We have the world at our fingertips. Thanks to our handy electronic devices, we have immediate access to an abundance of resources and information and can get so much more done in one day than ever before. Gone are the days of having to wait in long lines or parking lot traffic jams to get what we need. We can get a college degree and maintain a full-time job all without leaving the convenience of home. Even at this moment, I can pay my bills and shop online, prepare dinner, and still have most of the day to write this post. Totally efficient, right? But I can also get lost in social media, scroll through endless pages of shopping websites, or obsessively check my inbox (I’ve checked it three times already) and not even realize how much writing time I’ve wasted. In short, I must control my urge to diverge or it can get out of hand really quickly. In a world where we have access to almost anything, it’s easy to avoid what needs to get done.
And it’s just as easy to legitimize avoidance with busyness. Because I mean who isn’t busy these days? The concept of so much to do and so little time is like a societal mantra, and busy is often perceived as a valuable quality that validates our significance.
There are different reasons why people are busy, and it can be difficult to tell the difference between someone who is legitimately engaged in meaningful pursuits from those who use busyness to compensate for anxiety or fear. Perhaps it’s fear of not being enough, or missing out, or facing challenges. Whatever the reason, if left unchecked, busyness may be astraight path to exhaustion and reinforce the anxiety and fear you may be trying to avoid. After doing some soul-searching and reading about what some of the scholars had to say about it, I put together a list of five things toxic busyness does that will make you rethink the way you spend your time.
Busyness kills creativity.
Unless you’re a 6-year-old child, the words “I’m bored” probably rarely enters your mind (although I’d love for it to enter mine). From the moment we wake up, most of us are inundated with demands and expectations from work, family, and friends. And because we have immediate access to things and each other, it’s easy to be overwhelmed and feel like everything has to be done last week. If we’re not careful, half the day can be spent responding to emails and the other half can be spent in well meaning but energy draining meetings. We are encouraged with go-get-‘um and you-can-do-it messages that seem to do little to fix the burnout that will likely occur if we continue to feel the need to cram everything into our day. Our bodies simply have not been designed to handle the constant barrage of stress our culture promotes. If you have ever taken psychology 101, you may know we all have a fight or flight mechanism that helps us to respond most efficiently when faced with danger or highly stressful situations.
When we perceive a threat, our executive system (that’s the more creative and flexible part of the brain which allows us to make decisions, manage our time, and focus our attention) shuts down and we run high on autopilot. That means whatever we’re inclined to do, fight or flight, we do—no higher-order thinking necessary. This is the body’s way of preserving energy so that we can survive. And it’s fine when it occurs in spurts. But when we are perpetually stressed, it’s taxing on our bodies and reduces our ability to think clearly, and make decisions. Consequently, we are less creative and more inclined to resort to mediocrity as a way to cope. Sounds dreadful, doesn’t it? But one way to avoid this is to filter information and shut ourselves off from time to time so that we can focus our attention on what really matters to us. It’s up to us to control and monitor the information that comes at us. And we can do it by prioritizing what is important, and change our behaviors to reflect those priorities.
Busyness hinders meaningful connection.
How many ways do people have access to you? I can count at least 10 off the top of our head, and that’s not counting in person. And while it may be exciting to be in touch with the world (literally), it can certainly be draining, especially if we feel we have to respond to each and every comment or request. Thanks to a little help from dopamine, a feel good chemical that makes us want to keep seeking and searching, most of us can think of a time when we’ve been glued to our screens like flies to peanut butter, sifting through countless images, emails, and texts. Perhaps to avoid missing something, an opportunity, or anything that will give us more of what we are searching for.
More is that nebulous word often linked with our perception of happiness.
Although we know happiness is not based on external values, it’s difficult not to act as though more friends, more opportunities, more money will make us happy partly because we are conditioned to associate the two. So we stay busy, searching for more. And although we are more connected through technology, we feel more disconnected from meaningful connections. One way to combat this feeling is to be selective and choose to spend time with those who feed you emotionally. And if that means throwing shade on everything and anyone else who drains you, so be it. Giving your attention to people who make you feel truly engaged is vital to reenergize you so that you can have the spiritual and emotional resources you need to thrive.
Busyness perpetuates the myth of multitasking.
I like to think I can do five things at once. In fact, I’d say it’s pretty much encouraged. What better way to show that we have what it takes to get the job done than to multitask? The only problem is that doing several things at once really isn’t multitasking. It’s a rapid sequence of tasks that look like multitasking. If I try to pay bills while watching television, my ability to engage in either activity would be limited. Yes, I may think I’m keeping up with what’s on television, but I’m most likely just making inferences based upon what I see because neither activity is getting my full attention.
It’s true we may be able to multitask activities that are relatively easy for us to do, but only with those activities that do not require our full attention. Essentially, the more we add to our plate, the more divided our attention will be. And when we are overwhelmed with busyness, we sacrifice quality just to get the work done and the results suffer. One solution to this problem is to commit to giving important activities our full attention. Although we may not get as much done as we like, at least we can get some satisfaction in knowing that we engaged more deeply than we would have had we chosen to simply be busy.
Busyness makes you hopelessly productive.
I’ve always aspired to be a productive person. There’s a certain satisfaction in knowing you’ve created something tangible that validates your hard work.
We are always feeling the need to produce, yet never feel productive because we keep raising the bar on what is enough
But being productive can be problematic if we are producing things to avoid more difficult, important tasks, or to prove our self-worth amidst countless others producing at the same or faster rate than we are. That is, we become hopelessly productive, always feeling the need to produce, yet never feeling as productive as we’d like because we keep raising the bar on what is enough. So perhaps instead of striving to produce more, we can try to produce work that is meaningful but unique to us. This way we would be more different than productive and perhaps less preoccupied with what everyone else is doing.
Busyness keeps you stimulated, not satisfied.
We are surrounded by stuff. Our homes and businesses are filled to the brim with it. And we spend a large chunk of time trying to get rid of it (hello flea markets and garage sales). There’s enough stuff to keep us entertained for a lifetime. But there’s a side effect to all this abundance. While I haven’t tested it myself, I’m pretty sure there’s a negative correlation between what we value and stuff. The more stuff we have, the less likely we are to value it. Instead, we seem to place more value on novelty and excitement.
Consider my fourth grader who just had to have that video game but by next week, it’s no big deal. Busyness is kind of like that video game: It keeps us excited, but eventually the novelty and excitement wears off. If we are busy engaging in activities with no depth or meaning, we may try to rectify it with more busyness causing us to experience a cycle of shallow, fleeting experiences that will not fulfill us. It’s kind of like the difference between an action packed movie and a slow, character driven movie. One will keep us stimulated, and the other encourages us to think and feel more deeply. Like those slow movies, if we engage in activities that encourage us to think and strengthen our deeply rooted values and convictions, we are more likely to feel satisfied rather than stimulated.