Does your calendar look like this?
Even if only half of your calendar looks like this…
Then these pages are for you.
There’s a lot more to being busy than having a full calendar. And, our relationships to being busy can vary from person to person.
Does something feel…off about this to you?
An artsy short film capturing the ethos of the ‘busy’ problem.
How do you feel about being busy?
Use this printout to see where you stand with busyness. No matter your results, don’t worry! Throughout this section, we will explore the different facets of busyness and how to learn or build on our relationship with it.
Who doesn’t love being busy? Busyness can be associated with good cognition1, feelings of empowerment2, and motivation3. Being busy as opposed to idle can make us feel happier4, and many would rather get a painful shock than sit quietly alone with their thoughts5. You personally may feel a sense of balance in your life, and be at peace with your level of activity and the feelings associated with your work and leisure. However…
What about when being busy doesn’t feel so great? When the stress takes a toll? When life feels so “crazy busy” that there’s no time to relax, or even enjoy what we are doing? What about when our physical and psychological needs aren’t being met? When we feel that there is “no time” for family and friends? And what about when busyness keeps us from finding and pursuing life avenues that we find truly meaningful?
In this section, we will address these questions and more with stories, studies, and myth-busting science that will help you understand what busyness is, the true meaning of the phrase “I’m busy,” (if there is one…), and how to take ownership over your own busyness, the effects it has on your life, and your own pathways towards meaning.
- Do I enjoy the ways I spend my time? How could I spend my time in ways more aligned with what is important to me?
- What would be my ideal way to work? How can I move towards that type of work in my job or spare time? Are there any other ways I can ask for my needs?
- What is my ideal way to spend my free time? Do I do that? How could I make more space for myself to do what I enjoy, or to do things more aligned with my values or purpose(s)?
- Is there any area of my life where I am stuck in “autopilot”? Doing something because of habit, even though it no longer serves me, or my needs have shifted?
- Do I allow myself time in my schedule to reflect and reset? When was the last time I sat down to think about the ways in which I spend my time?
- What internal or external pressures are factors in my time use? Can I address any of these pressures or reframe my thinking in order to be more true to myself?
- How exactly am I using my time? Does my time serve ME?
When we are racing through life at the speed of a bullet train, keeping ourselves perpetually engaged in activity and whirling through thoughts and actions, it may be difficult to notice whether or not our actions are aligned with our core values. And maybe we don’t even know what those core values are.
This is the danger that busyness can present when talking in terms of purpose. Staying busy could be an easier option than reflecting and attempting to determine a purpose that is meaningful. Busy work or busybody behavior could keep us from seeking out meaningful work or meaningful uses of time. There is nothing wrong with being busy, but you may ask yourself why am I busy? Why do I spend my time the way that I do?
Bill Burnett of the Stanford D.School shares in his talk “5 steps to designing the life you want” based on his research in positive psychology and design that we will experience our lives as meaningful if we connect the dots… “There’s who you are, there’s what you believe, and there’s what you do in the world. If you can make a connection between these three things… you will experience your life as meaningful.” If we can create a story between these three dots, meaning will arise.
For this section, we are focused largely on that third aspect – what you DO in the world. As we will explore further, busyness is largely about doing rather than being or acquiescing. And how does that doing connect to the “who we are” and “what we believe”? If we’re too busy, we may miss it.
Busyness Isn’t All Bad!
If busyness is the “doing” of connecting the dots, then it has something very important going for it – it’s a bias towards action. As Burnett discusses later in his designing your life talk, PROTOTYPING is a very important step in the design process. If you are stuck and you don’t know what you want to do with your life, “try things,” says Burnett simply. You never know what you will discover. “Sneak up on the future,” he says – and find out if it is actually what you want.
Getting busy can be a very helpful tool in discovering purpose, especially if you’re a person that learns by doing; likes to experience things before ruling them out; trusts in the process of trial and error. Engaging in a lot of varied activities could be your first step before reflecting on those experiences and integrating them into your future.
And when we reach busyness that feels positive — working on projects and ideas that give us a deep sense of meaning and purpose, we might not feel busy at all! We might enter into flow…
A flow state is when we find that perfect balance of challenge and ability; pressure and performance. Though it’s not fun to be stressed out to the point of burnout all the time, some types of stress (see: eustress) can actually propel performance, keep us busy, and help us achieve goals.
At the end of the day, busyness exists on a spectrum, and that spectrum can often be mapped to how we feel inside — whether the busyness feeds our soul, stresses us out, both, or neither. If you are constantly working very hard and burning out on things you don’t care about, you may want to seek out new ways of spending your time. Diving into your relationship with your time may be a good place to start. What is your time serving? And who?
