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Busyness and resting. Friday September 8, 2017

The following is a rough synopsis of a series of programmes broadcast in the UK on BBC Radio 4 last year entitled "Oliver Burkeman is busy". The five 15 minute programmes are available until the middle of September through BBC iPlayer.

• Research shows that, compared to the past, women are doing more paid work and less unpaid work, whilst for men it is the reverse. Overall, there has been no significant change in the amount that we do!
• In the "Knowledge economy" it is more difficult to identify what has been achieved compared to, say, working in a factory. At Microsoft, whilst young staff thought they were busy, constantly answering e-mails, etc. their managers were concerned they had lost control of their workload.
• In addition, in these situations individuals start dividing their time into ever smaller slices. This leads to a growing number of unfinished tasks. Again, research shows that we find it easier to remember tasks whilst they are still current. Consequently, the brain is trying to juggle more balls and this leads to things being missed and an increased difficulty in making even simple decisions. The brain becomes overwhelmed.
• Multi-tasking: when we are switching between two different tasks it takes about 40% longer to complete them and performance drops. A Harvard MBA performs at the level of an eight year old once they start "multi-tasking" so jobs tend to go unfinished as other priorities appear. The result is that the brain's to do list increases which creates more distractions.

As you might expect, the answers are all too familiar:

• Cluster similar tasks together, e.g. answer your e-mails, etc. between sessions focused on more important or demanding issues.
• If you are focused on something, like a meeting, and arrive early, don't check your e-mails as this is likely to distract you from the subject of the meeting.
• Don't fill your day with appointments as something unexpected will throw your schedule. Add a couple of short periods for "meeting with self". Use them for that unplanned event but if nothing crops up use them for thinking, revising priorities or getting a head start on tomorrow's agenda.
• Establish a closing down routine for the end of the day. Turn off laptops, phones, etc. and start cooking dinner. Anything that tells the brain "work is over".
• The human body is very good at coping with short bouts of stress but it is not a machine.
• The way to change is not to look for things to give up but to focus on what is important to you.
• Take time off. Really. Set aside time to rest and relax. Go for a walk. It is only when you stop and think that you will get the opportunity to change things and make improvements in your life.

I can relate particularly to feeling overwhelmed, most days there is at least one occasion when I just want to sit down and cry. Listen to the programmes and see if there is anything that helps.

A Moodscope member.

Thoughts on the above? Please feel free to post a comment below.

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the room above the garage Fri, Sep 8th 2017 @ 6:13am

Fascinated to read it and I'm going to find those programmes today! Not only will I benefit from seeing how I can apply this to me (it's me exactly) but I will see if my 13 year old would listen...she struggles with exactly the same thing and we talked late last night through her many tears...she thinks it's just her! Your timing is spot on Alan, thank you. Love ratg x.

Alan Fri, Sep 8th 2017 @ 10:39am

Good luck, hope it helps your daughter.

Eva Fri, Sep 8th 2017 @ 7:30am

Excellent blog Alan thank you for the reminder that multi tasking adds 40% more time, sometimes it's good to have a figure or word to flash up when you start to do something. I'll have a listen to the programs too.

I read a great book called Rest, earlier this year, it talked about different types of rest including restful play which includes hobbies and exercise, all valuable, I think sometimes rest is perceived as doing nothing. It also highlighted that many of the greatest thinkers in our history had a work schedule where they truly focused for no more than 4 or max 5 hours a day. The rest (ha ha) of the day was devoted to restful play and dealing with correspondence, family etc. I'm talking Darwin, Einstein etc.

Alan Fri, Sep 8th 2017 @ 10:42am

We've all heard of companies that expect their staff to take time out to think, that is often when they get their Eureka moments. Having a constant stream of stuff to do cannot be good.

Marmaladegirl Fri, Sep 8th 2017 @ 7:35am

Being seen as being 'busy' is the scourge of modern life. Some people seem to thrive on this; others are just caught up in it and feel it's the way you have to be. Once you are on the treadwheel it is VERY hard to slow down or step off. Our bodies and minds, however, can't cope with this. As you say Alan, we are only designed for short bursts of stress. I would suggest that being relentlessly busy, for years, will always result in some sort of damage to our bodies and/or minds. My stress led to burnout which was diagnosed as ME/CFS (which NICE and the World Health Organisation say has no cure) and as a result my life is totally and utterly changed. When I see people working, stressing, always 'busy', I want to beg them to stop, to give themselves a break, because one day it might be too late - YOU might be the one who becomes broken, and it's not worth it!

