Overworked Or Overwhelmed? The Struggle For Time Management

Time Management – Here is a multiple-choice quiz question:

Which word best describes the typical working American today:
A) Overworked
B) Underworked
C) Energetic
D) Lazy

While much has been written of late as to whether A, B, C, or D, is correct, the most appropriate answer may well be: “None of the above.” Powerful social forces have the potential to turn each of us into human whirlwinds charging about in “fast forward.” Work, time away from work, and everything in between appear as if they are all part of a never-ending, ever-lengthening to-do list, to be handled during days that race by.

To say that we work too many hours, and that too much work is at the root of the time-pressure we feel and the leisure we lack, is to miss the convergence of larger, more fundamental issues. We could handle the longer hours (actually less than 79 minutes more per day) that we work compared to the Europeans. It’s everything else competing for our attention that leaves us feeling overwhelmed. Once overwhelmed, the feeling of overworked quickly follows.

Nearly every aspect of American society has become more complex even since the late-1990s. Traveling is becoming more cumbersome. Learning new ways of managing, and new ways to increase productivity takes its toll. Merely living in America today and participating as a functioning member of society guarantees that your day, week, month, year and life, and your physical, emotional, and spiritual energy will easily be depleted without the proper vantage point from which to approach each day and conduct your life.

Do you personally know anyone who works for a living who consistently has unscheduled, free stretches? Five factors, or “mega-realities,” are simultaneously contributing to the perceptual and actual erosion of leisure time among Americans, including:

  • Population growth;
  • An expanding volume of knowledge;
  • Mass media growth and electronic addiction;
  • The paper trail culture; and
  • An over-abundance of choices.


From the beginning of creation to 1850 A.D. world population grew to one billion. It grew to two billion by 1930, three billion by 1960, four billion by 1979, and five billion by 1987, with six billion by 1996, and seven billion en route. Every 35 months, the current population of America, 307,059,724 people, is added to the planet.

The world of your childhood is gone, forever. The present is crowd and becoming more so. Each day, world population (births minus deaths) increases by more than 260,000 people. The Census Bureau reports the United States records a birth every 8 seconds and a death every 13 seconds while adding an immigrant every 25 seconds. The result is an increase of one person every 12 seconds, hence 5 per minute, 300 per hour, 7200 per day. In a decade: 26 million.

Regardless of your political, religious, or economic views, the fact remains that geometric growth in human population permeates and dominates every aspect of the planet and its resources, the environment and all living things. This is the most compelling aspect of our existence, and will be link momentarily to the four other mega-realities.

When JFK was elect President, domestic population was 180 million. It grew by 70 million in one generation. Our growing population has not dispersed over the nation’s 5.4 million square miles. About 97 percent of the U.S. population resides on 3% of the land mass. Half of our population resides within 50 miles of the Atlantic or the Pacific Ocean, and 75% of the U.S. population live in urban areas, with 80% predicted by the end of the nineties.

More densely packed urban areas have resulted predictably in a gridlock of the nation’s transportation systems. It is taking you longer merely to drive a few blocks; it’s not your imagination, it’s not the day of the week or the season, and it’s not going to subside soon. Our population and road use grow faster than our ability to repair highways, bridges and arteries. In fact, vehicles (primarily cars) are multiplying twice as fast as people, currently approaching 400,000,000 vehicles, compared to 165,000,000 registered motorists.

Some 86% of American commuters still get to work by automobile, and 84% of inner city travel is by automobile. The average American now commutes 157,600 miles to work during his working life, equal to six times around the earth. Commuting snarls are increasing.

City planners report there will be no clear solution to gridlock for decades, and all population studies reveal that our nation’s metropolitan areas will become home to an even greater percentage of the population. Even less populated urban areas will face unending traffic dilemmas. If only the gridlock were confined to commuter arteries. However, shoppers, air travelers, vacationers, even campers–everyone in motion is or will be feeling its effects.


