because the cult of busy is probably killing you

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You can’t manage time. Time never changes. There will always and ever be 168 hours in a week. What you can manage are the activities you choose to do in time. And what busy and overwhelmed people need to realize…is that you will never be able to do everything you think you need, want, or should do. You will never clear your plate so you can get to the good stuff. So you have to decide. What do you want to accomplish in this life? What’s important to you right now? And realize that what’s important now may not be two years from now. It’s always changing. –From Brigid Schulte’s Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time

You can’t make a suggestion of sadness. You can no longer whisper or mutter your grief, rather you have to bludgeon your loved ones with it, and then you’ll realize you have their strictest attention. I have a hard time asking for help. Having had to assume the role of adult as soon as I left the womb, I never knew what it was like to be a child; I never had the luxury of screaming tears and being swathed in blankets because I was forever hushing, always wrapping people with the things that comforted them most. In my home vulnerability was considered a weakness, and I spent much of my life telling people I’m fine, even when it was abundantly clear that I was the very opposite of fine. But don’t worry, I’m taking care of it; I’ve got it under control, it’s handled, as the popular protagonist from a nighttime show would say–even when I stared down at my bare hands knowing that I didn’t have the tools for fine. Fine wasn’t a place cartographers had mapped, and I spent much of my adult life with the burden of my grief and sadness, bearing the weight of it. Alone.

Until a few years ago when after my beloved Sophie passed away and I’d left a job that was slowly killing me, and life was dark and uncertain. After seven years of clarity, I drank. A lot. And over the course of two months I’d begun to realize how this relapse was markedly different than all the ones that had become before because I had time. I had the weight of seven years of living a nearly-present life and I finally understand what was at stake, what I could lose. This time was different because I had the gift (or burden) of awareness, and in the midst of all the drinking I knew in my heart this wasn’t right, I had to stop but I couldn’t stop, and I called a friend shaking and said, Angie, can you help me?

Before that morning, that moment, I can’t tell you the last time I said those words out loud.

My friend didn’t flinch or hesitate. She dropped her kids off at school, drove to my home and got me out of the house. We drove around Brooklyn and talked all day, and over the next few weeks she made me adopt Felix. She saved my life. And I knew how busy she was–she had a full-time job as an executive and took care of a husband and two children–but she made time, and that time is something for which I’m forever thankful. Even after a year and seven months of not drinking, when I see her I sometimes remind her that she saved my life.

A few weeks ago I went through another period of darkness. I can’t describe these dark times other than to say that they’re like a storm that’s ferocious and brutal, yet passes swiftly. For a brief time the whole of my world was shrouded in grey and I had a hard time finding my way out, back into the light. Out of habit, I withdrew from friends, receded. Some of them asked what was wrong and in pained replies I said nothing. I said I was fine. But everyone was so goddamn busy, so consumed by the goings-on in their life, to notice the signs. I had become angry over the fact that the people closest to me knew something was wrong and apart from a perfunctory how are you and the answer they knew I’d give, they resumed their state of busy. In some cases, I actually told a few friends what was going on, asked if I could see them, and getting a date on their calendar rivaled admittance into the Pentagon.

Are you fucking kidding me with this, I thought.

It took a status update on Facebook (I’d pared down my friend list to those whom I know and love “in real life”) to remind my closest friends that I am someone who always goes above and beyond, who drops everything and inconveniences herself. Someone who ignores busy, who makes time for her friends when they need her. And wouldn’t it be nice for you to reciprocate? Do I always have to usher in the dramatics and a cry for help for you to make time? Must my needs always be so extreme for you to make time?

Suddenly, everyone magically had time. It no longer takes a gentle prodding to ask for someone’s time or help–it takes an enraged status update on a semi-public social media channel. I don’t begrudge my friends this because they are wonderful, devoted and kind, however, I do worry about the busyness that consumes them. Where mourning the loss of time has become common, a constant bewildered state.

