Adina Schecter, 37, a mother of two who lives in the Boston area, woke up at 5 o'clock in the morning every day to go to work. After work, she'd pick up her kids from daycare, and spend evenings making dinner and doing household chores. By the time she put her children to bed, she had no energy left to do anything for herself.
"I was doing all these tasks – dishes, baths, brushing [the kids'] teeth – and every task started to feel more and more overwhelming and became more than what it really was," Schecter says. "I didn't want to feel like I was working all the time, whether it was at my job or at home. I wanted to enjoy my family time in the evening and enjoy my life."
Weekends offered no relief. Schecter raced from family responsibilities, like play dates and birthday parties, to grocery shopping and prepping meals for the week. By Sunday night she was more exhausted than ever. Stuck in a never-ending cycle of busyness, she knew that her lifestyle wasn't sustainable but didn't see a way out.
Writer and editor Irina Gonzalez, 30, was living a similarly overscheduled lifestyle in New York City: She skipped breakfast, worked through lunch, and spent her evenings networking or eating takeout on the couch. After dinner, she'd do more work, either for her full-time job or on a freelance project.
Her weekends were also anything but restorative. "I caught up with friends and really didn't give myself any time to catch up with myself," Gonzalez says. "It was spiraling to the point that I just wasn't having any time to even think about what I was doing."
The culture of busyness
Their stories are not out of the ordinary. "We all get so busy that we tend to think that we're really alone, that maybe there's something wrong with us, and we just can't keep it all together. But it's really a very pervasive problem," says Brigid Schulte, author of Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time and director of the Better Life Lab, a program that focuses on issues of work-life balance and gender equality at the nonpartisan think tank New America.
For Schecter, things became unmanageable when her hours at work were reduced because of budget cuts. She was looking for another position to bridge the gap, but just days before her final interview, she realized that she was about to perpetuate the same hectic cycle. She and her husband reviewed their finances and found ways to cut their spending so she wouldn't need to take a second job and could work four days a week with one day off. This gave her the time she'd long wanted to pursue her personal interests and simply slow down.
Gonzalez's wake-up call came when she realized how much she was relying on alcohol to relieve her stress and reward herself at the end of a hard day. So she left her job to work as a full-time freelancer and moved from New York City to Florida for a lower cost of living and more manageable pace.
Both women made big changes to simplify their lives, but cutting back on busyness also involved making smaller daily choices. So if your days are whizzing by in a whirlwind and you're feeling the burnout of busyness, you don't necessarily need to overhaul your entire life. You can take steps right now to free up much-needed time in your life and space in your mind. Try these suggestions:
When you're totally overwhelmed and exhausted, making a significant change to the way you're living may be the last thing you feel like you can do. But you don't need a weeklong retreat or even a day off to start slowing down. Schulte says that beginning to disrupt the cycle of busyness, even in very small ways, is what's important.
"You can start with something as easy as every time you hang up the phone, just close your eyes and take one deep breath or go for a walk – just around the block, it doesn't have to be a marathon run," says Schulte.
Introduce moments of calm
Being chronically busy and stressed taxes your nervous system, sometimes even to the point of impairing your brain's executive function. This makes it difficult to make decisions or even know what you want and need in that moment. Jennifer Louden, author of Comfort Secrets for Busy Women: Finding Your Way When Your Life Is Overflowing, says that calming your nervous system is the first step to slowing down. Doing yoga, taking nature walks, or even doing something as simple as placing your hands over your heart and speaking to yourself lovingly can all help get you into a calmer state. Which means you'll be able to think more clearly and make better decisions.
Rethink your to-do list
The way that many of us structure our to-do lists sets ourselves up for failure, says Schulte. Excessively long lists of tasks and our own outsized expectations of what we're actually capable of accomplishing contribute to a feeling of being perpetually behind and unable to catch up, which further fuels this sense of stress, tension, and busyness.
Schulte subscribes to author and time management expert David Allen's system of viewing your to-do list as a "brain dump" rather than a list of things you actually have to do. She says that just putting it all down on paper gives your mind a rest because you're not expending energy trying to remember everything. But once you write it down, she says, give yourself permission to not do it that day – or maybe ever.
