I'm not big on new year's resolutions but one thing I'm pretty much always resolving to do is manage my time better.
Superior time management skills are considered essential in our fast-paced modern lives but few of us seem to be naturally gifted in this department. We search for wisdom from organizational gurus and churn with envy over those few uber-successful individuals who claim to get so much done because they need only four hours of sleep each night.
If I got just four hours sleep a night I'd really have to reorganize my time so I'd be able to take a five-hour nap every day.
These days we all seem to be in a competition to pack our schedules as tightly as possible. Then somehow we find time in our hectic days to complain at great length to each other about how busy we are. We show up late for meetings with long-winded, breathless explanations: Our dog got sick, our kids forgot their homework, the plumbing exploded, the garage door jammed, the hamster got loose, and, of course, the all-time favorite go-to excuse, the traffic was crazy.
Many of us even seem to take pride in how rushed we are, as if our level of busyness is a status symbol, a sign of how coveted and precious our time is compared with others. Or, as one friend likes to say, "She's just so busier than thou."
But here's the thing: None of it's real. Truth is, we're not nearly as busy and time-challenged as we like to think.
Or, more precisely, we are busy, but only because we choose to fill our time with all kinds of nonessential — some might say nonsensical — activities.
Think about it. Every day we engage in really important stuff: working, eating and sleeping. Beyond the basics lie a host of choices we make that fill the hours and days. If we feel harried and harassed, it's often due to all the extras we've piled on. We rush from this activity to that appointment to this other commitment that we regret having made but now feel pressed to fulfill. Rat, meet treadmill.
The question shouldn't be, "How does she do it all?" It's more appropriate to ask, "Why does she do it all?"
We teach our kids to live in a similar state of schedule overload. Their days are stuffed with lessons, tutors, private coaches and every extracurricular activity we can squeeze in. Our children can't just be on one sports team. No, we convince ourselves that they must overcommit to multiple teams. Then figuring out how to get them to all the games and practices and still allow them time to complete their homework becomes an exercise in extreme scheduling — a sport unto itself.
Last month's holidays provided me with a clear example of my own ridiculous piling on. I felt pressed to get it all done — the shopping, wrapping, decorating, partying and relative juggling. I worked myself into a tizzy trying to get every little detail just so and baked about a thousand cookies and cakes, some of which grew stale before I could even get them delivered.
Then, just after the holidays, I went on a short vacation break. These trips are meant to be rejuvenating but there's no end to my anxiety when I'm preparing to relax. Talk about counterintuitive. It's like breaking the speed limit to get to a yoga class.
Many years ago while researching a story on the development of the just-in-time economy, I came across an academic and author who made a convincing case that our widely held belief that we are busier than ever is an illusion. People actually have more free time than in past ages, he maintained.
His research led him to conclude that the biggest time-eater in our modern society, outside of the essentials such as work and sleep, was television. Several years later I'd add other electronic media — computers, tablets and cell phones — but otherwise his findings still have a ring of truth.
One could argue that these purportedly time-saving devices often have the opposite effect by overwhelming us with e-mails, social media requests, texts, etc., even though at least 90% of the electronic communications we receive is basically junk that we ignore. Just the sheer bulk of it can jangle our nerves in ways that generations past probably never imagined.
So what's the answer? Like most people I know, I'm continually trying to reach a healthier balance and to not succumb so easily to bad habits that leave me perpetually struggling to catch up. Do I need to stop and smell the roses more often? Sure. Or, as I sit and write, snuggled inside at a lovely winter resort, I'm thinking a few minutes' break to watch the snowflakes drift from the sky wouldn't hurt a bit.
Then my mind betrays me. I start to worry about packing, the flight home, picking up the dog, unpacking and piles of laundry. But I know my priorities. The season premiere of "Downton Abbey" awaits on my DVR, and somehow or other I've simply got to fit that in.
PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.