June 25, 2016

30 Minutes of Emails or 30 Minutes in Nature? Here’s One Reason for your Busyness Addiction.

Walking on busy street

Author’s note: I write this from the perspective of a millennial and an intensity junkie. I am a millennial. And I am familiar with the challenges, fear and successes of what it means to be a twenty-something navigating the rough waters of chaos in our world and the internal chaos of just being a human and getting out of bed in the morning. We are challenged daily by what it means to try to make a name for ourselves and find our niche. Millennial or not, my hope is that this resonates with you.

Four of the five past days, I’ve been guilty of eating lunch while working on my laptop replying to emails, posting a listing for my apartment on Craigslist and updating my website.

I had five different screens open on my laptop and a sandwich and cup of coffee in front of me.

My mind was incredibly frazzled, a haze of mental energy. But I wanted so badly to believe that this was the epitome of productivity.

Welcome to the busyness trap.

We’ve tricked our brains into believing busy multitasking is the key to making it to the bottom of the to-do list and achieving success. We believe that if you dabble into more of our responsibilities at rapid-fire speed, we’ll get more done—right? It’s the addiction to believing that our productivity is intimately tied into how much we accomplish.


MIT neuroscientist Earl Miller says that we’re “not wired to multitask well… When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.”

We make ourselves busy. We’re addicted to it. Our brains have been hijacked to believe busy is better… Busy is intertwined within the fabric of what our brains tell us is the ladder we “need” to climb to reach success.

Habitually, if I’m drowning in emails and I have an unscheduled segment of my day, my go-to is to use it to catch up on the work I’m desperately behind on. A restful alternative, a break in nature, time away from my computer screen—none of these options are first to cross my consciousness.

In my mind, this addiction to walking the pathway toward success means jamming our schedules full and committing ourselves to everything. And this has almost everything to do with Impostor Syndrome. I am fascinated by Impostor Syndrome. We live in a generation where we’ve (almost) resigned to the notion that we have to prove our self-worth in order to not feel like an impostor in our livelihood.

The solution has become giving too much of ourselves over. Our time. Investing ourselves fully into everything. And the belief that breadth is best. Proving we’re so well-rounded and doing it all. And that we can do it all invincibly without falling apart.

Impossible? For most, yes, because it’s living from a place where balance is next to impossible. We give ourselves out but forget to fill ourselves back up with stuff we love that is fuel—just for us. And then we shatter. For the rare one percent, I don’t know how they balance it all. That’s a field guide to life that still needs to be written.

For the majority, the perceived understanding of success is one built around title, and building a notion of how we want others to perceive our street cred. We’ve developed this illusion of success that we have to work (like a dog) to get there. And do too many things in the process.

This is the addiction to the belief that busy trumps all.

Perhaps from this place of desperation and fear of scarcity of opportunities to reach the limelight, we jump on every tether that pulls on us in a mildly-suggestive way, whispering that getting involved will prove we’re not an impostor. Before you know it, you’re adding activity after commitment after obligation to your schedule. It’s done out of desperation to prove you’ve dedicated your time and breadth to livelihood and your calling in this life.

I get it. And it happens again and again (and again) in the cycles of our lives. Whenever we’re looking for a career change or starting in on a new endeavor, we make ourselves busy simply to prove our worth.

It happened to me in high school, in college when I was deciding what to major in, in college when I was deciding what to do after college, after college graduation when I wasn’t happy with my decision. And it’s happened every single year since. It’s the busyness we’re addicted to, because we think it’ll make us better people and because we think we need to make ourselves busy to make changes in our lives. It’s the busyness we gear ourselves up for because we think it makes or breaks our performance and our aptitude to survive the tides of change.

It’s the busyness that has triggered burnout, depression, sickness, emptiness and the continuing question of why am I still living live like this and spreading myself too thin for my own good. Bad busyness isn’t good for us.

We all have busy cycles of our lives. When we know we’re about to enter a busy cycle, we gear ourselves up for success and hope for the best. It’s the psychology of our upbringing—the risk versus reward, the carrot on a stick mindset—that feeds into our mindset of doing what we have to do to be successful.

Busy is not better.

I was recently gifted the gift of time. Let me say this, unstructured time and space for intensity junkies is hard to receive. If you know me well, you might call me a workaholic. I call myself a recovering workaholic because of the awareness I’m receiving around the delicate, intricate dance between my happiness and livelihood and the evolution and ongoing flow of answers to the rhetorical question, it’s not what we do, but how we do it.

It’s how we balance what we do.

It’s how we make an agreement between the obligations of living and the contract of being a human walking this planet. It requires balance and it’s not easy. I fall down seven times and get back up eight times. Think about your answer to this statement, “When you fall down and fall apart, it’s not just how quickly you get back up, but why you get back up and what you do after you rise.”

Receiving eight days off was so damn hard for someone with an over-active mind and mental chatter that’s hard to turn off. Receiving eight days was a forced reset and a wake-up call for me to realize that I’m not happy as a busy person. Busy is not better. Bad busy kills our happiness.

Busy for the sake of investing time, involvement and ourselves in a way of thinking that if we put in x, we’ll receive a guaranteed output of y, is slowly draining us empty. We’re working tirelessly and committing ourselves in hopes of an end result that is not guaranteed. We’re making our schedules and ourselves sick over something that may not ever really matter. It’s depleting ourselves of what makes us unique, what we love, why we do what we do.

I had two important epiphanies during the eight days over which I was given the gift of time and space to listen.

The trick is not what you do, but how you do it.

And when you realize this, the important stuff stays around, and everything else that you were making time for and making yourselves busy over will organically start to fall away over time.

And overcommitting.

We overcommit because of performance anxiety. We overcommit out of fear of being called out as an impostor.

I so easily fall victim to this false belief that if I do x, y, and z, and I pay my dues and put my time in, I will grab the carrot on the stick and victory will be all mine.

Wrong. I realized this was so wrong. But it’s an illusion many of us live under out of fear of being called out as an impostor. And it makes me sick to my stomach when I think about it. It’s what happens when we live our lives under this false veil of intensity. And that intensity is the only thing that matters.

And I’m right here along the journey with you. I am so far from having reached perfection of breaking free from busyness. I actually know nothing of what this looks like and know nothing of how to get there. But what I do know is this: busy is not better and absolute presence from all parts of ourselves is key to working back toward balance in each and every moment.

This can be a really uncomfortable habit/addiction/mindset/pattern/forever-and-always ingrained-within way of being to break free from.

Busy is not better.

I challenge you to sit down and get quiet. Think about what it is you’re making yourself so busy over that maybe actually doesn’t matter so much. That obligation that you’ve committed to that your quest for whatever sparks your passion is tied to, but you actually don’t like doing it. Get rid of it. Clean your schedule up. Just take off one thing and replace it with something that gives back to you and makes you feel alive.

Next time you have a free 30 minutes in your schedule, what will you choose?


Author: Caitlin Oriel

Photo: Guilherme Nicholas/Flickr

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