Why we can’t seem to take the time to make the time for change.

Last month, as sociologist Christine Carter traversed the holiday party circuit, she found that most of her conversations started the same way. “You must be so busy,” people said. After all, Carter has four kids, has written two books, is a senior fellow at the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, an executive coach and a frequent keynote speaker. Surely, she must be frantic.

“Actually, I’m not that busy,” Carter kept saying. “I work hard to not be busy.” Carter, the author of “The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Work and Home,” is something of an anti-busyness crusader — an apostle of stillness, single-tasking and the state of joyful focus that she calls “flow.” But she’s swimming against the tide in a culture that sees busyness as a virtue.

“Oh, but I love being busy,” people tell her. To which she replies: “You don’t like being busy. You just don’t like the feelings that come up from not being busy.”

It wasn’t always like this. The ancient Greeks considered leisure to be humanity’s highest calling. (They defined leisure as any activity that was worth doing for its own sake and believed that citizens should educate themselves for the purpose of using leisure time to the fullest.) The belief in the sacredness of leisure persisted for centuries and was enshrined in our own Declaration of Independence as our inalienable right to “the pursuit of happiness.” It was only after the Industrial Revolution, when productivity began being measured in units of time, that busyness became a measure of personal worth.

“There’s a social norm around people saying they’re busy,” says social psychologist Erik Helzer, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School. “It conveys that other people need your time, they need your resources. So to say you’re busy conveys that you’re a person of value in the eyes of other people. And because that norm is in place, even if you don’t enjoy being busy, people don’t want to act against norms.”

In fact, Americans are so enthralled with busyness that we barely go on vacation. Americans work far longer hours and take less than half the vacation days of people in many other industrialized countries. In her book “Overwhelmed: Work Love, and Play When No One Has the Time,” author Brigid Schulte reports that nearly 40 percent of American workers across the economic spectrum report feeling overworked. And while social norms are part of the story, there are also real economic pressures that keep us spinning on the gerbil wheel.

“Work is precarious and job security is nonexistent, and there’s a feeling that if you’re not the ideal worker who is putting in 150 percent, you’re at risk,” says sociologist Stacy Torres, assistant professor of sociology at the University at Albany-SUNY.

“Contaminated time”

We are thus bombarded with advertisements for products that will help us manage the stress of our busy lives —bath salts, scented candles, herbal tea, foot massagers. But it turns out that stress by itself isn’t the problem. Many of us thrive under a certain amount of stress, whether it’s pulling together a big presentation, making a high-stakes business move or performing a complicated procedure. Those stressful activities can be energizing and exciting — as long as they’re followed by a period of relaxation and recovery. Dr. Daphne Miller, author of “Farmacology: What Innovative Family Farming Can Teach Us About Health and Healing,” points out that the stress-and-recovery cycle is what our bodies evolved to do. “It’s the running-from-the-saber-toothed-tiger thing, where afterward we can sit by the fire and sing,” she says. “That kind of episodic stress seems quite manageable to a lot of people. The kind that’s dysfunctional is the kind that doesn’t reach a peak but is constantly there, the daily grind, constantly feeling like you’re underperforming, not getting enough sleep. That’s the dysfunctional stress that leads to disease.”

Unfortunately, the second kind of stress is the rule rather than the exception. Thanks to digital technology, upper-income-salaried professionals have seen their working hours bleed into the evenings and weekends so that they never get to feel they’re completely off-duty. The loss of solid blue-collar employment means that a lower wage worker must cobble together an income from multiple jobs with few or no benefits, scrambling to absorb transportation, health and child-care crises within the boundaries of an inflexible, yet often unpredictable, schedule. And everyone who raises children or cares for an ailing or elderly family member is essentially trying to squeeze a second full-time job into an already packed schedule — a prescription for feeling squeezed, sad and overwhelmed.

In her book, Schulte describes her life as a journalist and mother of young children as “scattered, fragmented and exhausting.” Researchers, she reports, have a name for the state of mind in which we spend our leisure hours mentally cycling through a litany of anxieties and unfinished tasks. They call it “contaminated time.” When scientists at the Yale Stress Center looked at the brains of people experiencing this kind of unremitting stress, they found measurable shrinkage in the size of the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for higher functions like reason, decision-making and planning. Long-term stress is also linked to nearly every chronic disease you can think of, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, arthritis, osteoporosis and Alzheimer’s.

Does it have to be like this? What would happen if we, both as individuals and as a society, valued leisure the way we value busyness? What if we valued time the way we value possessions?

A new measure of wealth

Psychologist Tim Kasser, author of “The High Price of Materialism,” has coined the term “time affluence” as a way to help us imagine a different kind of wealth. Time affluence, he has said, means having the time to pursue the activities that give our lives joy and meaning — being with family and friends, spending time in nature, playing, learning, reflecting, experiencing the sacred, serving the community. It means having the time to actually be present in each moment, to feel all the emotions and sensations that make up what the University of Iowa leisure researcher and professor Ben Hunnicutt has called “the miracle of now.”

It also means rejecting the idea that humans can work like machines, at a steady andendless pace, without taking time to recuperate. Research has found that we work best in 90-minute bursts and that we stop being effective after about six hours. “After six hours, people make a lot of errors,” Carter explains. “They talk in circles, start blaming people, make mistakes.”

