Busyness What is Busyness Impacts of Busyness Why are we so Busy? Busyness Culture Becoming Busy Alternatives to Busyness Busyness Practice & Exercises Busyness Resources

“It’s not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is, what are we busy about?

– Henry David Thoreau

Busyness exists on a spectrum. On one side, stress and overwhelm can lead to poor health outcomes, negative effects for family life, and breakdowns in company productivity.2 On the other side, a certain level of activity can be associated with good late-life cognition,8 happiness, and motivation.13, 14 Humans tend to prefer being busy to being idle,1 but when we get to certain levels of stress and overwhelm, we may buckle under the weight. Knowing the impacts of the busyness danger zone can help us be healthy and reap the positive benefits of an active lifestyle without burning ourselves out. So what impacts do being busy have to offer us? Is being busy good or bad? Let’s look at the facts…

Some Busyness Quick Facts

On the One Hand…

  • In Canada, 51% of survey respondents said that work is a major or moderate source of stress in their life, up from the 39% reported in 1997.2
  • In Japan, death by overwork has earned its own word: “Karoshi,” a phenomenon on the rise.3
  • When doctors or psychiatric counselors burn out from overwork, there can be impacts on their ethical behavior.4
  • When we are in a hurry, we are less likely to take the time to recycle and compost.7
  • Being busy decreases the likelihood of voting, phone banking, and volunteering.6
  • We are less likely to be able to detect misinformation when we are busy.7
  • Children have seen a 25 percent drop in play and a 50 percent drop in unstructured outdoor activities since the late 1970s.7
  • There has been a one-third decrease in families sitting down regularly to eat dinner together since the 1970s.7
  • Dual-income couples find only 12 minutes a day to talk to each other.7
  • Students need 9 hours of sleep in order to feel energetic and ready for school, but only about 15% of them are actually getting this.7

On the Other Hand…

  • There’s a correlation between being busy and having good cognition later in life.8
  • A study on college students found that the ones who kept busy doing a task were happier than the ones that remained idle, even if they were forced to be busy.9
  • Research from 2010 suggests that the happiest people are the ones who are busy without being rushed.10
  • Being busy can increase our motivation and shorten the time it takes us to complete tasks.11
  • The best time to get ideas is when our brains are distracted by dopamine-producing activities like walking, driving, showering, or dreaming.12
  • Busy people make healthier choices: viewing yourself as busy can increase your self-esteem and your self-control, helping you be a better decision-maker.13
  • Retirees with a packed agenda of future plans sleep better at night and are less likely to suffer from insomnia.14
  • Busyness feels good when you feel that you have control over the hours that you work, what you are doing, and who you are with.14

It may be helpful to think about busyness on a sliding scale.

There are benefits to being busy that can improve our lives, help us move forward, and keep us hopeful. So, if we know how to keep busyness in moderation, we won’t have to suffer from the overwhelm that comes from adding on too much! Through this section, we will learn some of the signs and symptoms of out-of-control busyness, and then address how to get back to a happy equilibrium.

Busyness and Health

Workplace stress isn’t good for employees, the workplace, or company profits. As described in the article “Stress in the Workplace” from the Canadian Mental Health Association, when a reaction known as the “Generalized Stress Response” is continuously activated at work, individuals show physical, psychosocial, and behavioral signs and symptoms that they’re struggling to cope.16

In Canada, work is a growing source of stress in peoples’ lives, with 51% of survey respondents saying work is a major or moderate source of stress in their life, up from the 39% reported in 1997.16 This stress comes from all areas of the job, including workload and pace, role conflict, under/over-promotion, job security concerns, interpersonal relationships, management style, and more. It’s important for workers to recognize the signs and symptoms of workplace stress in order to intervene. This table provides some different stages of workplace stress, as well as suggested actions to address them.

Phases of Workplace Stress



Suggested Action

1) Warning

Early warning signs are often more emotional than physical and may take a year or more before they are noticeable.

  • Feelings of vague anxiety
  • Depression
  • Boredom
  • Apathy
  • Emotional Fatigue
  • Talking about feelings
  • Taking a vacation
  • Making a change from regular activities
  • Taking time for yourself

2) Mild Symptoms

Warning signs have progressed and intensified. Over a period of 6 to 18 months, physical signs may also be evident.

  • Sleep disturbances
  • More frequent headaches/colds
  • Muscle aches
  • Intensified physical and emotional fatigue
  • Withdrawal from contact with others
  • Irritability
  • Intensified depression
  • More aggressive lifestyle changes may be needed
  • Short-term counseling

3) Entrenched Cumulative Stress:

This phase occurs when the above phases continue to be ignored. Stress starts to create a deeper impact on career, family life and personal well-being.

  • Increased use of alcohol, smoking, non-prescription drugs
  • Depression
  • Physical and emotional fatigue
  • Loss of sex drive
  • Ulcers
  • Marital discord
  • Crying spells
  • Intense anxiety
  • Rigid thinking
  • Withdrawal
  • Restlessness
  • Sleeplessness
  • The help of medical and psychological professionals is highly recommended

4) Severe / Debilitating Cumulative Stress Reaction

This phase is often considered “self-destructive” and tends to occur after 5 to 10 years of continued stress.

