Origins of Overload

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BY CHRISTINE SPICER

It’s a common complaint of our era—we’re busy, busy, busy. We are enslaved to our busyness. We’re so busy we can’t breathe; so busy we burn out; so busy we can’t do the things we really care about.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. In his book Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, Richard Swenson, M.D., points out that with all of the “time- saving” devices, technologies, and innovations of the past few decades, writers in the 1950s were wondering what people would do all day in the future. But now that that future has arrived, people don’t complain about having too much leisure time; they complain about not having any.
Are we really as busy as we think we are? And, if not, why do we feel so maxed out all the time? If we really are too busy, what is causing us to live such frantic, stressed out existences?

Insecurity and misplaced identity 

In 1 Kings 19:11-13, we learn that when God wanted Elijah’s attention, He came not in the powerful wind or the violent earthquake or the raging fire—all of which Elijah had to wait through—but in a gentle whisper that might have been missed if Elijah had not been sitting in quiet solitude in a cave.

Nevertheless, human beings have had trouble with stillness and patient waiting for
a long time. The 10 Commandments had to dictate that people take a Sabbath and rest from their labors. In Psalm 46:10, God had to tell us: “Be still, and know that I am God.” And, of course, in the Gospels, we are reminded that sitting at the feet of Christ is worth much more than any household task when Jesus chides Martha for complaining about Mary leaving her to do all the work.

As Christians, we know that our worth comes from God. We have value because He made us. We have salvation because of Christ. Our own efforts give us neither: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

Despite this knowledge, we long to be productive. We long to create, to contribute, to matter to other people. We often look for fulfillment in places other than God’s loving arms, and it hurts and exhausts us. This is a common ailment of the human condition—the perpetual turning toward idols even when we don’t intend to do so.

Busyness is sometimes a product of this search for worth outside God. In his famous and controversial 2012 New York Times Opinionater piece, writer Tim Kreider cites this cause in less religious and more psychological terms: “Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day … I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter.”

The other side of this coin is pride. When we long to find our worth in what we do or achieve, this can be about insecurity or pride
or both. When we fill our calendars to the brim because we believe we are the only ones capable of doing what needs to be done at work, home, church, or elsewhere, this can be an issue of pride. When we say yes to a new responsibility to gain prestige or to avoid another person’s disapproval, this can be an issue of pride. When we try to burn the candle at both ends, refusing to respect our physical, emotional, and mental limitations, this, too, can be about our pride.

Ultimately, when we are uncertain of our value, we may fill our minds and schedules as a way of avoiding the inevitable longing for more that comes in quiet moments.

“Should” culture 

Forbes.com recently ran a series of articles proposing “16 Things You Should Do at the Start of Every Work Day,” “16 Things You Should Do at Lunch Every Day,” and “16 Things You Should Do at the End of Every Work Day.” If knowing that there are, apparently, at least 48 things you need to accomplish in just three hours of every workday makes you feel pressed for time, you’re not alone. The Information Age has brought with it a bevy of expectations that can leave even the most productive among us feeling strapped for time.

Here are just a few things various experts urge us to do every day:

  • Keep your home in order: Make your bed; Lay out the next day’s clothes and essentials for everyone in your family; Sort mail; Wash the dishes
  • Maintain your physical health: Exercise for at least 20, 30, or 60 minutes (depending on the source of the advice); Cook a healthy dinner and eat it as a family; Get eight hours of sleep; Drink at least eight glasses of water; Eat five or more servings of fruits and vegetables; Floss your teeth; Stretch; Have a consistent bed time and wake up time
  • Maintain your mental health: Laugh; Be grateful; Take time for yourself; Take time to disconnect from devices
  • Maintain your spiritual health: Pray; Read the Bible; Journal; Volunteer
  • Read: Fiction; Something related to your professional development; With children
  • Nurture your relationships: If you have a spouse, connect with him or her; Do something nice for someone else; Spend time with a friend
  • Play: With pets; With children; Outdoors; Do a hobby you enjoy
  • Get organized: Clean off your desk; Plan for your future; Make a to-do list; Wake up early; Go to bed early

Deep down, we know our culture is lying to us when it says we can have it all. We also know that stuff won’t really make us happier even though we are constantly bombarded with advertising and consumer messages to the contrary. And because we know this in our hearts, it’s easy to believe that we are exempt (or at least lesser offenders) when it comes to consumerism. After all, as Christians, we worship God, not money. We pursue justice and mercy and compassion, not the accumulation of things. Maybe we tithe. Maybe we accept lower- paying jobs because they are for noble causes. Other people may be busy because they are part of the rat race, pursuing extravagance, but not us. We’re just doing the best we can, trying to provide for our families and get by. We are immune to our consumer culture, its inherent competitiveness, and the obsessive busyness it breeds. Our personal busyness is of a more necessary sort.

The problem with this way of thinking is that it leaves us especially vulnerable to the insidiousness of consumerism. Because insidious it is.

