Consumer & Culture: A Shift from “I’m busy” to “I choose…”

In this year of Resilience and Responsibility, we need to bring a new perspective to how we use our time and manage our energy for both happiness and effectiveness. These themes are topical with the current focus on topics such as sleep and mindfulness contrasted against busy-ness and the eternal search for work-life balance. Consider Oliver Burkeman’s well-written December 2016 article, “Why Time Management is Ruining our Lives,” in The Guardian, which gives us a rundown of why we feel pressured to be productive and efficient and questions to what end.

Christine Carter, UC Berkeley sociologist and author of “The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work,” was interviewed last year on KQED’s Forum. She shared that people today get addicted to being busy, because being busy means we are productive and being productive is synonymous with success. This is somewhat true, however—it’s often that when one meets a successful person one learns she is a hard worker. Even Arianna Huffington who now champions sleep got to where she is because she worked hard. But the problem with being too busy, according to Carter, is that it often leads to stress, which can be counter-productive. A few tools Carter advocates to help reduce stress and better use one’s time in service of personal life fulfillment is to focus on one’s priorities and what inspires you, to create micro-habits to smartly use your mental energy, and to take breaks to refresh your mind. What’s helpful is that Carter presents a fresh perspective that goes beyond time management to include energy management. It’s an important perspective—how can we better use our mental and physical energy? For example, are we wasting mental energy fretting about things that just don’t matter much? Could we use our mental energy in a more productive way? It’s interesting to consider where we can reduce that friction.

It seems like the perspective that busy-ness is good is shifting to some degree towards suggesting that someone who is busy isn’t in control of their lives. Last year I was interviewing a woman, a mom with three kids who is also starting a business, and I asked her to use three adjectives to describe her life. Her first response was, “Busy. Oh, but I can’t say that.” She was ashamed of saying that she was busy; it was not an appropriate answer. This discussion took place after Laura Vanderkam’s article, “The Busy Person’s Lies” came out in The New York Times, and it seems this rejection of “busy” has taken root. Vanderkam, who writes about time management, found in looking at her time logs that she didn’t work as much as she thought and found time for leisure. She advocates that using time logs can shed light on the realities of where we spend our time and in doing so help us make better choices. This may be true, but it was interesting that the result was for some to feel embarrassed by the reality of having to manage very full lives.

If we were to do a time analysis, we might find that we are culpable for where our time goes. This came to me in reading Shonda Rhimes’ book, “The Year of Yes.” In the book, Rhimes shares that she did say “yes” to new things in her life, but she also investigated her past behaviors to understand what exactly she was saying “yes” to that drove past behaviors. She took responsibility for her choices and sought to understand what she was letting into her life. Our behaviors are clues to what we are saying “yes” to in our own lives, and we can shift the power on time by pausing to examine where our time goes, just as Laura Vanderkam suggests. Instead of thinking we aren’t in control, we can realize we have a choice. Our lives aren’t happening to us. We are responsible for what shape and direction our lives take. If you don’t like where you are spending your time, then investigate why you are spending time where you are and change it.

There is a reality that there are only 24 hours in a day and the demands on us often fill those hours. So perhaps the point of all this is to make us feel like we have more choice and responsibility in the matter than we think. If we took the time to pause and evaluate where our time goes, we would likely find that we can carve out space for what’s important to us. We can also behave in ways that preserve and manage our energy to build resilience for what matters.

The Consumer & Culture Forecast: Help me focus my time and energy on what matters to me.


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