I know you’re busy. We all are… The question though, is WHY. How did we evolve into such busy creatures? Are we so busy because we really have so much to do? Or are we busy because it makes us feel important? Or because we’re avoiding something?
Americans are especially obsessed with this idea of being busy, and we wear this busyness as a badge of honor. We’re proud of it — we work hard in pursuit of success, wealth, and happiness, but if we’re not enjoying the process, what’s the point?
The busy syndrome is often accompanied by feeling frenzied and overwhelmed. It’s stressful to transition from one thing to the next in a hurry, always running behind schedule. It’s nerve-wracking when traffic or lines have you furrowing your brows and calculating “wasted time,” and it’s sad to notice how quickly time flies when you’re head-high with tasks and to-dos. When life gets overwhelming, we use the phrase “too busy,” to one-up someone else’s “busy.” As if being just busy doesn’t quite explain your level of demand and importance.
If you’re interested in revisiting where you stand on the busyness scale, it’s important to understand how you got there in the first place. In other words, why are you so busy? The busy syndrome is reversible if you understand where it’s coming from and you’re willing to make some changes in your life.
Here are six reasons why you might be too busy for your own good, with some suggestions on how to clear some time for your favorite things and your favorite people.
You’re a People Pleaser
You’re probably approachable and good at a lot of things, so people tend to ask you for help. The problem is you don’t want to let them down so you say yes, despite the fact that you don’t have the time and that new project will put you into the category of Far Too Busy.
Even if you genuinely have interest in doing what is being asked of you, before you say yes, ask yourself if it’s a top priority. If you think the people pleaser in you may be responsible for your busy syndrome, check out my posts on Saying No for ideas on how to maintain your kindness and care for others, and also limit your obligations:
You Don’t Know How to Let Go
It’s great news if you’re busy because you are doing all of the things that bring purpose and joy to your life. But more likely, you’re packing your daily calendar with things you feel you have to do or need total control over. It’s important to find a balance and prioritize accordingly.
As you elevate in your career and expand your leadership, you will be more competent at a wider range of tasks. This does not mean you should be the one doing them all. You simply cannot focus on everything at the same time and do everything well, which is where the importance of prioritization steps in. If you are a leader or founder of an organization, you particularly have to take great care in discerning which tasks will have the greatest impact on the organization, and which are most energizing for you.
One of my favorite quotes by Stephen Covey is, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” As a leader, it is all about focus, and the bulk of your work should be spent on high-impact tasks. You will have to let go of the rest, whether by delegation, de-prioritization, or otherwise. In order to do this, you will have to learn to let go of control and perfection along the way.
Another common condition is that you find your schedule full of things you used to enjoy doing. Often we move through phases in our lives and careers and outgrown projects, groups, clubs, and duties. But instead of calling it quits, we feel bad and stick it out, or simply don’t take the time to reevaluate and reprioritize.
Are there obligations and responsibilities in your life that may no longer be a priority or requirement for you? This is worth exploring. Plus, there’s a good chance someone else is standing in line and enthusiastic to take on your role. If it’s no longer your thing, or no longer your priority, let it go to make room for something else more important to you.
Stillness Feels Awkward (and a Little Scary)
The opposite of busy isn’t lazy; it’s being still. And for some people, myself included, stillness feels uneasy and busy feels comfortable. The more I get done, the better I feel about myself. When I’m idle, I always hear a voice in the back of my head telling me that I should be doing this or that.
The truth is, idle time can boost your creativity, memory, and productivity, actually saving you time. Creative and innovative ideas are often found in the space between moments, not during actual activity itself. If you find yourself getting loads of creative ideas in the shower or on a run, this is why.
Humans need downtime to recharge. But we’re so used to being busy that we seek external stimulation when we’re not. It feels more comfortable to dash from event to event and to reach for your smart phone any minute you find yourself still, than to just be. Once you practice using those quiet moments to allow your mind to wander and rest, you’ll be amazed at what can come out of that stillness. If it sounds intimidating or wasteful, rest assured that this sort of downtime, whether with meditation, relaxation, or other types of mindfulness or nothingness practices, get easier and more purposeful with practice. The practice is worth it to forego needing a to-do list full of items marked “done” to feel at ease.
