by Karen Horneffer-Ginter, PhD
Having a full calendar, in many ways, is a sign of success. At best, it’s an indication that we’ve acquired what we set out to attain in our younger years — possibly a career, a family, and a sprinkling of hobbies and involvements that hold meaning. Yet, often this fullness, even when it’s a good sort of fullness, keeps us from truly enjoying our lives. It leaves us thirsty for a particular quality of living that isn’t possible when our cup is full… not even possible when our cup is full with high-quality ingredients.
The observation that too much busyness leads to suffering is nothing new. In some ways, it lies at the root of every time-management tool and stress-reduction resource ever created. Yet, the topic seems worthy of continued conversation given that even with all of these resources, we only seem to be getting busier as a collective.
I’ve noticed a similar paradox in buying storage containers over the past decade. I first discovered these plastic boxes lining the store aisles when my children were toddlers. I was certain that if I bought enough of them life would become manageable — or at least the contents of my home would become contained and organized. It was a different version of my attempts to buy smaller planners, thinking that if the boxes for each day were tiny, somehow fewer things would get written in them. Sadly, neither intervention really seemed to help. The containers didn’t ever seem to hold everything, and my handwriting only got smaller to be able to fit everything into the day. Obviously, life’s too-muchness wasn’t going to be lessened through a purchased item.
These experiments led me to wonder if the issue wasn’t life’s cup being too full, but rather life’s cup being too small to hold everything. Sometimes the days would go by so quickly, with so little getting accomplished, that it felt like life’s container had somehow shrunk to the size of a miniature tea cup — the type that might be placed in front of a seated doll or teddy bear. It’s the opposite of what most of us would want with all that we have going on. It would be much easier if our cup could expand to the size of the Mad Hatter ride at Disney World, so it could at least have half a chance of holding the contents of our day.
It’s a tricky fine line, however, because we wouldn’t want to have too few items in our containers, just as we wouldn’t want to overly empty our cups. We want lives that hold meaning and enjoyment, and most of us also want a certain amount of responsibility as well. Finding the middle ground between these extremes often requires a trial and error process that can feel a bit like the first two-thirds of Goldilocks’ tale. Sometimes we have to live through experiencing life as being too much and not enough in order to gain clarity about where our own point of balance exists.
Along with learning through personal experience, it can help to get in touch with the intention behind our busy calendars. Often what leads us to overfill our lives is a desire to make the most of our days and to bring ourselves fully into that which we’re involved in. Sometimes recognizing the sweetness of this desire allows us to have a bit more tolerance for the tensions that arise between the fullness of our planner and our human need for some open space and time.
In offering counseling to many busy people over the past 16 years, and knowing this place myself, I’ve recognized six particular shifts that are useful when we need to press a reset button in our lives. These shifts reflect what often gets lost when we’re moving quickly from one activity to the next. In my next posts, I’ll address each of them: pausing, turning within, filling up, coming back to life, embracing difficulty, and remembering lightness. In the meantime, consider what “just right” would feel like for you in terms of your life commitments. Pay attention to what seems to get in the way of arriving at this place, and if any of these obstacles are things you can do something about.
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