For the past 12 years since my family relocated to Northern Virginia, I’ve talked to my dad at least once a week on the phone. I’ve noticed over the past few weeks, though, that our conversations have evolved into a pretty familiar pattern. One that around various versions of one question: “What’s keeping you busy these days?” Of course, I’ve always got a list – starting new projects at work or at home, scrambling to get the next proposal in or find the next client, preparing for the sale of our house, or any other number of to-do’s whether large or small. Even my dad who’s been retired for the past five or so years also seems to always be busy. This phenomenon certainly isn’t unique to me and my dad.
The Culture of Being Busy
A few years ago the Atlantic published an article asserting that “Ugh, I’m so busy” has become the status symbol of our time. And in 2018, sociologist Anna Akbari’s Psychology Today article challenged readers to define their success not by their lack of time, but by the quality time they dedicated to the people and things that they loved. It seems our culture has come to embrace busyness over all else. The idea is that to be successful and happy we need to constantly have schedules filled to the brim. That being important means battling multiple conflicting priorities. Or that productivity means just having too much on our plate to possibly fit in one more thing.
And I think I’ve taken the bait, hook, line and sinker. I pursue hobbies with such zeal that they look more like vocations. And I work so hard to provide my kids with opportunities, experiences and activities that I stay busy keeping them busy. But at the end of the day, I don’t think I’m any more productive, significantly happier or more well off because of how busy I’ve become. Nor do I think any of the other folks I encounter who are constantly busy are any of these things either.
Here’s how I’m fighting back
So, I’ve decided I’m going to take a day off from being busy, and maybe not just one. I’m going to start regularly planning not to be so busy that I can’t slow down, take time to breathe, think and reflect. Making time to build a deeper relationship with colleagues, clients, friends and family. Or, as one of my favorite philosophers, Winnie the Pooh, puts it to, “just go along, listening to all the things you can’t hear and not bothering.” I’ve become more convinced than ever that I may be getting it all wrong. The weekend isn’t a time to relax, recover, and reset for the next 40 (or more!) hours or work. Instead I work so that when the time comes I can appreciate the contrast in slowing down. And, it’s not that I don’t love my work – what I do really is fulfilling and exciting. But, I need to rebalance that time with intentionally not being busy so that I’m better able to appreciate the joy that comes from that work – and from the other important things in my life.
Being not busy can be hard. And the work you need to do is real. But the reward from finding just a bit of time to rest can make that work all the better. So, how do you make taking time off a part of your regular routine?
Here are a few tips I’ve found helpful in my journey:
- Start by declaring that you’re not going to be busy – and really mean it.
- Block out time when you will make space for rest and reflection and be diligent about protecting it.
Invite others along for the journey. Use your time for rest and reflection to deepen relationships and invest in others so that they can be not busy too!
- Find someone to keep you accountable. That way when you slide back into busyness they can remind you of your commitments.
- Do it now. Don’t wait for the “right time” to start changing your habits and building in time to not be busy.
- Building new habits and routines can be hard. But if you, like me, have become fully immersed in the culture of busyness, I hope you’ll find time for a day off!
Want some help finding time in your schedule by improving your productivity? Here are a few tips that might put you on the path to “un-busyness.”
Tim Bowden is a GovLoop Featured Contributor. He is partner at Gotham Government Services, and is most energized when he’s exploring how the intersection of culture, people, and strategy drive business results. For nearly 20 years he has collaborated with clients in the public, private, and non-profit sectors to address mission-critical challenges in the areas of culture, leadership development, and learning. Additionally, Tim has experience in the design and analysis of survey-based measures of culture, employee engagement, and interpersonal skills. He has provided executive advisory, learning, and organizational culture programs for the Marine Corps Systems Command, Treasury Executive Institute, Department of Labor, and the Naval Sea Systems Command.