How many times have you done this: a friend asks how you’re doing, and you spill out a laundry-list explanation of how very very busy you are these days? Is this how most of your conversations start? If so, you might just be addicted to being busy.
I used to be absolutely awful this way. Until one day I realized that a few friends weren’t even waiting for the explanation. They were just jumping into the conversation with what was a known fact: “I know, you’re so busy, right?” I realized this was how people saw me. Not Malvina-who-loves-to-dance, not Malvina-who-adores-food, not Malvina-the-loyal-friend-who-will-always-be-there, and DEFINITELY not Malvina-who-loves-to-play. Nope. I was the crazy-busy friend, the stressed friend, the one who might not have time for them. Ouch.
How did I get there?
What we’re saying when we say we’re busy
Here’s what I realized I was doing when I told people how busy I was: I was trying to prove my self-worth. I would say, “I’m so busy,” and the message really was, aren’t I hardworking? Aren’t I dedicated? See how much people need me? It all was trying to feed a black hole of insecurity.
Busy also can be used to keep the world at arm’s length. In saying that we’re crazy-occupied all the time, we’re also saying to the world: “Don’t come too close.” We start the conversation with all that we’re doing so that people won’t ask more of us, so they won’t pull a little more of our emotional energy.
And here’s the thing–whether you mean to or not, that’s what people hear. When you start a conversation with “I’m so busy” what people hear is a life that is roaring along without them. You are a high-speed Maserati zipping past. Impressive, for sure, but not relatable.
We do it to ourselves
The first thing I needed to realize was that I was doing it to myself. No one else signed my up for the extra volunteer tasks. It was me who made my job center-stage in my life. It was me who kept piling on just one more thing.
And to this day, I do not sit still well. It just isn’t who I am. My fingers practically itch with the need to create. I knit or sew while I watch TV. I’m trying to catch up on the news or learn from a TED talk while waiting for the bus. Sometimes I’ll try to cram two things into the same night because both are sure to be absolutely awesome and how could I miss either one? I am forever trying to shake the last drop out of Life’s coffee cup. I’m pretty sure “peaceful” will not be a word ever used to describe me until the day that I finally stop kicking altogether. And I’m Ok with that.
But do I need to keep piling things onto my plate until something necessarily falls off? Do I need it to take over how I describe my life to others? Or more importantly, how I view it myself? Not at all.
Productivity v. Busy Addiction
What I have learned is that being super-creative or productive is different from being busy. The first is an intense period of time where you buckle down and do a lot and then stop and come up for air. Creativity is a cycle: dig-in, create, release. Busy addiction is hecticly filling every corner of your life with a to-do list. It’s a constant vibration of energy that can never be quieted. Busy addiction is doing a thousand things because you’ve grabbed a live wire and you refuse to let go.
We hook ourselves on being overly-committed for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s for reasons like mine: we got tricked into believing that what we do or produce is a reflection of our self-worth. Or sometimes it’s a way to not look too deeply into our own lives–a type of self-anesthesia, if you will. “If I keep myself always doing something,” we say, “I won’t notice this corner of my heart that’s crying.”
We’re addicted to being busy because something is hurting on the inside. And then once we start piling things on, the way we see our world shifts. You could call it the busy-addict mentality.
“I’m so busy” is a type of negative self-talk
It was me who was making “busy” my central narrative. There were lots of other ways I could have described my life. I could have said, “My business is going through an intense growth phase” or “I’m learning this cool new skill,” but instead I described myself as drowning in commitments. I set myself up as the victim of a world of my own creation.
“I’m so busy” is a sneaky kind of negative self-talk. When we define our worlds by how busy we are, we spend our time talking about how our worlds are dragging us down, instead of how they are feeding and energizing us. We’re choosing a negative definition of our reality instead of the many positive aspects of what we’re doing. And once we start visualizing things that way, they start pulling us down even more.
Furthermore, the more we repeat this pattern, the more that we come to value being busy for its own sake. We forget how to do anything else. Maybe we forget how to converse with people who don’t crank themselves up on activities. We start to share war-stories of how over-committed we were: “Dude, last weekend I was so busy. I don’t know how I made it through.” Replace the word “busy” with “drunk” or “high” and it sounds an awful lot like a conversation with an addict whose life revolves around their addiction, right? Same deal.
How to get out of the busy-trap
So how do we escape busy addiction? It’s tough; like any addiction once you start it’s hard to break the cycle.
- What is central to you? First of all, define your values for yourself. How is being busy supporting those values? How is it undermining them? Maybe you value hard work, but you ALSO value family time. Are you failing some of your core values?
- How do you want to be remembered? One of the best ways I have to narrow down my values is to ask myself if I want to be remembered for it when I die. Is this something that I want connected with me forever? Is it how I want to be defined? Yes? Groovy. Carry on. Eternally busy? I decided: not so much.
- What are you communicating with your behavior? Likewise, lots of times we talk about how busy we are because we want to communicate other things about ourselves. What is the underlying message you’re trying to communicate? Is there another way to show that which would liberate you from being so dang stressed all the time?
- Practice saying “NO.” Some of counter-acting busy addiction is simply saying “no” to requests on your time. That’s a hella lot easier said than done, I know. But if you think of it in terms of ALL your values it gets easier. Keep in your mind’s eye what that extra space in your life will enable you to do, or who in your life it will help you to see. Which leads us to…
- AND practice saying “YES.” Busy addiction is either filling a hole in your soul or protecting a place where you feel vulnerable or weak. So to make it lasting, you’ve gotta say YES to things that will help fill those needs. Say YES to more time with people who make you feel great. Or YES to activities that nourish your soul, that maybe you weren’t giving yourself permission to try before.
- Prepare yourself for earthquakes. There are people who are NOT going to be supportive of your new set of priorities. Maybe they depended on you to do things for them. Maybe your actions validated their own overly-busy lifestyle. Think of them as old drinking buddies. Anything they have to say isn’t about you, it’s about their own addiction. I’m gonna write that again because it’s an important one: It’s not about you. Our entire culture rewards busy addiction. So prepare yourself for some blowback, or at least some people who won’t understand or know how to validate your choices. There will be earthquakes in your life, maybe big, maybe small. Plan accordingly.
So what can you put down?
All change starts with one small step. So if you identified with the description in the first paragraph, if any of this resonates for you, then I challenge you to find one small thing that you can put down. Where can you set yourself free, even if just a little?
And how can you change about how you talk about your world? Where are the positives in all that you do? What can you talk about instead of how burdened you are by your commitments? Can you shift your descriptions to match the world that you want to build?
Because, after all dear ones, isn’t that why we’re all here? To build better worlds for all of us? Sometimes the most radical changes need to begin in the very way that we define the problem.
“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.” – Ghandi
Feature photo by Daniel Monteiro on Unsplash
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