I apologize if you have sent me an email and I have not responded yet. Same for voicemail. You see, I am very busy. I am very important and in demand, and I have so much work to do that I am just swamped. But of course I want to help you; let’s get together soon and talk about it!
This is how I used to live my life, back when I thought being busy meant I was valuable. A long, long time ago in a cubicle far, far away, I learned the snarky way that replying to emails too quickly gave the impression that I must not have very much work to do. And, that my job must not be very important if it didn’t generate enough work to keep me busy all day. “Must be nice,” a co-worker would comment when hearing chatter in the break room. Being busy, and therefore inaccessible, became a badge of worth. So I stayed busy. You better believe I never let on when my work load became more manageable. Oh no, I was very busy. And I never replied to an email too quickly, lest I be perceived as dispensable.
I quit that job. But not until after I had been hospitalized twice for exhaustion and so stressed out that I became sick. You see, that toxic work culture had seeped into my personal life, too, and I began to be uncomfortable with the feeling of not being busy. Free time felt lazy, and I felt guilty if I wasn’t making myself useful. Some of my drive for achievement was my DNA, but I had lost the zest I had for it. The need to be busy, and therefore valued, had replaced the sense of satisfaction I felt when worked hard to achieve a personal goal. So I scurried.
But I wanted off of that crazy train. Being chronically busy isn’t just exhausting, it’s unhealthy. Studies show that those of us in the fast lane eat more unhealthy food, smoke more cigarettes, experience more feelings of depression, have less quality sleep, and our bodies respond with obesity, hypertension, muscle spasms, ulcers, and sometimes the development of cancers.
Signs that you are too busy include feeling overwhelmed, overreacting to small disruptions in expectations, waking up feeling tired, chronic headaches, vague feelings of hopelessness that you will ever be able to catch a break, and resentment about it all. I had some of that writing on my wall, and I didn’t like what it said.
So I started doing something that felt very scary: admitting that I had free time. Well, that’s not completely true. First I created free time, by deciding to stop doing so much. It wasn’t easy, but the words of that emergency room doctor were still ringing in my ears, and I didn’t want to be a hypocrite of a wellness coach teaching others how to live in balance while I was so obviously off the rails. So I said a little prayer and did triage on my to-do list. What really needed to be done? What was a choice?
Then I had to face the real fear: being okay with not being busy, not being as busy as other people, and remembering that I was pulling my weight in life even if I wasn’t scurrying around, too busy to return a phone call. As a business owner, having free time was unnerving. Shouldn’t I be working? Shouldn’t I be capitalizing on an opportunity? There was guilt, especially when my mom friends vented at soccer practice about how busy they were. Between working full-time, managing the kids’ activities and school work, volunteering, trying to maintain a marriage and social life, and of course keeping up the image that they were handling it all just fine and raising a beautiful and adorably monogrammed family, they felt like their lives were a speeding train and they were just trying to hang on.
That’s when I started to feel sheepish, because I must be a bad mom to be so selfish with our time. Then I started to feel scandalous, because it felt good to go home and sit on the porch with my family and play Jenga. Then I started to feel rebellious, because I knew I was breaking the rules. And finally, I felt liberated, because nothing feels more natural to me than breaking the rules. This was something I could do well.
You can break out, too. My life is less busy, but more full. And I don’t feel guilty about it anymore. This week, say a prayer and let something go. Resist the urge to tell someone how busy you are. Recognize when you are truly being a responsible person or just choosing to take on too much. Be the rebel that is brave enough to admit that there’s not much going on today. “Must be nice,” they say? Yes, actually. Yes, it is.