We’ve Fallen Into the Busy Trap, But Are You Willing to Get Out of It?

Taking a step back doesn’t mean you’re falling behind.
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Taking a step back doesn’t mean you’re falling behind.

I was finally caught up on my to-do list at work. It felt so good to be calm, not frantic. Savoring this new feeling, I actually started working ahead (for once!). I emailed a few coworkers to compare notes on a small project due the following week.

As the replies came in, my sense of accomplishment faded into self-doubt. Most of the replies were something like, “I haven’t even thought about it yet. I’ve been so busy!” Suddenly, I felt guilty that I was not as busy as they were. What were they doing that I wasn’t? Shouldn’t I be doing just as much?

I snapped out of it quickly, but I kept thinking about this twisted guilt. I should have been proud of myself for not being frantically busy. Instead, I felt ashamed. What kind of person feels guilty about not being busy enough?

It turns out: a lot of us.

In the past few years, we’ve been told repeatedly that busyness is both our glory and our downfall. In an infamous 2012 New York Times piece, Tim Kreider told us that being busy is “pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint.”

People who complain (or, rather, #humblebrag) the most about being busy are the ones who have chosen to define themselves by their schedules. “The present hysteria is not a necessary or inevitable condition of life; it’s something we’ve chosen, if only by our acquiescence to it,” he says. We are just “addicted to busyness.”

Men can experience productivity guilt, but the problem tends to be worse for women—mostly because of responsibilities at home. We feel like we have to “lean in” at work and then come home and be “superwife” or “supermom.”

We feel so much guilt that we don’t give ourselves the leisure time we need. We feel like we don’t deserve it, according to Brigid Schulte, author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time.

But amid all the hubbub about how incredibly, crazily, inexplicably busy we all are as of late, the kicker is: It’s actually not true.

Research shows that in reality we have much more time than we think we do. We often overestimate our hours logged at work, and when it comes to downtime, we assume we have none without really looking at our time.

Women have been struggling to say no to all the things and yes to ourselves since the dawn of time. But if the time is there, what’s really got us so overwhelmed?

How Busy Are We, Really?

When it comes to time management, there’s a perception problem here. Even the busiest among us are not as busy as we think we are.

In 1930, British economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that his generation’s grandchildren would work three hours a day. In her 2014 New Yorker essay “No Time,” Elizabeth Kolbert explains that many of Keynes’ other economic predictions came true, but not that part. Instead, we keep pursuing more wealth by working long hours.

While we’re nowhere near Keynes’ fifteen-hour week, Americans’ time has shifted in recent years, according to The Economist. But it isn’t so simple as saying we’re working less but feeling busier. It’s true, men are working less overall. As for women, we have experienced a huge shift in how our time is spent.

The Economist reports: “Women’s paid work has risen a lot [since 1965], but their time in unpaid work, like cooking and cleaning, has fallen even more dramatically, thanks in part to dishwashers, washing machines, microwaves, and other modern conveniences and also to the fact that men shift themselves a little more around the house than they used to.” According to The Atlantic, this shift meant that time spent on housework and child care for women declined by 35 percent (or fifteen hours each week) since 1965.

What’s also happening is that we’re unaware of or unable to even discern how we spend our time. When asked how many hours they work, people tend to exaggerate without realizing it—sometimes by as many as twenty-five hours. It’s not that we’re trying to be deceptive; our time just isn’t as categorically separated between work and leisure as it once was.

Maybe we don’t know how to have a true place in our lives for stillness—for not doing. Think about it: When was the last time you weren’t tethered to your phone, checking email at 11 p.m., or thinking about what errands you could accomplish in those forty-five minutes between appointments?

Whether it’s a chore or for fun, there are so many options for how to fill our time that we experience FOMO. We do, do, and then do some more because we can’t face the possibility of missing that one great thing, even if it’s in exchange for much-needed relaxation time.