Consumerism confuses us with its messages about what “enough” is. Even when we are savvy to some of the advertising ploys used on us (will that high-end vacuum really transform us into Martha Stewart? Not likely),
we can remain vulnerable to the subtler messages of a materialistic society (if I’m not Martha Stewart, I’m failing at hospitality … or perhaps even womanhood).

Even if we resist the urge to buy the products in the magazines, we may still be influenced by the images we see, by the shoulds they imply: our houses should be clean and well decorated; our shared meals should always be perfectly cooked and eaten with mirth; our illnesses and weaknesses should be able to be banished with medications and supplements; our bodies should be youthful and fit; our children should always be smiling. It’s easy to become burdened with busyness in pursuit of such ideals.

And while there are certainly many impoverished people in our nation, most of us have much more than we recognize or care to admit. Our lifestyles may appear modest in comparison with celebrities or even others in our lives, but the truth is that most Americans have an incredible amount of stuff.

“In the way our economy is set up, there is the rat race, but it’s also easy to get a lot of stuff because of credit,” said PLNU associate director of digital marketing and Web Dave Bruno, who is the author of The 100 Thing Challenge: How I Got Rid of Almost Everything, Remade My Life, and Regained My Soul. “There are less barriers to entry than for previous generations.”

Our accumulation habits fuel our consumer debt, which obligates us to work harder at our jobs to “just get by.” The timesaving devices that were supposed to free us from work and create a leisure culture end up having just the opposite effect. And stuff carries with it stress, obligations, and busyness of its own.

“Stuff places a demand on us,” said Bruno. “This is as much of an issue as anything. A bigger house needs to be filled with more things. Our possessions require maintenance, cleaning, and using. Many of our stuff-related chores are not accomplishing things. They don’t have a purpose besides entertainment and distraction.”

Stimulation addiction and cognitive overload 

The “more is better” philosophy behind consumerism is not limited to gaining possessions.

“The implicit message [of our era],” said PLNU professor of psychology Dr. Ross Oakes Mueller, “is that it is good to be able to access information all the time.”

Accessible information and instantaneous communication, like dishwashers and dryers, were supposed to make life easier. We expected greater efficiency, fewer hours at our jobs, and more free time. But instead, work and demands on our time and attention follow us wherever we go.

“Technology that was supposed to liberate us—first fax machines and pagers, then laptops, email, and smart phones—has instead given us more to do,” writes Katrina Alcorn in her book Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink. “Rather than being at home more, we’re now at work no matter where we go.”

In his Forbes.com article “8 Reasons Why People Feel Lost in Their Lives,” writer David DiSalvo includes the issue of “cognitive overload.”

“We simply have too much on our mental plates day-in and day-out to manage effectively,” he writes. “Without a quality external system for helping to manage it all, we can’t help but feel overloaded, and that contributes to a feeling of being out of sorts with the responsibilities and demands we face endlessly.”

Being ceaselessly inundated with information and interruptions puts immense stress on our brains, making us feel constantly busy and “on.” Even if our calendars have some unscheduled spaces, our minds are seldom granted a respite.

“Think of how we live,” writes Alcorn, “hunching over computers and smart phones, racing back and forth between the office and home, gulping down our food, using caffeine and sleeping pills to turn ourselves on and off at will. Many of us live almost exclusively in the realm of the mind. We’re always thinking about what we’ve done or what we’re about to do. We are never fully in our bodies. If anything, our bodies are an inconvenience.”

Alcorn points out that it’s an entire culture of multitasking that causes our brains to try to juggle too many things at once. Technology only makes addressing cognitive overload harder. Our phones ring and buzz, snapping up our attention. Our incoming emails and chats pop up in front of our other work, breaking our focus. Links beckon us and our thoughts away from the task at hand, teasing us with the promise of even more information, even more stimulation. While we claim to long for stillness, we often become agitated, impatient, or bored when quiet moments do strike.

Digital stimulation can make us feel temporarily energized and productive. But it doesn’t last. So we check phones that haven’t chimed or vibrated, just in case there might be a message waiting to perk us up. We follow links, looking to be inspired or excited. But it takes more and more to get the job done. Digital stimulation can be a lot like caffeine—a bit excites us and entices us back, but soon we can’t function without it. We struggle to put our phones aside when we are at the dinner table or with our children or on a walk or in a waiting room or even at a red light. We know we should. But the urge to be stimulated is very, very strong.

Research has repeatedly shown that people are more creative and learn better when they are rested, relaxed, and happy (there was a good reason for Walt Whitman to write at Walden Pond). Unfortunately, research also indicates that digital downtime doesn’t produce those results.

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“People think they’re refreshing themselves, but they’re fatiguing themselves,” Matt Ritchel of the New York Times quotes Marc Berman, a University of Michigan neuroscientist, as saying of digital downtime.

PLNU’s Oakes Mueller added, “One study shows that people learned better after walking in nature versus in an industrial setting. The consolidation of memory increases in times in nature or away from stimulations.”

