I’m a list person. Call me OCD, a micro-manager, what have you—but jotting down to-dos is my lifeline.
Every time I do, I get a momentary sense of relief, a mind-cleanse, as I spit out all my commitments on paper. But that wave of relief is quickly followed by sweaty palms. There’s so much to do—so little time and only one me to be everywhere, doing everything!
There’s an argument that says staying busy is good. It means you’ve got a job, and one that’s important enough that your boss needs you. It means you’ve got friends who want to spend time with you. It means you’re leaving your mark, and, hey, that takes work.
But a life that’s too busy is a double-edged sword, and it can affect more than just our sanity. Experts have found our frenetic pedal-to-the-metal mentality also could cause us to stall out in our careers. If that comes as a surprise, take a closer look at some of the implications of falling into the “busy trap.”
1. We Don’t Prioritize Well
With too many commitments spinning us into a tizzy, we can find ourselves short on the capacity to prioritize—a skill that’s absolutely invaluable in the workplace. With a million and a half assignments, it’s easy to want to start with the simple, no-brainer stuff, and just knock it all out. And that works. Sometimes. But that mode of operation also leaves you with little time for the more complex, time-consuming, or less-desirable work on your plate.
So yes, that 200-word team memo on a seminar may take up the same amount of space on your calendar as the company PowerPoint presentation your boss’s boss asked you to create. But, know all assignments weren’t created equal.
Author Barbara Ehrenreich tackles the topic in her essay The Cult of Busyness:
The secret of the truly successful, I believe, is that they learned very early in life how not to be busy. They saw through that adage, repeated to me so often in childhood, that anything worth doing is doing well. The truth is, many things are worth doing only in the most slovenly, half-hearted fashion possible, and many other things are not worth doing at all.”
A fraction of the work you do each day has important long-term implications on your career, and you need to plan ahead so you’re putting your best mental energy there—not just drilling through your to-do list on auto-pilot.
2. We Lose Sight of the Big Picture
It seems contradictory, but maintaining a certain level of busyness also has a stilling effect. We get too bogged down in the details to spend time on the big-picture, strategic plan that we want for our careers.
Where do you want to be in one year, five years, 10 years—here or somewhere else? If it’s here, what’s the road to advancement? If it’s elsewhere, what’s it going to take to get there? Yes, these are hard questions, and you aren’t going to find the answers to them overnight. But if you’ve made yourself too busy to ever take the time to think about them, you risk letting months and years fly by without reflection.
David Allen, author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, argues that even while we champion “big picture thinking,” we often let ourselves rack up too many small commitments that actually impair our ability to pan out and see the bigger picture. In his words, “There is too much distraction at the day-to-day, hour-to-hour level of commitments to allow for appropriate focus on the higher levels.”
3. We Impair our Creativity
In a post he titled “The Busy Trap,” New York Times’ Tim Kreider argues that creating blank mental space is critical for vision and ingenuity. Being idle allows you to take that step back, make unexpected connections, and find inspiration.
Think about Isaac Newton, Kreider says. As the story goes, he was just hanging out under a tree when the apple fell. Greek scholar Archimedes was hopping in the bath when he had his “Eureka” moment and realized weight and the volume of water were connected.
Now, don’t get me wrong—Newton was more than the average 17th-century overachiever. He was a physicist, as well as a mathematician, astronomer, philosopher, theologian and alchemist. Today, many of us also wear countless hats—team leader, boss’s go-to girl, daughter, friend, wife—and that’s not counting all the minutiae you don’t get credit for.
But I think we can all agree that a little time spent away from our smartphones, work email, and Twitter pages sounds enticing. Exhilarating, even. So if one of the greatest scientists of all time took a few breathers, let’s follow suit. We don’t want to get bopped on the head by our own proverbial apples and be too busy to see them as anything more than an imposition.
4. We Slow Down Our Brains
Finally, when you’re busy, there’s a good chance you’re sleeping less than you should, and not getting the mental rest you need. And that slows down your brain.
The temporal lobe of the cerebral cortex helps process language. In studies, fully rested people show lots of activity in that part of the brain, while the sleep-deprived show little to no activity. And when our brains get slow on the draw, we get less efficient at work.
“Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice,” writes Kreider. “It is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets.”
Now let me stop you before you write “de-stress” on this week’s to-do list. There’s no quick-fix to a busy life. Obviously. So maybe the key isn’t penciling idle time on the calendar or telling your boss you can’t handle the workload. Maybe you could start by stopping even once in a while, relishing moments, and creating idle moments in non-idle situations.
Even on the busiest of weeks, taking an hour-long lunch break to read alone on a nearby park bench might be just the cure for an otherwise crazy schedule and overwhelmed mind. Or let’s take your commute, for example. Be it by car, bus, train, or subway, how about spending time every once in a while just thinking—not singing, not trying to raise your IQ, not reading the never-ending news cycle. There are days for that. But our minds, bodies, and even careers depend also on our ability to hit the “pause” button.
And then, maybe we’ll be refreshed enough to spot that inspiration we’ve hunted for.
Caroline McMillan is a Charlotte, N.C. native and a reporter at The Charlotte Observer, where she writes about small business and entrepreneurship. She graduated from the journalism school at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and spent her last two years of college as the editor in chief of Rival Magazine, a joint publication between Duke University and UNC. She loves Tar Heel basketball, french-press coffee, making to-do lists and buying more books than her shelves can hold.More from this Author