Toxic busyness

woman in busy urban environment showing busyness

Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans. 

John Lennon

Do you remember the days when “I’m fine” was the only response we gave to the question “How are you?”? It’s a positive step forward that we can now reply “Not so good actually, and I’d love to chat…”. But what about when we say: “Goodness, I’m just so busy”, “busy, busy, busy” or “I’ve no time to myself”? Then it’s time to check whether we are mindfully noticing what’s going on in our lives. Are we trapped in the endless cycle of toxic busyness? 

Busyness happens when we have multiple sequential jobs to perform or we are multi-tasking, switching between tasks on an often externally imposed schedule. Think of the treadmill of work, family, school, activity, work, family, school, activity and so on. Things are just a teensy bit overscheduled.  

How busy are we? 

But how busy are we? Research indicates that our perception of busyness peaks around our early 30’s. It then decreases as we get older, until we reach about 60 when we plateaux. Perhaps unsurprisingly, women are more likely to report being busy than men. They experience greater job demands, less household assistance and a greater caregiver burden. It’s hard to pin down how prevalent busyness really is. Researcher Silvia Bellezza and colleagues analysed celebrity tweets, and (if social media is to be believed) found that 12% were about being busy – e.g. having no life or needing a vacation. It seems busyness is very much in the public domain. 

At one time busyness might have been in service of efficiently getting things done. But now, being busy has also come to include a social and emotional dimension. Busyness is no longer just about individuals managing their time better. Instead, researchers now characterise busyness as a collective endeavour that can touch at the root of who we think we are. 

Socially driven busyness 

Research shows that one driver of busyness in some cultures, is the fact the busy person is perceived as of high status in that environment. This link between busyness and status stems from the belief that our opportunity for success is based on hard work. And the more we believe this, the more we value and hold in high esteem people who skip leisure and work all the time.  We value busy people more. 

Let’s be frank, who thinks they are important when they are idle, retired or on holiday? When we complain about our busyness, might that hide the brag or the boast that “I matter”? Similarly, sometimes saying we are busy can be a cry for reassurance or a badge of honour. As Tim Kreider so eloquently says in his New York Times opinion piece 

Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day 

Toxic though it may be, busyness allows us to be significant in our workplace. It gives us a standing compared with colleagues. But it also comes with a cost to our health and an impact on our productivity. 

The identity of busyness 

So why do we do this. Why do we get caught up in a toxic busyness that can be harmful to our health? There are of course no straightforward answers or simple checklists to complete to rid ourselves of being busy – we’d all have done that long ago if it were that easy. 

However, exploring the social driver to busyness, the need to feel important and to be somebody in the group, is one place to start. We attach our sense of self and who we are to being busy. It’s easy to see how this can then become toxic to us.  

We are sucked into defending our own self-description, for example “I am important”, “I am needed” or “I am more capable …than you.” Unfortunately, such a focus on the story of who we need to be not only locks us in our own heads but narrows our choices about who we are and what we do. 

Then, when we don’t live up to that notion of self, despite our busyness, we can also get hooked by the accompanying thoughts and emotions. You can fill your own blanks here. But they probably go something like: 

  • I’m just not as efficient as him.
  • What will they think of me? 
  • How will I cope? 
  • Will I lose my job if I say no? 
  • …… 

And in the busyness, where we have no time to step back, the thoughts cascade around and around in our heads. We get fused to them. We become our thoughts. And we let them push us around, narrowing our choice whether to be busy or not. Our concentration is undermined. We stop listening and being curious. And whilst we might still tell ourselves the story that we are important, we stop doing the things that are important to us, as we are endlessly in the cycle of busyness. 

The busyness becomes toxic 

Is that you? 

If you think you might be caught in the cycle of toxic busyness, then pause a moment to ask yourself: 

  • How often do you have too many things to do that you can’t get them done in a day? 
  • How often do you find yourself rushing from place to place trying to get to meetings or to get things done? 
  • How often are you so busy that you miss scheduled breaks or rest periods? 
  • How often as you so busy that you rush out of the house in the morning to get to where you need to be? 
  • How often do you have so many things to do that you go to bed later than you planned? 

If you answer “often” or “very often” to any of these questions, maybe it’s time to take stock of busyness in your work life. Join us for our Safe Space event on Friday 1st July at 9 am BST to explore untangling the knot of busyness. 

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