Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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Burnout?

BURNOUT?

"Hurry up!" Do you remember when you were a child, fascinated with watching bugs or wondering about clouds or drawing entrancing squiggles? Adults of all kinds, parents, teachers, interrupt: "Hurry up! You're wasting time." You were told that we all need to "save time." Later you learn that "time is money." Then you learn to enter into our modern roadrunner lifestyle. Everything is revved up, accelerated, tightly scheduled. "Hurry up" has seeped into every corner of our life. Too many of us live on the edge of exhaustion with the pace of life spinning out of control.

Today speed is glorified and slowness is vilified. My thesaurus provides some uninviting synonyms for slow: "slack, tardy, dull, uninteresting, sluggish, snaillike, retarded." The few positive synonyms, "gentle, leisurely" seemed swallowed up by the negativity.

How did we come to embrace the current cult of speed with every second of the day and night programmed? We certainly love our modern conveniences with instant communications through e-mail or telephone. Technology per se is not really the problem. The Industrial Revolution promised increased productivity and prosperity. Liberated from back-breaking toil, work hours would be reduced as the age of leisure beckoned. As recently as the 60s the U.S. Senate heard testimony predicting a work week as short as 14 hours! However, because we continue to believe that "time is money," factors such as business downsizing have robbed us of these potential time gains. We have let technology creep into every aspect of our lives and homes. We let e-mail and cell phones find us late at night and on our vacations. Work and stress can be round-the-clock. Speed promised to save time by increasing our efficiency, productivity and profits but instead has backfired into an addiction imprisoning its proponents.

Yes, there is a price to pay and the price is high. We have begun to ignore our basic physiology, our needs for peace, rest and relaxation, as well as our mental or spiritual needs for love, beauty and enlightenment. Do you really want a pressure-cooker life? Stressed, overwhelmed, we become chronically frustrated and impatient. Sleep becomes time for insomnia instead of a peaceful haven. Leisurely dining has turned into gobble-and-go. With limited exercise and sleep time, we depend increasingly on stimulants, coffee, alcohol and other. The culture of speed is the culture of instant gratification. We've actually forgotten how to slow down and be alone with our thoughts, forgotten how to enjoy leisure, forgotten how to enjoy positive moments when they arrive. Our thoughts constantly exhort us to "hurry up." Then we find ourselves interrupting our own children to "hurry up."

Okay, Doc, you say, what is your prescription to fix this mess? First let me frustrate you by saying there is no instant "prescription" for the stress lifestyle. One of my points is that we depend too much on instant prescriptions and instant advice. I do promise you that you can enjoy 2008 and beyond with a better quality of life, including more energy and efficiency, when you balance your life with careful choices for a slower and measured pace whenever possible. You should begin by examining the culture of speed and the many ways speed has invaded your life. Soon you'll become aware of your need for a more balanced pace in your life. Yes, speed and technology have improved our lives but only within limits. Re-consider your need for anything labeled "instant." Turn off distractions such as the radio, TV, and electronic gadgets to give yourself some peace to think. Decide which time-consumers are necessary and which can be reduced or set aside for greater peace and tranquility. Your first response will be to think that nothing can be reduced or eliminated. At times this is true, but with persistence you'll be able to make these difficult choices. Usually, at a minimum, people are able to reduce TV or web surfing time. With less stress and more pleasure in your life, you'll need less time spent on mindless activities such as half-comatose boob-tube watching.

Last month's article about the problems with multitasking described the greater efficiency available with concentrated attention to one pursuit at a time. Other articles in the Reading Room and Advice Line sections of my website discuss methods for stress reduction and obtaining balance in your life.

To further understand the burnout problem I urge you to read "In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed," Harper, 2004, by Carl Honoré, self-described as a recovering speedaholic. He came to understand his addiction when he discovered a collection of one minute fairy tales. Initially he was delighted that these condensed stories would solve the time problem posed by bedtime reading with this son. Soon, however, he recoiled from this idea, realizing the insanity of trying to rush through the important father-son bedtime rituals. You too will reconsider your lifestyle choices as you pursue Honoré's cogent arguments. In addition to the personal lifestyle issues I described herein, Honoré describes the cultural dilemmas created by the cult of speed. For example, written in 2004, Honoré foretold the increased recalls of E. coli poisoned hamburgers. Honoré further described "beeper medicine," the medical culture built on the quick fix. Describing the work domain, Honoré states "the grim truth that millions of people are actually working longer and harder than they want to, especially in Anglo-Saxon countries."

Now don't drop this paper and speed off to work. Take a moment to balance your life right now. I'll leave you with a few chuckles about speed and time. "Going the speed of light is bad for your age." "An object at rest cannot be stopped." "A rolling stone gathers momentum." "The problem with entropy is that it's always breaking down."