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Sunday, August 21, 2016

Mindfulness - The real problem with time

Nick J Webb, Flickr

"If we worship money, we'll never feel truly abundant. 
If we worship power, recognition, and fame, we'll never feel we have enough. And if we live our lives madly rushing around, trying to find and save time, 
we'll always find ourselves living in a time famine, frazzled and stressed." 
(Ariana Huffington)

Do you find yourself rummaging for time, desperately trying to go through your to-do list, always tired, always frustrated?

I know I do. A few months ago, I even tried to create a detailed weekly plan that would incorporate everything I want (or need) to do; paid work, household chores, quality time with loved ones, running, swimming, going to the gym, practicing the guitar, writing articles for an increasing number of publications. To my great despair, and no matter how I tried to move things around, it simply didn't fit - especially given the fact that I wanted the supreme luxury of also sleeping 8 hours per night. 

There is nothing original about my quest for hours, nor is there with my ongoing frustration with the unfinished state of so many of my ventures: as a working parent of the new millenium, I am in good company.

Not content to simply accept this state of affairs, I decided to dig deeper: Why do we feel so pressed for time while living in comfort and privilege? Does it have to be that way? How can we create for ourselves a schedule that has a more organic pace, while still reaching at least some of our goals?

The more I researched the topic, and the more I experimented with my use of time (this summer, for example, was the first in many years that I did not create a long to-do list for myself), the more I realized that the real problem is not time. Our stressed out and frustrated state originates from a few other factors:


Simply put, many of us tend to underestimate the time it will take to do something. I am definitely guilty of that. The first step toward regaining control over our use of time might be to actually set aside enough time to accomplish the things we want to accomplish. If, like me, you also struggle to remain focused on the task at hand (I can barely empty a dishwasher without researching something on Google halfway through), you may want to plan even more time. Which takes us to the next factor: 


No matter how much time you spend on a task, if you are not focused on it, you are not making progress. It doesn't matter if you are distracted by others (external interruptions) or by yourself (daydreaming, multitasking). A block of time devoted to something must indeed be devoted to it! How to accomplish that? Monotask. Take the necessary steps to avoid being disrupted (There is a sign on my home office door that reads "Keep calm and do not disturb - I am working"). And plan regular breaks.


Time is a finite resource. Energy is not. So what really matters is not how much we work, but how we use our energy. One of the main lessons I have learned from running is to pace myself. That could mean going slower than what comes "naturally", or taking a break before you think you need one. This, I realized, applies to any sort of activity: physical, intellectual, even emotional.

If I try to go too fast, or if I fail to rest when I need it, then I end up being way less efficient, which wastes my time. When we do that on a regular basis, a common consequence is to engage in "numbing activities" to compensate for the unpleasantness - this is how so many of us end up over eating, drinking, shopping, staring at a screen for hours, etc. I'm not okay with wasting my time numbing pain and discomfort with bad habits that most likely have side effects. Instead, I am coming to terms with "unproductive" activity (sleeping, daydreaming, reading, listening to music)  that provides me with rest or pleasure.


"Most people are living at such a furious pace that they rarely stop to ask themselves what they stand for and who they want to be. As a consequence, they let external demands dictate their actions." (Tony Schwartz and Catherine McCarthy) 

I stopped counting the number of times I heard time-starved moms - myself included - apologize for not baking/cooking the dish they were bringing to a party, or for not welcoming their guests into an immaculate house... as if getting something from the grocery store and living in a house that looks, well, lived-in, was a venial sin of some sort. To avoid the guilt - and the ensuing apology - a lot of us will try to cram such extra demands into a schedule that is already bursting at the seams. Enough already! Do those things really matter that much?

Like a teacher sets end goals, then breaks them down in small, incremental steps for her students, we should set life goals, determine the intermediate steps, and ensure that our time is indeed devoted to those goals on a daily basis. Any activity that does not lead to the fulfillment of those main goals can be tossed aside. 

Unfortunately, it is very easy to confuse our own personal goals with those that society imposes on us. Based on the current, mainstream definition of success, for example, I should be spending most of my time trying to impress others by 1) making sure I (and my family, and my house, etc.) look their best and "coolest" at all times, including on social media; 2) becoming famous (or making my kids famous, by extension); 3) making lots of money.

The problem is, those endeavors often prove exhausting, and may fail to provide the fulfillment we are looking for. I have written about how, when my translation business was at its height (and with it my income), I felt more fatigue, stress and frustration than any happiness I might have been looking for. I have since then decided to slow down on the career front, and I genuinely feel much better for it.

Meanwhile, other activities that seemed far less glamorous than a lucrative start-up, and which had fell through the cracks, regained importance in my eyes as I realized they actually fit some of my main priorities. Walking in nature and listening to the rain or birds, or spending time washing and cutting up veggies, seems rather banal and, again, unproductive. But when setting my priorities, eating (and feeding my family) healthy, and making sure I engage in peaceful, meditative activities on a daily basis, made it to the top 10 - meaning those activities should indeed be part of my daily life - even if that means sacrificing other activities. 

Less is more

The fear of missing out is a potent feeling, exacerbated by the plethora of choices modern life offers. Is it because my father passed away suddenly at 50, long before he could enjoy any bit of retirement, making it all so clear that the clock is ticking? I have felt an intense pressure to "make the most of life". When left unattended, that pressure can suck enjoyment out of life, which is the last thing we want to happen. I now know that what I need is not to do more things in general, but to strive and be in the moment, whatever I am doing (or not doing).

And so, counterintuitive as it may seem, in order to feel at peace with our use of time, we might need to do less, not more. To learn to sit or walk in silence, to stare into space, without guilt.

Which is exactly what I practiced this summer. There is no endless list of activities on my fridge, with little checkmarks all over it. This summer I took life day by day. Consequently, I spent more time on "unproductive" activities such as reading, chatting with friends and family, and even sleeping. It wasn't always comfortable, but I got used to that slower, more organic, pace. Interestingly, the top priorities still got done (e.g. repainting the decks, organizing the basement). Was this summer better or worse than the previous ones? Neither. But it was certainly less stressful. Will I have regrets? Probably not.

Mindfulness this Week

Have you changed your relationship with time?
How do you make sure you respect your pace, energy levels and priorities?
Do you find it hard to set realistic expectations, and to maintain your focus?

Be part of the process: 

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