What is Your Life’s Velocity?

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I’ve heard it said that life has two speeds: too fast and too slow. The harried workaholic and the perpetual slacker are both familiar archetypes in our culture.What factors differentiate the tortoises and the hares among us? How can we become more aware of these forces that drive us in order to get get more control of our own internal throttle?

Fast Friends

Consider the following exercise: make a list of your closest associates and sort them into three groups. In one group, list those who feel like their life is too full, fast, and sucking them dry. In the second list, see if you can identify those who feel that they are stale, held back, blocked off, or unable to act. Finally, look for the ones who say they’re “on track” or “in a groove” or “clicking along nicely.” Notice that I’m not asking who is busy or slacking, but how they perceive their lives. This difference will become important in a moment.

I don’t know you, or your friends, so I can’t say exactly what you’ll find. But if you do this exercise thoroughly, you’re likely to happen across some trends. First, there’s a good chance you’ll find at least one person occupying each category.

Second, compare how people feel about their lives to your own impression of how much they actually have on their plates. While these two measures might correlate, you’ll probably find some of your peers working very, very hard and not really noticing it, while others feel stressed by what seem to you like modest challenges.

Third, if you’ve known your friends for a while, then you’ll find that ‘life velocity’ tends to persist over time. People with a “Type A” personality, who feel pressured and driven, tend to stay that way. The same can be said for those who feel chronically shut down. As a therapist, both these tendencies come up frequently, with the hares wishing for a moment’s peace and the tortoises trying to get it in gear.

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The ugly truth is that while people want to move from pressured or underachieving towards some vision of balance, most run into heavy resistance and fall back on old tendencies. However there are techniques to adjust both the real and perceived speed of one’s life.

Put Your Foot on the Gas

For those who wish to do more and do it faster (and there are plenty of those as we approach January 1) there are a few tried-and-true methods for stepping on the gas.

The first step, as for most any change, is awareness. It is important to identify if the dissatisfaction is with your perception of progress or your actual output. Knowing how you set your own personal standards is essential. Many find that they’ve set up the ‘game’ of their life in a way that makes it physically impossible to win. Sometimes all that is needed is to recalibrate the speedometer to reveal the actual progress that had been going on all along.

Another way that perception can slow life down is found in procrastination. Much has been written on this topic, but by far the biggest take home message is that procrastination is largely a failure of estimation. People who procrastinate frequently underestimate how much time and energy a task will take and so fail to give it the necessary space in their lives.

For others, perception is not the problem. When it comes to speeding up a life, gaining awareness of the “yes or no” questions in life is essential. From one perspective, almost every decision we make involves saying “yes” to what we say we most value. Of course we don’t often consciously say “no” to our highest values, but rather we say “yes” to something else. For instance, building a good relationship means saying “yes” to higher-quality people while refusing to invest time and attention on suitors who are not good matches.

Whoa!

For the harried, “type A” personalities, a separate toolkit is more appropriate. Once again, it is important to discriminate between the feeling of being run ragged versus an actual lifestyle that doesn’t afford adequate rest and recovery. Poor calibration can result from unexamined expectations, typically in the form of statements that begin “I must always…” or “I can never…”, as in “I must always keep my home spotless,” or “I can never take a day off from work unless I’m deathly ill.” Unexamined directives like these can produce pressure that leads to more anxiety than performance.

I am always inspired by the simple fact that every person is given the same amount of time each week: 168 hours. What we choose to do with those hours makes the difference between frustration and fulfillment and the difference between productivity and running in place. If you seem to have to be everywhere all at once, it pays to figure out what you actually do with these 168 hours. For the chronically over-scheduled and over-taxed, it’s good to recognize the hard limits on how much time we can dedicate to any endeavor. Once you know “where the day goes,” you can start to weigh alternatives. Is everything you’re doing truly essential? Can you delegate any of it? It’s easier to sacrifice time devoted to a less-important goal when the more-important goal is right there in front of you.

If “yes” is the answer that steps on the gas, then “no” is the answer that applies the brakes on your life. Being able to say “no” to something that just isn’t quite important enough allows you to begin sculpting your time, and thus your life, to make room for all that is most important, and perhaps with even a little time left over to loaf on a Sunday afternoon!

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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