BY BRIAN BECKER
When the complexities and amount of responsibilities in our lives become excessive, they trigger a stress response. University of Toronto sociologist Blair Wheaton suggests three particular conditions that can lead to stress:
> The number of daily responsibilities and roles one is solely responsible for or has no choice about
> The level of uncertainty and contingency in how plans work out and the absence of stable solutions to logistics
> Scheduling problems that cannot be controlled
These conditions of overload and lack of (at least immediate) control in the situation begin to elicit a psychological and physiological response: stress. When these problems are built into our lifestyle, the stress becomes a constant, chronic condition.
“The word ‘demands,’ and accompanying terms such as overload, are among the most commonly used in defining the nature of stress,” Wheaton says. “There is simply too much to do, and the person feels pulled by multiple, independent, immediate, and uncontrollable demands that cannot be put aside.”
The busy person feels as though this stressed state is inevitable, that just about everyone must feel this way. However, in the 1990s, Wheaton randomly sampled adults in three cities and 60 percent of them felt that their lives were essentially under control.
God built the stress response into us for good reason, and it wasn’t to cope with ongoing demands and complexities of modern life. According to MayoClinic.com, the stress response is best suited to help us survive momentary threats. When a bear walks into the campsite, the stress response is triggered in the hypothalamus, a brain structure about the size of an almond deep in our heads near the base of the brain. In a flash, the hypothalamus sends signals to the adrenal glands just above the kidneys, and in turn the adrenals release a burst of the hormones adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline and cortisol do a whole host of things to maximize energy to the brain and muscles while suppressing other systems like immunity and reproduction. All of this serves well to give the body and brain the best chances of surviving a fight-or-flight threat.
We simply weren’t designed to live as if a bear is perpetually nipping at our heels. MayoClinic.com lists several conditions for which chronic stress creates a risk: anxiety, depression, poor digestion, heart disease, poor sleep, weight gain, poor memory, and impaired concentration.
While it can have these long-term sickening effects, the adrenaline pumping in our stressed out lives is also a thrill. In her book Just Too Busy: Taking Your Family on a Radical Sabbatical, Joanne Kraft acknowledges her former addiction to the adrenaline rush of chronic stress.
“Busyness is an addiction. I couldn’t slow down no matter how hard I tried,” Kraft says. “If I managed to find a peaceful pause in my day, it felt unnatural, almost uncomfortable. My body was used to 100-miles-an-hour days, high in busyness and high in stress.”
Chronic stress begets feelings of anxiety, otherwise called nervousness, worry, unease, or angst to name a few. We have a large vocabulary to describe our fears of the unknown and how it might hurt us. An overblown need to control the unknown can create a screeching feedback loop of ever-increasing anxiety.
“Paradoxically enough, it is in part the desire for control that has led people to lose it,” says Edward M. Hallowell, M.D., in his book CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked and About to Snap! “By trying to control life as much as possible, you can run yourself ragged, losing control in the process. Pulled at once in every direction, you go nowhere but instead spin faster and faster on your axis.”
This spinning out of control and, for that matter, every other negative result of extreme busyness, causes more anxiety. If we don’t remember where the anxiety started or understand where it is coming from, we may feel powerless to stop it. The answer may, at least partially, be to slow down. Yet for the chronically busy person, slowing down to an idle pace is very hard to do. Even the thought of slowing down can produce anxiety.
“Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets,” writes essayist and cartoonist Tim Kreider in his well-known New York Times article “The ‘Busy’ Trap.” “The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lighting strikes of inspiration—it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”
Impatience and Multitasking
Hallowell first recognized his own problem with chronic busyness when on a vacation in a cottage with his family. There was no cell service and the only telephone in the place was an old rotary-dial model. As he dialed a friend to make some plans, something peculiar happened.
