The Seduction of Busyness: How to Have Your Way With the Time You Have

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You are busy. It wasn’t always like this. There used to be time for hobbies, or day trips, or movie nights, or reading.

But Busyness spoke sweet nothings in your ear. Promised you more. Offered you everything you ever wanted: more money, smarter kids, better body, yummier food, more culture. Said you were soul mates. You said, “Just this once. It won’t mean anything. I can stop whenever I want. It’ll feel so good.”

Try as you might, you got attached. Soon Busyness was calling all the time. She dominated your schedule. Instead of all that “more,” you had less: less focus, fewer relationships, less clarity. Instead of love & kindness, Busyness made you resentful, self-centered.

Busyness, it turns out, is a cruel mistress.

And she’s a little whiny, too!

As with any bad relationship, your affair with Busyness is harder to get out of than it was to get into.

Busyness isn’t just a jealous lover. She’s also a habit.
You get in the habit of having too much to do. You get attached to feeling overwhelmed. You learn to depend on being unfocused. You know it doesn’t feel good but you just can’t stop.

Part of the problem with being busy is that you often don’t realize your own busyness until you stop at the end of the day, drained. It requires an awakening of mindfulness to even realize how deeply you’ve been seduced.

One man said if he pauses it feels like death to him. This speaks to the power of habit. We associate acting habitually with security, ground, and comfort. It gives us the feeling of something to hold on to. Our habit is just to keep moving, speeding, talking to ourselves, and filling up the space.
— Pema Chodron, Taking the Leap

When you tell me how busy you are, that’s not what I hear you say. I hear you say that you’re afraid to stop, to try something different, to pause for no reason, to reflect, to jump forward. I hear you say that you fear you have no original ideas, that the world won’t accept your true passion, that the world will fall apart if you don’t just keep moving.

I hear you say that you don’t know how to be anything but busy. Instead of being “you” who is busy, you’ve started to associate Busyness with your identity. If you’re no longer busy, who are you?

how to have your way with the time you have

It’s a certainty of 21st century life that you will be busy sometimes. But Busyness need not define you. It does not have to be normal.

You may have been seduced by Busyness but that doesn’t mean you can’t have your way with the time you do have. Try these tips for creating a full schedule on your own terms.

1. Take notes.

It’s hard to know where you can cut back, delegate, or make space when your day is a blur. Spend a few days or even a week taking notes about what you do. Just like keeping a food journal, write down as much detail as possible. Notice any patterns? Are there times when you create tasks or responsibilities to avoid downtime?

2. Delegate.

As I was rediscovering my own self, taking care of a house, raising a baby, and trying to keep it all together, I realized that delegation isn’t just for middle managers. Instead of doing all the mommying, daddy stepped up and took on certain responsibilities like bathing & bed times. When my endeavors grew, he took on even more.

But delegating is hard! To effectively delegate, you need to get real about what tasks actually require you to do them (hint: not many!), you have to let go of the feeling that things have to be done “your way,” and you have to ask someone else to do them (volunteers are few & far between!). Those can be difficult conversations that create anxiety and guilt.

What tasks can you delegate this week to create a little space in your schedule?

3. Educate.

I’ve found that the first thing that goes when Busyness comes into the picture is real education. While it’s important to actually get off your duff and act on your goals, it’s very important to educate yourself. We find inspiration in information. We learn new ways of seeing the world. We realize ours isn’t the only perspective that matters. Learning helps us define who we are & what we stand for.

Since you’re here, I know that you probably read blogs to educate yourself. But you can also listen to audio books in the car (or NPR!), download podcasts for your workout, or read books on your digital devices. Multitasking might not be the best way to learn but I can tell you that it’s better than nothing. And it will help to prepare your mind for quiet times when you do find them.

4. Take notes. Again.

I know many of us have deep & abiding relationships with our journals, moleskines, sticky notes, and iPhone apps. But, if you don’t have a system for capturing ideas, thoughts, or reflections as they come to you, it’s time to start!

Few things will make you feel more defeated than finding the time to do something creative but not remembering that great idea you had in the shower. At the end of a busy day, you can still feel productive & creative if you’ve captured your own strokes of genius in a way that let’s you come back to them later.

5. Let go.

Let go of the guilt that comes with not finding the time. You can’t be truly present with your kids, attentive to your partner, creative with your ideas, or kind to yourself until you find the space in the day to let go of Busyness. None of those things are part of a busy day but they are the things that help you remember who you really are. So, if you want them in your life, you need to cut things out.

