The Anxiety of Busyness

Overwhelming to-do lists, obligations, commitments & deadlines create anxiety.

On a wall in my office, I posted the following quote from author Annie Dillard:

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.
What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.”

This simple but powerful observation is my daily reminder to always take note of how I am spending the precious days of my life. More importantly, it helps me manage what often feels like an addiction to busyness and the anxiety that is always present when I am always busy.

Though anxiety levels for both men and women have increased over the last century, the demands of modern life for women appear to create more stress for them than for men. A 2016 review of research indicates that women are twice as likely to suffer from acute anxiety than men (Remes, Olivia, Carol Brayne, Rianne van der Linde, and Louise Lafortune, 2016) In this article, I focus on women and the anxiety they experience as a result of being constantly busy.

What Busyness Looks Like

As a woman who has worked outside of the home for forty years, rearing a child while bearing ninety percent of the work of managing a household, and self-employed for the last decade, I have been managing overwhelming to-do lists of tasks, obligations, commitments, and deadlines and have developed noticeable behaviors. Do you recognize any of these?

  • You maintain multiple to-do lists and are engaged in constant activity with little downtime.
  • You continually add things to your to-do list before accomplishing the ones you already have on it.
  • You view your weekends and vacations as a time to catch up on things.
  • You tell yourself and others you don’t have time for daily exercise, eating healthy, or socializing.
  • Your hobbies and personal interests are repeatedly sidelined.
  • You are never without your phone, regularly checking for messages and social media posts.
  • You spend several hours each week scrolling through a variety of social media with no apparent purpose or intention.
  • When you find yourself with actual downtime, you feel guilty about not being productive.
  • You judge yourself and others by the level of busyness maintained.
  • Your family and friends complain about how busy you are. (That’s code for unavailable to them.)
  • You suffer from one or more of the following: insomnia, indigestion, irritability, exhaustion, and extreme highs and lows.
  • Your language uses words of obligation (I must, need, should…) and scarcity (Not enough time, money, energy, or productivity).
  • In your dark moments, you feel resentful, outraged, or overwhelmed at how you are living your life.

If you recognize some of these behaviors, you may be experiencing the effects of chronic anxiety because of busyness. Many women live with daily anxiety because of their never-ending to-do lists, their expectations for perfection, their fear of missing out, and their regular self-judgment of not being as successful (ie., productive) as their peers. Some may not be aware they have this addiction because our culture has normalized these behaviors and feelings. We are reminded daily that women should have or do it all. 

The constant push to achieve and produce
The constant push to achieve and produce. (Photo by Donald Giannatti on Unsplash)

What is Busyness?

The state of busyness can look and feel differently during different times in our lives. Organizing and coordinating events like a wedding or family reunion can increase anxiety and expectations on a temporary basis. Adding the extra tasks and increased social activities of holiday celebrations can add more stress to an already full schedule of day-to-day responsibilities. Growing, harvesting, and preserving food for the winter months can mean long days of physical effort during the summer months. We are able to recognize these kinds of busyness as temporary and are usually grateful when it is over.

But for many women, the dual responsibilities of employment and caregiving are the basis of our busyness. Our media portrays the ideal woman with a “super-everything” status that is directly related to our productivity; the more we do, the higher status we gain. Despite several decades of open discussions about fair and equal division of labor in the home, most women do more housework than men in US households. In a 2017 study, 86% of working mothers stated that they are responsible for the majority of family and household responsibilities which often include shopping, cooking, driving to events and appointments, and “mentally calendaring” the weekly schedules of all family members (Modern Families Index 2017).

The Mental Load

Until recently, one of the least talked about tasks of caregiving and household management has been the “mental load” (often but mistakenly called emotional labor) that is typically performed by women within a family dynamic. The mental load is the “worry work” – the constant to-do list in our heads that keeps track of the many small details that come with caring for a family and managing a household. A New York Times writer refers to this as a “ticker tape of organizational tasks” that might look like this example: “We’re out of milk when do we need to apply for preschool is the baby outgrowing her onesies.” (“A Modest Proposal for Equalizing the Mental Load,” NYT)

Taken for granted by our culture, this kind of mental busyness goes mostly unnoticed but affects not only workplaces and family life but takes a toll on the anxiety and stress levels of women. During the last two decades, the cultural acceptance of “mommy wine culture” as a way to self-medicate the effects of overwhelm and stress, is statistically shocking: women significantly increased their use of alcohol by 84% (Grant, Bridget F, S Patricia Chou, Tulshi D Saha, Roger P Pickering, Bradley T Kerridge, W June Ruan, Boji Huang, et al. 2019) 

Busyness and anxiety are also prevalent among women who are self-employed. There is a myth that self-employment offers freedom; as a self-employed woman, I can tell you that I have spent the last decade often working seven days a week. When I am not actually working on a product or project, I am thinking about it, researching, and constantly writing notes.

