It is easy to fall into the trap of busyness – constantly going from one thing to another – from demands at home to demands at work to emails to exercise to relationships-- with no time for stopping, reflecting, or recharging. We can become like a carpenter who doesn’t have the time to stop and sharpen his or her tools. As a result, the tools become dull; more and more effort is required; less and less is accomplished. We think we must move faster, work harder. It’s a vicious circle.
A doctor friend I have known for many years was recently severely injured in a head-on collision with a driver who had a seizure on the Golden Gate Bridge. She broke nearly every bone in her body and was in a coma for several months. It is a miracle that she has not only survived but appears to be in the process of a nearly complete recovery. In her online journal, she writes with a sense of deep knowing and powerful urgency: “We must remember to get on with our lives. Do what is important. If you haven't been married, GET MARRIED. If you need to get divorced, get divorced. Just do what is essential and important. That is what matters.”
The truth is, you are both carpenter and tools, for you are responsible for keeping the blade, which is yourself, honed. However, busyness not only dulls the blade, resulting in unnecessary and ineffectual effort, it can convince us that we don’t even have the time to pull out the grinding stone and keep ourselves sharp. Sometimes the day’s furious deadlines make us believe we are so busy that we don’t even have a minute — much less ten or twenty — to stop, pause, and reflect. We convince ourselves that we can’t do the very things that we most want, or the things that would make all our efforts easier and more effective. In short, we become accustomed to using a dull tool, and we may stop even noticing how much extra effort we are exerting for such diminishing returns.
Unlike a carpenter, we don’t need to do anything extra to return to our original state of sharpness and unbridled full-functioning. We only need to do less of what gets in the way. As Shunryu Suzuki, the author of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, says, “You are perfect just as you are.” And, as he adds somewhat cryptically, “You can use a little improvement.” When I first read that quote thirty years ago, I found it hard to comprehend. Yes, it was a paradox, but it seemed rather puzzling and not very helpful. Now that I have had many years to ponder it, I believe it is one of the kindest and most freeing pieces of wisdom to live by.
What is interesting is that we usually become overbusy for laudable reasons — we are pursuing our dreams, being responsible citizens, assisting our family members or colleagues, and seeking happiness and real freedom. Having a lot to do is not innately a bad thing. Most of us love being active. I do. But this becomes over-the-top busyness when it makes us feel depleted rather than complete, when we run down the path toward freedom and real accomplishment but find them getting farther away.
The Power of Sabbath
When my two children were in elementary school, a weekly day of doing less was an important part of our family ritual. We borrowed some ideas from the Jewish Sabbath as well as Buddhist Day of Mindfulness practices. At the heart of our day we had three simple rules that we applied from sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday evening:
Rule #1: There was no spending money.
Rule #2: There was no watching television.
Rule #3: We did something together as a family.
These three guidelines produced significant results in the quality of those twenty-four hours. What a relief to not buy anything, not have the television on, and spend time simply enjoying each other’s presence. My wife and I talked more with our two children; we read books, told stories, played games, went for walks, and shared meals. The biggest benefit of this structured break was that, for a day, the pace of our lives slowed down and our family connections increased.
One of my favorite parts of this ritual was the formal ending. We observed the Jewish tradition of looking for the first three stars to become visible on Saturday evening, signaling that Sabbath was over. It was fun and exciting for the four of us to stand on our deck together, seeing who could find the three stars as the sun faded and nighttime slowly emerged. Of course, since we live in Marin County, dense fog sometimes forced us to use our imaginations.
Instituting rest and simplicity is not a magic wand for perfection. There were occasional disagreements, grumpiness, and boredom. But our imperfections often emerge as the most endearing parts of ourselves, and those “Sabbath” days stand out as important building blocks, and are great memories, for our still-growing family. You don’t need to have children to create a regular Sabbath or retreat in your life. In fact, you can do this if you live by yourself, with others, or a family of any size.
You Are Perfect the Way You Are
See if you can fully own the notion that “You are perfect, just as you are.” Really let it seep into your mind and body, into your bones. We are born with all the wisdom, playfulness, and imagination we need; we just sometimes need help and reminders to return to our senses and get out of our own way. It is the firm knowledge that nothing extra is required. You have everything you need; just let go of whatever distractions, fears, and busyness might be hampering you. It’s that simple. Allow yourself to think and feel and live that way. Embodying and acting from this place results in greater composure, and when we act with composure, we are more effective.
Try these practices:Once a week, or once a month, create a “Sabbath” for yourself or family. Create some simple rules such as – no spending money, no TV, doing something as a family, or some activity that provides nourishment.
Once a day for the next week, experiment with this thought – You are perfect just as you are. Try writing it and/or speaking it. Notice that it is true.
Once a day for the next week, experiment with asking yourself : What is one project you want to accomplish. Be specific. What are the next steps?
Busyness, and the difficulties and demands of our lives demand a good deal of attention, and respect. At the same time, by bringing our habits into greater awareness and experimenting with challenging our assumptions, we can produce surprising results.
Marc Lesser is CEO of ZBA Associates, an executive coaching and workshop company based in Northern California. His website is www.doingless.net.
Based on the book Less: Accomplishing More by Doing Less. Copyright 2009 by Marc Lesser. Reprinted with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA. www.newworldlibrary.com or 800/972-6657 ext. 52.