I was recently asked, "Aside from world peace and the elimination of poverty, if you had one wish, what would it be?"
At first, I thought, "I would create more time!" But that would just get filled with all of the frenetic work that continually beckons to be done.
Instead, I answered, "I would slow time down. I would return to childhood, when time moved so slowly that it almost feels like a dream now."
I then came across a booked called Overwhelmed by Brigid Schulte, which offered some great tips for dealing more effectively with the limited bandwidth that many of us find ourselves with these days. I compiled the ones that I think are the most interesting and actionable below.
Reality check: Being busy does not equal being successful
According to sociologist Edson Rodriguez the drive for "busyness" has become a powerful cultural expectation. Schulte says that many psychologists write about a trend of people thinking that "the busier you are, the more you are thought of as competent, smart, successful, admired and even envied." As a society, when did we decide to determine intelligence and success by focusing on time spent instead of output generated?
Barbara Schneider, a sociologist at Michigan State University says that we spend more than half of our waking hours multitasking, double the amount of multitasking done by adults in 1975. The result: distractions from too many devices and an overload of digital communication makes us less smart and capable of processing information, making decisions, and getting our work done effectively.
And Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, has found that "five times as many high school and college students are depressed and anxious today than were youths during the Great Depression."
So, what are we to do about all of this busyness, or the "overwhelm" as Schulte labels it?
1. Switch your mindset: The less stressed you think you are, the healthier you'll be
The more you think you are stressed, the more your health apparently suffers. So flipping your mindset to think less about how stressed you are--whether through yoga, deep breathing, or sheer force of will--makes a difference to your well being. This of course doesn't address the root of the cause of stress in most of our lives, but can have a positive impact on the reality that we feel everyday.
Schulte cautions that your to-do list will never be done, but your life will one day, so breathe. Give yourself permission to lose yourself in the small, spontaneous moments that present themselves to you in your life.
2. Be happy first: Decouple material gain from happiness
Too often we align achieving a material goal with happiness, when in fact the reverse is true--happiness must come first. Christine Carter, a social scientist at the University of California Berkeley says that, somewhat counter-intuitively, "feeling positive and happy in the first place is what fosters achievement," not the other way around.
Try this exercise: in one column, write the things (material goods, trips, etc.) that you want. In the second column, write down why you want the things in the first column. It turns out that we often want many of the things in the first column because we believe that they will make us happy. Go through your list and try to decouple achievement of material things or material gain with your happiness, and figure out how to be happy now, in this moment.
3. Focus on what you can control: Autonomy leads to increased productivity and creativity
Huda Akil, a neuroscientist at the University of Michigan, says that "stress is the inability to predict and control the forces that shape our lives." A flood of information invades our lives everyday. According to Schulte, research shows that information workers have so much coming at them that they switch tasks every three minutes, making their workday fragmented and incoherent.
Giving people autonomy, mastery and a sense of purpose drives them to much greater creativity and productivity, says Rich Sheridan, founder and CEO of Menlo Innovations, in an interview by Schulte.
4. Prioritize: Make time for what is most important to you first
According to Schulte, true happiness comes from fulfilling your own potential and being who you truly are, which you can't do if you are constantly reacting to other people's emergencies. She recommends: schedule priorities first on your calendar, create routines, and automate repetitive aspects of you life. This cuts down the number of small decisions you need to make each day and enables your brain to engage with the big and important decisions you do need to make. Unplug from the digital fire hose, and work in concentrated chunks of time. Take breaks at least every 90 minutes, which will refresh the mind and inspire creativity as well as increase concentration and productivity.
Finally, figure out what is most important to you, and how you want to best spend your hours on this planet. As Steve Jobs aptly said, "Your time is limited so don't waste it living someone else's life."
5. Be grateful: Health and success can be improved through gratitude
A lot of research about the impact of gratitude in our lives has appeared recently. Some of this advice has honestly seemed somewhat hokey to me in the past. However, based on a decade of gratitude research, adults who feel grateful "have more energy, more optimism, more social connections and more happiness than those who do not... They earn more money, sleep more soundly, exercise more regularly and have greater resistance to viral infections," according to Melinda Beck, a health columnist for the Wall Street Journal.
So, think about three good things that happened during the day and see if it starts to make a difference in your experience of the "overwhelm."
6. Play! This is central to living most fully and optimally
Be honest, Schulte asks, "How often do you allow yourself time to truly and deeply play?"
Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play says that, "Life without play can be a grinding, mechanical existence," against which psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi recommends finding and creating "flashes of intense living against the background of everyday life."
Schulte's research reveals that human beings need to play; it enables creativity, innovation, learning, problem solving, resilience and happiness. In fact, "science is finding that play is central to being alive." Sara Baysinger says that play reconnects people "with themselves, with others, and with the possibilities of the world."
Taking care of your basic needs is important for play. Roger Mannell, a psychologist at the University of Waterloo, says that, "Consciously choosing meaningful leisure is the first step to reclaiming it." He suggests that you think about what you really want to experience during your time off and write it down, which will increase the likelihood that it will actually happen.
Be creative with unstructured moments of free time--don't just turn on the TV. Try to remember and revisit what made you happy while playing as a child.
Gigi Branch-Shaw, one of the original members of a group called Mice that offers unique "play" experiences for women, says, "Time seems different when you play." And Stuart Brown explains that, "Active play is a state of being unlike anything else. It is timeless, like flow. As adults, play is what keeps our brains flexible." Managers at Caltech's Jet Propulsion Lab discovered that the best engineers were the most playful--taking clocks apart, building soapbox derby racers, and working with their hands.
So, while I can't physically slow down the passage of time, it's nice to know that I can work on altering my experience of it.
Tara Brach, a psychologist and meditation teacher, says, "Sometimes it's as if we're racing to the finish line our whole lives, skimming the surface and never dropping into life as if life is a problem to be solved rather than a mystery to be lived."
Let's hope that each of us reclaims the time in our life to work more productively, and live as fully as we are able because today won't come again.