Everybody's busy, but what are we doing?

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

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.

"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."

Equally intense is the growing pressure some parents feel to be involved in their children's lives, even though they have less time to do so. Children's activities have proliferated, starting at ever-younger ages. Natalie Gahrmann of Hillsborough, N.J., recalls that when her first-grade daughter had to make a commitment to travel for soccer games four days a week, the family dropped soccer.

The current economy also feeds a culture of busyness, according to Ms. Gahrmann, author of "Succeeding as a SuperBusy Parent."

"At work, people are afraid if they say no, they won't get a raise, or they won't get a promotion, and they might get the next ax," she says. "So they're less likely to say no.

"The costs are pretty high to all this busyness," says Gahrmann. "Moms will tell me they're not getting to bed before 2 a.m. They're cleaning, straightening things up, folding the wash, doing things related to work."

One woman she counseled insisted on trying to create the kind of home her mother had, even though her mother never worked outside the home. "She thought that was the only standard possible," Gahrmann notes.

It's a standard Emily Carlton of Tustin, Calif., shares. Between working full time as a publicist, caring for her home, spending time with her husband and extended family, and helping her grandmother three times a week, she says, "I am exhausted all the time." Like others, she concedes that she sets "somewhat unrealistic expectations" for what she can accomplish in a day.

Being realistic is a goal Gahrmann encourages, saying, "We can do everything, but we can't do everything well and at the same time." She cautions that busyness can result in "poor decisions, sloppy quality, and neglect of the things and people that matter most in the long run." She advises clients: "Stop taking on so much, and keep in perspective what's most important to you."

Keeping the important things in perspective is how the Reisses order their busy lives, and it's the approach Debra Lund took when she was caring for her ill mother in addition to working full time as a spokeswoman for Franklin Covey in Salt Lake City. She asked herself, "What's more important - a clean house or a relationship with my mother?" The experience taught her to reorder her priorities.

For Heath and Calie Shackleford of Dallas, crammed calendars are a way of life. She is cofounder of a designer diaper-bag business. He is vice president of marketing. He teaches a night class at a university and is developing two book proposals. Both travel for work, and their families are scattered around the country. Oh, yes - they're also expecting their first child this summer.

"There are times when we look at each other and say, 'We can't even add a trip to the grocery store this week,' " Mr. Shackleford says. "But it's been fulfilling at the same time as it's been frenetic."

Still, he expresses an ambivalence many people share. "Every once in a while you stop and say, 'Do we have too much to do?' The answer tends to be no, because we continue on with all of it. But like anything else, there are peaks and valleys. When everything is going well, it's great to have so much going on. But when things aren't going so well, it's a wear-and-tear thing."

Darrah's own schedule remains full, but he insists he does not feel busy. His secret? Confining activities to things he must do and those he wants to do. He and his wife do not overschedule their children.

To those with one eye on the calendar and the other on the clock, Darrah offers this advice: "Before you take anything on, ask yourself: Do you have to do this? Do you want to do this? Live with a kind of mindfulness so you don't wake up and discover that your life is a whirl of transportation and communication, and you've hollowed yourself out."

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