Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Having it All, Doing it All and Other Myths of the Modern World

I just read an article on the NPR (National Public Radio) website by Adam Frank based on his book About Time (definitely buying this one) called "Beyond the Punch Clock Life: The Tyranny of Time." In it he says:

Each day, every day, Americans are queuing onto freeways hoping for the best and praying against the worst. The frustration and hopelessness we can feel even in short traffic jams is indicative of the constant struggle to do more in less time. When our morning commute fails to hit its expected mark then, like dominoes, the time-logic of tightly stacked to-dos and appointments topples, leaving us drained before the day even begins. 
The value of efficiency we learned as children drives the expectation that we can "time-manage" our way out of impossibly overbooked schedules. The myth of multitasking has only compounded this dilemma, taking efficiency to new imaginary limits where we can somehow duplicate ourselves and get twice as much done. 
The truth is that we have limits. (Emphasis mine)

Back in the 1980's Helen Gurly Brown, founder of Cosmopolitan Magazine, wrote a book called Having it All. It told a generation of women that they had to sacrifice nothing in life. They could work 60 hours a week pursuing a high powered career, be a fantastic lover and wife, be an amazing mother and save the planet. All they had to do was want it enough. There was even a popular song at the time used in a perfume commercial in which this woman sings, "I can bring home the bacon, Fry it up in a pan, and never, ever let you forget you're a man."

It was, of course, a total fantasy. Trade offs are a part of successful living. The philosophy in Brown's book, and many other sources at the time, led a generation of women to frustration and despair and what became known as the "Superwoman Complex." This was characterized by an unrealistic guilt that somehow because they couldn't be the perfect executive, mother and lover all at once they were failures.

They forgot two simple rules of physics - Time is finite and so are you. 

The Myth of Time Management

I have taught a good deal about time management. I believe most of us can benefit from taking a good hard look at how we use our time and make effective choices about that use. However, time management is not a way to bend the space-time continuum and give you more hours in the day. Even squeezing the most out of every minute (which may just lead to more stress in your life) doesn't mean you can take on 25 hours of work in a 24 hour day.

Some people believe that they can do everything and give up nothing, if they just manage their time better. The result is they feel frustrated, rushed and trapped by a schedule that no human being can possible meet. Nevertheless, they feel guilty about not meeting that schedule. They set the bar impossibly high and then punish themselves with stress, guilt, anxiety, high blood pressure and digestive disorders when they can't clear it.

What the have-it-all, do-it-all super person (men and women both succumb to this just in different ways) fails to realize is that true happiness does not come with having it all, but with managing the trade offs well.

The Joy of Known Limits

Self-help gurus tell us all about our possibilities. That is a good thing. Many of us underestimate what we can do. We need to be reminded that we are capable of more than we think sometimes. However, there is also freedom to be found in setting limits and living within them. This is what I mean by "managing the tradeoffs."

Take money, for example, I have so much to spend each month. Sometimes I try to spend more than I have. I go into debt. Now as long as I can service that debt I'm okay, but by going into debt, I reduce my  ability to buy other things. It also reduces my ability to respond to an emergency. And if I have too much debt and can't service it, I have even more stress. I'm sure many of us (myself included) have been in that situation. Leveraging debt to get more things actually results many times in being able to do less with our money.

The same goes with time management. When I over-schedule myself, I not only run out of time, but out of energy. Plus, rushing to meet all those obligations just adds to the stress. So, my performance on each decays or I can't complete them at all creating more stress, which drains more energy which makes me less efficient, which make me more stressed, which..... You get the idea. It's like using one credit card to pay the bill on another card.

However, assume that I defer the gratification of buying a wide screen TV when I can't afford it and begin saving for it so I can pay cash by brown bagging it to lunch for a couple of months, then I can enjoy the TV without worrying about how I'm going to make the payments.

The same goes for time. Turning down that offer to coach your daughter's soccer team, may give you less time with her at the game, but it will give you more time with her and the rest of your family at home.

So, What to Do?

First, Recognize you do have limits, and it is OK. The illusion that you can do it all will only cause you pain and stress when you fail to do everything. Philosopher Kenneth Burke said that we all feel guilty because we can imagine perfection, but can never achieve it. We need to free ourselves from the prison of limitlessness.

Second, Use time management skills to give yourself time and not to fill up every moment. Time management is not a bad thing, if it is used to create a time budget which recognizes the need for periods of unstructured time and the value of setting priorities and making effective trade-offs.

Third, Work is not the only priority. I have to say this one is one  of my issues. I definitely define myself by my work. Facing retirement in seven months, I've been having to rethink that. Family time, recreation, spiritual and emotional development and just plain having fun also need to be priorities.

Fourth, Create realistic assessments for time investment. Every thing you do will take time. The question you have to answer is how much time. If you underestimate, you will find yourself either scrambling to complete on time or have to juggle your schedule for other activities.

Fifth, Let Go. This is hard, but some things you just have to give up or delegate to others. If  you want to have more time for the important things, you have to give up some other the less important ones.

Remember, the world will keep turning even if you aren't pushing 24/7. Give up on trying to "have it all" and take stress free pleasure in what you already have.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Thank you Terri so much for writing this and sharing
    your fabulous insights. You are so right, we do over schedule and expect too much of ourselves and it's a mindset that more is better.

    Sometimes it helps me to to do a variety of tasks if I put the estimated time by them. If I end up with more than I can handle, I prioritized and eliminate or move them to another day. Even in my writing I have so much to do, I don't take time for my therapy writing to process my thoughts and feelings to connect with what is going on with me. Then I think "Well, do I have 15 minutes?" I usually do and then set the timer for 15 minutes and I feel so much better afterwards.

    I love the idea that we need to use time management to give ourselves time and also to schedule the fun stuff.

    Thanks much for this balanced and insightful perspective!

    Sharon Gibson

  3. Good Terri, excellent piece. I don't know who said it, or where I read it, but the axiom: "You can have anything you want, you just can't have everything you want," is worth remembering.


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