November 2017

Chronic Busyness: The epidemic that has America in a tizzy

Author: Linda S. Hopkins

Busyness is the new black. Everybody’s wearing it like a badge of honor, as if to say, “Look at me. I’m important.”

“How have you been?”
“Super busy.”
“I know what you mean. Seems there are never
enough hours in a day.”
“Let’s get together sometime.”
“Sure. I’d love to.”
“See you soon.”

A month goes by. Same colleague or friend. Same conversation. But you haven’t gotten together. Why? Because everyone is so busy. The sad part is that we have tools at our fingertips to help make us more efficient, i.e. more productive in less time. Yet these very devices seem to be both devouring and dividing our attention—at what expense? Interpersonal relationships? Relaxation and recreation? A sense of wonder and amazement? Time alone to think or create?

Shackled to our state-of-the-art gadgets, Americans are busier than ever, seemingly unable to disconnect from work or obligation even for a brief period of respite. What does our chronic state of busyness really mean? Researchers from the University of Chicago found that the belief that busyness is a sign of success is so prevalent, we actually fear inactivity. The study coined the term “idleness aversion” to describe how people are drawn to being busy regardless of how busyness harms their productivity.

When we think of a super busy person, we think of a ringing phone, an overflowing inbox, a calendar filled with appointments and meetings, a desk stacked high with to-do lists, sticky notes, papers and files. Such a situation inevitably leads to multi-tasking and interruptions, which are deadly to productivity.

While most busy people have several balls in the air at once, it’s been proven that juggling tasks is inefficient. According to Psychology Today, it takes more time to complete tasks if you switch between them than if you do them one at a time. Each task switch might waste only one tenth of a second, but if you do a lot of switching in a day, it can add up to a 40 percent loss of productivity.

Because I am just as guilty as the next person of busying myself to death and hopscotching through my to-do list, I did a little self-examination to figure out why I am so darned “busy,” what I’m busy doing, and what I can do to make sure I am getting the return on my investment of time. I discovered that I often use busyness when I am unsure of myself. I’m not a procrastinator, but if I’m stuck for an idea or story angle, I might scroll through my Facebook feed, make unrelated phone calls, go shopping—anything to sidestep the discomfort of uncertainty.

I also use busyness as a distraction from physical pain and an escape from the emotional kind. Busyness serves me well when I need to get my mind off the wacky signals my brain sends to my nerve-injured left foot. Similarly, when an emotion comes up that I want to tamp down—sadness, frustration, or anger—I get busy. How about you? Are you using busyness to run away or hide from something you don’t want to face or feel?

Work is a necessity, of course, not only for making a living, but as a way of contributing to the world. It is when work becomes our sole identity and the drive to make money consumes our lives that we risk losing valuable pieces and parts of ourselves along the way. Freeing ourselves from the limitations of our chosen roles and assigned titles can allow us to entertain the reality that we are much more.

Unfortunately, there is no vaccination to prevent chronic busyness. However, you can make lifestyle changes to prevent its damaging effects. Here are some tips for cutting loose:

• Schedule time to think. Many incredibly busy and efficient people take breaks from meetings, phone calls or e-mails to explore new ideas and allow existing ideas to incubate. A study from Stanford University has shown that people are much more creative when they are walking around as opposed to when they are sitting still. When you’re constantly fixated on getting the next task done, it’s tough to let your mind wander freely. But that diffused state of thinking is a lifeline to your hopes, dreams, desires and goals.

• Learn to delegate. Busy people are typically organized—if not on their desks, in their minds. They know how to prioritize and get work done. This makes it difficult for a busy person to delegate responsibilities to someone who might be less experienced or reliable. Sometimes we need to step back and allow someone else to take the reins. This might be scary at first, but think of it as giving that person an opportunity to learn, grow and succeed, while contributing the savings to your time and energy bank.

• Practice saying no. Busy people have the reputation for being responsible and are frequently called upon when something important needs to be accomplished. Many busy people are also people-pleasers, thus making it doubly difficult to say no when asked to take on yet another responsibility. What do you need more of or less of in your life? What can you say no to that will allow you to say yes to something else—something that feeds your soul?

• Play hooky. Busy people are notorious for not being able to escape from work. It follows them wherever they go—on their phones, laptops, notebooks and watches. Give yourself permission to play hooky from technology. It can be a 15-minute break, your lunch hour, an evening at home, or a weekend when you virtually “disappear.” Believe it or not, the world will keep spinning.

• Make room for spontaneous joy. Don’t be afraid to leave some blank space on your calendar—for relaxation, leisure, or a spontaneous adventure. Time spent enjoying yourself is likely to increase your productivity and make you a nicer person, to boot, because you are getting what you need to rejuvenate, refocus and redefine who you are and how you want to spend your one precious life here on earth.

When I think about life in the fast lane, I’m reminded of an old Joni Mitchell tune called “The Circle Game,” in which she described the seasons of life and just how quickly time passes: “Take your time, it won’t be long now till you drag your feet just to slow the circles down.”

If you are going to be busy anyway, be busy making a life as well as a living. Will you lie on your death bed and wish you had taken one more walk in the park, watched one more moonrise on the beach, pursued a hobby, said yes to an invitation, visited the grandkids more often, or taken that dream vacation? Do it now. Because you are that important.

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