Our whirlwind lives: The culture of busyness

Originally published at charlatan.ca

You have two assignments due tomorrow, an essay, and an appointment with a professor. You have three weeks of readings to catch up on and should probably do laundry.

You’ve also been getting an average of about five hours of sleep this past week.

When someone asks how are you, the only thing you can reply with is “I’m busy.” Sound familiar? Well, you’re not alone.


Graphic by Helen Mak, The Charlatan.

We’re all in this together

According to a nationwide survey co-ordinated by the Canadian Organization of University College Health last year, 89 per cent of Canadian students said they felt overwhelmed with all they had to do.

While exams, essays, and work can pile up, there’s also a social element that adds to the feelings of being overwhelmed.

How many times have you heard someone talk about the 10 hours of sleep they got the night before an exam? Or how much free time they have this weekend? Or how they’re caught up on readings?

The lack of sleep, and abundance of stress and busyness seems to be something all students can bond over in a social environment.

But this has also led to a cultural shift in the meaning of being busy and has shed light on new forms of combating stress and anxiety.

Present self vs future self

Tim Pychyl is a professor who teaches psychology at Carleton who said filling your schedule and to-do lists with little tasks means “quick rewards,” something we biologically prefer. But this can be dangerous.

“Present self is caught in the busyness and doesn’t think of the cost to your future self,” he said. “We do all the little things that aren’t that important and we justify procrastinating big things by saying we’re too busy.”

Pychyl’s research focuses on procrastination in students, and said getting caught up in the less important tasks is a common form of avoiding school work.

Let me just answer this email first

But in his 21 years of being a professor, Pychyl said it’s in the last few he’s noticed a dangerous addiction to technology in his students, something that relates to a need to feel busy.

“People spend a lot of time on social media and say they’re busy with that but it’s completely empty,” he said. “They’re wasting a tremendous amount of time, but they feel like they’re really busy answering emails or texts.”

This conjures a false sense of productivity, which is not only dangerous in terms of procrastination but in how students are able to concentrate in the present.

“It’s a crisis. There are students unable to disconnect for an hour and a half in this act of busyness,” he said. “They feel like they have to feel connected. It’s urgent and also compulsive which reveals that it’s a problem.”

Although he said it’s important to recognize some people are honestly busy, it’s increasingly becoming an excuse.

The innate desire

Students seek to justify being busy and when given the choice, they choose having something to do over being idle, found American psychologists Hsee, Yang, and Wang from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

In their 2010 study “Idleness Aversion and the Need for Justifiable Busyness,” they told students to fill out a survey and gave them the choice to hand it in at the front of the room or at another location about a 15-minute walk away.

The first group of students were told they would receive the same candy after completion at either location while the second group was told it would be different types of candy at each location.

In the first group 32 per cent chose the far away location while in the second group 59 per cent took the longer walk.

Hsee, Yang, and Wang concluded that “even a specious justification can motivate people to be busy,” and as long as the reason is justified, students prefer having something to do to sitting idle.

In a later study, they also found that those forced to be busy were happier than those forced to be idle.

A neuro love

Dr. Andrew Newberg, neuroscientist and director of Jefferson Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine in Philadelphia, said the positive feelings resulting from being busy relate to what’s happening in the brain.

“As you accomplish certain things, that activates the reward system of the brain where it releases chemicals like dopamine,” he said. “There is that positive feeling and you feel like something good is happening.”

Newberg, like Pychyl, warned this busy mindset often takes the focus off the more important and pressing issues that an individual tries to avoid.

“It functions as a distraction where you’re able to focus on specific tasks, but it doesn’t give you the opportunity to reflect on other bigger issues that may be haunting you,” he said.

Testing yourself through meditation

Newberg’s research focuses on the neuropsychology of spiritual and religious practices and much of his work has been on the effects of meditation, which he describes as a “neuro-cognitive test that you engage the brain in.”

“Meditation enables the brain to work in a more effective way and research has shown these practices actually change how the brain functions over time,” he said. “It makes the brain thicker, like a muscle, and more active in our abilities to concentrate and regulate our emotions.”

The combination of practices like yoga or meditation with conventional medicine is becoming a more common remedy for anxiety disorders, he said.

More research and data needs to be collected in this field, he emphasized, but one of the main questions remains “how we can utilize practices like meditation to help people,” he said.

Bringing it into the work place

According to a Harvard Medical School study, students with anxiety who began practicing meditation found a 50 per cent reduction in overall psychiatric symptoms and a 70 per cent decrease in anxiety.

Many businesses and schools have implemented mindfulness practices in the workplace with these statistics in mind, Carleton being one of them.

This year, Carleton’s Learning Support Services launched a new workshop for graduate students on mindfulness and a variety of meditation classes are now offered through Carleton Athletics.

Breathing in the trend

Ana Bodnar, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Toronto, specializes in mindfulness and meditation.

Although these practices are ancient, Bodnar said in the last 25 years, they have shifted from an alternative practice to being mainstream and even trendy.

“In clinical psychology, there are ever-growing numbers of applications of mindfulness-based approaches, addressing such conditions as anxiety, depression, addictions, eating disorders,” she explained.

However, being fully present is difficult because “it is not generally how we are taught or conditioned.”

“It can be hard for people to be with their own thoughts and feelings with compassion,” she said.

“When people have high levels of self-criticism or patterns of negative thinking, they generally want to escape their thoughts and focus externally.”

Looking inward for the solution

Like Newberg, Bodnar agreed this external focus involves the “need to be busy,” which we address with little tasks and immediate rewards.

But with the rising popularity of mindfulness practices Bodnar has seen with her work, she said she is optimistic that people are recognizing the need to “slow down” and “experience life more fully.”

“I do think people are searching for antidotes to the anxiety that often comes with busyness and having multiple demands,” she said. “People are looking for ways to slow down, address anxiety, and improve their quality of life.”

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