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We all have the same 24 hours that Beyonce has

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It's the tweet that instantly went viral, and with good reason: "We all have the same 24 hours that Beyonce has". Sure enough, everyone is feeling the pressure of a turbo-charged age where our lives are going at breakneck speed.

But the thing is, many people talk about it, as though it is problem unique to them.

Many's the person that belabours their busyness on Facebook and Twitter (the ultimate time vacuums), seemingly caught in an unending carousel of stress and anxiety.

And so the questions looms. People are always busy, but when did it become the done thing to talk about it? When did the "I'm busy" mantra become less a complaint and more a badge of honour?

Welcome to the era of Busyness Bragging, where people appear relentlessly and competitively busy – and are unashamedly vocal about it. The subtext is clear: "I'm busy" can often mean "I'm productive" or "I've something to offer the world". All very well, but pretty soon, "I'm busy" – now shoehorned into even the most basic social interaction – becomes little more than conversational white noise.

"I think that we do it at an unconscious level and then enjoy the feeling of significance that it gives us – and then it becomes habitual," says life coach Paula Coogan (the aspirationscoach.com).

"The 'I'm so busy' mantra becomes a self-fulfiling prophecy. If you're constantly telling yourself and others 'I don't have the time' or 'I'm up to my eyes', you can almost be guaranteed that you'll find ways to keep yourself in that pattern of behaviour."

'New York Times' blogger Tim Kreider identified the busy trap, noting that the dilemma was often self-imposed.

"[People are] busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they're addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence," he wrote.

"Busyness serves as ... a hedge against emptiness – obviously, your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day."

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Chartered psychologist Allison Keating of Malahide's bWell Clinic (bwell.ie) makes a correlation between mental health and being excessively busy.

"Psychologist Oliver James has written extensively about how mental health has disimproved in the last 50 years, and much of it specifically has to do with women juggling," she writes.

"From a chemical point of view, the body is constantly on high alert from sustained high levels of the stress hormone, cortisol."

These days, women are under fierce pressure to do more and do it better. There is a sense of purpose, but the big question is, can you do it all?

Dublin-based fashion designer Bebhinn Flood, who recently founded and opened her Design House hub with three-month-old son Elliott on her hip, admits there can be a competitiveness among her friends in this respect.

"We're definitely competitive about how busy we are, but we don't do it deliberately," she admits. "We all had our children a month from each other, and we all still bake really great cakes for each other. Even before kids came along, though, we all had to do other things with our lives – yoga, being the best horserider, whatever. We were constantly thriving on doing well. I think with women there's a real subconscious thing going on – we need to prove that we can do all these things. In the city, the pace of life is frantic and you have to keep up. I thrive on it, but you do have to take a breath."

Thriving is one thing, but sometimes making ticks on the to-do list can become a compulsion, as Bebhinn concedes. "My partner always says, 'You've done a gazillion things today, yet you're still not happy because of the 100 things you didn't get to do'. I'm getting better at letting go, though."

Busyness is certainly not a phenomenon exclusive to post-bailout Ireland, but some unique factors contribute. With many disenchanted by the Irish workplace, they are seeking validity and fulfilment away from the office, hence the rise of the 'slasherati' – the term futurologists have given to those with several sidelines (actress-slash-writer-slash-blogger, for instance). Others, mindful of the perennial threat of redundancies and cutbacks, further push their nose to the grindstone, meaning longer hours. Others again are more aware of cultivating their personal brand, so that busy is often shorthand for in demand.

Talking openly about busyness is something that food writer/TV chef/ restaurateur/charity activist Clodagh McKenna has curbed.

"It's the last thing people want to hear," she says. "My friends are so valued, so when we meet I try not to go on about work – even if, as a self-employed person, it's in your brain constantly. Most of my friends are self-employed and we all understand we're busy. It wouldn't float if someone was talking about how busy they are. I've found that you can waste a lot of energy and time thinking and talking about this."

With her career gaining traction all the time, McKenna has learned some wily tricks to keep her life in balance: "You've got to be strict about getting your time off. These last three weeks I've not had a day off, but I'm getting good at conserving my energy. I try not to get stressed. If you do things a little bit calmer, you can go on a bit longer."

The problems start to arise, of course, when the quality of actual relationships starts to suffer. We've all seen the couple sitting wordlessly over dinner, stroking their smartphones like sickly baby animals.

Try to schedule in a Skype with a friend, for instance, and you'll both be lucky to land on a date that suits you both ... in about three weeks' time. Which, if you think about it, doesn't say a whole lot about the health of the friendship. "We're connected yet hugely disconnected at the same time," notes Keating. "Doing a fly-by [with friends] is the only time to say to someone, 'help!'

"We can contact each other anywhere, anytime, so we can change plans/venues or times at a moment's notice," explains time management expert John Love.

"And because we can, we do, looking pleasingly busy and involved in the process. We're so busy and take so much pleasure in making the arrangements that the actual get-together seems almost an anticlimax."

The great irony, of course, is that technology was meant to have made our lives easier. But all it has done is made them faster.

Terry Prone, an ex-journalist who owns PR consultancy The Communications Clinic, has noticed a change from the days when she walked across town to file her copy.

"Because of smartphones, life is 24/7," she says. "I'm having dinner tonight with my son and husband. I will leave the phone but will have anxiety throughout the meal that someone will ring and they'll get huffy that they can't get me right away."

That said, Prone feels that the pressure of work can sometimes be a healthy one: "Boredom is more of a stress factor than the pressure of work. People can cope with being way too busy but can't with being bored."

Generational differences are also afoot. Our parents, who usually had large families, were equally busy. Not for them the relative ease of the online shop, two cars or the gadget-heavy kitchen. And yet they appeared more stoical about it all.

"Back then you had your baby and were back in the fields by daylight," smiles Prone. "I think it's related to the current trend to find victims valuable. You can't say, 'I have a great job and I love every minute of it'. It's more acceptable to say 'things are tough and I'm exhausted'. There's a culture of complaint, and it knocks the fun out of being busy."

Weirdly enough, taking time to kick back is probably the best way to get things done. This week, Melanie Morris, part-time nutrition student and recently promoted editor-in-chief at Image Publications, took her workload to a balcony with a view in Kerry.

"I hate not having stuff to do," she notes. "I'd much rather be getting on with things, rather than worry about what needs to be done. Humans aren't based on altruism – we take on too much because we want to. Like everything in life, there's such a thing as good and bad stress. Bad, overpowering stress is appaling, but if it fires you up, it's got a lot of positive connotations. If you spend too much time doing things that you don't value, you end up feeling stressed and unhappy," reasons Coogan. "If you spend too little time on the things that are important to you, you feel guilty and/or frustrated. The biggest indicator that burnout is on its way is a loss of passion, enthusiasm and motivation."

And, when it comes to entering the hamster wheel and living to tell the tale, Keating is an advocate of that simplest yet most elusive states: living in the here and now.

"A person I know practices mindfulness, where he's full aware of the present, and he's a pleasure to be around," she says. "We wear masks and armour the whole time. But sometimes in life, you have to make yourself a little vulnerable."

 


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