March 23, 2015

The “busy-ness” trap and how to create balance

In recent years, a strange phenomenon has emerged that affects everyone, from kindergarteners to CEOs. Children today are busier than ever. Moms and dads rush their children from school, to piano lessons, to soccer practice, play dates, gymnastics, swim lessons, and more. And as parents, we’re just as busy, setting an example for our children that prioritizes constant motion.

Why are our children so busy? Many students and parents have come to believe that being busy (and padding the resume with tons of extracurriculars) means better chances at getting into a first choice (perhaps Ivy League) school, winning a scholarship, or landing an incredible job opportunity after school. That may very well be true, but Jon Jachimowicz, PhD, researcher in Behavioral Economics at Columbia Business School, notes that,“There is a real danger in being too busy. Constant work overload can lead toburnout, a failure to prioritize important tasks and [a decrease in] social support, which in turn can reinforce burnout.” So, more than ever, because of and in spite of our “busy-ness culture,” children need skills that help them balance a busy schedule and determine if they’ve taken on too many responsibilities.

The Busy Trap, Burnout, and the Balanced Schedule

Unfortunately, finding balance amid our frantic days is trickier than one might expect. Students need to know when to eliminate activities and when to stay their course with a new strategy or plan to help. They need to understand how to prioritize their own intrinsic motivations over external pressures. Some students may need to take a step back from constant activity, swapping screen time and extracurriculars for peace and quiet. Others may thrive with a packed schedule, particularly one that mixes work and play. Overall, students need support to learn how to flexibly adjust their weekly responsibilities to both attain their goals and avoid the detrimental effects of burnout. They need to discover their own capabilities, their personal stress thresholds, and their own unique problem-solving strategies to best attack busy-ness head on.

With some of these skills on board, Tim Kreider, NYT author of “The ‘Busy’ Trap,” offers some hope that a balanced and relaxed schedule is attainable: “The present hysteria is not a necessary or inevitable condition of life; it’s something we’ve chosen, if only by our acquiescence to it.” By his logic, the “Busy Trap” is also something we, and our children, can un-choose, if only we have the skills to do it. Jon Jachimowicz agrees, saying that “[I]f being busy is merely a way of signaling high status to others or distinguishing oneself from lower social classes, this norm can be changed.”

businessbusyThe answers to this cultural problem of frantic motion, the ones Kreider and Jachimowicz seek, may be found in the umbrella term “executive function,” which is used to describe the management, regulation, or control of cognitive processes. These processes include working memory, reasoning, task flexibility, problem solving, planning and execution, which are all important skills involved in developing a successful and feasible schedule.

However, executive functions do not fully develop until your child is into their late twenties or early thirties, meaning that, as children grow, they present a wide variety of strengths and weaknesses in their executive function skill set. While some students may thrive on hectic schedules, others need downtime so as not to overwhelm their executive functions, emotional controls, and physical well-being. Regardless of the specific nature of your child’s needs, all children need help managing their schedules to best use their reasoning, flexibility, problem-solving, and other executive functions to make appropriate decisions about their weekly academics. To help your child create the best schedule for them, consider these tips and strategies:

Eight Ways to Balance Busy-ness:

  1. Assess both students’ and parents’ schedules: When you sit down to consider your child’s weekly activities, don’t just look at their schedule, look at your own schedule, too. Draw up weekly agendas side-by-side to truly see what is possible for both parent and child. When you plan together, you not only seize the opportunity to model executive function skills for your child, but also prevent your own calendar from becoming too overwhelmed.
  2. Use calendars to see a full week or month at a time when planning: Without a visual representation in front of them, children often have a hard time understanding how extensive their undertakings truly are. On a day-to-day basis, having one or two activities after-school doesn’t seem so bad to them. But–when your child has those same one or two activities every day of the week, and can see that clearly on a calendar, they may feel differently about their choices and decide to either drop or move an activity to another day.
  3. Remind your student how much time each individual activity takes: Students should consider not only the number of days they stack with activities, but also the number of hours they will spend at each activity. For example, while it is feasible to have one or two activities after school, if the first activity lasts three hours, and the second takes an hour and a half, chances are your child will have very little time for homework. But, viewing his schedule in terms of time lends your child the foresight to make thoughtful scheduling choices and still complete his homework.  
  4. Set priorities and ground rules ahead of time: A lot of families champion the rule, “School comes first.” However, students with too many extracurriculars often find it hard to adhere to that rule. So set house rules and priorities first, then plan a schedule that realistically follows the rules. Maybe, the rule is “One sports team per season,” or “Homework finished before practice or you have to skip that day.” Whatever the rule, stick to it and enforce it over weeks, months, and years to help your child build positive time-management habits.
  5. Create a predictable schedule, and show flexibility when plans change: The best way to prepare your child for a busy week is to keep their weekly schedule predictable. When your student knows what to expect, they can plan ahead for even the most hectic array of responsibilities. However, when plans change too frequently, your children cannot engage in the repetitive action that forms good scheduling habits. Even so, when plans unexpectedly change, demonstrate the know-how to flexibly adjust plans and help them rebound in the face of challenge.
  6. Allow your child to miss an activity now and again: It’s important to teach your child honor their commitments. But, when commitments become so overwhelming that they lead to burnout, it is just as important to show that activities can be dropped, or even skipped on a temporary basis, until your child feels ready to start again. Sure, they might lose their spot on the junior varsity track team, but they will learn an important lesson about managing their time to suit their abilities.
  7. Create family time and downtime in the weekly agenda: Make sure that, when creating the schedule, you deliberately include free time and time for family. Building in free time may be the only way your child gets a break sometimes.
  8. Know when to say no: If your child cannot make scheduling decisions on their own, know when to make the decisions for them to minimize their stress. Your child may initially be upset that they cannot participate in 6 AP courses, theater club, yearbook committee, field hockey, cheerleading, French club, AND play the clarinet, but they will see the reason behind your decision when they discover the relief of free time in their schedule later on.

Bruce Feiler, author of “The Secrets of Happy Families,” considers the issue of “The Overscheduled Child” from many angles, from quality of free time to quantity of scheduled time. He concludes that it’s great for children to be scheduled; they take many positive benefits away from their extracurricular activities when those activities are actively supervised by an adult. But, he also encourages a healthy amount of time each week dedicated to activities with no goal at all. Spend time day-dreaming, cooking an experimental new meal, or picking flowers in the backyard with your child. After all, parents have the most positive influence over their children’s schedules when they ensure that their children truly enjoy everything they do. When your children take a considered approach to their calendar, and love the activities they choose, suddenly, there is no such thing as being “too busy.”