How's Busyness?

Matthew biking up a hill in a cyclocross race in 2009
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No, that’s not a typo. Let’s look at the busy-ness in our lives, at work, and away from work. Being busy has become synonymous with being a typical American citizen. It’s a point of pride for many to have long to-do lists during the week, as well as a lengthy reply to the question often asked on Friday afternoons, “So, what are your plans this weekend?” If you’re not pulling extra shifts and rushing to meet deadlines on a regular basis, you might be seen as lazy, unambitious, unproductive, or unsuccessful. So instead, we fill our days with tasks and activities that leave few opportunities for rest, recharging, and reflection. We return to work on Mondays with toxic humble-brags about how little we slept, how much we accomplished, and how stressed we feel to start another week of work. But is all this busyness working for us?

Health care advocates, employers, and most importantly, working people are beginning to realize that busyness can negatively affect business. Striving toward a work-life balance not only yields happier, healthier employers, it can also, perhaps ironically, increase productivity. In other words, we can actually get more accomplished and feel better when we’re not trying so hard to just be busy.

Busyness is Booming

There are probably too many articles online about being busy. There are articles about how to be better at being busy, why we value being busy, how being busy negatively affects our well-being, and, of course, how to find that elusive work-life balance. You could easily “be busy” for a long time, just by reading articles about being busy.

As much as I’d love to recommend that we all just collectively chill out and enjoy a lot of doing nothing, many of us have work to do, jobs to fulfill, and families to manage. Sometimes the best we can do is to make time for ease, rest, and gratitude wherever possible. You might also make time to check-in with yourself and see where being busy does and does not add value to your life.

Busyness I.D.

Busyness isn’t all bad. Being busy meets a lot of needs for feeling productive, valued, and like you belong. Ticking off items on your to-do list can bring about a sense of pride and accomplishment. You show others through your busyness that you’re a good worker with vision and stamina. Often busyness is rewarded with promotions, advancements, and praise. Looking at busyness this way, it’s easy to see how we build being busy into our sense of identity and self-worth. And while it may follow that being really busy should equate to being very valued and rewarded, there’s a point of diminishing returns, where you can become so busy that your work actually suffers, and your sense of worth tanks. Worse, stepping back from being so busy is often seen as a sign of weakness and ineptitude. As we say here in Minnesota, “Uffta!”

Busyness or Bust!

So too much busyness, or busyness just for the sake of looking busy, can, and usually does lead to burn out, depression, and other detrimental side effects to your well-being. In addition to the stress and anxiety being busy often requires, you might also feel lonely or guilty for not spending more time with family and friends, or just doing less. These feelings inevitably lead to physical discomforts such as headaches, back and neck pain, muscle tension, insomnia, poor digestion, and even a compromised immune system. Think back to a time when you were really busy, and then fell ill soon after. The emotional toll of doing too much has a real, physical tax as well. So, what do we do about it? Like any working machine, we’ve got to make some repairs, plan for regular maintenance, and wherever possible, add some preventative upgrades.

Closed for Repairs

Feeling really busy? You probably are. Drill down into the details of your busyness. Look objectively at the causes and strains that have led you here. Tight deadline? Missteps? Unrealistic expectations placed by others or yourself? Distractions or lack of focus? Once you diagnose the causes, make some space, slow down, and think about how you might address those causes. Can you ask for more time or a lighter load? Can you learn from mistakes to be more efficient and effective moving forward? Can you reassess what’s expected of you and clearly communicate to all those, including yourself, that need to hear that? Can you do a mental reset to regain your focus and attention? Finally, consider ways that you can set yourself up for success moving forward. Maybe that means saying “no” a little more often, changing the way you present yourself to those asking for your time, or asking for more flexible deadlines. Maybe it’s planned time off, from a few moments each day to half days each week, or even a project-free weekend, where you give yourself permission and space to rest, reset, and recharge. Maybe it’s working a gentle yoga practice or rejuvenating breathing technique into your day. And maybe it’s all of these.

It seems to take both immediate and long-term efforts to truly combat busyness. In her article titled, “Busyness Plan,” yogic philosophy teacher Sally Kempton wrote that “[f]irst, you need inner practices that take you to your center.” Then, she suggested you need a second, more demanding type of yoga that “asks that you cultivate attitudes that allow you to act with yogic awareness in everything you do.” In other words, let go of what's not helping you now and create conditions for future benefit.

Grand Re-opening

Life goes on, work is still work, and life’s tasks still seem endless. When you must be busy, there’s ways of making it less stressful and less likely to lead to burnout. Prioritizing your tasks, time-boxing your work, and being honest about what you can get done are all great places to start. Replacing some of the tasks in your day with space for rest, socializing, yoga, and deliberate disconnection from work have all been proven to not only reduce stress, but also boost productivity, so the time you give up for these “balancing acts” pay in dividends.

And please give yourself permission to fail here, too. Hardly anyone figures out this work-life balance thing on the first try. Because work and life keep changing, the scales move and we have to readjust. Try again because your time, your skills, and your happiness are worth it.