Feeling overwhelmed? Are you constantly running from thing to thing but never getting it all done?
When researchers survey people, they say they’re too busy — about everything.
Too busy to make friends, date, sleep, have sex, to go on vacation… or to even have lunch.
In surveys, people say they’re too busy to make friends outside the office, too busy to date, too busy to sleep, and too busy to have sex. Eight in ten Britons report being too busy to eat dessert, even though four in ten say dessert is better than sex. We’re in such a rush that the typical sound bite for a presidential candidate has been compressed from forty seconds in 1968 to 7.3 seconds in 2000. Remember those unused vacation days? People say they’re too busy to take a vacation and too busy for a lunch break.
“The average high school kid today experiences the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient of the 1950s.”
And being this busy isn’t healthy — in fact, neuroscientists have found it shrinks your brain.
…the prefrontal cortex. It is the key to human intelligence. In its size and complexity, it is, in short, what distinguishes humans from animals and makes us who we are. And, Ansell says, what she and other neuroscientists are finding is that when a human feels pressed for time, rushed and caught up in the overwhelm, that yellow blob does something alarming: It shrinks.
How did we get here? How did this happen?
I have an answer but it’s going to surprise you and might even make you angry…
It’s all an illusion. You have more free time than you ever did.
Do I sound insane? Keep reading.
You’re Not Busy. You Just Feel Busy.
John Robinson is the leading sociologist who studies time use. His colleagues call him “Father Time.”
Looking at time diary studies he shows that globally we all have more leisure time than ever.
He insists that although most Americans feel they’re working harder than ever, they aren’t. The time diaries he studies show that average hours on the job, not only in the United States but also around the globe, have actually been holding steady or going down in the last forty years. Everybody, he says, has more time for leisure.
So why do we feel like we’re overwhelmed even though we’re not? Partly, it’s because our time is so fragmented.
Switching between checking email, making dinner, watching TV and finishing that report is more mentally draining than doing one at a time.
“It’s role overload,” she explains. “It’s the constant switching from one role to the next that creates that feeling of time pressure.” When all you’re expected to do is work all day, you work all day in one long stretch, she says. But the days of the mothers she studied were full of starts and stops, which makes time feel more collapsed.
Multitasking is killing us. And the best part?
Multitasking doesn’t even work. It makes us less efficient even though we feel we’re getting more done.
In fact, it makes you dumber — effectively stupider than being drunk or stoned.
No two tasks done simultaneously, studies have shown, can be done with 100 percent of one’s ability. Driving while talking on the cell phone slows reaction times and awareness to the same degree that driving over the legal alcohol limit does. And the distractions from too many things going on at once hamper the brain’s “spam filter” and the ability to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant information. Or, as one British study found, multitasking makes you stupid— dumber than getting stoned.
Ed Hallowell, former professor at Harvard Medical School and bestselling author of Driven to Distraction, says we have “culturally generated ADD.”
Having treated ADD since 1981, I began to see an upsurge in the mid-1990s in the number of people who complained of being chronically inattentive, disorganized, and overbooked. Many came to me wondering if they had ADD. While some did, most did not. Instead, they had what I called a severe case of modern life.
Why do we do this to ourselves? In recent years being busy has become a status symbol.
When you ask anyone what they’ve been up to, what’s always the first word? Busy.
Psychologists write of treating burned-out clients who can’t shake the notion that the busier you are, the more you are thought of as competent, smart, successful, admired, and even envied.
So what can we do about it? Here are seven things experts recommend:
1) Write It All Down
What’s the first step toward killing that overwhelmed feeling?
Do a brain dump and write everything down that’s on your mind. Writing reduces worry and organizes your thoughts.
“Right now, you need to free up all this energy that’s being consumed by worry.” She told me to take out a piece of paper, set a timer for five minutes, and write furiously about absolutely everything that was bugging me… “If your to-do list lives on paper, your brain doesn’t have to expend energy to keep remembering it,” Monaghan said.