“Yet as I started to dial, I got angry, and impatience flamed within me because on this phone I had to wait for the rotor to wind back to its starting point after each number,” Hallowell writes. “I could have entered the entire number on a touch-tone phone in the time it took me to dial just one number on this obsolete contraption. Not to mention how much faster I could have done it with speed dial had I been able to use my cell phone.”
After he finished the call, Hallowell timed himself dialing the number again and found that it had taken just 11 seconds to whip him into an impatient fury.
Our extreme busyness is often how we justify an impatience that is sometimes quite self-righteous. We get annoyed if we have to wait more than just a few minutes at the grocery store checkout stand. We tune out completely in meetings (or in church!) when the presentation isn’t exactly what we want to hear. We anxiously determine the time is better spent making and revising our to-do lists. We go rogue on the roads, run red lights, and exceed speed limits, basically saying to the world that our time is more valuable than others’ safety.
One way we express our busyness and impatience is through the inefficient use of multitasking. There are certainly some tasks that can be compatibly multitasked—for example, folding laundry and listening to music or a podcast. These tasks use very different parts of the brain, and we can divide our attention between them. Yet when extremely busy people try to do several similar tasks all at once—such as carry on a conversation, email, and conference call—there is simply no way they are giving their best to any of it.
“Each time you introduce a new object of attention into what you are doing, you dilute your attention on any one object,” Hallowell says. “As you blip back and forth between the two, you are liable to miss an item in one task while you are blipped over to the other task.”
Stanford University psychology professor Clifford Nass, an expert researcher in multitasking, had this to say during an interview on NPR’s Talk of the Nation in May: “The research is almost unanimous, which is very rare in social science, and it says that people who chronically multitask show an enormous range of deficits. They’re basically terrible at all sorts of cognitive tasks, including multitasking.”
Of the 262 students in his most recent study, Nass said that the ones who claimed to be the best at multitasking showed the greatest deficits.
It’s a little like smoking, you know, saying, I smoke all the time, so smoking can’t be bad for me. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way,” he said.
The idea that our conscious intellect can focus keenly on two or more challenging tasks simultaneously has been repeatedly proven false. It springs from a combination of extreme busyness and illusions of grandeur.
As we spread our intellect thinly across many tasks in machine gun bursts all day long, we may notice a reduction in our ability to engage in deep thinking. Adrenaline fueled chronic stress is not a suitable ecosystem for sustained, creative introspection. Ironically, though some busy people will of course deny it to themselves, this absence of thought is part of what keeps us so busy.
Way back in 1985, well before most of us had cell phones, essayist Barbara Ehrenreich wrote about “the cult of conspicuous busyness.”
“The secret of the truly successful, I believe, is that they learned very early in life how not to be busy,” she writes. “They saw through that adage, repeated to me so often in childhood, that anything worth doing is worth doing well.”
Ehrenreich wisely suggests that some things simply aren’t worth doing well, and many things aren’t worth doing at all. It takes wisdom and deep thought to decide which is which.
Deep thought is at the core of faith formation and Christian discipleship. Real faith life requires it. It is the place where our intellect and God’s Holy Spirit connect, and we seek God’s good and right will for our lives. It is where we read God’s Word and hear it proclaimed, and we deeply consider how truth changes us.
Brother Lawrence, the 17th century monastic, said: “But when we are faithful to keep ourselves in His holy Presence, and set Him always before us, this not only hinders our offending Him, and doing anything that may displease Him, at least willfully, but it also begets
in us a holy freedom, and if I may so speak, a familiarity with God, wherewith we ask, and that successfully, the graces we stand in need of.”
Frazzled, over-busy Christians are at risk of losing this ability. Scattered, diffuse, and distracted minds may struggle to ever settle down and hear God’s still small voice. We may pour ever more busy energy into ministry but lack a settled, abiding relationship with Christ. As Christians, every strategy we apply in our lives must be examined before the Gospel. If we cultivate frenetic busyness, we can’t expect to harvest the fruits of the Spirit.
