Do you ever stop to wonder why we are so busy? Probably not very often, because you’re too busy to stop to wonder why we are so busy! Today, I want to hit the “pause” button, and think about it for a minute.
A few years ago, I passed one of my professor colleagues in the hallway and greeted her by saying, “How are you?” She responded with a sigh and a smile, “Too busy. You know, it’s just life in the modern world.” Her comment made me stop in my mental tracks, making me think about the pressures of this contemporary culture of ours.
For many years in the past, the common greeting in China was “Have you eaten?” This was not an invitation to dinner, but a reflection of a value system—both care about food and a concern about whether or not you have enough. It was a sign of the times. I find it fascinating that, as China has catapulted forward into a modern market economy, the common greeting has changed to “Are you busy?” This sounds very American, doesn’t it? And, of course, the desired answer is, “Yes, thank you, I am very busy.”
The need and desire to be busy has many roots—cultural, economical, philosophical, and religious, among others. But how shall we think about it from a psychological perspective?
There is the impression that busy people are important people. Competent people. Smart people. Successful people. Helpful people. Even good people. If you are busy, you are to be admired, even envied.
But what of being too busy? What of the problem we find in ourselves when we are over-busy, when busyness backfires and our lives become more like runaway trains?
Perhaps like me, you can relate to that famous scene from “I Love Lucy,” when Lucy and Ethel are working on the assembly line, wrapping candies. At first, it seems like an easy job, the work is at a manageable pace. They have that delicious feeling of competence—“This is easier. We can handle this okay.” And then the conveyor belt speeds up—faster and faster. The bon bons come, one after another, too closely packed together. Lucy and Ethel cannot keep up. They try to keep up. In their panic, they pretend they are keeping up by eating the candies, stuffing them in their hats, dropping them down their blouses, hiding them from their boss. It is hilarious too watch but, at some level, oh so painful!
We remember this scene because it evokes such a familiar, intense feeling. Our pursuit of competence has gotten out of hand, and we feel more incompetent than ever. And who wants to feel that way? Here, the real trouble begins. Rather than taking a step back to gather ourselves, we work harder. We try to pick up the pace. We hide the reality of our limitations. We don’t want to feel our ordinary inadequacies—those painful feelings of smallness and helplessness. Because we have tried to be so big, we feel so humiliated.
I think that one of the main unconscious motivations to over-busyness is a desire not to be in touch with these feelings of smallness and vulnerability. If we can do big and fancy things—and a lot of them—we hope to protect ourselves from the painful feelings of envy and dependency that are such a central aspect to being human. But the problem with this approach to life—which Melanie Klein called the “manic defenses”—is that it tends to backfire. Underneath all of the bluster, we secretly feel even more insecure, helpless, and lonely. We back ourselves into the very corner that we are trying to get out of.
If we can take our lives at a slower, more manageable pace, we give ourselves two important gifts. The first is that we receive the gift of feeling capable in doing a few things well. I try to make this statement a guiding principle in my life: you can’t do everything, but you can do a few things well.
The second gift that we give ourselves is space to think and feel—to be in touch with our inner lives. If there is space between the bon bons, so to speak, there is space to think and feel. We could think about over-busyness as an effort to collapse that space because it is too frightening; but there is so much to gain if we can expand it instead. If we can be in touch with our inner thoughts and deepest feelings about ourselves—even the painful ones–we can make better choices about what we take on. By becoming more conscious of our choices, we are better able to engage in activities that enrich our lives rather than deplete them.
We all have things that we want to do and need to do. But we also tend to feel compelled to do things we do not want or need to do. We tend to take things on because of the false promise that they will make us feel better about ourselves—either by making us feel big and important or by filling in every nook and cranny of space so there is no room to feel anything at all. As we grow into maturity, we try to become more intentional, more deliberate, more mindful of our choices. We make room for thinking and feeling as well as doing, for our big selves as well as our small selves, for our feelings of competence as well as our feelings of inadequacy. When we foster this kind of balance, the conveyor belt slows down. Life becomes more manageable. Only then can true feelings of competence be found.