Last week I found myself caught up in an airplane boarding queue as my fellow passengers hustled and bustled to get settled in seats. The plane was packed full of corporate commuters traveling between Sydney and Melbourne, Australia’s two busiest cities. There was a sense of chaos in the air.
As harried passengers pushed and shoved their bags into tight overhead lockers, the line lagged and a flight attendant made polite small talk with me. “Hello, busy day?” he asked, expecting me to reply with the common response, “Yes, crazy.” But I wasn’t feeling stressed or rushed. “No, not really,” I said smiling. There was a brief pause. I’d taken the flight attendant by surprise with an uncommon answer and he tried to work out what to say next. “Ah, traveling for pleasure then?” realization on his face. “No, I’m working,” I replied. “On your way home then?” he asked still trying to work me out. I laughed. “No. I’m heading away.”
The line moved on before we got to explore the conversation further. But the exchange was timely. This week, I’ve been reading about how busyness, chaos and overwhelm have come to be the norm of our everyday lives and pondering how all this is affecting our health.
I’ve been noticing that busyness or what I call crazybusyness is not only expected but it’s almost flaunted in our culture. I’ve noticed that some of us use our ‘overwhelm’ as a kind of status statement; a sign of success; a measure of our capability and a signal that we’re going somewhere and achieving something.
The words hectic, whirlwind and insane seem embedded into most of my conversations about time, as parents tell me about their children’s before and after school schedules, friends tally the number of days and weeks they have worked without time off or the number of hours they haven’t slept, and colleagues tell me about stress resulting from slow Wi-Fi connections while they were on holidays.
The more I’ve been thinking about this, the more I can’t understand it. How has this chronic, pervasive lack of time happened? We have washing machines, microwaves, the Internet, motorized cars, supermarkets, email and smart phones. We’re supposed to have more time not less. But reality is at odds with the facts.
We’re more stressed then ever. The American Psychological Association has reported that 42% of adults say that their stress level has increased in the past five years. 43% say that stress has caused them to lie awake at night in the past month. According to this alarming study done by Dr. Emily Ansell from Yale School of Medicine, stress shrinks key regions of our brain involved with emotion regulation and impulse control. I’m sure economists would say this is the fault of a higher cost of living, rising healthcare, soaring housing prices and surging household debt leading to a vicious cycle of working and spending, working and spending. And that is indeed what the American Psychological Association found with 71% of people worrying about money, 69% worrying about work and 59% worrying about the economy.
But before you put all this down to the external forces that come with living in the modern world and get back to being busy, I’d like you to consider some fascinating research being done by Professor Christopher Hsse, a psychologist and professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago and his series of studies called ‘Idleness Aversion and the Need for Justifiable Busyness.’
In one study, the research team gave 98 students a survey to fill out and told them they needed to drop it off before filling out a second survey. The students were given a choice between a busy option, of walking for 15 minutes to drop it off, or an idle option of delivering it just outside the room and then hanging around for 15 minutes. When the students were told there would be a piece of chocolate waiting for them regardless of where they dropped off their survey, most chose the lazy option and dropped their survey outside the room. But when they were given a choice of chocolate, most of the participants chose to walk for 15 minutes. The interesting thing about this was that the students chose to walk regardless of what the choice actually was. The researchers changed the rewards offered at the end of the 15-minute walk, and the stats stayed pretty much the same. People needed an excuse to be busy, even if it was a flimsy one.
Reading this made me wonder whether we are all running around unconsciously finding excuses to keep ourselves busy. How important are the bigger houses, better cars, tennis lessons and new clothes?
I dove deeper into the work of Hsse and his team and came across another compelling paper simply titled Overearning. In a series of carefully designed laboratory studies, they showed that volunteers chose to work more than they needed to, piling up more chocolate rewards than they would ever eat. Even more fascinating is that when people are earning a higher wage, they are more likely to earn more than they can spend. Hsse calls this mindless accumulation - a tendency to work and earn until getting tired rather than until having enough, even at the cost of happiness.
I realize that the studies I’ve written about here took place in carefully contrived laboratory settings and that there are many factors affecting how hard we work and why we’re time poor. I realize that some of us love what we do and there is much more to it than simply earning a salary. But I think this research forces us to consider some interesting questions.
Do we spend too much time doing work we loathe; striving for things we don’t have time to enjoy? What do we really want and what do we need to do to get it? What is the true cost of mindless accumulation and busyness?
For me, the price was paid with my health. I have no doubt that being crazybusy and stressed contributed to the autoimmune disease I got when I was 24-years-old. These days my life is very different and my health reflects the shift. I am really well, despite my prognosis. Don’t get me wrong, I feel time poor all the time, every day, multiple times a day in fact. But I have a weapon against it. A simple technique that serves me well and has a little science to back it up.
Hsse and his Chicago University team have found that when people were asked to think about their earnings and the consequences of their earnings, their desire to get more stuff and earn more than they needed was disrupted.
In other words, the secret is reflection.
When my husband and I share quiet moments after our respective busy days, we often ponder what we’re doing this all for. How much is enough? And what will we do when we get there? For us, it’s not that we strive for more things. It’s not even that we want more time to be idle. We hope to work a little less and play a little more. And when we do have to work, we want that work to have meaning.
When I ask friends and family to reflect about why they do what they do, I get wide and varied responses. One friend aims for ‘jet money,’ another wants a home with a back yard, another wants her kids to have every opportunity their heart desires. My parents, who both run their own businesses during the working week, have chosen to invest their retirement savings into a small business that requires them to work on the weekends. They do this, they tell me, because they love it. I hope this post inspires you to do a little reflection of your own. I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments below.
This link and this link are good summaries of Hsee’s series about mindless earning. His papers on busyness and overearning can be found here and here. For a great book looking at the cause and solution to our chronic lack of time, you might like to read Overwhelmed: How to work, love and play when no one has the time by journalist Brigid Schulte.
More food for thought:
This is an extract from the interview I did with Professor George Jelinek. His story is featured as a case study in my film The Connection after his remarkable recovery from Multiple Sclerosis. His program, Overcoming Multiple Sclerosis has also seen others do the same. In this section of his interview he talks about our society’s reverence of being busy. You can get the full-extended interview at my web store here.