As I began putting together strategies, tactics, and tips for pulling back from the rat race, it became clear to me that many people would experience emotional resistance to them, despite the desire to do less. Reactions such as, “Oh, I could never give that up,” “I don’t have enough discipline,” “I don’t want to make that tradeoff,” “My friends’ feelings will be hurt if I don’t do such-and-such,” etc.
Which highlights the fact that the approach of doing less — scaling back — in order to reclaim a portion of your life from society’s excessive demands is not just a question of making changes to what you do during the week. Or changing the level of your involvement with certain habits or pursuits, or the pace of your daily activities. It is a psychological or spiritual journey as well. And in large part, that’s because we have internalized society’s demands on us and do not thoroughly question them.
Rather than cover that in this post, though, and delay getting into what it actually takes to do less in your life while still accomplishing what’s truly essential, we’ll hold off on the psychological and spiritual side of things for now. By first delving into strategies and tactics, and experiencing any psychological resistance that may arise along the way, we’ll be in a better position later to appreciate why “inner work” is so critical to the process.
I wanted to give a bit of a heads-up about that here first. Something to be aware of while we’re going through practical suggestions, so you’ll be ready for what might surface emotionally in response, and so you know what’s coming later. Ready? Let’s dive in.
A master key: using technology consciously, wisely, and sparingly
Since our lives are so dominated by technology these days, doing less unavoidably requires changing one’s relationship to it. That doesn’t mean giving it up, though it does mean a couple of important things: reducing one’s use of the most invasive technologies to a minimum when it comes to their “time footprint,” and using different criteria than we ordinarily might for whether any given technology is actually worth very much of our time or money.
Two technologies in particular — television and social media — are the “low-hanging fruit” here. They’re very large time-gobblers (perhaps goblins would be a better word), so let’s tackle those head-on first. I’ve got plenty of other strategies and tips later for other areas of life as well, but it would be good to first assess whether or not you’ve got a taste for relinquishing the hold these two big time-suckers may have on you.
If you do, you should find the other suggestions to follow will be right up your alley as well. If you aren’t willing to consider dealing with these two, then you may find it tough to embrace the others.
So, consider these first two items on the menu a litmus test of your appetite for what’s needed to take a big bite out of the smorgasbord piled up on your plate, and thereby gain the luxury of more time in your life.
Television: the altar of worship
Stop watching so much TV? Groannn! I can hear the reactions and feel the resistance already here at the outset. But as gently as possible, let’s put things in perspective: Based on a range of surveys and studies from the last few years I’ve seen, the average American adult watches at least four hours of television per day, or 28-plus hours per week (older people more, younger folks less).
Though the TV-watching figures vary depending on how usage is defined, even very approximately that’s 70% as much time as a standard 40-hour workweek. But keep in mind the actual work hours for full-time employees are more than that. A 2014 Gallup poll put the average workweek for full-time U.S. workers at 47 hours, with 40% saying they worked 50-plus hours. Which makes the impact of TV-watching in the hours left over particularly pronounced.
If you cannot reduce your television-watching to a minimum, it’s unlikely you’ll ever free up significant amounts of time to do less of what keeps you from engaging with what you really want during the time you have. (“Doing less” is, in part, shorthand for doing less of the things that keep you from pursuing what you really want to do.)
That’s because there are lots of other things in life just like TV in terms of their “social approval rating,” so to speak, that also eat up a lot of your time. Which means if you can’t or won’t reduce the bite TV takes out of your life, you likely won’t be willing to do the same when it comes to the other things either.
Television and TV advertising are the prime tools of indoctrination into our culture’s conformist and consumerist piss-your-life-away value system. They cause us to waste even more time than just watching television — because of their not-so-subtle promotion of other similarly socially approved but dubious activities. They promote the value system of gotta have this, gotta have that, here’s what’s cool, here are the latest fashions and status symbols, and gotta do thus-and-such or what will others think of me?
Even if you have plenty of extra time already — say you’re retired, for example — do you really want to subject yourself to TV’s constant barrage of brainwashing messages? You may think you can resist them. And while it’s possible you might be able to, up to a point, you will still find that the continual undercurrent of bad news and relentless psychological gambits to wrap your mind around television’s little ole (make that big ole) finger make you unhappy if you watch much of it.
Or you may believe you need to watch a certain amount of television to keep up with the news or to be in touch with or know what the mainstream is thinking. But there are other ways to stay abreast of the most important news issues of our time than television. And they are far more informative and much less time-consuming.
