As humans we’re highly adaptable. When things get super-busy we find ways to get it done. We can sleep a little less. We can chew our breakfast a little faster. We can skip lunch because “lunch is for wimps” anyway. Perhaps we will blow off that morning walk, or the catch-up with friends or the dinner with family. Maybe we can plan out all those things we have to do when it’s four in the morning and we can’t really sleep. We could check our phone in the bathroom. And would it be so bad to take that call while going through the checkout? And would the little one even really notice, if we just skipped a few pages on the way to “happily ever after”?
It is quite possible to get by living this way for a short while, but what happens when completely unsustainable becomes your norm?
Welcome to the age of perpetual busyness. Here you will find no end of things to do. Chances are that you entered this world some time ago. Perhaps you were just a high school student, trying to fit in all those extra-curricular activities, while striving to get the right grades, to get into the right course at the right university. Maybe you got even busier while you tried to work and study full-time. Perhaps when you got your first real job the pressure ratcheted up a notch further, as you attempted to adapt to a culture of long hours and sustained stress. Over time, you may have also taken on a whole lot of added adult responsibilities, like paying a mortgage, raising a family and remembering to take the bins out on the right night of the week.
It’s easy to regard the myriad of stuff we cram in as normal – after all, that’s what everyone else is doing. Throughout thousands of years of human evolution life was however incredibly different. Our ancestors didn’t have 7.00 am Skype calls with the New York Office. They didn’t have to choose from 42 different varieties of washing detergent, remember 58 different passwords or know how to recover their files after an unexpected Windows update. Their lives weren’t nearly as complex, fast-paced or far removed from our natural way of being.
Technology has evolved at a much more rapid rate than the human animal. On an evolutionary scale, we went from carrying spears to carrying iPhones in the blink of an eye. Change is now the only constant. The pace continues to get faster and survival demands a very different set of skills.
So, how do you adapt? Below are a few very simple strategies. While they won’t change the world, they may shift yours, allowing you to step back from busyness and do what is truly important.
1. Notice what you are feeling
Often when we are feeling stressed, we are so busy battling through, that we don’t even notice our symptoms. Perhaps there’s a tension in the jaw, a tightness in the chest or frequent headaches invading the brain. Maybe we become irritable, lose concentration or make bad decisions on the road.
Our bodies are actually very good at telling us when things aren’t right – if we listen to them. Our determination to push on through can however make us terrible listeners. Often we overlook these “small” signs and are only shaken enough to even consider making real changes when we experience something far more serious, like burnout, panic attacks, heart problems or depression.
2. Go slow
Rushed multi-tasking is almost always the source of stress, not the solution. When we do things slowly, calmly and deliberately, we often find ourselves having a very different experience. Typically, we are better able to focus, concentrate and even enjoy the task at hand. We do things more accurately, more creatively and more mindfully. Most of us need to make a conscious effort to slow down. This may mean slowing your breathing, your chewing, your speech or that constantly tapping leg. It may mean tearing yourself away from all the tasks to spend time just being. Practising mindfulness for as little as ten minutes can have a profound effect on how you approach your day.
3. Work out what matters most
It’s easy to waste an incredible amount of our time, energy and brain space on things which really don’t matter. Often, we worry about things we have no control over, get bogged down in petty arguments and overburden ourselves trying to chase after impossible ideals. None of us can do it all, so it is important we focus on what matters most. Doing this allows us to make choices in line with our values and start living our lives on purpose. This shift is not always easy. It means learning to say “no”, making that which is important non-negotiable and shifting away from those things which do not serve us.
4. Don’t amplify your stress
While most stressful events in life come and go very quickly, we can spend infinitely more time going over them in our heads. At times we worry about what is to come and anticipating all the possible things that may go wrong. Other times, our focus is thrown back into the past, continually re-hashing events which have already happened. Mindfulness allows us to recognise when we are getting caught up in these loops and with practise, we can become much better at living life in the moment. Doing so not only reduces stress, it also allows us to be much more present and fully experience the good things in life.
5. Treat yourself with kindness
No doubt you’ve got enough stuff to deal with, without loading on a side-serving of self-criticism. We are all wonderfully imperfect humans, trying to do our best. Sometimes we need to take care of this special human animal, rather than taking care of 1000 different chores. Sometimes we need to prioritise what is important over what is urgent. Sometimes things will remain undone. That’s okay. It can be an incredibly valuable act of self-compassion to break free of the busyness and take a moment for proper rest, nourishing food, time with friends, time in nature and all those other rejuvenating things which can fill us back up.
6. Take action early
It’s very easy to spend a lot of time bemoaning busyness without actually doing anything about it. It’s frighteningly common to push on through, ignore all the warning signs and continue to tick chores off the list. But for a great number of people, this strategy has some very serious consequences. Fatigue may turn in to burnout, anxiousness into panic attacks or low mood into depression. As people who have experienced these conditions will tell you, it’s far better to act early. Don’t try to do it all and definitely don’t try to do it all on your own. Remember, reaching out for support is one of the most resilient things you can do.