This column will change your life: stop being busy

In her recent book Overwhelmed, about the modern epidemic of busyness, Brigid Schulte describes her testy encounters with John Robinson, an academic who insists we have oodles of leisure time, really, if only we'd let ourselves see it. Robinson says glib things such as, "A day without live music is like a day without sunshine" and Schulte, unsurprisingly, gets annoyed. After all, he's a divorced older male with grown children and a comfortable university post; Schulte is a mother of young kids with a deadline-driven job and a husband who doesn't do 50% of the chores. Yet by the book's end, it's hard not to conclude that Robinson has a point. For relatively well-off middle-class busy people, at any rate, the state of "overwhelm" isn't an objective fact about your life, like your height or bank balance or level of education. It's the result of a mismatch between what you expect of yourself and what you manage to get done. If you don't give a stuff about having a clean home, you won't feel overwhelmed by not having vacuumed in months.

The problem, of course, is that we set those expectations as a culture, not as individuals. You can't merrily decide one morning to opt out of everything that's demanded of you as a woman, man, parent or employee. Worse, the whole thing's rigged: the expectations keep getting bigger. Get on top of your email, and you'll find people send you more. Figure out how to spend sufficient time with your kids and at work, and you'll suddenly feel some new social pressure – to spend more time exercising, cultivating a hobby or locating ethically sourced vegetables. Don't you just love consumer capitalism? This constant shifting of the goalposts isn't a flaw in the system. It's how the system works.

This is all rather depressing. Yet finishing Schulte's book, for me, felt unexpectedly freeing. Most time management advice rests on the unspoken assumption that it's possible to win the game: to find a slot for everything that matters. But if the game's designed to be unwinnable, Schulte suggests, you can permit yourself to stop trying. There's only one viable time management approach left (and even that's only really an option for the better-off). Step one: identify what seem to be, right now, the most meaningful ways to spend your life. Step two: schedule time for those things. There is no step three. Everything else just has to fit around them – or not. Approach life like this and a lot of unimportant things won't get done, but, crucially, a lot of important things won't get done either. Certain friendships will be neglected; certain amazing experiences won't be had; you won't eat or exercise as well as you theoretically could. In an era of extreme busyness, the only conceivable way to live a meaningful life is to not do thousands of meaningful things.

"Learn to say no": it's such a cliche, and easy to assume it means only saying no to tedious, unfulfilling stuff. But "the biggest, trickiest lesson," as the author Elizabeth Gilbert once put it, "is learning how to say no to things you do want to do" – stuff that matters – so that you can do a handful of things that really matter. Our only hope of beating overwhelm may be to limit, radically, what we're willing to get whelmed by in the first place.

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