Tips for Women Who Juggle Too Much
The other day my mother-in-law and I swapped stories. Both of them were real whoppers. In fact, I never would have told my story if Joyce hadn’t told hers first.
Her story went something like this.
It was a super busy day. Besides the usual — getting a teenage daughter off to school, helping her husband manage an apartment complex and trying to get things done around the house (you know, the stuff that normally takes 28 hours a day) — it was her turn as a parent volunteer to make a pot of soup to take to the teachers’ lounge at a local high school. While the soup simmered, she quickly showered and changed. On her way out, she stuffed her sweats and a T-shirt into a grocery bag, and grabbed a bag of dirty kitty litter to throw in the dumpster downstairs. After dropping off the soup at the school, she headed for her daughter Carolyn’s house to help her get caught up on some housework. When Joyce wanted to change into her work clothes, she opened the grocery bag and discovered a ripe bag of used Kitty Fresh. Her sweats and T-shirt, no doubt, lay in the dumpster across town.
Loosened up by Joyce’s uproarious laughter, I mustered the courage to confess my own crime. Ironically, my recent caper had also centred around a plastic bag.
During my lunch hour, I ran over to the mall to mail letters, pick up dry cleaning, drop off library books, buy a gift, and hunt down some newspapers and magazines for a research project at work. I was nearing the end of my lunch hour (except for the lunch part) when I grabbed the day’s paper. I patted my shoulder for my purse. It wasn’t there! Instantly I took off running to the post office, the last place I’d been. Half way there, I felt something under my arm… the newspaper I hadn’t paid for! Almost instantly I decided that recovering my purse was more important. But what if I’m arrested for shoplifting? I stood paralyzed for a moment, then sprinted off, on the watch for security guards with handcuffs. Then for some reason, I peaked inside the plastic bag in my other hand. Inside was the gift I had bought. And my purse!
Somehow I don’t think plastic bag manufacturers could be held responsible for either of these mishaps. Both my mother-in-law and I readily agreed that these things happened simply because we were too busy. We tried to cram too much into too little time.
Ever done that? Very few women I know today lead simple lives. Most of us are juggling multiple roles with home, work, family, friends, volunteer activities. When I catch up with the women I know and ask how they’re doing, the most common response isn’t “Fine, thanks,” but, “Busy, really busy.”
What’s wrong with being busy?
Nada. There’s nothing wrong with living full, productive lives, and taking on new challenges. Like pioneer stress researcher Hans Selye has said, “Stress is the spice of life.”
But sometimes things can get too hot! I believe there are three different kinds of busyness:
- Daily do-able busyness
- Seasonal busyness
- Perpetual busyness
- Daily do-able busyness
The first kind is the spice of life. Daily do-able busyness is invigorating, but manageable. This kind of busyness is healthy. Days that are filled with joy and meaning are days that are filled with activity, rest and play.
- Seasonal busyness
This is the kind that comes in spurts: major projects, crises, and the demands that come with various times of life–the rigors of being a student, launching a career, or parenting pre-schoolers. This is the kind of busyness we often just have to cope with, like when we find ourselves caring for an ailing loved one. We know that if we get through the season we’re in right now, things will slow down.
- Perpetual busyness
This busyness however, is the kind that can really burn you. Psychologist Bryan Robinson says, “When you discover that you’re not living your life, that your lifestyle is controlling you rather than you controlling it, then you know you have a problem.” More of us probably experience this kind of perpetual busyness than we care to admit.
The fall out
Too much doing, going, helping and giving can take a toll on us, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Most medical books attribute anywhere from 50 to 80 per cent of all diseases to stress-related origins (Stress Among Women in Modern Society, Charles C. Thomas Publisher, 1992). When I get really busy, I’m quick to cut corners on the Big Three: sleep, exercise and healthy eating.
Too much busyness also chafes at the soul. Irritability, frustration, anger, bitterness, burnout and even depression can result. In seeking to serve others, we often neglect our own needs and run out of inner resources from which to draw strength. Spiritually, we become starved. We get so busy doing that we don’t stop to reflect on whether what we’re doing is really worth the effort. And we set ourselves up for failure by taking on too much, finding ourselves unable to follow through, then wallowing in guilt.
Busyness inevitably affects our relationships. We often don’t have energy or time to invest with friends and family. Activity can become a substitute for intimacy, and we can find ourselves feeling more like human doers than human beings.
