There was a time when the stock answer to ‘how are you?’ would be ‘I’m fine’ or ‘I’m well’. But ask that question today and you’d be more likely to get the response, ‘Busy!’.
We talk proudly of our lives being ‘manic’ or ‘chaotic’ as though it were a badge of honour.
And there is an endless stream of survey results to back up our claims. Dads are too busy to read to their children, nurses are too busy to talk to their patients half of us are too busy to eat and mums are just too busy full-stop.
So why do so many of us feel we have no time to get things done?
Technology is the obvious scapegoat. With so much information available at our fingertips 24 hours a day, courtesy of our mobile devices, we have much more to contend with – emails to answer, pictures of other people’s busy lives to scroll through, our own busyness to document and upload, videos of chubby Korean toddlers dancing to watch…
These brief but incessant distractions hoodwink us into thinking we are spinning plates, juggling multiple tasks simultaneously; they create the illusion we are busier than we really are.
But according to Dr. Earl Miller, Picower Professor of Neurology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, ‘multitasking’ is a misnomer.
“Humans have a great ability to be flexible with their thoughts – they can change their line of thought from moment to moment… but there’s a cost to that,” he explains in his video, Digital Lives - The Science Behind Multitaksing.
“The cognitive apparatus of your brain has to configure from one mode of thought to another so whenever you switch from one to another you cognitively stumble a little bit.”
Every time we 'stumble' like this we waste moments of our precious time - and these moments can mount up.
He cites the classic example of working on a task at your computer when a new email or “some new cute cat video” pops up.
“You have to completely switch most of your conscious thoughts, all your attention, to the other thing, and the thing you were originally working on is completely out of mind,” he says.
“You may think you’re juggling these two things very effectively but actually you’re not, you’re not thinking about two tasks at once… you’re just switching back and forth but with this illusion that you’re keeping multiple balls in the air.”
It is the constant flitting between tasks – working, checking emails, cooking dinner – that causes us to feel overwhelmed by how busy we are, agrees Brigid Schulte.
“It’s role overload,” she explains in her book, 'Overwhelmed: Work, Love, And Play When No One Has The Time'. “It’s the constant switching from one role to the next that creates that feeling of time pressure.”
And this perception of time pressure could be having a harmful impact on our brains, too, according to Emily Ansell, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the Yale Stress Center.
Cited in Schulte’s book, Ansell says what she and other neuroscientists are finding is that when a human feels pressed for time, rushed and caught up in the overwhelm, the pre-frontal cortex area of the brain shrinks.
Nutritional biochemist, Dr Libby Weaver, also believes the perception of time pressure is having a detrimental effect on our health – in particular, for women.
“This perception there is not enough time, combined with a to-do list that is never all crossed off is having significant health consequences for women,” she says in her recent HuffPost blog.
Referring to the condition as Rushing Women’s Syndrome, she has observed a shift in women’s health over the past 16 years:
“The perceived need to rush, whether a woman displays it on the outside or keeps it under wraps, is changing the face of women's health as we know it in such a detrimental way; from PMS to IBS, from losing our tempers to feeling like we can't cope.”
According to John Robinson, a leading sociologist who studies time, we have more leisure time than we did thirty years ago; it’s the way we choose to use that time that creates the perception of always chasing our tales.
Below are seven expert tips on being smarter with the time you do have to free up more diary-space for the fun stuff...