Finding Stress-Reducing Idle Moments: The Anti Multi-tasking

stress reducing anti multi-tasking
Photo by Paul Mayne

Post by Albert van Zyl. Follow him on Twitter.

We often blame our jobs, families or the traffic for our stressful lives. To cope with it we visit doctors, buy self-help books and read blogs. But the truth is that a lot of us value our stress.

In Elle of June 2005 a reader comes to the amazing conclusion that “On some level, I equate stress with success, so, irrational as it may be, without it I feel aimless.” In a 2006 Financial Times one corporate animal confesses: “We are aiming always for the medal of achievement… Being stressed and overwhelmed by your workload is part of the validation of having an important job.”

The reason many people are attached to their stress and busy-ness is that our society sees it as an outward sign of ‘success’. A membership badge of the inner circle of people who are ‘in demand’. And by the same token doing nothing while others are working is generally taken as a sign of failure or having ‘dropped out’. Even Tim Ferris seems to be busy these days! Just look at the blogs, revisions of the 4HWW and public speaking engagements that his name is connected with.

This is why Tom Lutz saw that our society is not really about actually being busy, but being seen to be busy. Being busy is not enough – other people must see how busy you are, ask you about it and allow you to talk about it. That is where the satisfaction lies. Do the experiment of asking one of your friends how they are. It would be rare for them not to refer to how busy or stressed they are when they answer you.

So the striving to be busy and stressed has as much to do with how other people see us as; with what we ourselves are trying to achieve. The existentialist philosophers would have called it the ‘gaze of the other’.

A large part of managing stress is therefore to manage the way in which other people see you. The good news is that you can wear the badge of being busy without actually being busy. Our society does still allow some idleness, but then only if it is masked by something apparently useful like waiting for something to download or for a taxi to arrive.

The challenge is to not fill these moments of bliss up with multi-tasking madness. When we get to the point where we don’t have anything pressing to do or we are waiting for someone else, we make a phone call, send a text message, check email or generally fidget around with whatever we can lay our hands on. Sometimes the best thing that you can do is nothing at all. Just enjoy them. Gather your senses. Enjoy the present. If you must, an iPod or a paperback hidden in your coat are premitted props.

My strategy is to seek out, nay volunteer for, these ‘permitted idlenesses’. Here follows a list of my six favourites:

  • Waiting for your PC to boot up. This can often give you a minute or two of staring out the window with your first cup of coffee warming the palms of your hand
  • Waiting for your partner & children to get ready to leave the house. You don’t need to stress because you are going to be late. Let them do the running. Just take a book, sit on the couch and relax.
  • Smoking a cigarette on the pavement of your smoke-free office-block. The little cloud of smokers is one of the few remaining social centers in our beehive offices. Their good company justifies the harm done to your lungs.
  • Waiting for elevators to arrive. Rather than avoiding the gazes of the guy in the trench coat and wondering when the elevator will ever arrive, you can listen to some music or grab a page or two of that amazing book that you started reading last night. The same strategy can be followed when waiting in lines.
  • Waiting for the kettle to boil. You don’t need to click the button and rush off to do something else. You may wait there with the kettle and enjoy a few minutes of quiet contemplation.Tom Hodgkinson recommends making your tea with leaves rather than bags. This not only makes better tasting tea, but allows you the pleasure of walking into the garden afterwards to tip out the used leaves.
  • Dropping the kids off at school. With a little practice, dropping the kids at school can also become a wonderfully relaxing activity. Take time to chat with other parents, let your kids show you their classroom and see that drawing that they have been talking about all week. This surely beats dropping them off at the front gate so that you can get stuck in traffic a little earlier.

These are just a few examples of ways to gather your senses and enjoy the moment in small bits every day. With a some thought and imagination, it’s easy to find many more ways. Go ahead, give it a whirl.

Little bits of relaxation in your day add up exponentially.

Albert van Zyl blogs at The Next Small Step, a blog on taking incremental steps to awesomeness. You can also follow Albert on Twitter.

Leave a Comment

{ 18 comments… add one }
  • PalmGerald October 26, 2009, 9:21 pm

    As harmful as some people say it is, stress is my way of life. I actually work and think better when I'm under stress. I guess the important thing is to know how to get rid of it before you accumulate it again. I enjoy relaxing with a good book, a oliva v cigar, a glass of bourbon and some classical music.

  • PalmGerald October 26, 2009, 5:21 pm

    As harmful as some people say it is, stress is my way of life. I actually work and think better when I'm under stress. I guess the important thing is to know how to get rid of it before you accumulate it again. I enjoy relaxing with a good book, a oliva v cigar, a glass of bourbon and some classical music.

  • domi June 15, 2009, 7:24 am

    This is so true! I have to say it's also what I struggle with… I am using the Getting Things Done system by D. Allen which allows for good time management just to find myself fidgety and, even worse, feeling guilty when I have nothing urgent or important to do at the very moment… It's reassuring that it's nto only me :)

  • Dusan Vlahovic May 26, 2009, 11:06 pm

    Nice tips, it's hard to enjoy the moment and don't stress out, but it's worth doing!

  • allproactive May 26, 2009, 7:13 pm

    Thanks Glen for posting this entry from Albert. As crazy as it sounds, I often have clients call me to coach them through not doing something.

    This post reminded of something I'd read recently and ironically, encouraged me to finish a blog post of my own that looks at this phenomenon from another perspective:

    Thanks again and I look forward to following your posts on Twitter.


  • beniaminus May 26, 2009, 7:09 pm

    I find it can be surprisingly relaxing watching the tea leaves swirl in a pot – perhaps the same meditation as staring into a log fire and watching flames. The great thing glen's idea is that the moments are very defined, so no anxiety about missing anything important.

  • positively present May 26, 2009, 4:38 pm

    Love this post! :) Some really great ideas here. I definitely agree that little bits of relaxation can really add up!

  • Rod Fage May 26, 2009, 4:04 pm

    I used to go for virtual smokes all the time. Smokers always knew what was going on around the office.

    • Glen Stansberry May 26, 2009, 6:34 pm

      While I don't smoke cigarettes, I do smoke a cigar on occasion, and I agree: it's an incredible social experience. It combines relaxation with community.