Crazy, Busy, Overwhelmed. Why You Don’t Have Time.

overwhelmed woman

Last week I found myself caught up in an airplane boarding queue as my fellow passengers hustled and bustled to get settled in seats. The plane was packed full of corporate commuters traveling between Sydney and Melbourne, Australia’s two busiest cities. There was a sense of chaos in the air.


As harried passengers pushed and shoved their bags into tight overhead lockers, the line lagged and a flight attendant made polite small talk with me.

“Hello, busy day?” he asked, expecting me to reply with the common response,

“Yes, crazy.”

But I wasn’t feeling stressed or rushed.

“No, not really,” I said smiling.

There was a brief pause. I’d taken the flight attendant by surprise with an uncommon answer and he tried to work out what to say next.

“Ah, traveling for pleasure then?” realization on his face.

“No, I’m working,” I replied.

“On your way home then?” he asked still trying to work me out.

I laughed. “No. I’m heading away.”


The line moved on before we got to explore the conversation further. But the exchange was timely. This week, I’ve been reading about how busyness, chaos and overwhelm have come to be the norm of our everyday lives and pondering how all this is affecting our health.


I’ve been noticing that busyness or what I call crazybusyness is not only expected but it’s almost flaunted in our culture. I’ve noticed that some of us use our ‘overwhelm’ as a kind of status statement; a sign of success; a measure of our capability and a signal that we’re going somewhere and achieving something.


The words hectic, whirlwind and insane seem embedded into most of my conversations about time, as parents tell me about their children’s before and after school schedules, friends tally the number of days and weeks they have worked without time off or the number of hours they haven’t slept, and colleagues tell me about stress resulting from slow Wi-Fi connections while they were on holidays.

The more I’ve been thinking about this, the more I can’t understand it. How has this chronic, pervasive lack of time happened? We have washing machines, microwaves, the Internet, motorized cars, supermarkets, email and smart phones. We’re supposed to have more time not less. But reality is at odds with the facts.

We’re more stressed then ever. The American Psychological Association has reported that 42% of adults say that their stress level has increased in the past five years. 43% say that stress has caused them to lie awake at night in the past month. According to this alarming study done by Dr. Emily Ansell from Yale School of Medicine, stress shrinks key regions of our brain involved with emotion regulation and impulse control.


I’m sure economists would say this is the fault of a higher cost of living, rising healthcare, soaring housing prices and surging household debt leading to a vicious cycle of working and spending, working and spending. And that is indeed what the American Psychological Association found with 71% of people worrying about money, 69% worrying about work and 59% worrying about the economy.


But before you put all this down to the external forces that come with living in the modern world and get back to being busy, I’d like you to consider some fascinating research being done by Professor Christopher Hsse, a psychologist and professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago and his series of studies called ‘Idleness Aversion and the Need for Justifiable Busyness.’


In one study, the research team gave 98 students a survey to fill out and told them they needed to drop it off before filling out a second survey. The students were given a choice between a busy option, of walking for 15 minutes to drop it off, or an idle option of delivering it just outside the room and then hanging around for 15 minutes.


When the students were told there would be a piece of chocolate waiting for them regardless of where they dropped off their survey, most chose the lazy option and dropped their survey outside the room. But when they were given a choice of chocolate, most of the participants chose to walk for 15 minutes. The interesting thing about this was that the students chose to walk regardless of what the choice actually was. The researchers changed the rewards offered at the end of the 15-minute walk, and the stats stayed pretty much the same. People needed an excuse to be busy, even if it was a flimsy one.

Reading this made me wonder whether we are all running around unconsciously finding excuses to keep ourselves busy. How important are the bigger houses, better cars, tennis lessons and new clothes?

I dove deeper into the work of Hsse and his team and came across another compelling paper simply titled Overearning. In a series of carefully designed laboratory studies, they showed that volunteers chose to work more than they needed to, piling up more chocolate rewards than they would ever eat. Even more fascinating is that when people are earning a higher wage, they are more likely to earn more than they can spend. Hsse calls this mindless accumulation – a tendency to work and earn until getting tired rather than until having enough, even at the cost of happiness.


I realize that the studies I’ve written about here took place in carefully contrived laboratory settings and that there are many factors affecting how hard we work and why we’re time poor. I realize that some of us love what we do and there is much more to it than simply earning a salary. But I think this research forces us to consider some interesting questions.

