Are There Alternatives to Busy Culture?
There are a plethora of articles online educating readers on how to be “effective” or “productive” rather than busy; how to manage and bend time in order to be more in control and more capable of working effectively; to get more done in less time, in order to get more done over a whole day. These are strategies focused on time management, or a narrowing down of priorities, on game-ifying life. But they are not necessarily concerned with questioning busyness as a construct altogether.
If you are curious, check out these examples:
How to Stop Being Busy And Start Being Productive | How to Stop Being Busy and Accomplish More By Doing Less | 3 Ways To Stop Being Busy And Start Being Productive | Stop Being Busy, Start Being Productive | How to Stop Being So Busy And Get More Done | 5 Ways to Stop Being ‘Too Busy’ and Get More Sh!t Done!
These articles are usually focused on busy people that don’t want to stop being busy, but rather, want to get even more done amidst their jam-packed schedules. It’s okay to want these strategies, and to, for example, want to work more effectively in order to have more downtime, in order to achieve personal goals, or in order to spend more quality time with family or in nature. We have plenty of those strategies written in Becoming Less Busy – time management ideas that are genuinely helpful to efficiency. Yet we are also interested in addressing… What are alternatives to busyness?
What if the goal isn’t to work more effectively but simply to work less, and to feel comfortable doing so?
Want to jump in headfirst? Try this guided meditation. It only takes six minutes!
Guided Meditation | Letting Go of Busyness
A calming, voice-over meditation video. Follow the voice’s instructions and be patient with yourself. It’s ok if your mind wanders.
But first, we probably need to address…
Why Are We So Busy?
Perhaps it’s because we like being busy. There are a lot of perks to tapping into busyness:
A physical product created from sustained activity, such as a completed project, the reaching of a personal goal
The Reward of Work
Like money, approval from others, self-satisfaction, status
Like money, approval from others, self-satisfaction, status
In a culture where busyness is seen as positive, it gives us something to talk about, helps us fit in and feel comfortable with a peer group
Avoidance of Unenjoyable Things
When we remove downtime, we can avoid feelings of uselessness, or avoid other cognitions we may work through if we weren’t busy; we simply don’t have to think about anything other than the task at hand
Gain of Enjoyable Things
Importance, progress, the feeling that we are moving forward and we have a sense of purpose in life, joy
These are all powerful feelings and rewards we get from busyness, and we may have no obvious alternatives to achieve them otherwise. When busy, it’s sometimes difficult to see another path.
Being busy can be like climbing up a ladder – straightforward and obvious.
Is the ladder leaning on the right wall?
Or, do we even need to climb a ladder at all?
On the one hand, busyness is an engrained and socially acceptable way of life. However, we don’t want to trust it blindly as the only way to live. What if our ladder really is on the wrong wall? Are we ok if it never reaches a stopping point? There are many other ways of living and viewing what we can do in the world that can bring as much joy and sense of purpose as busyness. Perhaps we have never considered another way of living, so we are busy by default. Maybe we know other ways, but this is the one we chose.
This page offers a chance to explore some options in conversation with busyness.
Let’s Take a Minute…
What are we committing to when we choose to pack our schedule with as much activity as possible? Though we may bemoan the busy schedule and complain we have no downtime, we may also have no intention of stopping, and that is something to own up to. There’s a part of us that may, well…. enjoy something about a ridiculously busy schedule. Below is a reflection page that asks us to consider what we gain from our busy lives:
Exploring New Patterns of Speech
“Are you busy?”
“No, I’m engaged in meaningful work that I love.”
If busyness really is sewn into the fabric of our culture, it could be the easiest state to admit to being in. As we’ve learned in What is Busyness?, most of us distrust the use of the phrase “I’m busy,” because it could mean any number of things. It’s one of those “bucket words” like ‘good’ or ‘bad’ that holds a myriad of other definitions within it. So, what are some alternatives to busyness? Alternative words, alternative feelings, alternative lifestyles? What is a good way to check in with what we’re really feeling? Are we busy in a negative way, or busy in a positive way? Are we happy with the activities and projects we’re pursuing, or are we overwhelmed? Using alternative phrases may be a way to get more specific with ourselves and others around us, and to check in on that busyness. What’s really coming up?
