Dialing down stress is a matter of setting priorities

  • Wednesday, November 23, 2005 9:00pm

What a blur. Advent is here. Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and New Years Eve are coming up. The words of a country song ring in like a carol for this caffeinated season:

Im in a hurry to get things done, sings the group, Alabama. Oh, I rush and rush until lifes no fun. All I really gotta do is live and die. But Im in a hurry and dont know why.

Time is a grinch, stealing our days by packing them into a pressure cooker filling with a mixture of the sounds of screeching tires, hurried feet, impatient exclamations and exhausted sighs.

But it doesnt have to be that way, say those who think about how we spend time.

Time is about choices. Watch television or play a game with your children? Go shopping for more presents or get together with friends to sing Christmas songs? Sign up to work overtime or volunteer at a soup kitchen?

You might call it the ethics of time, decisions people make about how to spend their hours, their days, their weeks that help define who they are.

I think we are a society that doesnt believe in reflection. We believe in action. We are a society that seems to believe we can measure our health by the size of our gross domestic product, says John De Graaf, a Seattle public television producer and author who is active in the simplicity movement, which seeks to help people realize that this rush-rush, hurry-hurry time-poverty society isnt working.

However, we cant control all our time. In our society, long hours in the work place are really a requirement for many people, says De Graaf.

Other times , however, are another matter. How can we not understand that time is a family value without which families crumble? he asks.

The holiday season from Thanksgiving to New Years Day is particularly perilous. Throwing parties. Giving gifts. Decorating homes. Sending cards. Traveling to relatives. There is this whole sense of an additional layer of responsibility, he says.

His suggestion: Give the gift of your time. Instead of rushing around shopping like mad, get together and have a meal and talk.

San Diego resident Marge Wurgel does that.

I invite people over for sharing tea with me or having a meal at my home or going for a walk doing something together that we mutually enjoy, rather than buying gifts.

Eight years ago, Wurgel helped start the San Diego Voluntary Simplicity Group, which meets monthly.

We try to spend time determining whats most satisfying for us to have a soul-satisfying type of life, she says. Its all trying to live more consciously with decisions that we have weighed in our minds rather than live on automatic pilot.

One of Wurgels tips: Take a little bit of time every day for ourselves, to get centered, to get quiet, to decide whats most important to do and to let go of some of the expectations about doing a lot more during this time.

What Wurgel talks about cutting back on materialism and focusing on what really matters sounds enticing. So why doesnt everybody do it?

I think living a simpler, slower life requires getting in touch with themselves, and thats scary, she offers.

It may be easier to stay busy. At least for now.

I think it will eventually happen, Wurgel says of people slowing down. But I think too many people wait until they get a heart attack, a panic attack or a bout of cancer. Then they slow down. I think that eventually we learn it, but those of us interested in the Voluntary Simplicity Group hope that we can learn it before we have a major catastrophe to help us learn the lesson.

Jeffrey Conte is an associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University who has studied and written about time management. He also collects pithy sayings about time. One of his favorites is from former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger: If you do not know where you are going, every road will get you nowhere.

Contes advice: Focus on your values.

How you spend your time is definitely influenced by your values, he says. He makes lists of short-term things to do and long-term goals. When he gets overwhelmed, he goes back to those lists and refocuses. It happened to him recently when he was co-authoring a new textbook, Work in the 21st Century: An Introduction to Industrial and Organizational Psychology.

There were definitely days when I felt overwhelmed, Conte says. Hed ask himself: What am I trying to do in the longer term?

Conte suggests that the holiday time pressure isnt all bad. There is an emphasis on getting together with family and friends and thats a valuable thing to do, he says.

And when youre feeling overloaded? Step back and think about the meaning of the holidays, he says.

Again, it comes down to choices. An ethics of time.

If they want to accomplish things, if they want to see things, if they want to experience things, theyll have to use their time wisely, says Conte. De Graaf, the Seattle time activist, suggests that whats at stake is both health and happiness.

I think the time spent with TV and those kinds of things means a lot of things that are important to our health and our familys health fall by the wayside, he says.

There also are studies that show that people who really focus on things, on just having stuff and money, tend to be less happy than those who put their energy into other things, like family relationships.

For Wurgel, her choice was to have fewer commitments, spend less time at work and have less stuff around her. Its a much more satisfying way to live, she says.

I believe that as human beings we are meant to have a high-quality life, and I believe that being stressed reduces that high quality. So, if we are able to be more peaceful and relaxed, we feel better about ourselves, and we have better relationships and, basically, a higher quality of life.

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