Our culture celebrates activity!
Endemic, perpetual busyness has risen in status and become a twisted badge of honor; quite different from the days of old where the ultimate freedom was to not have to work. Leisure used to be the ultimate symbol of wealth and achievement.
We’re so busy today that the natural rhythms of life have little room to unfold. Observing sunsets and sunrises is a rare event, as is quietly listening to birdsong or feeling your feet on the soft grass of summer.
The result? We feel constrained, contained, or even caged in our day-to-day routines.
An Unusual Gift
Living through COVID, wrenching as that was, we’ve been gifted with a few things:
- First, is a heightened awareness of the importance of empathy for fellow humans – we’re all in this together.
- Second, is the opportunity to rethink, “What’s important in my life?”
Both get right to the heart of self-care.
I recently met with two clients who embody their struggle to engage with the twin challenges we face, busyness and productivity.
Sandra, a mid-career entrepreneur, is a long-time client. She had COVID last year and felt the full effects of it: fatigue, brain fog, a lack of clarity about her life.
She came to her appointment saying, “I’m a mess. You know me, Chris, If I’m not busy I don’t know who I am. . .or why I’m here.”
Sandra is in perpetual motion. If not spearheading a project at work, it’s tending to her 3 kids or coordinating a church event or, or, or. She finally acknowledged, “This is unrelenting pace is killing me, but I don’t know what to do.”
Then there’s Hank, a financial analyst who confessed not long ago, “I don’t feel like myself. I just don’t feel productive unless I’m checking things off my list.” As you might guess, Hank is a hustler who is managing a list of never-ending tasks.
Hank’s not physically running around like Sandra, he’s in the camp of constant mental and emotional motion. His mind is busy assessing how well he’s doing, and evaluating himself against what he believes he should be doing. He recently lamented, “I never seem to catch up.”
Research has revealed that contrary to the felt experience of busyness, our workloads aren’t that much busier today, but they are different post-Covid.
The result: Busyness is more of a feeling and state of mind than a reflection of labor.
The common refrains of – I’m so busy! I can’t think straight, I’ve got so much to do, let me check it off my list – are at least in part, because productivity makes us feel good about ourselves.
Employers reward productivity. Self-worth increases from a sense of being needed. Religion places a high value (and reward) on tirelessly serving others. Parents and partners must put family first. Anthems extolling the virtues busyness are everywhere we turn.
Let’s consider that we tend to measure our worth not by the results we achieve, but by how much time and effort we put into doing. The time and effort others observe.
Many of us feel the need to chronically demonstrate that our worthiness is reflected in how busy we are, how much we can juggle at any one time, and how exhausted we are at the end of the day.
The important question: What’s the cost of all this doing?
One thing is for sure: we cease feeling ourselves. Quite literally, we become numb to our physical sensations and our emotions, both of which help us to zero in on, “What’s important to me?”
As a result, we miss out on the extraordinariness of the present moment. We rush past the tender and fun moments with loved ones. We become blind to opportunities to make a bigger impact.
The price we pay for busyness is losing the intimacy of living fully.
Self-Care: The Antidote
Is it even possible, this well-meaning notion of self-care? Of finding an elusive balance of juggling all life’s stuff, that exquisite combo of being attentively engaged, completing useful work, enjoying leisure in one’s life?
Perhaps ‘self-care’ is all hype, a distraction from the ugly reality that we must keep busy to justify our worth. Even this last sentence, this thought of needing to justify our worth, is a way to distance ourselves from truly attuning to what matters most in‘our one wild and precious life,’ to quote Mary Oliver.
Self-care then is often at odds with how we see ourselves, our identity. To practice self-care is to disrupt our old identity to make space for what could be possible.
Self-care requires each of us to pause, step back and reflect on a few questions:
- Why am I doing this and not something else? – Identity
- Are my health and wellness important to me? To others? – Awareness
- What do I care about? Do my actions align? – Values
- What’s important to me, today? – Choice
- How do I want to give of myself? – Contribution
What about Sandra or Hank, you wonder?
As paradoxical as it sounds, Sandra’s decided to listen to her body and nap more often. She’s reconfigured her schedule for more flexibility. She’s all the happier for it.
Hank’s contemplating a move to a warmer, sunnier climate so he can pursue more hobbies, and he’s committed to a goal of checking only three items off on his to-do list each day. He’s feeling more balanced in his life – although it takes awareness and a daily commitment. Overall, he feels and looks lighter.
They’ve both decided that busyness and over-focus on productivity has only gotten them so far . . . and at great costs.
Using pause, they’ve chosen to heed Joseph Campbell’s wisdom, “We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”