appointment book
How many times have you heard variations on this conversation?

Person A: How’s it going?
Person B: I’m insanely busy. You know, the usual.
Person A: Yeah, me too. I’m scheduling into 2015 already.
Person B: I get it. Haven’t taken a real vacation in over a year.
Person A: Well, gotta count our blessings for being busy, right?
Person B: Amen.

It seems to me that we wear busyness like a badge of honor. I’m busy, therefore I’m important and valuable, therefore I’m worthy. And if I’m not busy, forget it. I don’t matter.

Recently, I hired Anne Davin to help me run my business, and because she’s much kinder to my schedule than I am, I find myself with a lot more free time than I’ve had in decades. Anne reins me in so I don’t bulldoze full steam ahead into exciting new projects that, while thrilling and fulfilling, will invariably wind up over committing and depleting me and overworking and depleting my staff. So lately, I have a lot of days on my calendar labeled “Succulent Space Day,” which basically means I’m free to do…whatever.

Because it looks to the outside world like I achieve a lot, people assume I’m insanely busy. But the reality is that, because I have such a great support team, both in my professional life and my personal life, I have a lot of down time, and this down time leaves me admittedly uncomfortable. In September, my whole month was blocked for a PBS station tour that got postponed until December (check listings for my public television special here). So when that tour got postponed, I had loads of free time on my calendar. So what did I do? I filled up the time by writing a 124,000 word book that I started and finished in seven weeks.

I guess you could say I’m more than a little uncomfortable with down time.

The Addiction of Busyness

In Daring Greatly, Brené Brown writes about numbing behaviors that we use as armor against vulnerability. And lest you think numbing doesn’t apply to you because you’re not hooked on cocaine or alcohol, she clarifies by saying, “One of the most universal numbing strategies is what I call crazy-busy. I often say that when they start having twelve-step meetings for busy-aholics, they’ll need to rent out football stadiums. We are a culture of people who’ve bought into the idea that if we stay busy enough, the truth of our lives won’t catch up with us.”

Oy. Busted.

While we shame people who are addicted to drugs and alcohol, somehow, as a culture, we’ve normalized- even praised- busyness addiction. But are we really doing ourselves any favors by staying so busy?

Because I suddenly have more down time than I’ve ever had in my adult life, I find myself faced with the time to reflect upon my life. And facing my life isn’t always so pretty.

Facing The Truth

When I get off the hamster wheel of busyness and achievement, I’m forced to notice what comes up for me when I’m not busy. After I work through the realization that I could be working on my next book or I could be writing the sales page for the program I’ll be launching with Rachel Naomi Remen in January or I could be doing [fill the “there’s always more” blank,] I realize that none of those things must get done today. What is left in the silence are the things I don’t necessarily want to look at.

Like my flailing marriage.

Or the fact that I feel shame around how I’m missing out on some of Siena’s sweetest childhood moments because my job requires travel.

Or how uncomfortable I am with feelings of boredom.

Or how afraid I am of being ordinary.

Or how I tend to feel unworthy and unlovable unless I’m overachieving.

Or the fact that my mother isn’t getting any younger and I don’t get to see her very often, and I wonder if I’m unconsciously pulling away from her because I’m terrified of losing her one day and am practicing what Brené would call “dress-rehearsing disaster.”

Or how uncomfortable I am with realizing that, although a lot of people online care what I have to say, I’m not very good at cultivating and sustaining lasting relationships with real people who really know me and love me.

Or how restless I feel when I’m not making myself feel more worthy by doing something to help others.

Or how lonely I often feel, even when I’m surrounded by a crowd of people.

Oy. Yet again. I’ve been using my busyness to numb the feelings of vulnerability that accompany the unsettling truths about my life. Busted, yet again.

Making Peace With Inaction

My friend and mentor Martha Beck spends about four hours every day meditating lately. I can barely make it through twenty minutes of meditation without checking my watch and counting the minutes until it’s over, so I can’t even begin to relate to four hours of total inaction. Who would I be if I wasn’t busy accomplishing stuff? Who would I be if I was okay with doing nothing for hours on end? And even scarier, what truths would I have to face that I can effectively avoid facing when I’m crazy busy?

