How to escape the cult of busyness

“So, have you been busy?”

If you’ve ever started a conversation with this question, you’re not alone. If you’re using it on a regular basis, you may have unwittingly joined one of the most populous cults in the Western world – the ‘cult of busyness’.

The cult of busyness is a well-established institution. In 1985, author and political activist Barbara Ehrenreich observed in The New York Times how “busyness has become an important insignia of upper middle class status”. Some would describe it as a “badge of honour”. But with work-related stress being the second most common causeof workers compensation claims in Australia, the time has come to bust the cult and free its members.

But wait... I enjoy being busy!

I’ve noticed that there seem to be three kinds of busyness:

  • Joyful: when you're fully engaged in whatever you're busy doing, experiencing what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls a state of “flow”.

If you’re joyfully busy, then you’re probably not complaining about your busyness – you’re thriving in it. If that sounds like you, then you probably don’t need to read this post. Go and enjoy your busyness!

  • Miserable: when you're overloaded to the point of exhaustion, and you feel frustrated or hopeless about how busy you are.

More often, a conversation about busyness involves people who are miserably busy. If you identify with this, then you’re probably complaining about your busyness quite regularly – “I’m so busy I don’t have time to think”, etc – and it might seem like there's no end in sight. This type of busyness can arise for a range of reasons, perhaps because you've overcommitted to taking care of others’ needs at the expense of your own.

  • Avoidant: when you're using busyness as a form of procrastination; as an excuse for not getting on with something more important.

This type of busyness can be quite insidious, because you might not even realise you're in it. You might be telling yourself that you're genuinely busy – even happily busy – but you're really finding reasons (excuses) to stay busy so that you don’t have to face a bigger issue in your life - for example, a significant change in your career (“I’m too busy to look for another job”), relationship (“I’m too busy to have that difficult conversation”), or health (“I’m too busy to exercise”).

The key to escaping the cult of busyness is to acknowledge that you're in it. Paradoxically, this is not about 'doing more'. In fact, it's quite the opposite.

Missing: inaction

Of course, the cult of busyness is not a real cult. It’s a state of mind – or, more accurately, mindlessness – that is characterised by an implicit assumption that “busier is better” or that busyness is inevitable. These assumptions are strongly engrained in our culture – and particularly in those of us who are (or have been) fee-earners; where our value to our employer is based on how busy we are (as measure in billable units). In accepting these seemingly obvious assumptions, we may find ourselves beholden to a lifestyle that doesn’t serve our broader purpose, and we end up sacrificing our quality of life for a sense of achievement that is all but illusory.

Modern man is frantically trying to earn enough to buy things he's too busy to enjoy. ~Frank A. Clark

The problem is – we live in a ‘doing’ culture. Nike said “Just Do It” and so we did it and we kept doing it and now we don't know how to stop. And in our obsession with doing, many of us have lost touch with something more important – our way of being.

The distinction between ‘being’ and ‘doing’ is one that I have been exploring through formal studies in ontological coaching. It loosely correlates with the distinction between ‘mindset’ and ‘behaviour’, except that ontological coaching is supported by a comprehensive and detailed body of knowledge that explores our way of being as a function of three domains – Language, Emotions and Body.

Our way of being is important because it predisposes us to certain choices or possibilities in our behaviour. While we all have access to strategies that could improve our quality of life, our way of being determines whether we can recognise those strategies and are willing to put them into action – in other words, whether we are resourceful (empowered) or unresourceful (disempowered).

In the context of busyness, a person whose way of being is 'unresourceful' may find comfort in chronically complaining about being busy and be oblivious to feasible solutions, while a person whose way of being is 'resourceful' will look for and recognise opportunities to change the situation – for example, by negotiating (or re-negotiating) commitments, and so on.

We can’t change what we don’t notice, so in order to change our relationship with busyness, we must stop doing - at least momentarily - and start noticing our way of being.

Let’s play Busyness Bingo

So here’s my suggestion: I invite you to play a game of “Busyness Bingo”.

For the next week, just notice how often you find yourself talking about busyness with colleagues, friends, family, and so on. Don’t judge it – just notice it.

Right now, it's enough just to notice how often busyness shows up in your life. For bonus points, you could also consider:

  • What are some of the unspoken assumptions in your conversation about busyness? What are some of the words you use to describe it?

  • How do you feel when you talk about being busy? What mood does it create? And how does this mood affect your behaviour?

  • How does busyness feel in your body? Where do you notice it?

By engaging in a simple exercise like this, you’ll build your 'noticing muscle'. And the more you notice something, the more opportunity you’ll have to change it.

Try it for a week and let me know what you notice!

It is not enough to be busy; so are the ants. The question is: what are we busy about? ~Henry David Thoreau