Addicted to Busyness: Our Obsession with Full, Hectic Schedules


What has happened to free time? Do you feel like nothing is good enough and you can’t keep up? Or you just can’t be content with the present and add yet another project onto your already full plate?

A recent study published by consumer researchers (Bellezza, Pahaira, and Keinan, 2016) had me wondering about the psychological ramifications of the loss of free time, especially among upper class Americans. The study, entitled Conspicuous Consumption of Time: When Busyness and Lack of Leisure Time Become a Status Symbol, examines the evolution of leisure time correlated to social status. Leisure time used to be viewed as an ideal, a symbol of high social status. Now, however, free time has come to be looked down upon as idleness. Instead, extreme hard work—hectic busyness—has become the symbol of power and achievement in modern American society. These consumer researchers posed an important psychological question: What happens when a society derives status and value from behaviors that are detrimental to well-being?

Americans tend to view hectically busy schedules as a sign of desirability in an age of increasing competitiveness. Busyness in workers, parents, and students seems to signify high demand for their talents, expertise, and worthiness.

Professionals who feel the pressure to keep up are more susceptible to agreeing to things they don’t want to do, such as taking on extra projects or assignments, working extra hours, or putting in extra face time at work-related events. We all have parts of our job that we like less than others and push through anyway. However, chronic role dissatisfaction and overload may be detrimental to overall well-being. Leisure time seems to be disappearing even from time off from work, as current American trends in vacationing include full schedules and increasingly competitive activities, such as extreme sports.

But isn’t that the price of success in this dog eat dog world? When people feel their college acceptance, career, or entire future is on the line, there is a greater compulsion to stay busy. The idea of stopping to smell the roses is ridiculous--there is no time for that! However, busyness often does not equal productivity.

It seems that in popular culture, success is measured in achievements and material wealth, rather than in maintaining well-being and healthy relationships. However, keeping up such a hectic and frenzied lifestyle may have significant mental and physical health consequences.

The obsession with staying busy can actually be a type of numbing behavior, the same numbing that is found among alcohol and drug abusers. People may use work as an avoidance tactic for various reasons, including an unhappy home life, troubled personal relationships, loneliness, or not feeling good enough. This busyness-as-numbing tactic then becomes an addiction.

Excessive busyness and project-oriented behavior frequently leads to exhaustion and high levels of anxiety. There is a correlation with high pressure careers (one study showed alarming rates involving lawyers and health care professionals with burnout) and depression, physical illness, alcoholism, other addictions, and in some cases, even suicide.

Students, from the middle grades to graduate level, are expected to perform increasingly great feats of academic prowess as well as succeed at a collection of extracurricular activities, as competition for admission into elite schools grows more fierce. And this may be taking its toll

on young people. A 2014 review of nearly 20 studies across Europe, China, Australia, and the United States revealed that teenage boys and girls are experiencing much higher rates of depression and anxiety than they were a decade ago. In The Silicon Valley Suicides, a December 2015 article by Hanna Rosin published in the Atlantic, the author explores the extremely serious fallout likely related to the extreme high pressure to achieve in an elite private high school in Palo Alto, CA.

When busyness and lack of leisure time become a status symbol, the consequences may result in decreased life satisfaction and possibly lead to dire consequences. However, one doesn’t have to accept this way of life. Tips to reduce a busyness obsession:

* Establishing good boundaries, which is learned and not innate, helps reduce the busyness obsession. Valuing personal well-being and not just achievements can lead to greater satisfaction, better health, and as a result, increased productivity.

* Figure out the greatest sources of stress and guilt. Then explore if they are rational.

* Delegating tasks and asking for help is essential, but so many have difficulty doing this. Learn how to relinquish some control.

* Learning to discern what to say yes and no is an important skill; people who say yes to everything often find themselves relied upon to increasingly pick up the slack for others, often leading to doormat status—and resentment and burnout.

* If an overwhelming situation is inescapable, find a way to make it better. Look for opportunity in every situation.

* Practice mindfulness. Allowing the mind even a set five minutes per day of calm and quiet, emptied of the stressors, can help reset stress levels. Look at it as a training session for how not to be busy.

* Reflect whether your example of busyness is affecting your family. Are you creating an atmosphere of anxiety and stress rather than being a healthy role model of achievement, productivity and career satisfaction?

To personally explore the effects of role overload and strategies to reduce it, contact me at 858-472-8959 or visit my website at CA Licensed Psychologist 20112

Disclaimer: Busyness addiction is not an official diagnosis, but a term coined to describe a social phenomenon. In no manner does this column serve to diagnose or treat readers with any psychological disorders nor imply a client-provider relationship between Dr. Kao and any reader. No such relationship exists until a client-provider agreement has been signed by client and provider.