Busy. It’s a common word.
“Sorry I can’t come. I’m too busy.”
“Things are so busy right now! I wish they’d slow down.”
“We’re just really busy right.”
We nod at each other sympathetically, knowing what “busy” feels like. Yes, we know what it’s like climbing the corporate ladder, or starting a family, or running our kids to various activities, or pursuing our dream careers. If we didn’t feel busy, wouldn’t we be doing something wrong?
It’s not our fault. We’ve been fed ideas that busyness equates productivity, engagement, success, status, even happiness. But in reality, “busy” doesn’t bring us these things. When we find ourselves spinning, unable to sleep because we’re running through tomorrow’s to-do list, all of the things we’d hoped to achieve by being busy start slipping away.
This is what busyness really feels like. This is the myth we’ve all been living. The good news is, it doesn’t have to be this way. It will take some courage, and some serious reflection, but there is a way out of the trap of busy.
How Busy Brings Us Down
Multi-tasking, Burnout, and Distraction
Even though science has proven multi-tasking isn’t actually a thing (our brains can’t do two things at once; it switches rapidly between the two tasks), and it’s certainly not something we should try and accomplish, we still admire having a lot on our plates, just as we admire long hours, crunching under deadlines, and making it all look easy.
Well, maybe we don’t always admire these things, but we feel weak if we can’t keep up with the pace. It seems like everyone has it together and can manage it all at once. Why can’t we?
Comparing ourselves to one another might be one of the main culprits of our over-committed lives. We judge ourselves again other people’s facades, when in reality, everyone else might be buckling under the pressure, just like us. If we aren’t honest with ourselves, confronting the busyness we’ve created, it might get worse. (1)
Chronic stressors that accumulate over time cause burnout (2). Once burnout sets in – whether it’s initiated by stressors at work, home, or both – it infiltrates all areas of our lives. We might not even know we’re burnt out, because our first line of defense is to find a coping mechanism (3); we might complain about the system at work, try and distract ourselves, or disengage from the areas causing us stress.
As one would expect, these strategies don’t improve our situation. If anything, they exacerbate our unhappiness. So if the things we once thought would bring us happiness and status really causes dis-ease, how might we do things differently?
My husband’s theme for the year is, “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.” When we’re busy, we put a lot of emphasis on getting things done quickly. Even the start of our day is a rush – get showered, dressed, get the kids ready, get out the door, and maybe remember to grab something quick for breakfast to go with our Keurig coffee.
It might seem contrarian, but what if we focused our productivity on effectiveness instead of efficiency (4)? The faster we move, the more likely we are to make mistakes and have to do something over, and the less likely we are to be our best selves, whether at work or at home.
If we adopt the idea that “slow is smooth, smooth is fast,” we give ourselves a little more breathing room, and we’re more likely to be effective, because we’re in the present moment, not split between multiple thoughts or tasks. Just by approaching our current day a little differently, “busy” might ease, making room for clearer thoughts and actions.
The Power of “No”
It’s the Gateway to “Yes”
Let’s face it: we create our own busyness. We agree to far too many things because, well, we want to help others out, or we think it won’t be a big deal. If you were to write down all your responsibilities, how many of them would be things you aren’t actually passionate about?
Part of freeing ourselves from the trap of busy is getting serious about protecting our time so that we can do the things we actually want to do. This might be saying “no” to certain projects, social engagements, kids’ activities, even vacations.
Anything that starts to feel like a burden and is pulling you away from the things you truly care about has to go. It might feel uncomfortable at first, saying, “no.” You might worry that people won’t invite you to future engagements. But remember: the more things you take on, the less space you’ll have in your life to say “YES!” when it truly counts.
With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility
I feel like a bit of a broken record harping on about technology, but this is a struggle I have every day, and I don’t think I’m alone. We’ve become slaves to technology. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad, sometimes it’s neutral. Regardless, we need to recognize the fact that it’s become so easy to waste time engaging mindlessly with technology. So really, we have no excuse to be “too busy” for something until we look at this relationship.
Author, blogger, and entrepreneur, Seth Godin, says to anyone who claims they don’t have enough time to write that he simply doesn’t believe them. “Come to me after you stop watching TV or the internet,” he says. “If you’re not doing those things, I’m willing to listen to the fact that you don’t have time. Everybody has time to speak. Everybody has time to talk about how their day went – so if you write like you talk, all you have to do is write down that thing you said. It literally can take 90 seconds if you want it to.” (5)
By changing our relationship with technology, we inherently free up time for things we really want to do. Moreover, we can cut the habit of being stimulated all the time and simply be. We are, after all, human beings, not human doings. What if we kicked our social media addictions and focused instead on being in the present moment with the people and things we care about most?
Seen this way, busyness and distraction are merely habits we’ve shaped through our behaviors. The might not be easy habits to break, but they’re certainly within our control.
Busyness is a reactive state. It’s a state of putting out fires, of responding to emails, of “just getting by.” Busy is not a state that inspires creativity. Creativity is born from quiet moments, from noticing what’s around us, allowing different thoughts and experiences to bridge together in entirely new ways.
This can also be thought of as “flow,” a time when our inner critic falls away and we’re in the zone, unaware of time, fully consumed in what we’re doing. Creating space for flow– not running around, reacting to the world – not only provides the opportunity for unique problem solving, but it floods our bodies with pleasure-inducing neurochemicals. In a sense, we feel rewarded and rejuvenated by spending time in flow. Even better, it enhances our performance, making us more effective and more efficient.
Creating a “Not-To-Do” list and Changing our Language
A main component of learning to say “no,” of becoming more effective, of changing our relationship with technology, of making time for inspiration, is simply reprioritizing our lives.
It’s easy to be busy. Not only are we encouraged to be busy, but it’s expected of us. What would it really look if we reprioritized our lives so “being busy” was nowhere to be found on the “to-do” list?
One way to accomplish this is by creating a “not-to-do” list. Make a list of all the things you won’t do. Maybe you won’t check email on weekends. Add an automated response so people know you’re unavailable. Maybe you won’t run errands any day other than Monday. Batch your errands together so you aren’t making multiple trips to the store throughout the week. Maybe you can’t take on any new commitments else unless you drop a current one.
Creating a “not-to-do” list is liberating. Sometimes we need permission to change our current lifestyles. Your “not-to-do” list can serve as that hard line: this is something I’m not willing to do, because I know it will be a part of the accumulating “to-do” list that leads to busyness.
And lastly, there’s a lot to be said for the power of language. Even saying, “I’m busy” has a closed-off feel. It’s a downer. What if, as a family, you changed the terminology to something else? “Busy” now becomes “energized” or “excited.” Choose the things you want to do over the things you think you should do, and now, instead of being busy, you’re excited by all that’s going on. And all that’s not going on!
Only you can know what the trap of busy feels like in your own life. Don’t waste time comparing yourself to what others are able to accomplish, feeling like, “If they can do it, why can’t I?” We’re all unique, and you’re threshold of busy will differ from everyone else’s.
I can’t tell you what busy looks like is your life, but I can tell you this: choosing to step outside the trap of busy won’t only improve your own life, but it will set the example for everyone around you – an example that is so needed in our modern day world – that life is far to precious to be spent drowning in “busy.”
(Read this next: 4 Key Elements of Friendships That Inspire)