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I Have A Confession To Make: I'm Not That Busy

When did busyness become a status symbol?

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Recently, I called a friend I hadn't spoken to in a few months.

“Hi!” I said, elated to talk to her and not her answering machine. “So good to hear your voice. How are you?”

“Good. Busy!” she breathlessly replied as if she had just ran a half marathon. “It’s been crazy with work and the kids’ schedules …”

"Yes," I said in a commiserating voice. “I’ve been busy, too. Don’t know where the time goes.”

But here’s the thing. I’m actually not that busy.

Celeste Headlee, author of the book  We Need To Talk – How To Have Conversations That Matter, says, “Since the '90s, busyness has replaced luxury items as a status symbol. From celebrity interviews to people's Christmas letters to friends, it’s become popular to brag about how busy you are.”

It’s common for people to complain about "time poverty," basically not having enough hours in the day to get everything done. Headlee explains, “Technology has allowed work to come home with us, so we are always on. We have become addicted to ‘working’ whether it’s for the company we are employed by or raising our children.”

Headlee says we have developed a fear of downtime because of the “societal shaming” of people with too much time on their hands. In a New York Times article in 2012 titled “ The ‘Busy’ Trap,” writer Tim Kreider stated, “Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.”

Psychologists have found that many people keep themselves busy to avoid thinking. If you are always on the go, you don't have time to stop and wonder if you are happy or fulfilled. But the opposite is actually true. Headlee explains, “Not being busy can actually improve your S.W.B. – subjective well-being. Humans feel better when they have some leisure time.” Kreider states, “Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets.”

Try thinking of life as a buffet table. It all may look delectable and you may want to eat everything or feel the need to try it all because it’s there. But deep down you know you will feel better if you don't totally stuff yourself and just eat what you really enjoy.

It’s the same with my life. I want it full, but not stuffed. Without any work, family or other responsibilities I’d feel lost. But I strive for a manageable to-do list that leaves me with things I need to get done and time to stop doing. Years ago, blank spaces on my calendar might make me anxious and feel like a loser with nothing to do, but now I see it as a gift. It’s a decadent treat to spend an hour in the morning in my pajamas and watch a show on Netflix while I leisurely drink my coffee. I like having coffee or lunch with a friend rather than just having our interactions be an exchange of emails. I’ve even allowed myself to duck into the movies in the middle of the afternoon if my schedule allows.

Most importantly, not being so busy allowed me to listen to those around me. I can savor both the food and the conversation at dinner time with my husband and son. I don’t need to multitask when I’m on the phone with my daughters or my mom. And I can hear myself and learn more about what is important and will really fill my heart.

Kreider states, "Life is too short to be busy," and I agree. I don’t want emotional rickets! I want a happy, healthy life, and that includes embracing downtime. So, the next time someone tells me that they are "SO busy,” I’m not going to be embarrassed. Instead, I’ll reply with pride, “I’m actually not so busy, and whenever you have some free time, I’d love to spend it with you."