I relish the arrival of September the way a marathon runner savours the moments before the starting gun is fired. It pushes aside the frustratingly lazy month of August, characterized by a stream of expired “out of office” e-mail messages. Busy people require other busy people to accomplish the many objectives that pile up just before Labour Day.
For many, the term “busy” is a four-letter word that is increasingly difficult to define, especially when everyone from top executives to elementary school students uses it. Does it mean simply the hours spent at work, or does it also include the time it takes to respond to personal e-mails and tweets?
Throughout the summer, many philosophized about this modern condition where the most elusive commodity in the Westernized world is time. It began with a New York Times essay, called “The Busy Trap,” suggesting that creativity gets lost as a consequence of this manufactured condition.
Blogger Mark Fisher lamented that technology, meant to usher in a society of leisure, instead created a “strange kind of existential state, in which exhaustion bleeds into insomniac overstimulation.” The anxiety to check e-mails, he explains in his piece, may be a necessary byproduct of work, but it turns into a compulsion that is never satisfied, regardless of the number of messages handled.
More recently, an Economist piece referred to professionals in their thirties and forties – the years where child rearing now collides with accelerating careers – as “generation xhausted,” a condition I have experienced as a mother of two launching a new company.
These concerns may have encouraged some to shed the shackles of their BlackBerrys in the hope that unplugging will pare down their to-do list. But that risks confusing busyness with productivity, which often go hand-in-hand. It’s the logic behind the saying, “If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it.”
“I’m happiest when I’m teetering on the edge of chaos, when I’m pushing hard on several fronts at once,” said Kate Hilton, an assistant dean of advancement at the University of Toronto’s faculty of law. “It’s when I’m most productive, and I get a real adrenalin rush from making it all work.”
Aynsley Wintrip, a Toronto mother of four with a communications consulting firm and a new business on the horizon, agrees that busyness translates into results.
“I have always been a bit of a procrastinator, so being overly busy is actually good for productivity,” Ms. Wintrip said. “There’s no time to procrastinate. When you have a lot on the go, you tend to be more organized, out of necessity.”
Being productively busy, even if it is not of our choosing, makes people happier, according to a 2010 study conducted at the University of Chicago’s Booth School. The authors speculated that this desire for busyness is rooted in human evolution: We had to use our energy wisely or our ability to survive would be threatened. Now we don’t need to expend as much energy on survival, but we still want to use that energy productively.
Productive busyness also leads to more satisfied employees, a 2008 MIT study showed. In it, participants were asked to build Lego models, which were either kept or destroyed. Not surprisingly, those whose Lego models were kept intact were more likely to keep working and for a lower wage.
Admittedly, that “edge of chaos” feeling, which I am sure many women and men can relate to, risks spiralling into something more menacing. When you’re going at full speed, it’s difficult to negotiate every bump on the road.
Carey-Ann Oestreicher, who runs the Toronto-based career development firm Potential Unlimited, witnessed many professionals running that 24/7 marathon and launched her firm to teach others that there is a different way to live. Over the summer, the mother of two needed to take her own instructions to heart after suffering a concussion in a freak accident. That meant no reading – off any devices or books – for 12 days. Afterward, she could only spend one hour a day on work.
“I really had to think about what was the absolute most important tasks to do in that time as I didn’t have a moment to waste,” said Ms. Oestreicher, who discovered that she ended each hour feeling very productive. “I had to keep asking myself with every task I performed, do I really need to do that right now? Often the answer was no.”
She observed that there is often a subconscious motivation that underlies a client’s unmanageable schedule. The motivations, she explains, range from trying to please or control or be perfect. Some may merely be afraid of the consequences of taking their foot off the accelerator.
“I believe women logically know we can’t be all things to all people, but we seem to think those rules don’t apply to us individually,” said Ms. Oestreicher, who warns women against getting sucked into a “superwoman syndrome.”
It’s a fair warning and despite the adrenalin kick that those of us who love being busy get from working at our maximum capacity, it may be a good idea to dial it down a notch from time to time.