I have experienced moments that touch the kind of peace Martha often experiences these days, those moments when you really understand what the Bible meant when it describes the peace that passeth all understanding. It’s compelling, that kind of peace. It draws you in, makes you crave more, and jolts you awake so that you don’t want to miss out on life by filling yourself with crazy busyness.

But then, like a greased watermelon, you lose it. And the pain of its loss tempts you to fill up your schedule again so you’re not faced with the longing of what you have touched but can’t sustain.

What’s The Solution?

So what’s the cure for busyness addiction? Brené prescribes the care and feeding of our spirits. It’s not that passionate action is always wrong, just like a sacred morsel of chocolate isn’t always a numbing behavior. Sometimes these behaviors soothe us. More often, they’re a way to hide. How can you tell the difference? When we consider what motivates our numbing behaviors, Brené invites us to 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?”

She concludes with this:

“Spirituality emerged as a fundamental guidepost in Wholeheartedness. Not religiosity but the deeply held belief that we are inextricably connected to one another by a force greater than ourselves- a force grounded in love and compassion. For some of us, that’s God, for others it’s nature, art, or even human soulfulness. I believe that owning our worthiness is the act of acknowledging that we are sacred. Perhaps embracing vulnerability and overcoming numbing is ultimately about the care and feeding of our spirits.”

There she goes again. Oy.

Are You Numbing Yourself With Busyness?

Be honest with yourself. What might you be hiding behind your “to do” list? How might you care for and feed your spirit more so you’re not so inclined to fill the void with busyness?

Trying to find peace with slowing down,

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11 Comments

  1. Patti Houston

    Thank you so much for this. It’s so nice to know I am not alone. During a 2 year recovery from adrenal exhaustion (due to my busyness addiction) I had plenty of time to reflect on “why”. Initially I took on recover in the same way I do everything; full tilt boogie and with great success. But I forgot to do the real work – figuring out why I live as I have. There were moments of sadness but mostly a feeling of relief to know I don’t need to continue with the maniacal pace. Lots still gets done but WOW is life ever easier. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
    • Steph b

      I just found out about your blog and your books. I just finished reading “the fear cure” since I suffer from lots of anxiety lately. I am a young mom with 3 kids and I always got advices by my mother to stay busy. And now that my kids are getting a little bigger I realize that for the last 7 years I was only busy with them and now that I am starting to have a little “spare time” with a 7 year old, a 6 year old and 2 year old toddler, I don’t know what to do with it. I don’t know what to do with myself. Which causes me anxiety too. And in the eyes of my work aholic mother I haven’t been doing anything at all the last 7 years. (Since it was never actual payed work). So everyone around me starts asking: so when will you start a job, what will you do… While what I really should do is take time OFF instead to find myself. But our society doesn’t allow us to do so. The only remedy is “staying busy” so I am so happy to read your post and recognizing this matter! Thanks

      Reply
  2. awayhome

    I have been trying to write my diagnosis and prescription and this rawly honest post of yours has (written to a gazillion readers ) blown me wide open. I can’t even write this kind of stuff to myself… Thank you for giving me a heart in my mouth goose bumps inspiration… I will try to take this kind of courage into my life…. I bow in gratitude… Patti

    Reply
  3. Victoria

    “Too Busy” is always an excuse, especially when it’s true. I find that a lot of people in my life are unavailable these days and when I ask them to make time for me, they recite their itinerary and act as if that makes it okay. They think because I am not crazy busy like them that I am either lucky or some poor bored soul but I actually made choices and sacrifices so I could have a life where I was available for myself and the people I care about. Too bad so many of them are too busy to take advantage of that.

    Reply
  4. Dawn

    I do this, and the business takes up room in my life for things I’d much prefer to do. Maybe it’s a good excuse for not trying my real dream (so I can’t fail at it).
    I wanted to tell you, Lissa, I saw your PBS special this weekend and it was wonderful. What I best liked was your smile. Everything you said was with a smile that seemed to say you believed what you were saying and were so happy to share it with the rest of us. A sign of a true visionary. It was exciting to watch.

