The greatest enemy of good thinking is busyness. John Maxwell.
I’m probably not too far off in my guess that a majority of us believe in the power of meditation to help us gain peace, focus, and contentment. Yet only a fraction of us actually take the time to actually sit down and meditate regularly—myself included (even though over 50% of my blog posts make a reference, in some form or the other, to the benefits of meditation.) As I’ve alluded to before, knowing isn’t doing.
And by far, the key reason for not cultivating a consistent meditation practice is that we’re too busy. Who has the time to spend 20-30 minutes a day sitting down doing nothing? Wouldn’t that be like Nero fiddling while Rome burned?
So, we put meditation off as something we’ll get to when we retire, or when the kids are out of the house, or when work slows down, or <insert your excuse here>. We delay what we ought to do to a future time when we would, in theory, be less busy. Except, it may never happen. Because, as we’ll see, busyness is a self-imposed problem and not quite a “good problem to have.”
Good problems to have
In our collective wisdom, we, as a society, have categorized some challenges as “good problems to have.”
For instance, if you don’t qualify for a tax deduction because you make too much money, or you don’t gain weight because you have an efficient metabolism, you are told to consider yourself lucky! After all, aren’t those good problems to have, better than the reverse?
But then, in what I can only describe as misguided optimism, the problem of perpetual busyness—a problem most of us can relate to is also lumped into the same category. The response to “I’m crazy busy” or “I have too much going on,” is often “That’s good. Better to be busy than looking for things to do.”
But busyness differs from overwork, and more often than not, a choice.
Busyness is a choice
It’s usually not the hardest working people who wear busyness as a shield. Those who work multiple jobs trying to make ends meet, or as the Covid-crisis taught us, frontline workers who pull 16-hour shifts risking everything to keep the crisis in check rarely complain about being busy. They are, instead, more likely to describe themselves as tired, fatigued, and exhausted from being overworked thanks to the demanding nature of what they do.
There’s a crucial difference between overwork and busyness. The former is more often than not a result of circumstances, while the latter is likely to be a voluntarily imposed condition. Having lots to do is a way to modest-boast, as paradoxical as that term sounds. Somehow, it seems, the busier we look, the more revered we are in others’ (and maybe our own) eyes. So, we wear the badge of busyness as an honor, throwing it out at every opportunity to boost our egos.
But one doesn’t have to dig too deep beneath the surface to see how misguided it is to regard unending busyness as a blessing in disguise.
Hustling and cramming every second of every day with something isn’t the right way to personal productivity.
Living life at a frenetic pace is neither valuable nor necessary. On the contrary, it can create a whole lot of easily avoidable unpleasantness, often caused by the littlest triggers.
Psychiatrist Edward Hallowell, author of the book Crazy Busy, describes how he lost his patience at a rotary phone while on vacation, because of how long it took for the dial to return to the start. He says,
What a fool I had become. I had become a man in a hurry, even when I had no need to hurry.
How to reclaim time
So, the next time you hear a voice telling you how you’re too busy to read the book, take a leisurely walk, or color code your closet, know that it’s your delusion talking. There are, of course, common sense tips on how to reclaim time—cutting out distractions, consolidating and batching tasks, becoming more efficient, etc.
But at the end of the day, these three steps below to reclaim your time matter the most.
As Miles Davis says, “Time isn’t the main thing. It’s the only thing.”
Knowing who to spend time with, and what to spend time on, is the first step to reclaiming your time.
Tim Urban, author of the hugely popular blog Wait But Why, illustrated one of life’s reality checks through a simple yet effective graph.
Most of us spend a majority of our childhood years with our parents, but only a fraction of that time in our adult years once work obligations and life take over. So, the question is one of priorities. We know what the status-quo will bring. It’s up to us to decide if it’s good enough.
Schedule some slack
Many years ago, Essayist and Cartoonist Tim Kreider wrote an opinion post in the NY Times imploring the need for idleness and reiterating how life is too short to be constantly busy. Here’s a quote from the article:
Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it, we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets.
Scheduling downtime to take a breather and reflect is much more productive than going at a million miles an hour in the wrong direction.
Incorporate energy into your life
Time Management guru Laura Vanderkam addresses the subject of busyness in her book Tranquility By Tuesday.
Her philosophy is that to avoid burnout, instead of doing nothing, you need to add energizing activities into your schedule. In particular, she encourages us to develop the habit of having “one little adventure, and one big adventure” each week—at least two activities that will aid in creating fond memories.
Having days where we do things we want to do besides those we have to do makes us feel more in control of our lives and consequently, make us happier.
Ultimately, time is the scarcest of all resources. Spending it being “busy” would be such a travesty.
Guard well your spare moments. They are like uncut diamonds. Discard them and their value will never be known. Improve them and they will become the brightest gems in a useful life. Ralph Waldo Emerson.