Sunday, July 29, 2012

Time poverty

When my husband and I first got engaged, I had an opportunity to get a second job.  It was a good opportunity -- the pay was good and we needed the money -- but I didn't really want to work two jobs.  I didn't like the idea of leaving one job at the end of the day and driving straight to another one.  My husband, however, thought I should do it.  "Think of all the extra money!" he said.  He made a compelling argument and I was eventually persuaded to his point of view. 

I was miserable as soon as I started the job.  I always felt rushed, like I never had time to do the things I wanted to do.  I was constantly stressed out and was often irritable.  I ended up quitting after about a month.

Did my second job really consume so much of my time that there was none leftover for me to do the things I felt were important?  I honestly don't know.  What's important is that I felt like I didn't have enough time to do the things that were important to me.  My perception was what mattered.

The mistake I made (i.e., taking a second job I knew I didn't want) is a common one: I bought into the belief that money is more valuable than time.  Ours is a fast-paced society.  We are always in a hurry and there is never enough time in the day to accomplish all the things that need to be done.  Studies in both the U.K. and the U.S. have found that while a typical adult has about five to seven more hours of leisure time compared to thirty years ago, people today  feel like they have less time to engage in meaningful activities than they did back then. 

If we have more free time than ever before, why do we still feel so rushed?

As it turns out, I'm not the first person to ask this question.  And there's actually a name for feeling like there's never enough time: it's called time poverty.  Time poverty is an inevitable outcome of living in a world that never slows down.  Some suggest that it's tied to the competitive nature of Western (and especially American) society.  Culturally, we have embraced the idea that success is measured by material wealth and tangible achievements.  For this reason, we attribute more significance to a prestigious job title than to the nature of our relationships with family and friends.  We want to be successful so we constantly strive to "get ahead."  (The irony is that no matter how far you get ahead it will never be far enough to make you happy.  True happiness doesn't come from getting ahead or even from being successful).  We fill our schedules with activities that reflect the value we place on material gain and personal achievement.  Unfortunately, these are typically not activities we find to be meaningful or personally fulfilling.  Still, they consume the bulk of our time, often at the expense of activities that we do find intrinsically rewarding.

So what can we do about it?  We can't exactly get off the boat while life sails past us at breakneck speed.  Dr. Stephan Rechtschaffen believes he has a solution.  He calls his strategy "timeshifting."  According to Dr. Rechtschaffen, the problem with living in a fast-paced world is that we never switch gears.  There are times, he acknowledges, when we need to move quickly.  At other times, however, we need to slow down and be present.

Sound familiar?  Dr. Rechtschaffen is basically telling us that the way to create balance in our lives is to incorporate periods of mindfulness.  He assures us that we don't have to take time out of our already hectic schedules to integrate mindfulness practice into our day.  All we need to do is pick a mundane task and make a conscious effort to bring our full attention to the activity.

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