Ever heard of the saying, ‘if you want something done, ask someone who’s busy’? There are strong characteristics of busy people which tend to only make them busier. They’re good at getting shit done, in fact, they’ve trained themselves to be this way. Whether it’s out of habit, through addiction to fleeting reward, the fear of missing out or forgetting something, the ironic comfort of a hectic routine, or the badge of honour we all like to wear saying, ‘I’m busier than you’. Our current culture has mistaken busyness as progress and achievement. Let’s discuss this deeper and get a better understanding of why we do what we do, and how we can change it.
When you look at this behaviour from a brain perspective, being constantly on the go and completing lots of tasks (no matter how small) literally gives you a high. The simple act of crossing off a to-do list task, hitting inbox zero, or receiving notifications triggers a chemical release in our brain of dopamine - the same chemical released during sex or when consuming drugs. Interestingly, your brain is unable to recognise the difference between the trigger being as substantial as a big win at work, or as small as the completion of a mundane task.
Once we understand how we’ve got our brains into this feedback loop driven by constant hunger for reward, it’s easier to break the vicious cycle and essentially break up with ‘busyness’.
When researching for this post, I found that when you type in the word ‘busy’ into Pinterest your entire feed is full of ‘busy board’ or ‘busy bin’ inspiration for toddlers and young children. It suddenly dawned on me that we’re ingraining our children with this sense that they always have to be in a state of action. While I’m all for a mother finally having a moment peace, god knows she deserves it, isn’t it interesting how our language around being ‘busy’ has been translated into the activities we use to stimulate our children. We’re terrified of our children being bored, we fear our children being unstimulated or not distracted with moving parts and constant activity. Anyway… that’s for another blog post.
If you’re a person who’s always on the go, the following statement may terrify you: 80% of your results will come from only 20% of your efforts. This means that 80% of the time, you’re wasting your energy on things that aren’t truly giving you results, and they’re certainly not moving the needle. This is known as the ‘Pareto Principle’ and we’ve briefly discussed it on a previous blog post about time management LINK. Often, we’re so ‘busy being busy’ that we forget to stop and actually make sure that what we’re doing is part of that 20% that’s actually worthwhile.
We’ve discussed previously that the purpose for us constantly feeling as if we have to be in action is because these days society associates being in action with being of value and having worth. This means that we’ve created a feeling of guilt when we pause, take time to evaluate, or even relax because we never feel as if we’ve done enough. Ultimately, we’re ignoring all our body’s cues on how we’re feeling just for the sake of pushing through. It’s as if we’re training our bodies to exist in a constant state of flight or fight, but let’s be honest, it’s not like we’re being chased my animals like we were in the caveman days.
This series, “Do Less Be More” is all about fighting back against the “Do More with Less” revolutions which are undervaluing the precious moments of idle time in our lives. It’s about fighting back against that feeling of constantly having to be on the go, which flows into these small slithers of idle moments like when we’re waiting in line at the coffee shop, or we’ve finally got home after a long day. We have this terrible default mode of pulling our devices out to fill this seemingly useless moment of time with seemingly useless activity simply because we FEAR DOING NOTHING.
I’m certainly guilty of moments like these too, which is why I wanted to personally ask myself what my thought processes are in those moments. Often, I believe that these snippets of time are great moments for me to catch up with myself: to send that quick text, to reschedule something in my calendar, to have a scroll through instagram because god-forbid I miss something. And yet I know first hand that my best ideas come to me during these idle moments but only when I’m people watching, commuting, walking around my neighbourhood, and even exercising. I tend to fill these moments with activity out of fear of not getting everything on my plate done, out of fear of forgetting something, out of fear that I’m wasting my time and even out of fear of looking like I'm alone and not in action.
I’m not a busy person because I run a business, study full time and have a part-time job. I’m busy because I fill my own calendar with things I believe will make me a more successful person who seemingly has their shit together. My busyness is of my own creation. Which also means that my failure to rest is of my own creation - and rest is something that we all need more than we realise.
