Live the (Stress-Free) Life You Want: Prioritizing for Happiness
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Live the (Stress-Free) Life You Want: Prioritizing for Happiness

How to find an extra hour for you every day. How making priorities in life lowers stress and leads to a more relaxing and fulfilling life. Reduce stress by prioritizing.

The Modern Busy Lifestyle

Last summer my family stayed at a lakeside cottage where the only telephone was an old-fashioned rotary model. The cottage was so remote that there was no cell phone service, just the clunky black telephone sitting atop a tattered phone book on an end table next to a worn-out peach-colored couch.

It was morning the first time I dialed the phone. I'd gone out for a wake-up swim, poured myself a cup of coffee, and sat down on the couch to call a friend to see if he and his kids might like to join my wife, my kids, and me that night at a minor-league baseball game. There was no urgency to this call, no need for me to hurry.

Yet as I dialed, impatience flared because on this phone I had to wait for the rotor to wind back to its starting point after each number. It was so slow. It made an irritating screeching sound as it retraced its circle, like a metal drawer stuck on its runners. I could have entered the entire number on a touch-tone phone in the time it took me to dial just one digit on this contraption. Not to mention how much faster I could have done it with my cell phone's speed dial.

By the time I had cranked out the entire number, I was in a snit. As the phone rang, I fumed. But then I caught myself. This was absurd. When my friend answered, I spoke to him, hung up and then, as an experiment, redialed his number, timing how long it took: exactly 11 seconds. Those 11 seconds had annoyed me beyond reason. I had become a person in a hurry even when I had no need to hurry.

Many people today find that they live in a rush they didn't create, or at least didn't mean to create. Look at what's happened to the usual "How are you?" exchange. It used to go like this: "How are you?" "Fine." Now it often goes like this: "How are you?" "Busy." Or, "Too busy." Or even, "Crazy busy."

It's insidious, this too-busy lifestyle. It can seem that there's no way to avoid it. What are we supposed to do, be Luddites and refuse to buy cell phones? Not go wireless? Refuse to enroll your kids in soccer, violin, and SAT tutoring? Have simple birthday parties the way they used to in the 1950s? Let the lawn go to seed? Refuse to give time to the cancer foundation a friend is heading up? Say no to the extra work the boss is pressing on you after half the staff got laid off?

But being too busy does tremendous harm. It prevents us from controlling our own lives. It increases toxic stress, making people sick, causing errors and accidents, turning otherwise polite folks into rude hard chargers and reducing the general level of happiness in the population.

The greatest damage it does is that it keeps a person from what's most important. You're so overwhelmed trying to manage the rush, the gush, and the clutter that you don't take the time to decide what matters most to you, let alone make the time to do it. You get up each day and wing it, building upon the undone remnants of yesterday, coupled with the anticipated as well as unanticipated demands of today.

Why Prioritizing Is Necessary

Overwhelmed, busy people often feel the solution to their problem is becoming more organized. Indeed, as someone said to me, organizing is the new dieting: Everyone wants to do it, few are successful at it, and even those who reform themselves commonly revert to their former state. While disorganization is a serious problem, getting organized is not the cure-all for the frenzy, no more than losing weight is the key to happiness. Just as you can be thin and miserable, you can be very organized and still feel overwhelmed.

But feelings of being frazzled and out of control can be switched off when they are replaced with other, more positive emotions. Meaningful connections drain away the too-busy blues. Pick the connections that matter most to you -- people, places, activities, pets, a spiritual connection, a piece of music, even objects that are dear to you -- and nourish them religiously.

The challenge is, with your jammed schedule, how do you preserve time for bingo with Grandma, book-club dates with a friend, a weekend away with your spouse, working out at the gym, or booking those oft-planned piano lessons? You must do it deliberately and consciously. Being selective is crucial. Commitments are like flowers in a garden: If you overplant, none will thrive. Hold the line on how many commitments you make. You must choose. Give yourself permission to get rid of whatever hinders you, whether it's projects or people. Yes, people. It can be hard to accept, but you simply can't keep up with too large a number of friends. If there are too many, they all become burdens rather than joys as you labor to stay in touch with the multitude. Being selective may seem cruel, but in the long run it not only is essential but kind -- to everyone.

Step 1. Wean Yourself from Distractions

No matter how stretched thin and overbooked you feel, there are steps you can take to create more time and reduce that stressed-out, too-busy feeling.

