Busyness people rushingWhen I tell people I work part-time, their first question is, “How old are your kids?”

When I tell them that I don’t have kids, they are often baffled. Typically, their next question is, “So how do you spend all of your free time?”  

I do have quite a bit more free time than I used to. My life feels more balanced even if I still don’t have enough time to do everything I want. 

For me, this was not always the case.  

Less than a year ago, I worked 50+ hour weeks, commuted 45-55 minutes each way, volunteered on a board of a nonprofit organization (and became the vice-chair), was part of a book club, started a blog, tried to exercise regularly and cook healthy meals, and invested time in building relationships with family and friends.

I felt constantly frazzled. My to-do list was pulling me in so many different directions that I was constantly thinking about the things I wasn’t getting done, even while doing things I enjoyed. Not only was I working long hours, but I was also managing complex interpersonal relationships. I was constantly thinking about how to maintain relationships, stay true to myself, and keep my livelihood.  

We all respond to prolonged stress in slightly different ways. For me, my mental health broke down slowly until it became a crisis.  

Severe anxiety and panic attacks forced me to take several months off of work. During this time, I had an opportunity to really understand my motivations and what drove this level of busyness in my life. I was also able to figure out some things that I could do to combat these feelings of busyness.  

College-Educated People in the US Are Busier than Ever Before

During the great depression, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that because of technological innovation, that within the next 100 years (by 2030), people would only need to work 15 hours/week.  

The economists weren’t entirely wrong about their predictions. The overall average work hours have decreased in industrialized countries.  In the United States, total work hours have decreased by about 10%.  

However, this statistic doesn’t tell the whole story.

leisure time chart by education

Highly educated people have actually seen their leisure time decrease in the last 50 years.

Not only are college educated people in the United States working more, but we are also doing more outside of work than ever before. According to Brigid Schulte, in her book “Overwhelm: Work, Love, and Play, When No One Has the Time,” our busyness goes beyond work. In our lives, we’re constantly “toggling between work, family, housework, and other obligations,” and we constantly feel behind on everything.  

Why We are So Busy

There are many reasons why we feel like we need to stay busy.  

1. Busyness signals value and social status.

Researchers from Columbia Business School found that people believe that someone has a higher status and more money when they are constantly working or busy. In fact, these same researchers found that the things one might think are status symbols, such as luxury cars, more leisure time, expensive clothing, or expensive handbags actually make people seem less likable. Being busy is a socially acceptable way for people to signal their “social status.”

Without realizing it, we often buy into the cultural narrative that busy equals success, importance, and value.  When we do, being and feeling busy makes us feel ambitious. It makes us feel important, valued, and worthy.

When we buy into this cultural narrative, the opposite also feels true. We can become insecure about our idle time. If we aren’t busy, does it mean that our lives are meaningless? That we are lonely? Not successful? Uncool?  

Busyness can also be a “hedge against emptiness.” If our calendars are completely full, if we are in demand every hour of every day, obviously our lives can’t be meaningless or trivial. Right?

2. There is social pressure to conform to the culture of busyness.

The value of being busy is so ingrained in our culture that we often perpetuate this norm through daily interactions without even realizing it.

Let me share a few examples.

Going back to the example above about how I work part-time, and people are baffled. I do have reasons for working part-time. I want more balance to keep myself mentally healthy and to have time for creative outlets (like blogging). However, I don’t talk about my mental health or my blog with people in everyday life.  When it’s hard for people to accept that I work part-time, I feel pressure to explain more about why when I shouldn’t need to.

It seems like a lot of others in the personal finance space have experienced similar things.

From City Frugal, I heard:

From Principal FI, I heard:

From FI Mechanic:

From Cashflow Cop:

And even from Tread Lightly Retire Early:

As you can see, even some of the most countercultural people I know in the personal finance community feel the external pressures to conform to the culture of busyness. We sometimes still feel like we need good reasons to not be busy.  

3. Busyness can be a numbing behavior

For some of us, being busy allows us to numb the pain that comes up when we aren’t busy.  According to Brene Brown in Daring Greatly, “One of the most universal numbing strategies is what I call crazy-busy… We are a culture of people who’ve bought into the idea that if we stay busy enough the truth of our lives won’t catch up with us.”

