I caught up with an old friend recently. When I asked how she was, she replied “Busy!” — as if I was interested in her to-do list rather than how she was feeling.
Her response isn’t unusual. Many of us answer that question with “Busy!” before listing all the things we’re doing, our partners are doing, or our kids are doing.
This compulsion to fill our days with activity has become the new normal. As life moves faster, we live in overdrive — trapped by endless to-do lists, over-scheduled calendars and full inboxes. We rush from one thing to the next, desperately trying to get ahead, while feeling frantic and exhausted by the end of the day.
Unsurprisingly, the burden of “busy” has a serious downside. Before long, we reach a breaking point. We feel overwhelmed, resentful, frustrated, and drained. We have no time or energy left for the things that replenish and fulfill us, like spending time with loved ones, relaxing and having fun, pursuing a hobby or passion, or simply a bit of self-care.
Not to mention the health effects of being constantly busy. Feeling burnt out and tired encourages us to rely on caffeine and sugar to keep up. The constant pushing causes wear and tear on our bodies and brains. There’s also the negative impacts of stress: declining health, poor memory, foggy thinking, and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
So how do we break out of the busy trap and move beyond the culture of “more is good”?
While there are no quick fixes, here are six ways you can strip back the meaningless activities and reclaim your enjoyment of life.
Step 1: Why Are You So Busy?
Being busy could be distracting you from underlying issues. To make real change — and break the busy trap for good — you might need to dig a bit deeper to find out why you’re so busy.
For example, it wasn’t long ago when the word “busy” was my badge of honor. It was a status symbol I wore proudly and was closely linked to my feelings of self-worth. If I was constantly on-the-go, ticking off lists, achieving tasks, and looking hyper-productive, then surely this proved I was important, right?
I was great at my job, I was accomplished, I did things faster than others and I always exceeded expectations. Unfortunately, this self-imposed pressure led me to burnout. I was stuck in the cycle of busy, exhausted and stressed, but unable to see my way clear.
After asking myself why I was so busy, I discovered a persistent fear.
I was busy because I was afraid that if I stopped I’d lose ground. I’d miss opportunities. I wouldn’t feel needed or important and I couldn’t prove how smart I was. My whole identity was wrapped up in the need to look good, be heard, and feel important.
Once I figured that out, it became easier to strip back the things I was doing purely for doing’s sake. So, start by asking yourself why you’re so busy:
- Are you afraid of falling behind?
- Are you worried you won’t be a good enough partner, friend, parent, colleague, or person?
- Are you concerned others might think poorly of you?
- Are you anxious that things won’t be perfect?
- Are you afraid if you don’t work harder and longer, you won’t get ahead, land that pay rise, buy a better house, or afford a better school for your children?
- Are you not sure who you’ll be, if you’re not “busy”?
Step 2: Figure Out What’s Important to You
If you know what you want out of life — and spend your time doing things aligned with this — you’ll feel more fulfilled, less stressed, and waste less time. Here’s how to start figuring this out:
- Write down your priorities in life. These are your must-haves. They are the things most important to you and may include family, relationships, well-being, fun, and recreation. How do you want to spend your time? What does an ideal day look like? Who would you spend your time with?
- For one week, track your current activities. Record each day in a notebook or use your smartphone or computer. Try not to judge yourself or feel frustrated during this process. Simply record the activities as an observer would.
- Compare these two lists. How well do they align? What activities take up most of your time? Are these activities helping you achieve your goals or are they draining you? Are they improving your health and happiness or are they detrimental?
- Pick one thing to stop doing from your current activity list. Start small. It may be something you feel is expected of you but has no real purpose. Try skipping it for a week. Then pick another item.
Step 3: Delegate
Of all the things that must be done each day, do you really need to be doing them yourself? Or can you ask your partner, family, children, friends, or colleagues to help?
Keep in mind the goal here is not perfection. It’s to give you more time to focus on the important things. While others may not complete a task as well as you can, done is done.
If your budget can manage it, consider outsourcing chores such as cleaning, laundry, repairs, yard work, etc. If that time can be better spent with the people and activities you love, the financial impact is an investment not a cost.
Step 4: Practice Saying No
Do you often say “yes” to things you don’t want to do? This can be a hidden culprit on your to-do list.
Maybe you feel obliged when someone asks, or you don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, or you just like to please others. This habit is detrimental to reclaiming your time.
Instead of automatically responding with “yes,” try saying, “Let me think about it,” or, “Give me five minutes.” This can give you time to figure out your authentic answer and respond appropriately.
There may be initial discomfort when saying “no” to a request. Keep in mind this discomfort is nothing compared to the ongoing resentment of being lumped with a task you don’t want to do and don’t have time for.
Step 5: Take Back Control
Technology is meant to make our lives easier, not busier. Instead, it has become pervasive to the point where many people feel trapped by their own devices.
Social media is a big culprit. It can be a huge time-waster and energy-drainer. If you feel compelled to check social media or are at the mercy of email, perhaps it’s time to moderate your access.
Try these strategies:
- Turn off notifications on your devices and switch off the “ping” of a new email or text message.
- Set specific times to check and respond to notifications.
- Unplug from your devices during downtime (e.g. during dinner, at home, before bed).
- Install a usage tracking app to see how much time you spend on your smartphone each day. This can be an uncomfortable, but vital, revelation.
By responding to social media and email on your own terms, you’re less likely to get sucked into the time-vortex of technology and instead spend time doing things you enjoy.
Step 6: Stop Multitasking
While we’re on the subject of time-vortexes, please ditch your multitasking ways. Many of us “busy” types buy into the myth of multitasking. I’ve been guilty of thinking that if I do many things at once, I’ll get more done in less time. In fact, the opposite is true.
Switching between two or more tasks takes extra time for your brain to reorient and refocus. This lag multiplies the more you switch between tasks. Instead, do one thing at a time. Focus your attention and complete that one thing, then move to the next item. Not only will you perform the task better, you’ll save time and feel less frazzled.
Break Free, Bit by Bit
Getting out of the busy trap can be done. The key is to start with small steps and accept that you may slip up every now and then. That’s human.
But with a little patience and persistence, the busy habit can be broken and replaced with a more meaningful life, where you have time to focus on the things that matter most.