Decades ago, success was measured by wealth and leisure. The number of vacations you took. Where you went. How you spent that time. The number of fancy cars inside your garage. The number of fancy things and rooms inside your home. These were the ultimate status symbols.
The more you relaxed, the more lavish your lifestyle, the more luxurious your getaways, the more you were seen as a highly successful somebody.
Today, however, success and status are measured by how busy you are. The busier, the better. So busy that you can’t take time off. So busy that you carry your laptop with you everywhere. So busy that you check email right before closing your eyes and right after opening them. So busy that you work right through the weekend. So busy there’s no time to call your mom let alone have lunch with her.
Today, we view busyness as a badge of honor. A badge that we show to everyone. How are you? Oh, busy! Soooo busy.
Why has busyness become a status symbol, a marker of success? Why does being busy matter so much to us?
The Pursuit of Self-Worth
It’s also how we “’prove’ that we are contributing to society, that we are a good person doing things for others, that we are a good person, worker, husband, wife, father, mother,” said Julie de Azevedo Hanks, Ph.D, LCSW, a psychotherapist and author of the book The Assertiveness Guide for Women: How to Communicate Your Needs, Set Healthy Boundaries, and Transform Your Relationships.
Hanks once worked with a client who had a hard time saying no to her family, to her church community and at work. She was regularly running on empty and felt resentful about all the tasks she had to do. “Her busyness was motivated by trying to prove her worth to her parents and to herself and by keeping others happy and avoiding others’ disappointment or criticism,” Hanks said. In therapy, they worked on setting boundaries and developing a sense of self outside of pleasing others. They also worked on cultivating self-care and identifying activities she actually wanted to do, instead of what others expected from her.
Many of us have been praised, rewarded and validated for our output since childhood, said Sally Nazari, Psy.D, a psychologist, owner of Chrysalis Psychological Services and the host of Beyond the Couch podcast. Maybe it was a gold star for doing something special. Maybe it was praise from your teacher for correctly answering a question. Maybe it was topping a class ranking. Whatever the specifics, “we received feedback for taking some kind of external action and producing something,” she said. This principle simply spills into adulthood with everything from quotas to commissions to bonuses at work, she said.
The busier we are, the worthier we assume it’ll make us. After all, “if we have more of the thing that has come to be rewarded, in this case busyness and a never-ending to-do list, the more valuable we are,” Nazari said.
Over time, we go from glamorizing and glorifying busyness to developing fears around it. “We begin to fear that if we don’t respond immediately to that overseas call, someone else will; that if we’re not available 24/7, our job security might be jeopardized,” said Barbara Sapienza, Ph.D, a retired psychologist and author of Anchor Out: A Novel. We also might fear that by taking a break from our to-do list, we run the risk of losing everything we’ve come to achieve, said Nazari.
Sometimes, it isn’t status or self-worth we’re seeking. Sometimes, “individual psychodynamic underpinnings can be operating,” Sapienza said. Maybe your need for busy stems from your inability to say no, which stems from trying to please your insecure mother. Maybe your need for busy stems from the desire to surpass your successful dad who was always unavailable.
We also might seek busyness as an escape, a diversion. “Many people who are feeling disconnected from their loved ones or even themselves look for an escape from those tough, unpleasant feelings in their to-do lists,” Nazari said.
“I have personally seen people use busyness as a coping mechanism because they have a difficult time being with themselves, don’t want to face past trauma, or use busyness to escape dealing with relationships,” Cruz said.
When you’re going non-stop, you conveniently don’t have time to tune into your feelings. Which is something we’re actually taught in childhood—if we’re upset or crying, it’s comforting to distract ourselves, Nazari said (something many, many parents do to ease their kids’ pain).
The Problem with Busy
So what’s the big deal with valuing busyness? What’s so problematic?
For starters, as Nazari said, “If we value ourselves based on our tasks, accomplishments, and gains, we begin to think of ourselves as less and less worthwhile just for being ourselves.” So we take on more projects and more tasks, and eventually we burn out.
We have less energy to devote to our relationships, she said. Which creates distance and disconnection. And “The quality of relationships determines the quality of our life,” Hanks said.
Also, “It is difficult to truly feel satisfied and content with life when you are constantly on the move,” Cruz said.
According to Sapienza, “freedom comes with having some space.” If you’re finding yourself shackled to the idea that busyness is vital, consider these suggestions:
- Identify what you really mean. According to Hanks, when you say, “I’m busy,” what are you really saying? After all, busyness can have many different meanings. I’m so busy can mean “I’m so overwhelmed,” “I’m so important,” “I work harder than you do,” or “I wish I had time off,” she said. If you tell someone else, “You’re so busy,” maybe you’re really saying, “I don’t think you have time for me,” “I miss you,” “I admire all that you accomplish” or “I feel bad that I’m not as productive as you are,” she said.
- Explore your busyness. Cruz also suggested taking a deeper look into your busyness by contemplating these questions: “What do you think being busy says about you? Do you use busyness to avoid something or someone in your life? (If you do, these tips can help.) How does busyness get in your way?”
- Schedule tiny breaks to switch gears. Nazari helps her clients switch gears from their go-go-go lifestyles by doing something completely unrelated to the tasks on their to-do lists. She shared this example: Plan a 3-minute phone call to a loved one during your weekday commute. (Of course, make it a longer conversation if you like.) What tiny but meaningful breaks can you take throughout the day?
- Re-evaluate your time regularly. Nazari suggested setting an alarm on your phone to go off every few hours. When it does, ask these two questions: “Did what I just spent the last hour doing contribute to enriching my life? How has what I just spent the last hour doing contribute to the relationships in my life?” “These reminders cue us to consider where our energies are directed and pull us out of that frenzied mindset of busyness to consider where we do want our investments to be in our lives,” Nazari said.
- Feed your well. According to Sapienza, ask yourself: “What feeds my well so I don’t become depleted?” These are activities that “cultivate joy and nourish our hearts and minds.” Which might be anything from evening dinners with family to lunch with friends to surfing to participating in team sports. Or it might be more contemplative experiences, such as writing, reading poetry, hiking and sitting in stillness, she said.
In our society busyness is best. Which can make it harder to change our perspective, and relinquish busyness as a lifestyle to admire and pursue. But the more we move without stopping, the more we pack our schedules with superficial things, the less beauty we truly savor, and the more we disconnect from our loved ones and ourselves. Sometimes, our pursuit of busyness masks something deeper. Take the time to explore what busyness means to you—and what you really want your life to look and feel like.