  • Careers end prematurely
  • Asthma
  • Heart conditions
  • Severe depression
  • Lowered self-esteem/ self-confidence
  • Inability to perform one’s job
  • Inability to manage personal life
  • Withdrawal
  • Uncontrolled anger/grief/rage
  • Suicidal or homicidal thinking
  • Significant intervention from professionals

The consequences of severe workplace stress are severe themselves, and impact not only the individual experiencing the stress, but family and friends in contact with that individual.

This stress requires significant intervention, and in the most extreme cases, can lead to serious health issues and/or early death. This is the top end of the busyness spectrum, when our body’s natural alarm bells are telling us it’s time to slow down, no matter how much we think we need to continue.16

Can you recognize when you are experiencing workplace stress?

Take a moment to check-in with yourself about your stress levels:

Karoshi: Death by Overwork Earns its Own Word in Japan

In Japan in the 1970s, death by overwork earned its own term as an increasing number of people suffered untimely deaths attributed to work conditions. “Karoshi” (literally “overwork death”) normally results from stress-related stroke, heart disease, and suicide. In the corporate structure especially, it is the norm to pay salaries rather than hourly, and companies expect employees to work as much as required to complete a task or meet a quota. An employee having 200 hours of overtime in a month was not unheard of or in some sectors uncommon. The government has made attempts to limit companies and firms from allowing more than 80 hours of overtime per month. Along with pressure from the top, employees will feel pressure from their coworkers. It is common for Japanese workers to feel guilty for using their earned time off, and since taking leave from work is so looked down upon, many even feel their work culture simply doesn’t allow it. So few people take their vacation time the government has stepped in with a campaign to motivate citizens to go on vacation (to little effect). “Japan is facing something of an epidemic in unused annual holiday leave among its famously conscientious workforce – with workers taking only 52.4% of the paid leave to which they were entitled in 2018, according to the most recent government figures.”3 The pervasive burnout culture continues to prevail, illustrating the true power of the surrounding pressures. Many will put conformity to that culture over their own health, well-being, and happiness.

All over the world, a similar reluctance to have a work-life balance is possible and even encouraged in many industries, if perhaps to a less extreme expectation.17 It’s a pattern to watch out for and address if we feel we are conforming too much to habits that are beginning to affect our personal health negatively. Whether workplace stress leads to suicide or overwork causes severe heart problems, the signs and symptoms of excessive stress are not to be ignored.

First Steps – How We Can Support Ourselves

“You must take personal responsibility. You cannot change the circumstances, the seasons or the wind, but you can change yourself.” –Jim Rohn

Though intervention and culture change at the organizational level (which we address below) are seen as the most effective combatants of stress in the workplace, there are also individual coping mechanisms to aid with the de-stressing process: relaxation techniques, ways to focus one’s mind, and healthy habits.

Not everyone is in a place where they can challenge their workplace culture or step out of the competition the world around us can require. In those situations, it can be empowering to view ourselves as our own vanguard. We are ultimately our own last stand. And we are most often the ones choosing to stay at a job, in a relationship, or on a project that asks too much of us or doesn’t fit. We may be pushing ourselves into dangerous levels of busyness for valid reasons we can’t avoid (pursuing a goal, raising a family while working, focusing on grades to get into college AND taking care of a sick relative, etc.), so it is our responsibility to examine our options and take care of ourselves, whether that means advocating for change, practicing perspective shift, or doing self-care.

This is why having a toolkit of individual coping mechanisms is important.

Stress Coping Mechanisms
Deep breathing: “No matter where you are, it is easy to take a few minutes to practice deep breathing, exhaling slowly until your abdomen is flat, filling up your lungs, diaphragm and abdomen with air as you inhale. Doing this several times a day will help to calm your body and mind.”
Progressive Relaxation: “The process of training your body to relax completely by tensing and releasing each set of muscles in turn.”
Massage therapy and hot baths: “Other methods of relaxing tense muscles that will help release stress.”
Meditation: “A proven way to work with the chaos of our thoughts through a sense of peace.”
Hobbies: “Spending regular time on a hobby will help to restore energy and a sense of well-being.”
Supportive Friends: “We all need someone we can talk to [to] get our worries off our chest, someone who will listen without judgment and appreciate you for who you are.”
Laughter: “Good, hearty laughter causes the release of endorphins, which are the body’s natural ‘feel good’ chemical. It is a good idea to collect things that make you laugh – cartoons, books, movies – and look at them when you feel over-stressed.”
Maintain A Balanced Diet: Food is our fuel. Don’t just get hooked on just nutrition though! More and more nutritionalists are recommending to stop seeing foods as good/bad. For more check out this article: There’s no such thing as ‘bad food.’ Four terms that make dietitians cringe.
Adequate Sleep: “Try going to bed early after a hot bath, or listen to a relaxation tape to help you fall asleep.”
Cut Caffeine Consumption Down: “Caffeine is a stimulant that simulates the stress response and can make us edgy and ‘hyper.’”
Exercise: “One of the best ways to release tension and relax our minds and bodies.”
Seeking Professional Help/Therapy:  You don’t have to struggle in silence. Take a look at this article for next steps: Taking the First, Scary Step

Some other pages which may help in our search for addressing stress and taking control of our narrative:

Organizational Changes – How Companies Can Support Us

At the organizational level, it is up to companies and employers to provide support to their employees and reduce the stigma associated with rest.

