How to Stay Sane in a Busy World
Why it’s important to put your life ahead of your schedule.
by Jay Walljasper
Published in Utne Reader
DAMN! You’re 20 minutes—no, more like half an hour—late for your breakfast meeting, which you were hoping to scoot out of early to make an 8:30 seminar across town. And, somewhere in there, there’s that conference call. Now, at the last minute, you have to be at a 9:40 meeting. No way you can miss it. Let’s see, the afternoon is totally booked, but you can probably push back your 10:15 appointment and work through lunch. That would do it. Whew! The day has barely begun and already you are counting the hours until evening, when you can finally go home and happily, gloriously, triumphantly, do nothing. You’ll skip yoga class, blow off the neighborhood meeting, ignore the piles of laundry and just relax. Yes! . . . No! Tonight’s the night of the concert. You promised Nathan and Mara weeks ago that you would go. DAMN!
Welcome to daily grind circa 2010—a grueling 24-7 competition against the clock that leaves even the winners wondering what happened to their lives. Determined and sternly focused, we march through each day obeying the orders of our calendars. The idle moment, the reflective pause, serendipity of any sort have no place in our plans. Stopping to talk to someone or slowing down to appreciate a sunny afternoon will only make you late for your next round of activities. From the minute we rise in the morning, most of us have our day charted out. The only surprise is if we actually get everything done that we had planned before collapsing into bed at night.
On the job, in school, at home, increasing numbers of North Americans are virtual slaves to their schedules. Some of what fills our days are onerous obligations, some are wonderful opportunities, and most fall in between, but taken together they add up to too much. Too much to do, too many places to be, too many things happening too fast, all mapped out for us in precise quarter-hour allotments on our palm pilots or day planners. We are not leading our lives, but merely following a dizzying timetable of duties, commitments, demands, and options. How did this happen? Where’s the luxurious leisure that decades of technological progress was supposed to bestow upon us?
The acceleration of the globalized economy, and the accompanying decline of people having any kind of a say over wages and working conditions, is a chief culprit. Folks at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder feel the pain most sharply. Holding down two or three jobs, struggling to pay the bills, working weekends, no vacation time, little social safety net, they often feel out of control about everything happening to them. But even successful professionals, people who seem fully in charge of their destinies, feel the pinch. Doctors, for example, working impossibly crowded schedules under the command of HMOs, feel overwhelmed. Many of them are now seeking union representation, traditionally the recourse of low-pay workers.
The onslaught of new technology, which promised to set us free, has instead ratcheted up the rhythms of everyday life. Cell phones, e-mail, and laptop computers instill expectations of instantaneous action. While such direct communication can loosen our schedules in certain instances (it’s easier to shift around an engagement on short notice), overall they fuel the trend that every minute must be accounted for. It’s almost impossible to put duties behind you now, when the boss or committee chair can call you at a rap show or sushi restaurant, and documents can be e-mailed to you on vacation in Banff or Thailand. If you are never out of the loop, then are you ever not working?
Our own human desire for more choices and new experiences also plays a role. Just like hungry diners gathering around a bountiful smorgasbord, it’s hard not to pile too many activities on our plates. An expanding choice of cultural offerings over recent decades and the liberating sense that each of us can fully play a number of different social roles (worker, citizen, lover, parent, artist etc.) has opened up enriching and exciting opportunities. Spanish lessons? Yes. Join a volleyball team? Why not. Cello and gymnastics classes for the kids? Absolutely. Tickets to a blues festival, food and wine expo, and political fundraiser? Sure. And we can’t forget to make time for school events, therapy sessions, protest rallies, religious services, and dinner with friends.
Yes, these can all add to our lives. But with only 24 hours allotted to us each day, something is lost too. You don’t just run into a friend anymore and decide to get coffee. You can’t happily savor an experience because your mind races toward the next one on the calendar. In a busy life, nothing happens if you don’t plan it, often weeks in advance. Our “free” hours become just as programmed as the work day. What begins as an idea for fun frequently turns into an obligation obstacle course. Visit that new barbecue restaurant. Done! Go to tango lessons. Done! Fly to Montreal for a long weekend. Done!
We’ve booked ourselves so full of prescheduled activities there’s no time left for those magic, spontaneous moments that make us feel most alive. We seldom stop to think of all the experiences we are eliminating from our lives when we load up our appointment book. Reserving tickets for a basketball game months away could mean you miss out on the first balmy evening of spring. Five p.m. skating lessons for your children fit so conveniently into your schedule that you never realize it’s the time all the other kids in the neighborhood gather on the sidewalk to play.
A few years back, radical Brazilian educator Paulo Freire was attending a conference of Midwestern political activists and heard over and over about how overwhelmed people felt about the duties they face each day. Finally, he stood up and, in slow, heavily accented English, declared, “We are bigger than our schedules.” The audience roared with applause.
Yes, we are bigger than our schedules. So how do we make sure our lives are not overpowered by an endless roster of responsibilities? Especially in an age where de-manding jobs, two-worker households or single-parent families make the joyous details of everyday life—cooking supper from scratch or organizing a block party—seem like an impossible dream? There is no set of easy answers, despite what the marketers of new convenience products would have us believe. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make real steps to take back our lives.
Part of the answer is political. So long as Americans work longer hours than any other people on Earth we are going to feel hemmed in by our schedules. Expanded vacation time for everyone, including part-time and minimum wage workers, is one obvious and overdue solution. Shortening the work week, something the labor movement and progressive politicians successfully accomplished in the early decades of the 20th century, is another logical objective. There’s nothing preordained about 40-hours on the job; Italy, France, and other European nations have already cut back working hours. An opportunity for employees outside academia to take a sabbatical every decade or so is another idea whose time has come. And how about more vacation and paid holidays? Let’s start with Martin Luther King’s birthday, Susan B. Anthony’s birthday, and your own! Any effort to give people more clout in their workplaces—from strengthened unions to employee ownership—could help us gain much-needed flexibility in our jobs, and our lives.
On another front, how you think about time can make a big difference in how you feel about your life, as other articles in this cover section illustrate. Note how some of your most memorable moments occurred when something in your schedule fell through. The canceled lunch that allows you to spend an hour strolling around town. Friday night plans scrapped for a bowl of popcorn in front of the fireplace. Don’t be shy about shucking your schedule whenever you can get away with it. And with some experimentation, you may find that you can get away with it a lot more than you imagined.
Setting aside some time on your calendar for life to just unfold in its own surprising way can also nurture your soul. Carve out some nonscheduled hours (or days) once in a while and treat them as a firm commitment. And resist the temptation to turn every impulse or opportunity into another appointment. It’s neither impolite nor inefficient to simply say, “let me get back to you on that tomorrow” or “let’s check in that morning to see if it’s still a good time.” You cannot know how crammed that day may turn out to be, or how uninspired you might feel about another engagement, or how much you’ll want to be rollerblading or playing chess or doing something else at that precise time.
In our industrialized, fast-paced society, we too often view time as just another mechanical instrument to be programmed. But time possesses its own evershifting shape and rhythms, and defies our best efforts to corral it within the tidy lines of our palm pilots or datebooks. Stephan Rechtschaffen, author of Time Shifting, suggests you think back on a scary auto collision (or near miss), or spectacular night of lovemaking. Time seemed almost to stand still. You can remember everything in vivid detail. Compare that to an overcrammed week that you recall now only as a rapid-fire blur. Keeping in mind that our days expand and contract according to their own patterns is perhaps the best way to help keep time on your side.