We’re all too busy. Our modern world and its technology have given us opportunities to get exponentially more done in less time than our ancestors were able to at any point in history, yet somehow we’ve filled that extra time with 1001 additional things to do and we still feel that we have no time! This trend can be seen both at work and at home and it’s even become so much a part of our modern culture that our kids are too busy too – school, extra-curricular activities, birthday parties….
We almost wear this busyness like a badge of honour. Ever catch yourself saying “I would like to do that but I’ve got so much work to do.”? Or, “Yes that sounds interesting but I don’t have any time for It.”? We value busy and if we take time to do nothing and rest we feel guilt around it, as though we didn’t get enough done and displayed signs of laziness. Success depends on accomplishment and accomplishing requires busyness. We’ve become a culture of busy.
But while our cultural trends have increasingly demanded busy, what has happened to the trends of our mental, physical and emotional health? Is all this busyness really good for us? Is accomplishment really our end game?
The increase in busyness has led to an accompanying increase in perceived stress and an almost constant activation of the “fight or flight or freeze” response. This is an evolutionary response built into our nervous system that becomes temporarily activated to help us fight or flee from a dangerous and life-threatening situation. Hormones are secreted that can help us run, fight, and increase our level of alertness so that we can escape. Once the threat has been resolved our nervous system can reset back to a normal level of alertness – generally a pretty calm place. The spike in stress hormones associated with fight or flight is meant to be short-lived, but in our modern world the “threats” we are facing – too many emails, traffic, work deadlines – are not life-threatening and they are continuous. We are faced with a constant bombardment, meaning our nervous system never gets to calm down.
When our nervous system stays in fight or flight there are consequences. In fight or flight blood supply and energy to systems that are not needed to escape the danger (like our digestive and reproductive systems) are restricted. There is also an increase in blood pressure and heart rate, so there are consequences to cardiovascular health when we don’t have a chance to return to a calm place. Fight or flight also releases a stress hormone called cortisol. The abundant release of this hormone when the nervous system is kept in the aroused state has been found to affect our genes (through epigenetics – how environmental factors can change gene expression), and also leads to increases in anxiety, irritability and other mood disorders and insomnia.
In summary, living in a state of constant stress negatively affects our health in just about every way.
So what can we do about this? Here are a few ideas:
- Start noticing what is driving you to keep busy and why. Do you equate productivity with self-worth? What are the things that matter most to you in life? What are your most important values and do your activities reflect that?
Take stock of what activities are keeping you busy, which ones bring you joy and fulfillment and give your life meaning and which ones feel like they are bogging you down. Can you use all of this information to make any changes or shifts in your life?
- How is your level of busy affecting your feelings about time? Do you feel like you never have enough time?
One of my teachers, Judith Lasater, has pointed out
“Time is the most equitably allocated resource – everyone has exactly the same amount of time each day. There is nothing wrong with time, the problem lies with our ideas around time.”
Instead of saying “there isn’t enough time”, try “apparently it’s going to take longer to finish this project than I originally thought.”
Or instead of saying, “I don’t have enough time for that”, try saying “that isn’t a priority for me right now.” If you catch yourself saying this for something that you had intended to be a priority, this shift in language can remind you that you are making choices about how you use your time and that you have the ability to choose differently. Can you start to shift your perspective of what is “productive” to encompass those things that you consider priorities? This comes back to what you found out by asking the questions under point #1 above. For example, I find spending a day outside doing something fun with my kids is more meaningful and more in alignment with what is important to me (spending time with my kids AND spending time moving outside) than spending the day organizing my messy house. I’d prefer not to have a messy house, but cleaning it up isn’t usually what matters most to me – it’s not a priority.
Another thing that can interfere with your perceptions of time is how much time you spend on mindless activities without realizing it. Activities like binge-watching Netflix or losing yourself in social media for a couple of hours. Begin to keep track of how much time is spent on activities like this and evaluate what it is doing to your perception of not having time for the things that are important.
- Do you feel stressed, irritable or exhausted?
Your thoughts and perceptions are an important part of the equation. Your nervous system responds to a perceived stressful situation. This is why we are able to activate fight or flight for non-life-threatening situations. Although the nervous system response evolved to help us escape real danger, our perceptions of what is a threat or stress are what activate it.
