Culture Coach: Step Away from the BlackBerry

In technological world, everyone seems plugged in to some form of communication. But constant obligations on the professional and personal front can lead a person to serious burnout. Valorie Burton, lifestyle coach and author, talks about how to you can reclaim personal time, and still be productive.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, he's known as a sharp dresser and an even sharper mind. Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown talks about his remarkable career in his new book, "Basic Brown." But first, every now and again we feature a culture coach on TELL ME MORE. These are people we turn to to help us through some of life's sticky issues. Today we are going to talk about time. A lot of us are looking at our to-do list with tired eyes. How can we check off all the appointments and errands and still have time for family, fun, relationships? Today's culture coach has an idea. I'm joined by Valorie Burton - author of "How Did I Get So Busy?" - to tell us about reclaiming our time in a few easy, logical steps. Welcome, Valorie.

Ms. VALORIE BURTON (Author): Good to be here.

MARTIN: So Valorie, first of all, as I understand it, you are a life coach.

MS. BURTON: Yes.

MARTIN: And you've joined us on the program before. But just to remind people, what is a life coach?

MS. BURTON: I work primarily with professionals and entrepreneurs to help them determine where they are right now and what the vision is, and how do they move through the obstacles they need to move through to excel in their work as well as their personal lives.

MARTIN: So where did the idea for this book come from? Is this something that your clients have been complaining about, not having enough time?

MS. BURTON: Well, it came from two places. One, it came from my own life, because I think I have perpetually been busy from the time I was about 4 years old. But I would also say that with my clients - I began surveying people, and I surveyed over 300 people before I wrote the book. And I was amazed at some of the responses. Sixty percent said they hadn't had a seven-day vacation in over a year. Fifty-five percent said they hadn't had anyone over to their home in over two months because they hadn't had time to do it. So people are just feeling really overwhelmed, and there are some pretty concrete ways that it's showing up. And so I realized I wasn't alone, and that it was an issue that I think a lot of people can benefit from talking about.

MARTIN: Is it your view that most of the so-called time crunch that many people feel that they are experiencing is self-imposed or externally imposed, because I can make an argument that it isn't all a matter of personal choice. I think that, you know, with technology there seems to be a sense that if you have a Blackberry, you ought to be available 24 hours a day - or a cell phone or something. I mean, I think we've all had the experience of, you know, checking the Blackberry on a weekend and finding some critical email on there that, you know, you really, you were at a disadvantage if you didn't answer it. And also the fact that with, you know, the economy being in the turmoil that it's in, a lot of people feel that they've got to show.

MS. BURTON: Yeah.

MARTIN: That they are about their business or that their careers are going to be in jeopardy.

MS. BURTON: Different people have different what I call natural rhythms. So some people always impose a lot of pressure on themselves. And they've done that for many, many years. But for a lot of other people, there are the outside components. When I think about technology in particular, as technology advances more and more, the expectations for what we can do in a day have increased. Employer expectations have increased about when we're available. Email is a big one, a big complaint, of people saying, gosh, I feel like, you know, I'm constantly answering email. I can't get to the project that I have actually to do. I have to get out of the office if I actually want to get work done.

I think the text messaging is another big one. There was an article in the Wall Street Journal a while back called Blackberry Orphans that was talking about how much children are affected when their parents are constantly on their Blackberries. So there's definitely the outside pressure of technology. But then there's also the self-imposed pressure. And sometimes we have to be willing to let some things go and to set some boundaries around the technology so that we can take control of our schedules.

MARTIN: You've got some common-sense approaches to addressing this issue. You call it the 10 commandments of self-care.

MS. BURTON: Yes.

MARTIN: So let's try to get to as many of those as we can. What are they?

MS. BURTON: Well, the first one, which is really simple but it's use all your vacation time every year. And I think that for so many people, they either save it up or they don't actually think about when am I going to take vacation, or they feel like it has to be some big, exotic trip. So they never actually take vacation just to sit at home, and sometimes that's a nice thing, to take a vacation, to do absolutely nothing. So I think that's very important. I think it's important for us to leave our work at work. So commit your time off solely to non work-related activities.

And for some people, that really takes a lot of practice. But I think there are benefits not only for us health-wise and being able to just have a break, but it's also important for our relationships. I think for a lot of people, they have complaints from their families, from their friends, that they just don't have enough time for them, and leaving work at work is a big piece of that.

MARTIN: Okay, but I have to argue with you. We're in the news business here. I mean, we don't get to choose whether we think about news events on the weekend. I mean, come on, and frankly, you know, I have little kids. If my pediatrician was of the mind that, you know, she was not taking calls on the weekend, she would not be my pediatrician for long.

MS. BURTON: Absolutely.

MARTIN: So…

MS. BURTON: I think that there are — there are a couple of ways to look at this. One, there are professions where you sign up for them and you know that a part of the job is that you're going to be available when you're needed. That's not necessarily that it's all the time. But I think it's also important that when we can control whether or not we're going to do work, that we be willing to set those boundaries.

