Avoiding the Busy Trap

A good friend sent me this New York Times op-ed piece from a few months back.  It's a meditation on modern busyness, a condition which afflicts many of my clients, friends, and colleagues.  (I've been known to fall victim to it, too)

Almost everyone I know is busy. They feel anxious and guilty when they aren’t either working or doing something to promote their work...The present hysteria is not a necessary or inevitable condition of life; it’s something we’ve chosen, if only by our acquiescence to it.


Amen. People are busy these days, but more importantly, they feel busy.  I work with folks every day who are constantly at the ready to respond real or perceived work demands.

Now, I don't totally agree with the author in his analysis of the cause:

Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.

I don't know about that. Some people may find meaning in being overworked, but many are legitimately really busy.  Some work for large companies that are maximizing productivity by squeezing ever more out of each employee.  Others are entrepreneurs or freelancers who simply need to work long,  long hours to stay afloat (or even to pay Bay Area rent).  For many people, busyness is not a self-indulgence; it's a reality to be dealt with.

So, I don't think we deserve blame for feeling this way.  But it can be helpful to remind ourselves that even if we can't fully control our time demands, we can control how we deal with them.  Now, there are some things that can be done to alleviate this sense of busyness. We can sharpen our skills at managing time, setting priorities, and--most difficult--saying no.  I've seen and helped people get better at these things, and they can lead to real gains in productivity and reductions in anxiety.

But to the author's point, there is another side to this.  It's not just about how long are to-do lists are.  Truth is, there is simply never enough time to do everything that we want to do as well as we want to do it.  I  mean, can you ever remember a time in your adult  life when you didn't have a million things to do?

The biggest challenge for most of us is to give up the idea of ever crossing everything off the list, and to realize that we usually don't have to.  We will get the important things done if we can smile, relax, and make good decisions.