Top-down organizational changes are necessary to change workplace culture and to create an environment not only in which the job itself no longer requires an unhealthy relationship to work, but employees may seek out and practice stress reduction techniques and aid. Some of these organizational techniques are included below.


Employee Assistance Programs: 

A service funded by the employer to provide counseling, advice and help to employees and their families, in order to help employees cope with personal concerns and learn to manage stress, and to assist the organization in identifying and improving productivity problems within the employee population.

Stress Management Training:

An employer-initiated preventative training in order to give employees the tools to manage stress. Also works to reduce stigma associated with rest, relaxation, and stress management techniques.

Occupational Stress Committee:

A committee that meets on a regular basis to address stress in the employee population, which includes employees from all levels and departments.

Provide Mental Health Benefits:

Mental health-focused companies such as Lyra partner with self-insured employers to provide mental health benefits such as therapy, coaching, guided self-care, meditation, and mental wellness tools.

Schedule Flexibility:

Providing schedule flexibility, especially for parents, can be extremely useful in reducing stress. Not everyone can follow the 9-5 schedule with the same amount of ease. Allowing work schedules to be more flexible so people can attend to the needs of their families can reduce stress and help people perform better. Some companies have even moved to a 4-day workweek, and in Finland, most employees are allowed to adjust their work schedules up to 3 hours based on a 1996 law.

Team Building on Company Time:

Building bonds between employees with fun activities – on company time – is a way to reduce stress by creating community and giving employees a break.

Flexible Leave & Time Off Policies:

Many companies provide unlimited PTO, and discussions surrounding both maternal and paternal leave have taken a front-row seat in politics in recent years. Providing good parental leave policies can help companies unlock the full potential of employees of all genders, and help break down barriers that many women currently face when it comes to moving into management positions at work while parenting.

Using these techniques and more, companies can work with their employees to create better work environments focused on people first, and realize the impacts of stress and overwork on company productivity. Happy employees feel more company loyalty and are more likely to maintain well-being, while also being productive. “Stress is not something to be dismissed as being just part of the job, or the price you pay for being successful in your career. Stress has been shown to be either directly or indirectly responsible for early and untimely deaths through heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure, and a multitude of other stress-related illnesses… The opportunity exists for employers and employees to get together and make way for changes that will reduce stress-related illnesses.”16

Companies Supporting Their Employees’ Wellbeing with Specific Policies

There are many companies that are already providing their employees with resources and policies aimed at reducing stress and living well. The idea of “stress reduction” can’t simply be something that companies talk about if they do not back it up with action. Reducing stress and creating a more healthy company culture requires specific policies implemented into the company’s core, otherwise how can employees be sure that their employers mean it?

Unlimited PTO

Sony Electronics offers unlimited PTO,21 which allows employees to manage their own work-life balance.

Non-Accrual Vacation Policy

VMWare has a non-accrual vacation policy, so employees can take time off from work when they and their manager agree rather than waiting to earn enough hours.21

Yearly Vacation Stipend

Evernote provides a yearly vacation stipend of $1000 every year, which can be spent on flights, hotels, and any other travel-related expenses. BambooHR provides a $2000 stipend.25

401(k) Employer Match

Sailthru provides a 401(k) savings plan and employer match, and generous paternal and family leave.21

Four Day Work Week

Along with many other companies during the COVID-19 pandemic, KickStarter has moved to a four-day workweek.21

Continuing Education Stipend

Hubspot offers their employees $5,000 per year if they continue their education..21

Generous Maternity & Paternity Leave

StichFix has 4-month paid maternity and paternity leave and unlimited vacation.21

Passion Stipend

CoverMyMeds has an annual $4000 mini-grant competition for any topic that their employees are passionate about.21

Home Office Stipend

Honest Paws gives their employees a home office stipend to help them set up remote work.21


InsideTracker, a nutrition company, has an ergonomist on their staff to help their employees keep their workstation ergonomically correct.

Wellness Center

Talking Rain Beverage Company has meditation rooms, gyms with personal trainers, yoga, and wellness.

Team Building

NOMATIC, an outdoors company, prioritizes team building and community between departments on company time, planning activities such as mountain biking, skiing, indoor skydiving, surfing, rock climbing, and sports games.25

Self-Improvement Program

Chanje expects their employees to dedicate 20% of their time to self-improvement via a formal program aimed at developing leadership skills and stimulating career growth.25

As companies continue to follow the trend and the market demand to provide their employees with wellness programs, generous leave policies, and stipends, culture can begin to shift, and stress reduction techniques, vacation, flexible work schedules, and pursuing wellbeing for oneself and one’s family can be more normalized in the modern work world. All of these strategies can help prevent employee burnout and keep the workplace functioning and livable.