We also work best without interruption. The constant blips of digital input, the strings of meetings and phone calls, the attempts to multitask all slice our attention into fragments, making us feel overstimulated and overwhelmed and producing a state that neuroscientists call “cognitive overload.” As those shrunken prefrontal cortexes showed, being overloaded makes it hard to do anything well —think, plan, create, organize, decide, learn or speak.

The opposite frame of mind is something Carter calls “flow”— the state of being so absorbed in what we’re doing that we lose track of time altogether. “By definition, flow is a state when time stands still,” she says. “You lose the sense of linear time. It feels like happiness —it’s so deeply joyful.” We can feel flow when we’re working or when we’re playing, but it only comes when we stop multitasking and fully engage in one activity without interruption.

But before we can drop into flow, we have to endure the jittery, fidgety moments when we’re dying to do something, anything, other than what we’re doing. The moments when we’re hit with the sudden urge to check our phones, have a snack, log onto social media. It turns out the constant stimulation of modern life has induced a bit of an allergy to peace and quiet.

“Our brain gets very addicted to all that stimulation, and that’s why we feel so angsty when we’re not busy,” Carter explains. But, she says, when we’re completely still — just staring out a window or waiting in line, not thinking of anything in particular — our brain goes to work forming neural connections and storing memories. “There’s more brain activity when you’re just daydreaming than when you’re focusing on a particular problem,” Carter says.

How to get (time) rich

Becoming time affluent enough to daydream requires a certain amount of rebellion. The people I spoke to for this piece who had done it had made choices, large and small, that bucked the prevailing trends. They’d chosen time over money, when they could afford to. They’d insisted on getting a good night’s sleep. They’d imposed limits on digital intrusions — two of them had “dumb phones.” They’d embraced stillness, repose and relaxation as necessary elements of life rather than rewards that could be claimed at some distant point in the future. And they’d stopped believing that being frantic was a prescription for success.

“I was a weird one in medical school who stopped studying at 6 p.m., cooked dinner and went to sleep,” Miller says. “Early on I realized there was almost an arms race of busyness in which you had to one-up the next person. Once you start to step outside of that, you realize that it’s really counterproductive.”

If you’re reading this, you might have already resolved to live differently — just as soon as you have the time. But when Helzer studied people’s plans for “aspirational activities” like traveling, reading or spending time with loved ones, he found that the future never comes.

“People are offloading these aspirations onto the future because they don’t have the time now, but if you look at the people who are five years in the future, they don’t have the time either,” he explains. Part of that is because the pressures that put us in stress mode don’t go away, and part of it is because habits are hard to change.

So are we all doomed to lives of eternal busyness? Not at all. The key is to realize that the stories we tell ourselves about why we need to keep working at such a frenetic pace are just that — stories. We can be paralyzed by our belief that we’re putting our careers at risk if we slow down even for a moment.

“If we just go ahead and do it, most of the time nothing bad happens,” Helzer points out. “But we get trapped by our worry that deviating from what we normally do is going to harm us in some way.”


Research shows that human beings need to take a break about every 90 minutes and stop being productive after about six hours. Most of us need eight hours of sleep, regular meals and periods of downtime. It should be no surprise that honoring these basic physiological limitations does wonders for feeling human again.

A study by researchers at the University of California, Irvine, found that it takes an average of 20 minutes or more to regain the focus we lose after being interrupted. Another study, this one at King’s College London, found that workers who checked email throughout the day lost 10 points of functional IQ — the same result as losing an entire night’s sleep. So turn off your phone’s chimes and alerts and make it a habit to only check email once or twice a day. If you’re prone to wandering through the Internet while working, consider using a program like Freedom to enforce a set time period of digital lockdown. “If you want to do work that feels meaningful and fulfilling, you need to do your work,” Carter says. “Email is other people’s task list for you.”

Research shows that the brain needs restorative moments of stillness in order to recover from concentration and stress, commit information to memory and build neural connections. (That’s probably why so many good ideas come when we’re in the shower.) It turns out that nothing is better for restoring fractured attention and cultivating a sense of calm than being in nature. In Japan, the practice of “forest bathing” has been shown to lower anxiety, blood pressure and the production of stress hormones, while studies in the U.S. have found that being in nature increases feelings of vitality, relieves anxiety and improves cognition. Best of all, nature stops the obsessive, self-referential cycle of thought that keeps us from being in the present moment. The key is to take out the earbuds and put away the phone and give yourself over to the experience of being wherever you are — even if it’s just a 15-minute stroll or 10 minutes of sitting on a bench in your local park.

It’s hard to fight these battles alone. No one likes to feel like they’re swimming against the tide, and advocating for a less stressful work life may feel like you’re asking colleagues to shoulder burdens that are yours. So band with others in your workplace to advocate for policies that support work-life balance for everyone. At the ballot box, support candidates who want to make life less stressful for all working families by promoting things like family leave, health and vacation benefits, and decent wages.

It’s easy to add stress-reducing activities to your to-do list, but that often just makes you feel busier. “Part of it is being strategic and figuring out what to say yes to,” Miller says. “And part of it is being good at saying no.” Don’t let other people reduce their busyness by handing over tasks that will add to yours, and don’t let your perfectionism make something enjoyable, like a family outing, turn into a source of stress. Most important, protect the activities most valuable to you by being fully present when you’re doing them, whether it’s playing with your kids, walking the dog or reading a book.

Photo credit: thinkstock, istock, palinchakjr.