New Idealists Resist The 'Have It All' Age

A Broadway musical claims that life is a cabaret. Jeanne Childs prefers to think of it as a cafeteria, with people placing their life choices on a tray as they pass through the line.

In simpler times, Ms. Childs notes, continuing her metaphor, everyone could select from one or two types of entres, salads, and pies. "It wasn't hard to make decisions, and we usually ended up with just the right amount to consume."

But as choices have proliferated in every area of life, moderation gets harder. "The urge to 'have it all' permeates our culture," says Childs, of Lebanon, N.H. "Our eyes are bigger than our stomachs. We don't know how to manage choice, and we routinely heap our plates too full to digest."

All these diverse choices lead to what she calls fragmentation - "a self-destructive new form of gluttony, although no one knows they're overeating." She adds, "Because of the ongoing, mile-high, piled-up plates of things we make ourselves do, we don't see the wonders of life. No matter how much we do, we feel shortchanged and empty" - hungry for something more.

Childs knows the feeling well. Ten years ago, responsibilities at home and at work - she is a marketing strategist and graphics designer for small businesses - left her frazzled and dissatisfied. She longed for space and time. She also watched several clients sabotage their businesses and professions by overextending themselves. They were, she says, "caught in a trap of their own making, like hamsters on a wheel, running in circles."

Childs sees evidence of this fragmentation everywhere - in abrupt phone calls, rushed or missed appointments, a driven demeanor, and perpetually full appointment calendars. The sad result is often resentment and a longing to restore balance, peace, and a saner pace.

"Remember when we all went to those time management courses?" Childs asks with a laugh. "Nobody ever questioned what it was we were trying to manage and stuff into our time. The solution was always just to get a bigger Day-Timer."

She knew that wasn't the answer for her. Instead, she decided it was time to borrow a computer term and "defrag." Hard disks, she explains, "get fragmented with time. This slows them down and causes poor performance." A software utility restores order. "Isn't it ironic that we recognize it is bad for our computers to be fragmented, but ignore it when we are?"

To deal with the fragmentation, the gluttony, in her own life, Childs began building stronger "choice muscles" by exercising focus and discipline. She takes Fridays off. She makes her lists "do-able." She no longer says "yes" to every request. She throws out most unsolicited mail - unread. She does one thing at a time. She takes a proper lunch break and goes to bed at nine during the week. She also makes Sundays sacred, saying, "God was right about planning time for renewal."

These steps, she says with enthusiasm, have given her "a digestible 'plate' of missions" at home and at work.

Call it "defraging" or "voluntary simplicity" or "downshifting." Whatever the term, philosophies like hers rank as one of the most hopeful trends of the 1990s. In books, seminars, Web sites, and tapes, advocates like Childs extol the benefits of reordered priorities. In rejecting the have-it-all, do-it-all excesses that characterized much of the past decade, they are preaching a lay sermon that needs all the articulate voices it can find.

Childs emphasizes that finding a way to "defrag" involves individual solutions, not a rigid formula. But whatever the method, she insists that the results of freeing oneself from "frantic living" can be endlessly rewarding. Returning to her cafeteria image, she says, "Life tastes sweeter than it ever has."

Score 1 - again - for the virtues of less-is-more.

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