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The Cult of Busy

By Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson
There’s a global epidemic of overscheduling and it’s ruining our health. Here’s how to recalibrate your relationship with time and get your life back.

Three years ago, physicists from the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Colorado announced that they had successfully invented the most accurate clock in the history of the world. Ten billion times more exact than a quartz wristwatch, their atomic clock used lasers and atoms to measure time with such incredible precision that it would lose a mere second over the next 50.8 billion years. Their invention was quickly lauded as the apex of a long-held human endeavor: mastering timekeeping.

That atomic clock may not lose a second in the foreseeable future, but we humans feel like we’re sloughing off seconds at an alarming clip. More than one-third of Americans say they don’t have enough time in their day to get things done. Work hours bleeding into home life and a prevailing belief that we need to do it all and do it well have created a feeling of constant activity. Gallup polls show that our hectic schedules correlate with a precipitous increase in anxiety. The majority of Americans who report not having enough spare time also say they battle stress. You likely don’t need studies and surveys to convince you we’re a time-starved culture. Simply ask someone how he or she is doing and the likely response is, “I’m busy.”

Busyness is more than an annoying truth of modern life. It has emerged as a significant health concern.

The frenetic pace of modern life has created what journalist and author Brigid Schulte calls “the overwhelm.” In her book Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, Schulte examines how we’ve fractured our days toggling between work, family, housework, and other obligations and how this makes us feel constantly behind. We’re all a few steps out of pace, forever hurtling toward the next ping alert from our calendar. Schulte, a parent and spouse with a demanding career, was very much a victim of this time paucity.  “At night, I often wake in a panic about all the things I need to do or didn’t get done,” Schulte writes. “I worry that I’ll face my death and realize that my life got lost in this frantic flotsam of daily stuff.”

Illustration by Nathan Hackett

Busyness is more than an annoying truth of modern life. It has emerged as a significant health concern, according to Joseph Bienvenu, a psychiatrist and director of the Anxiety Disorders Clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He sees patients wound up from so much overscheduling that they can’t sleep, think, or make time for important activities like exercise. “Emotional distress due to overbusyness manifests as difficulty focusing and concentrating, impatience and irritability, trouble getting adequate sleep, and mental and physical fatigue,” he says. “This is a vicious cycle, of course. Emotional distress leads to trouble with sleep and fatigue, and lack of sleep and exercise leads to more distress.”

A growing cadre of scientists, academics, and health professionals are now studying our complex and evolving relationship with time and have found we are suffering from what they call “time poverty.” These experts are also learning, however, that there are ways to reverse that deficiency. Once you understand the root of our modern propensity for busyness—and our singular fealty to the ticking clock—you can wrest some control over your life again.

Humans enjoy being busy when a task is fulfilling but can feel weighted when a task feels obligatory or when they feel pulled in two directions. There's a difference between want and should.

If you worry that you don’t even have the bandwidth to reset your relationship to time, take a moment to consider what busyness is doing to your health. Studies have found that habitual stress shrinks the brain’s gray matter. It also changes our epigenetic makeup over time. James Potash, the former director of research at the Johns Hopkins Mood Disorders Center, found in a 2010 study that chronic stress results in an overdose of cortisol, which can influence epigenetic markers. (If you think of your genes as a computer, then the epigenetic markers are like the software running those genes and telling them how to behave.) Cortisol is the steroid secreted in the body to instigate the “fight or flight” response to danger, a valuable asset when a tiger rounds the bend but not so valuable in today’s busyness culture. “You can’t fight or flee modern stressors like work deadlines,” Potash said. Consequently, the chronic release of cortisol could lead to depression or other mood disorders including anxiety, irritability, or insomnia. Being pulled in too many directions can also strain relationships. When we don’t spend quality time with loved ones—and sacrifice social time for a harried to-do list—that can add to emotional unrest, according to Johns Hopkins cardiologist Erin Michos. “Many studies suggest that emotional stress is hard on your health—raising blood pressure and heart rate, for example,” she says.

"In our rush to make more money and to have the American Dream as it's been defined to us, we ended up crowding out our opportunity to have more time."

When busyness and stress rob us of shut-eye, the ensuing exhaustion influences our judgment during our waking hours. Brian Gunia of the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School is a social psychologist with a doctorate in management. He studies behavior in the workplace, and his research has shown that a lack of sleep makes people less morally aware and ethical. “The stress of being busy compromises our sleep with downstream consequences,” Gunia says.

