America: Land of the free. Home of the brave. Province of the perpetually stressed out. Not exactly the future the Founding Fathers planned for their national progeny, but it certainly seems to be the fate the American populace has made for itself. 

By any number of accounts — the Bureau of Labor Statistics, headlines about 100-hour workweeks in Business Daily, the ever-rising revenues of fast food chains — a good many of us are (or at least feel like we are) overworked and overwrought. Rushing and racing through our days, we field conference calls while driving carpool, text our spouses while standing in line at the grocery store and work for no more than three minutes on any given task at the office before a phone call, email or co-worker interrupts us.  

Barely finding the time to sit down and eat, let alone pray, exercise and spend leisurely evenings in the company of family and friends, many of us feel like we’re sacrificing the most important things in life on the altar of perpetual busyness. And many of us are.  

Need to de-stress 

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Life in 21st-century America doesn’t have to be a wild ride on a Blackberry-powered roller coaster. Nor should it be. 

Marshall Cook, author of “Time Management: A Catholic Approach” (Pauline, $12.95), said an enterprising researcher who devoted a few months of his life to stressing out a group of mice discovered that after prolonged periods of stress, little mice hearts stop beating. When the researcher investigated the cause of their death, he found that his lab subjects suffered from some very human afflictions: hardening of the arteries, heart attacks and strokes. 

The lesson behind Cook’s tale is not just that if we don’t get our schedules and stress levels under control we’ll end up like a bunch of stressed-out mice in need of quadruple bypasses. It’s also that if we don’t get our schedules and stress levels under control, our marriages, families, careers and souls will likewise end up in need of quadruple bypasses. 

“If we want to lead happy and holy lives, we’ve got to break the stress cycle and live our lives according to what really matters to us,” Cook said. 

Eliminating distractions 

So, how exactly do we do that? How do we more effectively manage our time so that we can hop off the roller coaster of 70-hour workweeks, fast-food dining and soccer-practice shuttle service? 

We start by getting a handle on how we’re spending the 168 hours God gives us each week. 

In her book, “168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think” (Portfolio, $25.95), Laura Vanderkam recounts the results of the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey and other studies. Those results reveal a sharp disparity between how people say they spend their time and how they actually spend it. For example, although many tell researchers they sleep a mere six hours a night, time logs reveal that the average American actually sleeps eight. Similarly, those who claimed to work more than 75 hours a week, in reality only logged 55 hours on the job. 

Vanderkam posits that the disparity stems partly from the intermingling of secondary activities with primary ones — we count time spent chatting around the water cooler as work when it’s not — and partly from perception — we feel exhausted or overworked so we think we’re sleeping less or working more than we actually are. 

The reason for that perception, Vanderkam told Our Sunday Visitor, is what she terms “death by a thousand distractions.” 

“We live in a distracted world,” she explained. “We let things like email, phone calls, social media, errands and housekeeping expand to fill the available space. And we end up exhausting ourselves with things that don’t matter.” 

To determine the extent to which we’re letting our lives be taken over by unimportant busyness, Vanderkam recommends spending a week keeping our own time diary — a detailed account of how we spend every minute of every day. 

Not only can such diaries help us identify the source of our busyness, but they also can help us determine the extent to which our priorities are reflected in our schedules.

Setting priorities 

Which brings us to the second essential component of effective time management: Setting right and clear priorities … and scheduling accordingly. 

“The real key to time management is to live your life according to your values,” said Cook. “If it’s important to you, you’ve got to give it some of your life.” 

“There are some things we do better than anyone else,” seconded Vanderkam. “Nurturing our careers, our marriages and our children. The things that are the most important and that only we can do, that’s where we need to focus our time and energy. Everything else should fill in around those activities.” 

The problem with that, of course, is that many of us aren’t clear in our own minds about what is and is not important. Case in point? The way we approach work and finances. 

On one level, some of us have confused our obligation to provide for our families and ourselves with the cultural quest for material prosperity. 

“As a culture, we’re spending too much money,” said David Chodorowski, president and co-founder of Conversion Consulting. “We’ve made keeping up with the Joneses a primary goal, but we forget that time and money are linked. The more we spend, the more we need to work, and the less time we have for what really matters.” 

In his work as a life coach, one of the first things Chodorowski recommends clients do is rethink what they need to be happy, then get their spending under control and pay down their debt.  

