harmless habits or time traps?

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Four surprising ways to reclaim your free time and find greater satisfaction in your life.

IF YOU COULD design a perfect evening, would it involve three hours of TV, an hour perusing catalogs, and countless minutes checking your e-mail? Probably not. While these activities are fine in moderation, devoting too much effort to them burns through your leisure time without enriching your life. "If you reduce the energy and resources you spend on these habits, you're free to do things that have more meaning and lead to greater satisfaction," says author and educator Judith Wright, whose book There Must Be More Than This: Finding More Life, Love, and Meaning by Overcoming Your Soft Addictions comes out this month.

The problem is not what you're doing per se, but why you're doing it and how often. "It's perfectly OK to e-mail back and forth with your sister for an hour after an emotional day, or to flip through the Pottery Barn catalog to decompress," says psychologist Martin E.P. Seligman, Ph.D., author of Authentic Happiness. "These activities become problematic when they are the only way you know how to connect with people, relax, or otherwise fill your spiritual needs."

Below, four women speak out about what Wright says rank among women's top self-defeating behaviors, and leading experts weigh in on how to kick the habits.

Net addict
"I check e-mail when I wake up, after breakfast, every 10 minutes at work, after dinner, and again before I go to bed, even if I'm not expecting any messages."

--Miriam Reynolds, 32, Montclair, N.J.

People tend to overuse the Internet, including checking e-mail, reading news, or joining chat rooms, to manage stress, procrastinate, and interact with other people, according to a recent study at York University in Toronto. While it's certainly fine to e-mail friends, typed missives should not replace human contact. "When the Web becomes your only source of social activity, that's a problem," says study co-author Richard Davis. "Women in particular are guilty of depending on the Web for social comfort." Try taking Internet "holidays" once every few hours, he suggests. Get out of your chair and visit co-workers in person, or talk on the phone at home. Break away from the keyboard more and more until you feel comfortable logging off whenever you want.

Material girl
"You can't get Manolo Blahniks where I live, so anyplace I vacation has to have good shopping. When I go, I always pack my huge red duffel bag, and it's full by the time I get home."

--Mary Hilowitz, 42, Anchorage, Alaska

People who doubt themselves tend to define personal success by what they own, according to a recent study by Robert Arkin, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Ohio State University. "The quest is not for the things themselves, but for the status they convey," he says. For example, you might want a handbag because it's only available in Milan. "The bag then indicates that you have had an experience others have not, which may offset your feelings of self-doubt," Arkin says. The cure? Don't spend so much time evaluating yourself. Use this stop-and-go technique: If you're at a restaurant ogling the 3-carat diamond ring on a woman's finger and you think, "I would love that; too bad I'm stuck with this measly pebble," say "stop" to interrupt the self-doubting cycle. Then say "go" to shift your focus, in this case to your dinner conversation or the dessert menu.

Sex kitten
"I fantasize about sex a lot, maybe several times an hour. I also spend a lot of time at the gym--I get a sexual charge from it."

--Tania Evans, 34, Colorado Springs, Colo.

Flirting with friends, co-workers, or strangers and daydreaming about romantic or sexual encounters are perfectly fine if they enrich existing relationships, says sex therapist Sharon G. Nathan, Ph.D. But fantasy can escalate into mindless dating or loveless sex, often betraying a deeper need. "Many women are not really looking for men but for validation," she points out. "They want to feel desirable, to have something a man wants and be able to give or withhold it." Nathan suggests exploring the reasons you crave attention. If you feel you're not getting enough in your relationship, you may need to work on shoring up your self-esteem. "Give some thought to what messages or experiences you might have had that could be making you feel bad about yourself," Nathan says.

Too-busy bee
"I wake up at 6 a.m.to run, then begin my daily activities: I'm taking classes toward a master's degree, appearing on TV as a political commentator, and working with a women's political action committee I co-founded. I spend time with my husband at night, and when I can, I make jewelry, knit, or do crossword puzzles."

--Daedre Levine, 32, New York City

Why do women book their schedules solid? "They may be compulsive and want to avoid anxiety or uncertainty, they may have trouble saying 'no' to requests, or they may feel guilty just doing nothing," says psychologist G. Alan Marlatt, Ph.D., professor of psychology and director of the Addictive Behaviors Research Center at the University of Washington in Seattle. Regardless of why you overplan, the solution is the same: Balance the duties you must do with the pastimes you find personally fulfilling. "Schedule personal time twice a week, but don't fill it up in advance," Marlatt says. Instead, when the time comes, allow yourself to choose from a menu of favorite options, like soaking in the tub or riding a bike. To free up more time, gradually drop low-priority activities until your want-to-dos are better aligned with your should-dos.

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PHOTOS (COLOR): CAUGHT IN THE WEB? Log off the Internet and connect in person.

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By Aviva Patz

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