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Time Pressure Leaves Us Depleted. Is There a Way Back?

Less structure and more people are part of the solution.

Key points

  • Time pressure is everywhere in modern life. It leaves us depleted and vulnerable to mental health problems.
  • Our usual methods of rest do not leave us restored.
  • Unstructured time with friends, family, and others provides the chance to restore ourselves and to maintain our connections to others.
Source: Askar Abayev/Pexels
No agenda necessary
Source: Askar Abayev/Pexels

It’s fair to say that most of us feel a great deal of time pressure. Whether it’s the pressure involved in completing a particular task or the ongoing pressure of trying to live a life, we are continually fighting a battle against the clock. In the short term, a little pressure may be a helpful motivator. But for the chronic time pressure that characterizes our lives, there is little doubt that it leaves us depleted and is harmful to our mental well-being.

Vegging Out

Our common release from the pressure cooker of life is to either passively sit in front of a screen or to consume a mind-altering substance. In either case, we put the world aside and become passive receptacles of content or chemicals. For TV or computer screens, the technology asks only that we surrender our attention, and it pays us in morsels of novelty or titillation. Feeling starved, we are happy to play the game with tech or chemicals. In simple terms, we are vegging out.

These approaches give us some rest and distraction but little restoration. No one comes out of binge-watching or binge-drinking and feels restored for another crack at living a good life.

So how do we do it? How do we get the break from time pressure and somehow feel restored for life without adding more things to our to-do lists? If it seems that we might be missing something, it is because we are.

Unstructured Time With Others

The path toward relief from this cycle of depletion and collapse must be forged without time pressure. And, for the reasons explained below, we cannot do it by spending time alone. What we need is unstructured time with others. We must spend longer than our usual periods of time among friends, family, and peers without a concrete agenda. What happens once these facets are in place is a blossoming of our inherent abilities to connect—superficially, deeply, and all ways in between. We become relaxed amidst mutual acceptance and recharged by what comes alive between people.

From our grandparents’ era back to the earliest human social groups, people sat together with no particular goal in mind. Of course, they had no choice. Once the sun was setting, the day’s work was, by necessity, done. No entertainment was available. So, they would chat. Sit quietly. Gossip. Plan. Joke. Play games. Their daily lives together at work left them at ease with one another at rest. They were comfortable enough to rest there and respond to the moment.

Nothing need be planned, as things would develop on their own. Our capacity for unselfconscious presence with one another has been part of our lives for eons. It is now mostly lost.

The rationale for us to spend time this way is not just to repeat what our ancestors have done. We need a new way to spend our time that is not focused and intense with a clock ticking over our shoulders, nor throwing in the towel and surrendering to vegging. By finding such a way to pass time, we just might restore our depleted energy as well as our spark of interest in the world.

Social Isolation

There are certainly prescriptions that fit this bill. Reading a good book, meditation, or an enjoyable walk in the woods are all attractive solutions. As wonderful as these activities can be, they all perpetuate another feature of our modern existence, social isolation. All these solutions are performed alone.

If the pressure we experience in conducting our lives is one side of the problem of modern life, isolation from one another is the other. (I have discussed the crisis of loneliness elsewhere.) Any solution to one would ideally consider the other.

We know from studies of sleep that the mind does not rest when the body rests. To become fully restored, the mind explores, compares, and reviews through the dreaming process. This is also apparent in studies of greenspace and the kinds of things the mind needs to engage with to feel simultaneously relaxed and interested.

Part of the answer, then, must lie not only in what we do but also in what possibilities are provided in our environment. Certainly, we need quiet time alone to settle ourselves down. But the addition of other people supplies new perspectives through their stories, challenges to our opinions through others’ experiences, and lightheartedness through comical reviews of our own frailties. A room of friends and acquaintances is a whole world to explore with no clock ticking.

A typical interaction in our current format is we sit at a table for dinner or meet for a cup of coffee. Conversation begins. “How is your job?” How are the kids?” “Your mom?” “Your dog?” Then a run-through of politics, some gossip, and what you’re watching on streaming TV, and the visit is done.

What if after eating you adjourned to another room where you sat for hours? There’d be no strict agenda—maybe a board game to fill some time. Of course, we could talk, check in about this and that. Two people might go to the kitchen to make the coffee. There they’d swap some secrets and in hushed tones confess their worries. When they returned, they find that stories are being told. Jokes made. Ideas proposed.

Of course, personal secrets or spontaneous confessions are not required. Recipes and other DIY updates work just fine. And, needless to say, the social support available during personally difficult times would be priceless.

Some will leave one room for another to chat privately or just be alone for a while. Issues that are difficult to discuss somehow find their way into the light of day. You learn things about old friends you were unaware of. Somehow, the usual embarrassment we all carry becomes lighter and easier to shed. Amusing things become very funny. Acquaintances turn into friends. You are more restored, more prepared for all the other ways to spend your time. This will not solve our problem of social isolation or of daily stress, but it will provide predictable relief, something to look forward to, and perhaps the building blocks of a better life.

But who has time for six-hour dinners or owns houses on the lake to have friends for the night? Few people indeed. A generation or two ago, this gap was closed with barbecues that lasted all afternoon and into the evening or holiday get-togethers where guests stayed all day and some to the morning. All it requires is for someone to take the initiative to invite people over for such an affair. Some people do game nights; others do crafts; some even have regular dances. Once together, there is no avoiding the magic of our social natures.

I do wonder if these days any of us could get through such a scene without falling into arguments about politics and other issues that will change no one’s mind and have no effect on the world. Probably not, but we’d be stuck together and the uselessness of it all may just become evident.

A small example of what I’m suggesting is a practice my daughter recently overheard in an interview with Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. He reported that he and his close friends plan a two-hour conversation once a month. My daughter has begun this and found that it brings her and a very small group of old friends much closer than the usual texting that goes on throughout the month. The conversation invariably goes to unexpected places.

I realize this would be a large demand on many people. But consider that this is part of our psychological heritage; it is part of who we are, and it is virtually gone from our lives. It provides the personal connectedness and mental reconditioning that are scarce in our modern era. The question is less, “Can we do it?” than “Can we continue to get by without it?”

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