The phone is ringing. The fax machine is spitting out pages faster than you can catch them. You've got a dozen e-mails waiting to be answered, the phone is ringing again -- wait, is that your cell phone or your desk phone? Meanwhile, you're a half-hour late for lunch with a friend, you need to get a birthday card in the mail for your mom, and that project you stayed up late working on last night has to be finished by 4 o'clock this afternoon or you'll lose the account.
Does this sound like your life? Do you do two or three things at once? Do you often run late? Is your to-do list longer than a child's holiday wish list? If you're busy every minute, you may think you're being efficient, getting as much done as possible so that someday -- who knows when? -- you'll have time to relax. But what your do-everything approach may actually be saying about you is that you're doing too much, and you need to slow down. Now.
"We believe that going faster is the way to get more time," says Stephan Rechtschaffen, M.D., author of Time Shifting: Creating More Time to Enjoy Your Life (Doubleday, 1996). "We think that if only we go faster and do more, then time will somehow magically appear. The problem is, that's not what happens."
Often when we feel overwhelmed, we think the solution is to speed up and do even more. We cut down on "extras" like exercise, sleep and seeing family and friends so we have time to "accomplish" more. While these survival measures are fine if we use them short-term and only occasionally -- to get through a particularly horrendous project at work, for example -- it's not a satisfying or productive way to live all the time. Yet that's what many of us are doing, and it's leaving us feeling empty.
"The idea is that if you run faster, you'll get what you want and then you'll be happy," Rechtschaffen says. "But I don't see that. I see, for the most part, severely dissatisfied, discontented people in our society."
What you gain from slowing down
Becoming deliberate and unhurried is not easy to do, especially when you've become accustomed to running at breakneck speed. But, according to Joseph Bailey, M.A., a psychologist in St. Paul, Minn., and author of The Speed Trap: How to Avoid the Frenzy of the Fast Lane (HarperCollins, 1999), there are four great reasons to slow down:
1. To fight off infection. "The main cause of stress is an overactive mind," says Bailey. "People who are juggling all their to-do lists in their minds, who are worrying about the future or thinking about the past, are caught up in a vicious cycle of thoughts that create stress. When we slow down on the inside, we immediately reduce our stress." And when we reduce our stress levels, research shows, we boost the strength of our immune systems, allowing our bodies to fight off infection and heal faster and more effectively than when we are chronically stressed.
2. So we don't overeat. Often we put self-care at the bottom of our to-do lists. Then, when we're overly busy, "we slip back into our old addictive habits," Bailey says. We overeat, we skip workouts and meditation sessions, and we may even turn to cigarettes, alcohol or drugs for respite. "The reality is that there is simply never enough time left over to be used for our own health, well-being, or inner-growth processes," Rechtschaffen says. "If we want to be healthy, we need to create time for ourselves."
3. To improve our relationships with our mate (aka better sex), family and friends. "When our minds slow down, we're more present, we're better listeners, we talk from the heart and we experience more intimacy," according to Bailey.
4. For more smarts and creativity. "When you're slowed down, you access a more intelligent thought process and more creative insights and new ideas," Bailey says. It's no coincidence that we often think of our best ideas when we're in the shower or on vacation. "During those times when the mind is still and slowed down, we get our best insights."
How to move at a more-leisurely pace
OK, so you've decided to slow down. But how? By quitting your job and running off to India to spend a few months meditating in an ashram? Luckily, dramatic change is not required. Experts say you don't have to drop out of society or change your lifestyle drastically. Here are four antidotes for the overwhelmed and harried.
1. Take a "minute vacation." In fact, you can start slowing down this very minute, says Joel Levey, Ph.D., co-author of Living in Balance: A Dynamic Approach for Creating Harmony & Wholeness in a Chaotic World (Conari Press, 1998). Levey recommends "minute vacations," in which you stop what you're doing, take a few deep breaths, release any tension you're feeling in your shoulders, hands, back and elsewhere, and become fully conscious of yourself and your surroundings. Ask yourself: What am I focusing on? How does my body feel: Am I hungry, thirsty, tired? Am I fully present and being mindful of what's happening in this moment? "Stress accumulates," says Levey. "Those little minute vacations work better than waiting until the end of the day to release your anxiety."
2. Head for the restroom. Rechtschaffen recommends slowing down regularly throughout the day. If you're in a heated business meeting, excuse yourself for a "bathroom break" during which you leave the room and find a peaceful place to calm down.
3. Break to self-indulge. Another way to slow down is to set aside a period of at least 15 minutes a day, at the same time every day, during which you focus only on yourself -- no phone calls, no interruptions, no visits, just time for you to meditate or to enjoy life around you, Rechtschaffen says.
4. Just for the fun of it is a good-enough reason to do just about anything. It's important to make time to do things you like to do -- horseback riding, restoring antique clocks, the crossword puzzle in the Sunday paper. "All of us need to do something simply for the fun of it, without any motive of gain, self-enhancement, or reward beyond the pleasure of the activity," Rechtschaffen says.
Your real life vs. your desired life
Sometimes, of course, making time for what's important to you requires first that you figure out what's important to you. Too many of us put our jobs first and squeeze everything else into the scant time left over. But that's not the best way to prioritize, says Stephanie Winston, author of Getting Out From Under: Redefining Your Priorities in an Overwhelming World (Perseus Books, 1999).
Winston recommends writing a list of your top five priorities and comparing them with your current day-to-day life. "If you find that your real life and your desired life are just too far apart, sit down and give some thought to how you can redirect that balance so your real life reflects more of the things you hope for."
It's also important to figure out what causes you the most stress in your life -- is it your three-hour-a-day rush-hour commute? Your son's four-times-a-week soccer games? The evening MBA program you're trying to complete in two years? Probably, only one or two things are really overwhelming you. And, experts say, the more clear you can be about what is causing you stress, the easier it will be to create a strategy to deal with it.
After you've gotten a firm handle on your priorities and your stressors, you may find that slowing down will require a major change -- a new job, perhaps, to lessen your commute. But when you do begin to practice slowing down, life-changing decisions will be less daunting, Bailey says. "When you calm down on the inside, then you begin to access wisdom and common sense, and you begin to see how to make changes in your lifestyle that would complement a healthy life."
Visit www.omega-inst.org, the website for The Omega Institute for Holistic Studies in Rhinebeck, N.Y., a 22-year-old alternative education and retreat center offering workshops on a variety of holistic health and well-being practices, including learning to slow down.
And read: Time Shifting: Creating More Time to Enjoy Your Life by Stephan Rechtschaffen, M.D., (Doubleday, 1996); The Speed Trap: How to Avoid the Frenzy of the Fast Lane by Joseph Bailey, M.A. (HarperCollins, 1999); Living in Balance: A Dynamic Approach for Creating Harmony and Wholeness in a Chaotic World by Joel Levey, Ph.D., and his wife, Michelle Levey (Conari Press, 1998); Getting Out From Under: Redefining Your Priorities in an Overwhelming World by Stephanie Winston (Perseus Books, 1999); and Take Back Your Life: Smart Ways to Simplify Daily Living by Odette Pollar (Conari Press, 1999).