Dr. Rechtschaffen’s book Timeshifting grew out of the workshops he leads on the creative use of time. Unlike time-management courses which teach people how to work efficiently at an ever-accelerating pace, Rechtschaffen’s basic premise is that it is crucial to learn how to “timeshift,” to move smoothly from fast to medium to slow and back again. Each speed has its proper place, he believes, but the rhythms of industrialized societies, including the United States, encourage us to live in “fast forward” virtually all the time. He asserts that we pay a heavy price for doing so.
In this interview with Dr. Daniel Redwood, Dr. Rechtschaffen discusses the patterns of overwork endemic to modern culture, and presents practical ways to change these behaviors. In answer to a question about attention deficit disorder, he speaks of the condition as a rhythmic disturbance brought on when children try to entrain to the speedy rhythms around them, and offers advice to parents seeking alternatives to Ritalin.
DANIEL REDWOOD: Is staying busy always a positive thing?
STEPHAN RECHTSCHAFFEN: I don’t think so. Too often we keep busy in order to avoid feeling our real feelings. When we’re in a crisis, whether it’s a death in the family, the breakup of a relationship, a bankruptcy, or whatever, people tell us, “stay busy, it will keep your mind off things.” Painful feelings are difficult to face, and mostly we’d rather not feel them.
So we substitute action for contemplation. We get busy, speed up, turn on the television, do the chores, surf the Internet, go to the gym, anything but feel the painful feelings. We want to experience pleasant emotions, particularly joy and love, but grief and pain are also a very real part of life. It’s essential that we not cut off these feelings or cover them up with ceaseless activity.
REDWOOD: What first led you to slow your pace?
RECHTSCHAFFEN: I want to make it clear that I’m not saying we need to do everything slowly. That’s why I called my book Timeshifting rather than Downshifting. Timeshifting means constantly changing our rhythm, slowing or accelerating in order to feel present and in the flow of the moment. There is a proper time and place for doing things quickly. It’s just that in our society, we seem to lock in to one particular speed, which is fast-forward. Going full speed ahead all the time creates all sorts of problems. The physical manifestations of a high-speed, high-stress life can include high blood pressure and heart disease. And then, there is the emotional toll. You can’t stop and smell the roses when you’re always going 65 miles an hour.
REDWOOD: Is this strictly an American phenomenon?
RECHTSCHAFFEN: No. The Japanese have a word, kashori, which means death from overwork. Ten thousand people a year die from kashori in Japan. To officially qualify as a victim of kashori, you have to have worked for at least 16 hours a day for seven straight days, or 24 hours straight just before dying. Yet when the Japanese government tried to shorten the work week from six days to five a few years ago, workers opposed the change. Speed, action, and busyness are addictive. When I visited Japan, I was fascinated to see people playing Pachinko, a game that is like vertical pinball, for hours on end. Little skill is involved, and there is no particular point in winning. But it’s an excellent way to enter a sort of hypnotic trance, and an effective way to keep yourself from feeling.
REDWOOD: Is there an American equivalent?
RECHTSCHAFFEN: Television. Research has shown that approximately 40 percent of the average American’s “free” time goes straight down the tube. And again, it serves to remove us from feeling, from the direct experience of our own lives.
REDWOOD: What are some practical ways to re-connect, to shift toward life-affirming rhythms?
RECHTSCHAFFEN: There are many ways to do it. Meditation, relaxation, listening to music, taking a walk in nature. Sometimes the best thing is to just literally sit still in one place for an hour. This sounds simple, but for many people it’s quite difficult. There was a woman in one of my Omega workshops, an environmental scientist who led a workaholic’s life: up at five in the morning, kids fed and off to school, work and research all day, then writing up the results in the evening.
As an assignment, I told her to sit–just sit there–for an hour under a tree. Describing it afterwards, she said that at first she was more frightened than she had ever been in her entire life. Having the whole familiar structure of busyness removed was truly terrifying. But at some point she had a breakthrough. She felt transported back to a wonderful childhood experience. By sitting still, she had entrained to a slower rhythm, a natural rhythm. Everyone needs to find ways to do this.
REDWOOD: You cite statistics in your book to the effect that we could reproduce the 1948 U.S. standard of living working half the time it took back in 1948. With all the “labor-saving” devices that have emerged in the past half-century, why are we working longer hours?
RECHTSCHAFFEN: We have made many unwise choices. Basically, we have decided to trade our time for more goods and services. That statistic can be found in Juliet Schor’s book, The Overworked American. It means that if we chose to arrange things differently, we theoretically could work four-hour days or take lots of long vacations. There’s something very appealing about that.
