I used to be addicted to being busy. To doing. To achieving. I found it hard to sit still and would have a constant list of things to do running through my head. Don’t get me wrong – it wasn’t all bad – I loved my job and enjoyed the feelings of achievement and being good at what I did. I liked the adrenaline rush at times, the validation. And I thought this was who I was. That there was no other way. Or at least not for me.
Impact on relationships
One time when one of my boys was quite small, he asked me to play with him. I don’t recall now what else was going on or what I needed to do that felt so important, but I distinctly remember the feeling when he asked me. Of pressure. Of having too much to do. Of not having enough time.
But I also remember taking a deep breath and saying “Yes, of course I will”. Trying to be a ‘good mum’, I sat on the floor with him while he built his Lego castle and I “oohed” and “aahed”. I even joined in and made something myself.
And then suddenly, this little 4 year old voice piped up “Mummy, you’re meant to be playing with me, why are you tidying up?”. I had of course taken the opportunity while I was there to just put a few jigsaw pieces and games back in their boxes and bring a little order to the chaos of toys.
Even though I thought I was doing the right thing by playing with him, at the tender age of 4, my son could feel I wasn’t truly ‘there’ with him.
Being too busy, over-working or being too preoccupied with work affects those around us and impacts our relationships and friendships. Two of the most common things I see in my work when people are busy are: 1) being distracted or not fully present when they are home and 2) spending less time with friends.
The other relationship it affects of course is our relationship with ourself. Being out of balance and spending too much time focused on work impacts our wellbeing, our ability to switch off, time for things that are important to us, time for ourselves or our hobbies, and often even our health.
The kind of incident I describe above is a clear indication of being too busy and out of balance. That in the pressure of trying to do it all, we are in fact missing out. On life. On connection. On appreciating what’s around us. And who’s around us. On what’s truly important.
One of my clients, a highly successful C-suite executive, recently said to me “It’s become all about my work. But that’s not me. That’s not who I really am. I don’t like this about myself”. He might not have liked it, but it was certainly how he could see he was behaving.
And the reality is there are never enough hours in the day to do it all. But the unrelenting demands of work, plus the regular hits of achievement or validation we get along the way, mean it’s very easy to over-work or over-function. At least in this part of your life. But it does come at a cost.
Narrowing our lives
Over time though, and especially during busy periods, it’s very common to end up not doing things that don’t seem essential in that moment. It might be that game of tennis or meeting a friend for coffee or that evening out or going out for a walk by the sea. On any one occasion, it’s probably not that critical. But over time we can gradually erode the parts of our life that give us joy. Or fun. Or connection. Or variety. Or add some spice to our lives. Our lives can easily become more one-dimensional. Or any energy or time we have left after work goes on family and we’ve little left after that.
But what about us? What about time for ourselves? For our hobbies? For the things that feed our soul? That make us feel alive. That we enjoy rather than ‘should’ do. That allow us to thrive not just survive.
These are also the things that also help us to stay motivated and energised, enjoying our jobs and performing at our best over the long term. They are what makes high level performance in a high level role sustainable.
Like the classic anecdote of boiling the frog, this narrowing of our life typically occurs so gradually that we don’t really notice it happening. Or we think it will all be fine ‘when’. When this busy patch ends. When this new initiative is up and running. When the re-structuring is done. Or when we’ve hired those extra people.
Thriving not surviving
Many high achieving, busy people have been putting so much time and energy into work for so long that they don’t even have a clear idea what they really enjoy any more. Or what they would want to do if they had this elusive ‘balance’ they so often want. They’ve often lost touch with this part of themselves.
Others know what they want more time for, but their hard-working, high-achieving conditioning means they find it hard to make it happen – and default back to putting work first, especially when under pressure.
A part of the shift towards better balance is a shift in mindset. To recognising that ‘when’ might never come. That life is now. That being busy is not a badge of honour or a means of validating ourselves, but rather it’s often a warning sign that something is out of balance and could be better.
To start regaining some balance and getting time for what’s important, a good place to start can be to ask yourself questions like:
- What am I missing out on by working so much or being so busy?
- What am I not getting enough time for?
- What is most important in my life?
- Does my calendar reflect my values?
- Is how I spend my time day-to-day out of sync with what’s actually most important to me?
- Where might my life be out of balance?
- What changes do I want to make?
- How can I do this?
And as for myself – I’ve evolved from a hard-working, high-achieving ‘good girl’ who nearly always felt busy, to someone who prioritises things I enjoy, that ‘feed me’ and energise me, as well as time for who and what’s important in my life as much as possible. I now define my success by how much I’m enjoying what I’m doing, how fulfilled I feel and how well it’s aligned to my values, as much as the results I’m achieving.
So I would probably say I’m a ‘recovering’ busyness addict (not 100% recovered – I still have my moments!). Always learning and growing.
For more on how I got here, check out My Story.