The glorification of being busy

While some of us might not like to admit it, we usually prefer to be busy than bored. When we’re bored or idling, we lack stimulation and yearn the feeling of being productive that lends itself to our self-esteem. It’s why many people struggle with depression during unemployment, without having other activities to channel their time and energy into. Being busy staves off boredom and contributes to our feeling of self-worth as rightly or wrongly we feel we have something to show for our time.

Being occupied therefore isn’t a bad thing and it’s necessary for good mental health. But the notion of being busy has changed. It’s become glorified as a measure of success or Stakhanovite-esque ideals and efforts that have skewed our perspective on what really matters. Being busy has come to falsely represent who works harder, whose job is more challenging and more important and ultimately who arbitrarily and meaninglessly gets bragging rights for the aforementioned.

By Alan O’Rourke and licensed under CC BY 2.0

Indeed, we all want to acknowledge our efforts to ourselves, and for others to do the same, as it returns to the validation we all crave from being productive. After a productive and long day at work, I might feel tired but I feel good for what I’ve achieved and that shouldn’t be a feeling we deny.Though that isn’t where said feeling stops in today’s society.

Working a long day is increasingly celebrated as a barometer for how hard we’ve worked yet it’s a Pyrrhic victory if the opportunity cost was any measure of success in our personal lives and our mental health. Many ‘successful’ people have regretted how they worked relentlessly for years, devoting themselves wholeheartedly to their work, only to later realise that they’d done so at the expense of what really mattered. Failing to spend time with family and friends that were no longer around, not pursuing personal passions or finding companionship, even in the platonic sense, had evaded them as years of a tunnel-vision approach to work passed them in the blink of an eye. At which point, they couldn’t make good on what they’d already lost in those years.

A friend and former colleague commented how they felt bad for not continuing to work into the night, on what was a day off, where they’d nevertheless already worked tirelessly for the day since the morning. We’ve now been wired to assume that we shouldn’t give ourselves a break and to do so is to be lazy. Even with the context of clearly putting in work, we don’t warrant ourselves worthy of breathing space because to pause has become synonymous with being indolent. If you consider that ideal in its crudest sense, we’ve basically been programmed to work and remain busy until burnout.

Naturally, there’s something to be said for one’s commitment to a task and we all find ourselves constantly tipping the scales of work-life balance in favour of work to meet work commitments (which doesn’t make it right either). However, we’ve now become conditioned to assume that if we aren’t busy with work, we’re slacking and should consequently feel guilty. It’s a ludicrous idea, and damaging to our mental health, that we actively deny ourselves any modicum of respite. I too have constantly been guilty of the same mindset where regardless of how long my day has been or how much I’ve managed to get achieve, I feel like I’ve let myself down by not doing more.

And it isn’t just a work where we succumb to that mindset. I’ve lamented that in the past I never really valued my time to an extent that I now do my utmost to make good on that attitude. As a consequence, rarely will I allow myself down time to just ‘be’; instead filling any free time I have in trying to reclaim those lost years. I maintain that I’m making good use of my time, particularly in the context of what I see as my previous errors. Nonetheless, there’s something to be said for allowing time to simply not be busy and providing our minds with an opportunity to unwind.

We all need to afford ourselves the mental capacity to manage our thoughts effectively and that’s only possible with an interruption in regularly scheduled programming. Although being in a constant state of preoccupation without any pause won’t facilitate that. So why are we denying such a crucial and easily attainable effort to achieve it?

The balance is there to be struck but society is causing us to fail miserably at achieving it. How often is being ‘busy’ used as an excuse for spending time with family and friends? Or a label for how fabulously ambitious one’s life is in contrast to their peers? Hard work and ambition shouldn’t be played down. On the contrary, they should be valued and celebrated but in the context of giving ourselves occasional and necessary respite. Otherwise, what are our endeavours for if we cannot enjoy them for ourselves and with others that matter?

When I die, I don’t want anyone attending my funeral who was too busy to make the effort to see me when I was alive. If your job was more important and too preoccupying then, don’t be taking the day off or finding an available evening to mourn me when we could have shared an evening together when I was actually here. Yet this is the stance we’ve adopted and it’s damaging our mental health, our perspective and our connections to people that matter.

Being idle is not the solution or the suggestion to counter the glorification of being busy. We need to achieve a balance and recalibrate our gauge on self-worth so that being busy isn’t erroneously interpreted as a contributory measure in allowing self-validation, or in receiving validation from others. It’s necessary to give ourselves respite; not only for ourselves but also for those around us.

Being busy has become a hollow trophy that society has designed to distract us from what really matters. We need to focus on ourselves, those around us and the things that matter to us rather than chasing a preoccupation that has become a distraction and a mistaken badge of honour for so many.

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