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The disease of busyness

I had a rare break in my work schedule a few days ago. I sauntered into the office of my colleague and asked how she was doing. She replied with exacerbation and impatience “I’m great, I’m just so busy.” With a knowing nod and somewhat defeated tone I responded, “I get it, me too.”

Are you too busy? Probably the number one complaint I get from clients is: “I’m so overwhelmed, I just need a break” or “I wish I had more time, there’s so much to do.” There’s an air of urgency and exhaustion in the face of endless task lists. And then, somewhat paradoxically, they feel their resistance and in the next breath state “I can't slow down. I’m just too busy.”

What is this state of busyness? How have we created a culture where we have more and more to do with less and less time for leisure? Less time for reflection? Less time for connection? Are we addicted to busyness? The answers to these questions are likely complex.

Technological advances with computers and smartphones over the last several decades haven't increased our free time or made life faster and simpler. Rather, we’ve lost the distinction between work and home and we’re online. All. The. Time. We’re processing more information at quicker speeds than ever before and research suggests it’s leaving us unfocused and out of mental balance. The dopamine hit we get when someone likes our Facebook post fuels compulsive posting and checking behavior.

As well, we’ve become a culture that values human doings over human beings. Our sense of importance, maybe even self-worth, seems to rest in how busy we are. The more responsibilities and demands we meet, the more indispensable we seem to both ourselves and others. The hidden dialogue is: “See how much I do, I matter.” “She must be very important, look at all the things she juggles on her plate!” Being busy implies we are living extraordinary lives, which is important in a culture that poo-poos ordinary as lesser than.

And finally, being busy seems to distract us from the real business of facing our anxieties and getting comfortable with ourselves. Distractions abound, pick your addiction. Busyness is an anesthetic that blankets and numbs.

The cost of busyness is high, leaving us spiritually, mentally, emotionally and physically bankrupt. We’re becoming incapable of genuine intimacy with ourselves and with each other. We long for peace and rest, for a sense of safety and belonging in the world. We long to feel supported and nourished. We long to love and feel loved. These longings require presence and whole-hearted attention, not scattered busyness.

We need a new narrative, both individually and collectively, that encourages deep rest. We need dedicated pauses daily, weekly, seasonally. Our limbic fear mind will fight such a suggestion. “I won’t get anything done if I slow down,” “Resting makes me anxious,” “I’m fine, I don’t need to rest.” The stronger the fight the greater the need.

Will you join me in a new narrative that stops the glorification of busyness — recognizing it for the dis-ease it is — and celebrates our inherent worth as perfectly imperfect human beings who thrive on compassion and connection? Will you dedicate yourself to periods of deep rest with time for self-reflection and meaningful encounters with others?

Action: There are many ways to create rest in your life. Meditate. Say no. Turn off your computer and phone for a day. Get into nature.

The most important place to start is with your nervous system. Cultivating mindfulness of the body and slowing your breath will calm and soothe you. Fear and anxiety may arise, but with careful attention you can discriminate present moment experience from a memory of the past and fear of the future. From this base of grounded presence, get in touch with your intentions and change your habits. Focus on living your values.

Can you come up with five ways you'll build rest into your daily and weekly life?

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