The busyness epidemic


Today is the perfect day for me to write this article. It’s one o’clock in the afternoon on a Wednesday, two weeks before Pesach. I’ve been sitting here glued to my laptop since my preschooler left on the bus this morning, trying to cram in all my work before he gets home. With Yom Tov preparations looming ahead, it isn’t hard to feel as if there aren’t enough hours in the day especially this time of year, when my workload doubles! Last night (or should I say this morning) I went to sleep at two a.m., dizzy from all the errands, obligations and deadlines. Today I forgot to eat breakfast and had to skip my favorite weekly shiur. And I should probably be embarrassed to admit this, but I am still in my nightgown and snood. This time of year, I start to feel like I could really use an extra Tuesday every week. My research began with a piece on NPR entitled “Not Enough Hours in the Day? We All Feel a Little Overwhelmed,” which delved into the psychology of why everyone seems to be hanging on by his fingernails these days. It discusses a newly released book on time management written by the above-quoted Brigid Schulte, Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time.


Schulte was a frazzled working mother with a highpressure job. Hoping to get a grip on things, she consulted a man named John Robinson, a professor of sociology who directs a project called the American Time Use Survey. As one of the first experts in this field, Robinson has rightfully earned himself the title of “Father Time.” Schulte was urged to keep a diary tracking her activities over the course of a week. When she reviewed it with Robinson, she discovered that she actually had 27 hours of leisure time each week. It was a revelation. Twenty-seven extra hours per week? Sign me up. But let me clarify a bit; it’s not as if I’m looking for more leisure time per se. I’m not asking to sit on a beach sipping a piña colada; baruch Hashem, as a Jewish wife and the mother of a rambunctious brood, I feel privileged to have so many meaningful commitments and responsibilities. And besides, it’s a good thing to be productive. But I’d love to find a way to ease the pressure and anxiety so that I could breathe, or read a book every once in a while—really either sounds good these days. I don’t need Brigid Schulte to tell me this, but her book underscores how unhealthy it is to be so stressed out, which breeds exhaustion and causes poor decision-making. I decided to get in touch with Prof. Robinson myself. Unfortunately, he burst my bubble.

Apparently, Prof. Robinson doesn’t analyze personal schedules; that was a misunderstanding. What he does is collect data. He has been studying how people spend their time since 1965, and I asked him how he became involved in this fascinating field. “I was interested in the question,” he said. “There was no information available, and there was concern about people being rushed for time and not having enough of it, so we undertook to find out how people actually did spend their time.” He then explained how the American Time Use Survey works: “We take a cross-section of random people from across the United States and ask them to keep track of their activities. We then interview them about everything they did and which activities they engaged in.” In 2010, the survey started measuring how subjects felt while engaged in their daily activities, so its findings are also a great way to gauge Americans’ quality of life. What has Prof. Robinson’s team uncovered about American’s daily schedules?  “Most people spend half of their free time watching television,” he said, “which they don’t even rate as a particularly enjoyable activity compared to others.” Talk about using time productively! It’s also interesting to note that this hasn’t changed much since the introduction of computers, cell phones and other new devices. But what has changed in the decades he’s been scrutinizing people’s habits? According to the American Time Use Survey, many activities are on the upswing since 1965. These include an increase in fitness and recreational activities.

What are we spending less time on? Unbelievably, work! You can’t really blame your cell phone for your crazy work schedule. The American work week was steadily shrinking even before the current economic malaise. Women are also spending fewer hours cleaning since men are pitching in twice as much as they did in the 1960s (hubby, are you reading this?). We’re also reading fewer newspapers and spending less time eating. On the other hand, fathers are spending more time on child care in most Western countries. But here’s the kicker. When I asked Prof. Robinson if a lack of leisure time is a modern phenomenon (picture me scrolling through my emails while we’re talking), he told me that based on his data, “I don’t know if I agree that there is a lack. People have more free time now than they had 50 years ago.” In fact, Robinson found that respondents’ claims of always feeling “rushed” declined by nine points since 2004. In other words, as a society we are actually less busy these days than we used to be. And those with more time on their hands have always been statistically somewhat happier than the rest of us. “So why doesn’t it feel that way?” I asked. “Why do we feel pressured all the time?” “That has to do with perception.Everyone wants to feel busy because feeling busy means that you’re important. But it doesn’t hold up.” I am busy; therefore I am worthy. I am busy; therefore I am competent. I am busy; therefore I am successful. According to “Father Time,” all I have to do in order to reclaim a few hours of my day is simply cross one thing off my endless to-do list: being busy. Then I’ll automatically be happier.


Forget my wounded pride, Robinson’s interpretation of the modern concept of busyness doesn’t resonate with me at all. So I decided to dig deeper and came across an article entitled “Fear of Free Time” by sociologist Martha Beck, who is also a life coach and author. Beck argues that there’s a single underlying reason we are all so busy: We are afraid not to be. “Empty time is a powerful medicine that can make us more joyful and resilient, but it’s strangely hard to swallow. In our culture, the very word ‘empty’ has negative connotations: loss, need, desolation, hopelessness. Our ambivalence about doing nothing creates what psychologists call an approach–avoidance response: We yearn for a powerful source of liberation that’s right under our noses—but we’ll do almost anything to avoid it,” she writes.  For some people, free time is a scary thing. Many of us live in fear of having nothing to do and no outside influence on which to base our next course of action.   Keeping busy is the ultimate method of distraction; we’ll fill our time with anything (Words With Friends, anyone?). But distraction from what? According to Beck, our unprocessed psychological pain. Keep your schedule jam-packed and you won’t have to focus on what’s bothering you because you won’t have time to think. Mathematician and physicist Blaise Pascal put it as follows: “Being unable to cure death, wretchedness and ignorance, men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things.” Free time can lead to self-reflection, which has the potential to expose unpleasant things about ourselves.

As Kreider notes, “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. “The Puritans turned work into a virtue,” he continues, “evidently forgetting that G-d invented it as a punishment.” Ironically, though, the best way to dispel pain is to actually feel it and express it. And the only way to do so is if you have “empty” time. Martha Beck has a suggestion for how to get our hands on some of this precious commodity. “Imagine that you’re reading your to-do list many years from now, moments before your own (peaceful) death. Which of the items will you be glad you did? Which will mean nothing? If nothing on today’s schedule offers soulful nourishment, write in some empty time. Add just a few minutes of nothing to your daily schedule, and empty time will begin to work its magic,” she advises. “It will reconnect you with your core self.” So here’s what’s next on my schedule: a few minutes of nothing.


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