Louden encourages easing up on the unrealistic demands we place on ourselves. "Every day we put so many things on our lists that we're absolutely never going to get done, and we beat ourselves up with a sense of never finishing," she says. "So start to notice what can you actually get done in a day? What's realistic? And only put those things on your list."
Set parameters around your workday
Constant connectivity has ratcheted up expectations of employees. "Our workplaces really admire and exalt overwork. People are answering emails at three in the morning. There's a lot of cultural pressure to overwork," says Schulte. "It's hard to know when to turn off. For a lot of us, we don't know, so we just keep revving and revving and revving."
Gonzalez says the change that improved her quality of life the most is ending her workday by 6 o'clock every evening. Setting this parameter has actually made her more productive because she knows that she needs to accomplish her work within set hours. "That's been the number one thing," she says. "I close my computer and do not open it until the next morning."
Putting this into practice can be tough but not impossible. If you feel like you need to respond to work emails immediately, day or night, it could help to clarify if this is an actual expectation of your job or just pressure you've put on yourself. Schulte suggests having conversations about this at work instead of assuming that you're required to be available at all hours. Perhaps your boss and coworkers will be fine with you having periods of time when you're unavailable online if they know you're reachable by cell phone if need be.
Of course pressing deadlines will come up, but if you're always bringing work home Schulte says you need to figure out what's behind it. Is your workload too much? Are you being inefficient or having difficulty prioritizing? Are you constantly interrupted at work so it's hard to concentrate? Once you understand the underlying cause, you can start to address it.
Our brains need breaks to work well. "What the research is showing us is that if you really want to have the best idea or do the best work, you need this off/on switch between deliberate rest and concentrated work," says Schulte.
That means reserving slots of unscheduled time, according to Louden. "It could be getting to an appointment 10 minutes early and allowing yourself to not check your phone but to sit and read something fun, or building in three or four hours on the weekend where absolutely nothing is scheduled and you get to ask yourself 'What do I want to do?'" she says.
As a freelancer, Gonzalez keeps regular business hours but sets aside one hour for herself every morning before she starts her workday. She's found that taking this time in the morning, rather than just jumping right into work, has helped her have more mental clarity throughout the rest of the day.
Let some things go
According to a UK study reported in The Daily Mail, women spend three hours a week redoing chores that they think their partners didn't do well enough. Schulte notes that time could be better spent. She encourages families to evaluate what work really needs to get done in their households and how to share it equitably between all family members, including children.
And if your spouse or kids don't complete the chores up to your standards, she says it might be best to just let it go. "Learn to live with the laundry that's not folded quite right. Unless it drives you crazy, but then recognize that you are making a priority out of having perfectly folded laundry or a toy room that's perfectly picked up rather than something that might give you more joy," she says.
"Figure out what's important at home and how to create the space for joy and connection," says Schulte. "That's what home is about – make the housework secondary."
Really think about where you can cut back. Louden suggests asking yourself some questions: What are the things that make you feel so heavy and exhausted even just thinking about doing them? What are the "shoulds" on your list that you're doing because you think they make you a good person/family member/employee? Another thing to consider is that the most recent obligation added to your pile can often be the first to go.
You might not do this skillfully at first, says Louden. "You have conditioned yourself and – possibly everyone in your life – to expect you to be a superperson," she says. "There's going to be pushback and you are going to be uncomfortable, so don't look for it to necessarily feel good."
Schecter worried that turning down freelance opportunities would hurt her career and people who relied on her, but she took a risk and did it anyway. "It was so empowering to say no to everybody." she says. "When you start saying no to certain things, you build momentum to say no to others. It's like a muscle, you need to practice and it grows and you get better at it."
Realize that slowing down is important
Because busyness is so normalized, even valued, in our culture, it can be hard to buck the system. But chronic busyness takes a serious toll, according to Louden. "You cannot live the life that you want to live and have the impact that you want to have with your family, creativity, and work if you are overwhelmed, overscheduled, and overbusy," she says.
And by slowing down and appreciating your life more, you are actually doing something good for everyone, not just you and your family, says Schulte. "The more we change individually, the more we'll be able to change collectively.