Health & Wellness

The Busyness Epidemic: Why Are We So Overwhelmed?

Endless to-do list? Always stressed? You may have fallen victim to the latest time trap. We investigate the modern busyness epidemic

It makes me feel stressed just writing it down.

This is the story of my day, yesterday, a typical weekday: two loads of laundry done pre-8am. Thirteen hours of work at my computer. Toast at my desk for lunch (too busy to assemble the planned salad), 244 emails received and 53 sent. A dash to the post office to dispatch my brother’s embarrassingly late birthday present. A jog to pick up my two small children from different ends of town, before feeding them, bathing them, wrestling them into bed and shamefully praying they’ll choose short bedtime stories rather than long ones. A meeting with the carpenter who is currently remodelling my kitchen (the spiralling cost of which means I now need to take on more work to pay for it). A romantic late night chat with my husband about whether he’d renewed the car insurance (he hadn’t. I’ll un-delegate that one, then). At midnight, I’m painting my nails in bed, ahead of tomorrow’s work event, hoping I won’t smudge them in my sleep.

And just before I finally pass out: the thought that I still haven’t organised my birthday party. Or replied to that text from my oldest friend. Or opened the Kindle that my dad gave me for Christmas five months ago and asks me about every week. Or … Zzzzz.

(Credit: Getty)

Ask anyone how they are doing, and the answer is always the same: busy, busy, busy (that is, of course, if they’ve got time to answer their phone). My friend Suzanne, a 36-year-old news photographer, tells me she’s given up having a social life on weeknights. “I see going out for drinks purely in terms of how much time it’ll take out of my schedule. And its too much – a whole evening, and then you have to factor in being hungover the next morning.”

Another working mother friend Sasha, 35, fits in grooming – eyebrow plucking and nail filing – when she’s waiting at red lights on the drive to work. And before you turn the page because you think this story isn’t about you, stop. This isn’t just a working mother issue. It’s an every woman issue: I know I felt horribly busy before motherhood too. Indeed, Antonia, 33, who is single, without children, bemoans the fact that her weeks are so crammed with work that she spends her weekends carrying out all the chores – haircuts, supermarket shopping, physio appointments – that she couldn’t get to during the week. “I have to-do lists at work – and for the weekend,” she says.

It was at the bitter end of one of those filing-nails-at-a-red-light kind of days when I opened a package containing a new book, Overwhelmed: Work Love And Play When No One Has The Time – and wondered whether I’d sleep-written my own autobiography without realising it. Upon closer inspection I saw that it was by Brigid Schulte, a full-time The Washington Post journalist, mother of two and woman on the verge. Schulte works 50-hour weeks and describes her life as scattered, fragmented and exhausting. She writes, “Somewhere around the end of the 20th century, busyness became … a way of life … And life, sociologists say, became an exhausting everydayathon.”

“Somewhere around the end of the 20th century, busyness became a way of life, an exhausting everydayathon.”

Brigid Schulte, author

That we are all more stressed than ever is not exactly news. For years, the statistics have been rolling in with depressing regularity: in Australia, three in four people say stress affects their health, two third’s of working parents feel they don’t get everything done in a day that they would like to, while nearly half of them feel trapped every day. What is new is Schultes controversial suggestion that – whisper it – we might not be as busy as we think we are. That the “modern overwhelm”, as she calls it, is less about a lack of time and more about our inability to manage it well. That, and the fact that in our career-focused world we’ve come to equate busyness with success. And leisure? Well, these days that’s practically a dirty word.

The idea that we’re not as busy as we imagine emerged when Schulte was asked by her employer to find out why fewer and fewer women were reading The Washington Post. To her, the answer was obvious: “[Women] are time-starved … stretched too thin.” But a visit to eminent sociologist John Robinson of the University of Maryland in the US, a man who has studied how we use time for 50 years, quickly blew that theory out of the water. To her surprise, Robinson told her that working women actually have 30 hours of leisure time a week. Yes, really. More startling still is the claim that women today have five more hours of free time per week than they did in the 60s.

To prove his point, Robinson challenged Schulte to keep a “time diary”, chronicling the way she spent every minute of every day for an entire year – and then highlight all the leisure time he can see. Going running, waiting for two hours by the side of the road for a tow truck after her car has broken down, reading the newspaper she works for: they may not have felt like it at the time, but they all apparently count as leisure. Schulte’s reaction? Outrage.

And who could blame her? When I inform some of my especially frazzled friends that they, too, have 30 hours of leisure time a week all, without fail, are outraged. “WHAT?!” thunders Natasha, 38, who has a full-time marketing director’s job and two small children. “So does going to the toilet count as leisure then?”

Intrigued, I decide to keep my own time diary for a couple of days to see whether Robinson has a point – and I soon see there is the odd time when I’m not working, running errands or looking after children.

I note a 30-45 minute procrastination period each morning at the start of my working day when I check email, social media, eBay, my bank account, news sites … (I basically scour the entire internet before I actually begin writing, making my 8.45am alleged start time really closer to 9.30am.) I also manage to chat on the phone to a friend for 20 minutes during work time and attend a 90-minute yoga class one evening (I return to my computer afterwards, but nevertheless).

I realise I waste large amounts of time compulsively checking email, sometimes every few minutes, without ever asking myself why. So perhaps Robinson has a point. Maybe we’re not as busy as we think. But the important fact is this: whether or not we do have these huge swathes of free time, it certainly doesn’t feel like we do. Even if we actually aren’t busier than ever before, we truly believe we are, which makes us stressed and exhausted.

