Maybe you can relate to this scenario: you’ve finally finished your jam packed workweek and a long, relaxing weekend is approaching. However, before Saturday even gets here you’ve filled your schedule with numerous friend hangouts, decided to redecorate your whole living room and volunteered to take on another uninspiring project that you’ll do in your “down time” on Sunday. Guilty.
Why do some of us get so much satisfaction from constantly doing even during the times when we’re supposed to be chilling out? At its core, this type of “action addiction” as Rasmus Houggard refers to it, is a “deep-rooted human condition caused by imbalances in the chemicals of our brain.” In this case, Dopamine is the highly addictive “feel-good” hormone that is the main driver for the constant busyness many of us succumb ourselves to. When released in the brain, Dopamine provides a burst of satisfaction and instant gratification that leaves us wanting more. When redecorating your whole living room (at least in my case), dopamine is released. You feel a sense of accomplishment for a moment that feels good, and it may act to distract you from your main priorities. However, this moment fades and then you have to do something else and a constant cycle of doing begins. Sound familiar?
The Time Crunch Illusion
“We are disturbed not by the things that happen, but by our thoughts about the things that happen.”-Epictetus
In naming all the things on your to-do list that got pushed to tomorrow, it seems perfectly acceptable to conclude that there just aren’t enough hours in the day for everything you have to do… Right? That may be partly true, but as it turns out, overcoming busyness is really a matter of the mind, and many of us are very good at adding more things for the sake of constant doing that get in the way of our priorities, and as a result, make us feel more “busy.” When researchers surveyed Americans before 2011, about half said they almost never had time on their hands and two-thirds said they sometimes or always felt rushed. However, from 1965 to 2003, the average American workweek actually declined by three hours, while leisure time increased, which continues to be the case.
So why do we all feel so pressed for time if research suggests that we actually have more of it? In one study of more than 7,000 working Australians, researchers concluded that time pressure is an “illusion.” They estimated how much time is necessary for basic living—hours of paid work, housework, and personal care—and compared it to how much free time people had in their actual schedules, illuminating a big discrepancy. “Those who feel most overworked—those who have least ‘free time’—largely do it to themselves,” the researchers wrote. In other words, we could theoretically spend fewer hours making money, vacuuming and washing dishes, or cooking and eating, and we’d get by without getting overwhelmed.
Although I’m not encouraging you to stop being productive and to throw all of your financial goals out the window, the overall point is important: stress-inducing time pressure has to do with the things we value, the time we devote to them and our attitudes and mindsets about time.
In an article exploring the “action addiction” many of us can fall into at times, Rasmus Houggard shared this anecdote about an event he attended with the Dalai Lama:
“The Dalai Lama was coming to town. More than 10,000 people were coming together to see him. Over 500 volunteers, dozens of security people, and masses of journalists had to be coordinated. The man behind it all, Lakha, was a little man in his late 70s and an old friend and study mate of the Dalai Lama. I arrived at the venue early, to meet friends and be there to greet the Dalai Lama. There was intense activity setting up security, managing the crowds, and taking care of the press. In the middle of it all Lakha was standing in his suit. I walked straight up to him and asked him the default question we all tend to ask each other when we meet. I have never asked anyone the question since then. “Hi, Lakha, are you busy?” Lakha turned to me, looked at me calmly and said, “There is lots of activity, but I am not busy.” His presence spoke louder than his words. Lakha was overseeing a massive project with numerous deadlines and details to manage. There was lots going on, but it did not get to him. He was not busy. On that day I realized clearly that busyness is a choice. We may have deadlines, projects, and activities, but we have the freedom to choose whether we become action addicts and busy-lazy, or just observe the experience of many activities. It’s a choice. And the ability to make that choice comes from developing a clear mind, free of action addiction.”
Mindful Tips to Slow Down and Prioritize the things that Provide Meaning
For Lakha, busyness was a choice. So how can we work toward choosing to stop the constant cycle of doing for the sake of doing? Here are a few mindful tips to slow down and to become less of a human doing and more of a human being.
Ask yourself: What is taking up all my time?
“Do the right things, not a lot of things”-Rasmus Houggard
Do you find yourself spending 30 mindless minutes scrolling through Facebook, only to feel stressed after that you haven’t made any progress on something that could give you more long term growth and fulfillment? It’s easy to fall into an instant gratification trap by filling up time with activities that give us that but this feeds the busyness cycle and leaves us feeling more stressed, less happy and like we don’t have enough time in the day when we really do if we prioritize right. What’s keeping you busy? Is it worth it? Are there things on your to-do list you should let go?
