We are a nation of speed freaks. Scheduled to the max, rushed to the point of distraction, we still can’t seem to get it all done. Our obsession with productivity may make us efficient, but is it worth it?
Haste makes waste. I’d heard that saying my whole life, but its true meaning sunk in about a month ago. It came announced by a searing pain and an audible crack – the unmistakable, sickening sound of a breaking bone.
A moment earlier, I had been at my desk, editing an article that had already gone through three rewrites, was now hopelessly behind schedule and – as I saw it – still wasn’t close to good enough. In a fit of annoyance, and up against a deadline, I had decided to work off my frustration by dashing up and down the stairs a few times. But four breathless flights later, I was no less irritated and no less behind schedule. “Oh CRAP,” I thought, “I don’t have time for this!”
And so, in a last-ditch effort to blow off steam, I assumed my classic Wilma Flintsone stance (little fists at sides, steam coming out of ears) and stomped my foot. Hard. Too hard, according to my fifth metatarsal. It gave way with an excruciating crunch and left me crumpled on the floor, cursing like a sailor.
For the record, breaking my foot did not rate well as a time saver. This fact occurred to me about three hours later – around the same time my deadline was passing – as I was looking at x-rays and explaining to the orthopedist just how I had managed to break my own foot bone into jagged little pieces.
The doctor seemed surprised. Apparently editors don’t frequently sustain this sort of work-related injury. Yes, I told him, I took calcium. Yes, I did weight-bearing exercise. No, I didn’t have an eating disorder, and yes, my bone density was just fine.
The problem, I knew, was less in my body than it was in my head. The culprit was that pesky little voice whose sole purpose was convincing me that there was never enough time and I would never get enough done. It was the voice that urged me to be forever multitasking, that made me skimp on post-workout stretching, that had me constantly thinking about the next thing I had to do, rather than the thing I was doing right now.
When I’d woken up that morning, a different little voice had urged me to get up and go for a run by the river. I’d grabbed my shoes first thing, but made the mistake of checking my email before I headed out the door. There was the “final” article, sitting in my inbox.
I started reading and nitpicking, and before I knew it, I was sucked in. That other part of my brain took over. “You don’t have time to go running,” it said. “This article needs work, and you’ll never make your deadline unless you do it right now.”
It was the same imperious voice that cut short even my pathetic little stair run a few minutes later: “Sorry. Out of time. This isn’t working fast enough. You’re not going to make it.”
One good thing about being on crutches and having to mince around like an ancient person is that all thoughts of efficiency go out the window. There is no question about rushing much of anywhere; everything happens at a slow limp. The other thing is, severe pain tends to put one very much in the present moment. In this way, the broken foot turned out to be a sort of blessing.
In the four weeks since my foot incident, I’ve radically altered my sense of time. I’ve also done a lot of reading and thinking about the many ways that rushing robs all of us – of our focus, our health, our pleasure, our intimacy, our peace, and about a thousand other things that determine how well we do or do not live.
Some of the costs of rushing are obvious. We hurt ourselves and others. We make stupid mistakes. We get into accidents. We damage things we care about. All these things cost us. But the highest price tag of all is attached to something far less tangible: the loss of the present moment.
Be Here Now
According to philosopher Eckhart Tolle – scholar, spiritual teacher and author of The Power of Now (New World Library, 1999) – we spend the vast majority of our mental, emotional and spiritual energy focusing either on the past (our wounds, our losses, our history, our failures) or on the future (our plans, our goals, our obligations, our dreams). As a result, we have almost no energy to focus on the present, which is a shame, he points out, because the right-here-and-now is the one moment that can offer any true, meaningful or evolutionary experience.
Our culture encourages us to be constantly doing, striving, reaching for the next thing. So our minds are always hyperactive – thinking, worrying, looking forward to or dreading whatever is around the corner. Obsessed with our fears, wants and struggles, we barely ever acknowledge what we have, take pleasure in the beauty around us, or get into the groove just being who, what and where we are.
Our energy may be high, our output may be incredible, but if we stay in that future-centric mindset for long, says Tolle, we will forever be vaguely dissatisfied. The trading of the present moment for anything else, Tolle insists, “greatly reduces the quality of your life,” leaving one with the indelible feeling that – no matter how much one has – something essential is missing.