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For a period of nearly four years, I was busy. I missed weddings, baby showers, important moments in friends’ lives–I missed everything. And for what? A title? A six-figure salary? The promise of ownership in a company that I’d become wedded to? Stress and busy wore me down, made me sick, exhausted, and tired, and it took a breakdown and a long conversation with my beloved mentor to convince me to resign. To take my life back because my mentor once told me that when I’m on my deathbed will I have regretted that email I didn’t send, the meeting I didn’t attend or the presentation that could have been tweaked? No, I’ll regret all the weddings and moments in my friends’ lives that I’d missed. I’d regret all the time that I’d squandered, all the people I’d abandoned. It’s been two years since I left that life behind and it’s taken me nearly that long to truly understand the cult of busy and how it can invariably ruin.

I read a lot of articles about the disease that is stress and being busy. As someone who once sent rapidfire emails at six in the morning, I’ve since learned that no one likes to wake to a flood of obligations in their inbox before they have time to wipe the sleep from their eyes. The amount of hours in a day will never change, the to-do list will never be completed to our satisfaction, we can never have all of it because all is nebulous, grey, and holds a different meaning depending upon who holds the weight of its obligation, so why not take control of our time and how we spend it? Contrary to popular belief, busy is a decision we make.

We choose busy. We choose to assume this word as a badge of honor rather than a sickness. We use this word as a measure of endurance–how much of the world could one bear and are we stronger than someone else simply for the fact that we can hold our breath for one more second underwater? Are we better than someone else because we’ve become adept at near-drowning?

For the past two weeks I’ve been immersed in Brigid Schulte’s book on the business of busy, after having read this smart interview. Although it’s primarily targeted to parents, specifically mothers, on how they can find time and balance, much of the book is applicable to everyone that feels the weight of their calendar and to-do list on their shoulders. Schulte’s shares the affects of stress on our brain, that living in a constant state of anxiety actually shrinks our pre-frontal cortex (our intellectual center, arguably the most important part of our brain) and enlarges our anxiety/depression center, all the while shooting cortisol through our bodies. Stress and busy are inextricably bound, and the physical and mental damage it can do will put you on pause. I felt the bulk of what Schulte’s research ascribes–I felt sick, gained weight, no longer felt creative. For a time, exhaustion and anxious were bedfellows.

Much of the book goes to places Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In (a book I onced admired, now I question) failed to go. Schulte not only detangles the societal and social mores around women, feminism, work and what it means to be a capable parent in today’s society, she also examines (in stark comparison to other countries) how our society fails to support the family unit. And while I’m not a parent or have any plans to have children, this doesn’t mean I should be blind to how our system fails mothers and fathers–people I know and love–nor does it mean that the impact on the family wouldn’t have any adverse affect on women, particularly single women. We don’t live our lives in silo, and much of the success in other countries as it relates to the ability for people to have leisure time, to not be so tethered to their devices, has to do with a communal mindset. Taking care of yourself while keeping an eye out for your community.

Without time to reflect, to live fully present in the moment and face what is transcendent about our lives. [Leisure researcher] Ben Hunnicut says, we are doomed to live in a purposeless and banal busyness. “Then we starve the capacity we have to love,” he said. “It creates this ‘unquiet heart,’ as Saint Augustine said, that is ever desperate for fulfillment.” —Overwhelmed

Schulte also deconstructs our insatiable appetite for competition that essentially goes nowhere. We are, at best, productive for nearly six hours a day. And that’s it. At one point our overwork becomes a state of diminished returns and we start to make mistakes we wouldn’t normally make and spend (or waste) time in cleanup mode. While we’re one of the top productive nations, we’re productive when it comes to output, however, we fail at the time it takes to get to the output in comparison to other nations. It’s almost as if we’re afraid of spending time relaxing. We see leisure time as wasteful if it’s not productive (working out, organizing our closets, etc). We don’t understand the art of play and how stretches of time spent doing nothing can actually bring forth our best ideas, our greatest work.

Over the past two years I’ve been privileged in the sense that lots of companies want to hire me. They tell me about an impressive salary and benefits package, about the days of vacation I’ll be promised. The travel! The exposure! In response, I type the same two questions and wait for a response:

1. How many hours do people normally spend working and is flexible time (real flexible scheduling) empowered from the top?
2. Tell me about the hobbies or passions of two of your junior employees

Radio silence.