And since you’re clearly a busy person, before we go on, we want to let you know what you have to look forward to in this website section. From the culture of busy to the meaning of busy to alternatives to busy, there’s plenty to explore when it comes to our personal activity and how it aligns with feelings of stress, overwhelm, meaning, or joy in our lives.
Here’s What’s in Store
Throughout this website section, we will consider busyness in two ways: an objective and measurable level of activity, and a subjective experience of time scarcity and stress, as informed by personal needs, disposition, and external comparisons.
Busyness comes in all shapes, sizes, and speeds.
What do we mean when we use the words “I’m busy?”This phrase has become a catchall for a number of meanings, from “I don’t want to,” to “I’m actually so busy right now but I do want to!” to “give me a moment, please!”
The English language has many variations for the phrase “I’m busy,” which may be due to the fact that busyness is a common feeling, worthy of many variations in the form of slang. But since it’s used for so many meanings, can we even detect what it truly means in the given context??
Different researchers and psychologists have defined busyness in varied ways throughout their own studies, including “the amount of time [a] person allocates to work versus leisure,” (Belleza et. al), “busyness = speed + activity,” (Levine) and an “individual’s assessment of her or his own recent or expected activity patterns, in the light of current norms and expectations” (Gershuny). Everyone has their own definition for busyness!
What are the impacts of busyness? Busyness exists on a spectrum, with stress and overwhelm leading to poor health outcomes, but with a certain level of activity being desirable for most. Stress and overwork aren’t good for employees, managers, or companies at large, but they’re a growing phenomena. It’s important to recognize the signs and symptoms of stress at the individual and organizational level.
THE TOP FIVE REGRETS OF DYING PEOPLE include wishing they didn’t work so hard, and wishing they’d had the courage to live lives true to themselves. Reducing busyness can be a way to address these regrets before they occur, by reducing activity, and getting in touch with one’s true values and dreams in life.
TIME IS AN IMPORTANT RESOURCE7
- When families don’t spend quality time together, children and parents suffer.
- Haste makes waste – living life at a fast pace leads to more wasteful practices and larger ecological footprints.
- Busyness makes us less likely to participate as citizens of our country, refraining from things like voting, phone banking, organizing, and volunteering.
- When we fill our lives with activity, we may be less likely to spend time contemplating the direction of our lives, and whether we’re living out the lives we truly want.
Why Are We So Busy?
Busyness is in our nature. Humans have something called “Idleness Aversion,” that is, on average, people are averse to being idle. Many participants of a shock study preferred to give themselves an electric shock one or more times than sit quietly with their thoughts.
Humans enjoy having a reason for their busyness, rather than simply being busy for the sake of it. In another study, busy people tended to be happier than idle ones. We like to be engaged and cognitively stimulated. When we are not engaged, we may become bored – our brain’s call to action.
Busyness is in our behavior. When we’re feeling short on time, we may attempt to engage in “time-deepening” behaviors such as multitasking. However, multitasking is actually not possible, and what we are doing instead is rapid “task switching,” which slows us down.
When switching from task to task, our brain doesn’t adjust immediately, because of a phenomenon called “attention residue.” Part of our brains are still focused on the previous task, so we work more slowly.
We may behave in a way that suggests we have a dopamine addiction. Especially in our technologically advanced world where a dopamine rush is simply a click away, we may be stealing our own motivation to complete more difficult tasks, and leaving ourselves with a low-grade desire to constantly seek dopamine in easy tasks.
Busyness is in our beliefs. Busy culture propels itself on the back of quietly-held unquestioned beliefs passed down from generation to generation. Believing that our society is a meritocracy means that we may believe those at the bottom of society earned their place, just like those at the top. This makes personal failure more crushing, and generosity unlikely.8
As religious belief has faded, a belief in work has taken its place with equal fervor, promising many of the same benefits: community, transcendence, meaning — but it often fails to deliver.
Busyness is in our culture.9 A “busyness paradox” exists, studied by time researcher Jonathan Gershuny. A rise in reported busy feelings on average has occurred at the same time as an average decrease in working hours. Why? In days of old, leisure signified a dominant social class; however, that paradigm has shifted. Busyness is the new indicator of social class. Being busy or putting on displays of busyness may indicate to others that we are socially or professionally desirable, and make us seem part of an elite class of people that “have a lot to do.”
And, for the time-strapped businessperson, material wealth may be a reward and status symbol that replaces leisure. Material wealth shows off “evidence” of hard work, busyness, and status in a way that other immaterial rewards cannot.
One of the symptoms of busy culture, “time macho,” a competition on who can be the most self-sacrificing with their time, pervades the contemporary work environment. Social comparison is easier and faster than ever with the rise of social media, which allows popularity to be quantified with likes and follows, and judgements to be made about levels of success based on other people.