“Personal debt — especially credit card debt — is bondage,” he said. “It doesn’t allow you to do the things you want to do. Not being in debt brings tremendous freedom. Take care of the money piece, and you have more time.” 

Another common point of confusion is equating working hard and working well with working a lot. 

“We often think being a good employee means being the last one to leave the office every night,” Cook said. “But productivity actually goes down when we overschedule and serially multitask. Both are a horrible sham that keep us on a never-ending treadmill.” 

Family first 

Confused priorities also clog up our schedules at home. 

According to Holly Pierlot, home-schooling mother of five and author of “The Mother’s Rule of Life” (Sophia, $14.95), many families have found their lives taken over by soccer games and ballet lessons because they’ve confused what the culture says is best for their children with what is ultimately best for them. 

“There’s nothing wrong with moderate involvement in sports and clubs,” she said. “But these things cannot validly occur if there’s not time left in the child’s life for those essentials which foster human growth — daily prayer, informal talk about God, life and our purpose, virtue tales and hero and saint stories, cuddle time, and quiet time.” 

The same rules apply to mom and dad’s schedules. 

“We have to ask what is best for the family unit, not just one person,” said Chodorowski. “If mom is spending every afternoon driving everyone to swimming and soccer, that’s not good for the family. If dad is working late every night, that’s not good for the family.” 

To counter the cultural habit of overscheduling, Pierlot recommends against considering any outside activities “a given around which the rest of the family life is to be organized,” and instead placing them “after the conscious making room for the relationships in one’s family.” 

That is essentially what Chodorowski and his wife have done in order to maintain the balance between running their own business and fostering their family life. Each week, the couple sits down and blocks out their schedule on an Excel spreadsheet. The most important items — family dinner and family prayers, putting the children to bed, soccer games and Mass — go onto the schedule first. Everything else gets filled in around that. 

“My job supports my family; my family doesn’t support my job,” Chodorowski told OSV. “Time-slotting is a great way to make sure you’re giving your time to what’s most important to you. When you log it, you can live it.” 

Need for boundaries 

Living it, however, is exactly where it gets sticky for us mere mortals. Which is why learning how to set boundaries and cultivating the practice of discipline are as important to effective time management as establishing right priorities.  

When it comes to boundaries on the job, Vanderkam recommends setting a limit on how many hours we’ll work each week. In her research, she discovered that people who did that actually became more productive during the day, not less. 

“Committing to leave at a certain time made them more focused and kept them from getting distracted,” she explained. “It made them more efficient.” 

Cook also stressed the importance of learning to say “no” without feeling the need to tack on an explanation. 

“If you say ‘no’ and you give a reason, you invite debate,” he said. 

That rule, however, doesn’t necessarily apply to conversations with your wife or your boss. With them, Cook recommends strategizing about how to spend your time. 

“Explain what’s on your plate and talk with them about what you should be doing first,” he suggested. 

Still, for many of us, saying “no” is rarely easy. Nor is limiting our time on Facebook, starting a project when we say we’ll start it or stopping work when we say we’ll stop. Likewise, getting up when our alarm goes off, staying focused on a project while co-workers gossip and simply not answering the phone every time it rings can require an almost heroic amount of discipline. That discipline generally comes only with time and practice. The more we do it, the easier it gets. 

Then, of course, there’s prayer. 

“We’re called to follow God’s will, God’s plan,” said Chodorowski. “But when we don’t ask him what that is or ask him for help in carrying that out, we run into problems. On the other hand, when we clean our slate, and ask him, ‘What do you have for me in the next hour, day, or week?’ we might be surprised by how much more effectively our time is ordered.” 

He continued: “Scripture says that without him we can do nothing. If we really believe that, we need to recognize that in how we plan our days.” 

In the end, however, prayer and an orientation toward God as we arrange our schedules aren’t just important because they give us the discipline we need to live sane, balanced lives, free from unnecessary busyness and chaos. They, in fact, remind us of the purpose behind the hours we’ve been given. 

“We live a vocation,” said Pierlot. “And that is a mission to find and love God in our daily lives.” 

The more we understand that, she continued, and the more we understand just how important that mission is, the more our lives will reflect that understanding and not the habits of a chaotic, time-crunched culture. 

“For we don’t commit to what we don’t find important,” she concluded. 

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.

To read more from this week's In Focus section "Putting prayer first in the midst of busy lives"