Burnout can cause secondary traumatic stress, impacting everyone we work with

Burnout in some lines of work can mean secondary traumatic stress (STS) for a wider circle of people. When doctors or psychiatric counselors burn out from overwork, there can be impacts on their ethical behavior — lack of self-monitoring, failure to obtain supervision, refraining from seeking support from colleagues and losing integrity in relationships with patients.28

There are also impacts on the care providers’ own mental states and personal relationships. Self-care is an important practice in order for care providers to perform at their highest level with clients, and a preventative measure for burnout and STS. The writers of “Burnout and Secondary Traumatic Stress: Impact on Ethical Behavior” see preparation and training on burnout and STS as an important aspect of education for counselors especially, who need to be aware of their own emotional states in order to provide quality care. “The impact upon therapists is unavoidable but can be ameliorated by proactive strategies that include developing trauma training programs and creating a culture that acknowledges and normalizes personal reactions.”4 In provider-patient relationships, self-care is necessary to the job, because human reactions to others’ distress are completely normal.

The Science of Burnout

Key Takeaways:

  • There are observable changes in areas of the brain such as the amygdala and cingulate gyrus during burnout; our brain changes
  • Burnout and depression have many of the same symptoms, and burnout could even be a specific type of depression (an externally caused depression / extreme stress circumstances)
  • If people can change or rearrange the circumstances they’re in, it can help with burnout
  • Seeking professional help/seeing if there are workable changes within your circumstances can be very helpful
  • A good example of burnout is people in bad relationships; people have come to be really unhappy in their relationships
  • People at times have guilt for not being happy when they are accomplishing things

A primary care provider or doctor should help assess if stress levels are unhealthy. Below is a basic questionnaire to quickly self-assess. If testing at a high score, please reach out for professional help. 

Impacts of Technology on Busyness

Like most things connected to the technological growth spurts we’ve experienced in the last 20 odd years, there is some good and some bad. In regards to busyness, technology like phones and the internet has been a huge boon in making aspects of our daily lives more accessible. On the other hand, figuring out when to disconnect in a world where being constantly connected and “on top of” news, work, correspondences, etc. is rewarded can be a challenge. Below we’ll explore a few of these technological influences on busyness culture.

When responsiveness becomes #1 priority, what do we sacrifice?

One of the ways technology has impacted busy culture is in creating what Harvard Business School professor and author of Sleeping with Your Smartphone Leslie Perlow calls “The Cycle of Responsiveness.” A phenomenon in which the ability and desire to respond quickly to work-related requests evolves into a greater and greater demand to handle work-related needs and “emergencies” 24/7.

Through her research, Perlow learned, “accepting the pressure to be ‘on’ — usually stemming from some seemingly legitimate reason, such as requests from clients or customers or teammates in different time zones — in turn makes us accommodate the pressure even more.” Once we decide reacting quickly to our work is important even outside of work hours, we do it more and more, altering our schedules, our routines, and even our life choices in order to be able to meet more demands. This in turn creates a cycle in which we expect ourselves and those around us to prioritize responsiveness above all else.

And since smartphone use has increased practically every year since they were invented in 1992, this cycle can impact more and more of us. In 2019, there were 5.11 billion unique mobile users worldwide, and 2.71 billion of them were using smartphones. That number is still rising.

How Many People Have Smartphones in the World?

3.8 Billion smartphone users in the world today.
4.88 Billion mobile phone users in the world today.
48.2% of all people have smartphones today.
6.1.9% of people own mobile phones today.

The more and more widespread access to mobile devices surely makes the cycle of responsiveness tempting, and perhaps even culturally expected. A lack of timely response can even begin to feel like a snub.

Responsiveness easily eclipses other values by taking away the attention required to focus on, or even come up with, other convictions, desires or boundaries. And the more responsive we are, the more responsive we are pressured to become.

When “Work from anywhere,” becomes “Work from everywhere all the time”

Artist, writer, and Stanford University teacher Jenny Odell discusses a human resource strategy which illustrates the cycle of responsiveness at an extreme. In her book How to Do Nothing, Odell describes her experience working in the marketing department of a large clothing brand in which the strategy “Results Only Work Environment,” or ROWE, was instituted. The policy was implemented as an attempt to shift the typical 9-to-5 face-time culture to a culture in which it doesn’t matter how many hours someone works or where, as long as they get their work done. Performance is determined by results rather than by how long employees spend at the office, and everyone is encouraged to use their devices to connect from home and remain in communication with team members.

The creators of ROWE, Jody Thompson and Cali Ressler, describe their mission as a “merciful slackening” of the 9-to-5 culture in their manifesto, Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It: The Results-Only Revolution.  They claim, “If you can have your time and work and live and be a person, then the question you’re faced with every day isn’t, Do I really have to go to work today? But, How do I contribute to this thing called life? What can I do today to benefit my family, my company, myself?”

What is left when ‘work’ is ‘self’?