REDWOOD: So why do people continue to work such long hours?
RECHTSCHAFFEN: When someone knows that staying longer at work will bring him or her increased income, there is a very strong incentive to stay longer and longer. An internal conflict develops. The person asks, “Do I leave work now and spend some time with my kids before they go to bed, maybe read them a story, or do I keep going on this project here at work?” More and more people are choosing to stay at work.
REDWOOD: I remember that when I lived in Washington, DC, staffers on both sides of the aisle in Congress, and people employed by both liberal and conservative groups, all shared a very demanding, fast-paced way of life, where working 60-70 hours a week or more was considered normal. The rationale was that their work was very important. In some cases, I agree that it was. But the human toll was very real.
RECHTSCHAFFEN: Definitely. This is true for people in government and in social movements, but it’s also true in the healing arts, in social services, and many other places in our society. Seeing the value in the work we do, and recognizing that there is always more to be done, we find ourselves on a treadmill that never stops.
It’s important to remember that productivity is not necessarily related to the amount of time one spends on the job. At one point we had a staff member at Omega who was questioned because she wasn’t spending as much time in her office as others expected her to, as much as her predecessor had. I knew, however, that she was a superbly productive worker, in large part because she set aside time for thinking and long-range planning. The glorification of “face time,” where workers coming in early or staying on the job late are praised, but others, producing as much or more, are not, is counterproductive in the extreme.
REDWOOD: Why do you feel that “time is money” is the most insidious belief in western society?
RECHTSCHAFFEN: Because this concept severely devalues human interactions. It wasn’t long ago that everyone charged by the job; now we charge by the hour. There are lawyers who charge by the minute. I called up my lawyer not long ago, and he greeted me by asking, “How’s it going?” He charges $5 a minute. I found myself not wanting to “waste time” telling him how I was feeling (which I would of course do in any other situation), because I don’t want to be paying that kind of money to share my feelings with him. When I call him, I make a list of the points to cover, and I try to cover them as quickly as possible. What happens is that what should, hopefully, be a caring human connection, becomes little more than an information transfer. And that is a very high price to pay.
REDWOOD: Does this adversely affect the lawyer himself?
RECHTSCHAFFEN: Someone who bills by the minute, or the hour, starts to think, “I make $100 an hour. Our baby sitter makes $10 an hour. If I work six more minutes, that pays for the sitter staying another hour. If I work for another hour, I can pay for a sitter, a cleaning lady, and a cook.” This line of thought keeps on going. “If I work another week, that will pay for a chauffeur and a limousine. That will get me to work faster, and I can work while I’m being driven to the office, so I’ll be even more efficient and make even more money.”
The problem is, we lose sight of our original goals. The goal is not to make money. The goal is to have the time and enjoyment that money can, in theory, provide. But if we just stay at work, earning more and more money, and seldom taking the time to enjoy it, to read that story to the child, to take that vacation on a secluded island, then what is the point of it all? It’s a question that needs to be asked. In my workshops on the use of time, these are some of the questions we explore.
REDWOOD: So the rich don’t necessarily get to enjoy all their money?
RECHTSCHAFFEN: Some do. Most don’t. There are complex factors that come into play for people who makes lots of money. I think it is a fair generalization to say that instead of having more time, most wealthy people have less. It is very time-consuming to manage and watch your money and investments. Also, being rich can become your identity. Vacations start to look like a loss of money-producing time. Money generates its own set of demands. These are not non-negotiable demands, but it takes real strength to resist them.
REDWOOD: You’ve spent a good deal of time in other countries, especially “poor” countries in Asia and the Caribbean. What’s different there, aside from there being fewer material goods?
RECHTSCHAFFEN: Everyday life seems richer and fuller. People take the time to watch the sunlight reflecting on the sea. They are entrained to different rhythms. I think we have a great deal to learn from people in these nations. The concept of the siesta, for example, is almost unthinkable in an American city. But finding the proper balance between work and rest, and between work and play, is crucial to a healthy and happy life.
REDWOOD: Corporate America seems to recognize, however grudgingly, the value of changing one’s pace, of taking a break. You mention in Timeshifting that the “cigarette break” and the “coffee break” are examples of a timeshifting rituals.
