Sounds silly right? How could slowing down make you more productive? Well, I can tell you from real life example of how that works. But firstly, I'll give you a little history.
"Each thing I do, I rush through so I can do something else" - Stephen Dobyns
I first read this quote in a Stephen King book some 10 years ago, and it has stuck with me ever since. I found myself relaying this quote to several people this week, so I thought this was an ample opportunity to write more about it. The quote goes on "...Through the windows of my speeding car, I see all that I love falling away: books unread, jokes untold, landscapes unvisited". For me, the poem is a perfect example of how our busy lives, and in particular high expectations or perfectionism, can lead us to be solely focused on "doing" but not slowing down to actually experience anything. The work we accomplish is never reflected on, but simply done so the next thing can be done. And so on. This leads me to my point, having discussed this over therapy sessions with a few clients, how the constant need to do something actually contributes to accomplishing very little, and to feeling highly stressed and anxious. Further, when we are rushed trying to 'do' we tend to not be 'present'.
Why writing lists doesn't help
My supervisor once told me that making lists or scheduling work actually gives a false sense of control. What she meant was, when we are stressed we often look for things that give us a sense of control. For example, we write 'to-do lists' and we start with the important things we need to do. But then guess what - we start to add in other tasks as well. Instead of 1 or 2 tasks written down about a project, suddenly we've got 10. Rather than a few critical "must-do" items, we end up adding everything that needs to be done, regardless of importance, and tend to not actually achieve what we had set out to achieve. Things are not completed in order of importance, or we make mistakes because we are overwhelmed by stress - everything becomes a "must-do". Our heads are so jumbled with the tasks that we need to complete, we tend to make mistakes as a result.
When we slow down we are more present
How many times have you had a conversation with a friend or spouse and simultaneously been scrolling on your phone or sending a message? I know I have (my apologies to my wife). More than just poor etiquette, we are not in fact being present with those that we cherish. We often think about people we must see or catch up, yet when we are with them, we are not giving them our full attention. Have we actually been productive? What would happen if we had a conversation over a cup of coffee for 30 minutes that we gave our full attention to? Would that not be more productive than semi-listening over 1 hour? A client of mine took this approach with her partner and noted the improvement in the strength of their relationship. She made a conscious decision to not look at her phone while in his company. She hasn't spent any more time with him, but the quality of their time has improved and so has their relationship.
Recently I set a challenge to a client to stop writing to-do lists. Naturally, the client was reluctant but agreed to the experiment. What he reported back was truly impressive - by not writing to-do lists he had become more efficient because the little things that were on his lists and took up the bulk of his time, suddenly became less important. Which meant he had more space to start working on the bigger issues. And more importantly, he gave himself permission to slow down and rest. Which meant he had more time to plan his bigger issues. By not getting caught up in the small issues, he actually became more efficient, and started enjoying life. His relationship with partner improved and overall, he was less stressed, less anxious and more happy.
Don't sweat the small stuff
We've all heard that saying, but do we ever apply it ourselves? In the examples above, I've encouraged clients to be more present by doing less (not sweating the small stuff). As a result, they've reported an improvement in time management, efficiency and relationships. So here's my challenge to you - the next time you go to write down a 'to-do' list....don't. Put your pen and paper down and think about what's really important in your life? Is it making sure all 12 actions are completed or is about doing an activity that is about being completely present, about being with others? Are you simply doing something to get onto the next thing or are you taking time to be in the moment?