Are You Tired of Being Busy? 3 Ways to Beat Back Busyness

If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: “Busy!” “So busy.” “Crazy busy.” It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: “That’s a good problem to have,” or “Better than the opposite.”

So begins an article called “The Busy Trap” by Tim Kreider in the New York Times.

Isn’t it true? It seems that every one of our conversations begins with some variation of that exchange. Everything we do in our personal and professional lives has the oppressive specter of immediacy and urgency – as if we have to get things done right away lest we somehow fall behind in an imaginary race to a destination that we ultimately never reach.

I don’t know about you, but I sense that we’re all reaching a tipping point. There is no way that you and I can continue this blistering pace indefinitely — and we all want to know where we’re going.

What’s the point of this frenzy? Why are we working so hard and sacrificing time with people or putting pursuits on hold that are likely far more important to us?

The sad part: we’re choosing it. As Krieder puts it:

The present hysteria is not a necessary or inevitable condition of life; it’s something we’ve chosen, if only by our acquiescence to it…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.

The good news is that we also have the capacity to alter our present course. On my best days, I am able to do one or all of these things:

1) Find your mind. I know the term “mindfulness” seems to be the domain of pop psychology or self-help gurus, but I know of no other way to get calm in the calamity that surrounds us. It’s critically important to listen to yourself — that banter in your brain bouncing around like a crazy ball — and stop it. Capture those thoughts and conquer the part of you that chases after the mental pop-ups that leave you feeling scattered and unproductive.

2) Take a break. You and I can’t work 8-10 hours straight, at least not effectively. In fact, it will damage our health. Resist the urge to keep on plowing through the tasks of the day one after another. Set an alarm and get up from your desk. Take a walk or just stretch. Five minutes is even better than nothing. You can return to work and you’ll likely get more done because you took the time to hit the refresh. I’ve been trying to make a habit of taking a walk during phone calls where I don’t need a screen. When the call is over, I put the phone in my pocket and try (desperately) not to look at it until I get back to my desk.

3) Use your muse. For me, music is where I turn when I feel the encroaching stress or strain of busyness. For others, it might be heading over to Flickr to discover something beautiful or brilliant. Perhaps it’s just calling a friend or chatting with a colleague (in-person or virtual). Whatever it is for you that is not doing something “productive,” do that instead. I’m not advocating, of course, for frittering away 20 minutes…again, just 5 minutes of experiencing something you enjoy can clear your mind and restore equilibrium.

Of course, I am writing this message on my last day in the office before a week-long vacation.

I hope I’ll be able to totally unplug and relax, not using my time off as one more way to run from activity to activity. That seems to be getting harder and harder to do these days.

Are you tired of being busy?

How do you beat back busyness?

Leave a Comment


Leave a Reply

Corey McCarren

I’m not a huge TV person, but I attempt to make time to at least watch a half an hour episode of something every night because I find it relaxing. I can forget about the stuff in my life and enjoy the awesomeness of Ron Swanson.

Pat Fiorenza

I read the Krieder article as well, and it really hit home for me. I’m guilty of the busy trap, but have been making more and more of an effort to find a better balance between work and personal life, and finding more time to relax with friends, family or some hobbies. “Find your mind” is such an important tip, having that serenity and pinpointing your pain points when life is really busy is so important – keeps clarity and lets you focus on what’s most important. Important to realize what obligations are self imposed, and what the real obligations/responsibilities are. I was talking with some friends about how we define our priorities now, and how radically different they are than a few years ago – and once we all really settle down and have families, how they are going to shift again. Thanks for sharing these great reads, Andy!

David B. Grinberg

I read the article as well, Andy. I believe it’s fairly simple once one cuts through the superficial clutter: we are all products of our environment. Thus, life in the DC-area, like other big cities, is chaotic and frenetic. We choose our environment. Yes, some may argue they have to live somewhere specific for work or other reasons, but, ultimately we all have a choice. As you and Corey already noted, music, TV shows and nature are all great diversions. In addition, I’ve become a novice in astronomy, cosmology and theoretical physics in my spare time — yes, we all have spare time, we just need to realize it and adhere to it. I like studying and learning about our place in the universe because it helps me to realize how SMALL we are, collectively on a universal scale, compared to everything else out there in the cosmos. It’s amazing how even the greatest scientists don’t know how much we don’t know (to paraphrase “Rummy” at DoD). When one thinks hard about the big picture — I mean the really big picture in terms of time and space — one my come to realize how small and insignificant we all are as a human race. The leading consensus in science, per the Big Bang theory, is that the universe is nearly 14 BILLION years old and there are hundreds of billions of star systems, out there in intergalactic space. Our own galaxy may be analogous to one grain of sand compared to all the sand on every beach world-wide. Moreover, just traveling across the Milky Way Galaxy would take about 100 light-years (one light-year is equivalent to about 6 trillion miles; try doing the math). Wrap your head around these concepts for a while to better put our own “busy” lifestyles and time in perspective. Or ask yourself this: when I’m old and in a rocking chair at some senior living center in South Florida, will I look back and really care about the x,y and z of everyday life from my prime work years? Will the definition and variables equating to being “super busy” today really matter in the long run? Lastly, meditation, relaxation techniques and exercise are all very helpful to ease the stress and anxietyod the times. Thus, is essence, the definition of “busy” is a relative concept — like everything else. People are only as busy as they make up their minds to be. As Charles de Gaull said, “The graveyards are full of indispensable men” (and women). Think about it!



Work is where I am most busy, but I take a few minutes out for stretching, tai chi, walking and strength training throughout the day. I set time in my calendar to remind me and sometimes put it off, but almost always follow thru and find myself more relaxed and productive.

Jay Johnson

Great headline Andrew; unfortunately, I’m too busy to read the whole post. I’ll get to it later.

Just kidding! It’s a great reminder to take a deep breath from time to time. One way you could do that is the Pomodoro technique. It helps you focus for 25 minutes at a time and take breaks in between. Find out more here: http://www.pomodorotechnique.com/

Samuel Lovett

I read this NYT article on Tuesday, thought about it all yesterday, and today I think that some of the themes are sinking in.

My takeaway is about being mindful of what you are doing with your life and how you are doing it; the means by which you accomplish your work are in many ways just as important as the ends themselves. Spending quality time with quality people in your life will give your work the inspiration it needs to be meaningful and authentic. The difficult part is breaking out of the busy machine long enough to reset your default methods of getting things done. Good luck.

Joe Flood

Living in DC, I’ve seen the “busy trap” up close and personal. Between email, social media, work, meetings, happy hours, etc… you can fill every last hour of your life if you wanted to. But being busy doesn’t mean you’re actually getting anything done. What I dislike about the “busy trap” is that it’s all about process – meetings planning meetings, responding to tweets and retweets, reading endlessly cc’d emails. Little actual work gets done in the “busy trap.” But you look awfully important because you’re constantly busy.

Kevin Walsh

Good thoughts. I am finishing a Master’s degree in Spiritual Psychology, which is basically a degree in mindfulness. Something that they have us do is keep a nurturing tracking spreadsheet to track our self-nurturing on the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual levels. I have heard of a few people that actually scheduled empty time in their calendar, which seems to align with yours and Mr Krieder’s articles. Thanks for posting.

Also, thanks T. Jay Johnson. I downloaded a promodoro app for Android. I will try it. 🙂