Poor quality sleep has a variety of detrimental effects on workplace behavior, Gunia explains, because people have less restraint and this can lead to their acting unethically or creating a climate that’s more hostile. “When people lack sleep, they have a lower moral awareness,” Gunia says. “Moral awareness is a precursor to moral decisions, and ethically fraught questions rely on that awareness.”

So why do we push ourselves to have it all and fill every minute with something productive, to the possible detriment of our health, our relationships, and our work? Answering that question starts with understanding our contemporary relationship to time and our cultural desire to be seen as productive and valuable.

Humans have always needed to tell time, but the clock, as we know it, wasn’t always the measure. For 10,000 years, humans lived in an agrarian culture and understood time through nature: the seasons, the rise and fall of the sun, and the sow-and-reap rhythm of crops. Eventually humans invented simple devices to mark the hours within a day—sundials, hourglasses, and water clocks, which used the regulated flow of water to measure time.

The first mechanical clock wasn’t introduced until the 13th century. With the Age of Enlightenment centuries later, a scientific desire for more precision led to clocks becoming a valuable tool for framing the world. In her book A Sideways Look at Time, Jay Griffiths explains that during the 17th and 18th centuries, time moved from a fluid measure to become more “absolute and deterministic.”

“The increasing precision of clockwork (coupled with the increasing number of clocks and watches) meant time was chiseled to fit snug to the clock,” Griffiths writes. “Time must be predictable, knowable, and visible.”

With the Industrial Revolution, minutes and seconds became a pervasive measurement of time for the common person. The rise of manufacturing regimented time with worker output. Productivity was king, and time translated to money. Today—as the Industrial Revolution cedes to the tech revolution—timekeeping is even more meticulous. We know the exact time in every corner of the world. We leap between time zones and are experiencing for the first time in human history a thing called jet lag, where technology and speed outpace the body’s biological capacity to keep up.

When time became money, our relationship to relaxation also changed. It used to be that the mark of accumulated wealth was leisure—restorative moments away from the toils of labor to enjoy other pursuits. Today, productivity is our top priority. Even the wealthiest among us toil away, packing schedules and squeezing every ounce of value from every second. Bill Gates gave up his golf game in “retirement” to do humanitarian work around the world because, as he told Fortune magazine in 2010, golf “takes up too much time to get any good at it.” (Golf courses around the world are developing nine-hole fast-track courses because people have become too busy to play 18 holes.) As we compete to be productive, busyness is as much a status symbol as anything else.

Our national emphasis on productivity is backed by policy. American employers, compared to those in other countries, offer workers the least amount of paid time off, according to statistics from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, with nearly one in four Americans receiving no paid time off. Even when a company does offer vacation time, Americans aren’t taking it. According to a study last year by Oxford Economics, the number of annual vacation days used by employees has steadily declined over the past 20 years, with Americans taking an average of just 16 days a year, less than half of what people take in many European countries.

“Imagine if a colleague at work asks how you’re doing, and you tell them that you’re great because you’ve cut back on your workload to take more time for yourself. They might think you didn’t care,” says Erik Helzer, a social psychologist and assistant professor at the Carey Business School. Helzer researches what makes people feel satisfied and fulfilled at work and in their lives. “There is a norm toward being busy—and that busyness confers your value,” he says. “Your potential worth is somehow wrapped up in the perceived lack of time you have.”

Here’s a surprising truth: You are probably not as busy as you think you are. On average, Americans today have more free time than did previous generations. We’re also spending more time with our kids than did parents of 40 years ago, despite a prevailing sense that we’re dropping the ball on that front, too. So why doesn’t it feel that way?

The answer is in how we experience time in our minds. The pips of the clock and our consumer-based culture are not the only reason we feel time starved. Our perception of time is also to blame. Why does time fly when we’re having fun but feel interminable when we’re waiting on line at the DMV?

“There is a distinction between objective time, which you can measure, and subjective time, which is experiential,” explains philosopher Nils F. Schott, the James M. Motley Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities at Johns Hopkins University. Schott, who specializes in the philosophy of time, explains that humans enjoy being busy when a task is fulfilling but can feel weighted when a task feels obligatory or when they feel pulled in two directions. There’s a difference between want and should.

"You have to be intentional in carving out the time you want for the things that you want."

This pull can lead to what researchers call toxic time. We worry about what we should be doing for our kids while at work, or we worry about work while out on a date. We may want to exercise, or to stay late at work to complete a particularly fulfilling project, but we feel guilt over what else we should be doing. Time slips away in an unrelenting concern that we should be someplace else doing something more, or that we’re just not able to get to all of the things we hoped to. “We believe that we should be able to do and have everything,” Helzer says. “You’re going to be a great worker, a great partner, a great parent, a great child to your parents, and we’re forever trying to maximize our time.”

