Wisdom//

The Cult of ‘Busy’

It doesn’t have to be this way.


For more than a decade, every time I asked my husband about his workday, his response was “BUSY!”

Literally, every single time.

When I pointed out that his busyness made for boring conversation, he at least tried to mix it up with “We are really under the pump right now”, or “We’ve got a lot going on!” Pretty much all variations of the theme.

If you’ve ever tried catching up with friends and had to book a date four months away, you’ll know how out-of-control our schedules seem to be, and on social media there is always someone wanting to share just how crazy busy life is these days!

But are we really that busy?

There’s no doubt the digital age has dissolved many of the boundaries that once were naturally created by time and geography. Rather than clocking off at 5pm and going home to our sanctuary, we are now available 24/7 via a device small enough to carry around in our pockets. Work can, and will, encroach on your personal life if you let it. (If you’re self-employed or working from home, that’s a whole other boundary issue.)

If you’re a working parent, the challenge of juggling parenting, kids’ activities, work projects and maintaining a household is a constant source of tension. I say working ‘parent’ but I think for working mothers particularly, the notion of ‘having it all’ generally means doing it all.

We assume then, that busyness is a fact of modern life… but the question is:

Does it have to be?

Sure, we all experience times when everything seems to happen at once. The big work deadline, the family visit and the school play are all scheduled in the same week. The only thing you can do is knuckle down, get it done and look forward to some down time when it’s all over.

But I’m talking about the chronic busyness that seems to be the new hallmark of what it means to have a happy, successful life when it’s actually making us stressed and exhausted. The busyness that appears to be slightly compulsive, as if every moment must be filled with an activity for fear that if it’s not, your time is somehow being wasted.

I happen to think we do have a choice to slow down and be less busy, and that our health and wellbeing actually depends on it, but to do that, we need to consider what kinds of things might be driving that compulsive busyness in the first place.

  • For starters, staying endlessly busy means we don’t have time to engage in any kind of deep reflection or self-examination. If you’re slightly addicted to busyness, ask yourself what you might encounter if you slow down enough to pay attention to what is really going on in your life, your relationships, your level of personal fulfilment. What might you be running from?

In (the) long list of all the ways we can numb ourselves, there’s always staying busy: living so hard and fast that the truths of our lives can’t catch up with us.
– Brené Brown

  • Many of us feel pressure to excel in every area of life. If you’re striving to be the best worker, parent, sibling and friend you can be, while maintaining a gym-fit body and cooking organic meals from scratch, you may be burning yourself out trying to achieve an unrealistic ideal.

Contrary to popular belief, this kind of perfectionism is not so much driven by a desire to be your best self, but by a fear of never being good enough.

  • For some, being busy is a badge of honor worn with great pride as if it reflects their worth or productivity or importance. “I’m so CRAZY busy” they say, with the subtext being, “I’m worthwhile”, “I matter”.
  • Fear of Missing Out (FoMO) is a pervasive apprehension that other people are having a better time than you are and it’s not only limited to social media. FoMO causes people to say yes to every invitation or opportunity, even when they might be a whole lot happier having a quiet night in or a weekend of doing absolutely nothing. Beware the dreaded FoMO.

If you think you might tick any of those boxes or you just feel like your schedule is spiralling out of control, I have some suggestions for how you might scale back, slow down and escape the cult of busy:

1. Pay attention to the urge to fill every moment with activity.

Bring a gentle curiosity (non-judgemental and non-defensive) to what might be driving you to keep moving and doing. Does being still make you a bit anxious? What’s going on there?

2. Track your output.

Multi-tasking (that thing you think you’re doing when you’re busy) is highly inefficient. If you assume busyness equates to productivity, try using an app such as ‘RescueTime to monitor how you’re spending your online time or ‘’IDoneThis to measure actual outcomes. Better still, practise mono-tasking (doing one thing at a time) and notice how much more settled your mind is and productive your day is.

3. Get clear about what truly matters.

Rather than saying “I’m too busy”, Laura Vanderkam, author of “168 Hours”, suggests you say instead, “It’s not a priority for me”. It may be painless enough when you’re skipping a boring work meeting but feel the difference when you apply it to your child’s sporting event or an overdue medical check-up. Start noticing how your busyness might be getting in the way of what’s important.

4. Then learn to say no.

When you know what’s most important in life, it’s up to you to ruthlessly prioritise those things above everything else. Learn to decline invitations without needing to justify your reasons, whether it’s to make up numbers at a container party or sit on a committee that doesn’t interest you. I highly recommend the book “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less” by Greg McKeown.

5. Remember that perfect is the enemy of good.

Practise lowering those all-too-high standards and accept that ‘good enough’ makes for a full, balanced, healthy life minus the stress of perfectionism.

Most importantly, when someone asks how you are, try to catch yourself before you trot out the default response of “I’m SO busy!” Pause, take a breath, and engage in a conversation. Better still, make plans to catch up for a coffee so you can both take a break from your busy lives.

Originally published at medium.com

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