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 Rx: Halting Time Pressure 
 
The following is one in an ongoing series of columns entitled Mind Body Health by . View all columns in series

The Experience of Time

"If you are sitting on a hot stove, a minute seems like an hour, but if you are doing something pleasurable, an hour can seem like a minute."

- Albert Einstein

Until quite recently, humans followed a natural, organic pattern, alternating periods of harder and easier work, usually in sync with the seasons. The way we break up time into units is arbitrary. In some cultures there is no word for minute or even hour. The shortest unit of time may be the time it takes for a certain food to cook.

As we don't have sensory receptors for time like we do for sight and sound, we can't experience time directly. Instead, our sense of time comes from how we interpret what happens to us. Time can be relative, as Einstein observed. Because our experience of time is largely created in our brains, it's not surprising that the way we think about time determines the way we experience it. We're waiting in line and time drags. While dancing in the moonlight, driving on a twisty road or listening to favorite music, time seems to expand, the experience feels timeless. The trick, as Gandhi said, is to be "always on vacation" where nothing hurries us, but a lot happens.

A Healthy Approach to Time Management
Trying to control time by strict scheduling is like trying to control what we eat by strict dieting. We become so obsessed with it that it becomes more - not less - important in our lives. If we relax our grip and stop seeing time as an enemy to be beaten into submission, time relaxes its grip on us.

Learning some specific time management skills can help. Even more important is learning to focus on the "big picture," becoming more aware of how we experience time, how we feel about it, learning to stay focused on what really matters. Rather than squeezing more activities into your day, you'll probably end up cutting things out. This approach encourages you to continually evaluate what you're doing, and to ask the essential question: Am I doing what I really need to be doing to achieve a satisfying and productive life?

Seeing the Big Picture--Know What's Important
Every few months - or at least once a year - step back and consider what is really most important to you.

Seek a Balance
In many cases the motivation to overwork comes from a desire to achieve a better lifestyle or to prove one's self-worth. Ask yourself if it's worth it. Take a look at your life and see whether you'd lose or gain by buying and consuming less. Cutting back on work may reduce your income, but it can improve your standard of living in other ways. Virtually no one on his or her death bed ever says, "I wish I had spent more time at the office."

Choose Simplicity
Try to limit the things which unnecessarily complicate your life. It may be difficult to say "no" when life presents us with so many possibilities, roles, and identities. We want to be a good parent, hold down a full-time job, participate in neighborhood and community activities, take classes, go on trips, learn new skills, build new relationships, look for a better house, and cultivate sixteen hobbies. But what's the cost? In the end, it's not how much you've done or how many experiences you've collected that counts, but how well you have lived.

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 About The Author
David S. Sobel, M.D., M.P.H., is a practicing physician in adult medicine and Medical Director of Patient Education and Health Promotion for Kaiser Permanente Northern California. He is physician lead for the......moreDavid Sobel MD
 
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