Graham: Why ‘I’ve been busy’ isn’t always something to brag about

We find self-worth in getting things done, but busyness can be a cover for rejecting rest and spinning our wheels.

By Ciera Graham / Herald columnist

I was catching up with a longtime college friend. We were relishing in life joy’s and how we’re both attempting to find solace in this crazy world during what has been an abnormally difficult year.

She asked me, “So how have you been?”

Instinctively, I thought “I’ve been busy.” But haven’t we all?

I have also tried to be cognizant of how often I use the word “busy.”

The phrase “I’ve been busy” felt so robotic and mundane. This makes me wonder about how and why we have become so accustomed to using the phrase “I’m busy” as a default response.

We often fail to realize how much we use the word “busy” rather unconsciously, without thinking of how others perceive this message. We are often unaware of what this message says about us and the lives we live. In a world that feels as if it is a constant state of flux, the constant access to digital forms of communication and information can be overwhelming. With this constant exposure to information, it becomes hard to calm down your brain and focus. Your thoughts become messy, and you find yourself unable to enjoy silence; your brain instantly starts thinking, “what can I do next?” or “what new information can I find?” When you deprive yourself of rest, you only continue to function with a very a tired brain and depleted energy.

The Netflix docudrama series, “The Social Dilemma” explores the primacy and destructive nature that social media plays in our lives. Big Tech companies such as Facebook and Google have found ways to manipulate human behavior for monetary gain. Constant scrolling and notifications lead to addictive engagement among users and creates a culture where human behavior can be predicted, altered and influenced. The series presents a sobering depiction of how social media can send us into autopilot, completely unaware of our internal self and actions. It’s the culture of busyness that has created this unwavering and obsessive yearning to be constantly engrossed by external forces and events, like social media.

Many of us wake up with our cell phone in hand, waiting to feed that social media high, and find out everything that happened while we were sleeping. When our addiction to social media becomes the first thing that we feed in the morning, our happiness and satisfaction becomes tied to external factors, and not to ourselves.

2020 has been an extremely unprecedented and tiresome year. Thinking about how we as a society have had to manage the most unethical presidency in modern history, an eroding democracy, a global health pandemic, record unemployment, and more; many of the self-proclaimed “busy-holics” have had to contend with the complicated relationship between busyness and rest.

In many ways, covid-19 has forced us to slow down involuntarily. We no longer experience the normal hustle and bustle of life; days filled with constant meetings and commutes back and forth are becoming less frequent as we navigate the reality of remote work, increased time with family, and decreased social activity. Busyness during covid-19 has shown up in different ways; it manifest when we find ourselves filling our calendars with countless zoom meetings, our inability to resist multi-tasking during zoom meetings, and filling our calendar with zoom meetings to avoid other activities that bring meaning and joy to our lives.

As I think about this complicated relationship between busyness and rest, I think about why we as humans have such an intense resistance to being still. Tim Kreider wrote an article in the New York Times titled “The Busy Trap”; in this article he talks about how many of us over-schedule ourselves in order to feel more important, perhaps to avoid being alone with our thoughts. We fear the absence of work, as if our worth is somehow attached to how many meetings, obligations, and duties we have to complete. Over-performing is deeply embedded into the concept of the “American dream,” a dream that many of us are still chasing. We believe the harder you work, and thus the busier you are, the bigger your reward will be in the future.

But what is wrong with being busy? Isn’t it OK to feel accomplished and important? Sure, it’s OK to feel a sense of gratification from knocking out your to-do list. The problem is when we don’t feel comfortable relaxing, and when we think that our busyness is somehow tied to our worth and dignity as a person.

We measure our worth against production, and this can be especially harmful and destructive. Rest and relaxation are integral to healthy human functioning, and when the body experiences elevated stress, it can have serious health impacts. If we remove busyness and production from our lives, what lies beneath is a depleted sense of self with no real identity, consciousness and mind of its own. We become unable to enjoy life without a plethora of work and social commitments.

Busyness also is not equal to productivity or increased quality of work, as many times we feel our calendar with activities, meetings and events that don’t add much depth or meaning to our lives. This in fact leads to decreased productivity. Essentially, we lose the essence of our being and we inhibit ourselves from finding our true essence when we remain busy.

So, the next time someone asks, “How are you?” check your impulses and avoid giving the proverbial “I’m busy” line. You should explore the root of your busyness, and understand how your busyness is preventing you from showing up authentically in your personal and professional relationships? Most importantly, you owe it to yourself to constantly interrogate how your busyness is defining your self-worth.

Follow Herald columnist Ciera Graham on Twitter @CieraGrahamPhD.

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