December 30, 1996 in Features

Feeling Weary New Strain Of Fatigue Is Bringing Us Down And We Have Ourselves To Blame For It

Susan Reimer The Baltimore Sun
 

We’re exhausted.

We’re beat, bushed, bone-tired, dead on our feet. We’re stressed-out, burned-out, blind with fatigue. We didn’t sleep at all last night, we haven’t slept in a week. We’re running ourselves ragged. We’re run down. We’re overrun.

We are exhausted - and we are the reason.

Even the activities we do not do haunt us, weary us. They are out there, a constant reminder of what we are not getting done.

And this is the way we want it to be. We are exhausted because we choose to be.

The people who spend their lives studying ours call it “overchoice.”

“There are so many things out there to do,” explains University of Maryland time guru John P. Robinson. “There is this feeling that you can’t fit them all in.”

But we try. After all, if we are busy, we must be necessary. If we don’t do it, it won’t get done. We are what we do. Therefore, the more we do, the more we are.

And it’s exhausting.

Robinson is director of the Americans’ Use of Time Project, and for 30 years he has asked thousands of people to keep a one-day log of exactly what they do and how much time they spend doing it.

What he found is that we are sleeping more than we think we are and we have more leisure time than ever. But we still report feeling stressed, rushed, crunched for time.

“It is perceptual,” says Robinson. “It is mental. But mental things are real.”

Robinson attributes this vibrating sense of urgency in us to what he calls “overchoice.” The sheer number of options available to fill our time is overwhelming to us, whether we actually choose to do them or not.

“Television is an example,” he says. “If you choose one channel, there are still 75 chances that you are missing something.”

Geoffrey Godbey, a professor of leisure studies at Penn State University and Robinson’s co-author on a new book, “Time for Life,” says that Americans have responded to the multiplying choices around them with what he calls “time-deepening.”

Often, people speed up a given activity. “We have gone from leisurely prepared meals to fast food to drive-through windows to Sustacal,” Godbey says. This is true even in the bedroom. Godbey says Americans spend about the same amount of time making love, but they jump into bed with each other much more quickly.

Time-deepening also means substituting an activity that takes less time - the Stairmaster for a game of tennis. Or doing more than one thing at once - folding the wash while watching the news. And time-deepening also means Americans do things with more temporal precision - Godbey’s classes at Penn State now begin at exactly 2:25 p.m.

“This time-deepening will occur in every area of life,” he says. “People who are rushed at work don’t suddenly become tranquil and oblivious to time when they are at leisure. A significant number of our respondents report their leisure activities make them feel rushed.

“Feeling rushed and feeling stressed are related,” Godbey says. “People who feel stressed feel more tired.”

This is not the kind of aching weariness that comes from a game of pickup basketball or even from shoveling snow. We are laid low by a powerful new strain of fatigue that cannot be cured by sleeping in on Saturday morning, one that is resistant to a Sunday afternoon nap.

Kathy Gioffre, a state budget analyst and car-pooling mother of four, describes it as “the moment when I realize I don’t have a problem to solve, so I lay down on the bed and stare at the wall. I feel physically heavy, like I don’t want to move.”

A good night’s sleep doesn’t seem to help. In fact, the experts say most Americans are getting as much sleep today as they did 10, 20 and 30 years ago — just about eight hours. But when we live the other 16 at double speed, we still feel worn out.

Gioffre has four kids in three different schools and 13 different sports. She doesn’t have a life - she has a timetable.

“I am up by 5:15 and out of the bathroom by 5:30,” she says.

While gently pushing her children out the door at different times, she folds a load of wash, empties the dishwasher and makes three or four beds before leaving at 7 a.m. for her job at the state Department of Budget and Management in Annapolis, Md.

Her youngest walks to her office after school and they head home, where one or more of her children is waiting to practice or play some sport. At least one of those sports is coached by her husband, Tony, who works for the state Department of Transportation.

“I am in charge of logistics,” Gioffre says. “I handle the carpools and I make sure everybody is where they are supposed to be.”

Dinner is catch-as-catch-can, unless Tony cooks. After supper is what she calls “dead time.” No phone, no radio, no TV.

“That’s when I supervise homework. Do you have any? Where is it? Have you done it? Is it acceptable?

“I don’t think anyone but another parent understands how exhausting that is.”

Her day is punctuated by loads of wash. Time with her husband is the ride to the doughnut shop and back on a weekend morning. She says she is too busy to be aware that she has no time for herself.

She doesn’t know how she got to this point. But she says she wouldn’t change anything about her life.

“Make any other choices?” she muses as she watches 12-year-old David race up and down the soccer field. “No. Not really. I don’t think I would.

“But you are asking me on a good day.”


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