Busy is the new status quo. But have we exceeded our do-it-all capacity? Our drive to do more may harm our success, relationships and even our health. It’s time to rethink what we say yes to—and discover that less really can be more. (Photos: Yasu + Junko
The Busy Vortex
Last December, Lauren McGoodwin was looking forward to some downtime over the holidays, because the pace of her life had become a little ridiculous. At 27, she’d grown used to living fast, breathless and overscheduled in Los Angeles. She had been working a full-time job as a recruiter while finishing her master’s degree in communication management. She spent every other waking minute launching a website for an entrepreneurial venture she’d been plotting. That is, every minute she wasn’t traveling to friends’ weddings, shopping for gifts or racing to and from holiday parties and networking events.
Those rare times she actually allowed herself to think about it, she acknowledged that she got a charge out of packing her calendar, loading up her to-do list and getting it all done. The long list could be a source of anxiety, and sometimes she drove herself to exhaustion. But the thought of the alternative—a list with little or nothing on it? That just felt wrong.
“I had this feeling that more is better—that if you’re doing a lot, you’re worthy, and people will respect you more,” she says. “Sometimes, when I met someone who wasn’t so busy, it made me feel kind of good. Like winning the game of life.”
With her packed days, McGoodwin really did think she was winning. So no one was more surprised than she was when she went home to Portland, Oregon, to visit family and barely got up from the couch. For days. Still recovering from a stomach bug she’d caught at a wedding in Mexico earlier in the month, she couldn’t eat. She binge-watched TV. She didn’t even have the energy to leave the house, because her body, worn out from being in overdrive, refused to cooperate. “My wheels were spinning so quickly, I couldn’t keep up,” McGoodwin says. “I fell off the deep end.”
McGoodwin decided to change. And she started small. She made a New Year’s resolution to at least stop talking about how busy she always was. She’d try to catch herself when she started going on about it, as if busyness were a badge of honor, like getting As in school had been. When her friends asked, “How are you?” instead of automatically answering “fried” or “crazy busy,” she’d take a breath and say, “I’m good.” Or “I’m feeling happy.” Gradually, she tried not to be so busy. Instead of expecting to do 100 tasks a day, she began to focus on fewer—and on doing them well. When her boyfriend was sitting on the porch relaxing, she would no longer resent him but join him. A year later, her health has improved. She quit her job and is now focusing solely on her website, CareerContessa.com, which features inspirational career stories and advice for women. The change, McGoodwin says, requires that she constantly check her old habits, “but I’m learning to be more comfortable with it.”
McGoodwin came to realize that busyness is often a choice, though sometimes it’s hard to see it that way. Everyone says they’re too busy, surveys show. Too busy to make friends outside the office. Too busy to register to vote. Too busy to date. Too busy to sleep. Researchers who study such things call feeling too busy a “non-choice choice,” meaning we are all, without much thought, striving to keep up with the busy Joneses. It’s become a way we show our status, even as it keeps us from being our most creative, lacking the downtime that neuroscience shows is necessary to produce the aha! moment of insight. We feel compelled to be busy, although it strains our relationships and makes us sick. Younger women, notably, are often so swamped—even before adding a layer of joy and craziness with kids—that many are on a collision course with burnout.
The Busyness Train
Jennifer Meffert, 33, is an MBA who often works long hours at her job at a federal agency in Washington, D.C. She’s active in her local Lean In Circle and Peace Corps alumni organization. She’s the statistician for her softball team. She plans networking events for a leadership group. She mentors college-bound students. And she’s constantly trying to “better” herself, attending lectures and author events. “It almost feels like if I have one night off a week, I’m slacking,” Meffert says. “But I’ve gotten feedback from guys I’ve dated that I’m sending the signal that I’m too busy or don’t want to make time for them.” Now in a new relationship, she’s hoping to change that.
Stopping the busyness train takes work. Like anything worth doing, it requires a willingness to jump, a network of other willing jumpers to lend support and some trial and error to figure out how. For young women, in particular, the first step is becoming aware of why you climbed aboard the train in the first place and what it’s costing you to stay.
