I am not busy.

This sometimes feels like a dirty secret or a guilty confession within today’s social norm. I have only just released myself from the ‘shoulding’ of busyness. A part of me has been telling myself that I should be doing more with my time, with my life. Busy means to be active and engaged, to not be ‘at leisure’. 

I believe that being is also a way to be actively engaged with life. I’m one of those people who looks for the spaces between commitments in their calendar, rather than a person who likes to see they have lots of plans in place. I actively avoid being busy because knowing there is lots to do in a day makes me feel anxious and compressed in my body. I like a pace that affords a sense of spaciousness. I notice when there are several things planned in succession I’m often thinking ahead. This changes my relationship with what I’m currently doing and means I’m squeezing time into allocated compartments in relationship to the next thing.

Why Do We ‘Should’ Ourselves Into Being More Busy?

My ‘shoulding’ myself around doing more is an internalisation of the cultural message that busyness is a positive value through which we measure our time and effort. It is a symptom of the productivity culture we live in. 

Busyness appears to have become a badge of honour these days for “I have a full life with much to occupy myself with and I’m wanted, so I’m ok”. We seem to have increasingly acquired a skill for filling life with responsibility; projects, work, leisure and life administration although we don’t actually work more hours historically than we used to. 

Is this something we create for ourself or what modern life entails: or a combination of the two?

What Draws Us To Chose Busy?

Oliver Burkeman in his book ‘Four Thousand Weeks’ describes a kind of ‘existential overwhelm’ where there’s an inexhaustible supply of things that seem worth doing and an unbridgeable gap between what we’d like to do and can do. I would add that there is an implicit pressure that we should or ought to be doing something when there’s so much we could do. 

Some people describe feeling bad or guilty when they’re not busy; not doing something. These folks are also likely to use the same framework for describing doing nothing as lazy. Not doing anything becomes labelled as procrastination. Hard work ethics and driven parents alongside cultural values can mean we just don’t feel good about ourselves if we’re not striving or achieving. 

Some people, myself included, have a keep ourselves busy part that is activated around organising, cleaning and tidying; faffing to create a kind of perfection of aesthetic order before they can sit still; or to avoid being still with what is. I’ve noticed this part of me often gets busy doing things that don’t really need doing when I’m tired.

It seems we have to consciously give ourselves permission to rest, or ascribe intentionality to relaxation. And many of us may treat rest as reward, contingent on completion of what we’re doing.

Lifestyle choice can speak to why some folks seek to fill time in pursuit of things they enjoy, but this can tip into ‘too much’ busyness where there isn’t enough space built in between the things to do; not balancing activity with downtime; too full to empty out. 

  • Busyness can also be an avoidance strategy which means we don’t have to stop and acknowledge how we are feeling hence ‘throwing ourselves into our work’. 
  • Doing all the time means we don’t have to be so connected to ourselves. 
  • Being busy means we literally avoid the feeling of ‘not knowing what to do’ with ourselves. 
  • We can also go into over drive or reactivity (hyper-arousal) in order to avoid a nervous system collapse or shut down.

How Are We Being When We’re Busy?

There is a continuum from things that I want to do, to things I’m trying to manage. I’m busy” may suggest “I am stressing myself by putting myself under pressure to do more than I can in the time I have available”. 

Our sympathetic nervous system, which mobilises us into action and kicks in chemicals so we can get motivated, can tip into a state of overwhelm or hyperarousal which it’s hard to climb down from even though we’re exhausted, as ‘too much to do’ becomes stress, pressure and anxiety. This is where being busy is no longer a choice but a necessity and so our nervous system responds to this as a threat. This is where that new email is the modern day tiger. 

Within an activated sympathetic system, time, it feels, is spent chasing time. People in this activated state become more judgemental and less tolerant. You’ll know that busy people are not the easiest to feel connection with, they are not emotionally available, there is not enough space in the system to attune and resonate with others. 

  • You may notice that when we are busy time speeds up and so do we. 
  • When we speed up we become less calm as we feel more compressed, tense or under pressure and things feel a bit more chaotic.
  • There is a quality of urgency and imperative and so choicelessness. 

You’ll notice how we think changes too, from possibility  ‘could’ to ‘must’ outcome thinking as we try to establish a sense of order (so we can relax the other side ). I see many clients who are in this state in order to do their job every day. It feels to me that many people are predominantly in sympathetic arousal, which speaks to how stressed and anxious we are as a society and the reality of burn out, illness and breakdown where this is not acknowledged.

What Stops Us From Not Being Busy?

We tend to end up being too busy through not saying no, putting others first or through perfectionism. Chris L. Johnson, leadership coach, defines three main factors which are tied up in our identity or status which can drive us into achievement, which create energy drain, or leakage:

  • Over commitment or extension to too many projects and people (believing if I get all this stuff done I’ll feel and be seen to as successful).
  • Other people’s expectations (what do I think other people think and what do I think their expectations of me are ) prioritising our status rather than asking what is the difference I want to make.
  • Expectations of Myself – am I over expecting or not expecting enough of myself. 

Why is Busyness An Issue?

Busyness is an issue because busyness it seems is a self perpetuating state whereby once busy it is difficult to not be busy since the goal of busy becomes to do everything (to get that sense of ticking off the to do list) and so there always seems to be more to do. 

Most to do lists result in another to do being added to it. Busyness can sometimes appear like the chase for completion and achievement. Joel Monk, coach, describes this like a pizza eating contest where the first price is pizza. 

Burkeman describes the efficiency gap as the more efficient we are, the more we creat a limitless reservoir for other people’s expectations and the solution for this being an anti-skill of not being on top of everything and resisting the urge to fit more in; the willingness to stay with the feeling of overwhelm, not the counter-productive skill of being more efficient. 

Burkeman points out the falsity of the assumption that we will ever get everything done. He suggests wanting to get everything done is a means to evade the responsibility of choosing what to do with our (finite) time. He also points to the possibility of these choices as not being from a place of fear about missing out, but of joy in missing out.

How Can We Be Less Busy?

We cannot address our busyness by making ourselves busier still. We could ask ourselves:

  • What am I privileging in my experience? 
  • Is this satisfying me? 
  • What am I creating in my preoccupation with achievement? 
  • How much energy is being replenished through these investments? 

If the story you are telling yourself is that you need to be more efficient and more productive then you know that busyness is controlling your life and dominating your sense of identity. It’s not a reflection of your capacity, it’s a reflection of your willingness to chose your boundaries and not when is enough. As Rick Hanson says “ get disenchanted – wake up from the spell, from the enchantments woven by the wanting mind in concert with culture and commerce.“


If the topic and themes in this article resonate with you and you’d like to explore the busyness in your life further, please go ahead and book a free exploratory phone call with me and I’d be happy to talk with you.