Take Back Your Time

How to prevent busyness from ruining your life

By Naomi K. Lewis with Ayushi Thapliyal Updated: Nov 28, 2018 11:10:13 IST
Take Back Your Time Photography by Gabrielle Sykes

*Arpita Kumar, 47, was no stranger to busyness. She started to work for the government at 20, got married, had two children by the time she was in her 30s and then got posted to the UK. Back in India, she jumped into a hectic career and family life. Work-life balance was completely thrown out of whack in 2007 after her husband moved abroad on work. When in 2014 her daughter left the country to pursue medicine, Kumar suddenly imploded. The fatigue that had been building up over the years set in with a vengeance. Before, there was no time to notice how overbooked and overscheduled her life was. All at once, she felt exhausted and lonely. Wrestling with her fatigue, she sensed that she was close to breaking point and that serious lifestyle changes were in order. She took a leave of absence for six months and started work to mend her tattered self. Her first stop was a Japanese martial arts class.

When we're juggling a number of different commitments-familial, professional, personal-it's easy to feel overwhelmed. We go to bed sure we'll never catch up and wake up feeling worse because we didn't sleep well. Busyness is a kind of trap: Stress exacerbates physical and mental health problems and gets worse when we don't take good care of our bodies and minds. Although it can be difficult to see how to break that cycle when you're caught up in the fray, some smart strategies can help make your life better-and a whole lot less hectic.

Think Productive, Not Busy

After Chris Bailey from Ottawa, Canada, completed a degree in business, he dedicated a year to exploring productivity, spurred by what he describes as "a lifelong obsession". He published The Productivity Project in 2016 at the age of 26, and since then has devoted himself to the subject full-time as a speaker and consultant. The key isn't corporate-style efficiency, Bailey insists, but establishing and achieving goals without wasting energy, focus or time. You may aspire to build a deck or do your taxes or get to appointments promptly-or to spend a lazy afternoon reading on the beach. If you accomplish what you've set out to do, you've had a productive day.

In one test, Bailey alternated between devoting 90-hour and 20-hour weeks to his research to see how much a committed workaholic might actually get done. Though he felt far more productive during the longer stints, the logs he kept showed he'd accomplished only 10 to 20 per cent more. He filled the rest of his time with "busywork"-checking email, dawdling on projects and so on. "Productivity doesn't just involve spending more time on tasks," he says. Rather, it requires us to focus on the right things and allocate our attention and energy wisely.

One of Bailey's favourite discoveries is simple: the list of three. Instead of beginning his days with an epic (and growing) set of to-dos, he writes down the three main tasks he intends to accomplish-whatever is essential to stay on top of things. "The brain is wired to think in threes," he says.

Psychologist Chad Bodnar, based in Edmonton, Canada, agrees that prioritizing is key. "You're going to have to evaluate what you can do, what you have control over and what's urgent. Do you have the resources to solve something now, or do you need time to gather what you need? Can you delegate some tasks to other people?" He stresses that we thrive best when we reach out to our social networks for support, especially in challenging times. Says Shivani Manchanda, a student counsellor at IIT Bombay: "Prioritizing tasks in terms of the value they add to our lives is the golden rule. This helps us decide how to plan and use our schedules better."

Advises Gurugram-based psychotherapist Aparna Samuel Balasundaram, "Identify your peak performance time and schedule your important tasks accordingly." Mumbai-based trauma expert and clinical psychologist Seema Hingorrany asks her  clients to have protocol and compartmentalize. "Most people have plenty of potential, but do not set goals in place," she says. The best way to navigate a busy day, she advises, is to reflect on the tasks, evaluate what wastes your time and then make yourself a priority list.

"Ensure that you have resources in place to prepare for the days that you will be extra busy," suggests Balasundaram. Do the smaller tasks that require lower concentration to take a breather from the more complex ones. Let your family and friends know in advance about your busy spell. "Once you've met those deadlines, take out some 'me' and 'we' time," she says.

Tame Technology

The first time we emailed Bailey to set up an interview, we received an automatic response: He only checks his inbox once a day. Constant digital demands can occupy vast amounts of time-and if we read each message as it comes in, we feel like we're doing something when we're merely distracted.  

According to Heather Menzies, technology is more than simply an annoying diversion. In her 2011 book, No Time: Stress and the Crisis of Modern Life, the Ottawa-based author and scholar says we end up feeling busier and busier because we're required to work at the speed of technology. Once we're accustomed to that hectic clip, we easily develop compulsive behaviours, such as constantly checking email and text messages, revving up our brains to an unhealthy pace.

That knee-jerk need to be perpetually plugged in can be exacerbated when we have a lot going on, whether we're anxiously scrambling to finish a project or bustling to coordinate plans with relatives. Some reliance on technology may be unavoidable, Menzies acknowledges, but she maintains that focusing on one thing at a time, at a human (not digital!) pace, and turning off the phone or internet when possible, can significantly reduce the sensation of frantic busyness.

Adds Manchanda, "Social media is the biggest time sink in the corporate world-but by switching off unnecessary notifications and logging out of apps you can use the medium to your benefit for networking and staying well informed."

Also, internet addiction and social media-induced envy and anxiety are real. If you are a victim or distracted by something on your feed, avoid it and focus on other things. "Some of my patients lose a lot of valuable time, comparing themselves with their friends, ending up with low self-esteem," says Hingorrany. Even though they realize this is a waste of time, they are sometimes unable to tear themselves away.

"Be alert and monitor your online time as excessive use doesn't just tire you out, it can also lead to insomnia," says Balasundaram. "Set yourself boundaries: For example, avoid using your mobile after 11:00 p.m. Self-control, moderation and regulation are critical," Hingorrany adds. 

