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The Cold, Hard Truth: You're Overwhelmed Because You Want to Be

A new book rounds up simple but profound wisdom on how to stop feeling frantically overscheduled.
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Why are professional Americans so incredibly busy -- and so overwhelmed by this busyness?

That’s the complex question Washington Post reporter (and mother to two) Brigid Schulte tackles in her new book Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time. A recent flurry of reviews focus on differing aspects of the book’s answer to this question. The UK Guardian, for instance, highlights a reality that’s completely shocking to Europeans: over here workers are guaranteed neither paid vacation time nor paid maternity leave (this latter fact, a distinction our country shares with only Swaziland, Lesotho and Papua New Guinea.)

Other takes on the book delve deeper into the phenomenon of "presenteeism" at work, where employees are expected to be at their desks not because there’s so much work to be done, but simply to show their dedication to the company. "Our workplace cultures reward face time, people who get in early and stay late, people who eat at their desk. Macho long hours is what we value," explains Schulte.

These cultural factors may be contributing hugely to our sense of being utterly overwhelmed, but they’re also not the kind of thing that an individual can change on a dime. Is there any advice in Schulte’s book you can put into place today? The answer is yes -- but it might be hard to stomach the suggestion.

Are You to Blame for Your Own Busyness?

Another huge contributing factor to our sense of overwhelm, according to sociologist John Robinson, who is famed for pioneering the use of time diaries in his research, is self-perception. When Schulte speaks to him for the book, he reveals most of us are a lot less busy than we claim we are. His meticulous documentation of how we spend our days reveals that in general we have 30-40 hours of free time each week.  

"It’s very popular, the feeling that there are too many things going on, that people can’t get in control of their lives and the like,” Robinson says. "But when we look at peoples’ diaries there just doesn’t seem to be the evidence to back it up."

So if we have a full-time job’s worth of leisure per week, what’s driving our constant claims of out-of-control busyness? Bragging, asserts researcher Ann Burnett, who Schulte also interviews. Examining how we talk about our lives by looking at things like holiday letters, Burnett concludes that busyness has actually become a sign of status. We bitch about how busy we are, in other words, to assert our importance.

The Cure

That can be tough to hear. No one likes to think of themselves as status-obsessed or self-deluded, but the busy trap is easy for even the best intentioned to fall into.

But if you can mull the matter for a few minutes without defensiveness and admit you’ve fallen prey to the cult of busyness, your honesty offers one huge advantage. If you can concede that Burnett might just be on to something, you can also do something simple and powerful to start eliminating that sense of overwhelm from your life today.

What is that? Take Robinson’s advice, summed up by Hanna Rosin in her review of the book for 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, and, on a bigger level, a conviction that the ideal worker is one who is available at all times because he or she is grateful to be “busy,” and that we should all aspire to the insane schedules of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur.

Got ahead, try quitting complaining about your busyness cold turkey and let us know how it goes in the comments.

 

Last updated: Mar 28, 2014

JESSICA STILLMAN

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.




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