A look at the notion that we're busier than ever

Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune
Published Sunday, December 09, 2007

Busy is the new black.

Busy is chic. Being a busy person -- specifically, busier than you -- has become a wrinkle-free mantle of success.

The business of busy-ness has spawned its own adjective: time-starved. Thus we have the time-starved parent, executive, employee, child, butcher, baker, candlestick-maker.

But are we really time-starved, or just on a diet of our own choices?

One moment for a giant caveat: Some people truly are running on fumes: the single mother with three kids and two jobs; the employee swallowing the mandatory overtime to keep from getting laid off; the caretaker son of stubbornly aging parents. Such a list is highly personal, and changes over the course of a lifetime. To all: May you survive this period.

As for the rest of us: Why are we feeling so hungry for free time? As the numbers play out, we have plenty. For more than 40 years, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has asked a range of Americans to keep time-diaries of how they spend their days. The most recent data from 2006 shows an unswerving consistency with past years in that we have almost as much "non-work" time as "work" time.

In other words, busy is also the old black.

Here's the breakdown

On an average weekday for Americans employed full time, 9.3 hours was spent on the job, 7.6 hours sleeping, 3 hours in leisure and sports activities, 0.9 of an hour doing household work and the remaining 3.2 hours on other activities such as eating, drinking, shopping, socializing, driving. So, roughly, 9 hours on the job and 7 hours off, with 8 hours of sleep.

Even paring down some of those 7 off-hours to life-supporting tasks such as eating, there's free time to be had.

Another finding: On an average day, both men and women spent about 45 minutes socializing and two hours watching television.

So what's going on here? Did people mistake the network slogan, "must-see TV," as a command rather than a come-on?

Not really, although "it's hard to get people to give up TV, as it turns out," said John Robinson, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, where he directs the Americans' Use of Time project. His conclusion -- and you're not going to like it -- is that while we may feel more stressed with all we have to do, we actually have more free time at our disposal, on average, than in the past.

One measure? As of September, there were more than 106 million blogs, according to Technorati, a search engine that tracks them. Every day, more than 175,000 new ones begin. Clearly, a labor of love -- and perhaps a great stress-reliever -- for the bloggers. But when you're begging off on helping with ticket sales at school, don't underestimate how much time you spent last night clicking, commenting and memeing.

Braced for more? While the 1990s spurred a jump in those Americans under 65 who said they "always felt rushed" (from 24 to 38 percent), Robinson said that, "since the '90s, there has been no change. It's stayed the same exactly. But we have changing perceptions about time."

Among those changes is our ability to handle what author and linguist Deborah Tannen has called "the consequences of option overload."

Thank technology and Americans' penchant for wanting to be in control, said Charles Darrah, a professor of anthropology at San Jose State University and author of "Busier Than Ever! Why American Families Can't Slow Down" (Stanford, $19.95) Darrah said we feel busier because the nature of activities has changed.

"There's an incredible amount of time people spend on consumption," Darrah said. "Checking things out on the Internet, going to shopping malls, learning how to use products they've bought, holding on customer service lines -- the act of consumption has become huge."

Think of how much time you can kill just managing a Netflix account, perusing movies, then their reviews, then the careers of their stars. Oh, look -- movie trivia!

E-mail blurs the lines between home and work. But there's also something unexpectedly fatiguing about e-mail. "People say they can't understand why they're tired by 10 a.m. and they've only been e-mailing people. Well, it's because each e-mail is different."

It's not just multi-tasking, but something Darrah calls "multi-contexting.

"You're working in small fragments of meaning that shift."

Cell phones have a similar effect, letting us to check in with each other, which, while a tool of efficiency, has the effect of interrupting us, even momentarily, from the task at hand.

No question, our ancestors were busy, but it was often one task of longer duration: think wood-chopping or weaving. "What's different is that we shift from fragmentary activity to fragmentary activity to fragmentary activity."

Lesson: Whenever something -- a job, an activity, a day -- is broken into disjointed fragments, it heightens the sense of busyness.

Yet deep down inside while we complain about being so busy, some of us harbor a dirty little secret: Busy feels important. "It's become sort of a competition," Robinson said.

Robinson, who keeps all the time-diaries, maintains that nothing will change because nothing has changed. We're no more tired at the end of a workday than we were 20 years ago, he said, although he offers one dim ray of hope: Because things aren't getting worse, maybe life is beginning to slow down, or "we're learning how to cope."

We are, in some ways. Girl Scouts now can earn a "Less Stress" merit badge for learning how to manage their busy lives. A battalion of businesses are there to help you -- for a price -- to better manage your time, prepare your meals, clean your home, select your clothes, deliver your groceries.

Because at the end of the day, the issue boils down to whether life really is all that demanding, or whether our choices make it so.

"If you're concerned about your time, sit back and think reflectively on what you're doing with your life," Darrah said. "It sounds a little existential, but what are the stories we're creating about ourselves? Stories about the mastery of busyness in everyday -- these are not grand stories."

(Contact Kim Ode at kimode(at)startribune.com)

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)


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