Overcoming busyness – our cultural addiction

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Busyness seems to have risen to the level of addiction within our culture, and is even considered a badge of honor. When, for example, have you heard anyone report: “I’m doing great. I’ve got lots of extra time and energy to do what I want?”

What is Busyness, Really?

To reduce busyness in our lives, we have to first understand what “busyness” is. Is it a set of behaviors? Is it an attitude? Or a perspective on life? Most people respond: “All three.”


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At a foundational level, busyness is the experience of feeling like we have more to do than we have time or energy – that there is not much “space” in our lives. We are running from one task or meeting to another, often repeatedly throughout the day. Or sometimes, the sense of busyness comes from multitasking – trying to do more than one thing at once. Largely, busyness involves a sense of the needing to rush, to do tasks quickly.

Busyness seems primarily to be an internal experience (we “feel” busy), but busyness also involves behaviors. Busy people can be observed to: have poor eye contact; not listen well; seem somewhat scattered, sometimes disorganized; appear to be rushing through tasks (and making careless errors); forget things (objects, appointments); interact in a “short” irritable way; and maybe most commonly, complain about how busy they are.

What Drives Our Busyness?

Multiple factors create busyness in our lives – and these influences vary across seasons in our lives and they differ from person to person. A brief list of “busyness creators” include:

  • Multiple responsibilities. Our responsibilities at work. Being married or in a committed relationship. Being a parent. Owning a home.
  • Changes in circumstances. You are stuck in traffic, and running late for a meeting. The school calls and tells you that your child is sick. The printer is broken. A client shows up to meet unannounced.
  • The desire to feel needed. Feeling anxious about how others perceive our skills and abilities. Equating “getting things done” with personal value.
  • Personal habits (and upbringing). Being raised in a family where, if you didn’t look busy, you were given a task to do.
  • Trying to be efficient. Not wanting to waste any valuable time, so we “pack” the day end to end, without any space between meetings, calls or tasks to be completed.

There are other factors that lead to our busy lives, but these provide a starting point.

The Overlooked Factor: Our Personal Lives

The primary focus of our work at Appreciation at Work is to “make work relationships work.” Thus, most of our resources and information deal with work-based issues. Busyness, however, is a different animal.

We can clearly address the issues that contribute to busyness at work, and these factors are important. But they are also rather obvious – prioritize, clarify roles and responsibilities, delegate, set boundaries, learn to say “no” . . .

The most commonly overlooked component that is a HUGE factor (“the elephant in the room”) is the busyness in our personal lives and how the frantic pace at which we live outside of work creates enormous stress for us at work.

Think about your or your colleagues’ lives. List the factors outside of work that sap available energy for work-related tasks: kids’ sports involvement, recreational activities and trips on the weekends, moving to a new residence, someone in the family having a medical issue, getting a new puppy . . .

I’m the first one to call attention to leaders that employees are people and more than production units. And we all (hopefully) have a “life” outside of work – family, friends, and hobbies. But I think most of us tend to dismiss (or, at least, minimize) the impact the busyness of our lives outside of work has on our sense of busyness at work.

Overcoming Busyness: The First Step

The first step that needs to be taken to become less busy is also the biggest hurdle we have to overcome. And this action is the point in the process where the most resistance and denial are faced: ownership of the problem.

Busyness, to a large degree, is the natural result of choices we make. With a few exceptions, we create our own busyness. Most of us want to attribute our busyness to external factors: the demands at work, our boss, the kids, what the school expects parents to do. But, in reality, our experience of busyness is a result of our own doing (although the choices that got us here may have been made a long time ago).

Let me offer a historical example as evidence. For those who are old enough to remember, what happened in almost everyone’s lives in the weeks following 9/11 in 2001? . . . our lives slowed down. People chose to stay home in the evenings. Youth soccer practices were cancelled. A call to “return to what is important” (relationships) was everywhere.

If we take an honest look at much of the busyness in our lives, many of the activities we choose to do are actually voluntary – listening to podcasts while driving (or doing yardwork), going out to dinner and a concert, or taking the kids to a weekend sports tournament. And, I might add, many of these activities are driven by fear – fear of missing out, fear that your kids will “get behind” (so they’re on a traveling soccer team at age 7), fear of not closing a deal (so we fly to see the customer versus doing a video-conference.)

Combating Busyness: Can Anything Be Done?

Some of our busyness is reality-based. We have tasks to complete for work.  We need to take the kids to school. We need to make dinner, do the laundry, clean the house. But let’s start by looking at the optional tasks and evaluating those. Do we need to accept the responsibility of providing cookies for this month’s class party? And, if we do, do the cookies have to be homemade, or worse, from the latest “hot” cupcake place that is 35 minutes away? Sometimes (often?) the best answer is “no” or “I can’t” – although that chafes at our desire to be responsible (or appear to be responsible).

Reminder: The First Step

So, let’s go back and start with the first step: ownership. Busyness is not something that “happens” to you. Busyness is almost always a result of choices made. Do an honest review of your life and ask: What is contributing to this sense of busyness in my life?

Then ask: Who made the decisions that led to these commitments? The point: If I made the decisions to get me here, I can make decisions to get me out.

And finally, ask (and answer): What can I do to reduce the busyness I’m experiencing? (This, by the way, assumes you are ok with being “unbusy” – do you have any idea what would that look like in your life?) Like all life changes, start with one or two actions you can take right away, and work your path from there. Don’t get overwhelmed and give up, saying to yourself, “I can’t. There’s too much to overcome.” One small step can lead to a wonderful lifelong journey!

  • Recently, I was privileged to speak to the leadership of the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. The overall topic was my book, The Vibrant Workplace, in which I address the top 10 obstacles to creating a culture of appreciation. But I narrowed my presentation to discuss three key issues: busyness, negativity, and difficult colleagues (which, I learned after choosing these issues, were the top problems the attendees wanted to learn about).

This article first appeared on Appreciation at Work