career

Laura Vanderkam thought she was busy. Until she logged where all of her time was going in a spreadsheet.

“How are you?”

Somewhere in between graduating university and securing a job that didn’t include the words ‘entry level’, I learnt to answer that question with a single word: “busy”.

It seemed like every important person I had met said it. Being busy meant being important, motivated, in hot demand. Busy people juggled charity dinners and three hour workouts and an array of clean, well-mannered children. Busy people were the pinnacle of clever.

I loved saying that I was busy.

It was exhilarating at first – I felt like some kind of professional woman, a corporate lady, a holder of suitcases and wearer of heels. I was important and grown up and very, very busy. 

But as I got older, life actually did become busy… and then I didn’t enjoy answering that question quite as much as I used to.

How often do you feel overwhelmed with 'busyness'?

In the last few years, this little four-lettered word has gathered big attention.

Everyone from job recruiters to psychologists preach the shortcomings of saying that you're 'busy'. It indicates that you're tired, stressed, or overworked; and doesn't quite achieve the desired effect I sought as a younger person. It doesn't make you sound impressive - it just makes you look like you're struggling.

And yet, in 2016, many really do feel overwhelmed with life - we are working longer and harder, struggling to keep up. Globalisation and the creation of an online environment has brought greater levels of social comparison than ever before; and for many, it seems like we just can't get ahead.

Higher and higher we pile our plate, driven on by 'life envy', and the desire to be that woman who has it all.

Kids, work, cocktails, exercise, Facebook, chores, dating, leisure, new episodes on Netflix: life is brimming with competing factors that beg or beep for your attention. When was the last time you felt relaxed enough to answer the question, 'how are you?' with something positive?

I would fall off my chair if I ever received an answer that indicated someone was A) Well slept, B) Achieving a good work/life balance, or C) Were content with the state of their butt, thighs, or tuckshop lady arms.

It seems like the word 'busy' is the shortest and most accurate method of saying, "I need a goddamn holiday. And then I need to hire a full staff of people to help me live my life."

But at the end of the day, how do we quantify 'busy'?

And is it even true?

If there was ever a woman who could legitimately claim to be busy, it's Laura Vanderkam. Mother, author, and owner of some of the glossiest hair I've ever seen, Laura is in the business of studying of busyness.

Her bestselling books are in-depth studies to the way people live, with 'What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast', 'All The Money In The World', '168 Hours', and 'Grindhopping' becoming bibles of busy. Or, more accurately, not being busy.

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So invested is she in understanding this phenomenon of overwhelmed women worldwide, Laura put her own life under the microscope for The New York Times.

"In an attempt to understand this frenzy," says Laura, "I spent the past 12 months studying my own time during what might turn out to be the busiest year of my life."

Busy doesn't even cover the mayhem she was juggling.

By January 2015, she had welcomed a new baby into the world (bringing her kid quota to four under the age of eight), had published a new book by the June, and was skipping across America almost monthly on a busy talking tour schedule.

Oh, did I mention her husband also travels frequently for work? Yup.

Dividing her days into half-hour segments, Laura begun to document exactly how she used her time. Whether she was writing, breastfeeding, or going to the bathroom; no small detail was overlooked.

"I logged on a spreadsheet in half-hour blocks every one of the 8,784 hours that make up a leap year," says Laura. "After hitting hour 8,784 at 5 a.m. on April 20, I started analyzing my logs and adding up the categories."

The results were surprising, not least of all for Laura. For in and among her frantic schedule were significant blocks of, well, nothing. How she overlooked them?

"There was plenty of evidence of a calmer life. I got eight massages. I went for long weekend runs (constituting some of the 232.75 hours I spent exercising). I went out to dinner with friends. I spent evenings after the kids went to bed sitting out on the porch, reading fashion or gossip magazines. (My reading total: 327 hours flat. It could have been “War and Peace.” It wasn’t.)"

She realised that, like many, she had exaggerated in her own mind exactly how busy she was.

Whether is was writing, housework, travelling, or caring for her four children; Laura would constantly revert to 'worst case scenarios' when it came to recalling her schedule. Long working weeks would be remembered, whilst the quieter and more pleasant ones pushed the back of her mind. Pumping breastmilk in train bathrooms became a symbol for her working life, whilst the massages and days alone on the beach were forgotten.

Remember when Giselle made her multitasking life look oh-so-effortless? Well, you can too. It's all in your approach...

Time tracking saw Laura discover a veritable black hole of downtime that was just waiting to be filled.

"There are 168 hours in a week" she clocks up. "If I worked 37.40 and slept 51.81, this left 78.79 hours for other things. This is a lot of space. Even if I felt I was constantly packing lunches, I spent a mere 9.09 hours weekly on housework and errands."

That's almost 80 hours a week of nothing time. Of all the figures Laura reels off in her article - and trust me, there's a few - that was the one that really stuck in my mind. Why? Because if even the busiest woman in the world had whole chunks of free time ripe for the picking, what did that say about my routine? I didn't even have kids. Or books. Or a husband.

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Or breastmilk.

Working mothers often feel completely overwhelmed with competing factors in their life.

Thomas Edison, inventor of the lightbulb, obviously had a similar lightbulb moment himself.

"Being busy does not always mean real work," he said.

"The object of all work is production or accomplishment and to either of these ends there must be forethought, system, planning, intelligence, and honest purpose, as well as perspiration. Seeming to do is not doing."

How often in our day do we run around just 'being busy', but not really achieving anything? How much of your busy moments have intent or purpose?

If you were to catch me running to work for our 9am meeting, coffee in hand and flustered look on my face, I would absolutely answer "How are you?" with a very firm, "Busy!" But realistically, what had I actually done? Woken up and showered? Chose between the black jeans or the blue? Sat on a bus for an hour, stood in line for a coffee? Hardly busy, and certainly not overly productive.

The trick of decluttering your life, me thinks, doesn't need to come with a year-long excel spreadsheet. Nor do you need to clock up exactly how many hours you spend lying in bed at night scrolling Instagram (because that would just be depressing). What you need to do is understand that busy is a state of mind.

Watch the Mamamia team recreate the 14 things you need to do before breakfast to be successful. They definitely involve keeping 'busy.'

Seeming to be busy is not being busy. Feeling busy is not being busy. Heck, even being busy doesn't have to be busy.

It is about your approach to your schedule, the language you use with yourself, and actively working to find your down time without sacrifice of what is important to you.

Be honest with yourself when reviewing your life. Are you actually working 80 hour weeks, or are you just stung after a busy few weeks of early starts and late finishes? Does lamenting your workload actually start to make you feel stressed?

Rework your internal and external dialogue when speaking about your lifestyle. Are you really racing to a meeting, or are you walking there with plenty of time to spare? How does that word 'racing' make you feel?

And if you still can't see the gaps in your schedule (trust me, they're there), then make like Laura Vanderkam, and start logging your activity. Even after a week you will see patterns emerge that you can seize upon and consciously celebrate as the luxurious and oh-so-elusive leisure time. 

And maybe then, when people ask how you are, 'busy' won't be the first thing that pops into your mind.

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