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Dealing With Our Epidemic of Busyness

May 01, 2014

Dealing With Our Epidemic of Busyness

Busy, busy, busy. You’re so busy. Terribly, terribly busy. In fact, are you sure you even have time to read this?

As it turns out, much of that busyness may be self-imposed in an attempt to feel useful. “Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day,” writes Tim Kreider in the New York Times, in an article that garnered more than 800 comments from people who apparently felt they had time to do that. “More and more people in this country no longer make or do anything tangible,” he continues. “I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter.” Like a humblebrag, our constant recitations of how busy we are helps make us feel important.

The biggest problem we have? It’s not really that we’re all that busy—it’s just that we’re doing a lot of multitasking and juggling, writes Eric Barker in Time (no pun intended). “Why do we feel like we’re overwhelmed even though we’re not? Partly, it’s because our time is so fragmented,” he writes. “Switching between checking email, making dinner, watching TV and finishing that report is more mentally draining than doing one at a time.”

We’ve talked before about the value of scheduling blocks of time, whether it’s for when one “sits and thinks,” or just when one sits. Barker goes on to suggest a number of simple ways to deal with the feeling of being overwhelmed, including making a list, doing one thing at a time, and turning tasks into habits so you don’t have to think about them so much—all of which are intended to make it easier to create those required blocks of time.

The advantage of creating these blocks of time is that it enables us to figure out whether we actually need to be doing all the activities that are making us so very, very busy, says Rita Gunther McGrath in Forbes. “If these people took the time to step back and ask themselves the question, ‘Am I doing the right thing?’ they’d come to the realization that half of the stuff that was making them so crazy is either going in the wrong direction or just not very useful,” she says.

That said, we don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater on this whole busyness thing. It turns out that people can’t work at full intensity all the time. A certain amount of “busywork”—work that needs to be done but is not a particularly high priority, such as surfing Facebook or cleaning the desk—actually makes people feel happier, according to a recent study by Gloria Mark at the University of California, Irvine. “Workers may say they want a challenge, but the researchers found that employees were actually less happy doing work they rated as difficult, involving a lot of attention and engagement, such as reading and responding to emails,” writes Rachel Emma Silverman in the Wall Street Journal about the research.

One of the most effective ways of dealing with busyness is simply to stop the little inner voice that keeps telling you how terribly, terribly busy you are, writes Hanna Rosin in Slate (in an article that garnered almost 400 comments). “The answer to feeling oppressively busy 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,” she asserts. How did she do it? “By silently repeating, ‘You’re not that busy,’” she writes. Instead, she just calmly does one thing after another.

There. Maybe you had time to read this after all.

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Submitted by Tim on

Cleaning the desk is busywork? You need to see my desk. We're talking HazMat, the Center for Disease Control, and a handful of DOH permits.

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