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Reclaiming Your Days (and Nights)

Body+Soul, October 2006

We can chalk up the national time crunch, in part, to living in a stunningly fast-paced society, a place dedicated to the prevailing ethos of "do more, faster." We can't change this reality -- at least not single-handedly, or overnight. But even in the context of these constraints, say experts, we still have the power to take back our time.

It starts by coming to terms with a few indisputable facts: There are 24 hours in a day, we're human beings (not machines), and we can't do everything. For many of us, time feels tight simply because we're trying to wedge too much into it. "That is the paradox," says the late renowned meditation teacher Eknath Easwaran in his book "Take Your Time: Finding Balance in a Hurried World." "We hurry faster and faster only to find we have less and less time." We routinely aim to knock off a mile-long to-do list in a day, and then stay up past midnight squeezing in a workout, reorganizing the linen closet, and marinating the chicken for tomorrow's dinner with friends.

The mind-set needed to sustain this manic activity is infectious. When we're caught up in "efficient mode," anything not on the agenda comes to feel like a guilty pleasure. Watching the autumn leaves fall rather than cleaning the gutters seems unproductive somehow. Rocking back and forth on a porch swing instead of paying the bills feels lazy. In valuing everything by whether it would appear on a to-do list, what we crave (and need) most falls by the wayside.

Taking back time, then, requires reflection, first and foremost. How does the pace of your life make you feel? Happy? Or exhausted and unsatisfied? If the answer is the latter, then perhaps a reevaluation of choices is in order. You'll always have responsibilities. But beyond the necessities, what can you eliminate? What can you cancel, postpone, or simplify? In the space you create by eliminating one stress-inducing social engagement here and an expendable chore somewhere else, you'll begin to find your "set point" -- that place of work-life balance where you feel you're getting things done and enjoying deliciously slow and "inefficient" activity. Once you glimpse this state of balance, you may find you become fiercely protective of it. You start measuring everything not by whether you can "check it off " but by how it affects your set point -- and if it brings joy.

For some time experts, consumerism is the elephant in the room as far as the time discussion goes -- and it's the best place for a big-picture shift to begin. Keeping up with the Joneses only makes our time crunch worse -- even if we're reluctant to admit it. No matter where we find ourselves on the economic spectrum, the more we consume -- iPods, clothes, furniture, cars -- the more money we need to earn; the more we need to earn, the more time we must spend working. We do it to fit in, to be accepted, to feel like we're "doing well." Beyond these reasons, though, there's the simple (though short-lived) thrill of material acquisition.

There's good news to be found in the conspicuous consumption, though. Our deeper desires often shine through. "So often, people aspire to buy large-ticket items that symbolize what they really want in their life, which is time," says Nancy Parkes, professor of environmental studies at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. "'I'll buy a nice boat,' they'll say, 'and then we'll spend more time together as a family riding around in it. We'll all bond.'" The same thinking often inspires the second homes and cars that seat eight: I'm just one big purchase away from finally having what I need to connect with family and friends. The problem, says Parkes, is the boat payments turn out to be huge, and the boat gets used very little because we're too busy working to pay for it.

The solution? Again, awareness. Do we really need to spend our vacation at a five-star Caribbean resort, for instance, or can we spend some quality time closer to home?

In many ways, "slow" doesn't have a good reputation these days; it sounds slovenly, unmotivated. Doing less and taking your time will feel like swimming against the tide. To make the going easier, connect with others on the same path. Plenty of people in your life probably share your sense of time pressure, so don't hesitate to initiate the conversation: Ask your book-group friends or your walking partners how they manage their time -- and freely share your own triumphs and frustrations.

Text by Jennifer Barrett