by William Wittmann, M.Ed., LMP
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesnt everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
-- Mary Oliver
He had a couple of young children and a high paying, important job that demanded twelve hour days. His life, and his lifestyle, was important and urgent. Then his spouse died without warning. What is important and urgent now: job, grieving, children? What? The question still stands. He gave me the idea of a life of fierce under-commitment.
Guess how long the average work week is for a typical hunter-gatherer. Its twenty hours. Did you guess longer? Shorter? The work week for the aborigine of Australia is seven hours -- work week! In a drought it spikes to 21 hours. So what do they do with all that "spare" time? Do they go to the mall? No, they spend their time in connection with the sacred, in relationships, in ritual, and in art. (Fact: On average, Americans shop six hours a week and spend only forty minutes playing with their children.)
If you are not talking on the cell phone and drinking a latté while driving too fast to get somewhere, you are a failure. Being busy means that you are a success. In the 50s, being a workaholic was the norm. Of course, it wasnt called workaholism, it was called dedication to the job, to the firm. Then, in the 60s and 70s, we had a short revolution. During the 80s, greed was good. Now, we have kids working at the big software companies and other similar hot high-tech companies that put in fifty to sixty hours of work a week because its fun. All their relationships are at work, except their spouses, but many arent married. When they get to crunch points, they bump the hours up to sixty to eighty hours per week; of course, there is almost always a crunch point. They dont have or need lives outside of their jobs. Oh, did I forget, they have the promise of great wealth just around the corner. Many who have gone before them have realized this promise. Some of these young people expect to be millionaires by age 35 at the outside. They feel entitled. Does this sound crazy?
What if there was space in your day? You know, space with nothing going on, space not to be filled with anything, not even with TV (I recommend less than five hours per week of TV), but real space, space to be available to your child or spouse, for instance. Children just like to know you're available. They may not want to do anything with you, but they do want you to just be there. Spouses want the same kind of privilege: space to be with you. Go figure. If you are always doing something, you are not available.
We have the notion that quality time makes up for quantity. What a crock. You cannot have quality unless you have some quantity. Quality happens because space is available. You can't jam kids, spouses, or friends into a compartment of time and expect quality to come out the other side.
How about time for yourself? How much of that do you need? I need a lot. How do I get it? I schedule it, then I have to be firm and not let anything else come into that space. Assuming all the other truly important life stuff is handled, nothing is more important than time for myself. In my life, almost anything may look more urgent, but it is not more important. I have to block off time for me. The tyranny of the urgent will trample on what is truly important if you let it.
Urgent and Important
There are four possibilities: urgent and important, urgent and not important, not urgent but important, and not urgent and not important. Imagine a box that lays out all these possibilities. Which quadrant does your life go in?
If you dont attend to it, your life will generate a crisis; then you will be in the urgent and important box. This is not where we want to be.
To clarify whether something is truly urgent and important ask, "Can this wait a day, a week, a year?" A variation is, "Will anyone care a hundred years from now?"
Mail marked "urgent" is usually neither urgent nor important. An emergency room-type injury is probably both, but those are usually obviously so.
Con artists will urge decisions by saying the offer is good for only a short time, "til midnight, and your life will be a ruin if you dont buy."
How do you carve out time?
While hunting for a good head of lettuce to bring home to dinner, I bumped into a colleague in the grocery store. We talked about enthusiastic under-commitment. She gifted me with this phrase: "It's nice to say no."
She said it in the softest voice, so sweetly. However, if you didn't "get" her "no," she could glare at you with a look that would melt steel. You wouldn't want to hear "no" a third time from this woman.
"Nice to say no. " She means this two ways. First, it feels good to say, "no." Second, we are being nice to others and to ourselves when we say, "no." When we set good boundaries, we take care of everyone around us. When we take good care of ourselves, we take good care of everyone around us.
Burnout is not pretty. Even if you have lots of money, burnout is not pretty. There is a syndrome here in Seattle: Microsoft millionaires -- rich, young and burned out. You don't have true prosperity unless you are in balance -- physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Burned out workaholic/excitement junkies are still burned out. Once you've gone over that edge, you have a long way to come back to balance. It's not easy. The siren song of excitement and project fever pulls hard. It is tough to give up a life wherein you believe everything is urgent and important.
The last straw breaks the camels back. What is the load the camel can carry effortlessly for days with joy and satisfaction? That is the load of all hunter-gatherers.
This summer my mother died. I have been fierce with not overscheduling. Every so often I hear the voice urging me to do more, but what I need is lots of time to just be with the loss. I need time to write poetry,
to paint, to sit in the mountains gazing at wildflowers. (My mother introduced me to wildflowers. What a concept for my young mind: wild flowers, untamed, running loose in the woods of Ohio. I thought flowers only existed in gardens.) Grieving is important, and it takes time.
Raising children, having relationships, and touching spirit are all time-intensive behaviors. They cannot be short-changed without paying a price.
Here are some questions to explore:
What is the load that works best for the camel?
What are you not getting enough time for? Whats missing?
Do you resent work? Do you resent your spouse, friends, or children asking for your time?
Who says you have to work so hard? Really, to whom does the voice in your head that makes you work so hard belong? When one of my patients sits down to rest for a few moments on the couch, she hears her mothers voice say, "If you dont have anything to do, Ill find something for you to do." Whose voice is
it for you?
Every time one of my patients has free time built into her schedule, she again obsessively fills it up. How do you fill up your free time, so that it is no longer free?
What is the payoff for filling up that time?
William Wittmann, M.Ed., LMP effectively coaches people toward achieving the life they most want. (206) 328-2073; e-mail: <firstname.lastname@example.org>; website: <http://www.pscs.org/~wittmann>.