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Busyness: A false badge of honor
Q: How are you choosing to spend your time?
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“But are you busy?” It took me a few seconds to think about how to respond to this question from a friend who was recently laid off. He was asking me about what I have been doing since leaving my corporate job. And for a second there, I wondered if my honest answer would open me up to judgment. We are so used to being busy that not being busy seemed like an indulgence or a sign of laziness. But I put my fear aside and answered honestly - “No, I wouldn't call myself busy. And that is a very deliberate choice I have made.”
I am still following a routine, putting my habits on a calendar to make sure I accomplish things that are important to me. I explore my curiosities through readings and talks that pique my interest, schedule social connection time with friends and colleagues, mentor or advise friends and strangers, lead purpose-driven communities, engage in fun activities with the kids and save time for novel experiences. But my days are not packed like they were when I was working full time with a calendar full of meetings from 9am to 5pm. I am not rushed when interacting with my kids in the evenings - thinking of my meetings for the next day or emails that need my attention. I don't have the “Sunday scaries” or the “Monday blues.”
I acknowledge that this is a place of privilege to operate from. But I also know that it was a scary choice to be intentional and take myself out of the rat race. I wrote about this last year - the courage I needed to recognize my lack of ambition as a sign. It meant taking financial risks without knowing what the future would be. And now looking back I realize how false my assumptions were that the only way to operate is by being busy with a career and family. I had sacrificed my own personal growth and self care in service of others and a corporation.
“...But I wish we were taught to place as high a value on our time as we do on our bank accounts – because how you spend your hours and your days is how you spend your life….Our society celebrates overwork as a symptom of great moral probity. “It creeps into every part of our society, this hustle culture,” Binstead says. “If you’re not busy or trying your hardest, you’re a lesser person somehow.”
Today I am not willing to put myself on the back burner. As I explore what is next, I worry about whether I will have to sacrifice some of these choices of prioritizing my leisure and unscheduled time in the service of moving fast to build something new for myself. But I know time is one of my greatest assets and I need to fiercely protect it. My self worth is not defined by my job title or my bank balance but by how I choose to utilize this important and scarce resource - time.
Am I someone that enjoys being busy? No, not anymore. In my 20s and early 30s I did. I wanted to have all sorts of plans - dinners at hip restaurants, cool music shows, travel to off-beat locations. I was also willing to put in crazy hours at work, getting a sense of accomplishment from putting out last-minute fires and addressing exec escalations. But that changed somewhere in my mid-30s - as I started to appreciate how staying home, spending time alone, and not having plans all the time filled me up.
These days as working parents it feels like my husband and I are always busy. Every day is nonstop - wake the kid up, get her dressed and fed, drop her off to school, work all day, make lunch, make dinner, pick her up, play with her, bathe her, feed her, put her to sleep, do the dishes, clean the house. And on weeks like this one, when each one of us has fallen sick one after the other, it really feels like things are about to fall apart.
But this is not busy. What we are is tired. This is probably similar to what most other parents with young kids and no other help around feel. Most of my other mom friends will say go hire help, outsource things to get through this period etc. We did that for almost two years and it was great so I fully support that method. Unfortunately, we have been struggling to find help for the past year. For now, what has been helping is my daily meditation practice. It's creating that sense of inner space which I think is what matters most in the end.
Here's a blurb of my journal entry from December describing that feeling
It feels sometimes like I have short term memory loss
I forget what this place inside me feels like
forget what stillness and space feel like
upon returning to it I am reminded
of the sweetness, the groundedness,
that feeling of finally arriving home
when you’ve been away for a while
While tiredness is often not a choice, I do think busyness is one that we make. Some folks enjoy being busy, being productive in pursuit of career or personal goals. While others prefer to have white spaces on their calendars, and tend to prioritize balance above all else. Perhaps some choose to be busy for a season, a short while, where going all in on a project is required and eventually come out of it and go all in on down time.
“Research indicates that an individual's perceived level of busyness may be heavily connected to their self-worth, as well as how others view their status. Individuals who are busy by choice may feel needed, in demand, and important, thus elevating their feelings of self-worth.”
Here are some meaningful questions we can ask ourselves to help gain an understanding of how we prioritize and value our time -
Do I enjoy being busy or see it as a badge of honor?
What purpose does it serve?
What am I giving up on by choosing to be busy or not busy?