Hurry hurry. Hurry hurry. The heartbeat accompanying our daily lives. There is a certain look to the hurried – have you caught sight of it in the reflected glass as you stride purposefully to the next meeting? When did “crazy busy”, “insanely busy” or “busy but good” get to be the way we live our lives? This seems to be the new normal: the relentless emails; the never-ending mental checklist; the constant weight in our chest, pulled ever tighter with the thought, “Just a minute, got to squeeze this last thing in.”
Part of us wants to be robotic in terms of our productivity; we want to have an inexhaustible energy source that churns out original work in whatever field we’re in. We believe that if we are not being productive, organising, or doing, we are wasting time. We ignore the mighty pressure this creates. As a client said recently: “I’d like to be really good at stuff but also be easygoing.” In other words, be the ideal low maintenance human while constantly producing great work.
Work as Worth
Our culture celebrates working hard followed by success. One leads to the other, right? Efficiency, responsiveness , the ability to multi-task, and be flexible: all sound like good qualities. We are rewarded for them and the more successful we are, the more work is handed to us. “I know you won’t disappoint” is the unspoken message handed out with the increased responsibility.
We’re surrounded by people who have bought the idea that busy equal good, and often we feel threatened by those doing it differently. A friend who consciously downsized her life to work part-time, live in the country and spend more time with her horses, is used to hearing three common responses when people hear about her life. The first is disbelieving: “What do you do the rest of the time? What’s your other job?” as if no-one could be content not working all hours of the day. The next is incredulous or dismissive: “Don’t you get bored?” Lastly there’s the envious. “You’re so lucky – oh, to have the sort of time you have,” which of course negates the effort she has put in to making this sort of lifestyle happen.
This pressure to be busy is insidious – clients who live and work in rural towns say it’s as endemic in their communities as it is in the cities.
Busyness values hard work, productivity, achievement, visible success, money and material possessions. It often goes with a highly rational strategic thinking style and opens the way for approval seeking through work and achievement.
But these values leaves out how we feel. We buy the message that we are worthy through our actions. We end up giving ourselves up for a sense that we are worthy through what we produce.
This ignores the ultimately painful realisation that no matter if we are heavily or scantily praised, it won’t make a blind bit of difference to whether we think we are worth it.
This message starts young. We are evaluated from the beginning of life. “Is she an easy baby?” “What a good boy.” Go to a playground near you and chances are you’ll hear, “good swinging, good jumping, good climbing” from well-meaning parents. What is this teaching children? To define themselves on what they can do, even perfectly natural abilities like walking, jumping and climbing!
Our workplaces are full of externally driven deadlines and motivations. People are sucked up into the vortex of work hard, harder, long, longer, do more, do better, go faster.
On the other hand, there are lots of corporate world dropouts who have found a deeper meaning in pursuing something that fits with their values. But I would argue that we are particularly susceptible to “work as worth” if we care about our work; if it touches a deep need in us to share something of ourselves with the world. Teachers, creative professions, helping professionals, people with a purpose beyond themselves often in non-profit organisations; we’re doing something important, something we are passionate about.
So regardless of whether we’re doing it for a corporate company or because we care deeply about the cause, we end up pushing ourselves beyond our limits. Ironically in pursuing what we originally wanted (which is about listening to our feelings), we squash feelings again (and assume we can be machines again).
Is it possible to avoid burnout?
At some point busy becomes too much. Too much has been asked from us, either from others and/or we ask too much from ourselves. An unhealthy dedication to work shows up. It might be a sense we can’t quit, or say no; a sense there are no other options; a feeling of helplessness, and an inability to see the wood for the trees.
It’s at these times we convince ourselves we can save time if we leave out self-care activities. Who hasn’t skipped taking a lunch break to get more work done or flagged the gym because we haven’t been as productive as we’d planned?
I used to teach a course on happiness. I would put up the following quote from St Francis de Sales when we got to the part about taking care of ourselves: “Half an hour’s meditation every day is essential except if you’re busy. Then a full hour is needed.” The ensuing laughter told me that people understood the need for greater self-care at times of stress.
But when we override our better instincts, we disconnect from ourselves and ultimately burnout.
Tony Schwartz is founder of The Energy Project, an organisation that helps companies achieve sustainable performance by addressing the needs of their employees, and author of The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy not Time. Schwartz recently wrote a piece for the New York Times, noting the thin line between employee engagement and employee burnout. In it, he observed that employee engagement as traditionally defined meant “the willingness to invest discretionary effort at work” – to go the extra mile. But he points out that this inevitably leads to people running on empty, feeling pushed to their limits. The new corporate buzzword is becoming “sustainably engaged”, meaning how much companies care for employees and value their physical, social and emotional lives.
What if the problem wasn’t burnout per se but an acknowledgement that there will always be intense involvement with things we are willing to hazard ourselves for. An example might be in working with people – you care, you connect, you lose yourself in the involvement, and one minute you’re engaged and the next, burned out. The task then isn’t to avoid burnout but to learn from what it means about us.
What does this mean for busy people?
Brene Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work who studies vulnerability, reframed her “breakdown” into a “spiritual awakening.” She speaks of breaking down or burning out as an opportunity to relook at our lives. She talks about wrestling with wholeheartedness – what it means to be fully human, and live authentically. That being busy, feeling stressed and dealing with burnout if approached wisely can be a doorway into a new way of being and living. They are not signs we are broken or damaged – although it may feel like that at the time, but burnout, as with depression and anxiety, is not a disease state that strikes at random – it can always be understood in context.
Most people who come to therapy recognise their old ways of doing things aren’t working. This is a painful realisation – to recognise that the fantasy (being a productive machine who doesn’t need to refuel) and the reality (we’re all just flawed humans) are different.
It might be that being able to disappoint others is a vital skill to learn. After all, it is humanly impossible to be there for everyone all of the time and meet all expectations.
Busyness promotes a lie: that we can do it all without cost. Conscious and sustainable living is choosing what you say yes to, and recognising the value of different parts of ourselves. It doesn’t matter what vehicle you use to get in touch with the essence of who you are and what you need – of course therapy is one way, but creative outlets such as poetry, prose, engagement with music, meditation, chanting, or some sort of inward-focused work with the intention to understand yourself on a deeper level, is necessary.
The ability to pull out a part of ourselves that is driven and strategic for a particular reason or season (to pay off debt, save for something, help family members through an illness or transition) is a great ability. But equally great is the ability to recognise we to need to recharge and refuel, that we cannot sustain such busyness and drive. We need to let the poet within us breathe, and poets tend to show up in their own time, needing lots of space.
The last word goes to Brazilian surfer Ronaldo Fadul, who has been riding the waves for 40 years, living modestly beside the ocean. In the documentary Happy (2011), he says his advice to his children is, “Try to work so you’ll be able to live your life in tranquillity.” I’d love to pass his message on to my children.