Everybody in America fears that he/she is under-inform. This moment, you, and everyone you know, are being bombard on all sides. Over-information wreaks havoc on the receptive capacities of the unwary. The volume of new knowledge broadcast and published in every field is enormous and exceeds anyone’s ability to keep pace. All told, more words are publish or broadcast in a day than you could comfortably ingest in the rest of your life. By far, America leads the world in the sheer volume of information generated and disseminated.

Increasingly, there is no body of knowledge that everyone can be expect to know. In its 140th year, for example, the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C. added 942,000 items to its collections. Even our language keeps expanding. Since 1966, more than 60,000 words have been added to the English language–equal to half or more of the words in some languages. Harvard Library subscribes to 160,000 journals and periodicals.

With more information comes more misinformation. Annually, more than 40,000 scientific journals publish over one million new articles. “The number of scientific articles and journals published worldwide is starting to confuse research, overwhelm the quality-control systems of science, encourage fraud, and distort the dissemination of important findings,” says New York Times science journalist William J. Broad.

In America, too many legislators, regulators and others entrusted to devise the rules which guide the course of society take shelter in the information overglut by intentionally adding to it. We are saddled with 26-page laws that could be stated in two pages, and regulations that contradict themselves every forth page. And, this phenomenon is not confined to Capitol Hill. Impossible VCR manuals, insurance policies, sweepstakes instructions, and frequent flyer bonus plans all contribute to our immobility.

Media Growth

The effect of the mass media on our lives continues unchecked. Worldwide media coverage certainly yields benefits. Democracy springs forth when oppressed people have a chance to see or learn about how other people in free societies live. As we spend more hours tuned to electronic media, we are exposed to tens of thousands of messages and images.

In America, more than three out of five television households own VCRs, while the number of movie tickets sold and videos rented in the U.S. each exceeded one billion annually starting in 1988. More than 575 motion pictures are produce each year compare to an average of 175 twelve years ago. In 1972, three major television networks dominated television–ABC, NBC and CBS. There are now more than 400 full-power independent television stations and many cable TV subscribers receive up to 140 channels offering more than 72,000 shows per month.

All told, the average American spends more than eight solid years watching electronically how other people supposedly live.

To capture overstimulated, distracted viewers, American television and other news media increasingly rely on sensationalism. Like too much food at once, too much data, in any form, isn’t easily ingested. You can’t afford to pay homage to everyone else’s 15 minutes of fame. As Neil Postman observed, in Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Television, with the three words, “and now this…” television news anchors are able to hold your attention while shifting gears 180 degrees.

Radio power–Radio listenership does not lag either. From 5:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. each weekday in America, listenership far surpasses that of television viewership. Unknown to most people, since television was first introduced, the number of radio stations has increased tenfold, and 97% of all households own an average of five radios, not counting their car radios. On weekdays, 95.2% of Americans listen to radio for three hours and fourteen minutes. Shock-talk disc jockeys make $300,000 to $600,000 per year and more, plus bonuses.

With a planet of more than five billion people, American media are easily furnish with an endless supply of turmoil for mass transmission. At any given moment somebody is fomenting revolution somewhere. Such turmoil is package daily for the evening news, whose credo has become, “If it bleeds, it leads.” We are lured with images of crashes, hostages, and natural disasters. We offer our time and rapt attention to each new hostility, scandal or disaster. Far more people die annually from choking on food than in plane crashes or by guns, but crashes and shootings make for great footage, and play into people’s fears.

With its sensationalized trivia, the mass media overglut obscures fundamental issues that do merit concern, such as preserving the environment.

Meanwhile, broadcasts themselves regularly imply that it is uncivil or immoral not to tune into the daily news–“all the news you need to know,” and “we won’t keep you waiting for the latest….” It is not immoral to not “keep up” with the news that is offered. However to “tune out”–turn your back on the world–is not appropriate either. Being more selective in what you give your attention to, and to how long you give it, makes more sense.

