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How Do You Handle Busyness?

Because of our desire for success and to be productive, many of us don’t really rest.

How Do You Handle Busyness?
Build a healthy relationship with busyness in your work and life.
If we received a dollar every time someone (ourselves included) answered the questions “How’s it going?” and “How are you doing?” with the response “I’m really busy,” we would be kept perpetually busy counting our riches. We’ve often been curious about that standard response and wondered why “busy” became such a knee-jerk reply. We’ve also suspected there might be better or at least different ways to respond.

A Quick Look Back

The events precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 provided an opportunity to grapple with two questions:
  • What is my relationship with busyness?
  • How healthy is that relationship?
Faced with an initial downturn in business, the absence of most forms of entertainment, travel restrictions and shelter-in-place requirements, many of us paused our normal activities and routines. For some, the pause was welcome because it provided space in life for other things, like spending more time with immediate family or pursuing interests like cycling. (Bicycle sales skyrocketed in 2020.) This novel twist on life as we knew it was both simpler and refreshing for many people. Not being “busy” was kind of nice. For others, the pause was an uncomfortable departure from “normal.” Besides searching stores for toilet paper and stocking up on rice and beans, we had a void in our life that we weren’t quite sure how to fill. So, what about you? How did you react to the unexpected disruption? And what did you learn about your relationship with busyness? As things turned out, the business downturn didn’t last long at veterinary practices. In conversations with veterinarians and practice managers, we found a common sense of being “really busy,” which naturally comes at the expense of the work-life balance.

The Dark Side of Busyness

In a technology-ridden world with a social bias toward action, especially in the workplace, it’s easy to get addicted to being busy. Our culture invariably assumes that action, speed and accomplishment are better than rest and that doing something — anything — is better than doing nothing. What price might we pay for this? As Joe Kraus, a partner at Google Ventures, notes, “We’re radically overdeveloping the parts of the quick-thinking, distractible brain and letting the long-form-thinking, creative, contemplative, solitude-seeking, thought-consolidating pieces of our brain atrophy by not using them.” This view is supported by the work of neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio who have found that deep thought, as well as empathy, depend on neural processes that are “inherently slow.” Unfortunately, the processes are the very ones our high-speed lives have little time for. Because of our desire for success and to be productive, many of us don’t really rest. It’s quite possible that in rushing to meet so many deadlines, we fail to recognize that what we need most are lifelines. The author Wayne Muller suggests that “Because we do not rest, we lose our way. We miss the compass points that would show us where to go. We bypass the nourishment that would give us succor. We miss the quiet that would give us wisdom.” If all this is true, why do we unwittingly keep choosing to be “busy?” Here are a few possible explanations.
  • It’s an ego thing. Being busy has become a badge of honor in society. The busier we are, the more important we seem to ourselves and, we imagine, to others. By connecting our identity and inherent value with the external outcomes we produce and the tangible things we do, we prop up our self-image.
  • It’s a security blanket. It’s something we’ve become comfortable with and also an accepted norm for the majority of people around us. To confront it would seem to be somewhat of a radical idea.
  • It’s a way for us to avoid deeper things. The philosopher Marshall McLuhan warned, “When things come at you very fast, naturally you lose touch with yourself.” (See our article “Are You a Human Being or a Human Doing?” at bit.ly/TVB-Doing.)
Both of us readily admit that we are prone to succumbing to some or all of these traps. The solution, we’ve decided, is to be intentional about our relationships with busyness. While some amount of busyness can be useful and even contribute to flow, our ongoing challenge is to manage the dark side of busyness in our life.

Develop a Healthy Relationship with Busyness

In his mindful.org blog post, Rich Fernandez shares that “Science clearly tells us that being deliberate about managing busyness and balancing it with dedicated, unstructured downtime promotes greater energy, mental clarity, creativity and focus.” He adds that “Thriving in our life and work requires activity coupled with regular periods of rest and renewal.” These periods of rest and renewal might be more accessible than we think. Consider these five ways to build a healthy relationship with busyness in your work and life:
  1. Acknowledge that busyness is not a sign of success. The Chinese pictograph for “busy” comprises two characters: heart and killing. With that sobering thought in mind, learn to place value not only on activity but also inactivity.
  2. Give yourself permission to rest and not have to do or accomplish anything. Recognize any self-judgment or self-criticism that might result due to the prevailing cultural bias for action. Choose self-compassion instead.
  3. Be deliberate about prioritizing time for rest, renewal and recovery. It’s important to regularly step off the treadmill of work and life and take time to nourish your soul. Consider regular mindfulness or reflective practice as well as investing in the important relationships in your life.
  4. Limit distractions and focus on what’s really important. Executive coach Keith Webb advises, “We have to come to grip with the fact that we simply cannot do everything. Efficiency and productivity are not our biggest problems, focus is. We need to do less and be less busy to be more productive.” Indeed, less is more.
  5. Intentionally choose how you respond to the busyness that results from a heavy workload. At times you will be faced with periods of intense activity at work that are outside your control. What you can control is the story you tell yourself about your experience. You can craft a story about your stress and anxiety and the burden of all the things you “have to” do without enough time in the day. Or you can choose to tell a different story. You could design a story that, while acknowledging your current reality, is less attached to external results and outcomes, one that puts more emphasis on who you are being in the moment. Sometimes, just pausing and saying, “I can choose peace instead of [stress, worry, etc.],” in the middle of a storm can be enough to shift your mindset to one of quiet acceptance. By making that kind of shift, you help enable a more clearheaded and calm state of focus so that what once was an arduous task is now an engaging challenge.
Go With the Flow co-columnist Dr. Jeff Thoren is the founder of Gifted Leaders and an expert coach specializing in leadership and team development. He is one of only three veterinarians in the world to hold a credential from the International Coaching Federation. Co-columnist Trey Cutler has a law practice focused exclusively on veterinary transactions and veterinary business law matters.