This is a big reason for our sense of overwhelm, according to Schulte. “We live under the crazy tyranny of our expectations—that we must be the ideal worker and put in endless hours at work and be the ideal parent and always be available to our children and always be busy and productive, yet doing enough cool stuff and working out and meditating so we’ll look good on our Facebook profile. These over-the-top expectations are actually driving what we think we can and should do in any given day,” she says. “If you are trying to cram a ton of stuff in your day, that creates an atmosphere where you’re breathless and stressed out and you feel powerless.”

Humans are also bad judges of how we actually spend our time. Helzer and colleague Shai Davidai, of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, have been studying people’s perceptions of how they use their time. In one study, they asked participants on a Friday how they would spend their weekend. On Monday, they followed up to see how that time was actually spent. Participants who said they were going to do restorative activities—like reading a book or hiking in the woods—actually did things like plopping in front of the television. This leads to an interesting twist in our perception: We think we don’t have free time when we actually do. We’re simply frittering it away with mindless versions of passive leisure that don’t register as restorative. (According to the latest American Time Use Survey, the average adult spends nearly three hours a day watching TV.)

“People use rest in two different ways,” Helzer says. “One is in an intentional and rejuvenating way, such as sitting and reading, versus the mindless rest where we end up binge watching TV shows and you get up and say, ‘I can’t believe I just wasted three hours.’ What we found is that people believed they were going to have the more mindful kind of rest over the weekend, but when we interviewed them on Monday, they reported spending more time than they anticipated vegging out on the couch. So even though we have the time, we don’t tend to use it in a mindful way.”

In another study, Helzer and Davidai asked about personal development goals and found that people believed they would have more time in the future to pursue things that matter—like vacations, hobbies, or learning something new. Their research shows, however, that this magic time never materializes because humans continue to fill their days with other obligations once existing ones are complete. “The guiding force behind our findings is that if you wait for the opportune moment, it simply never comes,” Helzer says. “There’s no strong argument for delaying.

“If you look at the ingredients of a satisfying life, what our data show is that people are shortchanging themselves in the areas that may be most important,” Helzer adds. “The lesson is that you have to be intentional in carving out the time you want for the things that you want.”

"As we compete to be productive, busyness is as much a status symbol as anything else."

There is a simple way to take back your time: Do less.

And yet, those two words are perhaps the most challenging call to action. Doing less means understanding your priorities and constantly defending them against the encroachments of the status quo, which dictates that busyness—and material wealth and value—is best.

Tim Kasser, a psychologist and professor at Knox College in Illinois, researches how Americans spend their time, and he’s been studying the inverse of our busyness epidemic: time affluence. In the 1990s, Kasser conducted research that found a correlation between financial pursuits and wellness. When people said that pursuing financial success was important to them, they also reported lower well-being.

Today, there have been many additional studies on this phenomenon, and the relationship between materialism and negative well-being is well-established, including studies that show the more people care about material things, the more they smoke and overconsume alcohol.

"When we're time affluent, it allows us to pursue values and activities like personal connections, and our relationship to our broader community. These values, in turn, do a good job of satisfying our psychological needs and promoting higher levels of well-being."

“In our rush to make more money and to have the American Dream as it’s been defined to us, we ended up crowding out our opportunity to have more time,” Kasser says. “Any social system wants to maintain itself—whether it’s a religion or an economic system—and under corporate capitalism, we’re required to maintain certain beliefs. It’s important to work hard, to demonstrate success, to make money. Not only is there a lack of laws that support vacation and family leave, but there’s a continual message encouraging people to work hard and spend more. We internalize those messages, and busyness becomes a badge of honor.”

Illustration by Nathan Hackett

Kasser started considering the alternatives. “Time affluence means becoming affluent from a time perspective, rather than from a money perspective,” he says. “When we’re time affluent, it allows us to pursue values and activities like personal growth, personal connections, and our relationship to our broader community.  These values, in turn, do a good job of satisfying our psychological needs and promoting higher levels of well-being.”

Simply recognizing that you have the power to take back your time is in itself valuable. “There’s something about consciously choosing to focus on priorities that reduces emotional distress, but this requires time, which we should consider precious,” Bienvenu says.