TV news alternatives
For example, find a few trusted blog or website sources, devoted to meaningful news events or news commentary, instead. Those by people who haven’t been co-opted by the highly circumscribed and straitjacketed mainstream news model that looks at current events with highly restricted black-and-white blinders on (Democrat vs. Republican, liberal vs. conservative, etc.) that’s inherently divisive in its approach. Or that always feels compelled to provide equal time to some “other” side of the story even when it has little if any merit — a recipe for constant acrimony and promotion of bad thinking that shouldn’t qualify to be heard in the first place. (Sometimes neither of the two “sides” actually deserves much of a hearing. There may be “third perspectives” that resolve their differences.)
Seek out sources that provide you with targeted insights into world and national events so that you can go more deeply into the issues that really matter, and needn’t spend hours on superficial news fluff or if-it-bleeds-it-leads trash.
Now, as to time spent watching. My rough guideline would be if you are watching more than about three or four hours a week, five at the outside, it’s too much. Or, if you’re watching more than two consecutive nights in a row per week, even if the total doesn’t add up to more than five weekly hours.
Because if you’re watching TV on a string of three or more consecutive nights, it starts becoming something too close to a daily habit. In my opinion, TV shouldn’t be that repetitive a habit. Why? Because it then tends to become a crutch to get through the day rather than an occasional treat or indulgence.
Up to a couple of nights in a row allows for watching shows both days on the weekend, should you prefer to concentrate it all then. If there are shows or series you feel are worthy, all on consecutive nights, then record them, and watch them in separate sessions at your discretion rather than being a slave to watching whenever the episodes are first aired. The discipline of delayed gratification is very helpful in reshaping habits and introducing more patience and pacing into your life.
Gauging worthwhile fare
When you’re finished watching an hour or two, you should feel like you enjoyed it and it was worth your time and not a waste, and was well-crafted entertainment. That it was a well-told story that made you think, or deeply immersed you in someone else’s shoes, or was entertainment at the 90th percentile or above, and not just “filler.”
But also that you’re ready to move on and do something else you’re looking forward to. If instead you feel like you’re zoned out and just want to watch more, then you’re not in control of TV — it’s still controlling you. It should not have that kind of grip.
A shift in habits
And if you treat TV as an occasional treat or indulgence rather than a habitual activity? You’ll find you prioritize what are the best things about it: For me, that turns out to be well-written and well-acted movies, limited-time series (which typically means 10 or 12 episodes or less per season, which in turn usually means movie-caliber production values), or the occasional special feature.
You may find watching streaming video on the internet that caters to your own niche tastes to be a more satisfying pastime. And, often, the less TV you watch in favor of streaming video, the less advertising you’ll be subjected to, or have to mute or fast-forward through.
Social media: our new zombie overlord
Adult versus teen use
Depending on your age, especially the younger you are, this can be almost as much (or more, for teens) of a time-eater than television. We should make one important distinction in social media use here, however: the realm one inhabits before entering the adult work world, and afterward. For teens these days, social media has taken the place of watching TV and talking on the phone with friends to a significant degree.
From surveys I’ve perused online, which vary tremendously in how they classify online activities, it appears that teen social media use probably roughly equals TV viewing time by adults, though they also watch perhaps 2 to 3 hours of television per day as well (some via internet). They also multitask a lot when consuming media of any type, which makes interpreting the figures difficult.
At any rate, for a teen to pull back from social media to the degree I’ll be recommending for adults would be to make outcasts of most of them. Unless a given kid is a natural loner or highly inwardly directed, I’m not going to suggest that. (I have seen one article recommending teens try to keep it to an hour a day, which would be a large reduction for them.)
Once you enter the world of work as an adult, though, your activities and responsibilities change significantly. And just like your responsibilities naturally shift after graduation, so, ideally, should your social media use. (One obvious bugaboo that can make that transition difficult is the addictive nature of social media.) So here, I’ll stick to the adult world and refrain from suggestions about teens’ use of social media.
Even adults are engaging in a lot of social media consumption these days, though. Most surveys seem to suggest two-plus hours per day currently, about half the time spent watching TV. Nonetheless, the internal protest you may feel over what I am about to suggest might be just as emotional as the suggestion above for TV-watching. Here’s my rule of thumb for social media: Assuming you’re not a teenager still in school, use it primarily just for planning, coordination, or functional purposes, and only secondarily for keeping up with peers or family. Specifically…
Need to text your work partner, spouse, or friend that you’re running late? Fine and dandy. At the grocery store and want to ask your significant other if you should pick up something for them not on your list? Great. Leaving on errands and noticed one of the cats or dogs got left outside but should be indoors right now? Find a convenient place to pull the car over and send a text to your housemate about it.
