Are you too busy? You should be, and you should let people know in a proud but exasperated tone.
The art of busyness is to convey genuine alarm at the pace of your life and a helpless resignation, as if someone else is setting the clock, and yet simultaneously make it clear that you are completely on top of your game. These are not exactly humble brags. They are more like fretful brags, and they are increasingly becoming the idiom of our age.
In her new book, “Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time,” Washington Post reporter Brigid Schulte calls this cultural epidemic the “overwhelm,” and it will be recognizable to most working adults. “Always behind and always late, with one more thing and one more thing and one more thing to do before rushing out the door.”
To be deep in the overwhelm requires not just doing too many things in one 24-hour period but doing so many different kinds of things that they all blend into each other. Researchers call it “contaminated time,” and women are more susceptible than men, because they have a harder time shutting down the tape that runs in their heads about what needs to get done that day.
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The only relief from the time pressure comes from cordoning off stretches of free or leisure time, creating what Schulte calls “time serenity” or “flow.” But over the years, time-use diaries show women have become terrible at that and instead, as Schulte puts it, resorting to “crappy bits of leisure time confetti.”
So if the time squeeze is so miserable, why do people brag about it? For her book, Schulte interviews Ann Burnett, who studies how the language we use creates our reality.
“My God, people are competing about being busy,” Burnett realized. “It’s about showing status. That if you’re busy, you’re important. … As if you don’t get to choose, busyness is just there. I call it the nonchoice choice. Because people really do have a choice.”
Do people really have a choice?
Sociologist John Robinson doesn’t ask us to meditate, or take more vacations, or breathe, or walk in nature, or do anything that will invariably feel like just another item on the to-do list. The answer to feeling oppressively busy, he says, 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.
Busyness is a virtue, so people are terrified of hearing they may have empty time, as Tim Kreider wrote in “The ‘Busy’ Trap.” It’s the equivalent of being told that you’re redundant or obsolete. Robinson has Schulte keep a time-use diary and shows her lots of free time she hadn’t counted as such – lying in bed aimlessly, exercising, playing backgammon on her computer, talking to a friend on the phone.
Yet she still doesn’t believe that, as a working mother, she could possibly have any leisure time. In fact, she seems skeptical of Robinson’s whole premise that we are busy because we say we are.