Always busy? How to cope when life gets overwhelming

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Life today is a never-ending juggle of work, self-improvement and socialising. When did it all become so overwhelming – and how, asks Kerry Potter, can we make it stop?

Here’s a practical exercise before we get onto the theory: ask a selection of friends and colleagues how they are, and take note of their replies. I bet they all use exactly the same adjective: busy. 

Everyone is busy. The B word has become our stock response to an enquiry about our wellbeing, replacing ‘fine’, the blanket reply of yesteryear. It’s the common thread running through our conversations and lives. A friend recently told me how she’d attended a hen weekend to which the bride arrived a whole day late due to an over-running work project and then spent most of the weekend fielding office calls on her mobile, much to the frustration of her hens. 

Another acquaintance, a lawyer with three children, gleefully told me that she’d finally managed to carve out some me-time, a small pause in her day during which she could lie down without anyone asking anything of her. How? She’d gone to the dentist for a filling.

Daily life – as I’m sure you’ve noticed – has become an endless, exhausting to-do list. There’s work, obviously, which seems to take up ever more time and brain space. And then factor in an energy-killing commute, making time for both romantic relationships and friendships, running a household, life admin (did you post dad’s birthday card?), eating something other than M&S ready meals, the odd gym class and personal grooming (I can’t be the only one who paints my nails in bed at midnight praying I don’t smudge them in my sleep). Don’t forget to schedule in some cultural enrichment – what do you mean you still haven’t read The Goldfinch? – oh, and some sleep would be nice too. Feel like you’re drowning yet? I know I do, and that’s just from writing it all down.

England’s chief medical officer Professor Dame Sally Davies reports that the number of work days lost to stress, depression and anxiety has increased by a quarter in the past five years. On average, workers spend the equivalent of 4.5 days per year more commuting than they did a decade ago. According to Jonathan Spira’s book Overload!, two-thirds of employees feel they don’t have enough time to get their work done and a whopping 94% feel “overwhelmed by information to the point of incapacitation”. 

As Tony Crabbe, business psychologist and author of Busy puts it, “People are running their lives at breakneck speed and don’t have the energy or perspective to step back and see if there’s a different way of doing things.”

Interestingly, we are not working longer hours than ever – the Office for National Statistics has found that full-time workers average just 39.1 hours per week, including overtime, with the length of the average working week falling since 1998. Not only do we work less than we think, we have more leisure time too. Extensive research carried out by American sociologist John Robinson, who has studied how we spend our time for 50 years, shows that we have, on average, 30 hours of leisure time per week.

To which I say: it certainly doesn’t feel like it, does it? But perception is key – if you feel like you’re hideously busy and you’re always trying to fit work around exercise around book club around cooking every night, then that’s your reality. And it’s no fun.

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Treading water

It hasn’t always been so. Until the latter part of the 20th century, idleness was associated with being rich and powerful, with the lower orders the ones unfamiliar with the concept of ‘free time’.

“In the Fifties, during the post-war boom in productivity and living standards, economists predicted a coming age of leisure. They believed that by now we’d be working four days a week and retiring at 38,” says Brigid Schulte, author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love And Play When No One Has The Time.

“But in the Eighties, the long hours’ culture arrived. Wages started to stagnate, costs carried on rising. Advertising made people feel like they needed the best new things. So it became a vicious cycle of work, spend, work, spend.” Schulte says it was then that we started to see being busy as a badge of honour, equating it to power and success.

In its wake came the pressure to be all things to all people. In order to be the most competent, well-rounded individual, you had to have read the Booker Prize shortlist, have a conversational interest in global current affairs and be accomplished in at least one extra-curricular activity (“Oh, can’t do Thursday – that’s creative Cuban cooking night”).

Then came the technology revolution. Just as the washing machine had promised freedom to a generation of housewives, laptops and Wi-Fi promised us freedom from our desks. But what they didn’t predict was that we would be constantly in thrall to our to-do lists and emails. In fact, we’ve become so conditioned to doing something, we’ve forgotten how to do nothing

The advent of 24-hour news and constant phone notifications hasn’t helped either, particularly when the headlines are harrowing as they’ve been this summer. Terrorism, aircraft disasters, Ebola… “I just had to turn the TV off” is a phrase that will perhaps belong to 2014.

Professor Mary McNaughton-Cassill from the University of Texas, San Antonio, believes this may well be the wisest thing to do. She’s been studying the relationship between stress and bad news since the Oklahoma bombings in 1995, and has found that a steady stream of bad news can trigger cognitive shortcuts that gradually make us see the world in a more negative light. When our bodies perceive a threat – Russian tanks rolling into Ukraine, for instance – they produce stress hormones such as cortisol, which affects our immune system. And while we certainly shouldn’t ignore the plight of others, being in a constant state of alert due to fear-inducing headlines isn’t going to help anyone.

But while external pressures can make us feel helpless and overwhelmed, we do have a choice in how we react. Because guess who puts us under the most pressure? Ourselves.

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Drowning in work

The notion of busyness as a status symbol is our own doing. “There’s an aspirational part to it. While we moan about it, research shows we actually compete to be busy,” says Crabbe.

He cites the example of coming back from holiday and complaining about the 700 emails in your inbox, only for a colleague to trump you by revealing they had 800 when they went away. The implication is that your colleague is more important than you.

“There’s an addictive nature to being busy,” he explains. “Dopamine – a feel-good neurotransmitter – is released each time we get an email. If you don’t think you’re hooked, ask yourself how long it takes to reach for your first shot of email each day.”