Do we spend too much time doing work we loathe; striving for things we don’t have time to enjoy? What do we really want and what do we need to do to get it? What is the true cost of mindless accumulation and busyness?

For me, the price was paid with my health. I have no doubt that being crazybusy and stressed contributed to the autoimmune disease I got when I was 24-years-old.  These days my life is very different and my health reflects the shift. I am really well, despite my prognosis. Don’t get me wrong, I feel time poor all the time, every day, multiple times a day in fact. But I have a weapon against it. A simple technique that serves me well and has a little science to back it up.


Hsse and his Chicago University team have found that when people were asked to think about their earnings and the consequences of their earnings, their desire to get more stuff and earn more than they needed was disrupted.


In other words, the secret is reflection.


When my husband and I share quiet moments after our respective busy days, we often ponder what we’re doing this all for. How much is enough? And what will we do when we get there? For us, it’s not that we strive for more things. It’s not even that we want more time to be idle. We hope to work a little less and play a little more. And when we do have to work, we want that work to have meaning.


When I ask friends and family to reflect about why they do what they do, I get wide and varied responses. One friend aims for ‘jet money,’ another wants a home with a back yard, another wants her kids to have every opportunity their heart desires. My parents, who both run their own businesses during the working week, have chosen to invest their retirement savings into a small business that requires them to work on the weekends. They do this, they tell me, because they love it.


I hope this post inspires you to do a little reflection of your own. I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments below.


Further reading:

This link and this link are good summaries of Hsee’s series about mindless earning. His papers on busyness and overearning can be found here and here. For a great book looking at the cause and solution to our chronic lack of time, you might like to read Overwhelmed: How to work, love and play when no one has the time by journalist Brigid Schulte.


More food for thought:

This is an extract from the interview I did with Professor George Jelinek. His story is featured as a case study in my film The Connection after his remarkable recovery from Multiple Sclerosis. His program, Overcoming Multiple Sclerosis has also seen others do the same. In this section of his interview he talks about our society’s reverence of being busy.   You can get the full-extended interview at my web store here.


  • Stacey, Maitri Fitness, Manly

    Hi Shannon, thanks so much for this. It's a subject I often discuss with people and battle with myself. After taking some time out from my yoga studio for a holiday – yes, shock, horror, I took 4 weeks off from my own business – I realised that I need to reflect more and consciously make time for myself. I spend so much time trying to help others relax, but it was at a cost to me. Since being back I've not done less work, but I've stressed less about the work that isn't being done. I am only one person and through my work I will help as many as I can, while looking after myself. In essence, I'm taking my own medicine for a change!!!

  • Shannon

    Hi Stacey, I'm so glad to read about your holiday. I did the same earlier in the year and I know how tough it can be to find the time. Plus when you're running your own business, it's hard to trust the walls will still be standing when you return. My other trick at the moment is to try once a month to take a day, or at least half a day off during the working week for me. My day usually involves a massage, some yoga and a yummy healthy meal that someone else has made. It feels so decadent but the benefits are incredible.

  • Betty-Rose @bettyroseandgeorge

    Hi Shannon. What a great theme you have explored. I always try to find some time to do nothing in particular, wander about the garden, and even schedule in some "boredom". But I still hear my mother saying "don't be so lazy, go and do something"! Gotta love the work ethic (but balanced with some pure time out too).

  • LaurenC

    Hi Shannon, This is such a great topic to explore. A friend of mine, Jackie Woodside, teaches a workshop on "Energy Management" as opposed to Time Management because time is constant ; we truly can only manage ourselves in time and we need to do that according to our own unique set of values which help us determine what we were put on this earth to do. I am very grateful that you have found this calling to create the movie The Connection. I also experienced a number of health crises back 10 years ago

  • LaurenC

    This topic of how to manage our energy, our health, and our wellness in alignment with our values is discussed in Jackie's newly released book which you will notice is on the same theme as your post here. I think you'd be interested.. Check it out:

  • Amanda Lee

    Great post, thanks Shannon. I love what you are doing in helping to expose this myth that we have no option but to be stressed and busy. I help people who are sick of feeling 'consumed by life' and are ready to see things differently so that they live with peace as well as success. A big part of that is learning to harness the law of attraction the right way because when you do, even the time-poverty aspect disappears too. Time is not linear as we perceive it and once we get out of the mindset that it is this way and that there isn't enough time, the feeling of time expanding is amazing.
    Thanks again for all you do.
    Amanda Lee

  • Shannon

    Thanks for the link Lauren.