Find your Passion
“Try not to become a man of success but a man of value”-Albert Einstein
In a recent study, researchers surveyed more than 2,500 employees at a technology company and a financial services company. They found that people who are more passionate, who aspire to do things that matter to them at work, don’t feel as busy and frazzled as others.
If you feel short on time, you might simply not be enjoying the activities that take up your to-do list. Of course there will be days where you have to do things that you don’t necessarily like, but if you find yourself feeling constantly overwhelmed, it might help to prioritize one thing in your day—something that keeps you engaged and makes you feel like “you.”
One realization that I had at the beginning of this year was that I wasn’t prioritizing the one thing that gave me the most joy and meaning: singing. I always felt “too busy” to commit to a daily practice session and instead filled my day with medial things that stacked up on top of my work and graduate study and took away time from the actual growth of my craft. Once I prioritized my practicing session as the first thing I did in the mornings after I showered and had breakfast, it strangely seemed like I had more time for everything else, I just had to prioritize right. After I practice, I feel happy and energized which carries over into my work and graduate study that I also enjoy. I no longer feel guilty for not practicing later in the day and I’m able to actually relax in the evenings more. Who would have thought?
Reframe & Mitigate Competing Tasks
So why is it that doing things you’re passionate about makes you feel less busy, even if you’re doing the same amount of things? Always feeling frazzled and pressed for time isn’t just about prioritizing the things that bring you meaning but also about your attitude toward other tasks and how they fit together. The Researchers that conducted the study above found that Employees lacking in passion said that their goals were competing for their time and attention. For example, in order to do well at work they couldn’t make it home for dinner with their family because it would take away from time they could be spent working. However, passionate employees were different: They saw their goals as supporting each other, acknowledging that having a healthy dinner with their family would give them more energy and motivation tomorrow.
Think about the things on your to-do list: are they competing with each other or working together? How can you reframe things to make them work better together?
Take an active approach to time management
“People often complain of being in a time bind not only because they are objectively busy, but also because they perceive a lack of control over their time,”–Researcher Ashley V. Whillans
A trap some people can fall into that contributes to feeling busy and stressed is believing that they are always at the mercy of external forces, like the time they have to pick up their kids from swim practice or their strict working hours, which results in a perceived lack of control over their time. Instead of taking an active approach to time management, they take a reactive approach which results in always feeling stressed and frazzled. If you sometimes find yourself falling into this camp, take active steps to prioritize and optimize your to do list and say no to things that aren’t adding any sort of meaning to your life.
Allow yourself to do less and be more
Amid doing the things that give you meaning and that pay the bills, you also need time to just be. You can do this in many ways, such as going for a walk, sitting and enjoying a cup of tea, or doing a present moment breath meditation. What’s most important is that you allow yourself to be truly present in the moment in order to curb the “action addiction.”
Practice Present Moment Awareness
We often feel busy because we have a habit of doing one thing while thinking about the next. Instead of focusing on one task at a time, we’re always thinking ahead to the next thing that’s coming up, creating a constant feeling of being pressed for time, even if we’re not. When we’re washing dishes, we’re thinking about how we need to clean the bathroom after or we’re thinking about the doctor’s appointment we have to go to later while still working. Although these all seem like trivial tasks, this same kind of distraction seeps into our longer term life goals as well, thrusting us into a perpetual state of feeling “busy.” It’s not that the tasks are taking away ridiculous amounts of our time, it’s the doing them that is giving us the perception that they are.Next time, you’re doing housework that might otherwise be uninspiring, practice doing one thing at a time. Really focus on doing that one thing, like putting the dishes in the dishwasher and all of the sensations that go along with it, reeling your mind in when it starts to wonder to things coming up later. Although seemingly counterintuitive, you’ll be amazed at how much more it seems like you can get done effectively if you just focus on one thing at a time instead of making a piece of toast, unloading the dishwasher, and folding laundry all at the same time. You’ll also probably learn to enjoy it more in the process.
Unless we all become Buddhist monks, I think it’s safe to say that we’ll never live a life that doesn’t have some sort of to-do list. However, if you incorporate some of these thoughts into your daily life, you’ll find that you actually have more time than you thought to just be, which will translate to the important things you do. You’ll be able to live a life full of meaningful activity but not feel busy, and I think that’s what a lot of us want- to feel like Lakha.