Busyness Is Not A Badge Of Honor

True or false: The average American man works twelve hours less a week now than he did in 1965.

Given how often we hear the seemingly ubiquitous phrases Sorry, I’m busy and I don’t have time from friends, colleagues, and family, it seems the correct answer would be a resounding false.

Yet the answer is true.

For women, working more paid hours now compared to 50 years ago is commonplace. But modern conveniences such as dishwashers and washing machines — plus less stringent domestic roles — have led to fewer unpaid homemaker work hours for females, according to this sound analysis in The Economist.

If men work far less, on average, and women work more, but it’s offset by more shared household duties, why does it seem like everyone is always so damn busy?!

We’re dealing with a modern paradox: a sense of increasing busyness coupled with the reality that many people do, in fact, have more leisure time.

It seems as if new technologies and consumer goods are often geared to saving minutes and hours. In theory, texting, one-click online shopping, and fast-food, among other conveniences, free us up to truly relax. We can spend more time porch-sitting with friends and family. Reading for pleasure. Picking up a new hobby. Imagine all the time that will be unleashed when driverless cars hit the market!

Yet our constant connectivity and abundance of consumer choices undoubtedly ends up stressing many of us out and seeping into our free hours. Several years back, I wrote about The Paradox of Choice, in which author Barry Schwartz argues (quite compellingly) that dwelling over consumer and leisure choices leaves people less satisfied and more harried than those who make decisions quickly and move on.

When my wife Rebecca and I decide to go out to eat, for instance, we can spend twenty minutes scouring Urbanspoon for new restaurants and reviews. Since our hometown of Louisville, KY, happens to be a rockin’ food town, this can be problematic. Time gets sucked up trying to make a decision that would have been simpler fifteen years ago. Same with Netflix. Should we watch a documentary? Continue watching Bloodline? How about Anthony Bourdain?

Not only do technology innovations combined with consumer choices potentially increase our busyness, or at least the feeling of busyness, the ethos that being busy is prestigious and meaningful contributes to eroding leisure time. Simply put, many folks choose to be busy. Tim Krieder writes, “Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.” At times, I’ve felt this pull.

During this past fall, I struggled with my new role as a hybrid teacher — there were so many opportunities to network, meet, write, and present. I found myself glued to my Outlook calendar scheduling appointments and tasks wherever blank slots existed. A nagging sense that I needed to be productive hounded me until I finally closed the laptop and crawled into bed to read at night, a respite from the glowing screen and pinging inbox.

I had fallen into the trap of evaluating the worth of my work by how booked I was. After all, I’m an American! Again The Economist:

…American workers toil some of the longest hours in the industrial world. Employers are not required to offer their employees proper holidays, but even when they do, their workers rarely use the lot. The average employee takes only half of what is allotted, and 15% don’t take any holiday at all, according to a survey from Glassdoor, a consultancy. Nowhere is the value of work higher and the value of leisure lower. This is the country that invented take-away coffee, after all.

I suppose some folks would argue that the U.S. is the world’s great economic power because of this puritanical work ethic; however, what is the cost to our health and happiness that a productivity trap inflicts upon us? And what the heck is up with the stigma attached to taking vacation days in some work environments, where taking time-off is a badge of laziness?

Here’s an idea to leave you with: Whether it’s deciding to check your work e-mail late at night, ruminating over what mustard to buy, or agonizing over whether or not you’re a good person based on the length of your “to-do” list, there’s a helluva lotta power in the idea of “good enough.” Settle more quickly with your consumer choices, turn off work and e-mail at a reasonable hour, and ignore that little demon on your shoulder insisting that you’re unworthy if your day isn’t chock-full.

I guarantee you’ll not only feel better, but you’ll truly be less damn busy.