  • Shannon

    Hi Amanda, just checked out HappinesHQ. Great work.

  • Shannon

    Hi Betty-Rose, That voice in your head telling you that you shouldn't be lazy is in mine too. If you work out a way to turn it off let me know. In the meantime, I shall continue to refer the voice in my head to the above post.

  • Sharee J

    Thanks Shannon for reminding us that busyness is often a choice – its helpful to make it a conscious one. The Potential Project is facilitating Corporate Based Mindfulness Programs all around Australia (and beyond) to help people better manage their energy through learning mindfulness and how to bring it to workplaces, in very practical ways.

  • Therese Norman

    Thank you Shannon for sharing this insight i have a corporate massage business and help busy people take an proactive break i often have conversations about stopping and just breathing to my busy corporates and it is hard for them to do because they feel they need to work harder and longer to make it to the top… then what? i myself am a bit of a workaholic as i love my work and i need to remind myself to take a break and reflect. I have just made the Sea Change to Pottsville and am enjoying a couple of day away from my Business in Sydney. Its quiet a challnage not to run around like constantly like i do in Sydney and i am working on it.
    I am looking to screen the Film for my Clients in Sydney would love to have you there Shannon if at all possible?
    have a great day Love Therese

  • juliemac

    Hello Shannon- I went to a screening this past weekend of your documentary "The Connection": and I absolutely loved it and the scientifically-backed message you are trying to spread across the world! I have a BRILLIANT niece who was accepted to six renowned medical schools (she just graduated at Boston University), and when I mention "mind-body" or holistic approaches, she rolls her eyes at me and tunes me out, thinking that I am crazy because these topics are outside the realm of her traditional western medicine teachings and are "non-scientific".
    The challenge in adoption of the Mind-Body connection as a credible form of healing is getting this full documentary viewed by STUDENTS in UNDERGRADUATE university who are interested in medical school & medical research. We need to open the minds of these future doctors, scientists and researchers BEFORE they become dismissive towards learning about alternative ways to heal.
    I understand the desire to make money selling this fabulous documentary, and that there are costs to defray. I plan to buy at least 10 copies for my niece and my doctors to help spread this critical message.
    HOWEVER, If you TRULY want to help change how the world approaches healing in a profound way, you may want to think about making FREE copies of this complete documentary available to students in UNDERGRADUATE universities & their instructors. (Given my niece's dismissive reaction, I fear that providing this information to Medical School students and professors may be too late to make an impression…).

    Thank you for your consideration, and your efforts to help heal the world!

  • Rob

    Hi Julie, that's a great idea however from what I have learnt over the years there needs to be a charge, even if it's a minimal charge just to cover production costs.

    The reason is that in a large percentage of cases goods received for free are not valued and are treated accordingly. I have always found that you need to "own" the thought, idea or item to get the real value from it.

    This came across loud and strong in a recent documentary for Foreign Correspondent –
    where an Australian Company called Pollinate Energy are selling Solar lights to people in an Indian slum for $30, which in their world is a lot of money. In the course of the doco they mentioned that earlier Solar lights which had been given out free of charge were not looked after and most were now broken or in disrepair. However when the slum dwellers purchased the lights (some on time payment) they took good care of them.

    Hence my suggestion that there should be a charge, even if it's a minimal one.

  • Miriam

    Shannon, thank you very much for this well written post which resonates very deeply with me. It has helped me to understand my husband's death from workplace stress at the age of 40. There was a relentless busyness and a deep exhaustion set in after 20 years of overwork in the financial services sector. The impulse control issues arising from chronic stress that you talk about makes a lot of sense to me as his premature death arose from a sudden suicide leaving his two small kids without their father. I look forward to following the links you have given to learn more. I have also purchased The Connection extended version and am deeply grateful for this worthwhile work you are doing. From Ireland xxx

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About the author: Shannon Harvey

Shannon Harvey is a journalist and producer who was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease when she was 24 years old. Although doctors meant well, none could offer her a cause or a cure. Since then Shannon has been researching the latest scientific research linking her mind and body to health outcomes. Nearly 10 years have passed since her diagnosis and today Shannon is well and not taking medication. Shannon has worked as a television, radio and online journalist and producer and has a Master’s degree in Communications. She worked for the ABC and Fairfax before starting her own production company, Elemental Media. Shannon is the director of the feature film The Connection.



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The Connection is a feature documentary and blog about integrating the latest science in mind body medicine into our everyday lives.


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