In response, Odell takes issue with how ROWE conflates the ‘non-work self’ with the ‘work self,’ encouraging people to be fully involved in their work identities at all times. While this type of work environment could provide benefits the 9-to-5 face-time culture could not (flexibility, the ability for parents to stay home with their kids if need be), Odell thinks ROWE quickly becomes a breakdown of the work environment – work and life all bleed together in one big soup of expected productivity. “After all, what is the E in ROWE? If you could be getting results at the office, in your car, at the store, at home after dinner–aren’t those all then ‘work environments’?” Work leaves the office and appears in every other area of life.  As long as there’s wifi, of course. In an attempt to evade the ROWE policy, Odell put off getting a smartphone for a few more years, so she couldn’t answer her email on the go – and didn’t feel pressured to do so.

How does technology affect your relationship to feeling busy?

Are there small changes you could make to experiment with how “turning off” may affect your life? Some suggestions could include: turning off notifications on your phone at a certain time in the evening, limiting access to applications to a set number of hours per day, or disengaging entirely with a “social media cleanse.”

Are there ways technology helps you opt-out of the cycle of responsiveness?

The Environmental Impact of Busyness

“Slow and steady may be the best thing for our lives and for the environment.” (Source) 38

Busyness and speed have an impact on the environment. When we are pressed for time, we are more likely to be wasteful, and less likely to take the time to care for the environment. We have talked about the mental health impacts of busyness, and it makes sense that if we’re feeling overwhelmed in one or more aspects of our lives it can lead to a desire for SOMETHING to be easy.

For example, when we are in a hurry, we are less likely to take the time to recycle and compost items that don’t belong in the trash. The US’s national leader in recycling, Seattle, WA, has seen waste being recycled in the city drop from 52 to 38 percent in recent years. This is largely due to recycling loads being contaminated either by materials that can’t be recycled or not being properly cleaned beforehand.37

Along with rushed disposal habits, we may desire to cope with our busyness by buying things. “Excessive personal consumption of goods means higher direct and indirect costs to the environment, including the energy used and pollution emitted in the extraction of natural resources, and in the manufacturing, transportation, and disposal of goods.”39

Being busy makes us less intentional members of the global community.

Modernizing Laundry

Using our old friend TUD (time use diaries), researchers have been able to track how the domestic productivity that comes with technological advances has changed “time use” in unexpected ways. Devices meant to save time had the opposite effect when they were initially introduced in the 1920s and 30s. A shirt could be washed with less effort, so clothes became dirty after one use, and laundry piles grew more quickly. However, even though more recent analysis of domestic TUDs in the US show an overall decrease in how much time we spend doing things like washing clothes, that doesn’t account for how often we are washing those clothes.40 So the question is, when do we consider an article of clothing soiled? Do we use a new glass every time we get some water? In our busy lives, do we even think about how much water we’re using when cleaning?

Shipping Rules

Slowing down could save the environment in various ways. Even something as simple as speed limits for ships would have massive benefits. Reducing average ship speed by just 20% would cut down on greenhouse gases, and also curb pollutants such as black carbon and nitrogen oxides. Not only are these pollutants bad for human health, but black carbon particles often fall on snow, speeding up the warming of the Arctic region. Plus, a speed limit for ships would cut underwater noise by 66% and “reduce the chances of whale collisions by 78%.”42

This seems so simple though! Why do ships want to speed so much? Our world is driven by competition. If a company wants to compete, it must meet the demands of consumers, and consumers want their products and goods quickly.

When we consume quickly, companies produce quickly to match our speed. This cycle has significant environmental impacts. Natural resources are being exhausted at lightning speed.7

Our goal of decoupling harmful aspects of busyness from our daily lives could be key to releasing the pressure on other pieces of the global puzzle.

What are ways we can “slow down” and help take care of the planet?

  • “Air-drying can reduce the average household’s carbon footprint by 2,400 pounds a year, according to Green America, a non-profit organization.”39
  • “By driving gently you can lower your gas mileage by up to 33% on the highway and 5% in the city, according to the Department of Energy.”39
  • “Whenever you avoid getting into your car, you are doing the environment a favor. Walk or bike when you can, and use public transportation where you can’t.”39
  • “Slow living is about removing yourself from the quickened pace of daily life to make conscious decisions. In the environmental sphere, this means replacing the idea that ‘you don’t have time’, with ‘living with intent’ by planning ahead to be able to consume in a more sustainable way.”43
  • “The textile industry is rated as one of the most polluting in the world.” When we can buy clothing second-hand, or give items a second life, we reduce pollution.44
  • Vote in politicians who are pro-green-solutions for building our futures.
  • Look into local initiatives: Take some time to see if there are any local ventures to restore a local ecosystem, save an endangered species, protect indigenous rights to land and water stewardship, or to make urban spaces more environmentally friendly.

Busyness and Civic Participation

“Busyness has many advantages, but busy lives without time for citizenship bode poorly for the future of constitutional self-government.”
-William Scheuerman

There are many different theories about why general civic participation in the United States is declining. However, in terms of busyness a theory called social acceleration—or the advancement of technology (transport, communication, production), scarcity of free time, and the passing of social change within a society—resonates with the effects of busyness culture we have already touched on. German professor of sociology, Hartmut Rosa, has largely expanded and legitimized the concept.45 However many of the reports and articles concerning the topic lack peer review and quantitative research.

