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Battling the Culture of Busyness

We might complain that we're busy, but we fear it even more.

"Hey, do you have a minute?"

Chances are, your answer to that question is, "No, not really…" But don’t worry–I won’t take it personally!

Busyness is something I’ve been wrestling with a lot lately and I want to share some of what I’ve learned and observed on this topic that touches us all.

First, let me ask you this: Do you ever ask someone how they are and they respond with, “Things are good. I’m not too busy. I have a nice balance going. I love all the free time I have to do what I love.” I mean, maybe that’s someone you know, but they’re definitely in the minority. (Also, can you please introduce me??)

Professional life in general (and urban life in particular) is centered on a culture of busyness. But is it out of necessity, or are we addicted to busyness? Does the “I’m sooo busy!” mantra and chronic unavailability validate us? Does it make us feel more important? Like things are moving forward and we’re winning at life?

As much as we complain about busyness, most of us fear its opposite even more: “Having time” might indicate not being in demand (gasp!). We too often equate free time with a lack of success or desirability.

But what if we turned it around? What if you started to measure success via the quality time you dedicate to the people and things you love–not your lack of it?

I’ll admit it, I didn't think it was possible to be an un-busy adult professional–then I ran a life experiment (I’m a big fan of constant experimentation, and it’s something I break down in detail in my upcoming book, Startup Your Life: Hustle and Hack Your Way To Happiness).

So here’s what I did: On my recent extended international trip (something I’m going to be writing and talking about quite a bit, so stay tuned), I dedicated the first half of my day to all my busy work. I had the extra incentive of being in a time zone where my mornings corresponded with afternoons in the U.S., so it was imperative that I made the most of that time.

Most days, I’d wake up early (which was a stretch for me–cause I'm not a morning person), eat breakfast, scan the deluge of emails that arrived in my inbox overnight, and sip some green tea while I got my brain firing on all cylinders. Until early afternoon. I’d schedule calls, engage in independent and collaborative work sessions, and exchange online correspondence. It was generally non-stop during those hours but in a good, flow-state kind of way. I was on. Things were happening. Progress and connections were made. I got sh!t done.

Then, by 1 or 2 PM, I’d make some lunch and wind down the busyness activities. Maybe I’d watch the Daily Show while I cooked some eggs (my go-to lunch), or read some articles online, or chatted with my mom via Facetime.

After lunch, it was nature and physical activity time. Swimming in the ocean is my favorite way to exercise, and I was fortunate to be near a beautiful body of salty water, so nearly every day consisted of an afternoon ocean swim and a few hours spent in nature. Sometimes I’d do this alone, other times a friend would join me. But it’s hard to remember a time (I’m pretty sure it never existed) where I maintained such a daily commitment to playing outside. Evenings varied but often involved making dinner with a friend, chatting, listening to music, eating on the deck and staring at the sky. Simple, low-cost pleasures, yet seemingly a pace from another era. For the first time in a long time, I s-l-o-w-e-d down (without compromising productivity).

Anna Akbari
Source: Anna Akbari

Sunshine, sweat, the sea, great food, rewarding work, quality time with friends. These are the things that make me happiest in life. And yet, so many of those things were getting pushed out of my daily life pre-experiment. So what changed? I kept asking myself, “Where did all this time come from? How is this possible?”

It wasn’t completely clear to me what forces were at work until I returned from my trip and got some clarity. Refreshed from my time away and with some new perspectives and priorities, I began reaching out to people back home. One by one, the responses were nearly identical: “So great to have you back, can’t wait to catch up, just not sure when–things are crazy here!” I didn’t take it personally (see, I promised I wouldn’t!)–that's urban, adult existence–but I couldn’t help but chuckle. Ah, the busy life. It’s an epidemic. Workaholics who don’t create balance are less productive (true fact!) and those of us who over-commit socially end up feeling like we haven’t actually connected meaningfully with anyone. Lose-lose.

And then it occurred to me: That was often me just a few months ago. Would I automatically slip back into the culture of busyness? And could it even be resisted?

I know the key elements that help me burst the busyness bubble: Front-loading my day with work and making space for nature, exercise, socializing in the afternoons and evenings, as well as committing to time spent away from screens. And while every job schedule is different and there are obvious exceptions to this routine–project deadlines, events, not to mention kids and family. But just because it isn't one-size-fits-all all the time, doesn't make minimizing busyness impossible.

Eliminating busyness may seem like an elusive dream–kind of like diminishing email pile-ups (oh please, yes, could we?!). My recent journey helped me take a long look in the mirror and ask, “Am I one of those Busy People?” For me, the answer was yes, I was. And I didn’t like it. It didn’t make me happy. And while I have no doubt that there will be weeks and months where I will be über-busy again (please feel free to call me out on it), that doesn’t mean I need to make that my default mode of operating.

And what about you? Are you one of those Busy People? Does it make you happy? And if not, are you ready to commit to changing it? Are you ready to take the anti-busyness pledge and allow yourself to feel the difference? What small changes can you implement to un-busy yourself each day?

I’d love to hear your personal experiences and challenges with battling busyness in the comments below, so please be sure to share!

Anna Akbari
Source: Anna Akbari