So what are we to do? Toss our five-year plans and handheld organizers out the window? Not necessarily. We just have to stop giving them all our attention and power. “There is nothing wrong with setting goals and striving to achieve things,” Tolle explains. “The mistake lies in using [them] as a substitute for the feeling of life, for Being. The only point of access for that is the Now.”
Swerving Into the Slow Lane
Most people I know can see the value in slowing down a bit. But how does one get to this wonderful Now – this mystical and illusive state of Being? For starters, the experts agree, stop thinking of it as mystical and illusive. There’s no workshop, guru or Himalayan trek necessary (although a meditation seminar might be helpful for beginners). Just stop doing and thinking for a minute.
Quiet your mind and breathe. Notice the physical sensations in your body without reacting to them. Become acutely aware of the things around you without becoming invested in altering, judging or doing anything about them. Release the thoughts that come into your mind, focusing only on your breath and the present moment. Do this for a while – until you feel the gates to your own personal “Now” swinging open and an unmistakable sense of life/feeling/sensation pouring in.
This exercise helps you discover the state that Bhuddists call “mindfulness” – a totally non-judgmental, keenly aware state that sort of empties your thinking mind, thereby allowing it to be filled with something more wondrous.
Should the very idea of doing something so unproductive and boring make you impatient, you can be all the more certain that meditative exercise is precisely what you need. Learning to access the present moment may not only be the best way to cure your stress, but also to get over your neuroses, heal your relationships, recover your sense of purpose, and rediscover your joy in your body and the world in general.
Once you know what the Now feels like, you can be there – instantly – whenever you choose. Which means you can actually listen to the person who is talking to you instead of thinking about what you are going to say next. You can appreciate what the water on your skin feels like instead of wondering whether or not there are any clean towels. You can enjoy the power in your arms and legs instead of thinking only of their deficiencies. You can be blown away by the beauty of the morning sky instead of cursing the SUV in front of you. Most importantly, you can stop worrying that your life is passing you by.
No Time Like the Present
In the 1970s, there was this Harry Chapin song – “Cat’s in the Cradle” – about a father and son who sort of exemplified the hurried-life problem. The father is away traveling when his newborn learns to walk. Later, he doesn’t have time to play ball with his son, but he keeps promising they’ll get together eventually. You remember the refrain: “When you coming home, Dad? / I don’t know when, but we’ll have a good time then, Son. / You know we’ll have a good time then.” To make it worse, by the end, the son winds up just like his dad – with a harried life and no time to see or connect with the old man, who now longs to spend time with his son.
It is a heart-wrenching song. And it was a smash hit, in large part, I’m sure, because it spoke to so many people who could relate painfully well to the father, the son, or both. Many of us learned how to be busy from our parents, and many of us are now unwittingly teaching our children the same lesson.
In fact, today many children are heavily scheduled by the time they are in elementary school. Between the classes, soccer practice, play dates and flute lessons, even if you can make time for a game of catch, you may very well have to book your kid well in advance. Which brings up an important question: Isn’t formally slotting “quality time” with a loved one – say, from 6 p.m. to 7:45 p.m. – sort of antithetical to the whole slow-down-and-take-it-easy concept? Well, yes. But at the beginning, it may also be the only way to drive that first wedge into an otherwise impenetrable schedule.
A better approach, many quality-of-life experts agree, involves setting enough time aside each week to get in touch with your real priorities (versus your get-ahead-faster priorities) and make sure your schedule reflects them. If you sense you aren’t spending enough time truly enjoying your life and connecting with the people and places that matter to you, taking even a little time to really feel that (versus just worry and stress about it) may be all the inspiration you need to make a more committed and profound life change.
Once you get a taste of what it feels like not to rush, and to really connect in the present moment instead, chances are good you’ll enjoy it so much that those “now” moments will become a natural priority – and more substantial, integrated part of your life. Just keep in mind that scheduling quality time with other people won’t work particularly well unless you also spend enough time by yourself that you can be centered and present.
