Catching Up

People often tell me that they feel like they’re never going to get ‘caught up.’ They’re always worrying about how (and when) they’re going to achieve all the goals they’ve set for themselves.

First of all, “catching up” is a myth. It will never happen. Even if it does for a short moment, you’ll be “behind” again before long. And you know what? That’s OK!

When it comes to goal setting, it makes sense to set general and attainable objectives such as being efficient, having clear priorities and being timely. Always striving to “catch up” sounds like preparing for a life where there’s no longer any forward motion. Do we really want to have nothing to do, nothing to think about, and nothing to make time for? It might seem nice on the surface, but it sounds to me like the gateway to monumental boredom.

If you’re having a hard time “catching up,” it means that you’re a busy person and that you like to be active. Indeed, going by the principle that it’s all in how you look at things, trying to “catch up” can easily lead to unnecessary stress.

Beware of the tempting (but false) alternative that, ‘If I stop trying to catch up, I’ll let everything go and become irresponsible.’ Cognitive psychotherapists would call this ‘all or nothing’ thinking. You don’t HAVE to choose between (1) being a disorganized slob and, (2) being a compulsive, anxiety-ridden maniac. It reminds me of a little dog I used to have who constantly chased his tail. He never caught it, but he apparently clung to a vague optimism that he eventually would.

An alternative to ‘all or nothing’ thinking is simply to focus on what you can realistically accomplish today. By refusing to labor under the delusion that you’ll ‘finally’ be caught up, you’ll get the same amount done — minus all the nervous baggage. Free of the anxious mindset, you might even get a few extra things done.

Imagine driving on a busy road with lots of cars, but not a traffic jam. You hurriedly weave around every possible car, cursing the slower drivers — and then, there you are, at the next red light, sitting right next to those very same drivers. You achieved nothing but stress for all your rage and anxiety. That’s how life goes for those who are engaged in the never-ending quest for the Promised Land of ‘Caught-Up.’ They end up right where they would have anyway, but with tension and maybe even inner rage.

Those unrealistic compulsions can arise from the inability to live in the moment. When I suggest to people that they reduce their stress by spending more time living in (and enjoying) the moment, their reaction is often, ‘I can’t do that. I’ll be disorganized! I’ll get behind!’ Wrong. People tell me they’re amazed that I get all the things done with my full-time practice, daily updates to my web site, plus writing this weekly column — while still finding time to sit on the beach on a regular basis. There’s no mystery: I MAKE the time. There’s nothing wrong with refueling your mind in whatever way suits you. If that seems like ‘wasting time’ or ‘taking time away’ from whatever, then you’re setting yourself up for unnecessary stress. You’ll be a slave to your responsibilities instead of treating them as part of what you want to have in order to enjoy your life. My little dog’s tail-chasing got him nowhere but exhausted.

Living IN the moment is not the same as living FOR the moment. How sad to drift irresponsibly through life, moment to moment; disregarding anything beyond today or tomorrow, with the only plan being to hope for the best. The obvious (and much more reasonable) alternative is to plan long-range — while still making time to experience the moment. You’re not obligated to choose one or the other. In fact, they work best together! The more you enjoy living in the moment, the more incentive you’ll have to be responsible; to pay your bills, live within your means and honor your commitments. After all, life can be pretty difficult. The payoff for all that responsibility is sitting on the beach, shopping, relaxing — whatever — without one speck of guilt or recrimination. Now there’s the Promised Land!

I have an old friend who is a high-level event planner. When he finally takes a (rare) few days off for vacation, all he thinks about is what he has to do back at work. While dining in a fine restaurant, strolling the boardwalk or whatever, he’s always distracted and preoccupied as he anxiously maps out his ‘getaway’ to wherever he has to go next. I have never once seen him unwind and quietly enjoy the moment.

So make every minute count, whether you’re working, playing or relaxing. Instead of always trying to ‘catch up,’ catch on — and live a little!