Do Less in More Time

April 26, 2010

It's not enough to be busy, so are the ants. The question is, what are we busy about?--Henry David Thoreau

Some time ago, I was reading one of those magazines that try to help you simplify your life, and I came across an article touting the benefits of exercising during “downtimes.” I don’t know about you, but when I’m waiting for the spaghetti water to boil, I’m emptying the dishwasher or putting the Goldfish crackers back in the pantry. I’m already multitasking, and when I pick up a magazine that touts The Simple Life, I want that life to be simpler than the one I already lead, thank you. I think multitasking and efficiency have gone too far when I can’t make dinner or ride an elevator without being expected to tone my thighs.

Our culture seems to be obsessed with doing more, more, more. Anyone who doesn’t hold down a job and fill their leisure hours with “worthwhile activity” is a slacker. Among my friends and acquaintances, our most common complaint is how busy we are, or how behind we feel. In order to achieve all our goals (make dinner, get in shape…), we’re forced to multitask.

And where is all this multitasking getting us anyway? Are we finding great chunks of time to do things we really love? Or are we just making it possible to do two or 10 more unfulfilling, maybe even unnecessary tasks? I ask myself, do I really need to alphabetize my herbs and spices? Wash the laundry room shelves? Shave the dog?

Please don't shave me...

When you think about it, is multitasking really so great? Who hasn’t been irritated—if not endangered—by the classic multitasker: the driver talking on his/her cell phone?

But here’s the clincher. A study published in 2009 by Stanford researchers found that multitaskers are more distractible and have more trouble focusing than non-multitaskers. (And this is a surprise?) In short, according to those researchers, multitaskers are incompetent.

So why do we do this to ourselves? Perhaps our busyness and multitasking are defense mechanisms, meant to keep us from seeing the empty places in our lives. If we fill every minute with activity—sometimes with more than one—we won’t feel the loneliness, anger or anxiety we’re so afraid of.

Or maybe we’re afraid that others will think less of us if we don’t have a long list of activities and achievements to rattle off when we’re asked what’s new. What would happen, I wonder, if we told a co-worker we spent the previous evening playing board games with our kids? Would we lose his or her respect because we didn’t work late, shuttle the kids to gymnastics practice and pick up the dry cleaning? We’ve seen a certain smugness some of those busy people exude—and we don’t want to lose face in front of them. If we’re not as busy as they are, maybe we’re not as important?

Philosophical questions aside, we’re still faced with ever-increasing demands on our time and the same old 24 hours to meet those demands. Now we find out that one of our techniques for managing our lives is actually making them more difficult. Maybe what we need instead of a magazine article that encourages us to exercise during downtimes is a series of articles that give us permission simply to be in the moment, to appreciate the ambiance of a restaurant without doing ankle rotations while waiting for our salads to arrive. The first article could be “Do Less in More Time—a Guide to the Slow Life.” Other articles could include:

--“The Joy of Daydreaming”
--“Put Those Bills Away!” (How to watch TV without doing something else at the same time.)
--“Ten Ways to Say No to Unwanted Activities”

Come to think of it, we don’t really need permission from anyone. We have the right—the need even—to slow our lives down to a livable pace. Let’s give our poor overworked brains and bodies a chance to focus on one thing at a time. And occasionally, let’s make that one thing stopping to smell the roses.

...or watch the sunset

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  1. BRAVO!!!! Well said! I found after I left Corporate America that it took me about six months to shake the feeling of "oh, wait, I should be doing something ELSE, not just sitting here painting!!!"

    And I also found I had an amazingly hard time following though -start to finish - on the simplest of tasks. I think that's a byproduct of multitasking that you don't really see/notice until you don't have a desk full of those unfinished tasks hiding the results.

  2. Oh, Kathy, thank you for this!! Fantastic article, hon. This needs to be in several highly prominent magazines. I am totally resonating to your brilliant, slow vibe here. I've slowed down so much lately I'd scarcely have recognized myself five years ago -- but I love living this slower version of life. :)

    Maybe we need to start this movement. Forget Slow Food. How about Slow People?