Are there any alternatives to busyness? What other mindsets or lifestyles are out there? Who is doing nothing, and why? What can we gain from doing nothing, and what is lost when we don’t do nothing?
Minimalists can teach us a lot about the benefits of ruthlessly eliminating activity and material items from our lives. Trending now in Western society, but originating from many aspects of culture in Eastern society, minimalism has caught on because of the benefit that it allows us to focus more on the aspects of life that are truly personally important.
Essentialism is minimalism’s cousin, which emphasizes discovering what is essential to you, your life, or your business, and maximizing on those aspects of your life, rather than all the extras, allowing you to excel and focus. Not ruthlessly cutting out everything, but staying on track with a simple few.
Doing nothing is an experience that some people pay good money for, and that may be one of the most difficult practices in the fast-paced society of a technologically advanced 21st century. But why? Many of us do not realize the true benefits of doing nothing or prioritize doing nothing in our daily lives.
How do We Become Less Busy?
Busyness can be addressed from multiple angles — including time management and shifting activity levels, and changing our own beliefs about time and the purpose of life so that everything feels more abundant, without moving a muscle.10
Decluttering applies to schedules and spaces. Getting rid of material items makes for a clearer head, and less time spent maintaining and thinking about stuff.
Spare capacity allows us to pursue projects we may not normally prioritize, or finish projects that we planned out incorrectly. Cultivating spare capacity in our schedules gives us more potential growth than keeping a schedule that’s packed tight.
Setting boundaries with devices and not buying into a cycle of responsiveness will reduce the amount of time spent in mindless busyness. Especially in our technologically advanced society, it becomes incredibly easy and tempting to be constantly connected to work, friends, or information, and constantly busy with tasks regardless of how they fit into our bigger picture.
Savoring the moment and experiencing awe are just a few ways to stretch our experience of time, and take some perspective on life. And maybe even simply doing nothing.
Getting in touch with what is essential to ourselves can help us narrow down how we wish to spend our time – a precious resource.
We All Have Thoughts About Busyness
Responses from readers: What do you believe is your main obstacle to being and/or feeling less busy?
“I think busyness stems from lack of efficiency or some higher authority overseeing how you work… Obstacles [to] busyness include direct oversight by higher authorities, lack of motivation or goal to find efficient and effective ways of solving problem[s] at hand, and learned behavior that is not conducive to producing meaningful personal value.” – Michal, 34
“I think a huge obstacle for busyness is when people fill their lives with things to distract themselves from cognitions they need to work through, whether that be trauma, depression, a thought they are avoiding, or a task they are not wanting to complete.” – Nick, 29
“Capitalism and the constant need to work in order to get money to survive,. and then additional busyness when I try to do fun things that bring me joy to cope, but still require time and effort.” – Lijia, 26
“When time is a scarce resource, I’m forced to prioritize and be efficient. I’ve found that I often do my best work under pressure, so busyness is actually a positive thing for me. Not to mention that it’s actually really fun when you can get so into it that you achieve a flow state. There is absolutely a value to having dedicated down time, and I’ll intentionally carve out time to do fun things and wind down. But I’ve found that too much of either can be bad, just in different ways.” – Jason, 23
“I want to accomplish all my dreams and then some.” – Phillip, 32
“[The] biggest obstacle to being or feeling less busy is constantly feeling like I was taught that I should achieve my greatest potential and then feeling like I’ll only hit my potential if I’m working my hardest, meaning no down time.” – Zarina, 23
“If I’m not busy I’m alone with myself.” – Cameron, 21
“There are too many possible things to do, so I always feel them weighing on me. Even when I choose leisure. It’s not actually that I don’t have enough time, it’s that I have infinite possible work.” – Adam, 50
“Hours. I’m more productive late at night, but work in a 9-5 world. Night owls are often looked at like we are lazy because we sleep till the afternoon. But really our bodies just have a different circadian rhythm.” – K., 35
“For me definitely having way too much time stuck in my thoughts, [and] overthinking worries about the future.” – Chloe, 23
“In modern capitalism, the idea of ‘opportunity cost’ has permeated every aspect of life, that for every act, from sleeping in to taking longer to finish a degree, there is this anxiety that comes from the idea that theoretically you could be working in the most personally profitable way possible in that moment. This way of thinking is omnipresent today, but it’s kind [of] historically unprecedented. For example, despite everything he did in political organizing and philosophy and engineering, not once in Ben Franklin’s extensive diaries does he mention being ‘too busy.’ So, my question is, why did someone probably ‘busier’ than almost anyone alive never reference feeling busy?” – Tim, 23
“Culture teaches us to value being stretched thin and stressed out… I feel ‘judged/lazy’ when I have down time!” – Cait, 40
“How can we transform our lives from a rapid whirlwind of work and diversion to a life that creates more meaning and fulfillment?” – Nicholas Coker on the Malady of Busyness
How do Purpose and Busyness Relate?