More on the power of a notebook here.
2) Prioritize or Die
Repeat after me: you cannot get it all done. And some things are more important than others.
So you need to prioritize or you will have a clean garage but get fired from your job.
Decide what is important and do that first. Otherwise you may never get to what really matters.
At the heart of making the most of life today is the ability to treasure and protect your connections to what you care most about: people, places, activities, pets, a spiritual connection, a piece of music, even objects that are dear to you. But you must not have too many connections or none will flourish. Pick the ones that matter most to you and nourish them religiously; make that your top priority in life, and you can’t go wrong.
More on the power of work/life balance here.
3) Make Things Automatic
Build routines and habits so that you’re not deciding, you’re just doing.
The secret to getting more done is to make things automatic. Decisons exhaust you:
The counterintuitive secret to getting things done is to make them more automatic, so they require less energy.
More on how to build great habits here.
4) Work Like an Athlete
We were not designed to go 24/7. We were designed to sprint, rest, sprint — just like an athlete.
You sleep in cycles and your mind naturally works in cycles. Alternate hard work with breaks to be at your best.
We ignore the signs of fatigue, boredom, and distraction and just power through. But we’re hardly doing our best work. “We’ve lost touch with the value of rest, renewal, recovery, quiet time, and downtime,” Schwartz told me. It’s hardly a wonder, then, with the pressure of long hours, putting in face time, and the constant interruptions of the modern workplace, less than 10 percent of workers say they do their best thinking at work.
More on working like an athlete here.
5) Switch To Singletasking
Forget multitasking. That’s what causes the feelings of burnout and it’s not effective.
Focus on the most important thing of the day. No interruptions, email or calls.
Terry Monaghan sought to train me to work in pulses. The idea was to chunk my time to minimize the constant multitasking, “role switching,” and toggling back and forth between work and home stuff like a brainless flea on a hot stove. The goal was to create periods of uninterrupted time to concentrate on work— the kind of time I usually found in the middle of the night— during the day.
More on how to use your best hours here.
6) Live in OHIO
Not the state. It’s an acronym: Only Handle It Once.
That email you’ve opened sixty times today, unsure of what to do with it? Stop it.
Make a decision. Reply, trash it or set a time to properly deal with it.
Revisiting unimportant things over and over is a huge time and energy thief.
OHIO: only handle it once. When it comes to a document or journal or any concrete item, try your best to 1) respond to it right away, 2) put it in a labeled file, not a pile, or 3) throw it away. In the majority of instances, choice “3” is the best.
More on how to be efficient with the onslaught of email here.
7) Have Leisure Goals
Ironic, right? Most of us think about “leisure” as doing nothing. But that’s a dangerous way to view it.
Research shows we’re happier when we accomplish things (playing tennis with a friend vs. flipping TV channels.)
And given our habits, we’re prone to start checking email and firing up the usual 17 things we multitask on.
So set a goal for leisure. When you have a fun thing to accomplish, you can singletask on relaxing.
Roger Mannell, a psychologist at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, has directed perhaps the only lab studies of leisure time. His research has found that when people have a sense of choice and control over what they do with their free time, they are more likely to get into flow, that engrossing and timeless state that some call peak human experience. “Part of the problem with leisure is that people aren’t quite sure what they really want. They don’t know what leisure time is for them,” Mannell said. “And they never slow down long enough to figure it out.”
More on how to make your free time more awesome here.
Just because the other people at the office are overscheduled and the other parents are doing 1000 things doesn’t mean you need to.
We all only have 1440 minutes a day. Accept you can’t do it all, focus on what’s important and do that well.
We’re all jealous of the people who are calm and cool under pressure. Be that person.
Next time someone asks how you’re doing, don’t talk about how busy you are. Don’t get sucked into thinking busy means important.
Busy doesn’t make you important. Doing the important things you need to do makes you important.
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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.