Breaking the Busy-ness Habit

So a few months ago, I did an unbelievable thing. I took my own advice (gasp!) and took a step toward recovery from the most popular drug in America: busy-ness.

When I woke up on a Monday morning at 6am with a knot in my stomach, dreading the day ahead of me, I had to wonder what was going on. I looked around – I still had a roof over my head, food to eat, my happy, healthy kids and a loving partner. I was scheduled to be at work on the farm – the beautiful, green organic farm – that I sometimes felt guilty referring to as “work.” So what the hell did I have to dread?

Then I turned on my phone and pulled up my calendar. Oh, yeah. That.

And by ‘that,’ I mean the mess of multi-colored chaos that appeared before my glazed-over eyes. Just in that one day, I had somehow managed to schedule myself for 5 meetings, a trip to the bank to make deposits, a presentation to the Board, an internal audit of our entire system of financial records, and a creative project that required me to organize about 30 social justice topics into themes for a new book.

All in one 8-hour period. WTF was I thinking???

I tell you what – that I am superhuman. That I don’t need to eat, or use the bathroom, or even just catch my breath during the course of the workday. That I am a machine. That because things fit into the pretty little boxes on my calendar, they also fit into my life. That if everyone else is stressed out at work, I might as well be too. That after doing all that, I would miraculously return home fully charged and ready to play with four kids.

Well, I hope you can see the error in my thinking (and understand that it was probably fueled by one too many cups of organic, fair trade, dark roast coffee).

So I decided to honor the “Do less, Be more” mantra instilled in me by one of my mentors, Molesey Crawford. I cancelled 85% of my scheduled activities so that I could be fully present with the remaining two (the presentation and the bank deposit could not be rescheduled). And then I sank fully into those two activities and let my brain know that it had all the time it needed to complete them, and complete them well.

And while I felt an immediate rush of relief (and extreme privilege) to be able to ax more than half of my calendar for that day (those other things still needed to be done, they were spread out over the next two weeks instead of crammed into two hours), it was surprisingly difficult to let go of that initial tension that accompanied my waking moments. Why? Because, like so many Americans, I was actually addicted to the stress of over-scheduling and time pressure.

The truth is, even though I had been telling my clients to take more time for themselves and slow down, I was so used to multi-tasking and cramming too many activities into too little time that I had a hard time doing any less. The adrenaline and stress hormones that flooded my brain when I felt squeezed between activities created a strange high that I craved even when I knew I shouldn’t, and the sad fact is that I had been a stress junkie since my high school days when after-school commitments started to fill up all the spaces in my planner (you know, in between the love notes and rainbows and stuff).

Plenty of research has shown that slowing down and doing less is actually a more efficient way to accomplish our most important goals over time, and increases our accuracy as well as our overall enjoyment of life. Busy-ness, on the other hand, is a surefire way to increase mistakes, poor judgment, frustration, resentment, and health problems like high blood pressure and out-of-control blood sugar. Busy-ness becomes addictive by making us feel that our backs are constantly against the wall, which triggers the body’s stress response system. In an effort to help us, the body floods us with its natural drugs, those feel-good hormones known as adrenaline and opiate-like neurotransmitters called endorphins. When we consciously choose to give up busy-ness, we forego this rush of drug-induced hype. So slowing down and doing less can create a sense of busy-ness withdrawal, also known as restlessness and boredom.

Have you ever tried to simplify your schedule just to find it filled back up because of your own busy-feign behavior? Do you somehow always manage to sabotage your own efforts to slow down and be more present? If you answered no, then perhaps you’re one of the five Americans left who don’t suffer from a constant sense of overwhelm and exhaustion in their day-to-day lives. For the rest of us, here’s a few steps to detox from the time trap and rebel against the culture of busy-ness addiction:

  1. Hack your to-do list. And by hack, I mean slash it mercilessly. Remember – just because events fit on the page does NOT mean they will fit into your life. Plan out your day in your typical fashion and then slash it in half. And maybe slash it again, if you can. Assume that you’ve been ridiculously overambitious (because you probably have) and then cut it down.
  2. Aim to accomplish no more than two important things per day. At the most. Even if your boss or partner or kids or friends expect you to be doing more, know in your head that two is the real number. Anything more is icing. Don’t let anybody, including your loved ones, push busy-ness onto you.
  3. Account for the cumulative nature of time sucks. Things like travel time, parking, unexpected run-ins, and (if there are children involved) the inevitable tantrum just as it’s time to leave. These types of small things add up to make everything take much longer than we think it will. By scheduling less activities into your day, you create a natural buffer for yourself to confront these inevitable time sucks with grace, patience and (perhaps) even a sense of amusement.
  4. Use self-care to combat withdrawal. The physiological effects of busy-ness addiction are real. You likely will experience very noticeable changes to your mood and physical health, and not always in the direction you’d like. Anxiety can creep in when we think we’re “supposed” to be doing something – anything – right at this moment. Nervousness, boredom, low moods and intense cravings may come up as our brains adjust to not receiving the constant stimulation and arousal of a super-packed schedule. Luckily, these effects are temporary, but they can still be challenging to endure. Anticipate them, and use regularly scheduled self-care practices such as meditation, yoga, and massage to calibrate your body’s chemicals and train your brain to be okay with sitting still. Exercise can also be effective in stimulating adrenaline and endorphins in ways that won’t damage your system.
  5. Release the guilt and celebrate your slowness. Reward yourself for keeping reasonable limits on your time and energy. Affirm yourself and your choice to slow down by regularly reviewing how you feel. Combat the assumption that you’ve been less productive by keeping a running tally of what goals you have accomplished, and be sure to pay attention to quality as much as quantity.
  6. Get new friends. If you tend to be surrounded with people who seem to thrive on busy-ness (or, more typical, the illusion of it) or who seem to get their sense of identity and importance by being constantly overstretched, you may want to seek a new crowd. Hanging with people who buy into the culture of busy-ness is like trying to stay sober around your bar friends. Maybe once you’re over the hump, you’ll be bale to return to these folks, but for now do yourself a favor and meet a more mellow crew.

Hang in there…we’re on this road to recovery together!



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