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Escaping the Cult of Busy

stop the glorification of busy

For more than a decade, every time I asked my husband about his workday, his response has been “We are SO busy!”
To his credit, when I pointed out that his busyness made for BORING conversation, he at least tried to apply some creativity by mixing it up with “We are really under the pump right now”, or “We’ve got a LOT going on”.

Pretty much all variations of ‘busy’.

Similarly, friends will lament that there is never enough time, and even on social media, there seems to always be someone wanting to share just how crazy busy life is these days. 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!

Are we really that busy? And more to the point, should we be slowing down?!

There’s no doubt the digital era has dissolved many of the boundaries that once were 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 we 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 ‘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?

No doubt we all experience times in our life 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 never gives you a break. I’ve come to think there are a few reasons we might unconsciously be choosing unrelenting busyness over the option of a more leisurely-paced lifestyle.

  • Many people feel pressure to excel in every area of life. This kind of perfectionism is unachievable and, contrary to popular belief, 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 honour worn with great pride as if it reflects productivity or importance. “I’m so CRAZY busy”, they say – hoping to transmit the message, “I’m worthwhile” or “I matter.”
  • Avoidance. Staying endlessly busy means we don’t have time to engage in any kind of deep reflection or self-examination. If you’re a bit addicted to busyness (a blank page in your diary causes you to break out in hives), 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.
  • Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) is a pervasive apprehension that other people are having a better time than you are. FOMO causes people to want 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.

In this 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

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

  • 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?
  • Track your output. Multi-tasking (that thing you think you’re doing when you’re busy) is actually 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.
  • Change your language. Instead of offering “I’m too busy” as an explanation for not doing something, Laura Vanderkam (author of “168 Hours”) suggests you say instead “It’s not a priority”. You might find this a painless enough substitute 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 checkup. Then it becomes a question of values, and your behaviour might not be aligned with what you SAY is most important to you.
  • Learn to say no. A simple no, that is, without a long-winded explanation or apology. Get clear about what truly matters to you and make time for those things above everything else. I highly recommend the book “Essentialism” by Greg McKeown on this topic. In fact I enjoyed that book so much I wrote a whole blog post about it HERE.
  • 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 (which I also wrote about HERE).

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.

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Cass Dun clinical psychologist
Hi, I’m Cass.

I'm here to help you find freedom from psychological struggles so that you can live your happiest, most meaningful and fulfilling life.

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