Why do we wear busyness as a badge of honour?

by Derek Winter


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We’ve all caught ourselves saying it, or heard others say it. Maybe we just show up for work every day. Mother’s say it, students say it, whoever we are, we’ve probably told some people this week about how busy we are. We seem to wear that as a badge, but know inside it's not a good thing.

Why do we wear busyness as a badge of honour?

If we tell people, that we really don't have anything on your schedule, that we just hung out on Friday or Saturday or Sunday with nothing to do, then it doesn’t make you seem very important. It’s almost like a scoreboard for us, particularly for men, but in our current society, for many people.

People believe consciously or sub-consciously that if they’re busy then they’re important.

The thing I’ve come to understand about this is that busyness is often a way to medicate ourselves to ignore major issues in life. If we slow down we’ll have to listen to the inside struggles, face the problems with relationships or family. So, if we’re just too busy to deal with it, it gives us a way to ignore big problems in our lives.

And if we fall prey to that, it can cost us our relationships, our family, or more.

While mulling this over I came across a great quote that illuminates this better than I could:

Busyness is the greatest distraction from living, as we coast through our lives day after day, showing up for our obligations but being absent from our selves, mistaking the doing for the being.

It stopped me in my tracks in part because I discovered it was written by the Roman philosopher Seneca in his 2,000-year-old treatise On the Shortness of Life. This is a struggle and an issue that’s not so new!

So, when we’re rushing through life, there's very little time to stop and to listen and to really be contemplative. We don’t take any time to stop and pause and really think. Usually the retort is that everything we’re is good. It is good stuff. However what we often find is that we’re trying to prove something to somebody. And that is a big issue for most of us. We're trying to be impressive. We're trying to prove something to somebody.

But even Seneca, writing in the first century, saw busyness — the dual demon of distraction and preoccupation — as an addiction that stands in the way of mastering the art of living:

No activity can be successfully pursued by an individual who is preoccupied … since the mind when distracted absorbs nothing deeply, but rejects everything which is, so to speak, crammed into it. Living is the least important activity of the preoccupied man; yet there is nothing which is harder to learn…

What are the sign’s that we’re too busy? Claire Diaz-Ortiz provides some good insights in her article “Are You Working too Hard?” The other interesting discussion that fuelled some of my thinking was Byony Cole’s observations about how social media is crowding out our mental space.

So how do we re-dress the balance and avoid the busyness?

In part it comes down to the art of saying ‘No’ and it is important to understand that if you don't know what you're saying yes to, you won't know what to say no to, nor have the freedom and conviction to do so.

As a very practical suggestion, I’d suggest sitting down and writing out a list of what you’re currently committed to doing. Start with the weekly or monthly schedule and there is likely to be unnecessary clutter in the schedule if you view in the context of what is important to you and those around you.

And that is the next step. What are we saying yes to? If you’re part of a family,what’s important for the family to thrive? What’s the set of values that your marriage or relationship is based on? These things become the guidelines which let you say ‘Yes’ to some things and more importantly ’No’ to others.

To finish, I will indulge in one more quote from Seneca:

No one will bring back the years; no one will restore you to yourself. Life will follow the path it began to take, and will neither reverse nor check its course. It will cause no commotion to remind you of its swiftness, but glide on quietly. It will not lengthen itself for a king’s command or a people’s favour. As it started out on its first day, so it will run on, nowhere pausing or turning aside. What will be the outcome? You have been preoccupied while life hastens on. Meanwhile death will arrive, and you have no choice in making yourself available for that.