How to escape the feeling of living on a treadmill

Do you feel like you’re on a treadmill in your life or career? I hear this a lot, both inside and outside of a business context.

  • There’s the sales treadmill – if you stop selling, no leads will turn into prospects and in the end: no work.
  • Marketers have the content treadmill – you have to keep generating fresh content to sustain traffic and get eyeballs, to keep the relationship with the brand going and ultimately drive sales.
  • And a lot of us have the work treadmill – the ongoing cycle of continuously going to work every day. It never ends.

Well if you see it in a certain way, then life is nothing but a big treadmill. Time is going to pass no matter what. You gotta do something with it.

Life is full of things that continuously needs to get done. You need to prepare and eat food. Several times per day. You need to take care of your hygiene. Again and again and again.

Whenever we find ourselves stuck in a treadmill-like feeling, I think we have internally mis-classified what we do. We have subconsciously thought about an atelic activity as if it was telic.

Telic (goals) vs atelic (ongoing)

I love the distinction between these two, and becoming aware of it has helped me a lot. It was Aristotle that named these and made the distinction from the start and it’s part of Stoic philosophy.

Telos in greek means purpose, or goal. Telic activities are those who have a finish line. Often an achievement of some kind, the telic activity disappears when you reach the goal. You need to find a new telos – a new goal – as soon as you finish the old one. A telic activity is working towards the point of done, like checking something off your bucket list.

Atelic activities are things where the activity is its own reward. They are done for their own sake and in a sense never ends. Things like spending time with your friends and family are not achievements to check off from a list. They are activities that you do, and the achievement (and reward) lies within the doing itself.

It’s an ongoing area, a place you return to again and again. Just like cooking and eating, or spending time with friends.

Originally Aristotle used the terms to describe two different categories of activities that give life meaning. It’s interesting to use this lens of telic vs atelic activities in a broader sense as well – including the “meaningless” activities of life.

Some of the disappointment in the treadmill-like feeling comes from assuming there’s an achievement check-off point when in fact there is none. When we pursue a telic activity, it’s with the underlying expectation that our efforts at some point will stop when the goal is achieved.

If we approach everything in this way, we get disappointed when we think we got the reward (yay, a sale!) but the activity didn’t vanish like we assumed it would (what, I need to be selling again?).

Many who call it a content or sales treadmill probably do so because they don’t see that activity as the main pursuit of their career.

Like if you’re a solo service provider, you want to focus on providing that service. Or you’re a creator who wants to focus on creating products. Activities like sales or marketing is perceived as competing with the time that could be spent on the value delivery (the “fun” part).

They’re seen as a necessary evil, that you have to do in order to have a pipeline of clients and customers in the first place. And since the need for producing content never stops, it feels like the ever going treadmill.

Changing perspective and realising that this is in fact an atelic activity that you will never be able to check off your list, can help you decide whether to fully accept this into your own workflow or delegate away as soon as possible because you truly don’t want to do it.

I think the difference between these activities is a key distinction to make in all parts of life. Let’s take the example of exercising for weight loss or weight gain.

Discern between doing and achieving

If you treat exercise as a telic activity, something you only do in order to reach a certain goal, then as soon as you get to that point you’ll drop that exercise habit in an instant. No goal, no point.

But if you see it as an atelic activity, something that you incorporate in your life because it’s something you do rather than achieve, you’ve got a much larger likelihood of both reaching a particular weight goal but also staying there afterwards.

This is true for so many more things. I’m sure you can see the pattern in your own life.

If you feel like your work is on a treadmill, then probably it’s because it isn’t giving as much meaning to your life as it should. Remember, telic and atelic activities are a categorisation of things that give life meaning. It then follows logically that if work is an atelic activity (which I think it is), then it should contribute with meaning to your life.

If you truly dislike an activity deeply then sure, you should find a way to outsource, delegate or otherwise eliminate those things from your life. In the case of your work, find another job or leave the employment route completely to pursue other paths of generating income.

Both selling and producing content can trick you though because they have little achievement points baked in. Places where you check off that you did something. So easy to fall in the trap of thinking they are goal based activities. Especially when you attach KPI:s to them to measure their progress.

But in reality, the achievement points are much like finishing a nice meal. You stopped eating for now. You will soon need to eat again.

If you have an activity where the achievement is in the doing and you know that it is something you’ll keep doing and not outsource or delegate, then you’d better find a way to make the doing more pleasurable or fun. Because there is no finish point. It won’t disappear.

But often simply changing how you look at something will make a huge difference in the way you feel about it. You don’t have to change what you do, just your perspective of it.

Scroll to Top