The busy-trap: Impacts of always being on the go

Adults and children in the U.S. are busier than ever, often leading to high levels of stress and its negative consequences. Learn more along with some tips for slowing down.

How often nowadays do you ask someone how they are and they respond with something to do with how they’re so busy? Economic growth and technological advances have shifted the kinds of work that is available and how we go about doing that work. Today, Americans are working longer days, taking less vacation time and retiring later in life. We face social pressures to be successful, something that we often measure based on definitions created by others. In fact, more frequently today adults use stress as a quantifier for success.

What kinds of impact can stress have?

  • In 2011, Harvard Medical School conducted a study that found the annual cost of lost productivity due to loss of sleep was over $63 billion.
  • In 2006, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America’s Workplace Stress and Anxiety Disorders Survey found 51 percent of employees surveyed reported stress and anxiety impacts their relationships with coworkers and peers, and 56 percent said stress and anxiety impact their work performance. Of the latter, more than three-fourths say this stress carries over to their personal lives.
  • In 2015, the American Psychological Association’s “Stress in America: The Impact of Discrimination” found that two in five adults reported overeating or eating unhealthy foods in the past month due to stress. In addition, 46 percent of parents (defined as those with children under 18 living at home) reported losing patience with or yelling at their children in the past month when they were feeling stressed.

As a full-time professional, full-time PhD student, partner, home-owner and friend, I can say I am guilty of quantifying my success and satisfaction by my level of stress and business. I fall into the busy-trap. What this means for me is that I often feel a sense of guilt when I take time to relax or reflect, turning my “me time” into more stressful rumination about all the things I could or should be doing.

Author Kate Northrup recently started a project called “The Do Less Experiment.” When it comes to busy, Northrup notes it is important to acknowledge “people will never stop asking you to do things,” and continues saying, “Opportunity will not stop knocking.”

Northrup’s challenge to us is to make space. The only people who can control how much we put on our plates is us, so it is important to be conscious about what we agree to. The Do Less Experiment is a two-week process to facilitate us making space for things that matter by setting aside the things that don’t.

This same busy phenomena impacts the youth in our lives. More and more, youth are overscheduled in activities: constantly running from one commitment to another, cramming in homework where they can and having very little time for play or exploration. In “Overscheduled kids, anxious parents,” clinical psychologist Paula Bloom encourages adults to create a space where the youth in their lives understand they are not defined by what they do. Bloom says, “Parents need to teach their kids to balance human doing with human being.” (Emphasis added.)

Mental Health America is a nonprofit dedicated to addressing the needs of those living with mental illness and promoting overall mental health of Americans. They offer 11 tips for reducing or controlling stress. Here are five I have found that help me escape my busy trap:

  1. Be realistic. Learn to say no and eliminate activities that aren’t absolutely necessary. Brené Brown says, “Choose discomfort [of saying ‘no’] over resentment [of yourself or others later].”
  2. Shed the “superwoman/man” urge. No one is perfect, so don’t expect yourself or others to be perfect. Don’t hesitate to ask for help when you need it.
  3. Take one thing at a time. When you feel overwhelmed, pick the one most urgent task and work on it until it is done. Then check it off the list and move on to the next most important thing.
  4. Give in occasionally. Be flexible and present. Allow yourself to rethink your position or strategy and to say yes when something fun comes along.
  5. Go easy with criticism. Remember, everyone has unique strengths, perspectives and areas in which they’re developing. Don’t be too harsh on yourself or others as you work to check things off your list.

To learn about the positive impact of Michigan State University Extension and Michigan 4-H youth leadership, civic engagement, citizenship and global/cultural programs, read our 2015 Impact Report: “Developing Civically Engaged Leaders.” Additional impact reports, highlighting even more ways Michigan 4-H positively impacted individuals and communities in 2015, can be downloaded from the Michigan 4-H website.

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