, passionate, successful people. Can that convince someone not to change their habits as well?
Well, Joy Behar said one time, “I hate to relax because it stresses me out.” I have a lot of people say, “I don’t know how to relax,” because they bought into this myth that they have to be changing tires while going 90 miles an hour in order to be successful. But there’s more and more research coming out showing that the opposite is really true.

When we talk about workaholism — or people who are perfectionists or high overachievers — we’re talking about people who can’t turn it off. We’re talking about people who miss their daughter’s last bow. Or they’re at a soccer game, but they’re not really there since they’re returning emails to keep up. We’re talking about people who are struggling with balance, who think that in order to achieve what they want to achieve, they have to keep revving it up and keep the motor running.

But again, the research now is showing that people who slow down and use the brakes in balance to the gas, do better at what they do. They get there just as fast, and the outcome is actually higher quality. Plus, they’re gonna live longer, because they’re not as burned out.

What’s the difference, though, between being chill and losing your motivation?
If you’re motivated and you want to achieve, that’s great. #Chill doesn’t mean you stop. It doesn’t mean that you do anything that much different, really, except in your head. #Chill is about learning to put on the brakes, so that you have a balance between the brakes and the gas. This ensures you don’t burn out.

So #chill isn’t just about hanging out at the pool, or kicking back with a beer and watching the Super Bowl — although that’s part of it. Chill is about how we react. Most of us are reacting when someone cuts us off in traffic, or someone accidentally steps in front of us in line. This is called life. People are gonna get in our way, and we’re gonna get in other people’s way.

So finding your chill is really about taking a breath and stepping back. It’s about becoming mindful of external pressures and the internal pressures and being more present in the moment. It’s about being a little more forgiving when someone cuts you off or changes something. The idea is cultivating a space between whatever triggers us and our reaction. Everybody has a choice whether to act or react. When we act, that means we’re in charge. We’re not allowing the circumstance to put the pressure on us to change.

You have some “microchiller” exercises in the book. What are some of your favorites?
One of them is called “Don’t musterbate.” A lot of us, unconsciously or unwittingly, pressure ourselves to succeed. In other words, we say, “I must, I have to, I should, I ought to…” We don’t realize that when we speak to ourselves that way, we’re putting pressure on ourselves to do whatever that is. That’s why I suggest flipping that around and saying, “I choose to, I want to, I plan to…” It’s an empowering way of driving the car instead of letting the car drive you.

Another microchiller is to make a “to-be” list alongside your “to-do” list. While you’re doing, you can also be. It’s not one or the other. It’s both. In other words, you can be driving to an appointment or to an important meeting, and you can be being while you’re doing it. That is, you can put yourself in the moment, take a breath and focus on the things and sounds you’re seeing and hearing as you’re driving.

When we bring ourselves into the present moment and focus on something, our heart rate slows down, our respiratory rate slows down and our muscles loosen. There are lots of little microchillers on how to meditate for three to five minutes, or just to be in the present moment so that you can be more effective.

Is any one generation more chill than another? Does the flexibility of the gig economy make young people today more chill, or does its lack of clear boundaries makes us less chill?
In some ways, the current generation may be more prone to the inability to chill because of what’s happening in our society. Everything is speeding up, and demands are getting greater. Technology has erased all the boundaries, so you can be working 24/7 in the middle of the desert or in the Amazon jungle.

That didn’t used to be the case. People used to sit out on the front porch and tell stories and talk. Now people are glued to social media, trying to keep up. Almost like they’re in a breakneck foot race with social media. I think that’s a problem.

That said, everybody on this planet is wired for stress and reactivity. Mother Nature wired us that way to survive. But here’s the deal: What happens is we overestimate threats and underestimate our ability to handle them. So whether you’re a millennial or a Boomer, that’s gonna be present. If you’re not able to set your own boundaries or value the idea of taking care of yourself, you’re gonna be susceptible to these problems.

Do you think somebody has to have a certain level of confidence to believe that they deserve to chill?
Some people definitely carry that insecurity — that they have to earn the right just to be. Many workaholics believe they must behave this way in order to do well. It’s never enough on the outside because they never feel good enough on the inside. They have to over-work and over-achieve to feel comfortable at work. They’re trying to prove something within themselves, but that’s an inside job they’re trying to fix by achieving on the outside, which doesn’t work. That fuels workaholism.

But even my clients who aren’t workaholics fear that if they take their vacations or days off, they’ll be perceived as a slacker and somebody else might take their job. This fear is rampant throughout corporate America, so people are constantly looking over their shoulder, and every year, the number of people who don’t take their vacations increases. Or they’ll work on their vacation the whole time just to keep up.

Have you enjoyed your vacations more since you’ve begun being more mindful about your workaholism?
Yeah, but here’s the bottom line: My friends look at what I do, and some of the projects that I’m into, and say, “You’re still a workaholic, you haven’t slowed down.”

#Chill happens on the inside. Let me tell you why it’s different now. I’m drawn instead of driven. For most of my life and career, when I was in the throes of work addiction, I was driven like somebody had a ring in my nose pulling me. Of course I didn’t know it, but it was pressure to get tenure at the university, pressure to get my scholarly work published, pressure to make sure I get that raise. I was always functioning under external pressures, and especially, my own internal pressures. I was burning out and didn’t really understand it.

Now, I’m drawn. That means I’m leading from the inside. I’m at the center of my universe. I’m my CEO. I can work many hours without pressure. So I’m working from a place of chill.

You can make the same kind of boundaries in your personal life. For example, my partner and I won’t go to dinner with 10 people and try to get to a movie after anymore, because it’s the most stressful thing. We won’t do that. We’ve cut out those kinds of stressful things. We don’t talk about work during dinner. At work, I don’t bite off more than I can chew. I don’t have to get everything done in one day. I’m in charge now. My work isn’t in charge of me. That’s the key. It’s each of us looking at our own lives, setting boundaries and taking charge.

That doesn’t mean you’re not gonna be successful. In fact, the reverse is true. It’s counterintuitive, but if you remember Aesop’s Fables, the turtle won the race, not the hare. So chill. You don’t have to be sitting in lotus position to be chill. You can be functioning at your highest, fullest level and still be chill. It’s the way with which you approach life, and it’s what you do with what life brings to you.

While working on the book, did you have any moments in which you recognized this power of your own #chill?
When I did the audiobook, the studio the engineer said, “Do you realize you have three days to do this? You have 8 to 5 Thursday, Friday and Saturday. You have one break and one hour for lunch. This is gonna be grueling.”

All of a sudden, I bit the hook, and on the inside, I felt this incredible dread. That’s an example of external pressure and internal pressure. So what I did before I went in to the studio, I said to that dread, “I’m in charge here. I’m not gonna walk in with a preconceived idea. I’m going in with an open mind.”

That’s #chill.

And I’ll tell you what happened. It was fabulous, I had a ball. We were just zooming through, and someone said, “Do you want to take a break?” And I said, “No, let’s keep going. This is great.”

But I felt like I was in charge. I didn’t feel like there was some cloud hanging over me. I didn’t feel like I was a slave to the pressure.