We also take cues from our boss. Who hasn’t had that pang of fear on checking their email at the pub and finding a missive from (s)he-who-must-be-obeyed? 

“Bosses unintentionally create expectations. Without realising it, they demonstrate behaviour which leads us to feel we should work longer,” says Crabbe. That’ll be those meetings booked in for the end of the day which you know will over-run, the barrage of emails sent over the weekend, or their tweets popping up in your feed at all hours. The result is that even if we aren’t working all hours, we are thinking about work all hours. 

Yet, having spoken to a variety of managers, I found a disconnect between what employees think (for example, that working long hours earns brownie points) and what bosses believe.

Jenny Biggam, co-founder of media agency the7stars, has a staff of 101. “I’m really conscious of emailing staff at strange hours, as I know it causes them stress. I don’t work all the time but I do sometimes clear out my inbox on a Sunday night because that’s a time that suits me. But I’ll save the emails as drafts and then ping them on Monday morning.” 

Even corporate behemoth Arianna Huffington doesn’t expect 24-hour devotion from her staff: “The way we treat email is absurd. Psychologically, it’s as if the mailman is delivering every minute and you have to get up to open the door. My people are not expected to be on email once they’ve done their job. That’s incredibly freeing.”

In fact, there is a growing raft of companies trying to quell the overwhelm. German car manufacturer Daimler simply deletes any emails sent to staff while they’re on holiday. Similarly, Germany’s employment ministry has banned managers from emailing staff out of hours in a bid to stop them burning out.

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Time to breathe

Despite this sense of drowning, there are many ways in which we can come up for air. Mindfulness meditation continues to gain traction as a counterpoint to our insane lives, recommended by the NHS, with apps, books and classes springing up nationwide. 

Michael Chaskalson, author of Mindfulness In Eight Weeks, says it’s important to learn to uni-task in a world where multi-tasking is king. While you think multi-tasking allows you to do more, research has shown it actually causes us to use our brains less effectively, making us perform poorly at every task. “Learning how to pay attention to just one thing at a time is not easy. It’s a skill that needs to be learned.” 

He recommends a one-minute starter exercise, in which you sit still, close your eyes, put your feet on the floor and focus on your body, paying attention to your breathing, and bringing your mind back when it starts to wander. The benefits of mindfulness are wide-ranging: a report from the Mental Health Foundation cites reduced blood pressure and reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. Plus, mindfulness devotees visit their GP 50% less than other people.

Back in the office, it is possible to take a proper lunch break or leave on time without feeling panicky. Crabbe says we feel bad about leaving at 6pm sharp because we’re focusing on what we’re not doing (ie more work). Instead we should focus on why we are leaving on time, be it to see our friends, do a yoga class or rush home to watch The Apprentice – things which bring joy to our day. 

“The feel-good effect of that counteracts your feeling of being a slacker. And remember that leaving on time or taking a proper lunch break doesn’t mean you’ll do less. Research consistently shows that the brain cannot retain focus all day; it needs breaks to recover.”

If you find it hard to turn off your email out-of-hours, Crabbe suggests “setting rules with your boss. Agree what you will and won’t do. When people know your rules and why you have them, they are far more willing to adapt.” 

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At home you need to make an effort too. When you do manage to prise yourself away from work, it’s tempting to plunge headlong into chores and errands at home. That bathroom isn’t going to clean itself, after all. But, says Schulte, beware the “tyranny of the to-do list”. “Women have always been the ‘worker class’ and we have been conditioned over the years into believing we have to earn leisure. We feel if we get to the end of the to-do list, we’ll have a moment to relax. But the list never ends.”

A mindset adjustment is needed here. Before picking up the rubber gloves, Schulte advises you, “Ask yourself: why am I doing this? Am I only doing it because I feel I should? Maybe you’ll go ahead and do it, but at least you’re asking yourself questions that’ll help you to prioritise what’s really important.” 

If you live with a partner and you’re the one who always cleans the bathroom, you need to have a conversation about division of labour. Even worse, if you’re cleaning the bathroom even though he’s already cleaned it but “hasn’t done it properly”, you need to drop the martyr act. Martyrdom and busyness go hand in hand. Sometimes OK is good enough.

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Learn to swim

But there is another key to changing the cult of overwhelm: adjusting your mindset. Don’t see everything as another task. A friend (rightly) pulled me up recently for complaining about having to organise my birthday party. That’s a joy, not a job, she chided. 

One piece of Schulte’s advice that really resonated was to carve out some meaningful leisure time. Men are often better at doing this – my husband, for example, will block out a whole Sunday morning to go cycling. Women, however, with their tendency to multi-task, tend to have slithers of free time – 15 minutes on the bus, 10 minutes in a GP waiting room. 

“Find a way to stitch these slivers together into something more substantial. Do something that’s really going to refresh your soul,” says Schulte. She favours out-there activities such as a trapeze class, but even a walk in the park will do the trick (just leave the phone at home). 

I noticed I was wasting precious slivers of free time flicking between email, Twitter and Facebook on my phone. Emboldened, I deleted all the apps, reconfigured my email setting so it doesn’t ping every time I have a new message, stopped ‘playing’ with my phone and looked for something more worthwhile to do instead. One week later, I’d read a 400-page novel cover to cover – something I previously would’ve told you I didn’t have time to do. And it made me really, REALLY happy.

So next time someone asks you how you are and you start to deploy the B word, stop a moment and think. Are you really, truly busy? And if you are, how can you address that? Far better to be captain of your ship than woman overboard.

Image: Getty Images 

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