Anyway, thank you very much Alan for taking the time to write this blog. I hope that you find ways to reduce your stress and therefore start to feel better (not tearful or overwhelmed) very soon. All the best, MG

Alan Fri, Sep 8th 2017 @ 10:48am

Thanks for your kind wishes. Our daughter suffered from CFS only diagnosed after many years by an enlightened GP at university. Thankfully, she is virtually over it now but it took a lot of time and some very helpful people. She she gets tired but has learnt to recognise the signs and, just as importantly, take notice. It is all too easy to think "five more minutes... or just one more..." With CFS the cliff edge comes so quickly.

Marmaladegirl Fri, Sep 8th 2017 @ 2:02pm

I am always initially pleased when people know someone who has ME/CFS because it means more people have an insight into this mystifying illness. I say 'initially' because that is immediately followed by sadness for the person suffering from it. However, in your case it was quickly followed by delight, as you say that your daughter is virtually over it. I am really glad to hear that. You hit the nail on the head when you say "With CFS the cliff edge comes so quickly." And from doing 5 minutes too much, we can then pay with 5 extra hours (or more!) of suffering and recovery time. Anyway, my best wishes to you and your family Alan.

LP Fri, Sep 8th 2017 @ 7:57am

Hi Alan,
Your blog is perfect timing for me too. I have been feeling really overwhelmed lately, I need to sort my house out but full time paid work and the day to day unpaid work, with rest breaks built in mean that the little bits of decluttering I can manage are a drop in the ocean, especially since I find it so hard to let go of things. I've been feeling like it's all too much and that I might stop coping soon. Then I just do something to distract my thoughts and try to achieve something that will make me feel a little better. I need to crack on now and don't think I will make the time to check out your link even though I know it will help. Thank you. The weather in London is as dreary as my comment! I'm sorry that you feel like this each day Alan, I probably haven't helped! Definitely a day to look out for positives. Warm hugs all round LP xx

Alan Fri, Sep 8th 2017 @ 1:43pm

Thanks for the hug. The programmes should be available all next week. Why not sit down with a cup of tea, or coffee, perhaps a biscuit, and listen to one each day. At the very least you will have a break but you might also learn something helpful. Best wishes Alan

Orangeblossom Fri, Sep 8th 2017 @ 8:04am

Hi Alan thanks for your very reassuring blog. I had been berating myself for not doing enough preparation for this forthcoming academic year. However, although I have felt that my brain had frozen, it seems as though it had taken a rest, & I am going back into gear. Thanks for the encouragement.

Alan Fri, Sep 8th 2017 @ 1:40pm

Your welcome although, speaking purely for myself, I suspect that writing the blogs benefit me as much as anyone else.

Hopeful One Fri, Sep 8th 2017 @ 8:21am

Hi Alan - a very informative blog and something I was vaguely aware of but had no format to follow. I have read, and have heard many women claim that they are ,apart from being multi skilled, also far better than men at multitasking. However, according to your blog this is a very inefficient way of doing things- something one suspected but didn't verbalise for fear of being ostracised!

To continue our series of answers in an exam for 12 year olds.

Q How are the main 20 parts of the body categorized (e.g. The abdomen)?

A. The body is consisted into 3 parts - the brainium, the borax and the abdominal cavity. The brainium contains the brain, the borax contains the heart and lungs and the abdominal cavity contains the five bowels: A,E,I,O,U.

Q What is the fibula?
A. A small lie.

The Gardener Fri, Sep 8th 2017 @ 11:59am

HO, I accuse you of making the last one up!

Hopeful One Fri, Sep 8th 2017 @ 12:59pm

Hi Gardner- How I wish I had the wit to do that.

Alan Fri, Sep 8th 2017 @ 1:51pm

Hopeful one, shortly after listening to these programmes a year ago I was in an airport and saw a woman, other genders are probably no better, walking through a busy airport terminal fumbling for something in her "tote" style bag. Not only was she walking so slowly that people were bumping into her but she didn't seem to be able to find what she was looking for. If she had stopped for ten seconds she would have found it and made up that time on the remainder of her journey! That sold the argument for me.

