Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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Time Stress

                                                      TIME STRESS


The stress monster loves all kinds of time-keepers. Clocks and schedules regulate and control our lives, ostensibly for the better, but actually creating time pressures that destroy peace, relaxation and happiness.   I'm sure you would agree with me that there is never enough time for us to appease the multiple demands made on our time. From the first ring of the alarm clock in the morning, the clock rules our lives. Every moment of the day is commandeered into a schedule with the clock ticking away, tracking progress relentlessly. Surrounded and monitored by time-keepers and deadlines, time ends up as a ticking time bomb in our minds and bodies, reaching even into the apparent sanctuaries of our homes and bedrooms.


"To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven. A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck that which is planted." (Ecclesiastes 3:1) We used to live according to Natural Time, choosing our actions ourselves, eating when hungry and sleeping when tired. Although every recorded civilization developed calendars and other devices to measure time, many of these instruments were unreliable and uncoordinated. Self-determination, therefore, played a much bigger role in the lives of individuals. Do you know why historical battles, duels and other events were held at dawn? Not just to enjoy the morning air, but because daybreak was easily identifiable as a time point to schedule events. Early industrial workers labored at their own speed and took unscheduled breaks and vacations based on their needs or the needs of their families. Business and moral reasons were used to increase pressures for time accountability.  Ben Franklin stated that "Time is money," and religion informed us that "Idle hands are the devil's tools."  Promising efficiency, accurate time keeping also increased social controls. Time demands have accelerated.  Time management gurus advocate tight scheduling throughout the day and night with our lives constantly vulnerable to intrusions of electronic technology. Our round-the-clock culture is ubiquitous.  People are expected to think faster, work faster, read, write and talk faster; in short, to speed through life. To survive, we wake up with coffee, sustain ourselves with high sugar snacks and fast food, then wind down at night with alcohol and couch potato TV time. Our multitasking actually decreases our efficiency.


At this point in this article you're expecting a discussion about our psychological need to de-stress to improve our lives. All that is true, but first let me discuss ways to improve your productivity and efficiency and also manage stress effectively. Our time pressures have now reached the point of diminishing returns, creating burnout and lowered productivity. And this has been proven scientifically with brain research! Our culture is so over-identified with the work ethic that few of us will actually follow de-stressing recommendations unless they can be documented by hard science. It turns out that we need to manage energy, not time, for high performance and life satisfaction. You may not have heard about the body’s ultradian rhythms, patterns that occur multiple times throughout the day, including an ultradian rhythm that regulates natural fluctuations of activity and rest, exertion and recovery.  It turns out that the body and mind actually need a 15 to 20 minute break after every 90 to 120 minutes of intense focus or activity.  During periods of high activity the body and mind deplete available stores of energetic compounds which allow us to focus and work clearly and alertly. Interestingly enough, our brains and our bodies do not actually take a break when we choose down-time or self-renewing enjoyment.  Key parts of the brain are actually working 30% harder during these unfocused periods, processing, sorting and making sense of the information generated during work time and regenerating the neurotransmitters required to build and maintain new synaptic circuits. You've also heard about the "Eureka factor" when new insights appear to be spontaneously generated during periods of dreaming or daydreaming.  The book  "The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal," James Loehr and Tony Schwartz, Free Press, 2004, is oriented to workplace success but is also the best general reference available to explain this approach.  The point is that science advocates regular breaks,  mind-shifts, social time, rejuvenating amusements, exercise, naps, healthy snacks, and so forth, interspersed throughout your high-performance, high-quality day.


 I also advocate learning how to manage time for your own enjoyment and psychological renewal, not just for high performance goals.  We find ourselves cramming so much into every moment that we leave little time to actually experience our lives. As a result, we feel disconnected, trapped and powerless on the treadmill of life. As we race toward the future, someday we will realize that the future is always elusive as each "now" moment is experienced only a prelude to the "next." We need to learn how to experience the present without pressure or anxiety about staying on schedule. You can consult an excellent book, "Time-Shifting", Stephan Rechtschaffen, Main Street Books, 1997, on this topic as well as writings by Eckhart Tolle. My website also contains relevant articles about the perils of multitasking and burnout as well as positive approaches to self-care and happiness.


It is interesting to me that we are recapturing some of the wisdom of the ancients. Ovid, a Roman poet born 43 BC, wrote: “A field that has rested gives a bountiful crop.”  Our minds and our lives need and deserve rest and rejuvenation!