I got so used to being busy, I forgot how to just be.
As a former New Yorker, it’s likely that I’ve uttered the phrase, “I’m so busy” about 10 billion times. Like navigating the L train, it’s a badge of honor to be inundated with something—anything—that qualifies as busyness. In fact, when someone politely asks how you’re doing, it may be rude to give them a bear hug and tell them you’ve had the flu, but it’s perfectly acceptable to inform them that you’re, ugh, SO busy. BYE.
Art Markman, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Texas and author of Brain Briefs, tells SELF that our brain does not like to be idle and that even though it’s only about 3 percent of our body weight, it uses 20 to 25 percent of our daily energy supply. “That said, in modern society, people not only want to be engaged, they want to be viewed as productive, so we don’t just engage ourselves in conversations, puzzles, or hobbies, but rather in work and activities that have a goal,” he says. “That cultural orientation arises from a belief that what you accomplish is a signal of your value.”
Being accomplished has become something of a badge of honor.
“The more accomplished you are, the more that you are valued as a person,” Markman notes. And it seems that everyone I know is busy being accomplished these days. Retired folks are swamped with garden club and step aerobics while children’s calendars are jam-packed with everything from tiny tumbling to foreign language.
Markman says that we have, in fact, passed the busyness obsession on to our children. “Activities are great, but unstructured play is also an important part of growing up. It is something that is missing for many kids amidst the dance lessons, scouting, sports, and homework.”
As a child, I mostly remember being the opposite of busy.
I would often complain to my mother of boredom. (I’m certain that I never once had a play date outside of my own siblings.) Of course, she never indulged my grievances. As a full-time working (and mostly single) mother who often took on side jobs for extra cash, being busy was non-negotiable and something she’d never think to boast about. Plus, I had plenty to keep me occupied. I walked to and from school with friends, was tasked with plenty of chores, and swam on the public pool’s team.
It wasn’t until I moved to New York City that I became one of these busy people.
I began walking much faster, often shoving into people who might be blocking the sidewalk, joyfully snapping photos of tall buildings. “MOVE!” I’d yell inside my head; I had to get to my JOB! Once there, I became even busier with no spare time to stop for a lunch break, eating expensive and sad salads at my desk and complaining about working late into the evening. Happy hour? Who has the time, and God forbid it to make us happy? If I want to see my friends, we’ll make plans three months in advance because we have, like, zero free weekends until October.
It’s a privileged life, to be busy.
A 2011 Gallup poll revealed that the more cash-rich working Americans are, the more time-poor they feel and that those working adults who report being time-poor are less satisfied with their personal lives. Additionally, time-poor working Americans are far more likely to say they experience a lot of stress than those who say they had enough time to get done what they needed to do.
This explains the work->stress->unhappiness spiral that I had created by living in a bustling city. The long work day and commute time left few hours for me to enjoy the things I loved in life.
And so, my husband and I moved.
The only problem was that once I relocated to a less busy place, I didn’t know how to manage my free time.
Sadly, I forgot how to not be busy. I often filled my long and “productive” days with mindless hours on social media, reading blogs and articles, obsessively replying to emails, or perusing BuzzFeed Animals. I did things simply to fill my time, because having free time meant something was wrong, right?
But being busy for the sake of being busy meant I still wasn’t doing those things I loved and wanted to make time for (aka, the whole reason I moved). And I wasn’t becoming any more accomplished through my forced busyness.
So I asked Markman how to embrace my free time. His advice: Stop using social media and other online distractions as time fillers. He suggests setting the goal to answer emails within 24 hours of receiving them, but not necessarily within the first hour after they arrive. “Check your email a few times a day rather than several times an hour. In addition, engage with other social media channels occasionally rather than constantly. That will free up blocks of time to work on bigger projects, and create opportunities to get away from work a bit.”
Once I cut back on the mindless filler and embraced the idea of free time, I’ve been able to do the things I love.
By following Markman’s advice—which really was so simple, but I needed to hear it from someone else—and starting my workday promptly at 7 A.M., it’s allowed me to log a full day’s work by 4 P.M. That also happens to be the ideal time for an afternoon bike ride, walking my dog, happy hour, or cooking dinner at a leisurely pace. Or pouring a glass of wine and getting cozy on the couch. For me, there’s an incredible amount of joy in these simple pleasures that I was missing out on while being such a busybody.
We can all benefit from taking a few minutes to reflect on why we’re so busy. Sometimes, work and other obligations are tough to control. But if you find you’re making yourself busy for the sake of being busy, it’s time to stop. Put down your phone, and bask in the glory that is free time. Do nothing with it, or fill it with something that fulfills you.
While I can now take a long lunch without guilt, I still struggle with the looming deadlines, my travel schedule, or that long, self-imposed to-do list, although I’m not even close to being the busy single mother that my own mom was or as active as many of my friends with children. But now, it’s easier for me to take a step back and appreciate the time that I do have. And to be incredibly thankful that I’m not navigating the L train.