  3. Kathy, WOW - this is a powerful post! So thoughtfully written too. This one’s a keeper!

    I fully understand... I’m one of those people who get overwhelmed by life. It is absolutely necessary for me to have down time because my job is so demanding. I can fully multi-task on the job out of necessity, but don’t expect me to do it at home - it’s too exhausting. I find most weekdays that I’m not able to do more than one thing after hours. If my son has a swim class, then that’s all I’m able to accomplish - it’s to the couch after that to recoup! It’s amazing I find time to paint, but that’s not necessarily multi-tasking... it’s instead keeping my sanity intact, much like I suppose writing is for you.

    I’ve also been my son’s scout leader for the past two years, and it was costing me my sanity. The only reason I became a leader was because no one else would, even though I knew it would completely overwhelm me. I’d tried to pass it off for the past two years, but everyone was quite happy to let me lead it (imagine!). I finally gave notice and said “I am NOT doing this anymore - either the den will fall apart, or someone ELSE will have to do it – I’ve volunteered long enough!” It felt good to relinquish those duties without feeling guilty, and I won’t let anyone talk me back into it.

    Let’s also apply that theory to our children. Most of them are way over scheduled. I simply cannot be a [substitute your sport] mom because I can’t function with practice three times a week and weekly games. My son is involved in one activity at a time, whether it’s swimming lessons or scouts, etc, because his mom is too overwhelmed to do anything else.

    In addition, children need to learn downtime. Many of them are so used to being “go-go-go” that they don’t know what to do with themselves, how to “go outside and play” or how to entertain themselves.

    I’m going to print this post and savor your words, Kathy. You’re quite funny with your post title as well as the fictional article titles! And I’m sure your puppy will be ever so grateful not to be shaved! (sorry so long of a post!)

  4. Laure--I know what you mean about follow-through. I find it easy to get started and hard to finish...and wind up with stacks of stuff I am in the midst of doing. It doesn't help that I'm highly distractable. I need to be more ruthless in what I allow into my life in the first place.

  5. Meredith--Slow People--I love it! How have you managed to slow down? Do you think it was primarily your move?

  6. Krista--Thanks so much for your wonderful comment. You used a word I often apply to myself: overwhelmed. I find that I need lots of down time, solitude, etc., and I become quite irritable when I don't get it.

    My husband and I have deliberately not over-scheduled our son, and now at 15 he much prefers time to do his own thing. Sometimes I question this policy--is he missing out? Will he regret not participating in more organized things? Will he have problems getting into the college of his choice because he doesn't have enough extra-curriculars? Who knows. We'll try not to second guess ourselves.

  7. Kathy, well, while moving to the country definitely slowed things up, I think it was a combination of things: getting back into gardening, doing meditation exercises with my roommates (I've been thinking of going back to those), reading Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now, and finally last year going through the Artist's Way again. I think slowing down for me may look like recognizing the primacy of creativity in my life; if I'm not writing, painting, dancing, visualizing, gardening, photographing, or somehow expressing myself, I'm miserable, and somehow I think busyness is the next step from there, to kind of fill up the time and not notice how yuck I'm feeling.

    I like your decision with your son. It's all about treating him as a human being, not as a cog in the wheel of a soul-crushing machine. Some teens I've met lately, I just want to rescue them from this overbooked, exhausting, superficial lifestyle where they seem to have no time for contemplation or being or even enjoying life. :(

  8. Wow, wonder you've slowed down. You're doing all the right, soul-feeding things.

    I haven't read The Power of Now, but I loved A New Word by Tolle. I'll have to check it out from the library.

    I hate to see teens who are as busy and stressed as adults. It's just not right. I remember spending hours in my room, listening to music, writing, reading and daydreaming. My son listens to music and plays games online with friends...I haven't been able to turn him into a big reader, YET. Sadly, sometimes he can't find someone to play with because they're all at practices (or camps in summer) of some kind.

  9. This is a very well written article Kathy. And I agree with your decision about not over-scheduling your son. We raised our son that way too, and he is now a well adjusted productive adult. He liked his alone time, which he got as an only child. I know that I don't get as much done as I did when I was younger and busier, but I'm also much happier now, and that's more important.

    It's like that quote about details.

  10. Thank you, Cheryl. It's certainly true that if you are always "busy" you'll miss the details of life. It's also nice to hear of an only son growing up to be a well-adjusted productive adult...there's hope!