I have certainly fallen victim to this. When I was first considering Financial Independence, I was intrigued by the question, “What would you do if you didn’t need to work for money?” I hadn’t thought about what I actually wanted to do in many years. It was too painful to admit I wasn’t living the life I wanted to be living. In order to understand the pain, move on, and figure out what I really wanted, I needed to step out of the crazy-busyness.  

This has also been a theme within the FI community.  Many people have been clear that reaching Financial Independence doesn’t fix your problems. It exposes them for two reasons: 1) you no longer have money as an excuse, 2) you have a lot more time for your problems to catch up with you.  

Negative Impacts of Being Too Busy

Being too busy impacts two main things in our lives –  our health and our relationships.

Health

When we are busy, overwhelmed, and stressed our brain perceives a physical or psychological threat, triggering adrenaline and our fight or flight response.  While the threats we experience now are much less dangerous than our ancient ancestors, our bodies and brains can’t tell the difference.

When we experience prolonged stress, it goes beyond the fight or flight response. When the stress continues, our immune system kicks into overdrive to help prevent illness and infection. Because our bodies can’t sustain this overdrive for long, it leads to exhaustion – the body burns out – and larger health issues can arise.  

Because everyone is different, people can experience different physical or mental health issues as a result of prolonged stress. Some might experience headaches, depression, anxiety, ulcers, insomnia, or worse – cancer, heart attack, or death.  

One simple example of this from my life comes from college. Every year around exams, I’d push myself to the brink of exhaustion studying. Then once the exams were finished, I would immediately get sick either with a cold, the flu, or a stomach virus for the first 1-2 weeks of the holiday break. My immune system was working in overdrive, and when it no longer needed to, it was depleted and couldn’t keep me healthy.  

Another example is from my last job. As I have shared, I experienced prolonged stress and long hours in my last job. The stress was slowly building for a long time and then there was an extremely stressful event that pushed me over the edge. I began to have panic attacks that took several months to get under control.  

Relationships

One of the biggest complaints that people have about being too busy is that they feel guilty about not spending time with the people who are important to them.

I recently read an article by someone who has worked in hospice for 6 years. She wrote about the common regrets that people have at the end of their lives. Within the top three, we find that people wished they had spent less time working, more time loving the people who mattered to them most and being a better spouse, parent, or child.  

All Types of Busyness are Not Created Equal

While it’s clear that busyness can have consequences, I am not trying to suggest that we should avoid any and all activities. Nor am I necessarily suggesting that some busyness is a bad thing.

According to Nil F. Schott from Johns Hopkins University, “humans enjoy being busy when a task is fulfilling but can feel weighted when a task feels obligatory or when they feel pulled in two directions.”  

In other words, all busyness is not created equal. I want to make a distinction between different types of busyness. In my mind, there are 4 types of busyness:

Matrix Types of Busyness

We likely want to be spending the majority of time on things in Quadrant II and III and the least time on things in Quadrant IV (things that aren’t important to us that we don’t want to do).  

Only you can decide which things fall into various quadrants depending on how important they are to you and your own interests.  

Here’s a sneak peek at my own busyness matrix.  

Matrix Busyness

Let me clarify a few things.

By level of importance, I’m asking myself two questions:

  1. What are the ramifications if this doesn’t get done?  
  2. If it’s important, does it need to get done by me?

There are a few things I’d love to explain regarding my priority chart.  

Work

I do actually enjoy my part-time job, which is why I have it in Quadrant II. I do not believe I need to work extra hours nor do I want to. This is why working extra hours falls in Quadrant IV.

Volunteer Board

I used to serve as a board member of a nonprofit. To be clear, I do believe that the mission of the organization is important, which is why I struggled with the decision to quit.   

When I was feeling overwhelmed, I asked myself the question, “Does it need to get done by me?” I realized the answer was “no.” If I stepped down, I knew someone else would step up.

Friends/Acquaintances

Because I have a very strong group of friends in my life, I want to prioritize my energy by spending time with my closest friends.

I currently have “acquaintances” in Quadrant IV because I don’t feel like I’m in a stage of life where I need to make a lot of new friends. If things change and I want to make new friends, spending time with acquaintances would become a higher priority.  

Blogging, Creative Work, and Hobbies

I struggled with whether to put blogging, photography, and travel into the low or high importance bucket.  Ultimately, although I greatly enjoy these things, the ramifications if they don’t get done are quite low.

