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Busyness Recovery

For months, these words have not been able to pass through the tips of my fingers. I tell myself I have been too busy.

In these same months, however, I have managed to listen to many podcasts, read a number of books, spend time with my parents, scroll through a few hundred posts, take my kids away for a long weekend, complete several work projects and coaching assignments, meditate, see one or two friends, go to the theatre, watch the Barbie movie, walk the dogs, swim in the sea, do yoga, shop, clean and prepare many meals, watch 18 hours of Bridgeton on Netflix in one long weekend, spend more time with my parents and maintain equanimity through driving lessons with my son.

I have also, in this time, been reflecting on what it means to be busy and why busyness appears to be such a seductive state of being right now. I have even attempted to do this with non-judgemental curiosity.

I have not only reflected on what drives my sense of busyness, but have also noticed how each activity or inactivity has made me feel. No guesses which activities I tried to hide or justify as they filled me with shame and embarrassment, which activities filled me with a sense of achievement, which filled me with terror and which I posted on Instagram with joy and because I felt like it in the moment. I also took note of what was going on inside me when I was actually bored and what activities I took up to escape the boredom or whatever else I didn’t want to feel.

Years ago, with young children and a second career to ensure financial security and maybe even self actualisation, my busyness may have looked different. The cluster of activities were similar, but some were given a tiny amount of space and others a huge amount. Yoga, sea swimming and meditation were sadly only later additions as they fell into the category of ‘luxury’. I would not have been able to fit them in as I erroneously believed them to take time rather than open it up.

I see now that what I focused on was what gave me a quick fix: a heightened sense of self worth and relevance. Being somewhat addicted to finding self worth and relevance, although not necessarily consciously, I pursued family work and financial work activities relentlessly, totally ignoring any indicator suggesting that full throttle may not be the most efficient choice. I don’t think I even saw it as a choice.

I found myself having surreptitiously competitive conversations with others about ‘being on treadmills’, ‘excessively long days’, ‘total exhaustion’ and ‘no time for myself, ever!’ I spoke about seemingly endless pressure and anxiety and felt a continuous underlying feeling of just never being enough for anyone. Time for myself, I believed, could come later: a future luxury. For years, I considered myself on the edge of burnout, but I also told myself that I was too strong to go over the edge.

This did not stop me from fantasising about going over the edge. In this fantasy, I would be locked up somewhere and forced to rest for weeks with no one being able to ask me for anything. On one occasion, I caught myself feeling envy instead of empathy when visiting a colleague in hospital which, had I been paying attention, may well have been an indicator that I had already crossed the line into ‘over the edgeness’.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing and I wonder whether I would have approached life and the seemingly endless demands on my time a little differently if I had the lens then that I do now. Yes, I had a big and complex job as a mother, and yes, I also had to earn a living, with all the pressure and responsibility that went with that. Yes, I also liked to consider old Maslow and where I featured on his hierarchy of needs, but in truth, there was a less obvious and quite seductive payoff that kept me in the busyness game. It was a bit like belonging to a secret club that I thought was exclusive. Eventually I realised it wasn’t exclusive at all, with almost everyone else qualifying to belong to it, too.

My sense of relevance, value and worthiness has long been attached to belonging to this Busyness Club. Given that I had to be busy to feel the belonging, I only paid attention to my feeling of productive busyness. It was hard work maintaining my position in the Busyness Club because someone else could always express their busyness as greater than mine. This increased my feelings of ‘lesser than’ and made me feel like I needed to redouble my efforts to maintain a position close to worthiness.

Now, I am extricating myself from the club by periodically checking in with what I value and how I am using time. For example, I sometimes use ‘busyness’ as an excuse for not getting to the things that feel too difficult or really important. Or I use it as a way of avoiding the uncomfortable feelings that often crop up when I find myself less busy and with a moment to myself. Most regularly, these feelings include anxiety, shame, overwhelm, humiliation, blame, resentment and guilt, as opposed to the relief, joy, peace or contentment I thought I would feel one day if I ever had time. So I default to being busy again, doing the things I think I ‘should’ be doing as it feels easier and gives me a quicker fix than if I pay attention to what is going on inside me or indulge in nothing useful.

In my attempts to recover from needing to be busy all the time, or feeling like I am busy all the time, I have to believe that being busy was not the whole problem, nor were my circumstances entirely to blame for the pressure I felt, and nor was the emphasis society puts on productivity. What I discovered and what I believe to be the main cause of and therefore the solution to my addiction to busyness, is that I did not value and therefore did not pay attention to the times in between busyness. I don’t think I even acknowledged their existence and therefore did not use them to be quiet, replenish or take stock.

Yesterday, I acknowledged that being busy is not what was stopping me from writing. I have not been able to write as the thought of sitting down and writing about the jumble in my head made my anxiety so loud I could not hear my thoughts. Instead of getting busy, I sat with my anxiety. I did not find something else to be busy with and as I had feared, in time, the anxiety felt overwhelming. The discomfort was horrible but it did not take my life and it helped me understand a little more about what was going on inside me. I have remnants of the anxiety this morning, but it is not so overwhelming.

Earlier today, I saved a frog from drowning. It took two minutes (maybe 5 because the frog initially rejected my desire to save it). While saving a frog may not be high on everyone’s desired list of accomplishments, it is high on mine and I may have missed it if I had been too busy and for that frog at least, it was the most valuable thing I have done all day.

For years, I only saw value in being productively busy. I did not value the moments in between or try to expand them. I used driving between work and home, for example, as a time to stress about where I was not and what I was not doing instead of what it was: space in between. When I was at home and my children had gone to sleep, I used the time to catch up on my work. I rewarded myself by acknowledging my dedication and sharing that with others, thereby maintaining my spot in the Busyness Club hierarchy rather than taking the time to breath out. Now that I don’t have a corporate job, who really cares that I spent that time working?

I have not gone cold turkey but I am managing to withdraw from valuing busyness above replenishment. I know that, at times, I enjoy scrolling social media, watching series or catching up on what is happening in the world and the worlds of people I know. I check in with how it is making me feel and am learning to stop when I get that icky feeling inside or realise an hour has gone by without me being in it. I am learning to value not being busy and to pay attention to what I am feeling as the guide for the future me, and I notice what I feel and if it is relevant or an old learnt pattern of thought passed down by previous generations or societal dictates.

For now, I am working on being busy on the outside and still on the inside, and by busy, I mean busy doing something or nothing at all. I often still find myself being judgemental of how I have spent my time, particularly if it appears not to have value to the outside world. However, I am learning to manually switch over into curiosity and care, to value having the energy I often have to put into doing stuff, and to appreciate sometimes just being in the space in between.

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