How to overcome busyness addiction

Are you addicted to being busy? How often do you allow yourself to just sit and think for a few minutes when you’re at work, or lie down on the sofa in the evening and relax?

I’ve sometimes challenged myself to do this for five minutes and found a huge internal resistance pushing me to do a few more things before I start the timer, to adjust or tidy things in the room while I’m doing it, and then to leap up and carry on doing things afterwards.

And yet another part of me wants to slow down, do less and relax more.

Busyness is numbing

Addiction is defined as being physically or mentally dependent on something, and there are a few qualities of busyness that make it addictive. Like drugs and alcohol, it numbs your emotions. When you’re dashing through the day at 100mph, you don’t have time to notice anxiety, back pain or the existential angst of whether what you do all day is really rather pointless.

Busyness can be a maladaptive response to bereavement, a broken relationship or a lack of self-confidence. Although maladaptation might make you feel better in the short term, by avoiding your problems, you’re just making them worse.

Workaholics are known to describe having thoughts like:

- ‘I don’t dare slow down because I’ll fall behind and then I’ll be a failure.’

- ‘I need to succeed to feel good enough.’

- ‘Look at me strive. Reward me.’

Busyness makes you do less of what’s important

When you feel compelled to do more and more, you tend to spend less time on the things that matter to you most: your relationships, your core values, and reflecting on your big dreams and life goals. This can lead to feelings of failure, frustration and emptiness, which are uncomfortable. To distract yourself from the discomfort, you make yourself busier, and so the cycle continues.

Also, the behaviours that make you feel like you’re getting more done are often not the ones that actually lead to progress.

You can roughly divide up tasks at work into two types: the first are big, complex tasks that are challenging, take a long time, require deep thought and are non-linear.

The second are quick, easy tasks like emails, which might only take a minute or two, and when you do lots of them it can give you the illusion of progress.

If you get a bit stuck on the long, complex task, the temptation to check your phone or email can be extremely strong.

Meetings can also fall into this category because they’re quantifiable. You can say, ‘I had five meetings today!’ This might sound like you’ve done a lot, but what did those meetings actually achieve? Have you taken any of the actions agreed at the last meeting or were there too many meetings to allow you to do that?

The way that calendars are designed makes it look as though you’re doing nothing during the times that you’re not in a meeting, because only meetings are represented. The temptation can therefore be to fill up all of the available time with meetings and leave no time for the longer, complex tasks.

How to overcome busyness addiction

I think there’s a very interesting relationship between busyness and meditation, because it’s the number one reason people give me for why they don’t meditate, and it also happens to be the antithesis of busyness.

It involves sitting or lying still — essentially doing nothing — and facing into the feelings that you might otherwise be trying to avoid. It completes none of your tasks; in fact, it delays you from starting them.

The times when I’ve felt the least busy are when I’ve been on a silent meditation retreat with no phone, books or computer. There is no option but to slow down. I would spend a 20-minute break just staring out of the window. I always leave feeling much clearer about what really matters to me in life. I highly recommend them.

Another valuable exercise is to ask yourself questions like:

- ‘What if this doesn’t get done? What’s the worst-case scenario?’

- ‘What feeling might I be avoiding and what if I were to face up to it?’

- ‘What really matters to me and do I spend enough time doing those things?’

As a busyness addict myself, I know there are no easy answers, but I have slowed down a lot and got a lot better at saying no to things. As they say: the first step is realising you’ve got a problem.

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My work is all about love. Loving yourself, loving other people and loving the earth. I do that through writing, podcasting, coaching, running workshops.