What are other alternatives to “I’m busy,” that may more accurately describe our state of being? Write a few ideas in the worksheet below!
Curious about making the most out of how we communicate?
Try exploring these pages:
Taking Responsibility for Your Busyness
“Try to imagine a life without timekeeping. You probably can’t. You know the month, the year, the day of the week. There is a clock on your wall or the dashboard of your car. You have a schedule, a calendar, a time for dinner or a movie. Yet all around you, timekeeping is ignored. Birds are not late. A dog does not check its watch. Deer do not fret over passing birthdays. Man alone measures time. Man alone chimes the hour. And, because of this, man alone suffers a paralyzing fear that no other creature endures. A fear of time running out.”
–The Time Keeper by Mitch Albom
A group called the Conscious Leadership Group, which teaches leaders how to make conscious communities at work and beyond, sees “experiencing a scarcity of time” and “sensing a loss of control” as emotions outside of their 15 core commitments. Commitment 12 of the conscious leadership group is called “Enough.” It states “I commit to experiencing that I have enough of everything… including time, money, love, energy, space, resources, etc.”1
The Conscious Leadership group encourages a reframing of “busy” feelings in a way where leaders take full responsibility. Saying “I’m busy” is often used in everyday conversation as a way out of taking full responsibility. As co-founder Jim Dethmer writes in his article, “Busy and Bored: Two Sides of the Same Coin”, there are more conscious ways to explain one’s situation than using the usual busyness excuse:
“The world I’m pointing to is a world in which a leader, when asked, ‘How are you?’ might respond, ‘Great. I’m at peace and optimally creative because I have all the time in the world to do everything I’m meant to do. And if I need it, I simply create more time.’”2
The Conscious Leadership Group reframes time as a concept and reframes every mindset as a commitment a leader is either consciously or unconsciously making. Those commitments either exist above the line (open, curious, committed to learning), or below the line (closed, defensive, committed to being right). The commitment a leader is making when they feel they do not have “enough” is written as: “I commit to the scarcity mentality choosing to see that there is ‘not enough’ for me and others in the world and therefore I have to be conscious of making sure I get and preserve what is ‘mine.’” When we are busy, we often exist in this state of telling ourselves we do not have enough, and therefore we must always strive for more — consciously or unconsciously committing to the idea that there is not enough, and something in the world must be preserved or gotten to succeed.
Jim Dethmer coaches many self-proclaimed “busy” leaders, who are trying to escape boredom or other emotions they personally connect with idleness. In his article, he says of that experience, “When I ask leaders how they’re doing, the number one response I get is some version of ‘I’m busy.’ I might hear: ‘I’m swamped,’ or ‘I’m overwhelmed,’ or ‘I’m stressed.’ They might sigh with visibly tight or slumping shoulders, or say ‘great, move on, let’s get to coaching. I’ve got a lot to do.’” This type of thinking, says Dethmer, is unconscious “below the line” thinking, and it’s out of line with commitment 12: Enough.
Being below the line isn’t bad; it’s simply a state of consciousness, and many leaders exist here in order to get things done.
“Believing that there is never enough time focuses the leader, helps them prioritize, and energizes them (with stress hormones) to get shit done.” When leaders investigate what they gain from this unconscious commitment, they may discover that through burnout and never taking breaks, they gain other benefits that they don’t openly admit to. Many leaders unconsciously enjoy being here, and they think it is beneficial. Dethmer recommends presence as an alternative, and being here now. The only way to experience not enough time is to think ahead to the future or the past, rather than simply being present, checking in, and utilizing one’s energy for the moment now. Dethmer encourages leaders to consider how they’re making unconscious commitments when they’re experiencing busyness and overwhelm. What are you committing to when you exist in those states? Feeling busy is a choice of consciousness, which we may not stop to realize – there are other ways to see each moment, which commit to responsibility and presence, and recognize the choices we make.
What is Your Unconscious Commitment?