“A brain in a state of forced focus operates very differently to a brain set free. It’s the difference between listening to one instrument or a whole orchestra. In a busy mind, attention jumps randomly from instrument to instrument, creating a cacophony of noise that holds little pleasure and delivers little reward. It’s only when the busyness subsides that attention opens widely enough to allow the rest of the orchestra to join in. It’s the synchrony of many parts working in harmony that creates the magic.” - Extract from ‘One Moment Please: It’s time to pay attention’ by Martina Sheehan and Susan Pearse
I know that when my mind is in a state of forced focus, I’m unable to give my full attention to the task at hand. It’s like I’m concentrating so hard on being ‘in action’ that my brain suddenly throws 3 tasks at me and I end up failing to get anything done at all. I’m suddenly updating my budget, but then I remember about a calendar event that I was supposed to reschedule and all of a sudden I’m contacting my boyfriend about our plans for next weekend when I really only went on my computer in the first place to finish my university notes. I believe that overstimulation has a lot to do with this, and perhaps it’s my generation who are particularly guilty. We’ve become so ingrained in this state of having a million things going on at once, eg. listening to music while writing an essay with the tv on in the background and continuing 3 different conversations across 3 different social media platforms. Sounds shocking right? But it’s a reality for so many young people. It’s interesting to see how my brain now gets bored when I’m forced just to focus on one thing. I’ll even fall asleep during a movie, unless I’m able to pick up my phone and re-stimulate myself at times!
When you wind back the clock, pre-technology, it’s amazing to see how many great discoveries were made in these moments of idle time which our generation hardly experiences anymore. Take Isaac Newton for example, he was out enjoying his garden, the changing sky and the surrounding birds when that apple fell from that tree. It was because of his relaxed state that he even noticed this act at all, let alone was able to link it to his research rather than just an act of nature. The Theory of Gravity, one of the most important theories was created simply by the act of rest and by embracing these idle moments. Think about how different our lives would be if Issac was out these dwelling on a conversation he’d just had with a friend or reviewing a previous research experiment, his brain would not have been in the relaxed state which enabled him to take notice.
Sir Charles Darwin rarely stayed in his office for more than 4 hours a day, spending the rest of his time in nature, with his wife, writing or resting. Newton and Darwin were able to ensure that they were only focusing on this 20% of time which enabled them to reap the 80% of their greatest rewards, so why can’t we?
Fighting back against ‘busy’ is about creating these beautiful moments of space in your life which enable your greatest ideas and discoveries to seep through. Rather than filling these idle moments with either physical or mental tasks, let’s take them as opportunities for pondering, curiosity and rest.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with hard work and effort. However, we mustn’t let ourselves believe that these are the only factors involved with being successful and fulfilling our greatest potential. We may never know the great discoveries we are capable of if we don’t take the opportunities to stop and listen.
I refuse to believe that I’m the only one who wants to do more of what matters and less of what doesn’t. I refuse to believe that people actually enjoy being in this constant state of busyness. I also refuse to believe that our busyness is not of our own creation.
What I do believe is that this vicious cycle of doing for the sake of doing is only ever going to result in stress and exhaustion rather than enable us to live our best lives. In this constant flow of busyness, we’re unable to tap into our greatest ideas, determine whether our actions are of the 20% which are meaningful or the 80% which is wasted, or notice the small cues our body is trying to guide us by. In a world moving at such speed, our brains are unable to digest what we’re being forced to take in, let alone make anything good out of it.
So rather than making to-do lists for the sake of it, and ticking them off in a reward-driven rage, let’s slow down and ask ourselves about the quality of our actions and the purpose of our time. Let’s start inviting space into our lives without automatically filling these moments with distraction or mindless tasks which don’t even move the needle. Let’s find the balance between doing work and doing nothing. Let’s remind ourselves that being still is just as important as being in action and most importantly, that our worth and our value isn’t determined by how much we produce and how much we contribute.
I challenge you this week to experiment with the quest of fighting back against busy. I challenge you to not pick up your phone or review your to-do list during idle moments. Instead, look up, spark a conversation, observe the world around, people watch, and become really present in the current moment. You’ll amaze yourself with what you’ll learn and notice.
From our home to yours,
Hi there! Thanks for checking out the Live Lively blog. I am so excited to share my passion for productivity, personal growth and wellbeing!