A situation that causes nervous system arousal in one person may not in another. One reason for this is that we all have different levels of resilience. Resilience is the ability to cope with adverse situations and bounce back quickly and it is something you can intentionally develop.
Start by looking at your thoughts and behaviours in response to those situations you perceive to be stressful. While you have choices around how you use your time, you can’t always control the events happening around you. However, you are in control of your thoughts about the events and your response. Can you step back for a moment and reframe the situation by looking at its relative importance to your life down the road? Can you see some positive actions you could take towards resolving the situation?
The suggestions above are about evaluating your thoughts and perceptions of time and stress and noticing how you spend your time relative to what you value. There are also several ways to take positive action to develop your resilience, restore your nervous system, and increase your capacity to make positive decisions about your use of time as well as decisions about how you react to challenging situations:
- Engage in mindful leisure activities. These activities are different for everyone – find something that nourishes your soul and gives you energy. It could be going for a walk, gardening, reading a book, playing with your kids, cranberry picking, singing. Try not to let anything on your “to do” list trump this time you’ve carved out for yourself. Make these activities a priority.
- Do less. Learn how to say “No” to taking on another project or commitment. Instead of viewing saying “no” as a negative or lazy thing to do, notice instead what it allows you to say “Yes” to. It is saying “Yes” to more energy, health and freedom. It is saying “Yes” to taking care of yourself and recognizing the importance of time for relaxation.
- Practice relaxation. The “relaxation response” is the opposite of the fight or flight response in the nervous system. It turns the fight or flight response off. Practicing relaxation on a regular basis can strengthen this aspect of the nervous system. One of my favourite ways to practice relaxation is through Restorative Yoga. Here is one of my favourite restorative poses, easily accessible to practice at home. Legs on a chair pose.
Make sure you are free from noise and distractions and are dressed reasonably warm.
You can use a chair or your sofa (note we haven’t gotten rid of ours yet – it still has some uses beyond sitting!). If you are using a hard chair, make sure to place some blankets on it and try to create a flat surface. Swing your legs up to rest your lower legs on the chair and scoot yourself away from the chair a bit so that your thighs are not straight up and down but are sloped towards the chair. Raise the height of the chair with blankets so that your lower legs rest parallel to the ground. Place a blanket or pillow underneath your head and neck but not your shoulders. You can let your arms rest a little away from your body with your palms facing upwards or you can prop your arms to that there is a little bend to your elbow and your wrists rest higher than your elbows.
Make any adjustments you need to make to be comfortable. Place a blanket over yourself for extra warmth and rest here quietly for 20 minutes. Allow your bones to feel completely heavy. If you find yourself restless see if you can bring your attention to your breath, flowing in and out through your nose. Or do a scan of your body and notice any areas of residual tension. Can you consciously let them go? It takes 15 minutes to get into a state of relaxation so giving yourself 20 minutes allows you to experience relaxation for a few minutes before coming out of it.
- Limit screen time after dark and in the hours right before bed. The blue light emitted by screens influences melatonin levels, circadian rhythms and sleep cycles.
- Go to bed when the sun does. Or here in the north where this changes more drastically throughout the year than elsewhere, try going to bed at 9:00pm and see what happens. If that seems too challenging try 10:00pm first. It might feel like you are sacrificing productive time to sleep but you may be surprised how much more productive you are when you get enough sleep and encourage your sleep on a schedule more in tune with your environment. When you are asleep this is where your body works on growth and repair of cells. When you don’t get enough sleep your body has to make decisions about what it has time to repair and what it doesn’t. Improving your sleep will not only help you feel better, be less irritable, and more productive, your body may age slower and your overall health can improve.
If I sound like I’ve got this all figured out, I don’t. I am as caught up in the culture of busy as anyone. I am constantly reminding myself to do the things I’ve just listed above. It’s an ongoing practice. As a solopreneur and mom I particularly find #7 & #8 challenging since I tend to get a lot of my computer work done after 8pm when my kids are in bed. BUT when I do manage to turn off screens and go to bed early I can’t describe how amazing I feel the next day! It’s magical. So I know it is worthwhile to do this more often.
I’d love to hear from you about how you are managing the Culture of Busy in your own life. If you’re interested in a guided practice of relaxation, check out my upcoming Restore and Rebalance classes! You could also check my Events page for upcoming Restorative Yoga classes, Psoas Workshops and more!