March 2005 Insight Newsletter

Choices: Why We Feel Overworked

Everyone wonders why we’re overworked. Beyond the obvious speed-up due to fax, voice and e-mail, we have to problem-solve all the new technology, products and services these generate. The former is well-known, but the latter actually takes more of our time. We have to be much more agile thinkers to cope with change in many more areas of our lives, small and large, than a generation ago.

1. The Biggest Challenge
The biggest challenge remains ourselves. All the new information and products offer an endless supply of distracting choices. We’re tempted to try to “have it all” or at least “try it all.” But we can’t. And we don’t need to.

Studies of happiness surprise many people because they show older people are happier than teenagers. As we age we naturally develop better ideas about what we want for the rest of our lives. A major reason teens are stressed is that they haven’t had a chance to “try it all.” In fact, it will be years before they can make even a dent in the mountain of opportunity that faces them, much larger than ever before and therefore even more disturbing.

It’s a truism in counseling that the most difficult times we face in life occur when we have to make decisions. The bigger the decision, the more upsetting. Getting divorced, changing careers, deciding to quit are all highly stressful, with peak intensity occurring as we lead up to the very point of deciding. Once the choice is made and we’re free to take action, the stress reduces dramatically though we may be left tired and still shaken by the process. For teenagers many choices present themselves at once, each looming larger because they haven’t been through anything like it previously.

The wider range of choice imposes these stresses more continuously at every age today. Even small children have been found to suffer “shopping anxiety” when they try to decide what to ask mom and dad to buy them so they can keep up with the kid next door. Perhaps this generation will develop better skills to shut out the sense of too many options, but we can work through this ourselves using our greater perspective.

What’s called for is to develop a clearer picture of who we are and what we want from life. Doing that builds a shield against the stress of endless choice. We can learn to appreciate what’s out there. We can keep up virtually, by looking and reading, without buying into every new possibility unless it adds something to the plan we’ve developed for our lives or work.

Every one of us today juggles many more goals, hopes and short-term objectives than ever before simply because those choices exist. People who would previously have worked steadily till age 65 now wonder whether to retire early, start a new business or career, go back to school, dedicate themselves to volunteer work or try to choose pastimes that will occupy them for many more years than they’d have experienced in past generations.

It’s great to have choices. The key is to examine them without letting ourselves be immediately pulled in emotionally. Developing the skill of routinely checking long-term goals to see whether something new fits and reinforcing our clarity about what we want – and even more importantly – don’t want is critical to fending off modern stress and staying balance.

2. Goal Setting Skills
To a much greater extent than ever before, personal goal-setting has become an essential work and life skill. Most people have difficulty doing this easily, but studies show it’s actually much more straight forward than we think. It’s natural for goals to evolve and change. We can’t keep fully focused on old goals without periodically reconfirming them. Three exercises that take about 15 minutes each plus a weekly quick check can help dramatically. I outline these in more detail at (exercises 1 and 2a/2b). I tried to find Internet resources for setting goals easily on a broad scale, but found most sites focus on goals in only one area: careers, fitness or the like. These don’t have the impact that these exercises have been shown to produce. In one study, people who did exercise 2a had measurably better physical (and mental) health even five months afterward than a similar group that didn’t spend the 15 to 20 minutes on it just once. With it we see goals we want to work on right away and some that can wait. Getting a truer overall perspective helps greatly.

3. Determining Our Pace
A daily choice we make is how hard to pursue our goals and how fast. In many cases, we can’t rush success. The shortest route between two points is bound to be a straight line. We achieve that by keeping steadily focused on our goals so we don’t wander into distracting side tasks that don’t take us closer. The age-old advice to slow down and smell the roses along the way is useful. If we’ve set goals we truly desire, getting there should be fun or at least enjoyable relative to other choices we could make. If we choose wisely we find routes that keep us interested and positive almost all the time. That itself is a goal – to enjoy life’s journey.

It’s easier if we can be clear that progress is occurring. That comes from watching periodically how we advance toward the goals we’ve set. I also created a Weekly Agenda (available by download at It helps me when I feel I’m losing track. I use it every couple of months for a few weeks when I’m feeling my progress is too slow. The rest of the time I try to enjoy the pace and give myself permission to enjoy life as long as I’m working away at the major objectives I’ve set myself.

Using the form, I write in goals for a week in the first column and then check whether I’ve done them at the end of the week. If not I ask as honestly as I can why I didn’t get to the things I told myself were important. Sometimes I conclude that my week’s “side trips” into other areas were enjoyable or so urgent it was worth delaying immediate steps on larger goals. Generally I re-dedicate myself to doing better and solving the problems that kept me from what I wanted to do most. I’m sure there are plenty of other ways of ensuring progress, but these have worked well in a variety of situations. Any check-in mechanism is guaranteed to make you more aware and appreciative of what you’ve accomplished. I believe you’ll enjoy the process.