RECHTSCHAFFEN: Yes. Clearly we now know enough about the health effects of cigarettes that the cigarette break is no longer permitted in most office environments. But aside from the harmfulness of the cigarettes themselves, it’s worth noting that such breaks offered what otherwise was a positive way to slow down. The worker would go out into the lounge or hallway, breathe deeply, and relax. This changed his rhythm. Sadly, though, the cigarettes eventually robbed him of the capacity to breathe. I think a good substitute is to take a “non-cigarette break,” where you breathe deeply, but skip the cigarette. If it feels foolish to do this with other people around, try it in the bathroom or go outside.
The coffee break is one thing labor and management have agreed on since the dawn of the industrial age. It too acts as a timeshifting ritual. But like the cigarette break, there’s an inherent problem. Caffeine artificially speeds us up, and eventually wears us down. Why rev up your heartbeat when it’s moving along quite fast enough already?
REDWOOD: You speak of attention deficit disorder as a rhythm disturbance, caused by entraining to society’s speedy pace from birth. How can parents help their children to avoid this pattern?
RECHTSCHAFFEN: This is a real challenge, because there are so many influences in the culture that encourage the child to go faster and faster. The pace and rhythm of society continue to accelerate, and children try to keep up. Some have more difficulty than others. Ironically, in the United States these children are treated with Ritalin, a drug that speeds up the nervous system. Paradoxically, the children slow down. In my view, this apparent contradiction results from a speedup that enables the children, like a racing engine, to shift up, get in gear, and thus be in sync with what’s going on around them.
A better alternative is to just teach them to slow down. It takes real effort, but children can be taught mindfulness practices, dance to slow music, sit still for readings, and accept nap times. My son, at age five, surprised me one day by saying after a game of Nintendo, “I think I’ll go meditate now.” Today’s childhood toys–computer games, instructional tapes, television–all entrain children to a rapid rhythm. We need to offer them other activities that counterbalance this.
REDWOOD: What other things can parents do to help their children moderate all these accelerating influences around them?
RECHTSCHAFFEN: Here are some ideas. First, from an early age practice concentration exercises with your child. They can listen to the reverberation of a bell, or stay with a musical tone until it disappears. I would also severely limit television time. Read to your children, particularly at bedtime when they need to timeshift into a slower rhythm. Other approaches I have used are beginning each meal with a moment of silence, and teaching them about boundaried time.
REDWOOD: These sound like good ideas for people of all ages. Can you define “boundaried time?”
RECHTSCHAFFEN: Boundaried time is time that is specifically set aside for a particular activity. So often, we are subjected to competing demands for our time, and respond by flitting back and forth from one activity to another, without devoting adequate attention to any of them. Adults can create boundaried time in the workplace, for example, by taking a 15-minute solitary walk alone after lunch, or not taking phone calls between 9 and 10 in the morning. It’s very valuable to set aside certain boundaried times, so that you are able to timeshift during the day, and so that you don’t feel that your pace is entirely out of your control.
REDWOOD: Would you like to offer any other timeshifting suggestions that people can use in their daily lives?
RECHTSCHAFFEN: Let’s talk about commuting. I used to drive to work as fast as I could, passing cars, weaving in and out of traffic, and generally feeling angry and uptight. I would arrive at work tense and uncomfortable. At a certain point, I decided to change the pattern. I decided to leave for work an extra ten minutes early, and to drive at a comfortable pace. The change was wonderful! Not only was the commute itself much more pleasant, but I arrived at work feeling refreshed and happy.
I think it’s very important for us to view all activities as worthwhile, whether it’s driving to work, washing the dishes, cleaning the bedroom, or anything else.
REDWOOD: So how can washing the dishes, cleaning the bedroom, and the other “mundane” chores of life become enjoyable?
RECHTSCHAFFEN: That is the quintessential question. It’s a matter of mindfulness, of focusing on where you are rather than constantly imagining the future or reliving the past. It’s about being in the moment. This is a challenge for anyone who seriously undertakes it.
REDWOOD: What are you doing these days?
RECHTSCHAFFEN: I’m taking a sabbatical from Omega, traveling, teaching. I’m doing my best to practice the principles I speak about in Timeshifting. I’m giving myself the time to let the process unfold, to see what the next step should be.
About the author:
Stephan Rechtschaffen, M.D., is a pioneer in the wellness movement and the founder of the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies. For two decades, Omega has hosted in-depth presentations by leaders in the fields of health, culture, spirit, and the arts. Each year more than 15,000 people attend workshops at Omega’s 80-acre campus in New York’s Hudson River Valley, two hours from New York City.
It will look like this: Timeshifting – How to Control The Speed of Time