For example, if the priority is, I really have to fully be available to my family in the evenings, I can't do anything else, then it's really important to look at what kind of company you're going to work for, what kind of positions you're aspiring to. Some people are aspiring to promotions, and they really don't have the time or their priorities aren't set up in such a way that they actually can do the thing that they are wanting to do.

MARTIN: It also reminds me of a - of an old joke of - I worked in a previous place where there was sort of a, you know, there's always like an office joker who would routinely put in overtime slips, and the reason — when it was asked, what's the reason for overtime, they would say worked slow on purpose. But it does remind me, sometimes people are - during the work day, they are not really as productive as they could be.

MS. BURTON: That's right.

MARTIN: They're actually, they're on the phone. They're checking their personal email. They're, you know, reading the sports scores; they're filling out their, you know, sheet for the Oscar picks or Super Bowl picks.

MS. BURTON: Right.

MARTIN: And they're not really working. So I think your attitude is, work when you are at work, so when you're home you can really be home. Couple of your other ideas. Take your rest seriously. Have fun at least once a week. Eat regularly, preferably sitting down. Exercise regularly, I think preferably standing up, okay. We might argue about that one. But why is it important in your view to have fun at least once a week? It sounds to me like you really are saying schedule that, you know, be intentional about that. Why do you think that's important?

MS. BURTON: I think we have to be intentional for a few reasons and one of the biggest is that research is very clear that positive emotion expands our capacity to handle adversity, to deal with stress and to simply be happier. So it's just as important as all the other things we put on our to-do list, but a lot of times when we think about positive emotion and having fun, we think of that as optional. And what I'm saying is, if you're going to have a less stressful, more fulfilling life, that can't be optional. That's got to be something that's a part of your ongoing life and your lifestyle.

MARTIN: A couple of other points you make. You say connect heart to heart with the people who matter and be led by the spirit. What does that mean?

MS. BURTON: Well, connecting heart to heart - I think for so many people, they find themselves multitasking while they're talking to people. They don't necessarily have time to just sit and have a conversation. And when we look at the studies over time, I mean, Americans are far more disconnected than we used to be. We don't have as many close friends as we used to have.

And so it's about putting a true priority and a premium on our relationships. You know, even simple things like sitting around the dinner table together and having conversation. It used to be something we didn't have to think about and be intentional about because it was just part of our lifestyle. But with our busy schedules, many of those important things have been crowded out. And when I talk about being led by the spirit, I think we have our answers. I think we have them spiritually, and it's very important for us to slow down enough so that we can take those deep breaths, so that we can connect with ourselves and so that we can connect spiritually. And when we are too busy very often, we don't take the time to do that.

MARTIN: I wonder if sometimes the culture or people feel that the culture punishes people who live that way, kind of look down upon them as being not with it. You know, there are people who have kind of jobs in our culture that requires them to care. You know, caring jobs - people who are in ministry.

MS. BURTON: Yeah.

MARTIN: That whole question of sort of offering the ministry of presence to somebody who just sits with people when they are ill or grieving or something. And on one hand, we appreciate that. On the other hand, it's not like we give these people that much respect. And I just wonder if you think that's part of the issue, that people don't, that there's something that doesn't value that kind of connection.

MS. BURTON: I would say that our culture doesn't value doing things at a slower pace. Our culture is about getting things quickly, getting them done now, having more and more. And so we are really a culture of being overloaded and being overdriven. And so I think that's absolutely right. And I think for a lot of people, busyness is based in fear. And one of those fears is the fear that I'm not going to be able to keep up or that my children aren't going to be able to keep up. For a lot of people, their children are overscheduled as well. The fear of saying no and what other people are going to think. So I think a lot of those fears end up controlling our schedule. When we are wanting to say no, when we are wanting to slow down, we are concerned about how that's going to appear to other people, what the consequences might be in the minds of other people.

MARTIN: Finally, you lay out in your book, a 28-day plan to - for your time, reclaim your schedule and reconnect with what matters most. Why 28 days? Why not 32?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Why not 32?

Ms. BURTON: Well…

MARTIN: Why are you rushing me?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BURTON: Well, one of the things that we know is that typically, it takes about 21 days for us to change a habit. Now, I'm talking about being busy. I thought I'd put a little extra grace time in there. But I wanted it to be a plan. I wanted it to be something that's very simple.

So many of the things that I talk about in the book, at the end of each day there's a challenge. There's a journaling assignment because self-reflection really is a part of this process, and there's a one-minute meditation.

And I want to say very importantly that it is a process. Some people aren't going to want to go through it in 28 days, and some people are going to have some days they've already got mastered. And other days or chapters in the book where they're saying gosh, I really need to work on this, and it's going to take me a little bit longer.

So it's really more of a guideline, but I wanted to have a specific chunk of time as a challenge, that you really can make changes over time.

MARTIN: I would try that, but you know what? I don't have time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Valorie Burton is a life coach and author of "How Did I Get So Busy? The 28-day Plan to Free Your Time, Reclaim your Schedule and Reconnect with What Matters Most." She joined me here in our studios in Washington. You can find out more about Valorie Burton, and her 10-step plan for achieving more time at our Web site: npr.org/tellmemore. Valorie, thanks so much.

Ms. BURTON: Thanks for having me, Michel.

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