Are You Too Busy To Have a Life?

How to make sure that the way you invest your time pays off

Posted Jun 08, 2013

When I ask people in passing how things are going, the most consistent answer I get back is that they’re busy. On the one hand, this is no surprise: everyone has to be doing something every minute of every day. On the other hand, I take this statement somehow to mean that they’re merely busy, as if all the hustle and bustle isn’t adding up.

So what are we doing with our time? Some years ago, the Bureau of Labor Statistics published the results of its survey of how Americans use their time. Over the course of a year, 21,000 Americans kept diaries of exactly what they did during each 24-hour period.

During the average 24-hour day, each of us spends eight and a half hours sleeping, about an hour and fifteen minutes eating, and about 30 minutes participating in sports, exercise, and recreation. But who knew that the average American on the average day spends only 3.3 hours working for pay? Granted, some people aren’t paid for their work, and on the days when people do work for pay, they work an average of 7.9 hours.

Even so, when all the working hours put in by all Americans age 15 and older are spread out evenly over all the days of the year, we spend an average of only 3.3 hours out of every 24 working. Contrast that with the 2.6 hours we spend watching television each day. Put differently, the average American on the average day spends only 20% more time working than watching television.

On average, we spend about as much time shopping each day as we do communicating and socializing—about 45 minutes each. The average American also spends twelve minutes a day mowing the lawn and tending the garden, and only eight minutes a day in religious and spiritual activities. In other words, Americans on average spend fifty percent more time cutting the grass than they do cultivating their souls.

As I looked over the results of the survey, the question that came to mind was this: what’s the point of all this activity? What’s the underlying purpose of it all? What do all the hours of sleep, and work, and television watching, and lawn mowing, and spiritual practice add up to?

The obvious answer is that they add up to a life—a sobering thought. But surely the point of living these hours is not simply to get through them. I’ve never heard anyone say, “My goal is to get my hours in early so I reach the end of my life more rapidly.”

Nor is any one activity the purpose of life as a whole. The goal of life is not to arrange our schedules so we can sleep all the time, or work all the time, or mow lawn all the time, or shop all the time. Admittedly, most of us could do with more of some activities and less of others. But the key to life isn’t only getting the mix of hours and activities right. The difference between people who accomplish a lot in life and those who accomplish only a little is not that they spend their time in completely different ways. For the most part, they do more or less the same things. The difference is that they do them for different reasons. The same basic ingredients yield different outcomes.

So why do you do all the things you do each day? My own sense is that our lives are often so demanding that we seldom pause to ask this question. But what would the answer be if we did? Unless each activity we participate in purposefully moves us toward a larger goal, we’ll never get anywhere. Studies consistently show that people who understand their lives in terms of some comprehensive aspiration feel happier and more fulfilled.

However you understand your purpose in life, I’ve learned that it should have two characteristics. The first is that it should be your own purpose, one that gives you as an individual a sense of mastery and meaning. Howard Thurman, the early-20th century civil rights leader, once said: “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs, ask yourself what makes you come alive, and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” Whatever you do with the hours you’ve been given each day, and wherever you set your sights over the long arc of your life, you need to give yourself a chance to come alive.

The second characteristic of your sense of purpose is that it should not be mainly about you. Your larger purpose will not be primarily to boost your career or ensure your success or maximize your happiness. The novelist Frederick Buechner says that you are called “to the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep need meet.”

What makes you come alive? Where does your aliveness meet the need of the people and the world around you? With the answers to those two questions in mind, you can organize your day in a way that gives you a feeling of happiness and gives everyone else a sense of hope. You won’t be merely busy; you’ll be actively making the kind of difference you want to make.