How to Beat the Twisted Psychology of Busyness
A recently released book by Washington Post reporter Brigid Schulte is getting a lot of media attention. When you read the title--Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time--you'll see why.
From parents to students to teachers to CEOs, is there a demographic category or job function that doesn't feel as if it has too much work to do--and not enough time to do it?
You Have More Free Time Than You Realize
But the truth, at least according to one of Schulte's sources, is that most of us have more free time than ever. That source is John P. Robinson, a sociologist at the University of Maryland. According to his research, marvelously summarized on Eric Barker's Barking Up the Wrong Tree blog:
He insists that although most Americans feel they're working harder than ever, they aren't. The time diaries he studies show that average hours on the job, not only in the United States but also around the globe, have actually been holding steady or going down in the last forty years. Everybody, he says, has more time for leisure.
All of which begs the question: If we have more free time, why then do we feel as if we don't?
The answer, in a word, is fragmentation. It can feel as if you never stop working when you're receiving emails on a smartphone in the middle of what used to be strictly leisurely activities (dining, watching TV, exercising, reading). Work literally feels like it never ends, because technology (and our unwillingness to part from it) puts work at our fingertips, 24/7.
How to Feel Less Busy
If Robinson's studies are correct, it's good news. It means you actually have the free time you covet. You just have to do a better job of recognizing it and acting on it. Here are two tips that can help:
1. Stop telling yourself that you're busy. This pearl of wisdom comes from Robinson himself. As Hanna Rosin writes in Slate:
Robinson doesn't ask us to meditate, or take more vacations, or breathe, or walk in nature, or do anything that will invariably feel like just another item on the to-do list. The answer to feeling oppressively busy, he says, is to stop telling yourself that you're oppressively busy, because the truth is that we are all much less busy than we think we are. And our consistent insistence that we are busy has created a host of personal and social ills which Schulte reports on in great detail in her book--unnecessary stress, exhaustion, bad decision-making....
It's tempting to think of yourself as busy because so much in our culture places a premium status on busyness. In adulthood, it's cool to be busy. A step you'll need to take is to stop buying into the notion that busyness equates to importance.
2. Reduce the fragmentation in your life by scheduling uninterrupted leisure time. Consider a short list of key leaders and influential thinkers with this habit:
- LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner schedules his own solitary time to expressly escape the daily grind, observes Drake Baer in Fast Company.
- Kierkegaard, Dickens, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky--four men so famous you only need their last names--were obsessive about taking long walks every day, writes Sarah Green in the Harvard Business Review.
- Frits van Paasschen, CEO of Starwood Hotels & Resorts (Sheraton, Westin, St. Regis, W), always exercises six days a week, reports Scott Mayerowitz in the Huffington Post.
The benefit of this leisure time--during which you should not allow workplace communications to reach you--is that it will allow you to enter what's known as a flow state. Not only will the flow state help you relax, it will also give you a period to look forward to every day as one that's free from task or obligation.
Think of it as lunch recess or study hall for your life. Schulte's book cites the work of Roger Mannell, a psychologist at the University of Waterloo. Barker notes: "His research has found that when people have a sense of choice and control over what they do with their free time, they are more likely to get into flow, that engrossing and timeless state that some call peak human experience."
During Beethoven's post-lunch strolls, Green writes, he carried "a pencil and paper with him in case inspiration struck."
You could do the same.