There’s a simple way to sum up the fall out of excessive busyness. The things that are important — our health, our souls, our relationships — are put aside for what is immediate and urgent. The things that demand our attention NOW receive more attention than the things that matter most to us. Demanding people, last minute requests, intrusive phone calls, guilt-laden responses to others’ appeals keep us constantly reacting and concentrating on surviving rather than truly living.
What’s behind our busyness?
Busyness is a virtue in our culture. We admire people who are able to handle gargantuan work loads. Efficiency — the ability to get more done in less time — is one of today’s most esteemed values. Tim Himmel, author of Little House on the Freeway, paints an accurate picture of where society is at today: “We have a love affair with haste. We call it convenience, and there is no doubt that many modern conveniences have made some of the mundane duties of life more tolerable. But there is a subtle programming that goes on at the same time. It’s not long before we drive our lives the way we drive our cars — too fast.”
Modern technology is another cause of our busyness. While technology has promised us more leisure time, it has actually made it harder for us to relax. Cellular phones, fax machines and lap-top computers enable us to do something every minute of the day.
But blaming society and technology for our perpetual busyness doesn’t cut to the real root of the problem: ourselves. Often we find ourselves out of breath because of the unrealistic expectations we have of ourselves, the desire to feel important and needed, and the need for security.
Sometimes we take on too much because of our drive for perfection. We think that saying no to a request is a sign of weakness; of course we can find the time for one more thing! Often, we are motivated by low self-esteem, thinking that the more we do, the better we will feel about ourselves.
Feeling like we’re the only ones who can make something happen is very validating. We may choose to be involved in activities because they sound good and they look great on our résumé. Other times we may choose to do tasks for others because we want to feel needed, like when we know full well that our kids can make their own lunches, and they even want to do it, but we do it anyway. Too often, we take it upon ourselves to make sure that everyone in our life is happy. We cave in to feelings of guilt: “What kind of awful person am I not to offer my help? I really have no choice but to do this.”
One of the first ways we can control the busyness in our lives is by realizing that we do have choices, and that if our days our too full, it’s because we’ve filled them that way.
Keeping busyness at bay
Organize your life! That’s the solution most often offered to help us get a handle on the busyness. I believe that time and stress management principles are helpful, but they often leave us treating the symptoms rather than the real problem.
If we’re too busy, our real need isn’t to learn how to squeeze more into our lives — to live more efficiently — but to refocus our lives on what matters most — to live more effectively. Author Patricia H. Sprinkle offers wise words in her book Women Who Do Too Much: “Our goal should not be to become hyper-organized, highly efficient superwomen; our goal should be to spend most of our time on what we value most.”
What do you value most? Take some time to think about it. Ask yourself what you want to do and be in life. Consider the different roles you play: What would the very best “you” look like in each of these areas? Write everything down, and circle common themes. Then, summarize the qualities you want your life to reflect, and the contributions you want to make, into a few sentences. This is your life purpose statement. Post it where you’ll see it often. It’s a powerful tool, a measuring stick you can use to evaluate where to commit your time and energy.
Besides an over-arching purpose statement, you should have goals. If you’re really busy, you can’t afford not to. Living without goals is like shooting lots of arrows into the air without having assurance that any of them is hitting the target. Use your life purpose statement to develop annual goals — concrete and measurable things you can do to move toward becoming the kind of person you want to be. Then break your annual goals into do-able monthly ones. Keep your goals in a prominent place and as you plan your daily activities, evaluate whether or not your arrows are on target.
If you know what you want to be and do, it’s a lot easier to know what you don’t. And that makes it a lot easier to say no when you need to. If you’ve declared in your life purpose statement that the cause closest to your heart is helping troubled teens, and you know that you’re talented in administration, it’ll be easier to say no to a request to visit the local hospital’s geriatric ward — and you’ll be freer to say yes to serving as the coordinator of a youth drop-in centre. Saying no is often a matter of passing by the good for the sake of the best. It’s also a matter of admitting that we’re not indispensable and that others can do things for themselves.
When you think about it, saying no really isn’t that big of a deal. Think about the last time someone said no to your request. Did you jump off a cliff? No, you just took it in stride, and considered your other options. You might have even thought, “Gee, I wish I could say no like that.” You can! It starts with putting no in perspective and using it positively to guard the things closest to your heart.
Keeping our natural bent towards busyness in line isn’t something that we do once and for all and “Voilà!” we’ve arrived. Seasons in our life change; circumstances change. Our values change.
But we always have a choice. We can run frantically all day, every day, and end up with a bag of used kitty litter or a parcel of unmerited panic. Or we can enjoy our life’s journey, realizing there’s a place on the path to run, to walk, to play…and to stand still.