Cancel the cable, leave the dishes in the sink (or buy a dishwasher), take a walk, hang up the phone, close the laptop, make the choices that result in s p a c e. Let go of the idea that the time you spend with each one of these things is necessary and get real about what you want to be spending your time on.

Learn to say no to the things that don’t fit into your day. Learn to choose space instead of overflowing.

Of course, Busyness can also be jilted lover.

Learning to deal with your relationship to Busyness means understanding how it will repeatedly attempt to creep into your life, despite the 500 foot restraining order against it.

Always remember that your time is your own and the decisions you make on how to spend it are dictated by no one but yourself.

44 thoughts on “The Seduction of Busyness: How to Have Your Way With the Time You Have

  1. READING! Since we moved into THE HOUSE I have a never-ending supply of things to keep me busy. And I seem to have no time to lay on my bed and read.

    Though recently I realized that I NEED to read: in front of the kids, as a good role model, so I am making an effort to do it more, and in public!

    I love this post. I so agree.

  2. Genius. I’m happy to say I’ve been creating just the space you describe. Living in NY, and being new to the city, I spent much of last year feeling the need to do do do….make new friends, try new things, etc. And I was so unhappy. Giving myself more down time, more time to read and more time to write has helped me connect with myself and clarify what I want to be doing with my life.

  3. Awesome article! I have this meltdown right after the first of the year, after the holidays have passed, the shows are over, and the pace comes to a dead halt. I look forward to it but it takes so much effort to let the mistress loose. You’re dead on about feeling drained and unproductive despite the megatron to-do list.

    Beautifully written and a perfect start to my day. Thank you!

  4. I’ve found this to be true lately, hence my pseudo-online hiatus. I’m feeling a need to get back to some basics with the work I’m creating (through skill building, new designs, style development) vs. spending what’s come to feel like busying myself by reading about ways to build my business/blog or planning the perfect website. I need to focus on creating a solid foundation of work that I can then build a strong business on. Less planning and pondering, more doing!

    1. Nicole: Three By Sea – You struck a raw nerve when you wrote, “Less planning and pondering, more doing!” because that is what I’m most guilty of when I’m courting Busyness. Excellent comment for an excellent article!

  5. This theme is going around it seems in my circles and I take that as a good sign. The culture of busyness, like the culture of consuming allows no time for being. I am excited that not just the knowledge, but taking action on it seems to bit hitting a critical mass. I know for myself that it is the quiet times that my best ideas happen, and I have not been allowing for that enough. I would add to the above, take notes and act on them. I am a great note taker but so many of my good ideas get ignored for the busyness, or because I feel like I should be doing something else (where delegation comes in?)
    Thanks for your always good insights!

  6. Tara – How is it when I read your writing I feel just like you are talking to ME? You have such an eloquent way of expressing yourself and helping others. Thanks for reminding us to break our daily dates with busyness, what a needy friend she is! :-)

  7. This thought, “I hear you say that you fear you have no original ideas, that the world won’t accept your true passion, that the world will fall apart if you don’t just keep moving.” really struck a cord with me. This is my potential downfall, and I will be coming back to it throughout the week and trying to consciously slow down, take (more) notes, and allow my work space to breathe. Thanks!

  8. I’m proud to say that today I slammed the doors in Busyness’ face.
    But here’s the thing – I can only do that -after- a stream of things and people demanding something from me makes me so super frustrated! My only other option would be to implode..
    Thank you so much for the tips.

  9. GREAT post. I have been miserably seduced by that sexy BUSYNESS beast for years and am really attempting to take better control of my time this year. It is hard, busyness can be quite addicting- a habit, like you say! I think I tend to waste a lot of time feeling “busy”- researching posts always takes me down a rabbit hole, checking out other blogs, chatting on twitter, answering emails- and then there’s this whole slew of actual WORK that I need to get done. If I can just hone my focus and productivity to knock down my workload more efficiently, and not get caught up in busyforbusysake tasks, I think I’ll end up with a lot more free time. Oh and delegate, yeah… I may have to try that.

  10. As I pushed the button to tweet this, I found myself wanting to push it over and over and over. Almost like I wanted to scream out….OH MY GOD!!!! READ THIS!!!
    It was then I realized I really was screaming that at myself. So, I went back and read it again, and I might go back for more!

    I DO need a break from my busy little friend. Thanks Tara!

