Recently, I spoke at a conference in Indiana. I spent the morning with four hundred attendees and then closed their event with a keynote address. Afterwards, I worked on a writing project at Starbucks. Later, I ate dinner at a local restaurant and then returned to my hotel room where I watched an episode of Boardwalk Empire. I went to bed around 9:00 p.m. which, by the way, is not my typical-old-man bedtime but rather my way of avoiding travel fatigue.
This was a common day for me. And even though it was quite full, there was this nagging voice in my head that said, “You should have done something more significant.”
Do you ever experience this? Do you ever feel like you should have accomplished something more important during your day? Does sitting on the porch or watching an episode of House Hunters feel like you’re not making the most of your time?
This frequently happens to me. For some reason, my Success Meter is not calibrated properly. When I get to the end of my day, I often feel that I have not achieved success unless I accomplished something tangible like writing a new piece of material, booking a presentation, or finding a cure for ebola. I watch other people who appear really busy and seem to be accomplishing many things throughout their day and I don’t feel that I measure up. In fact, when I catch myself staring out the window at a stink bug trying to get in through the screen, I realize that I must be quite a slacker.
We live in such a multi-tasking world that if I’m not pursuing several projects at once, it feels like I’m wasting time. Buddhist teaching suggests, however, that we must focus on the one thing we’re doing at any given moment to fully experience the richness of life. Yet, the pressure of our responsibilities leads us to try to do more rather than less. For me, If I’m not reading while I eat my breakfast or listening to a podcast while I drive, I’m convinced that I’m not making the most of my experience. However, in these examples, the Buddhist concept of being focused or present would suggest that I simply eat or drive.
I think the key to this dilemma is to pursue significance in our lives rather than busy-ness.
Mother’s Day was a great example. For my wife, Wendy, a perfect Mother’s Day is to spend time with the family. For her, it is not so much what we do, but that we do things together. So, for Mother’s Day, our family went to church, ate lunch, walked around the downtown mall, visited a winery, and ate dinner together. On the surface, it didn’t appear that we accomplished that much. But, in reality, the significance was in the time we spent together.
One of my favorite phrases that’s often used when training caregivers is, “Don’t just do something, stand there.” In other words, as a caregiver, sometimes the best thing we can do for someone is to be present while they’re going through a difficult time. Since we can’t fix the situation, our presence becomes the significant activity.
So, how do we determine if we’re being significant, just keeping busy, or actually wasting time? It’s tough because it’s not always obvious. Perhaps one way to measure any particular activity is to determine whether it improves us as a person, improves our relationships, or moves us towards our goals in life or work. In other words, we should give more thought to what we’re doing rather than just doing it. Here are a couple of examples.
– Watching television can be worthwhile when we watch a specific show that either informs us or entertains us. However, sitting mindlessly in front of the television for hours, just looking for something to watch, is not significant. Once, when I told a psychologist that I watched television “to rest,” he said, “You’ll have plenty of time to rest after you’re dead.” It was a good point.
– Eating and drinking keep us alive. But sometimes, eating and drinking are substitutes for a more significant activity. Whenever I find that I’m feeling down, I eat something salty or sweet and then I feel much better. But here’s the thing—the satisfaction that comes from eating these empty calories is often just covering up something more significant that I need to do such as have a conversation with someone, complete a work project, or eat healthier food. Significance comes from knowing what is important in any particular moment.
– Social media has done wonders to connect us in ways we never imagined. And social media has done wonders to waste our time in ways we never imagined. Connecting is important. Hours of superficial surfing is not. Significance comes from using this fantastic tool to improve our relationships. Relationships are probably not improved by posting “amazing” cat videos or Throwback Thursday photos which, by the way, should have probably stayed in the shoebox in our attic rather than being posted for everyone to see. Just saying.
– Finally, sometimes it is significant to just rest. I have found that the older I get, the more medicinal sleep becomes. I’m not sleeping the day away but I do go to bed earlier when I travel so that my body has a chance to rejuvenate. Sometimes, I feel that sleep is a waste of time. But if it allows me to be more significant when I’m awake, then it’s probably worthwhile.
In retrospect, the day that I spoke to four hundred people was significant. I didn’t cure ebola and I didn’t write a new piece of material. But hopefully, I used my gifts to influence other people in a positive way. My Success Meter is not alway accurate but if I pay attention, I can use my time wisely and not just stay busy. It boils down to being present in every moment. When we do that, we are definitely significant.