So last night I was working with a large-capacity USB thumb drive which seemed to be processing information very slowly. I had the bright idea that if I reformatted the drive in a new way, I could increase the speed. Of course, this meant that all contents of the drive would be erased, so I would have to fill up the drive again. I thought it would take 10 or 20 minutes. But it turned out that my plan didn't work. The reformatted drive was no faster than it had been before. And it ended up taking me about 3 hours to fill it up again. That's 3 wasted hours, not to mention a certain amount of frustration.
What's the point of all this? Only that a lot of the “pressure,” “stress,” and “burden of responsibility” that we feel in our lives is self-inflicted. I could've saved myself 3 hours simply by not reformatting the drive and leaving well enough alone. In an effort to save a little time (by making the drive work faster), I ended up wasting a lot of time, and the drive doesn't work any faster anyway.
Today I tried to tally up the amount of time, mental energy, anxiety, and guilt that I cost myself by creating unnecessary assignments, imposing arbitrary deadlines, or interpreting unimportant issues as matters of life and death. But I couldn't do it, because the list of the endless. The mind really does work overtime to make itself crazy.
When we hear people talk about how stressed out they are, a point they often make with an unmistakable note of pride, it's worth considering to what degree their stress translates into worthwhile results. You can make yourself nuts in all kinds of ways, but it doesn't mean you're necessarily going to be accomplishing anything. Sometimes the person daydreaming in an easy chair turns out to be more “productive” than the one who's running around like a headless chicken trying to accomplish a hundred things at once, and mainly creating confusion or pursuing dead ends.
A lot of people seem to feel they have to stay in constant motion. It's been said that sharks must swim ceaselessly, because if they stop swimming, they will die. A fair number of people in today's society seem to feel the same way. They are always running as fast as they can, even if they're running in place. They're taking on more and more jobs, even while complaining about their inability to handle the jobs they already have. Sometimes, of course, they have no choice; the demands of a tyrannical boss or a clamorous family may be impossible to ignore. But I think in many cases people take on more responsibilities, more activities, more burdens, more stress simply because they feel that part of them will die if they risk inactivity.
And they're probably right. Were they to choose inactivity on a regular basis, as a major part of their lifestyle, part of them would die or at least atrophy. You know where I'm going with this. The vulnerable parts, the part that insists we keep climbing that mountain even when we've forgotten why, is the ego.
The ego cannot abide inactivity. It feels threatened by silence and stillness. There's a reason why the Bible tells us to listen to the small, still voice inside ourselves if we want to hear the voice of God. The ego is not a small, still voice. It's a loud haranguing voice, a chattering and nagging voice, a desperate and pleading voice, an angry and complaining voice … but never small or still. It is always insisting on your attention and, if you let it, it will give you more and more projects to do, for the sole purpose of maintaining its control over your life and your thoughts.
I'm not much for New Year's resolutions, since I've found I never keep them, but if I were going to make one this year, I'd resolve to listen less to the ego and more to the still, small voice. That mission, should I choose to accept it, would probably do more to reduce stress and nurture true productivity than anything else I could try.
For a little more on this topic, see this old post, especially the quote from Barbara Sher at the end.