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How to Break Free from a Culture of Busy-ness

5 minute read

Ask anyone—your coworker, your best friend, your significant other—how their day was, and the answer is usually the same: “Busy.”

Busy-ness has been a badge of honor and a source of self-worth for a while now, says Ann Burnett, the director of the women and gender studies program at North Dakota State University. In fact, Burnett, who researches how fast-paced lifestyles affect relationships, says that her own research has found that women feel ashamed about taking time for themselves.

When indulging in free time, the women she interviewed said they felt guilty—like they should be doing something else and like they weren’t doing enough, Burnett says.

So how did we arrive here, to a so-slammed-I-can’t-think-straight, no-time-to-eat, deadline-driven society?

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It could stem, in part, from our culture of options. (When there’s more to do, there’s pressure to do more.) Advances in technology have also warped communication: Responses are expected to be instantaneous, Burnett says.

And defining yourself based off of what you do instead of what you’re interested in is becoming more common—particularly in career-driven cities like Washington, D.C., says Lynn Bufka, a psychologist and the associate executive director of practice research and policy at the American Psychological Association.

Because of these changes, there’s pressure to be busy, says Burnett. If you’re not, you’re likely going to face questions as to why.

The Downsides to Being Busy
While having a jam-packed Google calendar can feel like an achievement, there’s are very real drawbacks linked to the always-busy culture, says Bufka.

With no time to spare, you miss out on the opportunity to appreciate the positives in your life. “You might come home and notice your house is a mess but forget that you have two happy kids and that there is laughter,” Bufka says.

Burnett’s work also focuses on how pace of life impacts relationships. “Overall, the answer is negatively,” she says. In a busy world, couples either don’t have time to fight—and leave issues unresolved—or they’re so stressed that they fight all the time. She also notes that when slammed, women tend to see their friends less—a huge setback considering social networks are key to our overall physical and mental health and longevity.

Of course, the need to be busy can be a way to stave off negative feelings, too, notes Bufka. If you’re always busy, you might feel like you don’t have to deal with trauma, stress or anxiety that may be bothering you, she says. “It can fill a void.”

How to Break Free
Slowing down the hamster wheel isn’t going to happen overnight, but there are small changes you can make to help you prioritize other parts of your life—and find some much-needed R&R. “Instead of letting things pile on and wondering how to stop the crazy ride, give yourself permission to do things differently,” says Bufka.

1. Be a Leader
The best way to change a culture of busy-ness may be to demonstrate the change in your own life, says Burnett. If everyone walks out from work on Friday night saying, “I know this project needs to get done, and I will get right back to it on Monday morning, but I need to take some downtime this weekend,” that will go a long way—and hopefully perpetrate a change.

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If you’re in a leadership position at work, keep meetings between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. so that people can prioritize picking kids up from school or family time, suggests Burnett.

2. Be a Little Counter-Cultural
Beating busy-ness also potentially means not doing what everyone else is doing, says Bufka. It might seem off to not answer emails after work, leave your smartphone in a drawer and focus on your family—but those changes will ultimately allow you more time for what’s important. “It may be counter to the people around you, but you have to be willing for them to be uncomfortable with some of your decisions,” says Bufka.

3. Learn to Say No
Being willing to exercise the word no is important, says Bufka. Starting to say, “No I’m sorry, I can’t volunteer” or “No, we won’t be participating” might feel awkward at first—but it will make space in your life for the things you want to say yes to, she says.

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