How to be Properly Busy

We tend to use the word ‘busy’ to indicate being active and having a lot to do. But the term has lost its neutral descriptive quality and become loaded with implications and judgements about the value of our lives.

Perhaps it’s the word which is offputting. ‘Busy’ isn’t a great word. It sounds like the irritating buzzing of a wasp. It brings to mind the old-fashioned term ‘busybody’, a pejorative term which in the olden days would be applied to people who meddled in others’ affairs.

And who knew, this word could also refer to a mirror arranged at a window to show the street below. (And how were we to know that in our brave new world, spying on people and being intrusive and interfering in their affairs would lose its suburban curtain-twitching image and become — for some — the very lifeblood of digital communication.)

Being busy, every minute accounted for, a packed diary, having loads on your plate, back-to-back appointments, an over-full schedule, no time to spare, always occupied, always having something to do, somewhere to go — these have become the markers of a worthwhile life. Who would admit to being not very busy? Only a loser, or a hippie maybe, or at least, someone whose contribution to the world is negligible.

There’s no doubt that being active is a good thing. A busy lifestyle can have enormous personal and social benefits. It keeps us sharp, maintains our edge. Physical activity keeps us healthy and mental activity can improve our cognitive abilities.

But being busy and always being active has become a badge of honour. It makes us feel important. It implies that we are successful. The more we get done, the more accomplished and efficient we feel.

Ultimately, these are hollow gains. Activity which becomes busyness for its own sake is an understandable but shallow and ultimately unsatisfying guiding principle.

These are some of the drawbacks to always being busy:

  • We deal with everything and engage with nothing

When life becomes a long list of things to do, we get our satisfaction from ticking items as we complete them. The nature of what we are actually doing becomes obscured. We are so busy that we ignore what matters, and focusing on the ‘getting done’ obliterates the relative value of our activities.

  • We overrate multi-tasking

Multi-tasking isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It makes us feel really busy and efficient — look at me, juggling all this! But in effect we just constantly switch from one thing to another and lose focus in the process. Maintaining concentration on one thing while other items clamour for our attention may seem as if we are not as busy as we could be, but we’re actually being more productive.

  • We suppress our demons

Not always a bad thing, of course, and keeping busy to avoid negative thoughts is a helpful strategy in many circumstances. Sometimes, though, it’s helpful to confront our inner doubts and fears. Being over-occupied can be a way of blocking out, say, personal and family problems, or that inner feeling that you really should be looking for another job.

  • We respond to others’ expectations

You might find that you always say you’re busy, even if you’re not. This is letting someone else’s value dictate your response and the way you feel about yourself. (Unless you’re saying it to get out of doing something, which is fair enough, although there might be better answers.)

We allow others to dictate the pace when we respond immediately to an email or similar. And sometimes we let their interpretation of busy colour our own perception. If you say you haven’t been busy when you have been, say, reading, or listening to music, or having a proper conversation, you are giving in to a way of thinking which values only certain activities.

  • We are scared to let go

Fear of blank spaces and unoccupied moments drives us to fill them with activity. We become scared of our inner selves and of the world around us. We rush to do something rather than ‘nothing’ — read rubbish on our phone rather than look at what’s going on around us, elevate an unnecessary household chore to urgent status rather than enjoy a quiet moment at home.

Here are some ways to keep nicely busy:

  • Keep an eye on your big picture
  • Check if your activities define your authentic person
  • Prioritise
  • Learn to say no
  • Ask yourself why you are doing this
  • Don’t be scared to be without your phone
  • Embrace time with nothing scheduled to fill it
  • Remember that being busy isn’t the same as making progress
  • Remember that being busy isn’t the same as being fulfilled

The late great Johnny Cash showed us the way. He was an inveterate maker of to-do lists and personal reminders.

One of his lists contains the memory-jogger ‘Kiss June’ (his wife and the love of his life.) This is not one more thing to cross off the list, job done, but a reminder to him and to everyone that a life which is too busy to include affirmations and acknowledgements of what really matters is a life, surely, not well lived.

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