Tomorrow, while dressing, rather than plugging in to the mass media, quietly envision how you would like your day to be. Include everything that’s important to you. Envision talking with others, making major decisions, having lunch, attending meetings, finishing projects, and walking out in the evening. You’ll experience a greater sense of control over aspects of your position that you may have considered uncontrollable.

There is only one party who controls the volume and frequency of information that you’re exposed to. That person is you. As yet, few people are wise information consumers. Each of us needs to vigilantly guard against being deluded with excess data. The notion of “keeping up” with everything is illusory, frustrating, and self-defeating. The sooner you give it up the better you’ll feel and function.

Keen focus on a handful of priorities has never been more important. Yes, some compelling issues must be given short shrift. Otherwise you run the risk of being overwhelmed by more demanding issues, and feeling overwhelmed always exacerbates feeling overworked.

Paper Trails

Paper, paper, everywhere but not a thought to think. Imagine staring out the window from the fifth floor of a building and seeing a stack of reports from the ground up to your eye level. This 55-foot high stack would weigh some 659 pounds. Pulp & Paper reports that Americans annually consume 659 pounds of paper per person. In Japan, it’s only 400 pounds per person; in Europe, Russia, Africa, Australia, and South America, far less.

Similar to too much information, or too many eyewitness reports, having too much paper to deal with is going to make you feel overwhelmed, and overworked. Americans today are consuming at least three times as much paper as 10 years ago. The long held prediction of paperless offices, for now, is a laugher.

There are two basic reasons why our society spews so much paper:

* We have the lowest postal rates in the world, and

* We have the broadest distribution of paper-generating technology.

In a single year, Congress received more than 300,000,000 pieces of mail, up from 15,000,000 in 1970. Nationwide more than 55,000,000 printers are plugg into at least 55,000,000 computers, and annually kick out billions of reams. Are 18,000 sheets enough? Your four-drawer file cabinet, when full, holds 18,000 pages.

The Thoreau Society reports that last year, Henry David Thoreau, who personally has been unable to make any purchases since 1862, received 90 direct mail solicitations at Walden Pond. Under our existing postal rates, catalog publishers and junk mail producers can miss the target 98% of the attempts and still make a profit–only 2% of recipients need to place an order for a direct mailer to score big.

Direct mailers, attempting to sell more, send you record amounts of unsolicited mail. In 1988, 12 billion catalogs were mailed in the U.S., up from five billion in 1980–equal to 50 catalogs for every man, woman, and child in America. In the last decade, growth in the total volume of regular, third-class bulk mail (junk mail) was 13 times faster than growth in the population. The typical (overworked? or overwhelmed?) executive receives more than 225 pieces of unsolicited mail each month, or about 12 pieces daily. Even Greenpeace, stalwart protector of the environment, annually sends out 25,000,000 pieces of direct mail.

Attempting to contain what seems unmanageable, our institutions create paper accounting systems which provide temporary relief and some sense of order, while usually becoming ingrained and immovable, and creating more muddle. Certainly accounting is necessary, but why so complicated? Because in our over-information society reams of data are regard as a form of protection.

Why is documentation, such as circulating a copy to your boss, so critical to this culture? Because everyone is afraid of getting his derriere roast! We live in a culture of fear, not like a marshall law dictatorship, but a form of fear nonetheless. “If I cannot document or account, I cannot prove, or defend myself.”

Attempting to contain what seems unmanageable, organizations and institutions, public and private, create paper accounting systems. These systems provide temporary relief and some sense of order. Usually they become ingrained and immovable, while creating more muddle. These accounting systems go by names such as federal income taxes, deed of trust, car loan, etc. Sure, accounting is necessary, but why so complicated? Because in the era of over-information, over-information is use as a form of protection.

Of the five mega-realities, only paper flow promises to diminish some day as virtual reality, the electronic book, and the gigabyte highway are perfect. For the foreseeable future, you’re likely to be up to your eyeballs in paper. Start where you are–It is essential to clear the in-bins of your mind and your desk. Regard each piece of paper entering your personal domain as a potential mutineer or rebel. Each sheet has to earn its keep and remain worthy of your retention.

