None of us should have to live on a racetrack

Apr. 05, 2014 @ 01:12 AM

Once upon a time when someone asked, “How are you?” the expected answer was, “Fine.”  Today, of course, the expected reply is, “Too busy,” uttered with a weary sigh and brief eye contact followed by a nod from the questioner that communicates, “Yeah, me too.”  It is a moment of commiseration, for most of us are too busy.

 I found myself in that exchange last week and was startled to hear myself say, “Busy.”  My circumstances have changed recently such that I am on the farm full time. However, I am still too busy, and I had to ask myself why.

When my situation changed I didn’t feel a sense of relief or a call to a leisurely pace.  I found myself moving at the same breakneck speed, feeling the same old sense of urgency, and making lists that were too long for any mortal to accomplish.  I still feel that everything needs to be done right now.

I recently heard a radio interview with Brigid Schulte about her book, “Overwhelmed.”  Though our situations are quite different -- she is a young working mother -- I recognized myself in the people she described from her book and in a phrase she used repeatedly in the interview, “contaminated time.”

When we’re doing one thing, but feeling frantic about all of the other things that wait for our attention, we’re living in contaminated time.  We are not focused.  We are not present.  We are not healthy.  And yet we live in a culture that prizes busy-ness and multi-tasking.  Hectic is the expected norm, and anything else is perceived as slack.  I know, because I’ve been on the perceiving end when I thought others weren’t doing enough.

Time was once calculated by the sun, of course, and while there may have been some urgency then to get things finished and be home and safe by dark, time wasn’t assigned “value” until the invention of the clock and the onslaught of the industrial revolution.  That is when efficiency studies came into play because we began to sell our time, and thus time became equivalent to money.

I bought Schulte’s book and wish I could make it required reading for every American.  She makes the case, of course, for the vast shortcomings in support for working families, and particularly for women.  But before she goes there she explores the consequences of living in contaminated time, or with “confetti time,” where whole days are broken up into 15 or 20 minute increments of busyness.

In short, contaminated living has physiologic consequences that drastically reduce the productivity we so treasure in this nation, and ultimately it makes us stupid.  Multi-tasking and persistent stress literally shrink the pre-frontal cortex in our brains -- the place from which we “reason…learn, plan, concentrate, remember, judge and control ourselves.” (Schulte) It is the part of the brain that makes us human.

Schulte interviews psychologist Mihaly Czikszentmihaly, who studies “peak” human experience.  He calls this state, “flow.”  We tend to experience flow when we concentrate on a task we enjoy -- like gardening or playing music.  I get there when I work puzzles sometime, or groom my pony.  It takes a span of time, and Czikszentmihaly is concerned that our culture of busy-ness is limiting our access to flow, which he considers essential for human well-being.

I realize that I am addicted to the “juice” that surges in me when I am busy.  That juice is composed of stress hormones like cortisol, and it isn’t a healthy thing.  But my body still seeks it when it isn’t there.  Just like a race horse that is taken out of competition, I have to detox, and “come down” to a more leisurely pace. 

Schulte’s book suggests that none of us should have to live life on a race track.  Our culture of time is inhumane, and must be changed.  But first we have to identify the problems, which is what her well-researched tome has done.  It takes a thoroughbred about a year to settle into his off-track life.  I am just getting started.

A CHH columnist since 1998, Susan Gladin is a freelance writer, United Methodist minister, and has served as executive director of The Johnson Intern Program in Chapel Hill and previously of Orange Congregations in Mission in Hillsborough.  Currently she manages a horse barn and a home business on the Orange County farm she shares with her husband. Their two grown daughters live nearby. You may e-mail her at, or write c/o The Chapel Hill Herald, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.