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Debra Littlejohn Shinder

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Time Snatchers:

Defending Ourselves Against An Insidious Enemy

Who are the Timesnatchers and how can we defend ourselves against the damage and destruction they can cause?

Although the term sounds a little like a reference to some evil alien technology from Star Trek, in truth we all face the Timesnatchers on a regular basis. Some of us encounter only one or two, now and then. Others seem to attract entire armies of them, wave after wave of the enemy troops pouring over the horizon of each new day.

Timesnatchers are those people and things that eat up the precious minutes and leave us ragged and wondering where the day, the week, the month, or the year went and why we didn't accomplish all those things we had planned.

It's the Timesnatchers that make us feel that we've been working non-stop and yet haven't gotten much of anything done. Timesnatchers keep us, despite our best intentions, from getting ahead in our careers, realizing our educational objectives, and building the kind of relationships we want and need.

Timesnatchers sap our energy and force us to stay up later than we should, depriving ourselves of the sleep our bodies need, the rest and recreation our overtaxed minds crave. Timesnatchers place us in physical danger by causing us to let down our guards, allowing our attention to " to do's" we have waiting ahead of wander while we worry about all the us. They make us miss red flags and overlook important evidence that all is not quite right when we go into dangerous situations.

Timesnatchers cause us to focus on what's inside our heads -- thinking about all the things we've done today, planning all the things we have to do tomorrow, wondering how many things we forgot or did badly and will have to do over -- when we should be paying attention to the cars on the road with us, or the footsteps of someone behind us who doesn't belong there.

They can get us killed, or they can destroy us in more subtle ways. Timesnatchers are the trivial or nonessential things, the negative and destructive thoughts, the hurtful strangers and demanding acquaintances who -- although not really important to us -- nevertheless take up disproportionate amounts of time in our lives and leave us with no time for those people and projects we really care about.

When we're under fire from a barrage of Timesnatchers, we feel stressed, worried, and angry all the time. Whether we've brought it on ourselves by taking on too much, or whether others have taken advantage of our competence, kindness, or inability to say " no" and placed too many responsibilities on us which shouldn't be ours, we who have been timesnatched suffer the consequences.

It seems that almost everyone is far busier today than ten or twenty years ago. Men are taking on second and even third jobs, women are participating full time in the workplace while still carrying the entire burden of housework and childcare, we have more " projects," more social obligations, more traffic jams to sit in, more pointless meetings to suffer through, more potential lawsuits to worry about. More documentation of our actions is required, more phone calls have to be returned, more e-mail has to be answered.

Life's pace has increased astronomically with the expectations that accompany our productivity-centered, speed-enamored, high technology age. The information autobahn has brought about miracles: we can do so much more, so much more quickly than we ever could before. What we seem to be forgetting is that although the speed of microchip processors seems unlimited (or at least there is presently no end to progress in sight), the human body and brain can be pushed only so far. Then they rebel.

The result can be a sudden explosion: going " postal." But more often, it's less dramatic but no less tragic: to deal with the ever-increasing pressure, we turn to drink or prescription drugs or overeat or take out our resentment over having no time to relax on spouses, children, the dog.

The man who is rushing from his primary job to his part-time moonlighting while juggling a few consulting assignments, all because he wants his family to have the best, wakes up one day and finds that family has left him -- emotionally if not physically -- because he's never there.

The woman who is coming home from a full day of making things run at the office to a full night of cleaning and laundry and kidstuff and trying to study for her master's and work on the book she's writing after everyone else is finally in bed ends up in the hospital, leaving all those who depend on her to flounder because she didn't take care of herself.

The added stress of the holiday season only makes it all worse. Now we must make room on our already overflowing calendars for Christmas parties and shopping and giftwrapping and card-sending. We're supposed to be full of joy and good cheer and instead we're too tired to say much more than " bah, humbug." And this sets up a cycle of guilt because it' not " the way it's supposed to be."

How do we keep the Timesnatchers from driving us crazy or even killing us?

I recently heard a story that I think is worth sharing:

" One day this expert was speaking to a group of business students and, to drive home a point, used an illustration those students will never forget."

"As this man stood in front of the group of high-powered overachievers he said, "Okay, time for a quiz."

Then he pulled out a one-gallon, wide-mouthed mason jar and set it on a table in front of him. Then he produced about a dozen fist-sized rocks and carefully placed them, one at a time, into the jar.

When the jar was filled to the top and no more rocks would fit inside, he asked, "Is this jar full?"

Everyone in the class said, "Yes."

Then he said, "Really?" He reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel. Then he dumped some gravel in and shook the jar causing pieces of gravel to work themselves down into the spaces between the big rocks.

Then he asked the group once more, "Is the jar full?"

By this time the class was onto him. "Probably not," one of them answered.

"Good!" he replied.

He reached under the table and brought out a bucket of sand. He started dumping the sand in and it went into all the spaces left between the rocks and the gravel. Once more he asked the question, "Is this jar full?"

"No!" the class shouted. Once again he said, "Good!" Then he grabbed a pitcher of water and began to pour it in until the jar was filled to the brim. Then he looked up at the class and asked, "What is the point of this illustration?"

One eager beaver raised his hand and said, "The point is, no matter how full your schedule is, if you try really hard, you can always fit some more things into it!"

"No," the speaker replied, "that's not the point. The truth this illustration teaches us is: If you don't put the big rocks in first, you'll never get them in at all."

What are the "big rocks" in your life? A project that YOU want to accomplish? Time with your loved ones? Your faith, your education, your finances? A cause? Teaching or mentoring others? Remember to put these BIG ROCKS in first or you'll never get them in at all."

What a powerful way to show how vital it is to prioritize properly.

The way to defeat the Timesnatchers, which after all are only about as important as grains of sand in the overall scheme of things, is to stop giving those squeaky wheels all the grease. The Big Rocks can bring down even a Goliath of a Timesnatcher.

by Debra Littlejohn Shinder


Debra Littlejohn Shinder is a writer, editor, community college instructor, and part-time computer consultant who lives in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area with her husband, Tom, and her teenage son.

E-mail Deb at:
deb@shinder.net

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