By Molly Rose Teuke
If your stock response to “How are you?” is “Crazy busy” or “Life is nuts,” it might bear asking, what’s up with that?
It’s no secret people feel like they’re getting busier. Brené Brown, author of six New York Times bestsellers on courage, vulnerability, shame and empathy, says we are so busy as a nation that, “When they start having 12-step meetings for busy-aholics, they’ll need to rent out football stadiums.” She worries that we use “busy” as a defense against emotions we might rather not acknowledge or face openly. In her 2012 book, “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead,” Brown writes, “We are a culture of people who’ve bought into the idea that, if we stay busy enough, the truth of our lives won’t catch up to us.”
A 2018 Pew Research survey revealed that six in 10 adults in the U.S. feel too busy to enjoy life. That number has held: In 2023, 60% of some 2,000 Americans believed there are not enough hours in the day to complete their to-do list. That means more than half of Americans never feel like they have enough time in the day.
Adam Waytz, professor and psychologist at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, wrote an article called “Beware a Culture of Busyness” earlier this year for Harvard Business Review. In it, he included an analysis of holiday letters — that great American touchpoint of cultural aspirations and realities — that shows references to “crazy schedules” has grown dramatically since the 1960s.
Yet, are we really crazy busy? Or could it be that the need to feel busy is a self-fulfilling prophecy? Work undertaken at the University College London’s Centre for Time Use Research (CTUR) boldly asserts that we are less, not more, busy over the past half-century. How can that be?
Consider this: Modern inventions like the dishwasher, the washer and dryer, the microwave and any number of other labor-saving devices, have radically diminished the time needed for household chores. Time spent on housework (for a household of two) plummeted from 58 hours in 1900 to less than 15 1⁄2 hours in 2015.
And the amount of time spent on work and work- related activity? According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2017 American Time Use Survey, it ranks lower than you might think, in third place after sleep and personal care (No. 1), and leisure and sports (No. 2).
In fact, “work hours per week declined for a century (1870-1970) and have flatlined around 40 hours per week for the last five decades (1970-present),” writes Kyle Kowalski in “Why Do We Feel So Busy When Research Says We’re Not Busy?” from sloww.co.
Turns out we’re just not that great at recognizing and accepting how we spend our time. “What’s more, the data also shows that the people who say they’re the busiest generally aren’t,” says Jonathan Gershuny, professor-emeritus of economic sociology at the University of Oxford and director of the Centre for Time Use Research at University College London.
It isn’t just the reality of how we spend our time that has shifted either. Culturally, our perspective on “busy” has also shifted noticeably. It used to be that leisure was a common gauge of status; today, status is gauged by how little free time we claim to have. “We wear busyness as a badge of honor. ‘I’m busy, therefore I’m important and valuable,’” notes Lissa Rankin, M.D., founder of the California-based Whole Health Medicine Institute.
We used to admire someone who could spend every Wednesday on the golf course. Now, “we view a jam-packed schedule as a sign of wealth and status,” observes Sarah Rasmi, managing director of Thrive Wellbeing Centre in Dubai, noting that one study found that people who spent more time at work than at leisure were perceived to be more in demand, ambitious and determined. That’s a pretty tough cultural imperative to buck.
THE BUSY BRAIN
If we’re not as busy as we like to think we are, what’s going on? “When you say you’re busy, what that really means is that your brain is busy,” says Kara Loewentheil, host of the podcast UnF*ck Your Brain. “Your brain is jumping all around with distractions, anxieties, fears, worries and to-do lists.”
Symptoms of a too-busy brain include increased irritability, trouble paying attention, difficulty switching off, poor decision-making, restless (or lost) sleep and lack of perspective. There’s even an affliction called Busy Brain Syndrome (BBS), a feeling of being stretched too thin thanks to sensory overload.
Yet, “BBS is a consequence of poor choices, not a life sentence,” notes Dr. Jenny Brockis, a lifestyle medicine physician. More healthful choices might mean signing out of social media, closing your computer, shutting off your phone, etc.
Another big choice you can make is to give up the assumption that unrealistic levels of hard work and effort are the best, and perhaps, the only, route to success. You still have just 24 hours in the day and some of those hours need to be spent on you, not on yet another project or report or task. You can also notice when you’re letting your busyness erode the boundaries and personal routines a healthier you would like to adopt or maintain in your life.
Decisions that lead to greater relaxation and a healthier body are often good for your heart and soul. Get outside more. Spend time in nature. Get moving, which reduces stress hormones and releases feel-good hormones (dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins). Schedule time for friends, fun and laughter. Make time to help someone, perhaps even volunteer, which helps you feel less busy. Reflect on, and be grateful for, what you have. Be kind to yourself.
These decisions and more — anything that gives you the equivalent of a breather — will reintroduce you to the concept of time affluence, the sense that time is stretching out to infinity. It’s the opposite of the time poverty of chronic busyness and it will carry you into a far healthier lifestyle.
The World Health Organization (WHO) reported recently that working the long hours of a “busy” lifestyle can promote life- threatening disease. “Working 55 hours or more per week is a serious health hazard,” according to Dr. Maria Neira, director of the WHO’s Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health. “It’s time that we all, governments, employers and employees, wake up to the fact that long working hours can lead to premature death.”
Let’s carve out sufficient time from our busy lives to take note and pay heed. An aphorism often attributed to Socrates is worth taking to heart: “Beware the barrenness of a busy life.”
Molly Rose Teuke has an endur- ing curiosity about what makes our brains tick. She teaches a two-part program for Nicolet College called Your Brain: The Owner’s Manual and also hosts a weekly classical music program on WXPR-FM. Prior, she delivered brain-based leadership training for the NeuroLeadership Institute, a global leader in the performance arena. You can reach her at [email protected].