Spirituality

How 3 months at a Benedictine monastery set me free from the time-pressure paradox

What is the time pressure-paradox?

When I toured the early 20th-century caretaker’s cottage at the Rockefeller family’s historic Billings Farm & Museum in Woodstock, Vermont, the guide explained that the caretaker’s wife and three daughters took the entire day, every Monday, to wash the caretaker’s shirts and their own few dresses and undergarments, hang them to air dry, then iron and starch them. Now we stuff our laundry into machines and forget it. Our clothes get fresh-scenty-clean and dry while we haul the children to activities, run errands, balance the check book and get dinner on the table. Synthetic fabrics, magic wrinkle sprays and hand-held steamers save us from the odious chore of ironing so we can take a yoga class and take in a movie. 

We keep acquiring more and more time saving devices. So why do we feel like we have less and less time?

Blame it on the time-pressure paradox. Not only do we have more time saving devices, but, as Starre Vartan says in the article The time-pressure paradox explains why you never have enough time,  “We’re all doing more than ever but feel we aren’t accomplishing as much as we would like to, or should.”

It’s time, Ms. Vartan says, “for us to think of our time in different ways than we have in the past.”

New ways of thinking about time and time-pressure?

I’ve long been practicing the suggested habits that are supposed to be remedies against the stresses of daily life–moderate aerobic activity, bubble baths, meditation and deep breathing–and yet a few months ago, my blood pressure rose into the chronically hypertensive range. I didn’t know what to do about that, since I was already doing everything I was supposed to be doing. So I made an appointment to see my doctor to talk about it.

Meanwhile, I received a grant from the Central Minnesota Arts Board funded by the McKnight Foundation, to work for three months on a book of essays about transformation, from a scholar’s office at Saint Benedict’s Monastery. I had in mind to experience what it would feel like to write according to a monastic rhythm, and so I followed the Sister’s schedule of prayer, work, and meals. I went there on December 1st, 2018 

A month later, on January 2nd, I kept my appointment with my doctor and was surprised to discover my blood pressure was back to normal. By the end January, I could feel tension falling from my shoulders like a slippery strap. And the only thing I had done differently, was adopt the Sister’s schedule. Surprisingly, I am accomplishing more than I ever have, while I worry less about what I do and don’t finish. In other words, I’ve found greater peace. So, I’m determined to keep this “new” rhythm in practice because it works for me.

But it’s not new. Benedict wrote this Rule, this guide to a way of life that takes control of time so time doesn’t slip away from us, more than 1500 years old. Ms. Vartan suggests we can solve the time-pressure paradox by thinking about time differently, and she’s right.

4 ways of thinking about time that reduce stress

  • Don’t multi-task; it’s stressful and it doesn’t make you more productive.

Certainly you’ve heard by now that multi-tasking doesn’t work! If you don’t believe it, watch “The Myth of Multi-tasking” below.

  •  Reduce and manage distractions. Time is not a limited resource; attention is.

The video below explains that attention is our limited resource. When we recognize this, our relationship to time shifts away from a feeling that time is restrictive to one in which time feels abundant.

  • Plan a daily routine that takes into account all your needs–for work, health, love & leisure–every day.

    In this Tedx Talk (below), Jan Stanley explains why a routine is one of the most powerful tools we can access for living meaningful and fulfilling lives.

  • Practice mindfulness, or meditation, or prayer–

— or whatever you want to call that state of mind and heart where we stop being arrogant control-freaks and trust the earth will keep turning even if we do nothing at all.

The schedule we keep makes clear what our priorities really are. Annie Dillard’s often-quoted passage from The Writing Life explains, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.”

To be transformed into people who take authority over time so that time doesn’t slip away from us involves discipline, practice, and commitment to our values. I’ve discovered that it’s so much easier to be transformed when everyone around you is committed to living according to wise principles. People who live in monasteries, I have learned, are not a special kind or type of people. They’re all kinds of ordinary people, who live by a simple Rule that incorporates healthy ways of thinking about time, who keep a schedule that makes the way we spend our days more meaningful and purposeful.

And now, nearing the end of my third month of working from my monastery office, I’ve discovered that without thinking about time at all, I’ve established a more trusting relationship with time. Time feels more plentiful, expansive and generous. And when time pulses around us in a way that feels lavish, we can find ourselves being gradually transformed from stressed-out, burned-out people with selfish and grudging attitudes, into peaceful souls capable of extending profuse hospitality to everyone we encounter.  

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