Keeping busy has become the norm. A conversational brag and an excuse: ‘Sorry I haven’t seen you lately; I’ve just had so much to do.’ I can’t tell you how many times I’ve responded to the question, “how are you?” with “I’m busy”. To me, it’s a positive thing – minus the stress and lack of leisure. I thought busy meant productive, but recently I’ve realised there’s a big difference between the two. Sometimes when I’m overwhelmed, I work longer hours, believing if I do more, I’ll have less on my plate to worry about. Actually, I end up in a cycle of busyness, overwork and still not feeling productive.
What really keeps us so busy? Is it down to some of us dealing with more work tasks than others, do some of us say yes to too much? One significant reason I’ve noticed: Busyness can help avoid feelings. Whether that’s ignoring the pain from a breakup, the loneliness from lockdown, the fear of financial insecurity.
Brené Brown, a researcher at the University of Houston, often speaks about the numbing behaviours of being busy. According to Psychology Today, Brown said, “’Crazy-busy’ is a great armor, it’s a great way for numbing. What a lot of us do is that we stay so busy, and so out in front of our life, that the truth of how we’re feeling and what we really need can’t catch up with us”. Brown’s work really resonates with me.
Just before Covid, I experienced a breakup. This led to me spending lockdown alone, which I initially enjoyed as it allowed me to focus more on self-love. As the months went on, my enjoyment alone turned to concern – questions over my future now single. I didn’t know how to answer such questions – every time I got close; I froze. When I didn’t have much to do after work, my mind started thinking about my future. I threw myself into working overtime to avoid this analysing.
Consequences of being too busy
Numerous health consequences are linked to overly keeping busy. Lack of sleep, eye problems, heart diseases, irritability. The tiredness itself can cause bad habits like drinking alcohol and overeating. On website Calm Sage, an article discusses how keeping busy can affect self-esteem. Busyness stops you from living in the present. If you’re constantly moving from task-to-task, when do you pause to live in the moment?
You also have to look at what you’re doing while you’re busy. If keeping busy has become a solution to hide emotions, you may be living in continual panic. You don’t want to have free time, so your brain is aware it needs to keep working. Are you editing more emails, following up mundane tasks? An ongoing work load doesn’t sound like an environment for creativity to flourish.
Signs you are keeping busy to avoid emotion
The most obvious: A difficult life event has recently occurred. What do you think of as your lying-in bed right before you sleep? How often do you talk about your feelings? Do you purposely avoid certain thoughts when speaking to friends? How would you feel about reducing your workload to spend time reflecting on your mental health?
Addressing your busyness and feelings
Circling back to Brené’s theory about numbing behaviours, she believes we should ask the following questions: Are my choices comforting and nourishing my spirit, or are they temporary reprieves from vulnerability and difficult emotions ultimately diminishing my spirit? Are my choices leading my Wholeheartedness, or do they leave me feeling empty and searching?
When months went by during lockdown, I got to a point of feeling rundown; sometimes tired all the time. There were moments when I didn’t do anything in the evening but eat sugar – something to numb my frustration. Eventually I told myself, this couldn’t continue. I addressed my emotional issues by seeing a therapist. Day-to-day, I now schedule lunch, I work late only a couple of times a week as appose to every night, and I switch off my laptop when I’m finished (to prevent me from going back).
If being busy doesn’t lead to productivity, and instead leaves you tired, stressed, overall unsatisfied… that’s a clear sign being busy is problematic and needs addressing. If keeping busy is down to emotional avoidance, I suggest seeking therapy. The NHS provides some free online counselling services and appointments in person (though, there can be a lengthy waiting time). If price is an issue, The Free Psychotherapy Network lists a number of affordable therapy options.
What is it about a feeling that feels so uncomfortable? If the feeling links to other issues such as financial security, loneliness, failure, etc., these are separate points to work on. Perhaps a financial advisor or swapping some evenings alone for plans with friend. To easy your workload, you can try meditation, organising essential daily tasks while also scheduling downtime, and if it doesn’t add to your busyness, swapping some evenings for fun activities.
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