We’ve heard it all before. We wear busyness like a badge of honour and we shouldn’t.
Plenty of articles tell us how detrimental it is to our health and relationships. Come on, the message goes, isn’t it time you stopped this self-destructive obsession with busyness?
I’d be the first to wish for a world of balance and fulfilment where none of us feel too busy (unless we really love it). But it’s a tricky one. There are many versions of busy. And a multitude of reasons for that busyness.
Busyness isn’t just a philosophical debate. For some it’s the daily grind. If you’re a single parent, working two jobs, then life will be busy and choices limited.
But what when we do have a little wiggle-room? Do we wear our busyness like a badge of honour? And why would we choose busyness in the first place if it’s so detrimental?
Busyness can be a form of procrastination. We sometimes keep busy with all manner of activities to avoid a particular task that needs tackling – something we don’t want to start. Or something we don’t want to finish.
It can mask an anxiety that we’re living the wrong life – with no idea of how or what to change. Feeling trapped or miserable can be overwhelming if we don’t feel empowered to make changes. A natural reaction can be to hide away from it. Pretend our problems don’t exist. Distract ourselves with ludicrous busyness.
I have also definitely known unhappy couples who keep busy to avoid talking about their feelings for one another. They intuitively sense that if they slow down and take time out they’ll be forced to address their discontent.
The same principle applies to any number of feelings and emotions and situations. I’ve done plenty of obsessive cleaning to mask my emotions. It can be far from apparent at the time, and blatantly obvious once we’ve made the connection.
It’s certainly true that plenty of us experience a work culture wrung through with overwork – long hours presented as the norm. It’s a modern curse. We feel pressured to prove our worthiness by working as long and as hard as everybody else.
For those who worry about their credibility, suffering from imposter syndrome, there can be a tendency to fall into busyness as an antidote – if we make a good show of busyness then at least no one can accuse us of not trying hard enough. Ten out of ten for effort, if nothing else.
Like with procrastination, this kind of busyness is motivated by fear. We’re not happy in these situations and we certainly aren’t proud. Sure, we might talk a lot about our busyness, seemingly wearing it like a badge of honour, but we’re just as likely to have our heads in the sand. Or be embarrassed and apologetic. Or just bewildered.
Pursuing our dreams
Perhaps we’re writing a novel or setting up a business or doing our umpteenth sketch of a five-breasted Minotaur. Whether it’s a creative pursuit or some other kind of goal, being busy working towards something that’s important to us is a good thing. Isn’t it?
I was at a meditation workshop about a decade ago and a woman said she was there to learn how to be less busy. The facilitator, curious, asked why being busy was problematic for her. She seemed taken-aback and replied ‘well, it just is isn’t it?’
Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. How we feel about being busy might well be a problem. But busyness itself isn’t problematic as long as we’re busy with consciously chosen activities that make us happy.
We can be busy and have a life that is balanced and fulfilling. We can be busy and at the same time there for our loved ones and friends. It’s not always easy, but it’s not impossible either.
Getting good at busy
Something interesting happens when we’re clear about our goals and values. We become highly invested in finding time for these personally meaningful activities. This forces us to let go of the stuff that matters less. We begin to prioritise certain activities, and sacrifice others.
Over the last few years I’ve scaled back on the obsessive tidying (I probably still give too much time to this poisoned chalice). I’ve given up watching so much TV. And let go of socialising motivated by a fear of missing out, rather than a genuine sense of nourishment.
I’ve found the courage to relinquish these habits (comforts!) because I’ve connected very consciously with my ambitions. I really want to be a published novelist and it just takes so much time. I could work myself into the ground being incredibly busy and exhausted. Or I can choose to be busy with the stuff that matters and give up the stuff that doesn’t.
Of course, I’m not alone in streamlining life in favour of specific, chosen activities. Most serious writers will know that sacrificing certain activities, including certain relationships, is inevitable. Writing is a lonely endeavour – it has to be, to get the words on the page in significant enough numbers for them to matter. As Rebecca Solnit says ‘don’t be too social.’ You can’t afford to be.
Perhaps that sounds callous to the untrained ear. But anyone who’s been writing with intent, for any length of time, will know its truth. Got kids at home? Have to work for a living? Then deepen that truth a little more.
Naturally, writers still have friends. But they choose them carefully and make time with them count.
Writers have to learn to say no to invitations, suggestions, requests. But don’t we all if we want a balanced, fulfilling life?
If we’re brilliant at busy, can’t we have it all?
No. We can’t. Not me. Not you. Not anyone.
We can’t have unlimited friendships. Or do everything it’s possible for us to do. We have to make choices. We have to know what we want. And we have to say no to the other stuff.
This has always been the case, but as the world opens up, with all its amazing possibilities, this is true more than ever.
The risk if we’re not careful (conscious, mindful, aware of our dreams and values) is that we end up running around chasing the next enticing distraction or ‘connection’, exhausting ourselves and failing to truly connect with anything or anyone that matters to us. This is no better than procrastinating and hiding behind busyness out of fear. It is just as unhelpful as passively perpetuating a work culture where everyone works more than is reasonable.
Perhaps it is somewhere in this messiness that we get tempted to assign false virtue to our busyness. Perhaps, lacking any true connection, we feel the need to create meaning or purpose out of chaos. We search for something in our exhaustion that makes it all feel worthwhile.
If that’s the case for you then I challenge you to:
Stop right now and think about it!
What stops you slowing down? What does your busyness cost you on a daily basis? What will you sacrifice long term if you carry on being so incessantly busy? How would you rather things be?
The trick here is to know what you care about. Make the effort to work out what you want in life. If you don’t feel confident to work it through on your own then you could work with a coach for a few sessions.
Are you living the life you want to be living? Are you pursuing goals and activities that mean something to you? Are you excited about them? Do you lose track of time when engrossed in them? Do you balance these value-driven activities with spending time with the people you love? Do you look forward to going to work? Do you look forward to coming home?
Whether we answer yes, or no, makes a huge difference to how we’ll experience busyness when it descends in all its glory. If we’re busy, but answering yes, then it’s more likely we’ll be thriving in our busy life. If we’re answering no, then constant busyness may well push us to the limits of coping – and beyond.
How we experience busyness is important
So busyness itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But how we’re being busy, and how we feel about it certainly can be.
It’s worth noting that even if life is full with all the things that matter we could still end up feeling stressed by the pace of it all. It’s a personal balance, and not easy to get right. It takes practice. Patience. Diligence. Experimentation. And it’s totally okay to choose not to be busy.
I’ll say that again. It’s totally okay to choose not to be busy. Spare hours stretching ahead. Moments of boredom. Days that allow for spontaneity. Choice is key here. Conscious choice.
I’d love to know what you think. How do you get the balance right?