LESS IS MORE: Contaminated time

 PRECIOUS MOMENTS: Take time out to go exploring with family members or friends.  Picture: Tricia Hogbin
PRECIOUS MOMENTS: Take time out to go exploring with family members or friends. Picture: Tricia Hogbin

MOMENTS for quiet reflection can be hard to find these days.

We are faced with endless distractions and information overload, and are constantly connected to our digital devices.

Apparently we can't even sit with our own thoughts for a few minutes while we fill our car with fuel.

Many new petrol stations have TV screens at each bowser saving us from a few boring moments. This continuous connection, and distraction, is one of the major contributors to an epidemic of "overwhelm".

Brigid Schulte, author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, provides a well-researched overview of the causes and consequences of overwhelm.

Like many working parents, Brigid found herself juggling family and career, and feeling guilty about neglecting both. Not only was she doing too much, she felt she should always be doing more.

One of the culprits is what time-use researchers call "contaminated time". It's particularly prevalent in mums.

Time-use researcher Ellen Galinsky says: "For women these days, your to-do list is always going . . . It's being overwhelmed by everything you have to do and having that tape running in your head about it all the time."

This contaminated time makes it very difficult to live in the moment. We're neither here nor there. Which is a shame. As author Annie Dillard points out: "How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives."

That thought scares me, because it means distractions are causing moments to pass by without me truly living them.

One solution is to set aside leisure time free from "contamination" and to focus on living in the moment.

Brigid argues that you can't wait until you are on top of everything before taking time off. I'm guilty of this. I often delay leisure time until I feel I'm on top of things. If I could just finish this report, answer a few urgent emails, do the dishes and get dinner ready, then I can go for a walk.

But we're never truly on top of everything. There will always be things to do. It's simply a matter of prioritising pleasure.

I've started setting aside time most afternoons for my daughter and me to go exploring. I try to ignore the sense of being besieged by "busyness", switch off my phone, and focus on living in the moment. We simply wander, explore, and soak in each other and nature.

I return from our wanderings feeling refreshed and better able to give my undivided attention to the task at hand. I've discovered that by doing less, I actually achieve more.

This is not surprising, as research has shown that play and leisure nurture innovation and creativity and keep our brains flexible. On the other hand, stress and overwhelm shrinks our brains - literally.

To make time for leisure, other priorities have to fall away. Ultimately, we need to prioritise what's important. We can work, play and spend quality time with family, but we have to set aside dedicated time for each. And we can't do it all.

Ironically, while researching this column and contemplating what is most important to me, I hurt my back. There's nothing like a trip in an ambulance, a day in hospital and the prospect of a few weeks' rest to put everything into perspective.

All of a sudden, most of what was contributing to my overwhelm doesn't seem that important after at all.

It looks like I'm going to have plenty of time to contemplate a quote I recently stumbled across: "Practise not-doing and everything will fall into place." - Lao Tzu