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(Randy Quan)
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Elizabeth Renzetti

Overwhelmed? The wheel turns because we keep running Add to ...

The first time I realized I had the busy sickness was when I bounced a cheque for the kids’ school fundraising campaign. Distracted, I grabbed the wrong chequebook, scribbled my signature and was rewarded with the kind of call you don’t want to get from the school office: “Um, hi? There’s a – well, a problem with your cheque.”

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If you ever want to feel like a dirty-nailed miscreant, just try bouncing a cheque for the school chocolate drive. It could have been easily prevented – if I had only checked the cheque. But you know how it is. Too busy. Places to go. E-mails to send. Flappy Bird to play.

The second time was a doozy, though. My eight-year-old and I were doing impersonations of each other, and I imitated one of her delicious silly faces. “I’ll do you, Mom,” she said, and mimed holding a phone inches from her face, jabbing at the imaginary keypad while grimacing like a tiny Joan Crawford. That one was a dagger to the heart.

At least I’m not alone in my shame. Here is Brigid Schulte’s confession in her new book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time. “I now know exactly how many minutes it can take to break your heart: seven. That’s how long it took for my daughter to tell me, in angry tears as I cut her too-long fingernails in the bathroom one evening, that I was always at the computer and never spent enough time with her.”

Like many of us, Ms. Schulte was trying to cram a steamer trunk’s worth of living into a clutch-purse-sized day. She’s a reporter at The Washington Post, a mother, wife, friend, runner, maker of unfinished to-do lists, waker-up-at-4-a.m.-in-a-cold-panic. She and her friends, when they connected at all, shared war stories about their exhaustion.

This will be a familiar lament to anyone who’s booking ahead two months for drinks with buddies. Or is too embarrassed to call the dentist after cancelling three appointments. Or who cleans so seldom that she once found a mouse carcass behind the sofa, encrusted to the carpet. (Okay, maybe that was just me.)

We have a sickness. A busyness addiction, which leads to stress and exhaustion and lives half-lived. Ms. Schulte calls it “the Overwhelm,” and she set out to find out why we’ve become trapped and how we might escape.

She cites the study Work-Life Conflict in Canada in the New Millennium, which revealed that 90 per cent of respondents felt moderate or high levels of “role overload.” Ms. Schulte offers a list of things people, when surveyed, claim they are too busy to do, including sleep, eat dessert and have sex. Considering those are the three best things in the world, what on earth are we doing instead?

Scratching a status itch, apparently. We choose busyness. We think we’re run off our pins, but as noted by one of Ms. Schulte’s sources, the University of Maryland’s John Robinson, we actually have more leisure time now than we did 50 years ago. We just fail to recognize it, or squander it on meaningless diversions. The truth is we secretly like our frenzy, because we live in a culture that equates frenzy with success.

As another academic told Ms. Schulte, “People are competing about being busy. It’s about showing status. That if you’re busy, you’re important. You’re leading a full and worthy life. There’s a real ‘busier than thou’ attitude, that if you’re not as busy as the Joneses, you’d better get cracking.”

That academic, Ann Burnett, studies the language people use in holiday round-robin letters, which are increasingly dotted with words and phrases like “hectic” “whirlwind,” “consumed” and “on the run.” It’s comforting to think that someone else’s hand is turning the hamster wheel, but as Prof. Burnett says, the wheel turns because we keep running. “People really do have a choice.”

You could clean less, for example. Delegate more. Let your kids find their own way to their lessons. Check your e-mail twice a day instead of twice a minute. For Ms. Schulte, one of the important things about learning to manage time was realizing that she could temper the expectations that other people had for her – and she had for herself. This is a crucial lesson, especially for women. I once complained to a wise friend about having too many demands on my time, and she looked at me with a raised eyebrow and said: “Who dropped you on your head and broke your No button?”

There are people who can’t afford to say “no” very often or important things would fall apart. Christine Lagarde, for example. Or Angela Merkel. Or the working-poor immigrant woman who thinks for a moment when Ms. Schulte asks if she has any leisure time: “Maybe at church. Or when I sleep.”

The rest of us? I’m not sure we have an excuse.

Follow on Twitter: @lizrenzetti

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