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We live in a culture besotted with doing. We’re devoted to breathless, full-tilt busy-ness. If we take time to meditate, we justify it by pointing out how much more productive our practice makes us. It’s okay if we sit still for ten minutes in the morning because it helps us get more done.
At work, we and our coworkers indulge in competition over just how much we’ve got going on, how little we’ve slept, how many hours we’re putting in.
“I’ve been working crazy hours,” we’ll say to explain our frazzled state, and the response is certain to be sympathetic until our listeners one-up us with a remark about their own mountainous workload. We commiserate for a nanosecond before we plunge back into the maelstrom, our never-to-be-sated egos driving us like overseers goading pack mules.
Meanwhile much of our day — I could quote statistics on this, but do you really need me to? — is taken up by receiving and managing the tsunami of emails and tweets, texts and newsfeed blurbs, activities that keep us frenetically occupied and our attention shredded. Often, little of our precious time is spent in actual work: that is, the creation or development of an object, product, service, or human interaction with intrinsic value.
It’s easy to fall into this trap, and it takes awareness to avoid it — especially during the holidays. We’re expected and encouraged to stay crazy busy. We’re barraged with messages urging us to reach higher, surpass our goals, do more. It behooves capitalism’s rapacious machinery to goad us into high-speed, aspirational acquiring, without pausing to think too much about the real worth or necessity of any of it.
At all times of the year, we’re urged to compare ourselves to Highly Effective People who run business empires while simultaneously traveling the world, appearing on talk shows, and saving humanity. The thinking goes: they’ve got the same twenty-four hours in a day that we do, so if we can just figure out how to fit more into our day we can aspire to their level of achievement. So get busy, people!
Busy-ness has a nasty way of tipping over into an addiction. The problem, as with all addictions, is that no matter how much you do, it’s never enough. The fleeting endorphin rush you get from knocking out every item on a crowded To-Do list leaves you jangled and depleted even while it sets you up for doing yet more. And your boss, your organization, and your culture will be happy to cooperate, happy to hook you up.
As individuals, we each have unique energy levels. Some of us are naturally wired to go like a bat out of hell. But even so, if we never let up our pace we wind up feeling constantly pushed and deeply unsatisfied. We get to the end of another day and wonder where it went. We can’t even remember what it is we were doing, we just know we didn’t stop all day long. And here we are, one day closer to the finish line.
I speak as one who has fallen into this error more times than I can count. When confronted with a stressor like a big project or an uncomfortable change, my default is to go into action like a ferret on meth. I have to remind myself repeatedly that unless I need to evacuate my house in the face of an onrushing wildfire (which I did more than once when living in drought-stricken California), I’ll do much better if I take a breath and slow down. If I become insanely busy, then all I’ve done is to allow myself to become insane.
Along with a considered, deliberate approach to the task, project, or enterprise at hand, at the end of the day, there needs to be an end to the day. Whatever we’ve gotten done, or not, it has to be enough. Short of a true emergency, the rest of it will wait. Let the problems of the day be sufficient unto the day, as the man said. It’s Miller Time.
Otherwise, we live in constant emergency mode. There are boatloads of studies that show that kind of unrelenting stress is bad for us. Even deadly. Why choose that?
So, sure, aim high and set worthy challenges for yourself. Go for your big dreams. Just remember that you’re a human being, not a human doing.
Take your time. Seriously, take it. It’s your most precious possession, and you never know how much of it you have left.
Feel free to remind me that I said so.