We’ve continued to overcommit, overextend, and overwork ourselves—all while posting perfectly filtered images of our lives on social media. We continue to associate a long to-do list with importance, status, and success. It’s not that the time isn’t there. As an expert on time balance, Laura Vanderkam notes: “There are 168 hours in a week. Someone sleeping eight hours a night (fifty-six per week) would have 112 hours left for other things.” If you’re working a forty-hour workweek, that leaves more than half of those 112 hours for other things. So, what gives?

Busyness Doesn’t Just Happen To Us

There are a lot of real pressures associated with being a woman today. In the past fifty years or so, the number of women in the United States working outside the home has increased by 53 percent. Women are the primary breadwinners in 40 percent of households, and 70 percent of women with children under 18 are part of the workforce. So yes, our lives look different from the Pleasantville housewife images of bygone eras. Throw in the gender wage gap and not enough paid parental leave, and it’s easy to see why the pressure has built at rapid pace, and we haven’t quite found a healthy middle ground yet.

A survey in the UK found that even when women work outside the home, they do double the housework of men. But two-thirds of women surveyed said they didn’t want to shift the load “either because they were comfortable with the balance or because they believed men would not perform tasks ‘to the requisite standards.’”

I think this sentiment reveals a very important aspect of our busy disease—that even when presented with an option to do less, we aren’t willing to take it.

Business psychologist Tony Crabbe compares busy people to the Betta fish. If you give it too much food, the fish will eat itself to death. We do the same with our schedules.

In this survey, 75 percent of moms said they feel more pressure from themselves than from other moms. I’m not a mom, but I feel this way as a woman—most of the pressure I face comes from my own unrealistic expectations.

Women love to pride ourselves on our ability to multitask, often touting that we’re better at it than men. When we’re asking ourselves questions like, “Where does all my time go?” it’s partially because we’re doing too many things at once.

According to business leadership coach Neela Bettridge, one of the ingredients for growth is reflection time. But we pack our schedules and minds so full, we don’t take time to think. “Without thinking time, women don’t progress,” Bettridge writes. “They’re so caught up in immediate demands they don’t stop to allow their minds to roam free."

A product of our plugged-in society is that we’re always shuffling among multiple things in a matter of minutes, seconds even. Eating while watching TV while checking our Instagram while thinking about our to-do list? Even our supposed downtime is full of myriad little activities that equate to a time vacuum. We while away our time with such ferocity because there’s a great sense of satisfaction and importance that comes from getting a lot done, even if it is at a cost.

We continue to let our schedule dictate us, and we continue to devalue our own sanity for the sake of appearances—for the sake of looking like we’ve got a full life.

The Economist drew an interesting conclusion about our time. “Once hours are financially quantified, people worry more about wasting, saving, or using them profitably,” it reports. Time is valuable, so how we spend our hours matters immensely to us. The problem is that we fill our time in order to feel accomplished, but then we lament not having spare time because time is so valuable we want more of it.

The busy trap is one we’ve set ourselves. We cling to the adrenaline rush of a packed day, unable to let ourselves take a step back. It’s a vicious cycle that begins and ends with us.

How We Can Make the Shift

A few months ago, fed up with feeling like my time wasn’t my own, I started a schedule management makeover by charting my time. I made a point to schedule in leisure time. Within a couple weeks, my stress level dramatically decreased. As I got a realistic sense of my time use, I broke bad habits and narrowed my priorities. Unplugging was another key step toward being intentional about my schedule.

As I reflect on busyness, I can’t help but think of a quote one of my grad school professors shared by French novelist Gustave Flaubert: “Be steady and well ordered in your life so that you can be fierce and original in your work.” Steady and well ordered may look different for each of us, but Flaubert is on to something.

As women, we need to be more intentional about taking that advice. We need to make time for self-care—physically, emotionally, and mentally. We can say no to things and, in doing so, say yes to ourselves.

We don’t have to be busy all the time. We can ditch the busyness badge of honor, drop the guilt, and learn to find our value not in the fullness of our calendars and to-do lists, but in who we are as women. Because there’s a lot more to life than being able to tell someone else you’re busy.

Photo Credit: Corynne Olivia