- Your results indicate your commitments, not your words
- Leaders practice radical responsibility
- If your consciousness is an iceberg: What’s above the water is what you say (conscious desire), what’s below the water are your results (unconscious commitment).
- Stop believing your words, and start owning your results.
- In practice saying: “I’m unconsciously committed to not taking time off, being frazzled, and burning out while telling the world I want balance.”
- How is this pattern familiar? What do I gain from keeping this pattern going?
Locating Yourself | A Key to Conscious Leadership
- Conscious leaders ask themselves “Where am I?”
- We offer the tool of a line; a simple black line. Everyone is either above the line or below the line – a state of consciousness.
- Above the line: Open, curious, committed to learning
- Below the line: Closed, defensive, committed to being right
Why do less? | Why be less? | Why have less?
In an attempt to eschew a busy and material-focused lifestyle, some people choose minimalism, which is a practice of living life in a more minimal way, using a more deliberate process to decide what gets to be a part of one’s life. Minimalists usually focus on what specifically adds value to their lives, discarding the rest. There are a spectrum of ways to practice minimalism, whether it be simply asking oneself more questions about one’s motivations when making a decision, to giving away large amounts of belongings in order to focus on other aspects of life. The concepts of minimalism can help anyone live with more intention and deliberateness.3
What is the point of minimalism?
Minimalism can be a strategy for pursuing more cleanly and clearly what one wants out of life. It focuses on ensuring that only essentials are taken care of, and then those things that are essential to one’s individual joy and meaning in life. When we start to eliminate elements from our lives, it forces us to question what we really do want out of life, and how to get it. It begs the question, could what I want be accomplished more simply through a lifestyle reduction?3
Busyness and Minimalism?
In a way, minimalism is the opposite of busyness. Busyness is a state of excessiveness, excess — having a great deal to do, or a great deal of detail. Minimalism is simplicity; the least possible – an extreme minimum. In some definitions it means “barely adequate,” or in some practices, it’s a relentless pursuit of as little as possible. It is a way of life to consider if it will bring more meaning; and, as with any strategy, it can be used as a tool in ways that are beneficial, but it’s not always necessary to practice it at the extreme.
If busyness is a compulsive way of life for you, you might consider learning more about minimalism and incorporating some aspects of minimalism into daily life. It can be a helpful way to see things with a more deliberate lens and use that lens to make more intentional choices that align with an internal compass of meaning. Beneath all the noise of busyness is a way of living that mostly includes listening, questioning, and reducing.
Minimalism and Tiny Homes
For minimalist movements like the “Tiny Home” movement, environmental concerns, financial concerns, and a desire for more time and freedom are some of the attractive benefits for people to choose to live with less. Tiny homes are built to streamline the essential elements of a house so that living becomes efficient, simple, and easy. When we have fewer physical items, and only what we need, it can be easy to focus on the essentials and customize a living experience to suit our specific needs. It can make us more mobile and adaptable since our roots don’t run deep in one specific place. Especially in Florida, many retirees live in RVs in order to increase mobility, allowing them to focus on travel, spending time with family, and other unmeasurable yet fulfilling aspects of life.4
It’s important to note, however, that the tiny home “trend” mentioned in many articles largely stems from financial need. Living in a tiny home is a way to save money, and still have essential needs met. It’s a huge reason so many people choose to live in cities, where essential needs can also be met outside of a small apartment. Though reducing and choosing to live in a small home is beneficial to the environment, and a movement that encourages people to live with less and consume less is beneficial to the planet, it’s also a luxury to be able to throw things away and reduce without the fear of not having essential needs met, and being able to buy anything that comes up as useful or necessary. Just as busyness is a luxury and can be a status symbol, minimalism can reflect those same patterns if it’s a choice. Everyone is lucky to have choices in their lives, and having more choices usually stems from having comfort and stability.
That said, minimalism has a lot to offer, and can even help us become better global citizens, better stewards of the earth, and more conscious and deliberate people, pursuing fulfilling lives while eschewing the values of capitalism and constant consumption of resources.
