During the coronavirus, millions of worker bees all over the world were holed up with not enough to do. Through no fault of their own, legions passed the time cleaning out closets, rearranging medicine cabinets, sorting, revamping, and baking sour dough bread, from scratch. Despite this level of productivity, many felt utterly worthless. What is going on?
Personally, in the first few years since my retirement, I’ve made great strides in the realm of personal evolution. There are improvements in self-awareness, acceptance of “what is,” physical health and nutrition, and connection to the planet. However, there is one sticky issue which seems to resist all sincere efforts on a daily basis: the need to constantly be busy. I simply can’t justify my existence without completing a list of completed tasks and report them to absolutely no one.
Linguistically, “busyness” has both a positive and negative connotation. On the plus side, it implies being actively involved in many activities, but that unexpected “y” implies that all of these activities might not be meaningful. One must understand the opposite of busyness to see the need for its demise. The opposite concept includes such values as purpose, choice, prioritization, and personal control.
Origins of American “Busyness”
This need to be in constant motion afflicts both the working and the retired populations. Where does it come from? I have a few theories: the economic recession of 2008 and the American lifestyle, which actually champions busyness and awards the highest honors to such behaviors. There is also a sneaky, psychological undercurrent and a biological cause. Economic circumstances in the past decade have led to the concept of “worker intensification.” I fell victim to this practice, which involves increased demands placed on workers asked to do more with fewer resources. The foundation for this practice which sometimes feels just shy of the Japanese phenomenon of“Karoshi,” or death by overwork, stems from both corporate interests in reaping higher profits and non-profits reduced to bare bones budgets. In my retirement scenario (leaving unexpectedly one day and taking 12 weeks of Family Medical Leave), it was the addition of the full portfolio of my part-time colleague. I told all parties that these expectations were not humanly possible, but they didn’t take me seriously until I didn’t show up for work and never came back.
Europeans know how to breathe
These American expectations are in sharp contrast to European work practices. We’ve all heard about August being the entire month devoted to vacations, and the sane working hours which stop upon exiting from the office at five, after an hour plus lunch in a bistro. In France during the pandemic, a law was actually repealed which mandated the exit from the office for lunch every day – really! Where did these practices originate?
In the 1970’s, working conditions in Europe were not enviable. Through intense efforts by unions through collective bargaining and the liberal political system, shorter hours and longer holidays were awarded to a large percentage of the population. These perks still exist today, but are under constant fire by cash poor governments, hence the yellow vest phenomenon in France.
The physical component
The workplace might have trained you to become a lab rat, constantly racing around the wheel for your paycheck, but the human brain is also part of the equation. Your brain has been living on a diet of dopamine as a reward for your efforts for years: complete a project, answer some email, make a presentation and the reward circuit lights up! Common wisdom defines dopamine as a “feel good hormone” the brain releases, leading to feelings of satisfaction and happiness. Although our pride distances us from our more primitive ancestors, those guys were getting the same juice from finding a new blackberry patch or a fishing hole. Novelty has always been the key. No wonder when you are “working from home” because of the pandemic, retired, or just trying to pull back, your brain has other ideas.
This addiction is not a benign process. It is actually a real addiction, just like substance abuse. The symptoms are the same. Trying to be less busy causes major anxiety. You’ve built up a huge tolerance to your activity level, even if it interferes with your health. Your behavior is repetitive and excessive, and your brain is wired to repeat such behavior.
This type of addiction is called “process addiction,” as opposed to substance addiction. It shares company with those addicted to spending money, gambling, eating, playing too many video games and constantly checking a smartphone. Change will not be easy without some significant, intentional behavior.
What are you trying to avoid?
The last culprit in the longevity of busyness is a subconscious need to avoid negative feelings. Cutting down on your self-imposed tasks, might leave you face to face with yourself in an empty room. What might arise from the depths: unresolved emotions, past pain, regrets…..who knows? Wouldn’t it be better to just….(fill in the blank) anything but face your demons. There are also a few other less scary reasons to be too busy: FOMO, maintaining social status, guilt about being a slug, and being afraid to say "no."
Turning the page on “busyness”
Is this situation hopeless? With the prospect of a skinny calendar of duties and events over a long period of time, will I ever have a day when I can justify not contributing selflessly to the world, or at least to my household? My husband has told me that my activity level sometimes makes him feel worthless. Busyness doesn’t just affect your life, but in a subtle way, it affects those around you.
Recovery advice comes from the world of mindfulness: reflect on why you act this way, observe yourself – is everything you are doing really necessary at this moment? What are the benefits? What are you avoiding? Set small goals for behavioral change. Hang quotes near your computer or place a physical reminder, such as an object or vase of flowers nearby.
Entertain the idea of saying “no,” becoming unavailable, and making fewer commitments. Clear your space of extraneous “stuff.” Put leisure activities on your To Do list. Check email only twice each day. The pandemic gave us an opportunity to make a dent in this behavior, if we were aware of it.
After reducing the volume of your activity, you might begin to consider the Dutch concept of “Niksen” – intentionally doing nothing. Look out a window, sit in a room and just listen to music. I've taken to this practice from time too time. Surprisingly, there is usually a squirrel or bird sitting on my deck doing absolutely nothing!