Every day when I pick up my girls from school, I hear the same conversation in the parking lot:
“How’s your day going?” one parent asks another in passing.
“Oh good, good, but you know, busy.” Mutual nodding and eye-rolling to emphasize just how busy each one is. “So crazy busy.”
And then they hurry their children along to their cars to get to the next appointments, lessons, or sport practices.
I have to admit, I’ve participated in this conversation many times myself, and more often than not it’s me hurrying my children to the car to whisk them off to the next activity. As my girls get older and I try to work part-time, our life has begun to move at a faster and faster pace. I don’t particularly like being on the busyness high-speed train, but I’m not sure how to get off or even if our culture would willingly let me depart.
Being busy is a favorite American pastime. Actress Carrie Fisher said, “These days even instant gratification takes too long.” Our busyness is a way we measure our worth, our status, and our impact. Our Western philosophy is that time is money, therefore to make something better, we believe we need to make it faster. And faster. And even faster still. When you go faster, you can cram more into your day and get ahead. I’ve read in more than one parenting book that the way to beat the before-school-morning-rush is to have your kids sleep in their clothes for the next day. They hop out of bed a little wrinkled but ready to go, saving you time so you can get more done.
I wonder if we are taking this American need for speed too far.
Journalist Carl Honore is the author of the bestselling book In Praise of Slowness. In a TEDTalk where, ironically, he speaks incredibly fast, Honore states that “We’re hurrying through our lives, instead of actually living them. We’re living the fast life instead of the good life.”
Despite the fact that our busyness makes us feel important and worthwhile, research studies are beginning to show that busyness might be lowering our work productivity and eroding our interpersonal relationships. Writes author and Buddhist practitioner Norman Fischer, “Feeling too busy drives us crazy. Falling ever further behind as the to-do list relentlessly grows is nerve-wracking and stressful. We begin to feel like prisoners of the list, of our lives and our desires, prisoners of time.”
As much as I try to hold back the busyness and keep our family life reasonably paced, some days I feel behind before I even get out of bed in the morning. My feet hit the floor knowing that there aren’t enough hours in the day to squeeze in all the items on my list. This last week there has been a buzz of panic in the back of my mind because I know that Christmas is right around the corner. If I don’t get a move on, I will soon be buried by an avalanche of extra projects, errands, and chores. The idea of taking one more thing when each day is already packed full makes me want to crawl back under the covers and weep.
But Fischer also says something that gets to the heart of my busy-ness. He states that busy “is not a fact: it’s a choice.”
One of the side effects of our busy lives is that we never slow down enough to ask ourselves: Why am I doing this? Do I want or need to be doing this? Does this lead me where I want my life to go?
If each of us slowed down enough to examine our to-do list, we might find that much of our busyness is self-imposed. My friend Corrie Kate has five kids. She also works full-time and squeezes in some college classes each semester. There isn’t a lot of give in Corrie Kate’s life so when she says she is busy, I know it is true. But for many of the rest of us, how much of our busyness is of our own making?
This question has inspired formerly harried people across the globe to join together in a conscious effort to slow down. The International Slow Movement advocates Slow Medicine (alternative medicine that works slowly and with fewer side effects), Slow Cities (cities committed to less crowding, less traffic, and more quiet spaces), Slow Money (investments in grassroots organizations and local economies), and Slow Food (uniting the pleasure of quality food with responsible sustainability).
It sounds silly–Slow Money and Slow Cities–but on closer examination, I realize that these slow principles are being utilized by my own small town as a means of economic survival. An assertive Think Local First program has helped raise the consciousness of residents regarding where they spend their money. Bumper stickers and decals on store windows are a reminder that the dollars we spend here rather than online or out-of-town strengthen our local economy and increase self-reliance and economic resiliency. Community members have also joined together to sponsor music in the park events, and a mural society has added visual beauty to our town. These projects encourage residents and tourists alike to slow down and enjoy what our little community has to offer, and by doing so helps our town keep our fiscal footing in this slippery economy.
I am a strong supporter of the Slow Food movement, and believe that there is nothing more important than investing time and resources into eating well and healthfully. In my opinion, our current obesity crisis in this country and our declining health are due to the consumption of fast food and processed food. Although these foods help us keep up with our hectic pace, eating on the run is not only a health hazard but also has an powerful impact on family functioning. Research has shown overwhelmingly that families who eat together have healthier and happier kids who perform better in school. Family dining is especially important during the adolescent years, and statistically families that share meals have teens who are significantly less likely to do drugs, have depression or eating disorders, consider suicide, or have sex at an early age.
Even though I am committed to feeding my family healthy meals, I have developed the bad habit of rarely sitting down at the table. While my family eats the wholesome food I prepared, I run around the kitchen cleaning up or fixing lunches for the next day. I tell myself that I am still participating in the family conversation as I work, but the scientific reality is that there is no such thing as multitasking. We may be able to do two things at once, but our brains can only pay attention to one thing at a time, says biologist John Medina in his book Brain Rules. Forcing our brain to constantly shift attention between activities creates mental fatigue and stress. Studies show that people who are constantly forced to split their attention take 50 percent longer to accomplish a task and make up to 50 percent more errors. It has been proven that talking on a cell phone and driving is equivalent to driving drunk. It follows that doing chores while the rest of your family is eating does not have the same positive benefits, emotionally or nutritionally, as sitting at the table and participating in the meal.