Yet let’s tarry a moment with this theory. In The Politics of Speed, David McIvor explains the general conclusions about the effects of social acceleration on civic participation.  Our society’s obsession with speed in all aspects of life makes the tedium of civic participation unbearably slow and boring. In addition, some folks are simply too caught up in the machine of modern life to find their footing to organize or see the value in participating in long-term political goals. (McIvor) Democracy has a speed limit, and the US’s current rate of change and reliance on capitalism has alienated the general populace from civic engagement. Causing a degeneration of accountability and the pooling of power into specific groups of people who might have more time and resources to participate.46

There are other theories that suggest it is the distractions of modern-day technology (social media and tv) which are taking people away from political participation.45 However, these theories fail to take class into consideration. Perhaps those ideas apply for people above the poverty line who have access to leisure time, but being “time-poor” is a relevant reality for many working-class people throughout the world. When someone is working extra to afford a babysitter they don’t have time to go to a noon city council meeting. Nor will they be able to take off work to turn in their voter ballot at the drop-off across town.47

Outside of having time to participate in civic duties is also the responsibility or desire to participate from an informed place. Which requires watching the news, reading articles, and talking with our communities about social issues and political policies. Again, this takes time out of someone’s days and some people have more access to “free time” than others. Another obstacle to being informed is sifting through the abundance of news sources for trustworthy political guidance which may have many people opting out because of sheer overwhelm.48

The main takeaway is there are layers that go into understanding the impacts of busyness culture on our political lives beyond too much Netflix.

The Internet and Political Participation

In political science, the approach to looking at political participation levels is generally to look at what can be recorded like voting, labor unions, and political associations. But, these methods can be limiting as the political process modernizes. There is some research into online participation (separate from the online political propaganda campaigns we keep hearing about)-but does online charity and petition signing replace the political efficacy of on-the-ground organizing? Common sense says no, of course not. However, the internet’s ability to connect alienated demographics over common issues across a country or across the world cannot be completely overlooked. And the first step to organizing is communication and connection. The research though has not caught up to this. So, a fun thought to ponder is seeing if in the coming decade new insights could change current understandings of how the internet may help increase active political participation in our busy lives.49

Busyness Creeps Into Family Time & Impacts Our Kids

“Time is a family value, and family time is perhaps the most obvious victim of overwork.”

– William Doherty & Barbara Carlson

Overwork has obvious impacts on family life, and it’s progressing at an accelerating speed. Time is an important resource to families and relationships in general. Quality time builds bonds, creates emotional health, and allows families to really notice and appreciate one another’s needs. Particularly in families with dual-earner couples (parenting teams in which both members work full-time jobs), time is scarce.

“Recent studies suggest that dual-income couples find only 12 minutes a day to talk to each other.”7 Another concept explored in the “Materialism” section of Busyness Culture, parents may give their children material gifts out of guilt when they can’t find the time to spend quality time with their children. Of course, these gifts are no substitute for true, quality parental love.

“Frantic Families” Trade Quality Down Time for Constant Structure

A well-rounded child is the most likely to get accepted at the best schools. These days, (again, in the US), good grades are not enough to guarantee admission into top-tier schools or for scholarship opportunities at state schools. Parents and students themselves feel the pressure to sign them up for as many extra-curricular activities as possible on top of advanced placement classes. In economically stressed families, structured afterschool activities may be how they solve their children being home unattended for too long. “Children have lost 12 hours per week in free time, including a 25 percent drop in play and a 50 percent drop in unstructured outdoor activities”7 since the late 1970’s. Participation in structured sporting activities has risen, as well as passive spectating. Children have much less unstructured time to use their creativity in play, with the time being replaced by structured sports or passive watching.

On top of this, families spend less quality time together. “Just talking” has fallen nearly “off the radar screen,” and there has been a “28% decline in the number of families taking vacations.”7 There has been a one-third decrease in families sitting down regularly to eat dinner together, a practice that’s a very important factor in children’s academic success and psychological well-being. Even more than doing homework, playing sports, doing art, or participating in religious activities. Not having regular family dinners has been associated with a higher risk of teenagers having poor nutrition, using alcohol and drugs, engaging in early sexual behavior, and committing suicide.

The National Association of Elementary School Principals recommends that children only engage in one extra-curricular activity at a time, to combat the stress and overwhelm. Balance is necessary for school-age children. Even though parents feel the pressure to provide a good life and many opportunities for their children, it needs to come in moderation. “Parenting [has become] like product development, with insecure parents never knowing when they’ve done enough and when their children are falling behind.”7 At as young of an age as 2, children are becoming stressed and overwhelmed. Pediatrician Ralph Minear has studied children that exhibit signs of stress and overwhelm, and has determined its source to be “being given or asked to do too much.”7

Even toddlers are becoming overwhelmed.