Mary Cecilia AVFTFS Fri, Sep 8th 2017 @ 8:44am

Brilliant blog, thank you. I'm going to put this on my wall, although I do like a bit of multi-tasking.

Alan Fri, Sep 8th 2017 @ 1:53pm

If anyone suggests multi-tasking to me I just hold up my hands and claim that it is not possible for men.

Jul Fri, Sep 8th 2017 @ 8:52am

This is a wake up call for me Alan. When I worked I used to walk around a lake most days, a small lake; some days I was so busy and stressed , I didn't get to walk round it i.e have my short lunch break until 3/4pm. But that walk in rain, wind etc most days, kept me sane I do believe. However the stress at work continued into the evening and night and I suffered with insomnia and anxiety. I am still like this even though I don't work full time these days. I have concluded that it's personality, genes, upbringing, life experience, all sots of things which make me like this, not the actual stress during the day. Others would see my life as a doddle and even my working life which I found so difficult would be stress free for some. I did multi task at work and still do. I know many men do this too, it's not just a female thing. When ones mind is all of a flutter, multi tasking comes naturally as one flits from one thought/ task to another. It may be inefficient and I'll have to re think my habits of a lifetime now:). I liked your points about efficiency at work. I am convinced many use emails as a way of showing they are busy, when in fact vast swathes of the day are spent sending and answering emails which needn't be sent or answered. I would even suggest that the workforce could be almost doubled were sensible time management imposed on each employee and employer. Really helpful and interesting blog Alan. Jul

Leah Fri, Sep 8th 2017 @ 11:39am

Jul, It is interesting when you say that something that stresses you another may not find stressful and vice versa. People used to say it is not rocket science when I would get worried or stressed about something, but it was real tome. People say to me that they would love a bookshop as they could read books all day- as you know that's what I do all day!! I think it is knowing yourself and what you can cope with. I can do public speaking but I can't drive a car. I can write a blog but cooking for guests stresses me, . Your comment has made me remember to be patient with myself when I am stressed. Leah x Alan , thanks for your blog it has made think about some of the ideas.

Alan Fri, Sep 8th 2017 @ 2:01pm

Jul, when I used to think about multi-tasking I imagined someone who was in control of numerous tasks at the same time and able to switch seamlessly from one to another. There probably are some people that can do this but I suspect that most of us are not. My mind jumps between subjects quicker than I would have thought possible but I am not multi-tasking. In fact I am probably not "tasking" at all. At the end of most days I suspect I have achieved little more than the youngsters at Microsoft. Although I think I have improved since listening to the programmes again.

Tutti Frutti Fri, Sep 8th 2017 @ 9:21am

Alan Great blog thanks. I am just arriving at work where I will try to stick to one task at a time! Love TF x

Alan Fri, Sep 8th 2017 @ 2:01pm

Good luck

The Gardener Fri, Sep 8th 2017 @ 12:24pm

Alan, if only we could heed that 'code for living'. I have cited before the best course I went to on 'life' organisation. All the delegates would have claimed that they were 'always busy' and past masters at 'multi-tasking'. It was by the Agricultural Training Board, on Time Management. We were asked to keep a 'Time Sheet' for a week, and note down EVERYTHING we did and how long. We filled our diaries - psychological? A full diary makes you feel 'busy' and 'wanted' then you can feel 'big' and say you might find a 'window' in three weeks time. Today, I am utterly bereft. After a pretty horrendous month Mr G is in respite for a week. A visit was previewed for the house for sale - I sweated blood yesterday to have it looking nice (and the garden, a bit unkempt). They've cancelled. I have no 'regular' pastimes, I cannot 'join' anything in my situation. I have lots of things I COULD do, nothing I HAVE to do. R & R would seem order of the day, but I am numb after the last 24 hours, pretty awful - so will violently attack the 'other' garden. Until about 4 years ago we had an excellent 'closing down' routine. Perhaps a walk, if fine. Or I would read to Mr G (he has poor sight) with an apero. Then a pleasant dinner with music - then TV or DVD's, and bed. All gone. Our GP was adamant about 'cut off' point between work and evening. He said the 'sherry' or whatever tipple you liked, sit down, mull over the day - just doze in the garden - get that work day out of you head. Sufficient unto the day are the evils etc. 'Grouping' is vital. I have many friends (I think, unfortunately, all female) who are ALWAYS shopping - I loathe it, unless vital, we do without. I did a major shop once a week, but it was just too exhausting. As Mr G, one of whose problems is acute anxiety, is, curiously, quite happy to sit in the car in the supermarket car park I shop in short sharp bursts when I get him from respite - saves going out twice, and, more important, finding parking twice. It's ironic, when I had young children, I always did really important tasks when they had their 'best' sleep or were at school. Now, the other end of the spectrum, the same system applies, except that I am so exhausted that actually sorting out the MUST DO from 'Would be nice'. Writing and any communication is vital now - I try not to 'waffle'. There was a programme on Clive James yesterday - he's been going to die so often in the last few years that he can now read his own obituaries. But his mind is sharper and his writings deeper - it seems the threat of death has 'rejuvenated' him, stupid thing to say, but if there is a time limit there is a spur. I was always a 'last minuter' when I had loads of articles to write. The 'conception' could be long, the result, hopefully, sharp and pithy. I wish I had something to write for again, except for bothering you lot - super discipline.

