Busyness and Our Concept of Time
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 with 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.
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. 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. They are spending more time with their children than did parents of 40 years ago, despite a prevailing sense that they are not. So why doesn’t it feel that way? The answer is in how we experience time in our minds.
“There is a distinction between objective time, which you can measure, and subjective time, which is experiential,” explains philosopher Nils F. Schott, 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.
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. … 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. … The lesson is that you have to be intentional in carving out the time you want for the things that you want.
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 over-consume 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,’ he 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. … 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.
Kasser started considering the alternatives:
Time affluence means becoming affluent from a time perspective, rather than from a money perspective. … 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.
An Action Plan for Busyness
So the question is “what to do about busyness?” Here are some suggestions:
- Stop telling yourself (and others) how busy you are. In addition to coming across as humble bragging you’re telling yourself it’s a reality you can’t change which is not true.
- Cut your “To Do” list by 50%. And distinguish between what is “important” versus “urgent” which is usually someone else’s urgent.
- Develop a system or set of routines to deal with distractions.
- Stop multitasking. Productive people focus on one thing at a time.
- Learn how to say “no” frequently and affirmatively.
- Take regular frequent breaks during the day every day.
- Revisit your priorities and focus your efforts on them.
- Simplify your life including owning fewer possessions.
- Regularly seek out solitude (by yourself), preferably in nature.
- Focus on developing good habits, into which you place your goals.
- Seriously cut back on your commitment to activities, and don’t add new activities without dropping a current one.
This is Part Four of a four-part series.
Part One- Are You Addicted To Busyness?
Part Two- Busyness Addiction
Part Three- Busyness Addiction: The Psychology
Read my latest book: Eye of the Storm: How Mindful Leaders Can Transform Chaotic Workplaces, available in paperback and Kindle on Amazon and Barnes & Noble in the U.S., Canada, Europe and Australia and Asia.
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