Sleep has also seen sacrifice. “71 percent of American teenagers polled by the Gallup organization in 2001 said they think it would be a good idea if schools started an hour or two later so that students would be able to get more sleep.”7 Studies have shown that students need nine hours of sleep in order to feel energetic and ready for school, but only about 15% of them are actually getting this. This lack of sleep has long-term health impacts on the children of these frenetic families. Many teens are also time crunched by homework, their own jobs, their parents’ working patterns, and electronic escapes such as video games and television. Unstructured time has been crushed by over-scheduling.

For Low Income Parents, Out of Control Busyness Becomes A Nightmarish Norm

In “Parent’s Long Work Hours And the Impact on Family Life,” researchers attempted to create a definition of family wellbeing, and study the impact of long work hours on family life. New Zealand, where the study was conducted, is only behind Japan in terms of the proportion of total employees working 50 or more hours per week. And most of these employees are unskilled and/or low-income laborers in agriculture, management, or road/trail, meaning that they likely have less control over their own schedules or must work this amount of hours to maintain their families.50

The conclusions of this study are complex, as there are many factors influencing family wellbeing, beyond simply hours worked by parents. The study found that families that experienced the most stress from long working hours were the ones in which those hours came with few alternatives. “For example, families who were on a very low income and had little or no flexibility in their working hours, and had few or no educational qualifications with a resulting lack of occupational alternatives, were without apparent choices regarding their working hours.”50 Out-of-control busyness is the most detrimental type and leads to the most chronic and lasting stress because it comes with few alternatives. And for those who are not privileged enough to have flexibility in their jobs, or access to the type of education they would need to create that flexibility, this sort of out-of-control busyness becomes a nightmarish norm.

The study also found that when families were in this position, but they also had choices about their work and took certain measures, their stress levels could be reduced. Parents “who had choices about their work, and had made a joint decision for one partner to work extended hours in order to fulfill shared goals, appeared to show greater wellbeing than those lacking such agreements.” In certain circumstances, working together on shared goals even when long work hours were required by at least one parent-led to better family well-being. Often giving at least one parent the ability to spend quality time with their children.50

Working Long Hours Affects Relationship Quality

Working long hours also has an impact on couples and relationship quality. In a study of 600 US IT workers, researchers found, “Women partnered to men who work long hours (50 or more hours per week) have significantly higher perceived stress and significantly lower time adequacy and relationship quality compared to women partnered to men who work a standard full-time work week (35-49 hours).”51 Interestingly, this impact does not happen in the reverse, with men partnered to women working 50 or more hours reporting no difference in stress or relationship quality compared with men who are partnered to women who work a standard full-time work-week.

The bottom line is time is a precious family resource for all involved. And with the influence of busy culture can quickly slip away into slivers of intermittent run-ins rather than quality, interactive, family time. Much less unstructured personal time for that matter!

More Benefits of Unstructured Time for Children

  • “Unstructured, free-time supports what is known as ‘attachment play.’ This type of play enhances child learning and promotes self-esteem.”53
  • “When children engage in freestyle play they are building up the frontal lobe of their brain. This region is essential to problem-solving and social intelligence.”53
  • “Simply spending time outside lowers blood pressure and stress, and can help children improve their attention and concentration skills.”53
  • “The part of the brain that lights up during play is called the limbic area. There are two systems within the limbic area that are activated during time off: the play system and the seeking system. The play system is exercised through games, laughing, and using imagination, while the seeking system is exercised through outdoor adventures and exploring new places.”53
  • “Activation of the limbic area leads to increased feelings of well-being through the release of chemicals such as oxytocin and dopamine. Oxytocin and dopamine relieve stress and make us feel more connected to one another.”53

Ways that Parents Can Facilitate Unstructured Time for their Children

After School Activities
Refrain from scheduling children in more than one after-school activity per day.

Free Weekends
Allow most of the weekends to remain free for your children to have fun and facilitate their own play.

Play Materials
Provide plenty of unstructured, multi-purpose play materials.54

Family Dinner
Ensure that you eat family dinner together, to allow for unstructured time to simply talk and connect.

Imagination Play
Ensure that you eat family dinner together, to allow for unstructured time to simply talk and connect.52

Outdoor Activities
Spend time outside together as a family or with friends.52

Encourage Reading
Create inviting reading quarters and equip them with plenty of nice picture books.52

What are some “unstructured time” goals you would like to incorporate for your own family?

What Happens When We Eliminate Contemplation?

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” -Socrates

Beyond the health and relational impacts of busyness, filling our lives with activity can reduce or nearly eliminate time spent in a state of contemplation. Contemplation can be one of the most important tools for discernment, finding meaning, living intentionally, and caring for the earth. Contemplation is crucial for scholarship and compassion,57 moral decision-making,58 breaking unwanted habits like smoking,59 halting the avoidance of potentially-negative health information,60 and recognizing abuse in relationships,61 among many other things.

When we exist in a state of constant action, we may pay the price for a thoughtless life. Finding purpose or “a purpose”, the meaning of life, or “a meaning in life” is difficult without contemplation.

The Impact of Busyness Towards the End of Life

Bronnie Ware is an Australian nurse that wrote The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, after spending several years caring for patients in the last 12 weeks of their lives. In her book, she reviews the most common sorrows that people experience looking back over the whole of their lives. As Ware held interview after interview for her writing, she realized that similar themes came up again and again:

“1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with friends. 