I made a pile of money (don’t know where that went), I had the exposure and travel and look where it got me: sick, exhausted, burnt-out. I make half as much money as I once did yet I’m richer in every sense of the word. I’ve shown a current client that in three days I can do the work of five because I’m focused. I’ve done some of the best branding and organizational design work for clients than I’ve ever done. I’ve written some of my best work since I’ve resigned from my job. I’ve traveled, discovered new foods, tastes and interests, and I’m present. Fully present for those who need me.

Photo Credits: Death to the Stock Photo. Second image, text is my own.

finding joy

26 thoughts on “because the cult of busy is probably killing you

  1. Completely agree with you. This world of ‘busyness’ we have brought upon ourselves is unbearable. I recently gave up my smartphone and find I have so much more time to do…nothing. I like doing nothing, maybe just sitting on the patio, talking with my family, watching the puppies play. I think we all need down time – or what in my family, we call vegetation time, to recharge the brain.
    Much of this ‘busyness’ is self-induced – such as writing emails to the person who has an office right next door. What happened to getting up and going and talking to people? It’s a much nicer way of doing things, less work. Doesn’t really seem like anyone actually ‘talks’ anymore, more rapid-fire pieces of information ejected verbally – no more meandering conversations. And you know – the crazy thing is, we should have so much more time, what with robotic vacuum cleaners, washing machines, microwaves, dishwashers and all the other stuff that helps us get things done. So where has all that time gone?

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  2. Wow! This really made me stop and think about my life and how I spend my time. I am currently working part time at a job that I absolutely love. I couldn’t put my finger on why I love it so much until I read this. Part of the reason is the ability to have a life outside of work. I don’t leave feeling like I have spent my entire day there nor am I bringing my frustrations home with me. Now to figure out what to do with all of this time that I have. It is new to me. I am 35 and ever since I’ve started working I’ve always done it to the max. Meaning that at 16 I started working in an office part time during school and full time in the summer. After graduation I started working full time because that’s what grown ups do right? Quickly I became a chaser of the all mighty dollar and lost myself in a world wind of busy. Working, helping my parents survive, providing for my children, getting married, going to school, traveling for my job, etc. And then I hit a brick wall. Now I am not so busy and I love it but now what? Absolutely a great article that will have me rethinking where and what I should be doing.

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    1. Andrea–Kindred spirits!! I’m so warmed to hear about the life you’ve made for yourself and the fact that you have the presence and wisdom to know that living a balanced life is a fuller one. So awesome!

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  3. I loved everything about this post, but this part had to be my favorite:

    “…I type the same two questions and wait for a response:

    1. How many hours do people normally spend working and is flexible time (real flexible scheduling) empowered from the top?
    2. Tell me about the hobbies or passions of two of your junior employees”

    Mic drop.

    p.s.: You’re amazing.

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  4. I’m still working on my need to always be busy. I feel guilty (especially since starting my own company) if I’m not “making” the most of every waking moment.

    Since moving aboard, I’m a little better. The entire country basically shuts down in August. You cannot work as everyone is out of the office. The first few summers I was here, it freaked me out. I was miserable. Last summer was the first time I embraced it.

    I am trying not to work on weekends. Slowly I’m getting there.

    I so know what you mean about how some friends are always too busy to be present. It’s something I experienced a lot in L.A. I too have a hard time asking for help. There were some very dark times and I had no one. Partly, it was my fault because nobody knew.

    I don’t have that issue here. I have friends who tell me if I don’t answer their “how are you feeling” text or return their call within a certain amount of time, they will come to my house.

    And I would do the same for them.

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    1. It’s so interesting you mention place, Arlene, because I’ve read so much about Europe and their perceptions of success, achievement, and support of both mothers and fathers who want to take time to be with their children — a privilege (or right, I would suggest) that doesn’t exist in the U.S.