The cost is high. In annual surveys, the American Psychological Association has found that women report being more stressed than men. Nearly half of all women surveyed reported that their stress levels have increased in the past five years, compared with 33 percent of men. And women are less likely to believe they’re managing it well. Women are also more prone to eat to help them cope, and new research published in the journal Biological Psychiatry found that stressed women burn fewer calories. “Men and women respond to stress differently, both biologically and emotionally,” says Helen Fox, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at the Yale Stress Center. “Women have shown a much more sensitized response to some stressors, particularly in terms of anxiety.”
Complicating matters, studies have found that women tend to ruminate more than men, mulling over past negative events and worrying about what’s to come—or, like McGoodwin, worrying that they’re not busy enough. And for women in partnerships or with children, who are likely to be in charge of the home front in addition to going to work, psychologists have found that their time is often “contaminated.” These women get so preoccupied with thinking, planning, logistics and list making that they’re living in their heads instead of in the moment—everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
Learning to interrupt those spiraling thoughts and taking a short time-out to do something you enjoy or reach out to a friend—or, if the stress is overwhelming, talk to a professional—are crucial to help women slow down and refocus, says Lynn Bufka, Ph.D., a psychologist with the American Psychological Association. “The expectations for women are so high these days, and the images of all the things women can be or should be are everywhere,” Bufka says. Running to keep up can keep women spinning in busyness. “But you have to learn to say to yourself, ‘It’s OK not to do this perfectly.’”
Megan McKenna, 30, an editorial manager for a fashion copywriting team in New York City, is struggling to learn that lesson. Her challenge isn’t so much trying to be perfect at work, it’s trying to be perfect at work and at home, a pressure she believes her fiancé doesn’t have. “If people come over and there are dishes in the sink, no one’s going to think, John’s not keeping up the apartment. They’re going to think I’m not keeping up the apartment,” she says. Megan’s outsize expectations for herself hit home when she threw the first party at their new apartment. She wanted it to be special—and, she admits, she wanted to impress people by living up to the standards set by all the lifestyle magazines and blogs she reads. On a hot summer day, she decided to make pesto stromboli from scratch for the first time. It was a disaster. She was dripping in sweat, the stromboli was raw and doughy, and soon she was in tears. “We ended up ordering pizza,” she said. “And you know what? It was fine. Everyone had a lovely time. That’s what I try to remember when I start getting worked up and overdoing it.”
Women in their 20s and 30s are more stressed out than virtually anyone else, surveys have shown. They hit the job market as the economy tanked. They’ve experienced higher unemployment rates than older workers. They’ve job-hopped, cobbled together low-paying jobs, hunted for unpaid internships and taken on record student-loan debt. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that more than half of the millennials in one APA survey said they’ve been so stressed that they’ve lain awake at night at least once in the previous month. One in five has been diagnosed with depression—a higher rate than in older Americans. Yet for all their economic woes, what do they report as their greatest source of stress? According to a recent Clark University poll, having too much to do and not enough time to do it.
If choosing busyness is automatic for so many young women, there’s a good reason for it. Most have always been busy. They are part of the first generation of children who were so overprogrammed and overscheduled that they barely had time to think, much less play or be idle. Many had working parents, and the combination of limited child-care options and demanding workplace cultures that put a premium on long office hours meant their parents scrambled to fill up their childhood time in safe and supervised settings. Middle-class parents, in particular—anxious about an uncertain future upended by globalization and a changing economy—sought every competitive advantage for their kids. Schlepped from soccer practice to gymnastics to tutors to cello lessons and back again, many children felt pressure to be, if not perfect, at least extraordinary.
Growing up, Christina*, 35, now an attorney for a big law firm in Washington, D.C., remembers a childhood of lessons, of people asking her what elite college she planned to attend when she was a fourth grader and of taking the PSAT at age 12. “We all felt that we had to be great at everything, not just good at one thing,” Christina says.
As a hard-charging lawyer, she worked most evenings and weekends for years. She hasn’t taken a vacation longer than a weekend, other than to see family. She doesn’t have time for laundry or exercise or much of a social life. She suffers from migraines, gastrointestinal issues and autoimmune disorders. “My body is clearly telling me something is wrong,” she says. “But if I’m not busy, I get really nervous. Overwhelmed is a place I know I shouldn’t be, but it’s where I’m most comfortable.”
