Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Art of Doing Less

When people talk about simple living, they often focus on things. An image comes to mind of an austere Amish room with a wooden floor and only the most spartan of possessions. While I am making great strides in my efforts to de-clutter, (car load number three goes out today) nobody could possibly call me a minimalist while keeping a straight face.

However, I still consider myself to be living simply, because for me, simple living isn't primarily about things, it's about time.

I often feel like I'm living in a bit of a temporal bubble... you know, some sort of freaky Star Trek anomaly where the clock moves at a different pace inside of my warped little sphere. Actually, that's putting it backwards. I feel like things in my life are normal, it's when I look at how the people around me live that I start to get dizzy.

Scheduling a get together with a friend who lives in the "real world" is like trying to cram the 99th person into the proverbial phone booth. And when we do finally get to sit down together, our time is wedged tightly between business meetings, and hauling of children, and any of a zillion other mind numbing things that "must get done". They carry around their Blackberries, or smart phones or whatever those little blinking devices are, which they constantly need to check just in case they're "missing something". Frankly, it all just makes me exhausted.

The thing is, I used to be like that. In my youth I was the consummate over-achiever. Busy with a multitude of vital tasks and social commitments. I was so proud of all of my "accomplishments" and of how important I was. But underneath it all, I was desperately unhappy. I felt totally overwhelmed every single second of every day. Nothing I did was ever enough, and I felt a constant nagging dread of being inadequate.

Recently, I've been reading some posts on procrastination over at Raptitude. The author is consumed with plotting how he's going to overcome his procrastination beast, and finally be able to conquer his daily "to do" list. Sigh. On some level, reading those posts just makes me sad.

It reminds me of a time when I still thought that I could outsmart this stuff. I remember thinking back then that I just wasn't organized enough, I wasn't managing my time properly. So one day I sat down and made a list of all of the things that I needed to get done every day, and how long each task would reasonably take. I figured that I just needed to work the puzzle better and stick to my schedule and then I wouldn't feel overwhelmed anymore. So I added up all of the time allotments for my daily chores, and to my absolute shock and horror, it totaled 36 hours! Holy Moly! And that didn't even take into account anything unplanned that might come up. No wonder I was exhausted!

So here's the fundamental question: Why do we live this way? We generally act like our daunting schedules are imposed upon us and we have no choice in the matter, but anyone who is being honest with themselves knows that this is a cop out.

I remember one time back in college, the campus pastor was speaking at a dinner gathering for a group of us hyper achievers who had succeeded well beyond our peers in scheduling ourselves into oblivion. He remarked how we all liked to complain about how harried and overwrought we were, but that on some level we all thrived on it. At the time his comments thoroughly pissed me off. I didn't like this lifestyle! I was overworked and burnt out, and frazzled to the core, but I didn't have a choice in the matter, goddammit! Or did I?

Over the years I have come to see the veracity of the pastor's statement. Nobody held a gun to my head and made me take on an unreasonable work load. I did it willingly, and almost with a sense of glee. "Busier than thou" was my mantra, and I wore it like a badge of honor. On some level I was deeply proud of how frenzied my life was, fluttering hither and yon. But the question remains, why?

A few years later, when I was in my early twenties, I was spending a few hours with my elderly grandmother. She asked how I was, and I proceeded to regale her with a litany of how hectic the furious pace of my life was. She gently patted me on the back of the hand and said quietly, "That's nice dear, that way you don't have any time to feel bad." Wow. Leave it to Grandma to cut to the chase.

And after many years of working on this stuff, I believe that this really is what's at the heart of the issue. We live in a frantic state of over committed hell, because we're trying to avoid emotions that we don't want to feel. I mean let's face it, it's pretty hard to feel much of anything but oppressed when you spend all day every day in a tizzy, rushing wildly around like a rabid animal.

So there it is. The only way out of the jungle is to do less and feel more. I realize this is easier said than done. Generally the feelings we're trying to avoid are pretty big and powerful, and we'll do just about anything to get away from them. Plus, there are logistical realities in extracting yourself from the world of "too much" once you're firmly entrenched there.

Getting to the point I'm at has meant facing some pretty big personal demons. It's also meant that I've had to be willing to let go of a whole host of things, like money, and keeping up appearances, and meaningless social interactions, and being "in the loop," and "accomplishments," and feeling important. But I've also been able to shed a pile of other things, like "to do" lists, and uncomfortable clothing, and a generally crazed lifestyle.

It hasn't always been easy, but the rewards are so, so, so worth it. I get to live in a world where I go to bed and wake up whenever I want. Most days I don't have anything that I really have to do except feed the cats and feed myself. I work when I feel like it, and when I don't feel like it, I don't work. I take long leisurely walks, I fiddle around in my garden, I cook, I drink wine, I enjoy sitting in sunbeams with my cats and just pretty much doing whatever I want when I want.

I'll write more on the practical realities of extracting my self from the world of too many commitments if anybody is interested, but for the moment, I'll just leave you with something that one of my yoga teachers once said: We're called human beings, not human doings, and what we're really trying to do here is to simply be.


  1. Beautiful post. I've jumped off the busy wagon with my family as well. The few days we have to be several places for some odd reason make me appreciate our usual slow days. We used to run to park days and other events I felt my home learning kids NEEDED to experience, then I came to my senses. I hope that my kids learn how lovely it is not to be busy, so they won't have to learn the hard way when they're older.

  2. Anne - Thanks so much for stopping by, and a hefty hooray for teaching your kids the art of slowness.

  3. oh i could not agree more. we as americans are taught that our goal is the newest card and the greatest achivements. but with everyone out for the same thing, we all work 20x over what we should be. I was the same as you, before I moved to norway though. When I was in High school i did my college too, to get a leg up on the race. I had 3 jobs once i graduated high school working way over 60 hours a week many weeks.

    For me there were 2 things that made me change. first thing that opened my eyes was that on my grandmothers birthday (note, this is the grandmother that raised me and would do anything in the world for me) i was only able to drop in for dinner, and had to rush back to work because i was in the middle of a huge project. At the time it did not bother me, but what did was when she abruptly passed away 2 months later and that was all i could think about. how did i give my job my main attention and barely gave her the light of day on her birthday. When she passed I dropped down to one job and decided that family had to be #1.

    Then i moved to Norway 8 months later, and was not allowed to work my first 2 years here. So i had to learn to sit around and do nothing. how to enjoy silence and be ok with myself just sitting around. I think it is one of the best things that has happened to me (the 2 years of no work).

    I think it is great to have a 'slow life'. I think that mine could be slower now that i am working again.. but that will come someday.

    So good of you that you have been able to shed so many things. A great inspiration!

  4. I read the posts on raptitude recently as well. They completely movtivated me to want to accomplish more. I have yet to act on this hit of drive, but I'm still at a point in my life where I feel that I do in fact need to do more.

    I think that I rest more on the side of lazy some days & in fact need to (at the least) get the dishes done & brush my teeth before going to bed.

    I am caught between slowing things down & dabbling in minimalism (another load goes to the salvation army today!) and "improving" myself as a person via yoga & running, health, cooking & career.

    Balance is a tricky thing...

  5. Dammit! I love this post. This is pure beauty.

    Yanno, I've also thought that a great deal of our drive to do, do, do and be in a constant state of hurry has to do with a sense of self-worth. See? Look at me! Look at how I am! Wanna know why? 'CUZ I'M IMPORTANT, YOU BASTARDS. I see it in the workplace all the time--I'm so busy, I'm so overwhelmed, because I am sooooo relevant. Nevermind that most of us could be replaced with a well-trained monkey.

    Anyhoo, once again, you've hit the nail on the head! And I would love to read more about how you extricated yourself from the b.s. of it all.

  6. Woo Hoo!!! Blogger finally decided to put all of your comments back. First it lost the entire post, and then it came back but sans comments. I was gonna resort to posting them myself, 'cause, you know, I never throw anything away including emails (working on it...) But I guess Blogger found its backup files somehwere.

    Anyhow, here are my very belated responses.

    Fonda - I had similar feelings when my Grandmother passed. We weren't nearly as close as it sounds like you were to your grandmother, but she was, and still is, my favorite relative. Guess death has a way of putting things in perspective. Norway was also a big slow down for me too. I'll write more about that chapter some day, but it was a real cultural change for me, and one that difinitely gave me a nudge in the direction of slow!

    Kristen - I actually don't see a contradiction in slowing down and self improvement... at least real self improvement. I mean, it's not like I don't "do" anything... it's just that I've worked really hard to remove the "time clutter" from my life. In many ways it is this process that has given me time to do things like yoga and cooking etc. And in terms of laziness... I really hate that word. It's one that I've used to beat myself over the head for many years, but it really isn't a useful concept in my opinion. In my experience, when you do the emotional work instead of just forcing yourself to get things done, then you come to a place where you're acting out of the desire to do things rather than out of the desire to have them done. Brushing ones teeth and doing the dishes can both be very enjoyable tasks if done mindfully... I'm rambling, maybe I'll write a post on this topic at some point ane explain it better.

    CF - Can I hire you to come boost my self esteem whenever I need it? I am SOOOOOO with you an the being important thing. It was a huge hurdle for me, and I suppose it's something that I still struggle with from time to time. I'm sure I'll get this quote wrong, but isn't there something in the Bible about lilies of the field... they neither reap nor sow yet they are perfect in every way.

  7. I should know the bible verse, but of course I don't. Go slackers!

    I was worried that I had said something totally offensive in my comment and had wondered where they went. Alas, I should have known it was blogger being a freak. It's always doing strange things.

  8. Damn it! I don't see the comment I just posted. I'll try to recreate it.

    You make me laugh catwoman...again. The bit your grandmother said was laugh out loud funny, "that's nice dear, that way you don't have any time to feel bad." LOVE it.

    This and some other of your posts are real gems.

  9. Catching up on posts a bit here, but I would love to hear more about how you extracted yourself from over-commitment, especially the commitment of a full-time job (and the things that come with it, like health insurance). Your daily schedule sounds wonderful -- kind of how I feel about my Fridays off, but you're getting to live it every day!

  10. Hey Steph - Thanks for all of your comments! Blogger has been very fussy lately... I finally solved the comment problem by switching to a different browser (works using Chrome, but not Internet Explorer) grumble grumble grumble...

    Anyhow, my grandmother had an amazing ability to see the reality of things instead of the veneer that the world portrays. I wish I'd spent more time with her when she was alive. Sigh...

    Melissa - I've been trying to organize some thoughts on the subject of getting out of the craziness, and I can't quite decide where to start. I'm torn between giving a chronology of my own journey and trying to distill it down to meaningful suggestions for others. Any thoughts?

  11. Old adage: busy for the sake of being busy. Kinda like famous for being famous. As in Stein's oft quoted comment: "there is no there there".
    Guilt, low self esteem, whatever.
    Women particularly have been berated into making their lives "mean something". Luckily, it hasn't taken long for many to start realizing another old adage "quality over quantity".
    Well said.

  12. Jay - that's a wonderful insight... that it is our culture which berates us into feeling that we must be important. Who is Stein? I love the quote, whoever he/she is. My yoga teacher used to say "You've never gonna get there, because there is no there to get." Such true words!

  13. Gertrude Stein :-)
    --literally, she was talking about when she discovered her childhood home in Oakland had disappeared, but the quote has certainly outlived that moment.

  14. Of course! I should have known...

  15. Excellent post! I am looking forward to reading the next one.

  16. I really love this post I really understand what you're saying. I'm really all about giving myself all the time I can, but I am enjoying now filling that time with personal projects like knitting and preserving. I don't find those challenges hell like I found the fast lane though.

    On a related to cats note, on more than one occasion on a spring or summer morning I went outside into the beautiful day to go to a job I hated. I saw my cat lounging in the sun, nosing the breeze as it ruffled his fur and the sun glinted off him. I realised THAT is what life is all about, turned around, went back inside and called in sick. I spent the day around the pool with my cat smelling the jasmine on the breeze and just being.
    This is now the principle by which I live. I call it the Feline Principle :) you understand don't you!

  17. I just came across this article in the New York Times: The Busy Trap. I think the author might have credited his inspiration ;-)

    You might like his other work, too: The Pain - When Will It End?. I found him via a cartoon he posted in May 2005 called "Jesus vs Jeezus.


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