As we can see, questioning one’s motivations can quickly turn into an investigation of self-knowledge. How well do I know myself? Do I know my motivations for doing? Do my actions connect with an essential need or value that I hold? What is that value?
Our actions can be powerful clues for our internal motivations, but our internal motivations may not always align with a deliberate value that we wish to hold. Questioning our actions and even belongings can bring us closer to an understanding… why do I do this? What drives me, and is that my desired driver?
Bringing everything back to our life’s “essentials”, we must ask ourselves, “what is essential, to me?”
Or this handy flowchart:
What is Essential to Me?
“Success becomes a catalyst for failure because it leads to … ‘the undisciplined pursuit of more.’ The antidote to that problem is the disciplined pursuit of less – but better.”
– Greg McKeown
Essentialism | The Disciplined Pursuit of Less
Greg McKeown offers a more digestible flavor of minimalism called Essentialism, which he explores in his book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. He believes that Essentialism is a discipline that can encourage focus and lead to success.
McKeown, a business strategist, believes less is more. Through a decade of research, McKeown learned the surprising fact that success can be a catalyst for failure. It can create opportunities for a lot of inessential business, detracting from focus. While interviewing top business leaders, McKeown saw that “Success bred so many opportunities and options that it diffused the very focus that led to success in the first place.”4 In other words, success made people busier, and being busier led to failure, unless those people remained focused on what was essential, and pursued that with discipline.
Essentialism by Greg McKeown | A Visual Summary
A visual guide of the tenets of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.
Through his book, McKeown provides tenets for a reader on the pathway to essentialism, keeping it very simple: Explore, Eliminate, Execute. McKeown believes it is essential to allow ourselves the time and space to discern what is important to us and to learn to gracefully say “no” in order to block out distractions and reach our potential. His chapter titles winnow lessons down to actionable one-word essentials: escape, look, play, sleep, select, clarify, uncommit, edit, limit, buffer, subtract, progress, flow, focus, and be. McKeown’s strategy provides a pathway to reduced activity density that can actually allow for more focus, and a more disciplined pursuit of work. Essentially practicing minimalism under a different name, McKeowns emphasis on subtracting and selecting what remains a part of one’s life can also be a helpful tool in discernment and reaching flow.
The Case for Doing Nothing
Some people pay good money to do nothing. Vipassana retreats, or silent retreats — in which attendees sit in a room doing nothing, can cost up to thousands of dollars. Vipassana is a style of Buddhist meditation intended to help people “explore the nature of reality,” and common retreats last for ten days, but can go for much longer.
A typical schedule at a Vipassana retreat:5
- 4:00AM: Wake-up Bell
- 4:30AM-6:30AM: Meditate
- 6:30AM-8:00AM: Breakfast
- 8:00AM-11:00AM: Meditate
- 11:00AM-1:00PM: Lunch
- 1:00PM-5:00PM: Meditate
- 5:00PM-6:00PM: Tea
- 6:00PM-7:00PM: Meditate
- 7:00PM-8:15PM: Lecture
- 8:30PM-9:00PM: Meditate
- 10:00PM: Lights Out
A Meaning of Life can provide a very similar experience free of charge. You can follow the exact schedule above, but during the Lecture time, watch some videos from our website. You can even send us thousands of dollars if it will make the experience feel more authentic. Feel free to email us your thoughts on the experience!
Joking aside, when you reflect upon what a Vipassana retreat could have to offer, why do you think people pay to go to them?
Why do people pay money to do nothing? Isn’t nothing available for free?
In August of 2020, the University of Fine Arts in Hamburg offered scholarships to people to do…nothing. Consisting of only four questions, the application asked: “What do you not want to do? For how long do you not want to do it? Why is it important not to do this thing in particular? Why are you the right person not to do it?” The scholarship paid 1600 euros to accepted applicants and required that they send in an experience report in the months following their stint of nothingness.
Friedrich von Borries, the creator of the program, observed that doing nothing is not easy, and hoped to create an exhibition around the question “What can I refrain from so that my life has fewer negative consequences on the lives of others?”6 Von Borries observed that in a culture built around material success and accomplishment, yet claiming to value sustainability, a paradox must exist. How is it possible to be sustainable in a culture that always seems to value attaining “more”?
