The idea of busyness being a de-facto justification for our existence isn’t a new one. I think those of us who live in the US are constantly hearing about our Puritan forefathers, who bequeathed to us (among other things) what’s come to be known as the “Protestant Work Ethic”. As Tim Kreider notes in this New York Times article entitled The ‘Busy’ Trap, “The Puritans turned work into a virtue, evidently forgetting that God invented it as a punishment.”
But honestly, when someone responds with “Busy!” when I ask how they’re doing, it drives me crazy. I know that, most of the time, with a few modifications on how they interact with the challenges that life throws at them, they could be a lot more relaxed and have the time to fit in what’s truly important to them.
There are two groups of people from whom I’ll willingly accept “I’m busy” as an answer. The first group are the single parents who work two jobs, run kids to after school events, and manage a household (and other folks with an incredibly high level of commitments due to life circumstances beyond their control). I grew up with a parent like that, and I don’t really recall him saying the word “busy” much. You know why? Because he was too busy to actually talk to anyone about it. It just never came up because he didn’t stop to talk about it. I wouldn’t even say that he was busy; I’d say he was exhausted (like Kreider states in that earlier linked NYT article). I don’t have much to say to these folks, except that you have my respect and my honest hopes that things get better for you in the near future. I’m not sure how my dad did it for all those years.
But the other group are individuals who I don’t think are really being honest with themselves on the issues of schedule and priorities. Because if there’s anything that I believe in the whole realm of “self improvement”, it’s that in order to really begin to change your circumstances, you need to quit lying to yourself.
You eventually learn that true priorities are like arms; if you think you have more than a couple, you’re either lying or crazy.
— Merlin Mann (@hotdogsladies) April 10, 2009
That up there is the crux of these people’s issues. They have too much going on because they’re unable or unwilling to say “no” when approached to add one more thing into their lives. And there’s a simple way to fix it: learn to say “no”. It’s hard, I get it, especially for our super-charged, high-octane, achievement-oriented society. But truly taking the time to determine what’s most important to you will give you the clarity you need to stop being “busy” and start having the time you need to live an important, focused life.
I really do understand that it’s tough, I wasn’t just saying that. I have a family, with a young son who’s getting more and more involved in activities outside our home. Home-school groups, field trips, sports teams. As an 8 year old, he can’t just drive himself to these things, and we as parents want to make sure that he’s able to be a part of stuff that he wants to be a part of. But there comes a time when I think we can cross over from doing things he wants to do to doing things because we think that kids his age are “supposed to do” them. There’s a difference there.
The motivation changes from focusing on what’s good for him, and what’s good for our family, to keeping up appearances. We think that other families may judge us because our kid isn’t in violin lessons AND Little League AND pottery class AND AND AND. We begin letting other people’s notions of what’s important (or, even worse, our assumption of what other people value) set our schedules and priorities. That’s something we can’t turn over to them; we need to do it for ourselves.
There’s an old story about a college professor who comes in to class on the first day, stands behind the lectern and pulls out a large, clear glass jar. She pulls out two large rocks about the size of a fist or a bit larger, puts them in the jar. Being stacked on top of each other, they rise to almost the brim of the jar. The professor looks up and asks the class if the jar is full. The class says, “Yep, that looks full”. The professor then pulls out a jar of pea gravel from behind the lectern and pours the gravel into the glass jar, filling up the spaces between the large rocks. She looks up and asks the class, “What about now? Is the jar full?”. A few of the students smile to each other, but the majority say, “Sure, that’s full”. The professor AGAIN reaches down behind the lectern, pulls out a bag of sand, and pours it into the seemingly full jar. Now the smaller spaces between the gravel are filled with sand. The professor quirks an eyebrow at the class… She doesn’t even need to ask the question this time. Everyone knows it’s coming, but this time none of the students are willing to say it’s full. Finally, the professor pulls out a pitcher of water and proceeds to fill the jar up, occupying all the remaining airspace in the jar. She tops off the jar, and looks at the class.
“What’s the point here? What am I trying to teach you?” the professor asks. She continues, “The rocks are your life’s priorities, and the jar is your life. You have room in your life for whatever you want, but you have to choose. Because the water, sand and gravel are things in your life that clamor for your attention, as well. If I had added the ingredients in reverse order, they would have taken up space that should have been occupied by the rocks. Then, when I went to add my “priorities” to a life that was already pretty full, I wouldn’t have enough room for what I really wanted to accomplish,”.
In her book 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, author Laura Vanderkam tells us that we all have (or should have) priorities in life to which we want to devote our time and energy. Doesn’t matter what they are; could be your kids or your job or the Seattle Seahawks. I’m not here to judge your priorities. What I am here to do is to tell you that you’re always going to be “too busy” if you don’t give those things that are most important to you their fair amount of attention. Take what you consider to be the important things in life and put those in your jar first. All the rest of the stuff then fits in around it, or if it doesn’t, it gets discarded.
But please, stop lying to yourself by saying “I’m too busy”. Be honest and say that you’re not making whatever you’re talking about an actual priority. If it’s not your priority, then you should be able to admit it and move on. But if it should be, this should be a freeing exercise by allowing you to really assess what you want to be spending you time on and which things you need to let fall by the wayside.