I put them into Quadrant III because everything can’t be a high importance priority. I do still want to ensure that I make time for these things in my life because these things bring me joy.  

What We Can Do About Busyness in our Lives

It’s not surprising that the solutions to busyness are different depending on the type of busyness we experience. Here’s a framework I put together based on personal experience, conversations with others, and a variety of resources.  

matrix addressing busyness

Quadrant I (High Importance; Don’t Want to Do):

If something is of high importance, but I don’t want to do it (e.g. cleaning, meal prep, exercise, etc.), I will think about ways to make it more efficient or more pleasant.

For example, when I was cleaning the house to prep for a visit from family, I listened to a podcast that I wanted to listen to. I don’t love to cook, but I feel that it’s important to save money by not eating out or ordering in. To be more efficient, I try to cook meals that are relatively easy and can provide leftovers for multiple additional nights.  

Quadrant II (High Importance; Want to Do):

These can sometimes be the hardest ones of all because these are the things that feel very important to us and we want to do them. These typically aren’t things that we can deprioritize nor do we want to.  If we are busy with these things, the main focus should be to cope and become more efficient where possible.

Focusing on self-care is important. I heard from various people in our Twitter discussion about busyness that getting off the grid through camping or a long bike ride are important ways of coping with busyness.  

Another strategy is to be fully present in the moment. According to researchers at Johns Hopkins, when we are not fully present and are instead focusing on what else we should be doing, it makes us feel busy, even if we aren’t. If we are mindfully present with the things that we enjoy, we won’t feel as busy doing them.

Brigid Shulte, who wrote Overwhelmed, found two important things to decrease busyness in her life:

  1. She gave up on perfectionism. She realized she doesn’t need to be the perfect mother/worker/housekeeper/daughter.  
  2. She’s learned her own natural rhythms and now prioritizes her days around them. Since she is most alert in the morning, she tackles her most important tasks then.  

Finally, it’s important to re-examine our own priorities often. Sometimes, we are still behaving as if something is of high importance, but on further examination, it isn’t. That’s okay and important to learn so that we can deprioritize it.  

Quadrant III (Low Importance; Want to Do):

These are going to be the hardest things to say no to. One strategy to focus on here is to determine which things on your Quadrant III list bring you the most joy and focus on those.  For me, it’s important for me to prioritize blogging and travel.

Also, hopefully by focusing on saying no or becoming more efficient in the other quadrants, we can make more time for Quadrant III things.  

Quadrant IV (Low Importance; Don’t Want to Do):

These are the things that, if at all possible, we will benefit most from saying “no” to. For example, when I realized that I was too busy to continue volunteering on the nonprofit board, and when I realized that someone else would step up, I knew I needed to say “no.”

Recently, I’ve had former colleagues reaching out to me for questions or to connect, and I’ve been saying “no” frequently. Keeping my professional network strong in the long-run is important to me, so I may reach out to them in the future. Right now, it feels important to have separation.  

When there are extra things that come up at work or things that I could volunteer to do, I’m choosing to say no and not volunteer extra time because I am happy where I am in my career and I’m not shooting for a steep upward trajectory at this moment.  

Becoming Time Affluent

When people pursue financial independence, they often communicate their reasons as wanting to have more time for people and things that are important to them and that bring them fulfillment.  

In other words, we want “time affluence.”

Tim Kasser, a psychologist and professor at Knox College in Illinois defines time affluence as “becoming affluent from a time perspective rather than a money perspective… When we’re time affluent, it allows us to pursue values and activities like personal growth, personal connections, and our relationships to our broader community.”

In my perspective, what is missing from Kasser’s perspective is the connection between time and money. Having financial stability enables us to have more time affluence. If we have F-You Money or are financially independent, we are able to make more deliberate choices about the use of our time.

We might feel more comfortable walking away from a job that isn’t serving us. We could choose to work fewer hours. We will likely have more confidence to say “no” to requests that we don’t want to do or that will take too much time. We can determine what our ideal lives look like and pursue our passions.  

Without having this financial stability, it can be more challenging (though certainly not impossible) to go against the grain of the dominant culture that says busyness is a virtue. With financial stability, we can pursue time affluence that enables us to pursue our Quadrant II and III goals.  

What steps have you taken to pursue time affluence in your life?  

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