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.”55

Life is long, and we have opportunities to live it in so many different ways. Yet in our last moments, many of us feel similar emotions. Many patients, especially the breadwinners of the family, wished they hadn’t worked so hard: “This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret, but as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.”56

In the last weeks of their lives, Ware’s patients looked back and wished they had worked less, and been more present with their families. And the other regrets in many ways can be connected to busyness as well. How often do we stay busy because we believe that others expect it of us? How often do we lose touch with friends because we’re working so hard? How difficult is it to connect with our feelings and feel happy when we’re caught up in a relentless pursuit of something?

Looking Back Reflection
Imagine being part of Bronnie Ware’s study. What would you say?

Not everyone meets their old age with regrets. And, many of the listed regrets are related to maintaining a lifestyle predicated on busyness.

What other options are out there? What else can we do besides be busy? What is important to us now-and can we prioritize those values in our day-to-day? The first step is envisioning a new way of life. It’s never too late!

This is a particularly sad aspect of busyness and it would be understandable to feel hopeless if we are caught up in the involuntary forms we’ve laid out. It is important that realizing the impacts is only the first step! And there are ways we can change our lives with the right guidance and support. Even if it’s just one step a day.

And in the next section, we look at how busyness within our lives isn’t all negative. Let’s go take a look!

Positive Impacts of Busyness

So is busyness all bad? No way! Many of us enjoy being busy and get a great sense of fulfillment from the activities of our lives. It’s only when we go off the charts with our busyness that we may notice its toll on our lives. But there are distinct positives to being busy, which provide a good motivation for finding that perfect balance. If we have a balanced amount of activity in our lives, we can reap the benefits of busyness without paying a severe price. So what can that balance look like?

In recent years, scientists at the University of Maryland found that those of us who have few spare hours, yet don’t feel rushed, report feeling unhappy the least.10

We like being busy, just without the overwhelming pressure to keep speeding up

The Benefits:

  • There’s a correlation between being busy and having good cognition later in life.8 Possibly due to the fact that people with good cognition tend to keep themselves busier, or possibly due to the fact that having lots of activity in life keeps us sharper longer – either way, people that keep busy have a correlation with better late-life cognition.
  • A study on college students found that the ones who kept busy doing a task were happier than the ones that remained idle, even if they were forced to be busy.9 We enjoy it when we have a reason to keep busy, but even when we are forced to be busy against our will, we still report being happier afterward than if we had remained idle.
  • Being busy can increase our motivation and shorten the time it takes us to complete tasks.11 When we have a lot going on, if we miss a deadline, we are more motivated to speed up and complete more tasks than if we have nothing going on. This is because people that are busy tend to perceive themselves as using their time effectively, which mitigates a sense of failure that may come with missing a deadline. Non-busy people dwell longer on the fact that they failed to meet the deadline, or give up, taking even longer to complete tasks.
  • The best time to get ideas is when our brains are distracted by dopamine-producing activities like walking, driving, showering, or dreaming.12 Our brains actually get great ideas when we are a little busy! When we are engaged in activities that produce dopamine and slightly distract us without using up our cognitive capacity, we can be the most creative.
  • Busy people make healthier choices: viewing yourself as busy can increase our self-esteem and our self-control, helping us be better decision-makers.13 We are more likely to make a virtuous choice if we are busy because we have boosted our self-esteem.

If we aim to have plenty of fulfilling activities going on in our lives, without that pervasive feeling of being rushed, we can find a nice balance that will leave behind the tolls of stress and overwhelm, and still incorporate the activities important to our personal joy.


  • We learned about the different impacts of busyness, both positive and negative, to watch out for in relation to your own activity and stress levels. Affecting mind, body, and long-term personal and relational health, the impacts of stress and overstimulation are not to be ignored – in some countries these impacts are so prevalent that there’s a word for death by overwork.
  • We learned what actions can be taken when warning signs occur, both at the personal level, and the organizational level. Companies can support their employees with better policies and work cultures that take into account their employee well-being. We learned about example policies at companies that have taken strides to create a better work environment, and attract talent in a less traditional way. We learned about burnout, the science behind it, and the ways it can have second-hand effects on others in relationship with the burnt-out person.
  • We learned about some ways that technology has impacted busy culture, and how responsiveness has become a higher priority than ever before. This level of speed bleeds into personal and professional life, and has an impact on the environment and citizenship as well. When speed is introduced into family life, kids are overscheduled and miss out on the important benefits of unstructured time and quality time with their parents. Looking back on their lives, many people regret missing out on these moments.

Being busy at the right levels can help with self-esteem, cognition, and creativity, but when we don’t look for signs that we’re burning out, we put ourselves at risk of longer-term social, professional, and health impacts. Learn the signs and take action with the new skills you’ve learned to rest, rejuvenate, and re-center!

Busyness What is Busyness Impacts of Busyness Why are we so Busy? Busyness Culture Becoming Busy Alternatives to Busyness Busyness Practice & Exercises Busyness Resources
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