“In order to obey the voice of God, we have to be quiet and still enough to hear and recognize that often gentle whisper,” said Melanie Wolf, who leads discipleship ministries in the PLNU Office of Spiritual Development. “God is always speaking, always moving. Sometimes we are simply going at too fast of a pace to even notice.”
Absent of reflection and a deep relationship with Christ, we can wander down dark paths of bad choices, of sin. We may not care for ourselves and others well. We may fail to attend to the relationships we should care for most. Our attempt to do way too much may lead us into unhealthy or addictive relationships with food, drugs, finances, or sexuality.
Creativity, too, is among the greatest marks of God’s image upon us. When we deprive ourselves of time for thought, sadly we also suffer a loss of creativity.
“The greatest danger of being overwhelmed is not that you will fail to meet your goals,” Hallowell says, “but that you will fail to think at your best and to give birth to your best ideas.”
We do our best work when we take breaks at regular intervals. Indeed, some of our best ideas come in the liminal space between work and rest. As Ehrenreich observes, truly successful people and geniuses are rarely frantically busy types.
“They are not, on the whole, the kind of people who keep glancing shiftily at their watches or making small lists entitled ‘To Do,’” she says.
Here’s where we busy people can get quite defensive. After all, aren’t we working so hard and fast to be shown worthy, essential, and important to all? Yet the fruit of so much busyness—stress, anxiety, impatience, and shallow thinking—doesn’t sound like a recipe for civility, much less genuine kindness.
We risk becoming too busy for real time with one another, lingering in focused presence. Alina Tugend wrote an essay in the New York Times entitled “Too Busy to Notice You’re Too Busy.”
“Recently, I have found myself annoyed by how busy my friends seem,” Tugend writes, “Some are so on the go that they barely have time to tell me they do not have time to talk. Every phone call, no matter how short, seems to be interrupted by several others.”
Tugend’s article was written in 2007. Nowadays, perhaps for the reasons she highlights, we call one another less often and prefer texts, tweets, and Instagrams.
When extremely busy people do manage to make plans to visit one another, the plans are often rescheduled several times over. Each postponement comes under the weight of a more urgent task bumping into the middle of the friendship. The “bumpee” is expected to give grace and identify with the crazy busy life of the “bumper.” The same busy-grace is expected for showing up late nearly every time.
Our hyper attention to multitask communication input from smart phones can make us rudely inattentive to the people sitting with us. We are less inclined to delve into deeply personal and heartfelt conversation if our conversation partner seems to be surreptitiously sending and receiving text messages under the table.
The stress of extreme busyness can make us emotionally unpredictable, triggering a fight-or- flight response when simple forbearance might serve us better. Dr. Hallowell is an attention deficit disorder expert and is also diagnosed with ADD. He says that the symptoms of true ADD are becoming more common in our overextended modern life. Among them are labile moods.
“‘Labile’ is a term from chemistry that refers to a substance that can change quickly from one state to another, as from solid to liquid or liquid to gas,” Hallowell says. “Labile moods are moods that can change quickly, as from agreeable to angry or from confident to anxious.”
As too many tasks stretch us to the point of emotional rupture, we necessarily become self-focused. Even if our intention was to do good, when we’re not slowing down to examine the kind of people we are becoming, we risk treating others rudely.
We are habitual creatures. These thought and behavior patterns are particularly dangerous and habit-forming because they build upon themselves, seem to come upon us from the outside, and seem inevitable. But are they? Too often, we misjudge what we truly can and cannot control. We think we can control circumstances that are indeed truly outside of our control. We run some pretty foolhardy and complex plays attempting to micromanage others’ behavior or their opinions of us. In reality, we will never fully control others or anything much really, even with all our busy efforts. On the contrary, we ascribe our own behavior choices to external factors. We feel an outward or social compulsion to do more when in reality the choice is ours. Extreme busyness can be a cage (albeit one with race tires on it) that we’ve locked ourselves into. If we can choose to slow down for a while and search our pockets, the keys to the padlock are in there somewhere.