This article was adapted from The Healthy Mind, Healthy Body Handbook by David S. Sobel and Robert Ornstein. Publisher: Drx, Los Altos, CA, 1996. May not be reproduced without written permission.
Kathleen is always running late. From the moment she realizes that she has slept through the alarm again, to the moment she collapses into bed at night, she is in a constant struggle with time. "Where's the blouse that goes with this suit?" "There's no milk for cereal. Where did I put my keys?" On the way to work she thinks, "Whew! I just made the bus. Oh, God, poor Steve he needs my report for his project and I haven't finished it yet. I hope the supervisor doesn't find out." At work, she's ill-prepared for a meeting. A million distractions prevent her from finishing the report. It's time to pick up her daughter at day care. She's relieved that the fund raising committee isn't meeting this week, but annoyed she'll miss out on another evening with her family because she has to work. After finishing the report at midnight, Kathleen has just enough energy to look around her house (in dire need of cleaning) and wonder "Where does the time go?"
Kathleen suffers from time stress, which undermines the quality of her life and her sense of well-being. For most of us, the modern-day world seems to be spinning faster and faster. Computers, faxes, pagers, car phones and automated tellers, far from saving time, seem to add pressure. According to a Harris survey, in 1990, the average American had 37% less leisure time than in 1973. "Leisure" time is crammed full of activities, commitments, and responsibilities. Even our children feel the pressure of a chock-full day: school, music lessons, soccer practice, and homework.
For many of us, the frantic pace is self-inflicted; we are too busy because we choose to be so. Being busy may be a sign of importance or self-worth. Some people are "rushaholics," depending on hectic activity to get going in much the same way others need nicotine or caffeine. Rushing triggers the release of stress hormones which stimulate neurochemicals such as adrenaline to keep the body on perpetual alert. When we try to relax, uncomfortable feelings and emotions surface, so we get busy again and stuff the feelings back down.
Time pressure can have powerful effects on the body. Our brain regards clocks, deadlines, and interrupted schedules as a threat, and calls up the "fight or flight" stress response. The incessant struggle to do more and more in less and less time also makes us more likely to respond with toxic anger to anyone or anything slowing us down. We feel we're not accomplishing what we should and self esteem plummets. We feel exhausted and overwhelmed all the time, denying ourselves the satisfaction of a job well done. Personal relationships suffer. We don't have time for the real conversations and intimacy that help buffer stress and increase our resistance to disease. Because of the added tension and worry about getting things done, we may lose sleep. We slip into bad habits, eating too much or too little or relying on junk food. We avoid exercise, light up a cigarette or turn to alcohol, caffeine, or pills to rev up or calm down.
It may take a serious illness before we realize that time is our most precious asset. Fortunately, there are less drastic ways.
It's not just the Gandhis of the world who can escape time pressure. Even in our speeded-up culture, we can all think of someone who is relatively unbothered and unhurried, someone who faces similar demands as we do but is more productive, unhassled, somehow in sync with the flow of time. With a little practice, you too can enjoy the healthful benefits of learning to "go with the flow."