Which of the following three statements best describes how your Christmas season panned out?
— “Swimmingly! I made more time for prayer and felt fully prepared for the coming of Our Lord at Christmas.”
— “Did you have to bring this up? I started out with good intentions, but between shopping, decorating and baking, there just wasn’t time to focus on Christ.”
— “Thank the Lord that it’s almost over. I’m one holiday party away from a nervous breakdown.”
If you chose options two or three, take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone.
While stress levels might peak during the holiday season, they are on the rise during the rest of the year, too. According to a study released last February by the American Psychological Association, 42 percent of American adults report that their stress level has increased over the past five years. Similarly, teenagers are more stressed out as well, as the report states that 31 percent of teens reported feeling more stress than the previous year and 34 percent said they expect their stress level to increase in the coming year.
Those are not surprising statistics, as that report joins a host of studies reporting that Americans feel busier and more stressed than ever. And if millions of us already feel like there’s not enough time for relationships, sleep and prayer between January and November, it makes perfect sense that adding extra holiday to-dos — spiritual or otherwise — elevates our cortisol levels.
There’s no better time than the new year, however, to reassess our stress and find new ways of managing our schedules. And that starts with understanding why we feel so overwhelmed in the first place.
According to Marshall Cook, author of “The Time Management Workbook: A Catholic Approach” (Pauline Books and Media, $9.95), some people have good reason for heart palpitations and sleepless nights. Families where both spouses juggle work lives and home lives, single parents putting themselves through school, and young professionals expected to log 80-hour workweeks all have taken on more than the average person can bear and rightly feel stressed.
But those situations, Cook continued, are more the exception than the rule.
“If you step back and look at the lives of people today and the lives of people several generations back — people who worked 14-hour days at the factory — you can see most of us aren’t busier,” he said. “It’s our perception of how busy we are that’s changed.”
The most recent American Time Use Survey — which shows the average American watching 2.8 hours of television daily and working fewer hours than our counterparts in the 1950s and 1960s — confirms that. So why the skewed perception?
In large part, technology.
A culture of distraction
On the campus of Franciscan University of Steubenville, Vice President for Student Life David Schmiesing has spent the past 20 years watching the school’s students grow busier and busier. For some, he said, it’s a habit, developed in grade school and high school — when every minute was filled with résumé-building activities — and carried over into college. Even more fundamentally, though, he puts the blame on social media.
“Using social media takes time, and that’s time taken away from other activities,” Schmiesing said. “Then, there’s the urgency of replying to emails and text messages. Students carry that pressure with them everywhere, and that wasn’t there 10 years ago.”
With beeping, pinging and ringing phones never far from their grasp, young adults also experience constant noise and distraction, which makes finding the time and silence necessary for reflection difficult.
“When we’re not taking time to think about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, we don’t always make good decisions,” Schmiesing said. “We just react. And that only increases our perception that life is busy and hectic.”
Schmiesing also sees social media expanding young people’s knowledge of opportunities, feeding their struggle to commit.
“They have so many options and want to leave all those options open to the last possible minute, so that means they have all these possibilities floating around in their head,” he said. “Keeping track of them becomes overwhelming.”
What holds true on college campuses like Franciscan also holds true off campus, where older adults increasingly struggle with the same temptations.
“A lot of our busyness is simply that we’re wasting time on Facebook and the Internet,” said Sarah Christmyer, co-developer of the Great Adventure Bible study program. “We substitute spending time with real people with shallow relationships online.”
Social media also expands our to-do lists, she added, for example, feeding the notion that “The way I get ready for the holidays is showing the world what I’ve done.”
In other words, we no longer just need to bake cookies for Christmas; we need to post the recipes on our food blog. We no longer just need to decorate the house for our New Year’s Eve bash; we need to post magazine-ready photos of our Pinterest-inspired décor on Facebook.
Throughout the year, busyness and stress bring with them a host of problems. As Cook noted, everything from heart attacks to pornography use and divorce can be linked to stress.
That, however, only makes it more urgent for Catholics to slow down and make time for Christ in the New Year.
“A relationship with Christ doesn’t just happen,” Christmyer explained. “It takes time. We can’t just put in our time at Mass and call it good. If we don’t take the time to nurture that relationship, we’ll stop growing in wisdom.”
Accordingly, Christmyer believes that getting the New Year off to a good start begins with “putting first things first.”
“If we put God first and make him the priority,” she explained, “he helps us find the time to do the other things we need to do.”
For different people, that will mean different things. For some, it might mean getting up 15 minutes early to pray the Rosary; for others, walking away from their desk at noon to get to Mass. But whatever spiritual discipline we take on this New Year, firmly resolving to carry it forward is essential.
So too, said Cook, are breaks from technology.
“Limit the number of times you check email in a day,” he said. “Turn the phone off or leave it at home. Stop answering text messages at the dinner table. Technology is wonderful, but we have to learn to restrict its use or we’ll always feel overwhelmed.”
Cook also advises people to reconsider their priorities and focus more on what they want to do in the coming year.
“Other people’s expectations can’t govern us,” he explained. “Just because you served on a certain committee or volunteered for a certain organization last year, doesn’t mean you have to do the same this year.”
That, however, takes discipline. To develop it, Cook recommends making a schedule that includes actual appointments for important things that often fall by the wayside, such as prayer, exercise and relationships.
“The more you keep those appointments, the more they become a habit, and the easier doing them becomes,” he said.
For the chronically overscheduled, Cook also recommends not taking on new commitments without dropping old ones, plus leaving more time between scheduled activities — essentially planning on things taking more time than expected.
Lastly, he said, it’s important to leave time for things that aren’t important — watching television, working on crossword puzzles and just doing nothing — all of which can help lower stress levels and stimulate creativity.
“Being bored isn’t a bad thing,” he explained. “Boredom is where a lot of creativity comes from.”
In the end, perhaps the best advice comes from St. Paul in Ephesians 5, who urges Christians to “look carefully then how you walk ... making the most of the time.”
“It all comes back to intentionality and an eternal perspective,” Christmyer concluded. “We only have so much time. How are we going to spend it? What are we here for? How are we going to be Christ to those around us? That’s what matters.”
Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.