Today we live in a fast-paced world. Everything is moving faster and faster. Everyone wants everything done now -- or yesterday if possible. There is no time for patience, contemplation, or reflection. It’s “do it now and ask questions later”.
“Not enough time” is a phrase that is so prevalent today that everyone appears to accept it as a natural consequence of a hyper-active, fast-paced world. This situation exists not because there is not enough time – there are still 24 hours in each day. Not having enough time is in reality the consequence of attempting to cram too many activities in the limited time that is available. The pressure to produce more in less time is a product of today’s cost-conscious environment in which “time is money”. This pressure pervades not only our work environments, but our personal lives as well.
We get up in the morning and hurry to work. When we get to work, we hurry to meet schedules and deadlines. Then we hurry home and there we hurry through the evening and hurry to bed so that we can get up the next day and start hurrying again. There is no time to breathe, to slow down, no time to reflect on what is going on in our lives. We eat fast, sleep fast, work fast, and play fast. If possible we “save time” by multitasking attempting to accomplish several activities at the same time. This is a sure road to anxiety, stress and burnout.
Speaking of roads, many years ago the National Safety Council coined a traffic slogan “Slow Down and Live” that reminded drivers of the perils of excessive speed, and that slowing down literally reduced the likelihood of being killed in a vehicle accident. This slogan is very appropriate for the excessive speed pervading our culture. Slowing down our pace of living reduces the chances of being killed by hypertension, reduced immune function, or stress-related illnesses.
But how are we to slow down and take care of ourselves with so many demands on our time and energy? Time commitments to work, to our family, our friends, and our social and community commitments leave little time for the 3-Rs - Rest, Relaxation and Renewal. Without the 3-Rs we become irritable, forgetful, anxious and frustrated. Without the 3-Rs our life gets out of balance and our relationships suffer.
Is there a way out of this dilemma? What I have learned is that much of the frustration of time pressures can be traced to our desire to get everything done. In truth it is not usually possible to accomplish everything that we would like to accomplish in the time that is available to us. If we can not do everything in the available time, how do we decide on which things to do? How can we slow down?
Steven R. Covey, in his book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” classifies the critical elements of personal time management as things that are “Important”, “Not Important”, “Urgent” and “Not Urgent”. He says that “Urgent” matters require immediate attention and that “Important” matters have to do with results. He believes that many of us suffer from an “Urgency Addiction” meaning that our time is largely consumed reacting to the excitement and energy that is generated by urgent situations. Some people thrive on urgency. Urgency addiction however, leads to stress over the long term. The solution is to be able to prioritize our activities so that we can stay focused on the “important but not urgent” activities like preparation, prevention, planning, relationship building and “true re-creation” like the 3-Rs.
The first step toward breaking the hurry habit and slowing down is to step back and decide which of the demands that are eating up our time are “urgent but not important”. We feel obliged to respond to the ringing phone as an urgent matter mainly because the phone is ringing. It may or may not be as important as what we are doing at the moment. I have learned that when my time is limited the most important question that I can ask is “What will happen if I do not do this?”. This question helps me to determine the true importance of the activity. Many things that seem urgent do not have immediate adverse consequences if we delay our response or decide not to respond at all. For other activities delaying or not responding can have significant adverse outcomes. Knowing one from the other can save us time, effort and frustration.
The other time saver that I have learned is the word “No”. Often it is difficult to say no to things that seem urgent, but doing so will enable us to focus on what is really important. I have heard this referred to as the “high quality No” because the consequences of saying no have been well thought out and deemed to be in our best interest. Our innate desire to please often leads us to say yes to things that we know may be difficult of impossible to do given our current level of activities. Saying yes in these situations means that we are immediately thrust into trying to fit in tasks and activities that will divert our attention from the truly important things that we need to accomplish.
If we are truly serious about breaking the hurry habit, slowing down and returning to a state of balance in our lives the first step is to realize that we cannot do everything. If we cannot do everything we need to accurately assess what is most important to accomplish by understanding the difference between the important and urgent demands on our time. Asking “what will happen if I do not do this” is a good first step. Lastly, it is important to have the ability to give a “high quality no” to things that can take us off track. Making a daily practice of these simple steps can help us to restore balance to our lives, create space for the 3-Rs and improve our ability to reduce unnecessary stress. The reward for this practice is an increased ability to accomplish the really important things that we need to get done, improved relationships with our boss, our co-workers, our families and friends, and most importantly an improved sense of personal well being.