America began to acknowledge its cultural obsession with “busyness” a few years ago, when Tim Kreider wrote the now legendary piece “The Busy Trap” for the New York Times. Nearly three years later, while our culture certainly hasn’t changed, an admitted addiction to busyness has at least transitioned from groundbreaking journalism to mainstream conversations.
While I fall into the category of people who are typically the biggest busy-worshippers (a working mom, educated, middle class), I always assumed that I wasn’t a part of the crowd. I write about media and culture and parenthood, for goodness sake! Surely, I couldn’t blindly succumb to a cultural trend.
But then, over the holidays, when my great-aunt asked me how I’d been doing, the words, “Good—but so busy! Crazy busy!” sprung forth from my mouth, and I realized that I’m just a drone impersonating a self-aware person.
Maybe I’m being a little hard on myself, but because busyness has become a status symbol—a sign that you are in demand and thus important—it’s easy to default to the word “busy” to describe your life. When we tell people that we are busy, in many cases what we’re trying to say is, “The activities that consume my day are important. I feel overwhelmed because I am busy, but my busyness is mandatory because I’m contributing so much to the world.” When we feel busy, we feel like we’re winning at life—like we’re doing something right and maximizing our productivity.
But our insistence on staying busy can have damaging effects on our mental well-being: more stress, exhaustion, burnout, and an inability to focus on the present.
I’ve resolved to make 2015 the year I stop feeling busy. And, based on the research I’ve done so far, it won’t actually require doing less—it will simply require changing the way I think and speak. Want to join me? Here’s how to get started.
1. Stop Talking About Being Busy
Far too many of us have made “So busy!” the automatic answer to “How are you?” It has essentially become a replacement for a standard answer like good or fine, when what we’re really trying to say is “Successful! Wanted! Admired!” Instead of telling people that you’re busy, try talking about what you’re actually doing—the accomplishments that are making you feel busy and thus making you feel proud. For example, “I’m doing well! I just got a promotion and it’s given me the opportunity to travel quite a bit more.”
Avoiding the compulsion to constantly insist that you’re busy will actually make you feel less busy (and, as the Americans’ Use of Time Survey has shown, we’re not nearly as busy as we think).
2. Stop Multi-tasking During Leisure Time
Though research shows that we have plenty of “leisure time” in our lives, we’ve become accustomed to multi-tasking during our downtime—meal planning while we watch television, checking our email while we’re out to dinner, watching a webinar while we’re working out. Writer Hanna Rosin describes this phenomenon well in her response to Brigid Schulte’s book Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time:
To be deep in the overwhelm requires not just doing too many things in one 24-hour period but doing so many different kinds of things that they all blend into each other and a day has no sense of distinct phases. Researchers call it ‘contaminated time,’ and apparently women are more susceptible to it than men, because they have a harder time shutting down the tape that runs in their heads about what needs to get done that day. The only relief from the time pressure comes from cordoning off genuine stretches of free or leisure time, creating a sense of what Schulte calls ‘time serenity’ or ‘flow.’ But over the years, time use diaries show that women have become terrible at that, squeezing out any free time and instead, as Schulte puts it, resorting to ‘crappy bits of leisure time confetti.’
Make sure to not only carve out time for yourself, but to actually acknowledge that you’re on the “leisure clock.” Don’t multitask—enjoy the downtime, and mentally label it as such.
3. Rethink Your Definition of Self-Care
When we think of self-care, we often focus on our physical well-being: getting a massage, exercising, taking care of our skin. But we shouldn’t define self-care so narrowly. In her book Thrive, Arianna Huffington identifies the “Third Metric of success” (i.e., a redefinition of success that goes beyond the two traditional metrics of money and power) and breaks into four components: well-being, wisdom, wonder and giving. While she begins with well-being, which includes taking care of yourself by getting plenty of sleep and staying healthy, she considers lifelong learning, meditation and mindfulness, and community involvement equally as important in achieving and defining success.
If we make room in our lives for this broader definition of self-care and accept that it is not a distraction from but a contributor to our success, we’ll be one step closer to escaping the busy vortex. We should prioritize our mental health just as highly as our physical health, and acknowledge that intellectual pursuits (like reading, writing, and learning) can be just as relaxing (perhaps more so) than a mani/pedi.
4. Outsource and Delegate More than You Think You Should
Modifications to our thinking and speech patterns can be incredibly powerful, but I’m sure you might be thinking, “But I really am busy. I don’t have a spare minute in the day.” So I feel compelled to include at least one strategy for actually being less busy, as opposed to just feeling less busy.
Let me share with you a tip that executive coach and Entrepreneur columnist Sumi Krishnan recently shared with me: At the end of your day—every day!—write down two things that you did that someone else could have done for you. They might be administrative tasks, housework, or simply to-do items that someone else could have accomplished just as easily. The next day, delegate those items. You may think that you’re a master delegator and that you’re maximizing your productivity every day, but this simple habit will help you measure your delegating skills each and every day.