The Taconic Counseling Group
Maria Alba-Fisch, Ph.D.Are We Too Busy to Enjoy Life? Yes!
We are not really wired for the rapid pace we are living. Our brains can transfer information very rapidly, but most of us need time to process experience, just the way good bread dough needs time to rise. This is an era of over-booked schedules, maximum stimulation, fast food and sound bites.
When we became able to measure time exactly, work schedules became precise. Our anchor in time shifted from the seasons, the moon, and tides to precision instruments with digital accuracy. Computers turbocharged this into a consuming reality. Work communication became so rapid that there is too little time for thinking. Instant information transfer began to substitute for complex communication with others and with ourselves. However, personal confidences cannot be reduced to rapid information bits without losing something essential. Simply put, life became so fast, so busy, and so pressured that, for many, it became stressful depriving us of pleasure. Stress is becoming an assumption of modern life and can lead to anxiety and depression. Does it have to remain that way? Our answer CAN be "No".
ARE WE ALL FACING THE SAME PRESSURE?
While we are all affected by the fast pace of our culture, people are different. Their circumstances vary; their families are unique, and their experience is individual. Listening to the people I work with, I hear, at least, three distinct patterns of managing life that result in the experience: "There is no time." Within each pattern is a particular pressure and displeasure. Understanding these can help us find remedies.
1. "Just trying to get by": these are people who work hard and harder without any real sense of choice. Financial pressures are constant and threaten to overwhelm them.
Most people work to earn a living. Since we are wired to derive satisfaction from mastery itself as well as from social interaction, doing a job well and interacting with co-workers or customers could bring satisfaction. However, when people work two or three jobs, they are exhausted. What little satisfaction they might get from work evaporates with exhaustion and the associated stress. If this person is also a single parent, he/she may be trying to monitor the kids and, therefore, has a third stressful job always riding in the back of the brain.
2. "Goals without joy": these are people who earn reasonably comfortable incomes but their pursuit of very serious goals has become grim.
Some people are busy because they are focused on a future goal; they will work now so they can get to their goal, and, then they will relax. Unfortunately, they can become driven, losing any satisfying connection to their goal. They are just trying to "get there". Achievement comes without satisfaction. Some very successful students, especially when they are in high school, trying to get into a good college, can fall into this trap. They are very accomplished but no longer enjoy learning; they lose their curiosity and delight, the components that made them natural learners in the first place.
3. "The good life dilemma": these are people who have a great number of interesting work commitments and fun activities. They feel pressured because their schedule is very tight even if each item is desired and of their choosing.
These people choose much of what they do but are so busy they can barely notice the fun they are suppose to be having. They are doing so many things that their dominant experience is one of feeling rushed. This is true even though they like each individual activity. The only experience that registers is the hustle and pressure.
SO WHAT IS A PERSON TO DO?
While each person is different, similar principles can guide each group towards more enjoyment even though the route is slightly different. You may also find that suggestions made for another group are just as relevant for you.
1. "Just trying to get by"
a. Recognize the underlying value that keeps you working so hard. It is likely that you are working so hard because you are working towards something. It may not feel like a choice, but you are, likely, choosing something you value for yourself or for your kids. It is important to recognize this underlying value because it contains a dream, a hope that is significant. This recognition does not make working so hard easy, but it can help you take pride in your purpose, in your willingness to work hard and in your courage to dream. Remembering the dream can in and of itself bring pleasure.
b. Identify which pieces of your day could be better. People who are "just trying to get by" don't look for ways to restore their own energy. Restoring your energy is vital to reducing stress and increasing satisfaction. For instance, if you commute, you might learn to organize this time as purposeful rather than stressful. For some, restoring energy during the commute could mean the pleasure of being out of reach, listening to uplifting music, having silence, looking at scenery. For others, this time could mean cell-phoning (hands-free) people and catching up on conversations you don't have time for. If there is traffic, notify your boss that you are stuck in traffic; then, relax and return to energy restoration or conversation. You have gained more time to restore your energy in the way that suits you.
While this may sound simple or silly, it actually takes deliberate effort and a sharp focus to make this mind shift.
c. Find how the job itself can be improved. We do know that taking breaks can improve mood and efficiency, but people often do not take breaks that refresh them. Some reasons are:
Stop and consider what will make your break effective at helping you actually feel better. If your job is static, a walk in the air may be better than just sitting in a worker's lounge. If you move a lot, then lying down with your feet up and eyes closed is likely better than sitting.
Figure out how you could actually have a better time at work. Smile at others; they are likely to smile back. Which co-workers or customers do you like? Talk more to them. Which chores are better done when you have energy? Which should you save to do when you are exhausted?
d. Be sure to relax, for real. Be sure to pick something that truly relaxes you. Watching a T.V. program you love, can be great. But, a long period of unselective television can be demoralizing. Pick programs in advance and decide what else you would enjoy doing -- a movie, a game of cards, dancing, reading, building models, etc.
e. Be sure to get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation increases stress and exhaustion. Staying up late can backfire and can, itself, be a sign of stress. If you are having trouble getting yourself to bed, you may have trouble sleeping. In that case, a warm bath and quiet activity may serve you better than staying up.
