Slow Down and Shake Off “Hurry Sickness”

Originally posted: August 26, 2005

Westerners live in the age of instaneity. We have instant coffee, instant replay, instant polls, and Instant Messaging–all in the pursuit of instant gratification.

ted-rueter.jpgAnd there are products galore to help us save those precious milliseconds! In your car, you can read your e-mail on your high-speed Palm Pilot (while checking for faxes) as you wolf down some Pop Tarts that you heated up in the microwave. If you’re still hungry, you can grab some frozen waffles from the drive-through at McDonald’s (while barking orders to subordinates on your cell phone). At the office, you punch the elevator button dozens of times, in the vain hope that the elevator will somehow arrive more quickly.

James Gleick, in Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything, explores this brave new world of “ever-growing urgency.” His research on our 24/7 culture took him to air traffic control centers, medical waiting rooms, film production studios, and the atomic clocks of the Directorate of Time. Gleick argues that the technology-driven Western world has produced a “multi-tasking, channel-flipping, fast-forwarding species.” We are faced with the “worry-go-round” of daily obligations and the corporate rat race. We travel the express lane through life.

The acceleration of modern life has many consequences. One is “hurry sickness.” In order to speed up their bodies, Americans consume massive amounts of caffeine–which can lead to nervousness, restlessness, and insomnia.

Dr. Larry Dossey, in Space, Time, and Medicine, notes that our sense of urgency is determined not by an actual need to act quickly, but through learned cues. The watch has become the bell and the morning coffee has become the clock. Dossey observes that the subliminal message from the watch and clock is: please hurry, because time is running out and life is winding down. Dossey states: “The perceptions of passing time that we observe from our external clocks cause our internal clock to run faster. Hurry sickness is expressed as heart disease, high blood pressure, or depression of our immune function, leading to increased susceptibility to infection and cancer.”

Another effect of our speeded-up culture is workaholism. In the United States, the average work week is now 47 hours–up from 34 two decades ago. A recent Gallup Poll found that 44 percent of Americans consider themselves workaholics.

Gleick notes that “sociologists in several countries have found that increasingwealth and increasing education bring a sense of tension about time. We believe that we possess too little of it; that is a myth we live by now.”

The acceleration of just about everything has also affected our consideration of public issues. The average “sound bite” on news broadcasts has shrunk to about five seconds, and a television news segment approaching three minutes is considered “long form.”

Acceleration also affects our priorities. Nowadays, who has time for carefree lunches or “long walks on the beach”? A 1994 study by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago found that Americans’ favorite activity is sex. And how much time does the average American devote each day to the cause? Four minutes.

Dr. Ann McGee-Cooper suggests the following principles for overcoming hurry sickness:

-take off your watch for the weekend

-plan time to do nothing

-enjoy daydreaming, doodling, snoozing, and coasting

-plan silence into your life

-plan windows of time to get off the clock

A reminder of the importance of rejecting a hurry-up culture appears on the main drag of Thousand Oaks, California. Every block or so, there are signs reading, “Relax. Slow Down. You’re Home.”

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