We work shorter days than ever, spend less time on household chores and more time on social media —so why are we are all so busy And why do we brag about it? Rebecca Barry Hill looks at the busy-ness trap and how we can escape from it.

How often have you seen the hashtags #sobusy, #manic, #slammed, and wondered why these people were on social media if they had so much to do? It's not just online. Ask after someone's wellbeing, and chances are you won't get an old-fashioned "Well, thanks" but, instead, a "Good, busy!"

"I find myself saying that all the time," says Erin, an Auckland wedding planner and mum who says she stresses her mother out with her packed schedule. "Sometimes I find I've done so much that when people ask me 'what have you been up to?' I can't remember because it's been one thing to the next. The weekends are full and I don't even know how."

You'd expect a working mum to be busy - and this is someone who used to work in the demanding advertising industry. Erin loves being busy. But even she admits she's reached a tipping point.

"I just feel like my days never end. You don't really clock out. I'm cramming lots of things into my life around work hours. Looking after my son, paying bills, sorting out housework, washing, cooking dinner, groceries ... They're everyday things but they're very time-consuming."

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Her husband Scott, who has a senior role at an advertising agency, lives a different kind of busy life, one that's no less demanding. "We talk a lot at work about the idea that if you want something done, give it to a busy person, and that busy people are often more productive," he says. "But there's a big difference between the people who hide in their busyness, and the people who use busyness to force themselves to be more efficient. I'm more productive now and better at delegating, but a while ago I was probably guilty of being the former. I was really busy - or at least, I thought I was."

Although "busy" is totally subjective, telling people you're flat out has become a normal response to a polite inquiry into your wellbeing. My husband is a busy man but he gets annoyed when people (me included) say, usually after a big sigh, that there's "just so much to do". There are plenty of us who are genuinely time-poor due to financial commitments or family demands. But saying you're busy can be a loaded statement, subtext for "I'm stressed" or "I'm important" or "I don't have time - for you, anyway". It can also be a sign of insecurity, the stigma attached to an empty diary.

"A classic example of people wanting to look busy is by listing the things they have to do on Facebook," says Lorna Marquet, a mum of three who runs an online business. She agrees there's a sense of martyrdom around our burgeoning to-do lists. "Usually it's just domestic chores that should get done daily. That's not being busy. Busy to me is doing a lot while feeling in control and accomplished at the end of the day, while still enjoying life. Time management and work-life balance."

Just as bad is when people ask, "Keeping busy?" a question I'm often tempted to answer in the negative, just to get a reaction.

So how are we managing our time? Contrary to how we might feel, most Kiwis are not working longer hours than ever. A Statistics New Zealand Time Use Survey undertaken in 2010 found we're working less than we did in 1998/99; full-time employees do 26 minutes less a day. We're also spending less time on the household chores. Women still take on the lion's share of unpaid work but we're doing 11 minutes less indoor cleaning than we did in 1998/99. Meanwhile, a World Internet Project study, the New Zealand component of which was compiled by AUT in 2013, found that 81 per cent of Kiwi users spend an hour or more online at home every day, more than a third are online from home for three hours or more, and 30 per cent spend three hours or more online daily from a wireless hand-held device.

"When our mums had us, they didn't have cellphones, for one," says Lauren Hare, a new mum who runs an interior design business. "You're readily accessible 24/7. My clients request things at all hours of day or night. You don't have that luxury of switching off because of technology. If I'm not available it doesn't really fly anymore."

Hare has always thrived on her work, so when she fell pregnant, she was worried as to how she'd sustain her 5am-9pm working days with a baby. When her daughter was born she took just two weeks off before diving back into the job, with the help of a nanny.

"Even when I'm breastfeeding, I'll be on the phone or texting and sending an email, in between checking Instagram - now I find that's actually taken over. I usually devour magazines for work but thanks to Instagram, I can follow certain people to get the same exposure to what's happening in the world. Catching up socially is another juggling act, another level of organisation."

"Everything is so instant," adds Erin. "You can do so much from home now, even your shopping. So whereas maybe once you might have allocated time slots to going out to find a pair of shoes, and picking up ham from the butcher and running errands, now I'll be on the computer while my kid plays and I'm doing 50 other things."

Health and nutrition expert Dr Libby Weaver wrote about this phenomenon in her best-selling book, Rushing Woman's Syndrome. Rather than taking a small moment of down-time while sitting in the car at the lights for instance, many of us feel compelled to check our phones for texts, emails or social media updates. The upshot is not only a lack of decompression time, but a nagging feeling if we can't get on to something straight away. Constant connectivity isn't the issue, though. If that were the case, we'd self-combust every time we entered a wi-fi zone. Nor is actually being busy. Many of us thrive on it, and it's clearly possible to live a full and healthy life with a lot on your plate. The problem is when busyness becomes something else altogether.

Some people are so caught up in the busy trap, the thought of posting a letter is enough to paralyse them. Clinical psychologist Chantal Hofstee runs the West Auckland-based practice Renew Your Mind, which specialises in mindfulness training. She says she sees everyone from stay-at-home-mums to chief executive complaining of stress, burn-out, anxiety and depression, to the point where they can't get anything done.

"Often people come in with the symptoms of anxiety and stress and a lot of the time you can then trace it back to being ridiculously busy," she says.

The problem makes more sense when you consider the brain. As small children, we're experts at keeping busy without really noticing. As we flit from finger painting to chasing rainbows, we're occupying the same state of "creative flow" grown-ups often envy. Sure, we have emotional ups and downs but we're not constantly striving or wanting things. We're happy in the now. Then we enter the goal-orientated education system, where it's less about the now, and more about the outcome. A job only increases that way of thinking.

