Ask people how they have been and almost everyone will have the same answer – busy. It’s extremely socially acceptable to be busy. Detail how much you have done, how little you have slept and your inability to find a moment to scratch yourself, and people will instantly offer you empathy and respectful nods… before detailing their own busyness in a weirdly competitive busy-off. “I see your 60-hour work week and house renovations, and I raise you a university exam, an escaped pet snake and a birthday party with 25 kids.”
Busyness has become a badge of honour. We have bought in to a belief that having a full life requires us to have a full diary. We think that if we exhaust ourselves with constant, frantic activity, we must surely be doing something good and worthwhile.
Our 21st century motto has become “I’m wrecked, therefore I am.”
But what would it be like, if when someone asks how you have been, you could reply “fantastic” and tell them about how you have been devoting more time to daydreaming or reading books in a hammock or doing some other fun, frivolous activity for the pure joy of it? Chances are you would encounter strange looks, as your deviant upending of the societal norm is revealed. As your friends look into your well-rested eyes, you may look back and see expressions of incredulity, jealously and resentment that you have wilfully abandoned the busy brigade. You may be forced to hand in your busy badge and be excluded from future conversations comparing levels of sleep deprivation.
If you fancy yourself as a bit of a renegade, or are just really tired of being really tired, here are a few suggestions to help you break with busyness.
Before diving straight into doing, pause and take a moment to carefully consider whether that thing you’re about to do actually requires doing. Do you need to iron that pillowcase? Do you need to take your child to a piano lesson they hate? Do you need to commandeer the bathroom for two hours, just to look a certain way at a party you don’t really want to be at? If the answer is ‘no’, maybe just don’t.
Such is our need to fit in that we can spend much of our lives busily striving to impress people, without giving thought to what we truly want. Trying to live up to the expectations of parents is for instance, a fairly common, but completely terrible reason for doing a medical degree. Unfortunately, as humans we have a tendency to be overly concerned with how other humans see us and can waste a horrific amount of time pursuing status, approval and social media likes. Before getting busy with the next time-consuming task, it’s well worth asking “who on earth am I really doing this for?”
If you need everything to be perfect, you are going to spend much of your life being crazily busy and extremely unsatisfied. Life is messy and imperfect. Allowing things to be less than perfect is not a sign of failure, it’s a wonderful act of self-compassion. Instead of doing the dishes when you are dying to get to bed, you really could just do them in the morning. Instead of dedicating hours to rubbing overpriced, ineffective wrinkle cream into your face, you could just embrace your wrinkles. Instead of chastising yourself for being a terrible cook, you could take those burnt bits of your lasagne, place them in your mouth and savour their crunchy goodness.
Advertisers love keeping us busy pursuing all sorts of shiny consumer distractions, but somehow after making our purchases, life doesn’t end up as happy, shiny and joy-filled as it would appear in the ads. When they show the very manly man driving his very manly oversized truck in the TV ads, they never show the bit where he is endlessly circling around the block trying to find a sufficiently large car space, or the bit where he is working a second job to make the repayments. When we buy into advertising it’s easy to forget what’s truly important to us. Rather than invest our precious time doing what matters most, we end up applying teeth whitening strips, camping out for the latest iPhone, or wrestling a grandmother at the post-Christmas sales for some other ‘must-have’ that we already have five of.
While we pride ourselves on being dutiful workers, dutiful parents, dutiful friends or dutiful carers, all too often we forget the duty of care we owe to ourselves. We instinctively say yes, don’t maintain our boundaries and let the demands of others be prioritised above our own. When consistently repeated, this pattern can easily make us sick, tired and resentful. Rather than end up a miserable martyr, it’s worth discovering the magical life-changing power of occasionally saying “no”.
Despite us feeling time poor, statistics show we are still managing to squeeze in many hours of electronic stimulation. Right now, swarms of Silicon Valley strategists are working overtime to steal even more of your attention. They are creating gamified, socialised, immersive online experiences, designed to capture mindshare, boost engagement and make everything feel INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT AND URGENT. Contending with countless apps, devices and open tabs keeps your brain brutally busy and drags your attention away from those things that really matter. Next time you feel your hand instinctively reaching for your smartphone, pause for a moment and consider what else you could be doing.
You’ve spent all year sitting in a dull grey cubicle, just dreaming of this holiday to a remote tropical island. Now, you keep waking up at 5.00 am thinking it’s time for the gym, you can’t keep still in a hammock, you are freaking out about the lack of wi-fi and your immune system has suddenly collapsed from its cortisol comedown. When busy becomes your default setting, relaxation can feel strangely foreign and uncomfortable. By taking some daily time for meditation, a walk in nature or a long hot bath, you can refamiliarise yourself with a calmer, more peaceful state of being.
You didn’t start making your Christmas cake in April and now your mother will disapprove. You didn’t have time to do your child’s school project for them and now it’s certainly going to get worse marks than Maddison’s, whose dad is a graphic designer. You are watching a cooking show whilst eating a microwaved instant meal, which is filling you with a growing sense of unworthiness. If you have enough self-compassion to give up extreme busyness, it’s helpful to offer yourself just a little more self-compassion to give up any useless accompanying guilt.
Ever feel like Sisyphus would have had a better life, if he’d just been able to reach out and ask others for a hand? Trying to do it all on your own can be extremely wearing, especially if you’re constantly picking up the slack of others. Having spent years trying to be competent, capable and in control, you can easily find yourself completely losing it when again forced to replace the printer toner/coffee filter/toilet roll because no one else could be bothered. “How hard is it? Why is it only me who ever does this? Are you too stupid or just too lazy?” Rather than let it get to this ugly ranting stage, it can be powerful to ask for help early on, especially when you are facing a particularly busy or stressful period.
Typically, we feel the busiest when we are doing lots of little, annoying tasks which we don’t particularly enjoy. When we do the things we love, we don’t feel busy at all. Instead we are totally absorbed in the moment and feeling a sense of flow. If you are tired of feeling busy, it may be time to prioritise snorkelling over sweeping, dancing over dusting, or playing a guitar over pushing a vacuum cleaner. Dedicate yourself to the things that fill you up, rather than filling every spare moment with the things which may not matter.
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