1. Wean yourself from distractions. A powerful modern addiction is "screensucking": wasting time engaged with any screen, whether it's a computer, television, or BlackBerry. Each may seem like a tool to help you communicate, use time efficiently, or just unwind, but their use gets out of hand easily and cuts into time better spent on more nourishing sources of connection. The kids are asleep, the chores are done -- this is your time to do what matters to you, yet you slide into a zombie-like state, glommed on to the screen. You sit long after the work is done or the show you wanted to watch is over -- not especially enjoying what you are doing but unable to disconnect.

Do whatever you have to do to break this habit. While we don't have a "patch" to help people quit screensucking, we do have the combination of insight and structure. Recognize your problem, then make changes in your behavior and environment. For example, put an alarm clock next to your screen to signal when you've gone past a certain amount of time, or program your computer to beep every 10 minutes.

Step 2: Plan Your Strategy

Since most of us take on more than we can easily juggle, it can be tough to keep all our balls in the air. "Doomdart" is my word for an obligation you have forgotten about that suddenly pops into your consciousness like a poisoned dart. You may be cheerfully driving along in your car or happily making dinner or contentedly reading a book, when out of nowhere a forgotten obligation (a birthday present you never bought? the pledge to a charity you never paid?) pierces your consciousness and spreads its toxins throughout your being so that within minutes you are anxious and distracted.

You can spare yourself the unnecessary emotional anxiety by making a plan to take care of the problem as soon as the doomdart strikes. "I'll take care of it later" is not a plan. The doomdart will stay stuck, secreting its poisons. You need to tell yourself when and how you are going to take care of it. Then the dart will unstick and you can go on.

Step 3. Conquer Your Guilt

We run around in a frenzied state, doing two days' work in one, yet we're still stricken with guilt that we're not doing even more. Like many painful emotions, this one does not respond to reason. You feel guilty over missing something or disappointing someone, even though you know that keeping track of everything, and pleasing everyone, is impossible.

The best remedy I know of is to supplement reason with structure. Set limits on what you commit to. Reserve time for what matters most to you and if you feel guilty, remember that you would be of much less use to others if you didn't. You would become depressed, impatient, and ineffective.

Have a system that dictates what you will commit to and what you won't. For example, make it a policy that you will serve on only one volunteer committee at a time. That you won't take calls during dinner. That you will call your mother at a regular time so you don't have to feel guilty the rest of the time.

Step 4. Organize Just Enough

Keep your home and office well enough organized so that clutter does not distract you and make you feel overwhelmed. That doesn't mean you have to be a neat freak. The danger sign is when the papers strewn here and there, the picture on the wall hanging crooked, the piles of accumulated stuff hit you hard and put you in a bad mood. So take organization seriously enough to keep disorganization from becoming a problem.

Step 5. Do What You Want to Do, as Often as Possible

Motivation focuses the mind and calms the nerves. Doing a task well increases motivation because it is human nature to like to do more of what you do well. (It works the other way, too. A person tends to avoid doing what she doesn't do well.) Here's the logical progression:

  1. Do what interests you.
  2. Being interested, you will want to do it often.
  3. Doing it often will lead you to get better at it.
  4. Getting better at it will lead you to be motivated to do it more and get even better.
  5. Being motivated will enhance your ability to pay attention in other aspects of your life. Your mind will feel both sharpened and refreshed -- and much better able to deal with the busy day's demands.

Step 6. Slow Way Down

You wake up impatient. You tap your feet at the ATM line. You clench your teeth when someone speaks slowly. You hate it when a waiter isn't fast, even when the whole point of the meal is to spend time with other people. Being able to linger has grown increasingly hard. But lingering is when you do your best thinking.

Stop and ask yourself, "What's my hurry?" Take the question literally. What is your hurry? Rushing around, trying to squeeze in more stuff than you should, leads you to do all of it less well and makes all of it less enjoyable. Hurrying is your enemy. By slowing down you will become more effective and more fulfilled.

That's what happened on my summer vacation. As the days moved along, I changed. I made friends with that old rotary phone. I began to appreciate what it could teach me. I came to see it as a kind of Buddha ensconced on its end table, offering me wise counsel to take my time and enjoy, while they lasted, the summer, the childhood of my kids, the ripening of my marriage, and the best years of my life.

Excerpted from CrazyBusy by Edward M. Hallowell, MD. Copyright 2006 by Edward M. Hallowell, MD. Published by arrangement with Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.


Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, June 2006.