Need to receive a two-factor authorization code by text to finish logging into some online account? Peachy keen. Can’t get a hold of a client because emails aren’t getting through? By all means, text them. A seldom-heard-from relative or friend texts you about something, and it turns into a more extended conversation? Fine, too, to help maintain a bond.
On the other hand… Want to text a friend to let them know you’re out at a restaurant and the food is to die for? Don’t do it, bozo. Pay attention to the people there with you instead of texting your absent friend. Out walking your dog in the park on a nice day? Don’t text whomever about it just to scare up an echo chamber. Why the felt need to multitask? Luxuriate instead in the breeze on your skin, the sun reflecting off the pond as the waves lap against the shore, the wake streaming behind a duck, or the sound of the crows.
On a hot date when a text comes in from a good friend? Seriously, you’re telling me you’d text them back right after sex? You’re kidding, right?
Control your texting. Don’t let it control you.
Send emails rather than texts whenever possible. Personal texts usually imply you want a quick response. If that’s not required, though, send an email. It will take the demand for a quick response off both the other person and yourself when they reply back. And if someone does text you about something that doesn’t require the quick response they think it does? Text back, but at your leisure. Don’t be prodded into a quick response that isn’t warranted.
Turn off all email notifications from online companies and unsubscribe from all their marketing communications and similar emails. Don’t worry, they will always send you renewal requests or any other email pertaining to official business. Make exceptions to email notifications only for things such as critical web server failures, highly anticipated newsletters, and the like.
Riding herd on daily email is a subject all to itself which I won’t get into further here except to say, as with texting, control your email or it will control you. Try to reduce it to an absolute minimum, except for essential business email and meaningful missives to and from close friends. Put a very tight noose around the neck of companies who email you. String them up and let the gallows door open below them if they won’t respect settings or requests to limit email — and good riddance.
I’ll cover phone use when it comes to multitasking and talking in Part 4.
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.
Aside from privacy issues, which aren’t within the scope of this post, the real problem with social media is its compulsive, addictive nature — which is quite intentional and by design, if you aren’t already aware. Therefore, if you’re going to use services like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, et al, at all, the key is disciplined use. By that, I mean checking activity or posting only on a scheduled basis. My suggestion is once per day should do it when it comes to personal use. Businesses may have more functional uses for Facebook, but even then, checking at planned intervals two or three times a day should be ample.
Yes, this takes some “spontaneity” out of the experience, but frankly that isn’t really the case to begin with, because such so-called spontaneity translates to “compulsive” and “addictive” activity in reality. If your extended family stays in touch via Facebook, by all means keep up with your family that way. But a single session once a day should be plenty for uses like that.
While you’re at the computer or on your phone or tablet checking Facebook, make it a “batch process” and do any catching up you need to do on other social media like Twitter and Instagram and the like at the same time. Try to keep it to about 15 to 20 minutes or so total for the lot of them, maybe 30 minutes at the outside on days with an extra flurry of activity. Yes, you heard that right. 15 to 20 minutes if at all possible. Just try it for awhile — and see how freeing it can be.
There will be exceptions from time to time, of course. But don’t kid yourself. If you can’t be honest with yourself, you’ll get sucked right back in.
Blogs and articles on the web
As someone who blogs, I obviously look at blogs and website articles differently than Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media. Blog postings are a sort of cross between website articles and social media. How much they tilt toward one or the other depends on the number of replies a blog typically attracts.
The main criterion distinguishing blogs from typical social media, though, is the pace and posting schedule. All of the big hitters in the social media arena push people toward participating at a frequency of many times daily. (The more berserk you go, the better, as far as they’re concerned.) But it’s not just the frequency of checking for activity, it’s the constant switching from one text- or video-stream to another, from posting to reading or viewing, to posting, to checking back, and checking again, so that your attention is constantly jumping track or being interrupted.
All of these services purposely try to addict you, and sites that succeed in getting you to obsessively check for new activity at super-high frequency (10, 20, 30, heck, 50 or more times a day) are termed “sticky” — like an insect trap, quite frankly.
The posting frequency of most blogs falls somewhere in the weekly or monthly range — a much more sedate pace. I personally approach reading time on blogs like I would reading a book or a magazine article — in relaxed fashion for one or two sessions per day, on days where I’ve got plenty of slack. The big difference here is that your attention is focused for longer periods of time in a single stream without interruption or jumping track.
And this brings us to the topic of multitasking — a knot that tightly binds our lives today, which we’ll slice through in Part 4’s discussion.
The above are the “biggie” strategies that save the most time and should get you off to a great start toward doing less. Next post we’ll begin serving up a range of tactical hors d’oeuvres for slowing down the pace of life and freeing yourself from unnecessary make-work, some of it made up of formerly “obligatory” activities that may not be, when seen with new eyes.