      I love Denmark’s definition of what it means to be successful–that it’s not simply about prestige or money, rather, the concept of hygge, of living in the moment, of being present is given provenance over the acquisition culture of Americans.

      I struggle with this a lot too, you know. I go through this tension of feeling like what I’m doing is never enough instead of realizing that I’m happy with living with less, with being small.

      I admire the life you’ve made for yourself and can’t wait until our paths cross again!! xxo

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Felicia, I LOVE your blog and every post! Your writing style is addictive and typically resonates with me so very much. However, today I found your use of the Lord’s name in vain so offensive and jarring. I respectfully ask you reconsider using that phrase… most fondly, A

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    1. Thank you! I thought quite a bit before responding to your comment, and I first want to thank you for giving me feedback. It’s never my intention to offend anyone with what I write, but I’m not comfortable censoring what I write or believe to appease someone else’s opinions or religious beliefs. I stand by what I’ve written and I don’t feel comfortable removing any part of it. I hope you can respect my point of view. With warm regards, Felicia

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      1. Yes, of course I Respect your commitment to resist the urge to appease masses -just thought in this instance you just may not have considered the implications of using that phrase..

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  6. There is something so important about being there for each other as a community and it shouldn’t turn into a lost art because of busyness and overwhelm! Glad your friends are listening and wishing you strength, abundance and positivity to get through any tough patches..

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  7. It took serious illness to get me to cut my work hours down. It was hard – reading Robyn Posin talking about hunter gathers only working about 4 hours a day helped me make my peace with it. I am somewhat freaked out to find my 8 year old neice is scheduled with 6 activities a week on top of school… it starts early. BTW check out Tom Hodgkinson’s work How to be Free etc.

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    1. Mary — So appreciate the reading recos — I have to constantly remind myself to pause, reflect, nourish and grow. It’s been a continuous journey but an auspicious one. So glad you managed to come out on the other side, prosperous. Warmly, Felicia

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  8. I sometimes forget how lucky I am to have time to travel and do things I want. Sometimes I feel guilty or sometimes I think I an awful choice to make enough money to retire for my future. When I decided to quit my job, I had no idea i’d be here 16yrs later still doing what i love (PT) and doing other things i enjoy and not have to wait till i’m retired to actually do them. i don’t make much, but i’ve learned to be creative with my time and money. Don’t get me wrong I still worry from time to time. i sometimes think the clock will strike 12 and it all turns back to a pumpkin.

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  9. It is interesting because at this time in my life I am really not busy. I am the opposite of busy. I have tons of time. And there have been so many occasions when I have almost had to apologize for that (or just not tell the truth!) as it is right on the opposite scale of priorities for so many people that I know in the States. Here in France, where despite the five weeks vacation people are still very productive, that is less of a concern. The shops are closed on Sundays and people still cook a big meal with their families then go for a walk. There is no guilt in that. No one would ever call after 9pm unless it was an emergency. I found all of that so very odd when I first moved here from Manhattan but now I see the folly and destruction of our Perfection/Success/IamaWinner Race.
    And I am grateful that your friends got the message. Sending my very Best to you, Felicia…your honesty, wit and intelligence inspire me greatly.

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  10. I can relate to how it felt to be an “adult” and never have a childhood. Boy, do I know how that feels! I know all to well what it is like to be the comforter vs. being comforted.

    I also understand what it feels like to reach out to others- loved ones and/or friends and when you need someone the most, everyone seems busy. I rarely ask for help- ever- and usually tend to matters completely independent, never desiring to be a burden on anyone, while being as caring a friend and loved one to others I know, even if it is a gift of 5 minutes here and there. It all makes a difference. I treasure when anyone gives me the gift of time too.

    I am grateful that you moved past your 6 figure job and took care of your health instead. I have had to make similar choices with reference to career, even though I didn’t have a six figure pay to downsize from or make changes from. Either way, it is a healthy risk I felt worthwhile and I am glad you did this for yourself. 🙂

    Also, I must add that you are quite talented with your writing and I appreciate reading what you share.

    With kindest wishes, always,

    Joy in Eugene, OR

    Liked by 1 person

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