Christina said it took learning she wouldn’t make partner on schedule to really stop and ask herself where all the stress had gotten her. She realized that much of what kept her busy came from trying to live up to someone else’s expectations. Now she’s taking time to slow down—to read, think and meditate—and try to figure out her priorities. “I’m reaching out to my friends and I’m telling them, ‘I overschedule myself to the point of madness, and I need you to help me. I need you to tell me we’re going to dinner and I can’t cancel, to put the phone away and be present,’” Christina says. “I’m at a real crossroads. I have to figure out who I am if I’m not working all the time.”
Plugged In, Stressed Out
Young women like Christina are also the first generation to grow up with ever-present technology. Solitude and daydreaming have been replaced by a giant maw of information and the seductive pull of the virtual world inside a smartphone. “They’ve been raised on more information, more choices than any other generation,” says Lauren Stiller Rikleen, who heads a leadership institute near Boston and surveyed more than 1,000 young men and women for her book, You Raised Us, Now Work With Us. “A simple ‘Where do you want to go for dinner?’ can become a search through thousands of Yelp comments for the ‘right’ place. All this information has added a layer of busyness and decision fatigue that’s crushing.”
Danielle Kelton, 30, who works in communications strategy in Los Angeles, says she has long felt tethered to email and her smartphone at all hours. Even on vacation, she yields to pressure to be always available to her clients and her boss. But after completely unplugging for three weeks on her honeymoon in May, she says she came to realize what she’d been missing. Life, she said, felt … bigger.
So Kelton and her husband are practicing mindful unplugging at home. They’re no longer sleeping with their phones by their beds. She takes lunch breaks. She goes for walks. She’s trying to “retrain” her brain so she won’t feel guilty for taking time to relax—something that research shows women have a difficult time doing, simply because they’ve been conditioned for centuries to be caretakers.
“When you step out of everything, you realize your job is not your identity—it’s just a job,” she says. “Spending time with your family, your husband, your friends, really being present instead of always checking your phone—when you look back on your year, that’s what you’re going to remember was important.”
In fact, doing what’s important, living a life of meaning and following one’s passion are hallmarks of this generation. While they’re laudable goals, they’re ironically also what often keep people busy searching for answers or worrying that they don’t know who they are or how to choose.
“That’s a lot to ask out of work—to expect that it’s going to be so fulfilling,” says Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Clark University. “These identity questions are never easy to answer— ‘what do I really want to do with my life?’ But this generation has been told they have the freedom to, that the range of options is infinite. As great as that is, it is also very stressful.”
Watching the Clock
Ashley Stahl, a career coach in Los Angeles, says part of young women’s drive to “rocket out of the gate” is the panic that many feel to succeed in their jobs in their 20s, so that by the time they hit their 30s and are ready to have children, they will have earned a measure of power and control over their schedules and will be poised for economic independence. “I see that very much in my office. ‘I’ve got to get this stuff done by the time I’m 32 because I want to have kids,’” Stahl says. “I’m constantly reminding people, ‘Life happens on your own clock. You’re the only person creating these deadlines for yourself.’”
One pilot study of college students found that most of the women had already begun worrying about how they would combine work and family. Though the men surveyed thought they’d have families someday, they were more focused on their education and getting established in careers. So, in the long term, a big part of taming busyness for women is negotiating how to share that load with men, especially now that both young men and women say in surveys that they want careers and time to be involved parents.
In the short term, Stahl offers some good advice: Try to say no to something once a week, and as you get better at it, try more often. Get clear on what’s important and choose to spend time doing those things first. Stahl calls them your core values. If you’re not sure what they are for you or what you’d do if the to-do list didn’t weigh so heavily, Stahl suggests keeping an idea book to help figure it out.
Because, in truth, the most powerful insight to help us jump off the busy train is realizing that it’s a choice. What if we didn’t try to be so perfect? What if, instead of busyness, we chose to value what gives meaning to our lives and makes us feel joyful? And what if, instead of striving to keep up with the busy Joneses, we chose to follow our own internal compasses? As the author Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” So choose to do one thing today, not 10. And embrace the rest in all its ordinary and glorious imperfection.
By Brigid Schulte
More from SELF: