“Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” – Socrates
Following a mini-meltdown, I decided I wanted to feel less busy while doing more of what made me happy. I started to shed what was stressing me out and clogging my days, eventually cutting the hours I spent at my job in half. Yet even as I scaled back, I still felt busy all the time, like there wasn’t enough time in the day.
I would still bury my face in my phone anytime I had to wait for more than two minutes, in an attempt to make use of every available second, even if it added no value to my life. I would even try to brainstorm an idea for a new essay or problem-solve while I got a massage, just to make use of the quiet time. I still had a tightness in my chest and racing thoughts in my mind.
While I was getting more pleasure and satisfaction from diving into my passions and hobbies, I was still burdened with the need to feel like I was always getting stuff done. The pressure to make productive use of the newly available time in my day felt just as stressful in my body as being at work. I was squeezing the joy out of the freedom I had just created.
In my struggle to let go of old patterns, I realized that feeling busy was not so much a byproduct of my job and commitments, but a mindset based on how I viewed time, success, and self-worth. It was a way of relating to myself and the world around me founded on beliefs of scarcity and lack.
By staying in go-go-go mode, I was perpetuating my fear that time is running out, that I might miss my opportunity, that everything will fall apart if I don’t keep moving. In clinging to busyness, I was reinforcing a limited view of the world, where I need to rush and compete to avoid losing out on what I want.
If I was truly going to be happy and reap the benefits of my newfound freedom, I needed to reorient what I viewed as valuable in my life. Instead of measuring my worth and well-being by what I produced and how much I achieved, I started to measure the success of my life by how good I felt.
The question shifted from, “how much can I achieve?” to “how much joy can I infuse into my life?” Once I changed my value systems to align with feeling good, then everything that makes me happy is incredibly worthwhile.
Doing big things like dropping unfulfilling obligations certainly helped, but feeling good was really about five little practices that brought more joy and ease to my life, while still allowing me to make progress on my goals.
1. Decide what is truly important and prioritize that
Stephen Covey of 7 Habits fame developed the four quadrants system of urgency and importance. Research has shown that many people spend a significant portion of their time on unimportant activities, like so-called “busy work” or mindless internet surfing. Instead, we should focus our time on what is truly important, and address it before it becomes urgent.
2. Create a stop-doing list
Sometimes we need to give ourselves permission to stop doing those things we dread and say no to what our intuition knows is going to be an energy suck. This can be big things, like stepping away from the school committee or quitting the project that is driving you nuts, or little things like deciding your toenails don’t need to be perpetually perfectly polished.
3. Schedule self-care into your day
Being busy often means putting ourselves last, which adds to our stress. We all need time to rest and relax, even if it is just blocking five minutes off our calendar to close our eyes and take deep breaths or taking a walk at lunch. The more we do this, the more we give our body a blueprint for what peace feels like and the more we’ll want to keep coming back. As we do this, we stop viewing self-care as frivolous or unproductive and start reinforcing the idea that we are worth it.
4. Do something just for fun
It nourishes us to do something fun and creative, not because we expect to get something out of it or it serves any particular purpose, but simply because we enjoy it and it makes us happy. Spontaneity brings out our inner child and reminds us to stop taking ourselves so seriously. In remembering what fun feels like, we reconnect with our joy and boost all of those happy chemicals in our bodies.
5. Practice gratitude
So often we are rushing from one thing to the next, but slowing down to savor and appreciate a joyful, peaceful moment or kind gesture actually slows down our experience of time and invites in more to be grateful for. By being present and grateful for the good in our lives, we cultivate the patience, mindfulness, and energy to make the harder things easier.
When we slow down, we realize that busy is not better. The measure of a good life isn’t in what we accomplish or what output we produce, but in how we feel. When we drop expectations on how we are supposed to be or what we are supposed to have achieved by when, and deliberately choose what makes us happy and brings us joy, we open ourselves up and create time and space for a life we love to live.