Certain forms of busyness can be delightful. Who wouldn’t want to live in Busytown, the setting of the iconic 1960s children’s books by the American illustrator Richard Scarry? His grocer cats and firefighting pigs are certainly busy. Nobody in Busytown is idle—or if they are, they’re carefully hidden from view by the authorities, Pyongyang-style. What they aren’t, though, is overwhelmed. They exude the cheery self-possession of cats and pigs who have plenty to do but also every confidence that their tasks will fit snugly into the hours available—whereas we live with the constant anxiety of fearing, or knowing for certain, that ours won’t.
Research shows that this feeling arises on every rung of the economic ladder. If you’re working two minimum-wage jobs to put food in your children’s stomachs, there’s a good chance you’ll feel overstretched. But if you’re better off, you’ll find yourself feeling overstretched for reasons that seem, to you, no less compelling: because you have a nicer house with higher mortgage payments, or because the demands of your (interesting, well-paid) job conflict with your longing to spend time with your aging parents, or to be more involved in your children’s lives, or to dedicate your life to fighting climate change.
The problem with trying to make time for everything that feels important is that you definitely never will. The reason isn’t that you haven’t yet discovered the right time management tricks or applied sufficient effort, or that you need to start getting up earlier, or that you’re generally useless. It’s that the underlying assumption is unwarranted: There’s no reason to believe you’ll ever feel “on top of things,” or make time for everything that matters, simply by getting more done.