Why is there a section on busyness on this website about finding meaning and purpose? What do they have to do with one another?
Busyness has to do with the ways in which we put our discovered purposes into action. Even if we know we have some sort of purpose, or find certain things meaningful, it doesn’t necessarily mean they will materialize automatically. Especially if we are busy doing other things! Chronic busyness could get in the way of pursuing purpose – OR our day to day activities could be very aligned with a purpose, and bring us great meaning! But are we aware of how we are actually spending our time? As the existentialists might have put it, ARE WE AWAKE?! How does what we do on a day-to-day basis relate to who we are, and what we believe in; what we love? Does it at all? Or are we busy for the sake of being busy… busy to avoid thinking… wrapped up in the Disease of Being Busy?
There’s nothing wrong with being busy, but if you’re reading this section, you may be interested in eschewing busyness for the sake of it in order to engage in busyness for an aligned purpose: spending your time in a way that aligns with your values and takes you in the direction you wish your life to progress; eliminating busywork and busybody behavior to streamline your activity into your essentials, and go deeper into those. But how do you know if you are being busy for the sake of it?
In Praise of Slowness
We fail to notice how living at such high speeds affects all aspects of our lives (health, work, relationships, community). How did we get so fast, and is it possible or even desirable to slow down?
How to Find Work You Love
Warren Buffet said… taking jobs to build up your resume is the same as saving up sex for old age.
A Kinder, Gentler Philosophy of Success
Meritocracy: A great thing. “If you’ve got talent and energy and skill, you can get to the top.” But, on the other side of the coin, you also believe in a society that those who deserve to get to the bottom also get to the bottom and stay there.
Embrace the near win
Mastery is not the same as success. Success is a moment. Mastery is not a commitment to a goal, but a constant pursuit.
The Busy Identity
“The Second Self” is the projected self in which we seem busy. We have built identities based in being busy.
The Cult of Busyness
Historically, it was quite frustrating, cumbersome, and slow to communicate with one another. Now, we have almost no filter for communication at all.
The True Cost of Being Too Busy
The connection with our sense of self diminishes when we are too busy. Losing this connection is a great concern.
How to turn busy into balance
Being busy is a choice, and we’re making this choice based on bad information. Balance makes us more fulfilled, and allows for the important process of integration.
The Fallacy of the Work/Life Balance
Stop searching for balance. You cannot separate your work from your life. There are 4 transformative results of a holistic thought process: Grace, Awareness, Momentum, and Empowerment.
- Festini, S. B., McDonough, I. M., & Park, D. C. (2016). The Busier the Better: Greater Busyness Is Associated with Better Cognition. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, 8, 98.
- Ebrahimi, Rudd, & Patrick. (n.d.). To Thrive Or to Suffer At the Hand of Busyness: How Lay Theories of Busyness Influence Psychological Empowerment and Volunteering. ACR North American Advances. http://www.acrwebsite.org/volumes/1024694/volumes/v45/NA-45
- Wilcox, K., Laran, J., Stephen, A. T., & Zubcsek, P. P. (2016). How being busy can increase motivation and reduce task completion time. Journal of personality and social psychology, 110(3), 371–384. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspa0000045
- Hsee, C. K., Yang, A. X., & Wang, L. (2010). Idleness aversion and the need for justifiable busyness. Psychological Science, 21(7), 926–930.
- Yang, A. X., & Hsee, C. K. (2019). Idleness versus busyness. Current Opinion in Psychology, 26, 15–18.
- Martin, I., & North, T. (n.d.). Foster a flow state for better work performance and health. Retrieved June 24, 2022, from https://delphis.org.uk/peak-performance/flow-state/
- Randolph, K. (n.d.). The Quad: Busy culture can cause stress as students compare themselves to others. Daily Bruin. Retrieved June 24, 2022, from https://dailybruin.com/2018/11/28/the-quad-busy-culture-can-cause-stress-as-students-compare-themselves-to-others
- Ong, A. I. (2018, July 17). Between meritocracy and mental health sits gratitude and inclusion. Medium. https://antheaindiraong.medium.com/between-meritocracy-and-mental-health-is-gratitude-and-inclusion-e79fd410a0cb
- Mars. (2019, August 1). The Red Queen effect & the paradox of busyness. Duality. https://unboundedrationality.com/red-queen-effect-paradox-of-busyness/
- Burkeman. (n.d.). This column will change your life: stop being busy. The Guardian. https://amp.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/apr/19/change-your-life-stop-being-busy