How to escape the busyness trap


March 24, 2015
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“I’m so busy!”

It’s the auto-pilot response to “How are you?” these days. And of course we are busy. In addition to family, friends, and work, we’ve got a whole world at our fingertips to keep up with.

All this busyness can be overwhelming. But it can also be comforting — for a couple of reasons. Being busy brings a kind of badge of honor that the world needs us. It’s also an excellent way to steer clear of life’s thornier issues.

And that’s when we can get stuck — taking life as it comes rather than giving direction to how we spend our days.

I’m busy, therefore I am
Quick story: Ann was waiting for the restroom at one of Boston’s trendier brunch places. A woman got in line behind her and casually began complaining about her lack of free time. So many obligations on the weekends, she said, kept her jumping from one place to another. “Isn’t it awful?” she pleaded.

Ann nodded because that’s what this stranger wanted. But she didn’t mean it. Sure, she did her fair share of dining out, but she wasn’t constantly on the run. Now, however, she began to wonder if there was something wrong with her life. Was she lacking, somehow, because her personal life wasn’t overly demanding?

Just the opposite.

The too-busy woman at the restaurant wasn’t venting, she was bragging. Her brimming agenda makes her feel wanted or needed or important in some way. She may not like what she’s doing, but she likes how it makes her feel — making it unlikely that she will slow the pace.

Too bad. Much of what pulls at our time isn’t catering to what’s important to us, yet it makes us feel necessary enough that we don’t notice the distraction.

The big too-busy tradeoff
But what if we know our busyness is distracting us and we like it? That begs the question: What are we willfully avoiding in exchange for our daily lives?

You know the answer, don’t you? It’s those worries that emerge when it’s dark and quiet (until we drown them out with Netflix). Is this really my career? Do I love my spouse or is it a habit? Am I doing this life thing all wrong?

Those are stomach-churning questions, so it’s human to skirt them on occasion. But when busyness becomes our shield against reflection, we get really stuck. Essentially, we hand over the keys to our life in the name of comfort.

Comfort is comforting because we know what to expect. When we stay crazy-busy, we expect validation and/or escape from the tough stuff. Those are hard rewards to trade in — until we look at them differently.

The reward of busyness comes from outside of us — there’s always someone or something that needs us — and that means we’re dependent on them to keep the rewards coming.

The reward of pausing, of reflecting on occasion, comes from within us, and it’s nothing more or less than being true to ourselves — which is where the core of happiness resides.

Bite-size ways to reclaim your time
Your brain is probably already arguing that your busyness isn’t a choice, that you do have too much to do. But we all can carve out 15 minutes somewhere in our day to pause and focus on ourselves. Yes, we can. And we can optimize our brainpower when we do it. For instance:

• Spend 15 more minutes in the shower every morning. Unscientific studies find that more epiphanies happen in the shower than anywhere else, thanks to the brain’s release of dopamine. (If you’re in California, where water is scarce these days, you could spend those extra 15 minutes relaxed on the couch munching ripe bananas, which also prompt an increase of dopamine.)

• Take a walk. A Stanford study found that creativity levels are significantly higher for people who walk just a quarter of an hour than for those who stay deskbound. Exercise boosts blood flow to the brain and increases activity in the hippocampus, a part of the brain critical for learning and the formation of new memories.

• Doodle. Even if your efforts are closer to scrawling than sketching, doodling frees your mind from the constraints of straightforward linguistic thought, allowing you to evaluate ideas from a different angle, which can help you gain new insights.  

• Listen to music. Music activates the brain regions involved in attention, planning, and memory. Just keep the volume at a moderate level; blasting tunes is not conducive to deep thought.

Once you find the time, you may, at first, not be sure where to begin. To kick-start your downtime, ask yourself a provocative question. Here’s a dozen to choose from. Once you get started you’ll probably have plenty of your own.

• How would your life be better if you had more free time?
• What would you be focusing on or doing if you weren’t so busy?  
• What one simple change could you make to be less busy?
• Are you proud to tell people what you do?
• How are you making a difference in the world?
• Does today feel different than yesterday?
• Do you want to settle down or do you still feel there are things you want to experience and places you want to explore?
• Do you take time to enjoy life’s simple pleasures every day?  What was the last one?
• Do you say “no” more than you say “yes” because you don’t want things to change?
• Where are you now in comparison to where you want to be in life?
• How would your life change if you chose to take time for your own pursuits over making money to pay for them?
• What will your legacy be?

Next: How to spot an opportunity
Previous: What goes wrong when you’re always right

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