The world is faster, more demanding and more competitive than it used to be, and I find that staying sane in the 21st century requires mental and lifestyle strategies to match. The best of these don’t hide reality but rather remind me more firmly what reality actually is. Something I call the “variable mental timeline” is my favourite.
At any given moment in our lives, we all have more or fewer challenges, demands, expectations and disasters to deal with. Sometimes life is relatively simple, while other times deadlines and troubles crowd in. Sometimes life gets overwhelming, and the more this happens, the more debilitating the mental side of life can become. For some people the turmoil in the head and heart degenerates into a destructive spiral. This is where I find the imagination can give great relief.
While it’s true that there’s usually nothing you can do in the immediate term to get rid of life’s demands, there’s no reason you need to think about them all the time. The fact is, the amount of productive “thinking time” required to deal even with large challenges is usually quite limited. The rest is destructive “worry time”. That’s why you’ll feel A LOT better if you shorten your mental time scope on purpose. Shorten as much as necessary until you feel better. Here’s how I do it . . .
Whenever I find it stressful to think about big, challenging and possibly ugly realities on my timeline, I imagine these things don’t exist until some work or action is required of me. After that, it’s back to intentional amnesia for that issue. The technique of shortening one’s mental timeline on purpose really does work. It’s amazing. Capable, ambitious, conscientious or self-focussed worry-prone people, in particular, often get over-spun because they think about too much at once. It’s like food. A normal mouthful of roast beef is great, but try to eat the whole roast in one gulp and you’ll choke. It’s impossible and it’s the same with life’s challenges. Shorten your time perspective enough to reach a sane balance, dialing in shorter or longer timelines of consciousness until you find a manageable load at any given moment. Sometimes the future doesn’t exist for me past the next hour. Have you tried to intentionally shorten your time line? It’s one of life’s simple yet powerful mental strategies.
In some ways, your inner self is like a cordless drill. It’ll work fine for a while, but eventually the battery needs to come out and sit idle in the charger. Every moment you think of life’s hard things unnecessarily it prevents your mental “battery” from sitting in the charger.
There’s great stamina in a shortened time line, but you need to cultivate the inner skill to make it happen. Success takes practice because your mind will keep trying to eat the whole roast beef at once. But the more that a shortened timeline helps you, the more you’ll trust it and the less your mind will try to make your perspective too long. This is especially important for people who work outside normal workplace situations (like me) because there are no natural time or emotional boundaries around your work.
The problem with the future is that it has a nasty habit of trying to creep into the present. And future concerns want nothing more than to make you feel like you MUST deal with them all at once, all the time. Not true. In fact, the reality of the situation is very different. The more you’re able to forget issues where no immediate action is possible or necessary, the more you’ll be able to accomplish with a light heart.
Want to know a powerful secret I’ve discovered? Shortening my timeline during the week works great, but it would never be enough on its own. That’s why I find it essential to completely unplug every Sunday. It’s like shortening my timeline down to zero for everything I have going on in my working life on that day. I never let myself work or even think about work on Sundays even though I sometimes dearly want to get things done. It’s a mental discipline, and like all disciplines it involves paying a price to get something more valuable. In this case, it’s an especially great deal. Just don’t go and do the really foolish thing and convince yourself that you “can’t” take Sunday’s off. So often the word “can’t” actually means “won’t”.
One of the most ancient sources of wisdom advises complete rest every seven days and it’s golden. I didn’t always follow this wisdom, but after working seven days a week until the mid-1990s, I now know I’ll never go back. Do all your work in six days (not five), but the seventh day is for rest.
Isn’t it strange how so much of the world claims to be concerned about diet, exercise and “healthy living” while at the same time ignoring the old boundaries designed to keep work and worry in its place? Could this neglect be one reason we’re seeing an epidemic of debilitating anxiety, especially among young people?