Balance is Key

In the West most people draw clear boundaries between work and downtime. However, Indian work culture often involves excesses. Take the case of one of Hingorrany's patients, a 28-year-old Mumbai-based lawyer, who worked long hours, did not eat or sleep on time and never said no to work. He took on case after case, even though he felt overwhelmed. Soon he reached breaking point, was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome and underwent eight months of therapy. He had to make several life changes that included slowing down at work, yoga classes and eating right.

A break from work is essential in restoring balance, as this way you get to reflect and reassess your choices. "One should plan regular breaks to prevent feeling overburdened at work-only in a different environment can you switch off completely and recharge," says Chennai-based psychotherapist, Dr Vijay Nagaswami.

For Kumar, her sabbatical proved therapeutic. Not only did she get to spend quality time with her pre-teen son, who needed her, and meet her friends and family often, she also joined piano, swimming and Zumba classes that energized her infinitely. She also decided to take a vacation to the Sundarbans with a group of friends. Signing up for vipassana meditation also worked wonders. What's more, she realized the value of scheduling regular 'me' time. Now, back at work and thriving, she ensures regular breaks, even if it is to drive to a cafe and read a book.

Mind Your Body

People often feel their ailments are caused by having too much on their plates, says Bodnar, when sometimes "the body's just not properly cared for". You may not need less to do; you may simply need more energy. A combination of stress and poor lifestyle choices, that are typical of an overloaded, overbooked life, can also lead to chronic pain, hormonal imbalances and conditions like irritable bowel syndrome and diabetes.

The World Health Organization recommends that adults aged 18-64 should do a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercises throughout the week for good health. However, an Indian Council of Medical Research study found that more than half of the Indian population fails to meet this. A 2017 International Journal of Community Medicine and Public Health study conducted among adults in Nagpur shows that higher levels of sedentary lifestyle (59 per cent) were found in urban areas compared to rural ones. Also, lack of physical activity had a correlation with diabetes, hypertension and obesity among respondents.  

The cycle is vicious: The more we ruminate about our pending tasks, the more trouble we have sleeping, and the more tired we get, the less we can accomplish each day. A 2015 Journal of Association of Physicians of India study shows that 13.8 per cent of 602 adults who worked approximately eight hours a day suffered from insomnia, which was mostly associated with anxiety, hypertension and depression. Those who suffered from insomnia agreed that insufficient sleep affected their health, performance at work, household duties and relationships with family.

But with enough exercise, you'll sleep better. According to a 2013 study by researchers at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Illinois, USA, even people with significant insomnia noticed improvements with three or four 30-minute moderate exercise sessions per week. The effects are cumulative and can take four months to kick in, so don't give up if your first workout fails to result in sound sleep. "Exercise helps balance your system," says Vesna Jacob, Delhi-based fitness and wellness expert. A high-intensity workout relieves stress. "However, if you experience extremely high stress levels, over a period of time, it is best to do light movement workouts," she advises.

Exercise Your Mind

Meditating-15 minutes or more daily-can have positive results. There are several benefits tailored to managing a busy schedule: better sleep, feeling less stressed and being mindful of unhelpful cognitive and behavioural patterns. According to Jacob, meditation helps steer the focus inwards. "We live in a world where our priorites lie outside of us-work, family commitments, our social life. Meditation builds concentration, calms the mind and prevents emotional outbursts," she says.

Some people rely on smartphone apps, such as Headspace, Mindbliss and Calm that lead users through short routines including breathing techniques. They also teach ways to bring awareness to our bodies and minds. With practise, it becomes easier to access our inner sense of stillness. From there, we can assess the urgency of life's demands and calmly prioritize.

Imagery exercises can also work well: "Close your eyes and reflect on a moment in the past that made you proud. Then draw on that energy, it will make you feel motivated and confident to do anything that you've set out to do," says Balasundaram. Visualization, another tool often used by sports psychologists, consists of going ahead in time and thinking about how you'd feel when you've achieved what you have set out to do. "This can be super motivating and bring focus," says Balasundaram.

But Whatever You Do … Stay Busy!

A 2013 report published by the UK-based Economic Affairs found that physical and psychological health often decline shortly after retirement. "We're designed to keep busy," Bodnar says. Retirees get depressed, anxious and sick when they don't know what to do next. Some tend to withdraw from social and work life, making matters worse.

Nagaswami stresses it's important to plan for retirement in advance. Start brainstorming and "make yourself a bucket list of post-retirement activities",  he suggests. This will help you find purpose and adjust to your new life. In 2010, researchers from the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business and Shanghai Jiaotong University's Antai School of Management found that busy people rate themselves happier than idle ones do, as long as they believe that what they're doing is meaningful. Many people dread boredom more than excessive activity.

Take the case of 59-year-old Sara Adhikari, a former journalist who returned to India from the UK in 2013. Instead of jumping right back into the high-pressure life of a journalist, she founded smallchange.ngo, a digital platform that champions India's non-profits and helps them raise funds. "I wanted to do something meaningful that engaged me fully. I work 24/7 on it and the level of stress is the same as a full-time job, if not more. But instead of exhausting me it energizes and inspires. I don't mind it at all. I enjoy it-plus I get to give back."    

As Christopher Hsee, one of the authors of an idleness study, emphasizes, "To maximize overall well-being, one needs to strike a balance between leisure and work." The key, says Bodnar, is "finding your comfort level", which can be different for everyone. The sweet spot perhaps lies somewhere in between. And in understanding your needs, being able to draw the line and taking time out for yourself. In telling yourself that you're capable, but need not take on the world's burden. And, that is okay.   

-With inputs by Gagan Dhillon

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