Breaking the busyness habit

man with hands out on hill
“The unexamined life is not worth living’


“The opposite of busy in today’s world is sustained, focused attention. It is deep engagement in activities that really matter to us, or in conversations with those we care about.”

Tony Crabbe, ‘Busy- how to thrive in a world of too much’

 Back to the Future Day

21st October 2015 was an auspicious day for 1980’s movie buffs. It was the date in ‘Back to the Future’ that Marty McFly arrived in the future. On that day even the Today Programme on Radio Four was getting on board and earnestly discussing whether the films predictions were anywhere close to reality.

Though the physical world of 2015 wasn’t so very far removed from the 1980’s (Marty’s flying car for example hasn’t taken off), what has changed beyond recognition is the world of the mind. Thanks to the Internet, Social Media, smart phones and all the other digital paraphernalia that now dominate our 24/7 existences, we seem to have swallowed the psychological illusion that there are no limits and that we can do it all. Science and technology has brought us unimagined access to information, travel, communications, health and food for example, so who knows what else is possible- if we only can find the time?

Doing our heads in

So here’s the rub. The possibilities stretching before us seem limitless and all so easily accessible thanks to technology. But when we attach our levels of activity to the belief of infinite horizons we quickly begin to feel overwhelmed. No wonder that busyness is now seen as a badge of honour. We link our activity to our sense of self-worth and find the treadmill impossible to get off.

It’s hard to imagine that the badge of honour for the privileged of previous generations (called the leisured classes!) was to have ample time for relaxation. Nowadays we’re trying to outdo each other in working the craziest hours and pride ourselves if we’ve got no time to think.

In a previous blog I wrote about recent research into the reasons why we seem to be so busy. Oliver Burkeman in a recent series on Radio Four discussed what seems to have gone wrong but also gives us some help in escaping it’s clutches.

Busyness, he argues, is very much a choice and there is a number of things that we can do to relieve the stress and enjoy a healthier rhythm to our lives.

Clearing the decks

 One of the most important questions to ask ourselves if we’re feeling too busy is rather obvious. ‘What is it that you want to achieve in life? How does this particular activity help you towards your goal?”

For example, if our core values include prioritising family or growing spiritually, how will that affect our use of time, for instance on social media? If our goal is to run a marathon in 3 months time what will need to be sacrificed to help make that happen?

If we focus resolutely on what is really important to us we will find that some things will simply disappear from our horizons.

Working within our bandwidth

Back in the 1920’s psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik wrote about the effect that completing a project has on the mind. Zeigarnik noted that waiters almost immediately forgot about a completed order but would retain details of unfinished ones in their memory. This has implications on what we might call our mental ‘bandwidth’.

We have limited short-term brain capacity and can only retain so much information at any one time. For example, try and remember a 9 digit phone number- 4 or 5 digits is not so hard but more than that is a struggle for most of us. If we are trying to juggle lots of projects and are switching from an email to a phone call to a conversation with a colleague and then back to the file on the desk, the Zeigarnik effect means that we simply do not have the ‘bandwidth’ to handle the data and stress is the result.

Research has shown that multi-tasking is an incredibly inefficient way of using our time. There is a task-switching deficit of about 40% loss in productivity. The intellectual equivalent is a drop from a Harvard MBA graduate to that of an 8 year old. It’s far better to focus on one main project at a time and resist the temptation to switch back and forth.


There are other practical suggestions to help us avoid overloading our bandwidth. Imagine you’re about to go into an important meeting and you have 5 minutes to spare. You automatically reach for the smartphone to check e-mails. One of these opens up a whole can of worms that can only be resolved by working late that evening. Guess what? Your mental bandwidth that you really need for the meeting is now compromised and you go into the meeting distracted and lacking focus.

It would be far better if we deal with emails and any non-priority issues in ‘bundles’ so that our bandwidth doesn’t get overloaded and our minds are free to focus on one important thing at a time.

Finding closure

Some of us find it incredibly difficult to switch off from work at the end of the day. We seem to carry the stress and sense of incompletion with us and this can ruin our evenings and weekends. Psychologists suggest that sometimes a very simple routine can help us gain that sense of closure- just making a cup of tea or switching off the computer works for some. For others cooking a meal helps put a full stop on our work day; this works better than simply sticking a ready meal in the oven, apparently! For myself a 20-minute cycle home in London traffic has always done the trick.

Saving for a rainy day

If we liken time to money, the habit of putting aside some time each day can save us from going under when things get tight. If we plan our days with nothing set aside for a rainy day we will find ourselves derailed by the inevitable emergencies and surprises.

To avoid stress and feeling overwhelmed how about booking ‘meetings with self’ for, say, 15 to 30 minutes twice a day when we deal with the unanticipated?

The Sabbath principle

One of the blessings of being brought up in a conservative Christian household was the habit of setting Sunday’s aside for worship and leisure. No work was allowed except the preparation of meals. No shopping. No household or outdoor chores. I also got into the habit of not studying on Sundays even if I had an exam on the Monday.

There’s a very good reason why keeping Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments. It’s also the commandment that is most repeated throughout the rest of the Bible. We don’t seem to need to be reminded about murder, stealing and adultery as much as we do about allowing work to become an idol, an obsession.

In my current Christian tradition we are urged to develop a rhythm of work and rest. Setting aside time each day, a day each week and a weekend every few months is a great way of building rest into our schedules. It is prioritising finding meaning and just ‘being’ above doing- we are human beings after all, not human doings.

Thinking space

Included in Sabbath should be reflection or contemplation. During these ‘meditative times’ we need to put our work and busyness into perspective. This is where we can ask the hard questions. Why we are so driven to work so hard? Is there something we’re trying to escape from? What are my core values and how am I pursuing them in how I spend my time?

If you believe in God talk to him about your work and family, your dreams and hopes, your frustrations and anxieties. The ancient Prayer of Examen can be helpful. Go back through the day or week and bring your thoughts and feelings before God, both positive and negative. This can help us gain a sense of perspective- whether we’re going in the right direction.

For many people it helps to go for a walk. Maybe it’s time to take up a hobby such as fishing or some other mentally light task like painting or gardening. As we allow our minds to roam free from heavy concentration we can have some of our most creative thoughts.

 Practising the Presence

One of the great tragedies of the busyness compulsion is that we will find it impossible to enjoy the present moment. As soon as we wake up in the morning our minds are racing ahead. Long before we sit at our desk or even finish our breakfasts our minds are plotting and planning for the day ahead: long after we’ve left the office we’re either mentally reliving the triumphs and frustrations of the day or planning how to maximise our time tomorrow.

What we’re failing to do is to stop long enough to really enjoy any of our meals or social engagements, be present to our colleagues or even our loved ones and we’ve certainly no clear space to grow the spirit. God, of course, can only be truly encountered in the present moment- the very thing that busyness assiduously forces us to avoid.

Busyness can be just as destructive to our happiness and human flourishing as any other, usually more socially unacceptable, addiction. If we’re susceptible, let’s acknowledge our weakness and put all our energy into breaking the habit. And if we want company, there will be no shortage of fellow addicts to help us on the journey to recovery.