But living the slow life takes time, and making food from scratch is a lot of extra work. In some ways, the Slow Movement and its sister movement Do-It-Yourself have put many of their followers between a rock and a hard place. We want to improve our quality of life by making homemade food and gifts, and learning the lost arts of gardening, woodworking, and sewing, but these projects take an enormous number of hours. My friend Diane, who runs a ranch outside of town, commented that it is frustrating when people idealize her life as living more simply. “There is nothing simple about running a ranch,” she said. “It is a lot of work.”
A recent New York Times article featured a number of white-collar professionals who dropped out of the rat race for “simpler” lifestyles and careers. One woman left her career as a busy corporate attorney for the slower life of selling food from a street cart. What she discovered was that she is now having to work longer and harder than ever before. Without the safety net of benefits and paid sick leave and vacations, she can’t afford to be ill or take time off. She traded busy for busier.
If escaping busy isn’t possible, how can we learn to modify our current busyness?
Fischer states that busy is an attitude. We can act really busy when we aren’t, he says, and be calm when we are busy. “Being too busy or not being busy is an interpretation of our activity. Busyness is a state of mind, not a fact. No matter how much or how little we’re doing, we’re always just doing what we’re doing, simply living this one moment of our lives.”
Sometimes after I have been running around, frantically checking items off my list, a small inner voice asks: Where am I racing to? Exactly where is the finish line? When I really look at those questions, I realize that the only true finish line is death, and why in the world would I want to be rushing to get there?
However, that is exactly what we seem to be doing, and it starts when we are still in the womb. Fetuses are listening to Mozart and babies are propped up in front of Baby Einstein videos to help stimulate their brains earlier and faster. Our preschool programs are referred to as “Head Start.” When my oldest daughter wasn’t reading by the second month of First Grade she was pulled into a special program and each night we were required to drill her on sight words or she wouldn’t receive her sticker for the week. It was enormously stressful for her, being forced to learn to read before she was cognitively ready. Also stressful is the heavy load of homework that starts as early as Kindergarten. But there is a glimmer of hope. According to Honore, some schools are placing bans on homework. He cites a case at a high-achieving private school in Scotland where homework was eliminated much to the parents’ outrage. At the end of the year, exam results showed that scores improved by 20 percent in math and science.
Even though headlines scream that our kids are too busy, and books are published with titles such as The Hurried Child, for most the pace of after-school activities and weekend commitments are relentless. It is exceedingly difficult not to overbook our kids, and despite my best efforts, I find my own children’s schedule becoming more and more full. This alarms me, because a crucial component of growing up is having time to play, to daydream, and having the opportunity to be bored and discover how to entertain yourself. It is interesting to note that some of the more creative people in history were sickly as children and spent long hours alone. Frida Kahlo. Wilbur and Orville Wright. Stephen King. Joni Mitchell. Robert Lewis Stevenson. Edith Piaf. Alan Alda. Edvard Munch. George Washington Carver. There is something to be said for downtime.
There is something to be said for “conscious relaxation” also. Different from meditation, conscious relaxation is about purposefully stopping and well, relaxing. In the book How God Changes Your Brain, neuroscientist Andrew Newberg lists conscious relaxation as the sixth best way to exercise your brain, and states that relaxing with purpose “interrupts the brain’s release of stress-stimulating neurochemicals.” He suggests taking time each day to perform a body scan to release chronically-held muscle tension. It is also beneficial to perform simple, repetitive activities that calm the mind and allow the spirit to rejuvenate such as knitting, counting rosary beads, kneading bread, painting, playing the piano, or drawing.
Once you reach a consciously relaxed state, it might be good to take a few moments to consider whether or not the activities that fill your day fall within your “core competencies.” Laura Vanderkam, author of 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, suggests that we all have core competencies–tasks that only we can do, and that we do best. Usually these tasks fall under the following three categories: nurturing our career, nurturing our family and close friends, and nurturing ourselves. She says for everything that doesn’t fall within these categories, “Ignore, minimize or outsource.”
This is quite helpful for clearing a to-do list. I keep stating that next summer I am going to dedicate myself to making my yard look better. But when I apply Vanderkam’s formula, I see that my summers usually revolve around outdoor activities with my girls and traveling to see family. To add gardening to my summer to-do list would just create a heightened degree of busyness in the few months of the year when we can be a little slower paced. It would be nice to have a lovely yard, but I’m not sure it would be worth the harried effort. Regretfully, but with great relief, I have let go of my yard-improvement quest.
But this week has been exceptionally difficult even after reassessing my to-do list, and next week doesn’t look much better. To cope, I’ve been following Fischer’s advice and when feeling particularly stretched thin I take a deep breath and say to myself, “Not busy.” As I flip french toast and feel the other twenty-five things that need to be done stack up behind me, I remember that this is just one moment and that I can do only one thing within this moment. Suddenly, everything narrows to the task of flipping french toast and I can momentarily adopt an attitude of calm. It is with this new attitude that I sit down at the table and enjoy a meal with my family. I ignore the pull of my to-do list for the day, and I remind myself of Fischer’s statement that “feeling frantic doesn’t make us more efficient.” It only makes us busy.