Alan Sat, Sep 9th 2017 @ 8:27am

A couple of evenings ago I met some other "old men" from the village at the local pub. Amongst a range of topics we discussed the merits, or otherwise, of having a "death day" - actually knowing the day you will die. Sounds a bit scary at first but would certainly focus the mind on what was important.

The Gardener Fri, Sep 8th 2017 @ 12:35pm

I've mentioned before, that is was only starting a degree at 50 that I realised how undisciplined was my brain and our life went on only by knee-jerk reactions and loads of energy (much of it mis-placed)

Hettie Fri, Sep 8th 2017 @ 2:29pm

this is such an excellent post, thank you. I am
just about to enter a very busy period after the summer and really needed to hear what science says in order to plan my activities/tasks efficiently and continue to have time for myself.

Alan Sat, Sep 9th 2017 @ 8:28am

Good luck, ensuring that you have time for yourself appears increasingly important.

Lexi Fri, Sep 8th 2017 @ 3:19pm

Great blog Alan - thank you. I run my own business and I'm a single mom so feeling overwhelmed is part of my norm. I have recently scheduled in "quiet time" - I schedule it just as I would a work appointment - when I do nothing but relax, go for a walk, run, crossword, nap, whatever. It has helped with my stress tremendously. Planning out my week and making sure I schedule in that QT has been such a game changer for me. Also, I get up earlier :) I use the early morning hours also as quiet time, before my daughter and the day begins to take over. Xo Lexi

Alan Sat, Sep 9th 2017 @ 8:30am

It is great to hear that these things work in practice. It probably needs a deal of planning before making such a change to ensure that all the elements are taken into account. Well done.

Valerie Fri, Sep 8th 2017 @ 3:46pm

Good to hear from you Alan.I will listen to this while on my eliptical trainer.This is not to maximise my productivity I hasten to add,it just makes the tedium of the exercise pass more pleasantly!

To the suggestions you make I would add that meetings should only be held when really necessary,and kept brief and to the point.Anyone waffling on should be kept in line by the chairperson.

One should also be firm with those who try to pass tasks onto others.Don't rush to respond to emails and calls unless really urgent,the caller may be forced to use their own initiative for once.

My partner is a consultant to some household names.Hearing how deeply incompetent and chaotic many of the managers and directors are,I am astonished to see their products somehow manage to end up on the supermarket shelves.They all seem to be flying by the seat of their pants.

Hope you get some respite this weekend,

Alan Sat, Sep 9th 2017 @ 8:36am

Good to hear the Peter Principle is alive and well. As for the weekend., no chance. Taking advantage of a pause in activity before taking a range of produce, etc. to our Village show and then we have my family (11 of them) coming tomorrow. Catch breath before starting on decorating the kitchen on Monday. I don't remember being this busy before I retired.

Jane SG Sun, Sep 10th 2017 @ 6:29am

This us such a useful blog, thanks Alan. My workload is huge and I struggle to effectively keep on top of it without working long hours. A timely reminder of techniques to use.

Alan Sun, Sep 10th 2017 @ 10:33am

Giving up time to take a look at what is going on takes courage. You have to ignore the voice telling you what else you could be doing but the benefits of refocusing are generally worth it

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