Hofstee says there are two kinds of busy. One is the healthy sort, when we're relaxed, and the other is the "fight or flight" version, when our brains flood our systems with the stress hormone, cortisol.

"It's a good system in terms of survival. But the problem is, in our society it's chronically activated. Modern life is making us busier and this is having a huge impact on our brain activity, our health and wellbeing. Often people say they're more productive when they're stressed but actually, in the calm and content brain state, all of your resources are available to you. Stress is like trying to drive your car with the handbrake on. Your brain doesn't function properly. If you're calm you're more creative, more flexible, you have better new ideas. It's often where the good stuff happens."

David Allen, the American author of Getting Things Done, agrees our productivity is directly proportional to our ability to relax. He's one of a growing number of organisational experts who use the terms "zen" in the same breath as "corporate management responsibilities". We're not necessarily busier than previous generations, he says, but our psyches are nonetheless overloaded because the influx of things we need to act on comes in electronic form, 24/7. Email is especially potent, he says, because it has a trait that fits the core of addictive behaviour: random positive reinforcement. With every click of the refresh button comes the prospect of something more appealing from what we're doing, quickly followed by the reward of a dopamine hit in the brain.

The problem is compounded by our smartphones, little pockets of temptation that come with us wherever we go. And we're not just email junkies. A Vodafone network report released in 2013 found that 24 per cent of Kiwis use their smartphone or tablet to check social media apps at least 20 times a day. That might be okay if we didn't have to think much, but Allen says the nature of our jobs has changed dramatically and rapidly, much of it having transitioned from the assembly line to increasingly competitive "knowledge work".

Scott knows this all too well. "What we do as a business is far more complicated than it was three or four years ago," he says. "Consumers are smarter, busier, they have access to more and brands have to follow suit. Gone are the days of just doing a TV ad. It's 24/7, 365 days and more demanding of us. There's more to do, without a doubt."

Outside work, there's also more choice. It's a First World problem for sure, but it's hard to escape the superficial pressures heaped on us from the media: all those new restaurants to visit, recipes to try, movies to watch, TV series to see, current affairs to keep up with, books to read, herbs to plant, walls to paint, kids' parties to organise. Don't get me started on the beauty regimes we're supposed to follow. Gone are the days of keeping your hair and nails tidy. Now there's bikini waxing, eyebrow shaping, facials, tanning, Botox ...

"Are we getting busier as a country?" muses Scott. "Well there are more cars on the roads, there's more money being spent, Auckland has a more vibrant, active, productive economy so there's more stuff going on. There's more opportunity. People are busy as a result."

With that opportunity comes the modern phenomenon we like to call FOMO (fear of missing out). OMG, I'm just way too busy!

There is a way out of the busy trap. We all know the benefits of exercise when it comes to combating stress. But meditation and, in particular, mindfulness meditation, is an extremely effective tool. Mindfulness is about accepting life as it is, observing things in a kind and non-judgmental way and keeping your attention in the now, not the past or future and what could go wrong.

"I'm a big believer in mindfulness," says Hofstee. "Research shows it's the best stress fighter we know because stress starts in our brain. If we can change our thoughts around what is causing our stress, we won't activate the stress response."

It worked for Iris Richter. She used to thrive on her busy life. Her corporate jobs with Apple Iceland, and later, as marketing manager for a medical company in Asia, meant she travelled like crazy. She was home for 10 days a month. Life was all about working long hours, and when she moved to New Zealand and became head of marketing at a company which employed 300 people, she figured things were slowing down. Then she broke her back in a skiing accident.

Iris Richter's enforced bed rest after a skiing accident taught her the power of stepping back and saying 'no' to demands on her time. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Iris Richter's enforced bed rest after a skiing accident taught her the power of stepping back and saying 'no' to demands on her time. Photo / Jason Oxenham

"I had to lie there for three months. The company kept on moving without me. I wasn't as important as I thought I was. It turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me."

After her recovery, she took one of Hofstee's mindfulness courses and gained invaluable perspective. She now owns the Business Kitchen, a consultancy she runs from home, in which she works with people who are often are too busy - as well as those who aren't busy enough.

In between she cares for her son, who, she says wouldn't have fit into her old life. "If you're doing nothing no one says, 'good on you'. There's pressure to achieve. Now I ask myself, 'does it really matter if I work on this?' I'm maximising what I want in my life."

Her advice for those who feel too busy is to define what you want, learn to say no and outsource the things you're not good at or passionate about.

"It's easy to feel obliged to do things you don't want to, especially if they're work related. I was so passionate about great results, I didn't mind doing a few hours of overtime. But I know my son won't be around wanting to play with me for that many years. It's important to play with him now, even if it might seem more important to tidy up. I'm not going to die wishing I'd tidied that corner of the house."

You're readily accessible 24/7. You don't have that luxury of switching off because of technology. If I'm not available [to clients] it doesn't really fly anymore. - Lauren Hare
You're readily accessible 24/7. You don't have that luxury of switching off because of technology. If I'm not available [to clients] it doesn't really fly anymore. - Lauren Hare

Lauren feels the same way. Having a baby has changed her "busyness" levels in a good way by reshaping her priorities.

"I'm more efficient with my decision-making," she says. "Things I've previously pondered on and gone backwards and forwards on - now I trust my gut instinct and say yes or no straight away. You become very discerning about what is worth your time. Before I would've said yes and stayed up all night to reach the same decision."

Perhaps less really is more when it comes to being "good" busy. Working smarter, rather than harder. Getting on with things, rather than talking about them. And staying in touch with people. Because no matter how busy life gets, they're probably just as busy as you.