Do you ever feel like you just can’t keep up with your own life?
You can’t catch your breath. You’re barely treading water. You work your ass off but you still feel torn and guilty. Your to-do list just keeps getting longer and longer.
The waters of all your “must-do-this-but-also-ALL-THE-OTHER-THINGS” are rising up past your neck.
What you might not have realized was that you were swimming in the toxic sludge of contaminated time.
I owe Brigid Schulte and her wonderful book Overwhelmed for this vivid term. According to time researchers, men do 1.5 things at a time, which gloomy people might say is a terrible byproduct of our splintered social-media-driven doomed modern world.
But here’s the kicker: women regularly do FIVE things at once.
But that’s not even the worst part! What’s really stressing us out is the fact that while we’re doing those FIVE things, we’re THINKING of two or three other things.
And we’re feeling like maybe we should be doing THOSE things instead.
So let’s just say, hypothetically, that you open up your email in the morning to find a little crisis brewing. You dive in to take care of this urgent matter. But you’ve got breakfast going too, and even as you’re crafting the diplomatic yet firm mail, one part of your brain is going, “You’re missing the best part of your children’s lives! If you don’t feed them homemade pancakes, they’ll definitely end up angry and unemployed!” so then you dash into the kitchen to whip up a little wholesome goodness, and you remember that your suit for the big meeting is crumpled on the floor of your closet, and you go into a panicked split-testing sequence in your head where you weigh the cost-benefit-breakdown of running it to an emergency cleaners, spritzing it with water and trying to iron it yourself, or finding something else to wear in your disaster of a closet. This reminds you that you were going to commit to wearing really beautiful, authentic outfits each day that express your true nature (some irritating coach told you to do that) and maybe you should really sit down and go through your closet and evaluate each thing according to your chakras or maybe you need to hire a personal shopper at Nordstrom except then you think about all the women in the world who are down on their luck, who would be grateful to have a wardrobe like yours, and you remember that you always intended to volunteer your services at the local domestic violence shelter, and at the same time it occurs to you that if anyone is going to eat a decent dinner tonight you should be taking the lamb chops out of the freezer right now, and you also remember that there’s a stack of school forms that need to be filled out, and do you want to go to the fifteen-year reunion of your alma mater? And if not, should you at least write a check? And then you look down and the pancakes are scorched and the suit is still wrinkled and all your children have run away to watch Pokemon and play with knives while you were distracted.
Which, let’s face it, a lot of us are. A lot of the time.
Here’s a totally non-hypothetical example: contaminated time is the fact that even as I am typing this email to you I am distracted by the bright primary colors of my daughter’s painstakingly created Lego dinosaurs, and the knowledge that someone spilled insect repellant on them last night, and trying to decide whether I need to dump them into the sink and wash them all, thereby destroying the dinosaurs and perhaps my daughter’s soul, or whether a nice air-dry is going to magically dispel the noxious chemicals.
Contaminated time is endlessly painful to experience.
And it’s also very easy to mock.
Problems I’d like to have
Rich bitch problems
So on top of feeling pulled in a million directions, we feel guilty about feeling exhausted by it.
After all, we didn’t haul WATER in JUGS on our HEADS today, so who are we to complain?
This leaves us feeling like we’re never done.
Like we’re always falling short.
We wake up already feeling behind.
Even supposed ‘leisure activities’ are stressful, because so many things are staying undone while you are ‘relaxing’/ hyperventilating.
We don’t feel any sense of satisfaction or pride, even though we’re pretty sure we’re working our asses off.
And even though we ARE working our asses off, it’s hard to say what we’re getting done. There’s a long list of Big Important Career Goals and World-Changing Projects that’s stayed the same for about two years now.
Forget joy; we never even get to feel RELIEF. Even if we settle in to our favorite TV show at the end of a long day, there are a million things we know we ought to be doing instead that would make us thinner, happier, more enlightened and productive people.
This, my darlings, is the cost of ambivalence. We’re charging one way while also pulling in the opposite direction. We’re forging ahead while looking down and questioning our footwear.
So how do we banish contaminated time?
It’s an inside job. It’s a willingness to choose one thing and focus on it– even though other people might think it’s the wrong thing. It’s taking the risk of getting one thing done– even though a dozen others stay undone.
It’s being wild enough to give yourself over to whatever you’re doing in the moment and give it your full concentration, whether it’s neurosurgery or just washing the dishes.
It’s the scandal of turning off your phone and sinking fully into a novel or sleep or writing that proposal or the best conversation of your life.
It’s being brave enough to say “This is what I’m going to do with my one wild and precious life– or at least this wild and precious block of fifteen minutes.”
It will feel scandalous. It can be scary. And it will yield such deliciousness in your life.
So today, choose one thing that’s important to you. Set a timer for an amount of time you’re going to give yourself over to it completely. If this makes you feel panicky, jot down all the things that you’ll do after that– all the things your brain is afraid you’ll forget if you really focus deeply. Give yourself permission to have picked the wrong thing. Give people around you permission to be irritated.
And then hit ‘go’ on your timer, and let yourself be 100% IN. Just for those fifteen or 30 or 90 minutes. And when you emerge, tell me if you don’t feel a little more like yourself.
Like someone who is awake.
Someone who is living a wild and precious life.