How did it get so late so soon?
It’s night before it’s afternoon
December is here before it’s June.
My goodness how time has flewn.
How did it get so late so soon?
— Dr. Seuss
Hyper-busyness once served as a mark of distinction – a badge of honor worn proudly, like the classic gold marks sported by Dr. Seuss’s “star-bellied Sneetches.” There was a certain prestige in being busier than “plain-bellied Sneetches” who roamed aimlessly about with empty calendars.
To remain in this exclusive club of top producers, though, took constant vigilance. Members had to uphold club rules:
• Take only working vacations (preferably of the long-weekend variety);
• Use frequent out-of-office replies to remind others of your limited availability;
• After posting automated replies, answer e-mails anyway;
• Excuse yourself from conversations and work meetings to take “important” calls;
• Use work demands to excuse tardiness, canceled social engagements and neglected e-mail responses;
• Respond to inquiries about how you’re doing by reciting what you’re doing; and
• When others invite you to a work or social engagement, don’t just indicate your availability but use the opportunity to list your numerous other commitments that week.
Now even the most productive achievers are finding, as the Sneetches did, that everyone has “stars upon thars.” Busyness is epidemic in America across all age levels and economic strata: Even retirees complain of not having enough hours in the day to accomplish all they need to do. What seemed at first like a status symbol begins to look more like a social pathology.
Why is everyone now so chronically maxed out? Beyond the competitive drive to out-perform others, there are many societal forces fueling our culture’s frenetic activity. Psychological drivers – like anxiety and insecurity – derive in part from the tightening financial squeeze on the nation’s dwindling middle class.
Many of the fastest-growing costs are not for discretionary purchases, but basics like food, housing, education and health care. In her new book, “Overwhelmed,” journalist Brigid Schulte cites examples:
College tuition and fees jumped 1,120 percent between 1978 and 2012; and
Health care premiums nearly doubled between 2002 and 2012, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture predicts that overall food prices will rise 2.5 to 3.5 percent this year. And in some settings around the country, median home prices now dwarf median income by ratios of up to 7-to-1. When costs outstrip income, people feel compelled to work longer, faster and harder to keep up.
Relentless 24-7 connectivity piles further pressure on those of working age, a bracket that stretches wider each year as more people reach their “golden years” without an adequate financial cushion for retirement. Workplace expectations are multiplying while staffing – particularly since the 2008 recession – is not, leaving many employees with job descriptions that could never be filled in a 40-hour week.
Americans already work longer hours than their European counterparts, and they worry about dwindling job benefits, reduced hours and outright unemployment. In a climate of rampant corporate reorganization, they routinely face employers asking – in the words of Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s of Massachusetts – “How much less can I give you and still keep you here?”
Beyond the daily demands of the workplace, there are the real and immediate needs of children, elders or both. Juggling multiple, competing demands in work and home settings can lead to what social psychologists call “role overload,” a fragmented state of chronic stress. As Schulte documents in “Overwhelmed,” even with a Family and Medical Leave Act on the books, few workplaces offer the flexibility that employees need to maintain a balanced life and contend with unforeseen challenges.
As individuals caught on this accelerating treadmill, we typically respond to the burgeoning demands by trying to perfect the art of multi-tasking. Yet study after study points up the inconvenient fact that we have singular brains that can only switch between activities, not manage many at once. And the faster we jump – from memo to e-mail to call to Web search to calendar back to memo (or was it e-mail?), the less productive we get. A University of London study found that multi-tasking actually lowers one’s IQ temporarily – as much as losing a full night of sleep, and even more so than marijuana. We’ve gone from busyness as a badge of honor to being stoned by our own freneticism.
Because fast-forward living dumbs us down, it makes it harder to tackle the complex challenges of long-term sustainability in sectors like energy, transportation and public health. To attain a healthier balance and more perspective, we need to sort out how much of our busyness comes from incontrovertible external forces and how much is self-inflicted.
It will take collective effort and ongoing leadership to create an economy and culture of work that fosters genuine productivity, and recognizes down time as essential to both focus and creativity.
In the meantime, though, we can begin by breaking club rules and countering the societal penchant for conspicuous busyness. We can choose in countless small ways not to overstuff our days and flaunt our productivity. Our calendars, after all, are a measure of our days, not of our worth.
You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself any direction you choose.
— Dr. Seuss