While I love what I do, it often feels like I never have an actual day off. I am not responsible for caregiving at this stage in my life but I manage a household that includes growing and preserving a large percentage of my food and herbal medicine. For me, the months of May through October are filled with ten-hour days of non-stop busyness.

Busyness as a Cultural Badge of Honor

How often do you say or hear “crazy busy” as a common response to the question “How are you doing?” Our culture has declared busyness as a status symbol, a cultural badge of honor for many as identified in a 2016 study (Conspicuous Consumption of Time: When Busyness and Lack of Time… 2016). Busyness implies productivity and achievement and awards us a higher status – no matter the reality of the efficacy of our busyness. More often than not, “crazy busy” means that we are just barely holding on and likely living reactively by doing what’s immediate and urgent rather than what’s proactive and intentional.

Endless tools for managing life
Endless tools for managing life. (Photo by Jessica Lewis on Unsplash)

The business of busyness has become profitable. There are millions of online articles, self-help books, courses, podcasts, special planners, and apps designed to help women be more successful by finding ways to squeeze productive behavior from every minute of our day. Often referred to as life hacks, our anxiety and busyness have become a market and we are offered products that will help us handle our challenges: 

  • Managing your time, your stress, your career, your household, your marriage
  • Making better lists
  • Setting goals, breaking down goals into strategies
  • Saying yes and saying no
  • Using technology to manage your life
  • Eliminating distractions
  • Planning your day, week, month, and year
  • Achieving your goals by being more productive
  • Doing less or doing more
  • Establishing boundaries
  • Practicing gratitude

The message is clear: productivity, achievement, and busyness have become a way of living. We need to be the best we can be at all times: ideal workers, mothers, and women. What’s missing from this non-stop insistence on busyness and productivity is a discussion on what it’s doing to us emotionally and physically to be “crazy busy” for much of our lives. 

Crazy-busy stadiums
Stadium for crazy-busy 12 step meetings
Image by WikiImages from Pixabay

Another aspect of busyness addiction is offered by researcher and author Brene Brown in her book Daring Greatly: “One of the most universal numbing strategies is what I call crazy-busy. I often say that when they start having 12-step meetings for busy-aholics, they’ll need to rent out football stadiums. We are a culture of people who’ve bought into the idea that if we stay busy enough, the truth of our lives won’t catch up with us.”

The Impacts Of Chronic Anxiety and Stress 

Chronic busyness begets a chronic stress response. Anxiety-induced stress has increased throughout the 20th century and has been a consistent factor in women’s health across the globe.

Our connection to our families and friends can change dramatically when we are “crazy busy.” We often reduce the amount of time spent with them, and when we are with them we are distracted, impatient, tense, and short-tempered. Our cell phones control us as we constantly respond to the “tings” of a new text message, or check social media every ten minutes to see how many people liked our post. This constant attention to technology has produced a psychological state called FOMO: the fear of missing out. It’s a growing concern that some experts believe leads to anxiety and depression.

Physical Impacts of Chronic Stress

The Scream by Edvard Munch
(Source: Wikimedia commons)

Constant anxiety results in chronic stress. Stress instructs the sympathetic nervous system to begin the “fight or flight” response, which serves us in times of appropriate need. Our bodies are always seeking balance, and are not designed to live with long-term chronic stress, which impacts our body’s systems in the following ways:

  • Rapid breathing causes shortness of breath, which affects pre-existing respiratory diseases and can trigger asthma and panic attacks.
  • Blood pressure raises, causing our hearts to work harder for longer periods and increasing the risk of hypertension, heart attacks, and strokes.
  • Glucose production increases, escalating the risk for type 2 diabetes.
  • Digestion issues like acid reflux, constipation, and diarrhea can increase, and affect nutrient uptake in the digestive process.
  • Muscular tension increases and causes headaches and muscular pain.
  • Immune systems become weakened by the constant influx of stress hormones.
  • Reproductive systems of both men and women can affect sexual activity and interest, and cause problems that affect reproductive intentions.

The good news is that it is never too late to make lifestyle changes that will reduce our busyness, and our anxiety and set us on a path to healthier priorities. I outline these changes in my article, Self-Care for Anxiety & Stress.