(Credit: Getty)

“Researchers have found that the way people feel about the stress in their lives is a far more powerful predictor of their general health than any other measure,” writes Schulte. In other words, high blood pressure, arthritis, obesity, anxiety or depression are all problems that strike both those who have very little free time and those who feel as though they do. “Perception is our reality,” writes Schulte.

One fascinating study Schulte unearths – which goes some way to revealing why stress levels might be on the rise – involves the missives Americans write in Christmas cards, from an amassed collection that dates back to the 60s. It serves as an anecdotal social history of the rise of busyness, as people summarise their year in an annual update for friends. The words ‘hectic’, ‘whirlwind’, ‘crazy’ crop up with increasing frequency as the years tick by. But, crucially, a sense of one-upmanship and showing off also begins to creep in: one mother boasts of ferrying her kids between so many sporting activities, she drives more than 150km a day.

Busyness as a badge of honour? You bet. Because when we’re telling our friends how hectic life is, we may be outwardly having a moan, but secretly, we’re rather pleased with ourselves. Look how important we are! In previous centuries, poor people were busy – the downtrodden worker bees – while the wealthy showed status and power by having copious leisure time. Today, the reverse is true – the more powerful someone is, the busier they are. You don’t catch, say, Anna Wintour boasting about long lunches or watching an entire series of Mad Men in one sitting. Wintour plays tennis, but famously gets up at 5am to do so. Read a “a day in the life of” interview with a powerful person and, without fail, they are out of bed before dawn. Post-6am starts are for losers. My friend Aimi, a 30-year-old teacher, has an ambivalence towards downtime that resonates for many of us: “[Leisure] is linked to being a bit lazy – it’s not valid, productive time.” And, after all, whats the alternative to being busy? Being bored? I know which one I’m more afraid of.”

There are, of course, other things that contribute to the “modern overwhelm”. Technology is an obvious one. “We have yet to learn how to control the unprecedented flood of information coming at us,” explains Schulte, who thinks it’s high time we all forgot about the modern mania for multitasking and relearnt to focus on one thing at a time. Why so? Apparently every time we switch tasks or get interrupted, it takes between 1020 times the length of that interruption time to get back to the task at hand. In other words, a 30-second interruption (say, to press “check mail”) means it’s a whole five minutes before we are concentrating again. No wonder we feel there is not enough hours in the day to do our jobs.

“We have yet to learn how to control the unprecedented flood of information coming at us”

Brigid Schulte, author

Add motherhood into that mix and, hello meltdown. In Overwhelmed, Schulte takes aim at today’s “cult of intensive motherhood” which has set “insanely high standards” for mothers. She also points out that women still shoulder the lions share of the child care and household duties. The result? Many of us move through our days with “an exhausting mental tape loop” of chores were desperately trying not to forget playing in the back of our minds. This “mental pollution” (or “time contamination” as scientists call it) only adds to our sense of stress.

So what to do? We’re too busy, and even if we’re not actually too busy, we feel like we are. And, perversely, we quite like it, even though it can make us stressed and ill. According to Schulte, the answer is to chuck out the to-do list, and “prioritise play”. “We’ve been conditioned to think that a woman’s work is never done, which makes us believe we have to do everything, before we can earn leisure time. We feel if we get to the end of our list, we can relax, but the list never ends. So do it now – you deserve it now.”

Women’s leisure time, unlike men’s, tends to be fragmented, she says – tiny slivers between tasks. I realise I read two pages of a novel several times a day (while I’m trying to get out of bed, while I’m waiting for the kettle to boil), whereas my husband will book an entire weekend morning to go cycling. “Stitch those slivers together into something more substantial,” advises Schulte. “Do something that’s really going to refresh your soul and bring a lightness to your day.”

Schulte isn’t the only one to worry about our collective stress levels. Business psychologist Tony Crabbe, author of Busy: How To Thrive In A World Of Too Much, is aghast that busyness has become “an aspirational brand”. Like Schulte, he advocates play. But, he says, it has to be intentional leisure – not just slobbing on the sofa. “We need to do something purposeful as part of our leisure time, to connect us to what’s important to us and give us a reason not to work. Lots of people get a huge buzz from work – its goal-focused, so you’re more likely to get highs from it than just vegging out at home,” he says.

Inspired, I sign up for a 10km fun run in a month’s time. I already run three times a week, finding it hugely beneficial to my health and sanity, but this provides a fresh jolt of motivation at a time when I’ve been cutting short my runs to get back to my desk. Suddenly, my free time feels more meaningful. Crabbe also makes me realise that I’m letting the technology that’s supposed to make my life easier add to my workload. I reconfigure my phone to regain some control – choosing to manually check my email rather than respond like Pavlov’s dog to the continual ping of new messages. I delete the Twitter and Facebook apps so I can only log in from my computer, and stop my horrible habit of checking my email just before I go to bed.

Overall, I’m also trying to shift my mindset, reframe my thinking. While I accept that there’s always going to be a lot to do, some things in life are simply not work: arranging a night out and phoning my dad are life’s little pleasures, not just more chores to sigh about. And I’m attempting to live more in the moment, rather than fixating on that time in the future when I finally finish my to-do list and can relax … a time that, of course, will never come. So, as I set off to pick up my children shortly, I’m not going to read a work report on my phone as I walk. I’m going to notice the warmth of the evening sun on my arms and how the leaves on the trees are starting to change colour. And I’ll remind myself of the words of that great philosopher Ferris Bueller: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

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