Six Thoughts on Curbing the Disease of Being Busy

A great blog came across my screen this week, titled “The disease of being busy.” I spoke with my friend and colleague Bill Proudman about it, and we shared a great laugh when he blurted out, “tell me about it, I am a carrier!”

It got me thinking about what it means to be busy, and why I hear from clients, friends, and even my thirteen-year-old daughter, that either they feel “so busy” or they see me as being “so busy.” The article referenced above points to technology as a key source of our North American cultural obsession with always “doing” and never “being.” A few weeks ago, my husband and business partner wrote about the power of unplugging as a way to create more space for himself. I don’t disagree that our 24/7 connectivity, paired with the constant onslaught of information and demands on our attention are major contributors. But, I also sense a deeper causative dynamic: we have equated “being busy” with being productive, being an effective contributor; when in reality, being overly “busy” can be anything but.

Reflecting on my own level of overwhelm due to rigor of schedule and “pressures” in my life, I find that I hold some assumptions about being busy that may in fact be myths.

  1. Being busy means I am doing something important.
  2. I don’t need much (or any) time to think, and I can always produce more and better in less and less time.
  3. Conversations that matter can easily be scheduled in 15, 30, or 60 minute increments.
  4. The more I do, the better the __________(fill in the blank: business, children, marriage) will be.
  5. I have to do all this to feel I am doing enough.
  6. I do not need much (or any) rest, play, or recovery (I am machine-like in my productivity)
  7. S/he around me seems able to respond quickly, decisively, and professionally every single time, so that is the standard I must maintain.
  8. They (insert person, client, partner, family member) expect me to be doing this and will be disappointed if I do not.
  9. When I catch up, things will slow down.

On a daily basis, I am not necessarily aware of these beliefs. But, when I really ponder, I suspect that they are frequently at play, creating a cycle of busyness that is increasingly detrimental to my wellbeing (lack of exercise, not enough sleep, poor eating habits); the quality of my relationships (intimate connection with friends, children, partners, community); my overall happiness (space for spirit, poetry, music, dance) and at times the quality of my thinking and output (which is so essential to my actual productive output as a consultant).

However, rather than feel bad, sad, and ashamed that I (or you) have succumbed to the American delusion that more is in fact, more; that I am trapped in a cycle of economic and accomplishment pressures which require an infinite capacity for a faster pace; I offer these alternative beliefs.

  1. More time to think is better.

The more time I allow myself to think, the better the quality of my output, and the ability to produce the same output at a faster rate, grows. How many of you have stared at the computer screen for several hours, before hopelessly taking a break, then returned later to find you can crank out the work in 10-15 minutes?

  1. Connection, real connection, can’t always be scheduled.

Connection with other human beings is hard to predict in meeting style increments. What would happen if I left time in between meetings in case that person and I need more time together?

  1. Open time for “being” has unlimited possibilities.

Hang time with people that matter to me, with no planned activity, no complex meal to prepare, and no agenda is like a gold bar when it comes to having the space to feel love, joy, belonging, and support—critical ingredients from home that can fortify us for the onslaught of problems to be solved at work. Literally sitting on the back porch chatting, having coffee at the kitchen table, or a spontaneous and rousing game of Catch Phrase can be 5 minutes or 2 hours of bliss that are impossible to Google calendar.

  1. We all get the same 24 hours as you—use them with grace.

I learned that the new CEO of The Kellogg Foundation, La June Montgomery Tabron, practices an 8/8/8 philosophy (8 hours work, 8 hours sleep, and 8 hours “other”) to model to employees the importance of healthy pacing. Really asking how I want those precious hours to be used is critical.

  1. Whatever it is I DO in a day, is enough.

The story I often tell myself, and that I hear clients saying all the time, is “I should have” or “I am behind” when really what we successfully do in a day is typically just that—what we were capable of doing that day. Some days are high doing days and some lower, but that does not need to equate to our worth (at work, at home, or to ourselves).

  1. Over-identifying with work has consequences.

I feel lucky to love the work I do, and therefore freely spend an awful lot of time at it, but it is not the whole of me. Keeping perspective on my other critical roles in my world is important to remaining a whole person, with complex humanity and varied joys.

I don’t want to be a carrier of the disease of busyness, and yet I am clear that as Bill said, it is infectious: we copy and respond to the pace and energy of those around us. To stop the spread, I need to reframe my mindset, challenge the assumptions the drive me, and “be” in my life. Wish me luck, and tell me how you do it!

Jim Morris