Thursday, August 22, 2013

Is Life Really Speeding Up?

            This morning when I was lying back in the dentist chair having my teeth cleaned, my dental hygienist said, “Life is speeding up.  Things are going faster than they used to.”  And yesterday one of my coaching clients remarked, “Nowadays everything is ramped up.”  That same client, who does a lot of international traveling, told me recently that not long ago, the guy in front of her in the check-in line in the Amsterdam airport completely lost it because of some minor traveling delay, and the clerk told my client that that’s been happening more and more lately; people really losing it when they get delayed is a notable trend.  (See How I Stopped Hurrying into the Future.)  People are more impatient than they used to be, we’ve all got too much on our plates, and everyone is in a hurry.   
            It’s kind of fun to speculate about whether time really is going faster in some physical or metaphysical way.  I’ve found stuff on the Internet that says it is – it’s got something to do with the Schumann resonances and the earth’s electrical field.  These theories hold a kind of intuitive appeal for me – it really does feel like some basic something having to do with how much time we’ve got to work with has changed, and it’s not just a matter of being older making us perceive it that way (as some other websites say). On the other hand, some of the websites that claim time is physically speeding up also say this was predicted in the Bible and have a slight aura of crackpot-dom.  
            The important question isn’t why things are going faster – why we’re going faster -- anyway, but what we can do about it.   We need to slow down, enjoy life more, take more time out for ourselves, as my dental hygienist also said this morning.   She said the people in her mother’s Florida retirement home do that – they read, sit around and talk, relax. 
I grunted and blinked my assent.   But if I hadn’t been lying there with a pick and a little mirror on a handle in my mouth, I might have said this:  That sounds great, but how do we do it if we’re not retired?   And what if you’re retired and you’re still too busy to take it easy, like some people I know?
            And then I might have said:  The one-word conclusion I’ve come to, the surprising short answer, is this:  boundaries.
            When my dentist came in to check my teeth after the dental hygienist was finished, he told me he needs to start writing and publishing some articles so he can get tenure but he’s not doing that because he just can’t find the time.  His wife works on the weekend and he takes care of their two kids then, and the rest of the time he’s at work himself, seeing patients and doing other stuff. 
I love my dentist; his practice is part of the research division of our university’s dental college, and I really, really want him to get tenure so he can keep his job and I can keep having him for my dentist.  So I asked him if he wanted me to help him figure out when he could find time to work on those articles.  He said, “Sure,” and then he told me that he does have some time during the week at work, about a day and a half, for study and research, but he’s been using it to complete crucial administrative tasks, plus there are too many interruptions for it to work as writing time.   He and I and Pat, the dental hygienist, talked a bit about how easy it is to get overwhelmed by all the little things while the big, important things go by the wayside -- Pat used the phrase “the tyranny of the insignificant” – and then I brought up the boundaries thing.
I said that what I would do if I was him is:  Every week, pick two or possibly three hours during the full day he has for research and study – say, from two to four or ten to one – and – here’s where the boundaries come in – close his office door and put a friendly note on it asking people to come back after the designated time, and/or do whatever else there is to do – maybe notify the receptionist to hold his calls, or send out a group email telling everybody who might be an interrupter that he won’t be available then -- to keep those two or three hours open for research and writing.
I’ve found that the trick to creating boundaries is to do it in a friendly, non-aggressive, and even apologetic way so people won’t get offended.  In my experience, the biggest reason we don’t set boundaries is that we’re worried about hurting people’s feelings, and the way around that is to establish boundaries – i.e., say no to some things, or yes to them only at certain times or under certain conditions -- as nicely and neutrally as possible.  Another reason we don’t create boundaries is that we don’t quite feel like our own needs ought to take precedence over others’; sometimes that feeling makes us defensive – i.e., sound angry and abrupt when we say what we need – which tends to offend people and reinforces our feeling that we’re harming others with our boundaries. 
But most often, feeling like we don’t quite have the right makes us suppress our needs and not establish boundaries at all.  Then things get out of control, we feel rushed, crowded for time, and anxious about the stuff we’re not getting done, and life feels messy and chaotic.  It feels like there’s not enough time for anything, let alone everything, and we go faster to try to get everything done.  And that’s how life speeds up.
Another way that I’ve learned to slow down and stop rushing – to harness time and use it instead of letting it blow me around -- involves putting boundaries around little chunks of time:  Making choices about what I want to do when instead of letting life, what I think other people need from me, my own obsessive urge to do the dishes or surf the Internet, my own procrastination or desire to sit around, make those choices for me.  Putting those little boundaries around chunks of time – like my dentist deciding to write from two to four on Thursday -- is at the heart of what I’ve learned about how to harness time, and it’s another way that slowing down can be achieved through boundaries. 
If you put aside time for something you want or need to do, you have a lot better chance of doing that thing.  Even retirees in Florida might benefit from deciding, say, to start writing the novel they’ve always wanted to write, from three to five every afternoon.

                                    -- Mary Allen