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Everybody's busy, but what are we doing?

When people fill their lives with an abundance of activities, are some overlooking the important things?

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 16, 2005

Without an oversized calendar tacked to their kitchen wall, Fern Reiss and her family could never keep track of all the meetings, appointments, home-schooling lessons, and activities that fill their busy days.

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"I'm not sure they make a calendar large enough for us," says Ms. Reiss of Newton, Mass., explaining that her life revolves around "two companies, three children, a spouse, a lot of community involvement, a social life, the kids' social life, and volunteering in a soup kitchen every week.

"Everybody we know is leading a frenetic life," she adds. "Ours is frenetic, too, but we're spending the bulk of our time with our kids. Even though we're having a crazy life, we're having it in the right way."

Although extreme busyness is hardly a new phenomenon, the subject is getting renewed attention from researchers. They find that technology, consumerism, two-career families, and growing parental responsibilities all contribute to overly full schedules. They also observe that while some overextended people say they long for free time, many refuse to give up any activities.

"We increasingly define ourselves and our families by doing, not being," says Chuck Darrah, an anthropologist at San Jose State University in California, who spent 200 hours with each of 12 working families, following them on their daily rounds. "Once you start defining yourself by what you do, that involves activities that take time."

One of Professor Darrah's enduring concerns is that busyness, by drawing so much attention to the here and now, raises important questions: What are the bigger things in society that people should be paying attention to and don't have sufficient time to focus on? And what does all this busyness have to do with living a good life?

"A good life has to do with life having a direction, life having a narrative with the stories we tell ourselves," he says. "Busyness fragments all that. We're absolutely focused on getting through the next hour, the next day, the next week. It does raise questions: If not busyness, what? If we weren't so busy, what would we be doing? If people weren't so busy, would they be a poet, a painter?

"We're becoming more efficient," Darrah notes. "That raises a question: efficient and productive for what purpose? Is that what a good life means, to be efficient and productive?"

The Reisses have spent much time thinking about the answer to that question. For them, part of living a good life, however busy, means including the couple's children in volunteer work and community activities. "We want the kids to see that that's a priority," she says.

A generation or two ago, when families were bigger and owned fewer labor-saving devices, being busy was an accepted, little-discussed fact of life. Activities were more home-centered, and a consumer culture had not yet become dominant.

Today, Darrah is "stunned" by the amount of time people spend shopping and running errands. The process of being an informed consumer has become another kind of work. He observed families spending hours gathering information and making decisions about education, healthcare, and financial planning.

Not surprisingly, women's lives are often busier than men's. On average, men enjoy nearly 30 minutes more free time each day than women, according to a study at the University of Maryland. Parenthood affected the free time of both women and men, but particularly women.

Darrah challenges stereotypes that portray working women as doing all the household chores while husbands lounge on the sofa watching football games. "We found very few occasions of true couch-potato-ness," he says. "Both parties were heavily engaged in working around the house. It was intense."