We’re all busy. Everyone seems to be juggling a thousand things at once, treading water trying to make it to the weekend, to the next paycheck, to the next naptime. It can be exhausting to constantly have a calendar chock-full of meetings and events and dinner. Yet, in our culture, to be busy is to be respected. Our culture does not value people who don’t take initiative, who lounge around on the couch all day, who spend hours playing video games. Laziness is looked down upon, and busyness, while not quite lauded, is certainly considered a good thing.
But is it such a good thing for us? It depends on what gets sacrificed. Spending time at work, at the gym and on the go are pretty normal parts of life. But what of relaxation, recreation and relationships? Should our friends and families be accommodating of a schedule that never has time for them?
Why do we place such a high emphasis on being busy? Part of it could be chalked up to pride: the more crammed our calendars are, the more important we seem. A lot of it, though, is perception.
In 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that the current generations would work around three hours a day thanks to economic progress and tech advances. Surprisingly, he was right – to an extent. Americans actually do work less than we did. In fact, “every advanced economy in the world is working considerably fewer hours on average than it used to,” according to an article published in The Atlantic in May 2014. (Atlantic)
So why do we feel so harried? “Time poverty,” according to an article published in The Economist in December 2014, “is a problem partly of perception and partly of distribution.” (Economist)
In terms of distribution, the article points to several studies that show that the amount of leisure time a person has is related to the person’s education level. In other words, those with more education have less leisure time than those with less education. While Americans as a whole are working less than we used to, upper-level professionals and executives are working far more than the national average. In the most simplistic terms, “being busy can make you rich, but being rich makes you feel busier still.” (Economist)
Even if Americans as a whole are actually working less than we used to, it doesn’t quite feel that way. Most people can barely find the time to take care of themselves, let alone make time for friends and family. This is where perception comes in. The article argues that “the explosion of available goods has only made time feel more crunched… The endless possibilities afforded by a simple internet connection boggle the mind. When there are so many ways to fill one’s time, it is only natural to crave more of it.” (Economist)
Regardless of whether your busyness is due to perception or distribution, it is not only easy but very normal to feel harried and overwhelmed – and that feeling has a huge impact on our relationships with others. You are governed by the things you give your mind and thoughts to. When you allow your mind to be consumed by your busyness, when you allow your work and your schedule to govern you, you leave very little room for the people in your life – and those people matter far more than whatever you have packed into your schedule.
In the words of Omid Safi on the blog On Being, “Tasks are finite. They come at us with an endless barrage. We check them off, and more follow.” (On Being) Friends and family offer companionship and love, but you can’t reap those rewards if you’re constantly checking your email.
Removing the issue beyond yourself, constantly maintaining such a busy schedule can be offensive. When you consistently prioritize work over spending time with the people in your life, you’re placing a higher value on your work than your loved ones. It shows your best friend that you value getting a promotion more than hearing about his recent issues. It shows your parents that you value breaking that killer story more than making it home for Thanksgiving dinner.
Sometimes it’s inevitable; you have to skip a family vacation or a dinner with friends for work. Your job pays your bills, and sometimes you have to make sacrifices. But it’s absolutely crucial that you place a higher emphasis on your friends and family than you do on whatever is filling your calendar.
So how can reorganize our priorities in such a way that places a higher emphasis on the people we love? The first step is to be present wherever you are. If you’re at work, be at work. Do your job effectively and efficiently with minimal distractions from Facebook or phone calls. When you’re away from work, leave it behind. Have a time when you stop checking emails, when you give yourself permission to stop working. Similarly, when you’re with friends or family, be with them. Listen to them and enjoy they’re company, without distractions from your phone or your inbox.
Feeling too busy and overwhelmed is a time management problem. Maybe you’re overbooked; maybe you need to say “no” to certain activities. While there is value in filling your life doing things you love, it’s dangerous to get so swept away by your own busyness that you lose touch with the people who matter.