Posted October 12, 2005
Lynn M. Levo, CSJ, Ph.D.
We seem to be living more hectic and less healthy lives despite the
technological advances that have made life easier, increased productivity
and enhanced our ability to communicate. Ever more driven by our calendars
and our to-do lists, we seem to accept busyness as the hallmark of our age.
Busyness is now usual. We are not only ruled by what Charles Hummel calls
the "tyranny of the urgent," we are also intoxicated by the array of
distracting activities and trivial pursuits available to us. According to a
Lou Harris survey, the amount of leisure time for the average American has
shrunk thirty-seven percent since 1973. Free time is almost a misnomer; time
itself has become a valuable possession. Why are we so busy? Do we have a
choice? What are the consequences of living in such a frenetic manner? Is
there an antidote to our busyness?
Being Busy: What, How and Why
There is nothing wrong with living full, productive lives and taking on new
challenges. As adults, we have real and right obligations and
responsibilities. Tracy Wiebe describes three types of busyness. Do-able
busyness, which is invigorating, manageable and healthy: Seasonal busyness,
that comes in spurts at various times of life (e.g., a transition, a
crisis), is a temporary state that we get through, knowing that things will
slow down later: Perpetual busyness, when our life style is controlling us
and we are not really living a balanced life, is the real problem that more
people are increasingly experiencing. It is this type of busyness that is
taking its toll on us physically, emotionally and spiritually.
Busyness, the activity disease, has many facets. It often manifests itself
in compulsive work, workaholism, and sometimes in binge activities, where
the activity numbs one to feelings, to questions and doubts, and to one's
pain. Busyness can also be a more closeted activity, as when individuals
appear balanced but in reality are obsessed and not able to rest their minds
or to relax. It is easy today to feel pressure to be productive, be on time,
make a good impression, meet others' expectations or reform some facet of
the world. Even the procrastinator is obsessed with activity, albeit its
Why are we so busy? What is driving many of us to live so urgently, so
frantically, so chaotically? Several factors underlie our busyness. First,
busyness is esteemed in our culture; efficiency is admired and valued. In
addition, technology (cell phones, laptop computers and PDAs) often makes it
harder to relax because it enables us to be doing something every minute.
Multi-tasking is now normative even though research demonstrates that it can
take fifty percent longer to complete two tasks attempted simultaneously
than if each were done singly.
Regardless of external circumstances or pressures, the real root of busyness
lies with each person. Janet Ruffing proposes that "busyness is a state of
mind and a habit of the heart rather than merely the result of the number of
tasks to be accomplished." Unrealistic expectations, desires to feel
important, and the need for security can drive over-activity. Perfectionism,
believing that saying no is a weakness, and low self-esteem may also
encourage busyness as a means of feeling better about oneself. Caving in to
feelings of guilt may prompt overdoing based on the belief that one has no
choice but to say yes to requests, demands or invitations. In addition,
being busy is exhilarating for many individuals, creating a sense of power
and importance which helps them to avoid uncomfortable and vulnerable
feelings such as anxiety, loneliness and sadness.
The Fallout Busyness is not without physical, emotional and spiritual
consequences for individuals and those with whom they relate. Medical
personnel estimate that well over fifty percent of all illnesses can be
attributed to stress-related origins. Over-activity is producing a deep
fatigue that even extended rest seems unable to alleviate. Many individuals
report that busyness is contributing to their cutting corners on sleep,
exercise and healthy eating.
Busyness can impact our awareness of self and others. We can lose track of
who we are, what we think, feel and value. In addition, we can become so
insensitive to others and their needs, wants, and desires, that we cross
boundaries or ask too much of them as well. Irritability, frustration, and
excessive anger seem to be the norm when individuals are multi-tasking and
are too busy. Over-activity produces disconnections with others, often
resulting in a profound loneliness as well. There is no time to develop
deep, meaningful intimate relationships.
Technology has also increased competition. With the increased need to do and
perform, there also seems to be an increased temptation to misuse power to
move things along, to get things done.
Finally, busyness also gets in the way of one's relationship with God. Our
lives have become filled with activity that we are losing our capacity for
and commitment to contemplation, prayer and reflection.
Possible Antidotes What will restore us to better versions of ourselves?
First, we need to realize that we have choices. We also need to be clear
about what really matters and to refocus our lives so that we are spending
time on what we value most. Relationships with self, others and God need to
be a priority. Living more simply, letting go of our unrealistic
expectations of self and others, and balancing work and play, activity and
leisure will also help us to reclaim our lives.
Lynn M. Levo, CSJ, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and the Director of
Education and Editor of Lukenotes at SLI.
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