If you’re facing a problem that needs solving, a writing or creative block, or feeling stagnant, take a step back from the grind and do nothing. Absolutely nothing. You’ll be amazed at how much can be accomplished, how many ideas can be born, and what fresh perspective you can gain from the nothingness.
You’re Competitive About Being Busy
In America, it’s the topic of conversation that has gotten out of hand, not the actual fact that we’re busy.
“How are you doing, Jimmy?” you ask your neighbor.
“Busy! It’s that time of year, ya know?” he says.
“Oh, believe me I understand that one!” you reply, followed by a list of specifics on how you can relate.
This exchange is common. It’s the most popular way to respond to the simple question, “How are you?” and the most common theme in holiday cards, listing the accolades, accomplishments, and activities from the year in review. So when we aren’t actually busy, we are discussing how busy we are and thinking about how much we have to do.
This concept that busy equals important has become competitive. It’s almost as if people are competing to see who’s busier, so they can prove to rank higher in social status. I mean, America is known to be one of the most competitive countries in the world — are we just getting competitive about being busy to prove we’re important?
You’re Avoiding Something
You could be avoiding a roommate, home project, or a feeling you have when you’re bored and unbusy. When you fill your plate with 10,000 to dos, that discomfort goes unnoticed.
Ask yourself if you’re running away from something. And if so, wouldn’t it be more effective to troubleshoot the problem, and then fill your schedule with things you love, instead of things that just make you busy?
There’s also something to say about people pleasers who feel like they need a valid excuse to say No. If that’s you, you might be maintaining your busy status to avoid those requests. This way, when your assistance or presence is requested, you are armed with a valid excuse. Otherwise people will ask you for help and you’ll have to say yes since you have trouble saying no. Unless you are, in fact, busy. I’ve definitely been guilty of this approach without realizing it.
You Think You’re So Much More Productive When You’re Busy
You work overtime, but rationalize that you’re so much better at your job because of the extra hours you put into it.
As it turns out … you’re not. Research suggests that the more hours someone works, the more they get done — until a threshold is reached, which is on average 40 weekly hours. At this point, productivity per hour levels off, burnout levels rise, and your personal life, exercise routine, and general health and well-being suffer. Maximum efficiency is simply not found in overworked employees. So in fact, working too much is a total waste of time.
For many though, it’s the main reason why they’re busy and don’t have enough time for the things they actually want to do.
Solving Your Busy Syndrome
From here, it’s time to diagnose your particular busy syndrome if you want reverse it. How did you catch the syndrome in the first place? What caused your habits? Which reason(s) do you identify with?
Then begin to identify your current priorities. Not the priorities you should have or have had throughout your life, but rather, the things that are most important to you at this time. Start by asking yourself these few important questions:
- If you only had six months left to live, which responsibilities, projects, and people would you choose to surround yourself with?
- Does being busy actually make you happy?
- Do you wish you had more down time?
- What is the cost of your being so busy?
Being busy is a choice for many people. How do you choose to live?
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Nicely written article. I think that right now we all are “busy”, and that’s because the world went in this direction. Life is short when you want to achieve something meaningfully, and important you need to know where you want to be. Right now, small kids (13-17 years old geniuses) are working in laboratories to find a medicine to cure X or Y, because they have those possibilities. 20 – 30 years ago it wasn’t possible.
Hi Szymon, thanks for your message. I agree there are some benefits to this busyness, especially as it relates to those who are ambitious. I also think it’s OK to be busy, as long as it’s a conscious decision and you’re spending your time doing things you’re choosing to do, and not for one of the above reasons. Many people today are busy for no good reason, and fantasize about downtime, when it could be at their fingertips.
As a business owner my journey into working seven days a week began when my business did – nearly 18 years ago … struggling to make ends meet or afford extra help meant long days and little down time for years (with three small kids and a supportive husband). Even though I now have a full staff – I still work seven days a week – partly because I am driven to succeed and it feels like down time is ‘non-productive – and partly because I feel guilty if someone else is working for my business and I am not ‘on’ (we are open seven days a week). And truth be told – I feel anxious when I try to NOT work (aka relax) … so yes – the burnout is real and it is putting a strain on the other areas of my life.