    1. Haha! I love this. I always get crazy urges to share things that speak to me, too (don’t we all?) but you raise such a good about it usually being directed at ourselves…

  11. All well and good but when you are the family primary caregiver for an elderly parent with Alzheimer’s busy-ness is taking care of an ever growing amount of care for someone who is distraght, lonely, and losing the ability to even find her way in her own small home. More than merely keeping busy, one finds oneself rescuing the care recipient and finding ways to keep her interested in life instead of sleeping or drifting or staring out at nothing. This is a sad and exhausting existence but understand that it is also, in its own way, a very rewarding one.

    Nonetheless, not taking and educating are not going to be enough and delegating isn’t even always possible. It is not at all like taking care of your child. Unless your child is catastrophically ill.

    On the other hand, there is sometimes respite care and most states have some kind of program so that a caregiver can find at least an hour or two a month for much needed support. And when friends and family volunteer to help, give them a time to come and fill in, then go out for a coffee and a quiet read – or whatever fills the need.

  12. I am always thankful to come over here and get a kick in the pants. It can be so hard to balance busy with productive. Finding middle ground between the place I want to be with where I am right NOW is one of my biggest issues. It means I am typically successful at whatever I have chosen to accomplish but my daily life becomes less joyous-so I fail at being successful as a whole person. I am always working to be more mindful and present but I found I needed to start setting boundaries for myself when I began working from home. I make a schedule that allows time for reading, crafting, playing with my daughters, baking a 10 layer cake-and then I force myself to stick to it (but I also just let myself be spontaneous and to hell with the schedule).

    This works for me because I am still just as driven as always so when I sit down at the computer for my time there I know that it is limited and I make every minute count. I bookmark/wait on things I need to sit with-I read this in the morning and am just commenting now after digesting it all day. Thank you for sharing the Pema Chodron quote-she is one of my personal reminders of mindfulness and has a Nova Scotia connection as well. My daughter actually attends the amazing Shambhala School in Halifax. Have you seen Scared Sacred? A profound movie that features her work during 9/11. I am grateful for people like her and you that encourage/remind me to be present. Thank you!

  13. you are such a good writer! One of the things I am very curious about is how our busyness blunts us, dulls us, until we can’t care about anything else… I’m very curious about how we reverse this and your work is helping!

  14. I needed this today. I’m working with my partner to get a more balanced homelife in 2011. I keep telling myself – and him – that I can’t do everything and shouldn’t be expected to. Just because I’m home, doesn’t mean I can keep right on top of the housework because I’m trying to WORK.

    I’m tired of spinning my wheels and getting nowhere; I want to be a success and can’t if there are a thousand other things pulling me in every direction. It takes a lot to ask for help and even more to accept it.

    Thank you for this :)

  15. Well, I certainly believe that you have my number, and the number of my Mistress… I’ll have to break the news to my husband now… : ) I am over here on my end of the country taking notes… practicing asking for help, and rehearsing for some delegation. Thank you Tara

  16. Wonderful post, Tara.

    In my case, the Pema Chodron quote nailed it. It’s habit. It started when I tried to juggle a demanding full-time job with attachment parenting and eldercare. HA! Just try not to be busy in that situation! But really, that was a specific, temporary situation that no longer exists, and yet the compulsion to keep busy remains out of habit.

    One thing that has really helped me has been telling my family that I need an hour every day to go for a walk. We agreed on a consistent time I’d go each morning, and no one has balked.

    Those daily walks have made such a difference in my ability to let the busyness go. For one thing, it’s an hour that I’m not being busy, but it also clears the chatter and frantic feeling out of my head. I come home with a nice feeling of having worked and accomplished something very satisfying, so the crazed multitasking loses its appeal. It seems to break the spell.

  17. Okay Tara…this was totally what I needed to hear. Never thought of it quite this way, but it all makes sense really. Thanks for putting in word form so I could read and reread and let it all sink in. Eden

  18. Thank you, Tara. This is amazing to read today, especially after writing my morning pages and angsting wads about the dominance of what I do over who I am and debating whether or not I believed in that dichotomy!

    “I hear you say that you fear you have no original ideas, that the world won’t accept your true passion, that the world will fall apart if you don’t just keep moving.” — Girl, I definitely feel this. It’s no fun to envision your dreams and plan out your next step with these kinds of thoughts riding on your back.

    I think that for me, I’m going to equate space with surrender. Surrender to the beauty around me, in me, and listen deeply. And then do all of this as I leap.