    Reply
  5. Ron Weinberger

    Great post as usual Lissa!

    What’s the difference between a busyness addict and an alcoholic, foodaholic, TVaholic, drug addict or smoker?

    Simply the escape vehicle or substance they use to self-medicate themselves.

    Because these people don’t have the necessary coping skills they’re all trying to accomplish the same thing… escape from the way they feel inside.

    So to do that they try and divert their attention. They look outside of themselves scrambling to find a solution for what’s inside of them.

    Until people realize they have the ability to control their emotions (and thereby their life) and actually take back that control, the numbers of busyness addicts and all other “aholics” will continue to rise.

    Ron

    Reply
  6. Elizabeth Scala

    Lissa, as usual I love it! The topic is awesome and your vignette at the start of the blog rings so true.

    As a nurse, healthcare professional, woman, caregiver, etc. I (we) have double-triple-quadruple whammies! And I see it all of the time (yes I lived it too… recovery is a process, right?).

    “I’ve got no time” or “I’m always staying late at work” or (worst yet) bringing work home, to the dinner table, in the bed!

    Why do we have to be so busy all of the time? I LOVE your ideas around value, worth, and importance. Thank you for such a great post, one which I am sharing socially since I believe everyone should be reading this!

    I agree with you and the comments before me that filling the ‘void’ (whatever that may be) with being busy is the underlying issue and that allowing oneself to just ‘be’ is actually OK- even necessary!

    Thank you for reminding us -and allowing us- to release the busyness!

    Reply
  7. Susie

    Feel very nurtured by this excellent post ♡Lissa. Some pretty raw truths in …..I especially value the sharing about our need to do “the real work” as mentioned by Patti H – figuring out what is behind why we are choosing to live the way we do. Thank you♡

    Reply
  8. Morgan Nichols

    What an amazing, honest and brave post. I can identify with a lot of this! Thank you.

    Reply
  9. Vivienne Turner

    Well I am definitely not busy; and after a lifetime of crazy busy it is a godsend. What I have noticed is that people are very confronted when, in answer to the typical question ” been busy?” I say, emphatically, ” No!”, they get shocked. All I can say is I thoroughly recommend it – you never know where it may take you!

    Reply
  10. Maarten Boks

    I am a fan of your writing, and your opinion carries weight for me and many other readers. In this post, you address a theme that´s very recognizable and personal to many of us. However, I think you do so in a way that´s unresponsible. From the advice you give, I can tell you are a seeker, and not an expert on this particular topic. I urge you to be conscious of this fact, and take caution when writing about such topics, as ill advice can be harmful.

    I don’t think spirituality is needed to solve these matters, because the mechanism you describe (“creating busyness”) is a very natural and biologically hardwired response.

    Also, you write that you might use busyness to avoid looking at yourself. Then you name 8 “truths” you think you are avoiding. To be honest, I t think those “truths” are just names you give to an underlying sense of hurt and despair you have. This is also a very natural and biologically hardwired response; when we are hurt, we try to see what’s causing it. If we can’t find anything, we might try out different explanations, because that brings some short term relief.

    (This is because the part of your brain that tries to look for causes doesn’t have good physical connections to the part of your brain that experiences pain. This causes a negative feedback loop: pain > looking for causes > can’t find any > keep looking for causes > can’t find any, creating tremendous amounts of stress on the system.)

    If you can name 8 truths you might be avoiding, in a public blog post, I just think you are not really avoiding them at all. And that’s just you trying to find a name and cause for your underlying pain, and the accompanying sense of helplessness.

    Having been down both the path of movement and orienting towards a cause, I can tell that “creating busyness” (or creating movement) is a more effective way to step out of the paralysis that accompanies such hurt. Just don’t pressure yourself: as long as you recognize you are not being busy for the outcome, but only to create movement (keep busy), you might actually start to feel how this is helping you in the long term to step out of paralysis and create more connection with the world.

    PS: before I stop writing I need to give you a fair warning: the hurt should NOT be addressed through meditation or trying to accomplish ego death. In a case like this meditation can actually be quite harmful. You need time and help by an expert to be able to deal with this.

    Reply

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