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Breath Deeply
Minding your business can lower your stress level.
by Nancy Shepherdson

Like most busy people, I thought I was pretty good at managing my time. Deal with top-priority items first. Check. Handle each piece of paper only once. Check. Do three things at a time. Check, check, check.

Sure, I got a lot done. But as I became more efficient, the time pressure just got worse. The more I rushed to keep up, the further behind I got. (Sound familiar?) Family got their daily 25.2 minutes of quality time. Friends were nurtured with promises to get together for lunch sometime. Or maybe with personalized e-greeting cards. People who phoned to keep in touch, on the other hand, might as well have saved their breath. Yeah, uh-huh, don’t tell me more. Please. I don’t have the time.

Creativity went out the window as my mind jangled with deadlines, commitments and to-dos. In its place came constant annoyance. “Can’t you see I’m in a hurry?” I’d think or, to my acute embarrassment, occasionally screech.

Nothing could slow me down, in fact, until a case of knock-you-out-flat bronchitis — the kind that doesn’t allow you to sit up or lie down, much less make to-do lists — caught up with me. All I could do in my weakened condition was read. But what I discovered during my three-week hiatus from the world changed my life and my time. Call it the Zen of time management.

It began with a slim volume called The Miracle of Mindfulness by Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. It was given to me by one of those friends I’d tried so hard to ignore. Sure, thanks. Just what I need: a book that tells me to sit around and listen to a bunch of people chant nonsense. I get more than enough of that in meetings, thank you.

The good news? Meditation is not necessary to overcome the annoyances of everyday life. You can bring more peace into your life simply by adopting a different attitude toward time. That is, instead of focusing on the future, as traditional time management would have us do, mindfulness asks us only to concentrate on what we are doing each moment. Working on a report? Don’t let your mind wander to the next deadline. (If you can’t help yourself, maybe it’s a signal to switch projects.) By giving my entire mind to the task at hand, I’ve found I can almost always accomplish more in less time.

What about interruptions? Mindfulness makes them part of the flow of time. Give your entire mind to the interruption, deal with it wholeheartedly, and it ceases to be a source of irritation, rather like removing a rock from your shoe. (Try it with a kid.) With enough practice, you can then immediately return your full awareness to your original task.

An excellent way to acquire the knack of mindfulness is to do something mindless, like washing your own car, ideally with a little kid, who will show you the right way to do it. Banish thoughts of doing the job “efficiently.” Instead, celebrate the sound of the water, the child’s delight, the emerging shine, the pigeons waiting to decorate it. Even first-timers are likely to feel the joy that comes from actually living life rather than just planning for it.

Not that to-do lists are banned from this way of thinking. But your to-do thinking needs to shift, too. The only tasks on your list should be those that contribute to your well-being, however you define that. Here’s how to tell which tasks belong there: Make your regular to-do list, then imagine you were forced to cross off three items. Think about why those three are less important, and you’ll start to understand how you can do less and accomplish much more.

Another secret: breathe. That’s not nearly as silly as it sounds. Like most people, when I’m busy, I have a nasty habit of holding my breath. All that does is raise my heart rate and make me feel even more jittery. But once I caught on to the elegant Zen idea of breathing deeply, with my whole being, I found I could calm myself in the most stressful situations. No, breathing isn’t an item on my to-do list. I just try to take a “breather” whenever I feel life ganging up on me.

Applying these simple ideas to my own life has been, well, mind expanding. I am noticeably less frantic, more available to friends and family and, amazingly, more efficient that ever before. In fact, I’m having the time of my life. Wish you were here.

Nancy Shepherdson (KSM86) is the co-author of the forthcoming La Vida Rica (McGraw-Hill, 2004, written under the name Nancy Garascia) and Ancestor Hunt (Scholastic, 2003). She teaches online nonfiction writing courses for various universities.

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