Now you can write your own “application” for the Do Nothing grant, right here on AMeaningofLife!
1600’s French philosopher Pascal agreed with this sentiment. He wrote, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” And as we know, it’s true that a large percentage of people would rather receive negative stimulation than no external stimulation at all. Doing nothing is difficult.
In Jenny Odell’s essay collection How to Do Nothing, she details the performance art of Finnish artist Pilvi Takala, whose performance piece The Trainee (2008) shook up a consulting firm with one simple act: doing nothing. By simply sitting idly at a desk in a busy wing of the office, walking around aimlessly, and riding the elevators all day, Takala began an email firestorm, with managers and executives demanding to know – who is this marketing intern that dares to do nothing?
As Earth’s citizens become more conscious of the sustainability effort and aware of the importance of preserving our planet, doing nothing may need to play more of a role. When considering one’s impact, consciously doing nothing can sometimes be the most effective route. Sustainability often requires acts of nothingness, or conscious avoidance of use (of water, electricity, meat, chemicals, etc.) In the fashion industry, sustainability has become a trendy movement, with brands focusing on sustaining the earth by leaving out certain chemicals or services or reusing fabric.
In our fast-paced, crazy-busy world, how can we come to appreciate the art of doing nothing? What positive impacts could come from doing nothing? How does doing nothing work? And why should we do nothing?
- We explored alternatives to being busy, starting with a 6-minute meditation, and a reflection on the reasons why you yourself are busy. We looked at new ways of speaking that can be more deliberate and powerful than the typical “I’m busy.” We learned about conscious leadership and above vs. below-the-line thinking. In the conscious leadership framework, always experiencing oneself as having “enough” of everything, including time, is one of the 15 core commitments. Bringing our unconscious commitments to the light can show us the ways in which we have unknowingly committed to burnout.
- We ran through the concepts of minimalism and essentialism as alternatives to materialism and consumerism, and as lifestyles that allow us to focus more on what matters in life, as well as be more effective with the fewer things we are doing. We explored the idea of doing nothing as transformative and worthwhile, even making our own do nothing grants and challenges.
If we simply stop being busy cold turkey, it can be a challenge to know what we are gaining instead. But less really can be more, especially when it declutters our lives and helps us prioritize what’s important!
- Trost, K. (2020, September 2). Summary — the 15 commitments of Conscious Leadership: A new paradigm for sustainable success. Medium. https://katytrost.medium.com/summary-the-15-commitments-of-conscious-leadership-a-new-paradigm-for-sustainable-success-e2c8fcd40c8d
- Dethmer, J. (n.d.). Busy and Bored: Two Sides of the Same Coin. Retrieved May 28, 2022, from https://conscious.is/blogs/busy-and-bored-two-sides-of-the-same-coin
- Qureshi, A. (2020, October 11). Minimalism is the key to being a sound environmental steward. Blue and Green Tomorrow. https://blueandgreentomorrow.com/invest/minimalism-is-the-key-to-being-a-sound-environmental-steward/
- Stanford Graduate School of Business. (2014, February 10). Greg McKeown: Essentialism – The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T9x6D09AKBU
- Griffel, M. (2018, January 25). What happens during a 10-day silent meditation retreat? Medium. https://mattangriffel.medium.com/what-happens-during-a-10-day-silent-vipassana-retreat-43eded56e4e5
- Oltermann. (n.d.). Money for nothing: German university offers “idleness grants.” The Guardian. https://amp.theguardian.com/world/2020/aug/20/bone-idle-german-university-offers-grant-for-best-inactivity
- Opitz, S. (Ed.). (2012). Pilvi Takala. Hatje Cantz.
- Hamer, L. (2018, February 17). The big reason why many retirees are flocking to tiny homes is actually pretty smart. Wall St. Watchdog. https://www.cheatsheet.com/money-career/big-reason-many-retirees-flocking-tiny-homes-actually-pretty-smart.html/