The cycle is vicious: our lack of mental downtime makes our brains tired, which makes them long for some virtual caffeine, which stimulates us, making it harder to rest our spinning minds. And perhaps the worst part is that this kind of digital busyness is often the exact kind of busyness we despise and deride—the kind that is really idle motion. We are fatiguing our brains scanning Facebook posts and tweets about which we will do nothing and about which we may feel nothing. We read mildly interesting articles online that don’t connect to our lives. It’s mental motion, but it’s purposeless. And purposeless motion makes us feel even more drained.

Busy with the wrong things

When our actions, habits, and obligations lack meaning, we tend to feel great stress and unhappiness. We tend to regard being busy as a burden instead of as a sign of a full life (even if we boast about our busyness to mask this insecurity).

In her book 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, Laura Vanderkam makes the case that our culture’s insistence that we are busy in the burned out, time-starved, miserable sense, coupled with our poor ability to estimate how we actually spend our time, leads to a perception that we are far more overworked and under-rested than we really are. Since perception often begets reality, we feel stressed, exhausted, and pressed for time even though each week contains the same number of hours it always has: 168.

“Being busy has become the explanation of choice for all sorts of things,” Vanderkam writes.

However, when we believe we are too time- strapped for things like voting, volunteering, exercising, reading, playing with our children, or attending church, Vanderkam questions our time use. She references the January 2007 issue of Real Simple magazine, which asked readers what they would do with an extra 15 minutes a day. Regarding this paltry amount of time—especially compared to the 168 hours in a week, only 40-50 of which most people devote to work and 56 of which need to go to eight-hour-a-night sleeping habits—people wrote heartfelt notes about the dreams they would accomplish: playing with pets, writing thank-you letters, playing musical instruments, cooking healthy meals, reading, or relaxing.

“Katie Noah of Abilene, Texas, mused, ‘Fifteen minutes of uninterrupted writing time would be a priceless gift,’ though presumably, she did find 15 minutes to read Real Simple and write a letter about her elusive dream,” Vanderkam writes.

The truth about why we don’t do the things we want to do, Vanderkam says, is not that we are too busy or don’t have time. When we feel strapped for time, it’s often because we aren’t sure how our hours are being spent.

“We don’t think about how we want to spend our time, and so we spend massive amounts of time on things—television, Web surfing, housework, errands—that give a slight amount of pleasure or feeling of accomplishment, but do little for our careers, our families, or our personal lives,” she writes. “We spend very little time on things that require more thought or initiative, like nurturing our kids, exercising, or engaging in the limited hours we do work in deliberate practice of our professional crafts. We try to squeeze these high-impact activities around the edges of things that are easy, or that seem inevitable merely because we always do them or because we think others expect us to. And consequently, we feel overworked and under-rested, and tend to believe stories that confirm this view.”

The American Time Use Survey (ATUS), conducted annually by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, lends support to Vanderkam’s suggestion that we are not very adept at estimating how much time we spend on various tasks. The ATUS differs from many other time surveys, she explains, because it requires people to keep time diaries, recording their activities as they do them, much as workers who charge clients billable hours do. The numbers that result from this detailed time-keeping system paint a different picture than the numbers people provide when they are asked to estimate their time usage from recall. For example, in 2011, nearly two-thirds of respondents told National Sleep Foundation pollsters that they did not get adequate sleep, reporting an average of just under seven hours of sleep a night. Another 15 percent claimed to sleep less than six hours. These exhausted reports don’t jibe with the ATUS time diary reports, which Vanderkam says show that the average American sleeps about eight hours a night—the same as a few decades ago. Our societal exhaustion may, in fact, not be due to lack of sleep.

Believing we are working 70-hour weeks when we really only work 50 or functioning on an imagined sleep deficit
or assuming that doing the dishes will take the better part of our evening (so we might as well just flop down in front of the TV for “a few minutes” instead of cracking open the novel we’ve been longing to read) are problems because they make us feel powerless to change our situation. The point Vanderkam is making is that if we don’t understand how we really spend our time, it’s difficult to see where we can make changes to reduce stress and increase fulfillment. She emphasizes repeatedly and through the use of many examples that it is quite possible to have a full, satisfying life that includes career, family, hobbies, sleep, and downtime when we set priorities and understand how we are really spending our time.

With Vanderkam’s points about awareness, priorities, and fulfillment in mind, it may be that, for some of us, the real problem isn’t being busy; it’s being busy with the wrong things—or at least without some of the right ones.

The beginnings of change 

Busyness can be a boast or a lament, an escape or a dangerous road to burnout. In the next two articles in our series, we will explore the effects of busyness on our lives and ways in which we might address this widespread problem by looking at the life of Jesus and the practice of spiritual disciplines. To some extent and in some situations, being busy is inevitable. Sometimes single parents have to work two jobs to pay the rent. Sometimes a family health crisis has us running from work to hospital to home and back again at a dizzying pace. Sometimes a deadline, project, or opportunity demands more from our schedule than usual. But the perpetual motion of unyielding busyness, of mental and emotional exhaustion, of putting off or aside things that really matter—this must be addressed in order for us to live full lives as Christians. We must recognize what a frantic and unexamined life does to our physical, emotional, and spiritual health, and we must find ways to resist the cultural messages that send us spiraling anywhere other than into God’s arms of grace.

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