“How are things?” asked a friend. “It’s busy, but I’ll take some time to relax when things ease up,” I replied. I recently caught myself giving a variation of this answer every time I was asked how I was doing. “So much work, but hopefully it will be better next week.” Being busy all the time can give us an illusion of productivity which may feel reassuring, but isn’t there a risk we are too busy to enjoy life?
For some people, being busy is unfortunately not an option. Students working part-time to pay for their studies, parents with two jobs just to stay afloat—not everyone has the luxury of managing their time the way they see fit. But many people do have this flexibility, and yet rush from one task to another without ever taking a step back to ask: am I really enjoying any of this? Or are these tasks actually making me too busy to enjoy life?
Research shows that humans tend to do whatever it takes to keep busy, even if the activity feels meaningless to them. Dr Brené Brown from the University of Houston describes being “crazy busy” as a numbing strategy we use to avoid facing the truth of our lives.
We are scared of idleness because stopping would mean having to really consider what we want out of life and what we currently have. Sometimes, the gap feels so wide, we’d rather stay on the hamster wheel.
Being busy is a defense mechanism. It’s a way to avoid just being. Having responsibilities, deadlines, a long task list… Overloading our senses can make us believe we are moving in the right direction, or at least in a direction. But the constant cycle of tasks we tackle without ever thinking often leaves us stagnant. Who proudly looks back at their old to-do lists at the end of the year and thinks: “Wow, I tackled so many tasks this year”?
Instead of measuring progress by the quantity of work we produce, we should consider the quality of our work. Not just the quality of the output, as usually measured by externally-designed metrics, but the quality of the impact it has on our mental and physical well-being. “Did the work feel intellectually stimulating, did I learn something new, did it help me cultivate my curiosity, did it give me the opportunity to connect with interesting people?” are sensible questions to ask when work represents such a huge chunk of our lives.
“You cannot step into the same river twice, for other waters are continually flowing on,” supposedly said Heraclitus. Time is like a river. If you’re too busy to enjoy life—too busy to spend time with friends and family, too busy to learn how to paint or play the guitar, too busy to go on that hike, too busy to cook something nice for yourself—these moments will be gone, and you will never get that time back.
You may think it’s too late. It’s not. Like many people, I personally experience time anxiety—the recurring thought that it’s too late to start or accomplish something new—but the reality is you probably still have many years in front of you. Defining what “time well spent” means to you and making space for these moments is one of the greatest gifts you can make to your future self.
Next time you think of learning something new, or a friend asks you if you want to do something together or have a chat, and your automatic answer is: “I’m just too busy”, take a few minutes to actually consider whether you are actually too busy, and, if that’s the case, whether this busyness is more valuable to you in the long-term than learning something new or spending time with your friend.
Maybe you are actually going through a temporary phase where you’re working on an exciting but all-consuming project—and that’s fine. Such activities you feel extremely passionate about are actually nurturing. But if “I’m just too busy” is becoming a recurrent answer of yours, you may want to consider whether it is possible to be that excited over such a long period of time.
Again, if that’s the case, lucky you—the problem is we usually don’t even take the time to consider the alternative, which is that we’re numbing our minds with work. Being busy with exciting work is good. Being too busy to enjoy life, spending time with the people you love, and exploring your full potential is not. If you belong to the people who do have a choice, consider making the most of your fortunate situation.