2. Goals without Joy
a) Be sure to remind yourself what the real goal is. Again, most likely your goal contains a dream. Remembering your dream can bring it into focus and make you smile. Enjoyment of that variety takes no time at all.
b) Being goal oriented does not require grimness. In fact, taking time to refresh yourself will usually improve the work. Sometimes, people fear that slowing the pace will reduce success. It is quite the opposite. Grim work is usually lower quality work. People who work when fatigued are often less efficient, make more mistakes, and work with greater tension. Sometimes, people fear they will never get back to work. This fear usually comes from being over stressed and in a state of potential revolt. You have waited too long. You need to schedule regular breaks for relaxation or fun. Set the timer to return to your work until you get the hang of it. Remember, if you are working to get your kids to college and you are grim, you won't be preparing them to enjoy their success.
c) Find opportunities to laugh. Laughter provides a natural energy boost. It really takes very little time.
d) Evaluate your multi-tasking. Doing too many things at once can overload your brain. Multi-tasking can be good if you are doing something that enhances the time, (listening to the radio while filing, knitting while listening to tapes, etc.). However, if you are doing many things at the same time and cannot really lend yourself to any single experience, the enjoyment and efficiency of each task is likely to diminish.
e) Notice what you are doing. You cannot enjoy something if you are so busy getting to the next task that you no longer notice what you are doing. You will be able to measure how many things you have done but enjoy none. Be sure to notice what you are doing when you are doing it.
f) Set a time in the evening to stop work. Pick a time after which you will not do the work of the house or the office. The rest of the evening is for you. If you are afraid you do not have the time for respite, your work will likely be inefficient. You do not have the time to waste either on inefficient work or on the regrets you may have later.
3. The Good Life Dilemma
What do you have to complain about? Well, perhaps, nothing, but you, too, can face stress. Having a great job and too many good things in your life, you may share the same modern problem of people in the other patterns. Just because you like what you do, your stress should not be taken any less seriously. Burn-out can happen even in the good life. If you are too busy to integrate the good times you are suppose to be having, you may not be having a good time at all. You have picked everything you are doing, but there is no time to breathe.
a) Decide if you can really afford to do all of the activities you are doing. You may need to decide which ones are more important, which ones are just lingering. You may have added new activities without evaluating whether you still want all of the old ones. Figure out which ones you could eliminate.
b) Evaluate: which activities are enriching your life now? Maybe some choices used to fit your life, but your life has changed. You may need to pick new types of relaxation that fit life as it is now. If some of your activities were built around your children, and they are off on their own, reconsider whether these activities still bring you satisfaction or need to be adjusted or eliminated.
c) Have you forgotten the joy of unscheduled time? Busy activities can be delightful, but catching up on cleaning your closet or hanging out offer delights of their own. Busy people, sometimes, become worried about time being vacant; they need practice on how to enjoy it, again. Be sure you protect unscheduled time so that it does not get filled. Write it in on the calendar as a commitment so that it is protected.
WE ALL NEED THE TWO MINUTE RESTORATION
I doubt that we will want to give up the riches that come with a busy life. However, it is vital to insert a pause that allows your brain to absorb the delights of the busy life rather than leave the brain in a pressured, over-stimulated state, experiencing only stress and no satisfaction. People in all three patterns described above need and do have the time for the two minute restoration.
The two minute restoration is not a trick. The high stimulation of a busy life keeps your attention outside of you. The question of whether you are enjoying yourself has no time to form. You see, hear and focus outside of you, and the experience inside of you may not be recording clearly. Taking a few moments to integrate what your busy world offers you actually takes very little real time. BUT, it does take doing.
We can fool ourselves by saying we do not have the time, when in reality we do not have the habit. Our busy modern life requires that we develop this new habit along with checking e-mail, using cell phones and palm pilots. Sure, it would be good if it happened naturally. It once did happen naturally. Now, it is better to help it happen than not to have it happen at all.
HERE IS HOW IT WORKS. There are two versions below, both of which are handy. You may prefer one to the other. The important thing is to do, at least one.
A. Daydream. Step back and let your mind rest for two minutes. If you can only of think of the tasks on your list, stop and imagine some relaxing scene: a hammock, a beach, a lake, etc., a favorite location and time when you could just drift. This takes practice. Don't give up if you have trouble putting the lists aside. Schedule a specific time when you will review the lists of things to do. Then try again for these two minutes to daydream.
B. The Pause that Refreshes: While you are doing something pleasant, step back, notice and savor what you are experiencing. When you have a pleasant moment, take 30 seconds, see and hear, register the details of what you are experiencing. Then, take another 30 seconds to record those details: the color, the sounds, the smells, the shadow and light, etc., so that this experience stays in your memory bank. Later, in the course of your day, before you check your e-mail or mail, take a breath and bring this experience back to mind for 60 seconds, recalling the sounds and smells and your own delight. Smile. Take the smile with you into your next moment.