So where do you start? Take a look at our sidebar for specific tips on building time affluence in your own life. And take a page from Schulte. After researching and writing Overwhelmed, Schulte made many changes at work and at home—and she made time for play. Rather than rushing headlong into the day, she pauses and considers what’s most important. She says no when she’s too busy, and she has given up trying to be the perfect mother/worker/housekeeper/daughter. She has learned to prioritize her day around her body’s and her brain’s natural rhythms, tackling important tasks in the morning, when she’s most alert. These changes made her more productive even as the pace became more hectic in her previous job at The Washington Post, and she continues to practice these skills at New America, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C., where she is now the director of the work-life and gender equity program for an initiative called the Better Life Lab. “I recognize that time is a precious resource, and everything I do is a choice,” Schulte says. “I have done the research to convince me about how important it is to change and have seen that change is possible.

“Perhaps the important shift has happened in my head,” she adds. “I’ve become more mindful about time, I’ve given up on trying to be perfect. I try to do a handful of things well, not rush through 100 items scrawled on an endless to-do list, and it’s allowed me to see that I do have some power over my day.”

Still, Schulte says she can fall prey to old habits and to the powerful pull of busyness. “I’m a recovering workaholic, a recovering helicopter parent, and I can still get easily lost in the digital world and fall down the rabbit hole—everybody else is doing it—even though I know better,” she says. “What’s different now is that I can see more clearly the external pressures at work. I’ve learned to catch myself. Take a breath. And start over. My time just feels different and as a result, I feel hopeful.”

Illustration by Nathan Hackett
Illustrations by Nathan Hackett

Take Back Your Time

  1. Keep a Time Diary

    Many, like Schulte, begin reforming their lives by keeping a time diary. Schulte recorded everything she did for a week and labeled each activity as work, housework, family, or leisure. Understanding how she spent her time allowed her to recognize where her time went and where she might adjust her expectations and activities. (Helzer equates it with keeping a food journal when you want to change how you eat.) “The exercise of tracking my time yielded interesting information,” Schulte says. “I couldn’t believe that I spent so much time on ridiculous tasks, like perpetually tidying up.&rdquo

  2. Prioritize What Matters

    Examine what’s important to you and structure your life around those priorities. Kasser works a part-time schedule at the college where he teaches—sacrificing a higher salary—so that he can spend more time with his wife and two sons. “That decision comes at a financial cost to me and my family, but it’s left me with time for my kids, time to be in the garden and play piano, time to be an activist.”

  3. Do One Small Thing

    Cultivating lasting change requires small steps. “The best advice I can give is to choose one thing—maybe it’s a commitment to leaving work right at 5 o’clock on Fridays—and get it integrated into your life so that it’s habitual,” Kasser says. “And then choose a second thing and get it integrated and habitual, and then a third thing. It’s difficult to totally revolutionize your life overnight.”

  4. Abandon Perfectionism

    It’s a fact: You cannot be all things to all people, so set limits. “I was so guilty about being a working mother and I wanted to show myself—and the world— that I was a really good mother,” Schulte says. “So I would automatically say yes to everything without even thinking.” The next time your kid’s school hosts a potluck, consider signing up to bring the forks instead of baking homemade cupcakes. “If your priority is showing your kid that you love him or her, don’t stress out over baking cupcakes late at night. That might be more about you and your fears of measuring up. And if you scrimp on sleep to do it, as I did, you’ll often find yourself fried and yelling at the very child you swore you were baking the cupcakes to prove you loved. So maybe skip the cupcakes and sit on the floor and play a card game instead. But if baking gives you joy, even if you’re time starved, then do it.”

  5. Subtract, Don’t Add

    The standard advice for being overwhelmed is to add something in order to relax. Sign up for a yoga retreat. Sacrifice even more sleep to go for an early-morning run. But these things can add to your time crunch and create additional financial strain. “We have a consumerist mentality when it comes to our time, and it’s always about adding something,” Helzer says. “It’s rarely about cutting something out or simply doing less.”

  6. Model It From the Top

    Kasser and Schulte both model the behavior they hope to pass down to their children. “We prioritize vacation and took unpaid leave so that we could take our sons camping around the West,” Kasser says. And if you’re a boss or a manager, consider how your actions influence your co-workers. Brian Gunia conducted research with the U.S. military that shows when commanders prioritize a good night’s sleep, the entire unit does, too.

  7. Take That Vacation

    Even if it’s just a simple, inexpensive trip away from work, don’t put off down time. Helzer recently ran into a colleague at Carey who said she and her husband wanted to take an exotic vacation but believed they should wait until they had more time and money. Helzer showed her his research about time perception. “She came by my office a few days later and told me that they had booked the trip,” Helzer says.

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