To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan and not quite enough time.
– Leonard Bernstein, American conductor, composer, author, music lecturer, and pianist
The other day I was reading an online article on the financial planning site LearnVest. I stopped dead in my tracks upon reaching this quote: “I kept waking up in a panic at 4 A.M. worrying – not only about all of the stuff on my to-do list that I hadn’t done that day and how much more there was to do, but also whether I was missing my life even as I was living it.” Wait! Did LearnVest interview me? That was me to a T, I told myself. Maybe I wasn’t waking up in a panic, but for the past month, as I have attempted to go to bed earlier in the evening, I have been waking up earlier. It’s as if my internal clock cannot program more than six hours of sleep. I open my eyes and am wide awake anywhere between 4 and 5 in the morning. And I’m conscious of what I need to do, what deadline is before me that day. Some mornings I wake up with a mental check list of what is going to happen that day; other mornings, I am filled with panic about a deadline.
The person being interviewed was, in fact, Brigid Schulte, The Washington Post journalist and mother of two, who wrote what she calls an “accidental” book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has Time, because she wanted to research why she and many of us are running ourselves ragged. In her interview with LearnVest, Schulte said the rise in overworking ourselves began in the 1980s. She referenced Katrina Alcorn, author of Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink, who said that society expects us to work as if we have no children and to have families as if we have no work. I won’t go into the health consequences of being stressed out; we intuitively know the correlation between stress, overwork, and lack of sleep to chronic illness – we don’t need our fears to be validated with research and studies.
Schulte pointed out that in our rat-race society, we look down on the pursuit of leisure, which she says we equate to being lazy. “We clearly have lost all sense of its value as we’ve gotten wrapped up in busyness and the feeling that we always have to be ‘productive’ and ‘doing’ something,” she lamented. I slunk in my office chair, guilt warming over me. I’m one of those people touting always being productive. In my defense, I don’t believe in always doing something for the sake of being in motion, for the sake of not being at rest (on the couch, that is). After all, motion is only worth it if it enables you to check something off of your to-do list. Insert self-conscious laughter here. I’ll admit that for the longest stretch I could not sit down and read because there was way too much to do and I couldn’t bear for the world to keep moving on without me. As I have gotten older, the notion that I have less time to do what I need to do, which results in me going into overdrive, has interfered with what I actually need and want to do. Reading is an activity that makes me a better writer and enriches my mind on so many levels, but the act of sitting down and not producing something, not having something tangible to show for being at rest, if you will, was unacceptable to me. Thankfully, I have overcome that silliness, but it points to the affliction that we can’t seem to find a cure for.
Schultze makes the case for embracing leisure, which is connected to creativity, problem solving, and the birth of civilization – the creation of art, philosophy, science, history, and so on. She wants us to recapture the value of play and break the bonds of stress and overwork. That to-do list? Don’t do it. In fact, don’t make a to-do list. That’s what I got from the interview. I’m sure the book has other tangible best practices. But I don’t have time to read it. I already know why I’m overwhelmed. I understand what I can and can’t change, even if that understanding doesn’t bring full-blown serenity. I have to work full-time for the time being, but I don’t have to let job demands kill me. If sleep deprivation negatively impacts my productivity and quality of my day job, then I make the decision to get more hours of sleep. It took a while to come to that realization and it took failing health to get to that point, but I learned my lesson. Telling me to chuck my to-do list is not an option. Now that I’m well rested most of the time, I get a lot more done. When I see all those check marks on my to-do list, I am buoyed and the sense of being overwhelmed is greatly mitigated. And I end up having “free” time, otherwise known as leisure time.
But let’s define leisure. If you had free time, defined as time in which you are not doing work for your day job, whatever that may be, what would you do with it? Some people may not think weeding is leisure, but when I am in my side yard weeding and pruning, I enter a Zen-like existence that actually insulates me from the worries that are waiting for me in my home office. It’s just me and the garden, which offers me both singular focus and an openness that allows my mind to wander. I welcome physical activity, and I feel a sense of accomplishment when I stand up and survey my tidy yard.
If I didn’t have my blog and my fiction writing, I would have more time to garden and to organize my disorganized home. I’d go to more of my kids’ sporting events. I’d be able to watch television – these days mostly just Major League Baseball games – but without multi-tasking – ironing, paying bills and reconciling check registers, responding to e-mails. I would just sit and watch. Am I sad that I can’t do that? I sneak in singularly focused activities every once in a while. But as Robert Frost, one of my favorite poets, wrote in his famous poem, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, “But I have promises to keep/And miles to go before I sleep.” So long as they are the things I really want to do, I am okay with staying up a little longer than I should, multi-tasking to get them done. So long as what is overwhelming me is about what I want to do – in my current case it is feeling overwhelmed at starting a new novel – and I take it as a call to action, I can live with that. By all means, mitigate being overwhelmed at work, but make sure that what you are doing with the rest of your day, your life, is what you want to do and what brings you joy.