Getting Unstuck in Neutral
Most everyone needs a certain amount of alone time to recharge their batteries, and everyone can benefit from a few hours a week spent in some completely enjoyable activity they do just for themselves. It might be relaxation, meditation, exercise, self-care, idle contemplation, or what my mom calls “puttering.”
The key is to make sure it’s a regular, not occasional, fixture in your schedule and that you are present and focused while you do it. If you are rushing to a pedicure appointment, mentally planning your day in your yoga class, and paying bills while you have your morning coffee on the front steps, you aren’t going to get nearly as much out of those big-sigh opportunities as if you were entirely focused on the non-task at hand.
If you have trouble slowing down or finding time for yourself (or if you get antsy and don’t know what to do with yourself once you do), take some inspiration and ideas from the books on the following page. Learn the fine art of communing with and taking care of yourself. Just don’t make the mistake of treating your symptoms (sore muscles, dull skin, frazzled nerves, acid stomach) and overlooking the core problems – overwork, and fast-forward thinking – that are causing them.
As Jennifer Lowden, author of several self-care and comfort books, points out, making a hellish life more tolerable isn’t a satisfactory long-term answer. When Lowden wrote her first book – The Woman’s Comfort Book – in 1992, self-care was a new concept. “Now,” she says, “it’s a buzzword.” As great as the rising popularity of self-pampering rituals is, Lowden also sees its potential dark side: “We can too easily end up using self-nurturing as a reward for having to endure our lives.”
A more lasting answer involves adjusting your whole mindset toward creating a sustainable life, one that is satisfying and rewarding in its foundation – not just in the little cracks that form between bricks before it all starts to crumble. Sensible enough. But there are some hurdles to creating and maintaining a sane-paced life, many of which are self-imposed.
What’s Your Hurry?
“Our time famine is really an intimacy famine,” writes Janet Luhrs in The Simple Living Guide. According to Luhrs, our chronic busyness is actually an addictive behavior we resort to because we have become so accustomed to operating at high speeds that we are now downright uncomfortable with quiet time, contemplative silence or slowness in any form.
“It’s easier to stay frenetic and complain about not having time for other people than it is to actually do something about it,” she writes. “It takes a lot of time to play Monopoly all day long with our kids. (Think of all the important chores and tasks I should be doing!) It requires a lot more of our emotional selves to have heart-to-heart talks with people rather than the usual, ‘How’re you doing? Great. Great. Gotta run.’
“We can’t take the time to be sensitive to others and truly care for them when we are in a constant hurry,” Luhrs insists. “Relationships take time to nurture.”
So do healthy bodies and healthy emotional and spiritual lives. All of these things take focus and energy and long, linked strings of present moments – moments that most of us are hard-pressed to create.
Fortunately, neglected bodies, relationships and lives tend to throw up flares long before they fall apart, thereby giving us the opportunity to reassess and reapportion more time and energy to them – assuming we get the message.
In the two weeks preceding my broken-foot incident, I realize there were several such signals, all of which occurred while I was rushing, multitasking or both: I backed into my neighbor’s car; I broke a favorite dish; I boiled the water kettle dry; I cut my finger; I burned the toast (twice); and, for the first time in well over 10 years, was ticketed for speeding.
The ironic thing was, when I got pulled over, I wasn’t even in a particular hurry. I was simply rushing out of habit, going about 40 in a 30 m.p.h. zone – just like everybody else on that stretch of road, I might add.
So where are we all racing off to? Is it possible that the next thing is really always so much better than the thing that is happening right here and now? Or are we just straining to fit in “more” of this thing we call life? Is our life ever going to be so perfect that we feel satisfied to sit back and finally appreciate or enjoy it? Or are we doomed to constant, pointless scurrying and scampering?
Me, I’m not scampering too much these days. For the next few weeks at least, I’m satisfied to limp around in first gear and contemplate the mysteries of life. Going slow means I’ve been noticing the birds more, and the sky. Temporarily losing the use of my foot has certainly made me more aware of my body and how much I took it for granted. So I’m seeing the whole thing as a sort of gift.
But truth be told, I do miss running. And sometimes it is everything I can do to stop myself from whispering “C’mon foot. We don’t have time for this. Hurry up and heal!”