Trying to notice and respond differently to the sensation of being rushed

Last year I listened to this podcast with meditation teacher Christina Feldman –

I don’t remember much of it, but a key concept stuck.

Feldman spoke of setting life intentions and discussed one in particular – attending to and tackling the experience of feeling rushed.

2022 was a year where I committed to getting more done and with that came more frequent experiences of feeling rushed, time poor. So, I started trying to observe that experience more closely.

What I discovered was that the feeling of being rushed, or rushing, didn’t necessarily map closely to what I needed to get done. I can feel incredibly rushed on days where my to-do items require far less time than I actually have. The feeling of being rushed or time poor is often just an internal story I get trapped in. That story has all the hallmarks of an engaging fiction – central flawed but well-intentioned character (me), pitted against an age-old powerful enemy (time).

What is kinda cruel (but also darkly humorous) about getting trapped in this story is that it is self-fulfilling. Lost in my head, with stress/anxiety rising, each task takes longer and is done at a lower quality. There is a lot of task switching to try and give feeling of parallel progress. Many distracting tasks creep in for self-soothing. You get to the end of the day exhausted and convinced of your impossible schedule, and the process starts again the next day.

Now I try to catch myself when I am fully immersed in this story. Most commonly it is when I am hurriedly preparing my lunch because of the ‘mountain load’ of things I still needed to get done that day. I notice myself cursing the 5 minutes it takes to prepare my lunch because of the thought ‘I could be better using this time’. I notice the ruminations on my to-do list, the combination of anxiety and anger and the self-critical voice which tells me I am not capable of doing what I want to do. It is an unpleasant headspace in itself, but worse, it subsequently colours everything I have to do that day. Every task is approached, expecting it to be a chore, an impediment to a sense of calm. Tasks are done mindlessly, missing out on the positive aspects.

I suspect a lot of us get caught in similar stories. We spend multiple moments throughout the day feeling overwhelmed by our to-do lists, ruminating on them, re-ordering them, rather than actually working on those tasks. The belief ‘I don’t have time’ becomes the reality, rather than being an accurate assessment what we could realistically achieve.

It has become a running joke amongst colleagues that responding with ‘busy’ to the question ‘How are you?” doesn’t really have any meaning anymore. Busyness is a constant state for a lot of people. To be clear, I am not suggesting that people aren’t busy or have many responsibilities. But I do wonder whether how we represent that busyness in our heads (the story we tell ourselves) affects our experience.

Is there a way to feel less busy, less rushed, less time poor, even without changing what we need to get done?

I think there is, at least in some cases, certainly in mine.

When I notice myself feeling rushed and catch myself in that story, I do the following:

  1. I take a couple of deep slow breaths to lower my heart rate
  2. Whatever I am doing, I do more slowly and deliberately. If I am making my lunch, I slow down that process and attend closely to each of the steps.
  3. I clearly identify, in my head, the next task I will work on (signposting)
  4. I focus on making a very definitive transition from my current task to the next one
  5. I try to do that new task with maximum attention and minimal distraction
  6. I take note of how long the task took me

What I’ve noticed when I do this is:

  • just slowing the breath and slowing one’s movements can reduce the rushed feeling
  • when we do a task more mindfully, even though it might take a little longer in actual time, it feels quicker in subjective time. That being said, often the task is done quicker because less time is eaten up with distractions and multi-tasking.
  • A task done more mindfully is generally done to a better quality and is more enjoyable
  • Tasks often don’t take as long as my rushed story tells me they will. As an example, I always get stressed out about keeping the garden watered (especially during summer) and how much time it will take. When I actually measure how long it takes, it might be 20 minutes total across the day. I spend more time starting at Twitter than that!
  • Time is wasted in the worrying about tasks, not so much in the doing them

A day where I move mindfully and slowly from one task to the next is typically a day where I get more done and often without the accompanying feeling of exhaustion that characterises a ‘frantic’ day. This is consistent with some observations I’ve made about people in my life who appear to move more slowly than other people, but whose output is far greater. Likewise, there are people who always seem rushed but it doesn’t translate into meaningful progress.

I should note that these observations hold with non-work tasks as well. For example, I like doing art – I suck at it, but I like doing it. However, I frequently find myself ruminating on not having enough time to fit it into my life, whilst I sit there doing nothing else of real value. The story of the ‘overworked, thwarted creative’ is often more attractive and engaging than just sitting down and doing even just 10 minutes of art. Thus, I try to apply the same principles to optional activities as well. Stop, deep relaxing breaths, move slowly, sit down to art, notice that some actual progress can be made in a short period of time.

This attention to the experience of feeling rushed has been a good addition to mental life, a good mental habit to develop. In fairness, I don’t always catch it whilst it is happening. Many days still pass with a tone of rushedness (if that is a word). But I catch it far more often these days. This blog post exists because I caught myself in it this morning and made myself calmly transition to writing.

To be clear, I know people whose timetables are pretty rough and whose feelings of being rushed more accurately reflect the reality of too many tasks for the time available. But I suspect many others are a bit like me. Capable of getting quite a bit more done if they wrangle their minds out of the ‘too busy’ story and move with greater deliberation and mindfulness.

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