An Over-abundance of Choices

In 1969, Alvin Toffler predict that we would be overwhelm by too many choices. He said that this would inhibit action, result in greater anxiety, and trigger the perception of less freedom and less time. Having choices is a blessing of a free market economy. Like too much of everything else, however, having too many choices leads the feeling of being overwhelm and results not only in increased time expenditure but also in a mounting form of exhaustion.

Consider the supermarket glut: Gorman’s New Product News reports that in 1978 the typical supermarket carried 11,767 items. By 1987, that figure had risen to an astounding 24,531 items–more than double in nine years. More than 45,000 other products were introduce during those years, but failed. Elsewhere in the supermarket, Hallmark Cards now offers cards for 105 familial relationships. Currently more than 1260 varieties of shampoo are on the market. More than 2000 skin care products are currently selling. 75 different types of exercise shoes are now available, each with scores of variations in style, and features. A New York Times article reported that even buying leisure time goods has become a stressful, overwhelming experience.

Periodically, the sweetest choice is choosing from what you already have, choosing to actually have what you’ve already chosen. More important is to avoid engaging in low level decisions. If a tennis racquet comes with either a black, or brown handle, and it’s no concern to you, take the one the clerk hands you.

Whenever you catch yourself about to make a low level decision, consider: does this really make a difference? Get in the habit of making fewer decisions each day–the ones that count.

A Combined Effect

In a Time Magazine cover story entitled, “Drowsy America,” the director of Stanford University’s sleep center concluded that, “Most Americans no longer know what it feels like to be fully alert.” Lacking a balance between work and play, responsibility and respite, “getting things done” can become an end-all. We function like human doings instead of human beings. We begin to link executing the items on our growing “to do” lists with feelings of self-worth. As the list keeps growing longer, the lingering sense of more to do infiltrates our sense of self-acceptance. What’s worse, our entire society seems to be irrevocably head toward a new epoch of human existence. Is frantic, however, any way to exist as a nation? Is it any way to run your life?

John Kenneth Galbraith studied poverty stricken societies on four continents. In The Nature of Mass Poverty, he concluded that some societies remain poor (often for centuries) because they accommodate poverty. Although it’s difficult to live in abject poverty, Galbraith found that many poor societies are not willing to accept the difficulty of making things better.

As Americans, we appear poised to accommodate a frenzied, time-pressured existence, as if this is the way it has to be and always has been. This is not how it has to be. As an author, I have a vision. I see Americans leading balanced lives, with rewarding careers, happy home lives, and the ability to enjoy themselves. Our ticket to living and working at a comfortable pace is to not accommodate a way of being that doesn’t support us, and addressing the true nature of the problem head-on:

The combined effect of the five mega-realities will continue to accelerate the feeling of pressure. Meanwhile, there will continue to be well-intention but misdirected voices who choose to condemn “employers” or “Washington DC” or what have you for the lack of true leisure in our lives.

A Complete Self

We are, however, forging our own frenetic society. Nevertheless, the very good news is that the key to forging a more palatable existence can occur one by one.

For example, are whole and complete right now, and you can achieve balance in your life. You are not your position. You are not your tasks; they don’t define you and they don’t constrain you. Have the capacity to acknowledge that your life is finite; you cannot indiscriminately take in the daily deluge that our culture heaps on each of us and expect to feel anything but overwhelmed.

Viewed from 2021, 2011 will appear as a period of relative calm and stability when life moved at a manageable pace. When your days on earth are over and the big auditor in the sky examines the ledger of your life, she’ll be upset if you didn’t take enough breaks, and if you didn’t enjoy yourself.

On a deeply felt personal level, recognize that from now on, you will face an ever-increasing array of items competing for your attention. Each of the five mega-realities will proliferate in the next decade. You cannot handle everything, nor is making the attempt desirable. It is time to make compassionate though difficult choices about what is best ignore, versus what does merits your attention and action.