Whenever I make phone calls or send off e-mails to family members and friends to touch base and inquire about their well-being, the answers are almost always the same: "busy," "crazy busy," "insanely busy," "busy, busy, busy." I know full well that I'm expected to respond with something like "that's good," or "that's a good problem to have." Being able to say that there is plenty going on in our lives, even if it drives us nuts, is almost considered an asset in our culture, although it's made to sound more like a burden.
The holiday season may be an especially challenging time when we try to get many extra chores squared away in addition to our already overloaded schedules. But, let's face it, being swamped with work and activities has become a way of life for many of us all year round. It is so much part of us, it would be hard to get off the treadmill, even if we tried.
"Without intending for it to happen or knowing how it got started, many people now find that they live in a rush they don't want and didn't create, or at least didn't mean to create," says Dr. Edward Hallowell, a psychiatrist specializing in the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and author of "Crazy Busy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap! Strategies for Handling Your Fast-Paced Life" (Ballantine Books, 2006).
While being active and engaged can be a positive experience, losing sight of what we want and what's important to us should not be the outcome. "Being too busy [...] can become a habit so entrenched that it leads you to postpone or cut short what really matters to you, making you a slave to a lifestyle you don't like but can't escape," says Dr. Hallowell.
Much of today's hurry, bustle and agitation has been created, or at least accelerated, by the arrival of communication technologies allowing us to stay connected with the outside world at all times. We have even adopted a term that originated in the computer industry to describe our responses to our many pressing demands: "multitasking," says Christine Rosen, editor at The New Atlantis who writes about the social and cultural impact of technology. "Used for decades to describe the parallel processing abilities of computers, multitasking is now shorthand for the human attempt to do simultaneously as many things as possible, as quickly as possible, preferably marshalling the power of as many technologies as possible," she says.
In recent years, scientists have begun to pay more attention to potentially adverse effects of the multitasking phenomenon on people's health, not only in terms of stress management but also with regards to mental health. When neurologists studied brain functions through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, they were able to observe the inner workings of multitasking as blood flowed to different brain regions whenever test participants shifted their focus.
Multitasking, or task-switching, as the process is sometimes called, requires time and energy, and if too much of it is required at any given time, a "bottleneck" effect may occur while the brain struggles to respond simultaneously to several stimuli, according to research conducted by Dr. René Marois, professor at the Department of Psychology at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee. The reason is that the human brain can only focus sequentially, not simultaneously, on different tasks at hand. It must disengage from one before engaging in another. This limits it to a finite amount of goals it can pursue before its capacity maxes out.
"For example, someone who is writing a report might be able to take on a second task, like checking e-mail, without losing their train of thought. But if that e-mail asked for a decision about something, that would amount to a third task, and the brain would be overwhelmed," he said in an interview with National Public Radio (NPR) about his findings.
Yet, many of us, especially when we are good at it, take pride in our ability to get lots of stuff done within a short period of time, and find it very rewarding. The question is, at what price?
Besides giving us toxic stress, making us sick, causing accidents and errors and turning us into rude and irritable people, the greatest damage from being too busy is that it prevents us from controlling our own lives," says Dr. Hallowell.
Chronically overworked and overtired, we often don't have enough energy left for doing the things we really want, such as spending more quality time alone or with loved ones. It doesn't have to be this way. We can question our behavior from time to time in terms of what we want to achieve and how important our goals really are to us. The holiday season can be a good opportunity to re-examine our priorities.
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