Do you have to give up your social life in order to be successful? In a month-long experiment in no social activities, I uncover insights into my work output, sitting with solitude, and not trying to fill my calendar with activities. 

Words by Madeleine Dore
Art by Amelia Goss

There is a common wisdom that in order to experience success in one area of life, something else has got to give. 

In Laugh, Kookaburra, David Sedaris recalls a conversation in the car whereby his friend asked the passengers to picture a four-burner stove: the first burner represents family, the second friends, the third health, and the fourth work.

The gist of the four-burner theory is in order to be successful in a particular area of your life, you have to turn off one of your burners – in order to be really successful, you have to cut off two.

From my own experience interviewing successful artists, writers, and creative entrepreneurs who are unquestionably successful with their work, I’ve found the friends burner to be dialled down or switched off completely. “I can work so hard, because I don’t have a social life,” I hear again and again.

If work output and recognition are the metrics of success, it’s clear a lack of social life has its reward. Instead of dinner dates and coffee catch ups, many of my subjects choose late nights in the studio or fill their spare hours with side projects, freelance work, book writing, or late night admin after they put the kids to sleep.

Instead of striving for work-life balance, there seems to be a recognition that it’s unrealistic to think we can have it all. Instead certain boundaries or sacrifices are made in order to ensure work priorities are met: common strategies among interview subjects include having a blanket rule that they will not go out during the week, or having a designating day of their weekend to work on side project.

Studying my own social calendar, I calculated that on average I spend twenty-hours or more each week on spending time with friends, varying from one hour coffee catch ups and brunches, to three hour dinners during the week, and sprawling seven-hour-long nights out.

I was curious to see what would happen if I purposefully switched off my social life for one month.

To set up the experiment, I had to find a definition for a social life. Living in a share house and often collaborating with friends on projects created blurred parameters as some mild social interaction wasn’t completely avoidable.

I decided to define a social life as enjoyable but optional, in-person activities with friends such going out for drinks, coffee catch-ups, dinners, parties, and non-work related events.

After one month of no social life, I was surprised by the insight I’d accumulated about my own work habits, people pleasing tendencies, and more.

Lessons from a month of no social life

1. Less play, but not necessarily more work

Turning off my social life burner didn’t automatically ignite the burner for my work. Instead, I found myself turning to leisure activities to fill the gap – long walks, going to the gym and cooking elaborate meals, going out for brunch alone, having a wine and watching a film on a Friday night solo, or chat to someone on Facebook Messenger.

I began to see a pattern emerge – when I had a difficult task to approach or felt the pull of procrastination, I’d turn to a leisure activity. I realised that I had previously been using my social life in the same way – as an escape from my work or a way to procrastinate, without feeling like I was actually procrastinating. Now it seemed I was using my “health” burner to compensate.

Two weeks into my experiment, I warmed up to the idea of working even when I didn’t necessarily want to. Instead of habitually falling into watching Netflix on a Friday night, I began to readjust and found a new energy for my work. I could pick it up at any time, rather than seeking out ways to avoid it. 

2. Relationships can flourish without constant attention

One of my greatest fears going into this experiment was damaging my friendships – what would I miss? Would our connection fizzle? Would they ever forgive me for not catching up over the course of the month? Would I forget how to interact with people and become an anti-social hermit?

My fears turned out to be unfounded, and I discovered it is possible to maintain relationships without face-to-face interaction. In fact, when I did speak to friends on the phone during the experiment, I found the conversations to be surprisingly heartfelt – instead of focusing on what we were having for brunch or gossiping over wine, there was a forgotten intimacy to the phone calls, and I began to reach out to friends for advice, support, or a debrief when I needed it, rather than seeking superficial company when I felt the itch of loneliness.

3. There are benefits to boredom

During the experiment, I had a striking sense of clarity in my thinking.  I rewrote list upon list of future projects, created posters and timelines, brainstormed new ideas for articles to write and clients to approach. It was as if I was on creativity steroids.

My increased clarity proved came from having a lot of free time to feel bored and daydream. According to researchers, when people's minds wander and they're not thinking about what's going on around them, they’re more likely to engage in 'autobiographical planning,' or anticipate their future goals.

Not only did I dream up new future projects, but I re-evaluated existing ones. As researcher and philosophy professor Andreas Elpidorou explains, boredom acts as a regulatory state.

“In the absence of boredom, one would remain trapped in unfulfilling situations, and miss out on many emotionally, cognitively, and socially rewarding experiences. Boredom is both a warning that we are not doing what we want to be doing and a 'push' that motivates us to switch goals and projects,” he writes.

4. Learning to keep the plans I made with myself

By day one of the experiment, it already proved difficult to cancel on a friend’s invitation to have drinks. I felt markedly filled with guilt and FOMO.

It became apparently just how hastily I cancel my own plans or commitments, and how beholden I am to other people’s – even something as seemingly casual as drinks. Throughout the experiment, l continued to feel a pressure to have an excuse when saying no, as if my own desire to do something else (or nothing at all in some cases!) is not good enough.

While the benefits of social activities are clear, if there where a scale between time spent on socialisng and protecting free time for myself, pre-experiment I leant too far towards the former. With introverted tendencies, this often left me without ample time to recharge, and I often found myself feeling flat on any given week. The experiment taught me that trying to be everything to everyone else all of the time, only hinders my commitment to myself.

5. Fear of missing out can be overcome

After a month of missing out on a myriad of social activities that appeared to be the-best-time-ever on Instagram, I eventually became accustomed to it. Being content in my own choices has made me immune to FOMO.

Often FOMO stems from a tyranny choice – when there are several enticing options to spend our Saturday night, how do we know we are making the one? During the experiment, I only had one option for my Saturday night – to stay home – and this limitation meant that I feel more satisfied in my decision. As Dan Gilbert explains in Stumbling on Happiness, “The more you limit yourself to certain experiences in your life, the more you appreciate those.”

* * *

A month of no social life didn’t transform my work output to the same level of the really successful, nor did it catapult my career, but it did allow the time and space for reassessing how I distribute the flame of each of my burners.

Our lives are filled with tradeoffs – between work and our social life, our social life and our health. Our burners are perpetually in flux, whether due to a conscious decision to focus on one part of our lives for a period of time, or our external circumstances.

To make the most of this ever-shifting equilibrium, we can apply self-awareness rather than self-regulation to our four burners. Research demonstrates that it is internal self-awareness that ultimately improves our mental health and general wellbeing, so we can decide to dive into our work fully, we can decide to focus on our family, or we can decide to juggle a little of all four. Self-awareness allows us to know when to shift and change as our lives or our desires demand. 

Post-experiment, my hope is to protect the beneficial side effects I experienced, such as improved clarity and sticking to my own commitments by implement a mini no social life experiment each week – one night a week I dedicate to a piano lesson and another yoga to ensure I have some time to myself.

By the end of the experiment, the adage that you can’t have it all didn’t really hold up. You can have it all, but maybe you can't just have burning brightly at the same time. I think part of what spurred on this experiment was a comparison to other people, their work output, and a perceived sense that I must be falling behind. But we can take a longer view when it comes to the trajectory of our lives – some things are a slow burn. 

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