Everyone moves at a different pace. Some people are slow and methodical, while others are the jackrabbits in life, hopping from one thing to another in rapid succession. In our American culture, the busiest multi-taskers take the prize. They are so quick and industrious. They are so driven and distracted.
Common wisdom says you should be doing as much as you can, as fast as you can. Nonsensically, we believe that the more we have to do, the faster we ought to be trying to do it.
We first learn to rush in childhood. As children, we are much slower than the big people around us, and our brains don’t work as fast. We have to hurry up, stop dawdling, and keep a pace that is unnatural to our small brains. Our parents may cue us that taking the time we need is equivalent to being bad or lazy. We take this belief into adulthood and disregard the fatigue and stress that otherwise could tell us we are doing too much at once. We lose our normal sense of pace.
Our brains are designed to do one thing at a time, although we can switch our attention rapidly among different things. This switching action is expensive, though, because the part of the brain that decides where attention goes next is some of the priciest real estate in our head. It takes a huge amount of energy to keep switching our attention in order to create the illusion that we are doing many things at once. The energy cost of all that brain-switching is what we call stress. It is the brain’s way of telling us to stop it.
Stress subsides when you get into a rhythm that feels comfortable. This is the rate of processing your brain was designed to do. If you push yourself to go faster than that, you will feel stressed and your brain will not work as well. So the more you have to do, and the bigger the project, the more you should be slowing down to find your most productive pace for the situation.
If you try to get ahead of your brain, you soon will feel like you are about to explode. This is bad for your brain, your cardiovascular system, your stomach acid, and your adrenals. Stress hormones and elevated blood pressure are the body’s way of saying you can’t prove your worthiness through getting a lot done.
Why not unlearn this unnecessary self-pressure and find your true pace? Your best pace is how long it takes you to do something mindfully and comfortably. You have to pay attention to your stress response in order to find that rhythm that makes tasks seem to do themselves. As soon as your stomach starts to tense up or the top of your head feels like it’s contracting, stop and note the pressure you are experiencing. Take a full breath, exhale slowly, and tell yourself to find your pace.
Your sensitivity to your brain’s stress reaction may have become so blunted and neglected that you no longer know how much time you really need to do something. Chances are you have not been allotting enough time to do things comfortably.
Time yourself, and see how long it really takes to do a job without stress. Then break the task into bits, so that you can get the mini-sections done easily and pleasantly. By paying attention to your bodily sensations, you can create slower, smaller units of effort that don’t cause stress to your system. You will also find yourself more willing to do chores when rushing and pressure are no longer built into them.
Another way to find your natural pace is to double the time you think a task will take. If you think something will require a morning to do, plan two mornings. If you have to be somewhere in fifteen minutes, give yourself thirty. It will feel awful to do this because it goes against everything that you believe about being a good, productive person. But you will finally find out what your brain needs in order to do things with ease.
People may laugh at this, saying they don’t have enough time as it is, let alone stretching it out longer. But by doing bits of a task over a longer period of time, your stress will decrease and you will get as much done as before. It just won’t all be compressed into one indigestible hunk of all-out effort. Time is not the problem; it is leaving it as one big job to be done in a rush. If you realize that it takes you twice as long as you thought to get something done, you would be content to chip away at it in pieces over a longer period of time. Your pace would feel comfortable, and you would still get everything done. Find your pace and find your peace.
Lindsay Gibson, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist. For information, call 757-490-7811 or visit www.drlindsaygibson.com.