A few weeks ago I was driving home from a family reunion at the beach and happened to catch a radio interview with Dr. Edward Hallowell. His new book is called CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked and About to Snap! Given that so many of my clients report feeling the same feeling of being overwhelmed, I turned up the volume and set the cruise control.
Dr. Hallowell, a well known ADD expert, suggests society is imposing what is, in effect, a “cultural ADD” – with the pace of information coming so rapidly many of us report the same symptoms which vex people with ADD. We rush around, we’re impatient, we have a need for speed, we get frustrated, we’re distracted, we can’t pay attention for more than a second, we procrastinate, we can’t remember stuff, and “in general feel busy beyond belief but not at all that productive.” Sound familiar?
What are the consequences of such cultural ADD? Dr. Hallowell writes, “The greatest damage from being too busy is that it prevents people from setting their own temperature, controlling their own lives. It does other harm as well, like increasing toxic stress, making people sick, causing accidents and errors, turning otherwise polite people rude, and reducing the general level of happiness in the population. But the greatest damage it does is that it keeps a person from what’s important.”
Group think can be deadly when it comes to busyness. I remember this phenomenon from college. A group of us would stand around before a test and one would say, “I studied three hours for this exam.” Another would reply, “Three hours?? I studied six.” “Six,” sniffed one. “I was up all night.” The winner was the guy who merely said, “I haven’t slept since last Wednesday.” This ritual one- upsmanship created a sense of panic in those who had actually slept – “Have I done enough? Am I prepared? Should I have stayed up all week, too?” And, the guy who got the best grade was the guy who said he didn’t study at all!
In the workplace, time one-upsmanship is rampant. I know a man who used to leave his office lights on, his suitcoat over his desk chair and his car parked in the lot — he’d take a cab home — to make it look as if he worked around the clock. Upshot? Everyone assumed he was the busiest guy in the place, and tried to meet his rigorous pace. The irony? He’d leave early and come in late, always in shirtsleeves and complaining of his workload, while his co-workers worked longer hours… just to “keep up.”
Then I read a fascinating column in the Washington Post, penned by Jay Mathews, suggesting that overstressed, overbooked folks Dr. Hallowell focuses on are the 5% of Americans in the top income brackets. These overachievers push their children to be just as driven and ambitious as they are. The parents are so busy they can’t think, so their kids are likewise too busy to think. The measure of success? How busy they are. How busy their kid is. How many AP classes their child takes. Admission to an Ivy League college.
Curious, because a study of college graduates shows that where you go to college has little impact on your earning potential. Rather, the authors say, “Students who attended more selective colleges do not earn more than other students who were accepted and rejected by comparable schools but attended less selective colleges.” In otherwords, a successful kid often becomes a successful adult, regardless of where he goes to school. All that parental pressure and busyness to spruce up an Ivy League application — for something which may satisfy the ego but ultimately has no discernable impact on a kid’s income or happiness.
Here’s my takeaway: those of us who feel overstretched and overbooked are likely the same people who were overstretched and overbooked as high schoolers. Overachievers associate with overachievers, creating an environment where boundaries and limits are pushed, ignored or eliminated. Our neighbors push their kids, we push our kids. We run flat out – and run our co-workers flat out – because everyone else is running flat out. Or at least they say they are. For all we know, they could be sandbagging just like the “hardest working guy in the office.”
So, what’s the antidote? How can you get a handle on your overbooked, overstressed life? First, set your priorities. To do this, make a log of how you actually spend your time for one week. Then look it over. How are you actually spending your time? As Dr. Phil might ask, “Is that working for you?” How does that reflect your priorities? When are you happiest?
Second, take a look at the people you’re associating with. Are they helping you be your best self, or are they pushing you toward stressful, keepin’-up-with- the-Joneses competition? Do people in your circle accept you for who you are, even if you’re different from them? If everyone in your office stays until 9pm, can you leave at six and still be a part of the team? If not, why not? Can you step back from the situation and note any one-upsmanship games?
Believe me here. When you align your actions with your priorities, and surround yourself with supportive people, you will immediately feel happier, less stressed and calmer. How do you get there? It may mean you have to plug your ears and not get sucked into the overachieving whirl of your neighbors and friends. You may have to let some people and activities which don’t support your priorities go. Yep, you may also have to start saying no to some things, just so you can say yes to what’s really important.
(This post first appeared as a column in my September 2006 newsletter.)