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On being anti-busy (lessons I learned the hard way)

To be “busy” in our modern world carries with it something like a badge of honor, a stake in the ground about mattering and about personal strength and resilience, and is a complete fucking farce that’s doing more harm than good. And, I reject it. 

I’ll explain. We all have stressful times in life, and indeed sometimes it does rain as it pours, as the expression goes. And, when we do, we cope, we get through it, we return to normal. But, generally, our world is one that has us in a place of “busy” as a stock answer and standard expectation, and to do otherwise is downright heretical. Which, really, is a cyclical, self-perpetuating recipe for no downtime, no recovery time from stress, no time for real human connection, no time for contemplation, and increasing stress levels that are all, plenty of data shows, trying to kill us. I don’t say that lightly; in fact, we continually ignore dire warnings of all that chronic busyness threatens to do to us.

While few of us would question the need to rest and recoup after physical strain, the same isn’t afforded to mental and emotional strain so readily. As such, two forces are pressing tighter and tighter against us all: increasingly high stress levels under the cover of “busy” and the lack of regard for the mental and emotional benefits of downtime. Simply put: we’re stressed and winding up more and more with each stressful event on to of our usual stressloads. To boot, in times of stress and overwhelm, many tend to want to push themselves to do man tasks as quickly as possible in order to “get through” the stressful time and get things back to normal.

I reject that, too. I’m saying no to all of it. I reject the cult of “busy” and all it stands for, and declare that a widespread, open rejection of it is not only a good idea, but a necessary one.

I’ve long been of the mind that whining is a terrible act only committed only by the weak and ungrateful, the pessimistic. And, I’m ambitious; I want to accomplish a lot of things, and feel empowered to control my own destiny to make those things happen. I also get bored terribly easily. Add all that up, and I take on a fair amount of things. In fact, I feel like I do my best work when I have a good mix of different things to work on and by which to feel intellectually stimulated. Throughout my life, that’s been my system and it’s worked well for me.

Long, personal and likely boring-to-you story, but essentially, earlier this year, I found myself in a bad spot because I had too much on my plate and didn’t recognize my own overwhelm. I’d been in a too-negative, no-win job, acutely felt the call of bigger and better things, and took steps to leave and strike out on my own. And, while I have never questioned or regretted that decision, l I totally underestimated the impact both of those things–leaving a job and creating a new one– would have, and, thus, not only did I not recognize the effects of this stress when they initially appeared, but I also I didn’t clear anything else off my plate to allow myself time to process any of it. I left the job, and immediately began assembling my next set of projects. I didn’t recognize the ill-effects of a couple of hits of these “acute life stressors,” thus didn’t give myself time to process them, and thus, felt off kilter and overwhelmed. And, that terrible feeling of overwhelm made me feel that the only way out was to conquer it all, and desperately tried to do more and more to dig myself out of the hole. As you can guess, that didn’t work worth a damn. I withdrew more, I felt unsettled, and for a while, made easy choices over right ones. Which, let’s not kid ourselves, will fucking ruin you every time. Soon, I realized the complete futility of my approach, but certainly not before all that withdrawal and overwhelm had some concrete impacts.

I resisted that, and resisted admitting that. After all, I’ve scoffed at people who couldn’t manage their lives, people who succumbed to the idea of compulsively being busy (on usually nothing of any real substance), and the social conditioning that made them that way. Surely, I reasoned, I was aware that all this was simply people buying into the busy myth out of sense of longing for self-importance, not something I’d ever be. Nooo.

Things are back in a fine place, but it’s a different one, for many reasons. As a result, I’m more vigilant than ever about what gets a “yes” from me, what gets space on my calendar. I did this before, but I did this on a whole other level now. But, what does get plenty of space on my calendar are the things I know make me my best: a few minutes of meditation here and there, time to write every single day (I mean, there are maybe two things on the whole entirety of the planet that are better than writing every day, truth be told), time to relax, time to consider, and with all that has comes a strong urge to be actively anti-busy.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been stressed out before, but earlier this year was a perfect storm that opened my eyes to how empty the pursuit of constant busy-ness really is.

Our world will continue to push the agenda of busy on us– it’s in our language, our actions, our lifestyles, our conveniences– until we consciously reject chronic busyness, and consciously decide to do things simpler and more human. I mean, really, what are we doing it for? Is it materialism? A sense that none of us are really “enough”? Are we filling every minute of the day to avoid listening to the small, still voice inside ourselves that brings up big ideas and big feelings? Are we ill-equipped to deal with ourselves as humans? Or, each other? How can that be when, anecdotally, so much chatter is devoted to the search for meaning and connection? Yet, I think it is like that. So, I reject it. I’ll go straight to the human-ness, thanks.

Which is not to say I lost even a shred of ambition or drive. Nay. What I’m talking about is clarity: clarity about what does and doesn’t matter to me, clarity to reject a culture that constantly suggests none of us are really enough, and to reject the idea that the road to success involves denying ourselves our human-ness.

As if the gut-wrenching daily headlines don’t remind us enough: life is painfully short. And, for whatever reason, we have developed a terrible habit of filling it with as much as possible rather than placing within it only the best and more important of things. Let’s do and be better. Let’s say no to being brainwashed into stuffing as much activity and “things” into our lives as possible, no to not being anything but celebratory about self-care and downtime, about discussion and contemplation, and no to not giving ourselves time and space to be human. And as we do that, we’re saying yes to real things like human connection, deep love, friendship and fellowship, manners, civility, adventure, new ideas, common ground, justice, compassion, joy and living.