HOW TO | Face the busyness trap

HOW TO | Face the busyness trap

12 SEP

Written by Madeleine Dore

"Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans." - Allen Saunders

Whether it’s in response to someone asking how we are, or an assumption we make about another person’s schedule, we do a lot of hiding behind being busy.

Instead of sharing our everyday enjoyments or what’s beneath our particular stresses, we can so easily use busy as a stand in for our emotional world and the details of our daily lives.

Even when we aren’t busy, we may feel the torment of thinking we’re not doing enough or experience productivity guilt.

Being busy, however, is not the same thing as being productive.

Sometimes, of course, we are busy because we have multiple pressing responsibilities or unexpected life events come to the fore, but there is a distinct difference between this swirl of busyness, and the busyness we wear as a badge of honour.

The latter is self-imposed – and often stems from a place of ambition, drive, ego or anxiety – creating a ceaseless frenzy of always feeling like we should be doing something else.

When perpetuating the myth that we need to be busy in order to be successful or worthy, we feed into an unrealistic expectation of what our lives and work should look like. We become addicted to busyness as it provides reassurance that our lives are moving and therefore meaningful, creating a buffer against a feeling of emptiness or discomfort.

Busyness can be contagious as there is a peer-pressure to have something to show for our time. An overworked lifestyle, rather than a leisurely lifestyle, has become a status symbol, as Silvia Bellezza, co-author of a Harvard Business School study explains.

To circumvent the peer-pressure and move away from the busyness trap, we can start by asking different questions, facing our busyness and redefining what we consider to be enough.

1. Look beneath the busy

Instead of using being busy as a prop, means of escape or a form of pride, our time should be filled wherever possible with the things we enjoy. So ask yourself, if you don’t have to fill this moment with being busy, then what would you be doing?

As career counsellor William J. Reilly penned in How To Avoid Work in 1949, “Altogether too much emphasis, I think, is being placed on what we ought to do, rather than what we want to do.”

When we become completely immersed in something we enjoy, we find flow and lose the sense of being busy completely. When we move beyond the busy, the burden of external expectations or of whatever else we have to do suddenly subsides.

2. Face the superficial busyness

At times we may feel drained or stuck in the busyness loop because we are overloaded by activities that are merely just distractions, writes Leo Babauta of Zen Habits. But keeping ourselves superficially busy with activity will not deliver the satisfaction of productive busyness.

As an antidote, Babauta recommends the face-everything technique, a form of mindfulness where we are aware of what we are doing and what we are avoiding. The first step is to cultivate awareness by asking ‘what am I doing right now’ and ‘what am I avoiding?’

Whether it’s a task or emotion that you’re avoiding, the next step is to face it. “Just stay with this fear, discomfort or difficulty in the present moment. How bad is it? You'll find that it's No Big Deal. Stay with it for a little longer. And a little longer after that — challenge yourself,” writes Babuta.

Once you’ve faced what you’re avoiding, you can take action.

3. Cultivate enoughness

In the essay Laugh, Kookaburra, writer David Sedaris recalls a conversation he had in the car whereby his friend asked the passengers to picture a four-burner stove: one burner represents your family, another friends, the third health, and the fourth work. 

The gist of the four-burner theory is that in order to be successful in one area, you have to turn off one of your burners – in order to be really successful you have to cut off two.

Often we make the mistake of thinking we aren’t doing enough because we don’t have all four burners aflame at once. When in everyday life, it’s very difficult for anyone to sustain all four burners.

Instead of trying to achieve the perfect balance or juggle all areas of our lives perfectly, it’s about asking what brings you alight at this given time. If we learn to switch mindfully between our work, family, leisure, and social lives, perhaps we’ll ease the worry and find more enjoyment.

A measure of a life isn’t about which burners are switched on when, or how crammed your schedule is or what plans you have for today or tomorrow. It’s finding your own definition of enough.

As Mahatma Gandhi, “There is more to life than increasing its speed.”