  19. We’re taught that there’s always something to do, that if we’re not doing something, that we’re not being productive, that we’re being lazy. When e’re kids, we hear it from our parents & our teachers. As adults, we hear this from employers & bosses. It’s a hard habit to break & often the busyness is just as unproductive & uncreative as the ‘laziness.’ Thanks for giving us tools to break the cycle!

  20. Love this and your wording is perfect. I couldn’t have said it better myself. I suppose I’d rather have busyness than laziness in my life, though a cat nap once in awhile is much needed. Love your blog!

  21. As Shelley said, we are indoctrinated from early age to be productive and do do do… you better at least *look* busy at work if you have nothing to do or you’ll get in trouble. It’s no wonder we are “addicted” to busyness and I am no different. I can find ways to take up my whole day and never accomplish anything REAL. I thought you had been an invisible rider on my shoulder for the last couple of years with this post. I was like, no-way! Great post.

  22. Love this post.

    i think we start being indoctrinated as children with having our schedules packed to the hilt. It almost seems (to me) that people are afraid to let their children just be.

    And then we grow up running on the hamster wheel.


    I was one of those but now I’m working intentionally to slow down. I’m by default a go, go, go person but I’m going on only priorities these days and some of those priorities include “reading and relaxation”

  23. Most excellent article. I am a retired Management Consultant. I no longer visit clients in the US and Europe, now I simply “mentor” from my home. Busyness is a great word because it makes one think about what one is doing, often automatically. My sons are now 46 and 44 and I have always worried about them and attempted to structure ways of offering them “advice”. It rarely worked and often caused friction and loud barking. Now I sit on the porch and watch them run around on the lawn of life. They know I’m here if needed and I leave it at that. the other tip I picked up was that “you have to be your own best friend”.
    God bless us, everyone.

  24. hmmm….I keep a running to-do list on my iPod because I have so many things that need to get done – I’d lose track of them all if I didn’t write it all down!

    The good news is, the list is constantly changing. Which means I don’t procrastinate, and everything gets done. The bad news is, the list never goes away. As soon as one thing gets done, another thing takes its place.

    And then there are those highly annoying recurring tasks that come back over & over: laundry, oil change, cooking dinner, grocery shopping…
    I like the 1-time-and-it’s-done tasks so much more (or even the ones that recurr only once a year aren’t bad either)

    But, wow. I’m looking down my list, and it’s all things that I genuinely cannot delegate, and are things I either genuinely *need* to do (i.e. taxes) or genuinely *want* to do (i.e. sign up for YogaWorks classes).

    It seems to me that all my busyness is not just busyness for busy’s sake. I don’t just make stuff up to fill in the time. In fact, I *crave* quiet, alone time, and revel in it when I have it. I’m not at all sure how I can possibly reduce my busyness any more.

  25. :)
    I’m listening to your blog while I work on other things right now!

    The balance comes in the letting go…every day. I try to make that my practice. Do the work, and let go.

    I think that I became convinced at a very young age that I had to overwork myself – or be judged as unworthy. That is certainly part of the nasty seductive trap for me.

  26. Wow! I think you may be wise beyond your years.
    Sometimes at the end of the day I recount all I have done
    only to find I accomplished nothing. I particularly like steps
    4 and 5. I think I will let go of my busyness. Starting tomorrow.
    I’m too busy today. (Just joking).

    Take care and Thanks alot

  27. Boy did I ever need to read this today! My son was home all last week due to snow days and instead of hanging out with him and playing, even just a little, I stayed focused on work. It felt like he was in my way and how dare the schools be closed due to a little snow? OK, it was a bunch of snow and ice:) It was as if I could not let this inclimate weather get in the way of my routine and “busyness”. Each day felt like groundhog day and the need for me to dig in, handle my business needs and continue to find ways my son could stay entertained, that did not include me having to play with him.

    At the end of the week I felt terrible, to say the least. When am I going to hop off this Merry-Go-Round of busyness and get it under control? Well, the time to do it is now. I’m so afraid later in life when I’m not as busy I’ll look back on these young years of my son’s life and wish I would have taken the time just to simply play with him more.

    Up until October I was busy with a full time job in addition to running my own business. I thought, great! Now I’ll have more time to focus on my business 100% plus have more time to spend with my family. Instead I’ve replaced the duties from my full time job with my business and my poor son and family are still getting the shaft.

    Thank you again for this!!

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