I’m not one for personality tests, but I’ve always just assumed I was an extrovert. I can keep a conversation going with virtually anyone, I’ve always been part of multiple friend groups — and I love spending time with all of them. I’m the kind of person who will end up with plans seven nights a week without even realizing it.
And yet two years ago, only four years out of college, I realized I was exhausted by constantly being around other people.
This wasn’t a realization that happened overnight — in fact, it took me a couple years to pinpoint the root cause of my exhaustion. As someone who frequently works 11-hour days, I assumed it was work-related burnout. My days are primarily spent editing thousands of words a day, and as a freelancer, I have a hard time saying no to work I’m excited about. So burnout from work seemed like an obvious answer.
Finally, on vacation two years ago, I realized how much I didn’t miss my social obligations. I wasn’t unwinding on vacation because I didn’t have to answer work emails — I was unwinding because I didn’t have a packed calendar to keep up with.
I was someone who would routinely blow off my yoga-class-and-TV evening for a game night with friends. And if my fiancé had plans on a given night, I’d make plans of my own, because hey, why bother to spend a night in by myself? It took me far too long to understand that this approach just wasn’t working, and that I was expending too much mental energy and was wildly high-strung as a result.
It had never occurred to me that what I needed was more time to recharge on my own. Instead of closing my computer at 7 p.m. and rushing to dinner with friends or drinks with a colleague, what I needed was time to breathe and decompress — solo.
So I tried an experiment to see how well I could handle alone time
As a New Year’s resolution at the beginning of 2018, I set these rules for myself:
- Every week from Monday to Friday, I could only make two social plans. That included drinks or dinner with friends, work-related events, watching a movie at a friend’s house, or even meeting up with a friend for tea and yoga. However, it didn’t include spending time with my fiancé, because I found that when I was making plans five nights a week, I barely saw him. My rule of “only two plans a week” also didn’t include making plans with myself. So if I wanted to take myself to a spin class, or visit an evening farmers market solo, that was always an option.
- On Saturday and Sunday, I could make any and all plans. I wanted to focus on spending more time with myself, decompressing, and not holding myself to the standard of saying “yes” to everything. I also hoped to free myself up enough to prioritize exercising during the week, seeing my fiancé, cooking, and catching up on “Silicon Valley.” That being said, I still craved being social, which is why on Saturdays and Sundays, I allowed myself to make any plans I wanted to. Occasionally, my old habits came back and I’d overbook on a weekend. But for the most part, integrating the “two social plans a week” habit encouraged me to make a manageable amount of plans on weekends.
- I instituted working hours so that I didn’t spend all of my newly free nights working. Within the first few months of instituting my “two social plans a week” habit, a predictable challenge arose: If I wasn’t rushing out to social plans after work, I’d just keep working indefinitely. As a result, I set a hard cutoff time to leave work on the nights I didn’t make plans.
It’s not easy to maintain, but this routine has changed the game for me
It’s been 14 months of sticking to two social plans from Monday to Friday, and it probably goes without saying that I’ve slipped up more than a few times. A press event comes up last minute, or friends come into town and occupy a week of social engagements, or multiple birthday dinners get scheduled for the same week. It just happens.
However, even when I manage to stick to my “two social plans a week” goal, I still find it hard to turn off, at least initially.
Read more: I’m in my 30s, and I’ve completely changed my mind about 5 things since I was in my 20s
In a Buzzfeed story on how burnout is affecting millennials, author Anne Helen Petersen said she’s “internalized the idea that I should be working all the time.” When I attempted to force relaxation upon myself, it became clear that, like Peterson, I felt like I needed to work every minute of the day. Without plans in the evening, even when I did manage to close my laptop at a reasonable time, I’d give myself house chores or exercise plans to stick to.
It took me months to learn to just exist without plans. And truly, I’m still learning to enjoy “me time” without over-scheduling.
But in the last 14 months, I’ve really felt myself start to uncoil and relax in a way I hadn’t since entering the post-college world six years ago. And I attribute it to seriously scaling back the amount of plans I made during the work week.
It’s not fun to impose rules on yourself and turn down plans that genuinely intrigue you. But for me, it was necessary. And as an added bonus, the plans I do make have become even more meaningful.