Like this, from an old colleague I recently asked for advice: “I would like to help but I can not.
I am desperately trying to finish a screenplay and a talk I need to give in Milan. Once I get an assistant I will be happy to help!” Or this, from the website of a researcher I know: “I work roughly 100 hours a week and am getting more and more behind as the years go by. I am simply unable to keep up with demands on my time let alone handle more requests. I feel extremely guilty about this, but it’s important that I push folks away so that I can continue to produce research and do the work that I do.”
Desperate and need to give a talk in Milan. Unable to keep up and do the work that I do. 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 immediately 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.” Muting the phone during a conference call so no one can hear soccer practice drills in the background, stepping over mounds of unfolded laundry, waking up in a 2 a.m. panic to run over the to-do list, and then summing up your life to your friends — in the two seconds you dedicate to seeing your friends — as “crazy all the time” while they nod in agreement.
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 and a day has no sense of distinct phases. Researchers call it “contaminated time,” and apparently women are more susceptible to it 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. The only relief from the time pressure comes from cordoning off genuine stretches of free or leisure time, creating a sense of what Schulte calls “time serenity” or “flow.” But over the years, time use diaries show that women have become terrible at that, squeezing out any free time 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? This is the curious thing about this particular disease — and the first clue to recovery. For her book, Schulte interviews Ann Burnett, who studies how the language we use creates our reality. Since the 1960s Burnett has been collecting hundreds of holiday letters, which serve as an excellent anthropological record of how families choose to present themselves. Burnett chronicles the rise of certain words and phrases — “hectic,” “whirlwind,” “consumed,” “crazy,” “hard to keep up with it all,” “on the run,” “way too fast.” Lately the cards have entered the meta-busy phase, where the busyness infects the style of the card itself. Like this one Burnett received recently:
“I’m not sure whether writing a Christmas letter when I’m working at the speed of light is a good idea, but given the amount of time I have to devote to any single project, it’s the only choice I have, We start every day at 4:45 AM, launch ourselves through the day at breakneck speed (the experience is much like sticking your head in a blender), only to land in a crumpled heap at 8:30 PM, looking something like the Halloween witches impaled spread-eagled on front doors, wondering how we made it through the day.”
It was after this letter that Burnett realized that busyness of a certain kind — meaning not the work-three-menial-jobs-and-put-your-kids-in-precarious-day-care-by-necessity kind — became a mark of social status, that somewhere in the drudgery of checklists and the crumpled heaps one could detect a hint of glamour. “My God, people are competing about being busy,” Burnett realized. “It’s about showing status. That if you’re busy, you’re important. You’re leading a full and worthy life. … 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? At some point in her journey through time, Schulte attaches herself to John Robinson, a sociologist known as Father Time because he was one of the first people to start collecting time use diaries, which became the basis for the American Time Use Surveys that tell us so much about how we live. Although she doesn’t say it outright, Schulte seems suspicious of Robinson, and probably for good reason. He is divorced and lives alone and thus is free to spend his time however he wants. (He often just gets on the metro with an entertainment guide in his hand and no particular aim.) But Robinson seemed to me to have come up with the most convincing antidote to the “overwhelm.”
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. And our consistent insistence that we are busy has created a host of personal and social ills which Schulte reports on in great detail in her book — unnecessary stress, exhaustion, bad decision-making, and, on a bigger level, a conviction that the ideal worker is one who is available at all times because he or she is grateful to be “busy,” and that we should all aspire to the insane schedules of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur.
“It’s very popular, the feeling that there are too many things going on, that people can’t get in control of their lives and the like,” Robinson says. “But when we look at peoples’ diaries there just doesn’t seem to be the evidence to back it up … It’s a paradox. When you tell people they have thirty or forty hours of free time every week, they don’t want to believe it.”
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.
Rosin is the author of “The End of Men,” a co-founder of Slate’s DoubleX and a senior editor at the Atlantic.