by Jennifer Barrett

Whenever my husband tells one of his legendary bedtime stories, it's as if our entire world slows to a crawl. It doesn't matter if the plot hangs on the genius of Detective Victor Garcia and his whip-smart daughter Inez -- or the pranks of Captain Giggles, who's inclined to put Jell-O in people's rain boots when they least expect it. The minute Chris settles into his chair, gathering that first sentence in his imagination, our three girls hold their collective breath. The house falls silent.

What makes these moments so enchanting isn't just his storytelling mastery. It's also the timelessness it evokes. Lost in the spell of the latest adventure, his enraptured audience wants nothing more than for the tale to unravel slowly. If they had their wish, it would go on for hours.

My kids, like all kids, have that famously easy way of getting lost in a moment. The truth about these stories, though, is that our everyday life too often crowds them out -- the mountains of laundry, the getting to work on time, the broken dryer, the doctor's appointments. Despite wanting to wallow in stretches of downtime, I often feel as if chaos lurks just around the corner -- and I know I'm not alone. Coworkers, neighbors, friends, the woman at the checkout counter, the post-office guy, my yoga teacher -- they all knowingly roll their eyes these days at the mere mention of "busy." It seems we're all aching for more breathing room. Somehow, though, despite our best intentions, we can't seem to find it.

The idea of a national time crunch isn't new, of course. The public hand-wringing actually began decades ago, as researchers revealed the serious health consequences of the then-novel "24/7 lifestyle." But since then, the problem has reached epidemic proportions. "Every woman I talk to these days tells me she's exhausted," says Kathleen Hall, founder of The Stress Institute in Clarkesville, Georgia, and author of "A Life in Balance and Alter Your Life." But it's not only our health that suffers -- it's our happiness, too. Living on overdrive squeezes out the breathing room we need to appreciate any given moment. As we rush through life, it passes us by.

The effect can feel a bit like being swept into white-water rapids. "But we're not as helpless as we think," says Cecile Andrews, author of "Slow Is Beautiful: New Visions of Community, Leisure, and Joie de Vivre" and an active member of Take Back Your Time, a group heading a national effort to address America's time famine. As she and other experts explain it, finding more time isn't about getting skilled at cramming everything in. Instead, it involves looking at the problem -- and also ourselves -- with a fresh perspective. By identifying what truly makes us happy and recognizing how our choices affect our lives, we can keep the big picture of our life path in full view. Then, says Andrews, "we can all take a breath and begin to slow down."


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