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What busy people can gain from not being busy

A lot has been written about what we should be doing in this time of uncertainty. Every day brings new articles on; how to work virtually, juggle roles from the kitchen table, set new boundaries and develop tactics for managing emotions. There seems to be a never-ending to-do list for a ‘better lockdown’.

However, I wonder if the real opportunity lies not so much in retaining our busy-ness, as what is revealed when we are no longer busy?

One of my clients has been too busy working to address his relationship with his partner. While our work so far has focussed on ambition and setting goals, he has been avoiding the upset of speaking honestly. As he digested the full implications of lockdown, he could no longer distract himself or find excuses not to listen his own needs. The time had arrived to open up an important yet tricky conversation. As we finished the session, he chalked up his new realisation to ‘the perils of not being busy’, but putting the phone down I wondered, were they indeed perils, or are we facing a once in a lifetime opportunity? A chance to experience life in a new way, without the distraction of ‘busy’?

My client, like many others, uses being busy as a defence mechanism. A defence against acknowledging difficult ‘truths’ and making difficult decisions. If we are able to resist the temptation to replace one way of being busy with another, it is a great chance to notice what lies beneath our defences and ask ‘who am I really?’

My own personal observations of peeling everything back has revealed much about my own relationship with busyness:

To be busy is to find meaning

Much has been written about existential anxiety and what Yalom calls our ‘ultimate concerns’. To deal with the angst of confronting ‘meaninglessness’ he and other existential theorists describe the defences that we create. I now realise that my own defence against meaninglessness is to create meaning and purpose through being busy, being needed and valued for my work with clients. (Yalom describes ultimate concerns or facts of life as: ‘death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness’. It is how we confront these that drives our dynamic conflicts. Yalom, I.D. (1980) Existential psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books. )

Without one form of busyness, I substitute another

During lockdown, my ability to feel needed and valued through my work has been challenged. My initial reaction to work cancellations and loss of freedom to travel was great despair. I found myself asking ‘will I ever work again?’ Initially I reacted by finding new forms of busyness - deep cleaning the house, making lists for the garden and exercising obsessively. Much has changed since these initial reactions as I have settled into a new way of living and working, but this revelation about my habits has been illuminating.

There is an ebb and flow to being busy

On a more practical level, I have noticed how my energy fluctuates during the day and with it my busyness. I tend to wake up full of energy and enthusiasm, ready to tackle the big ‘busy’ jobs. My most productive energetic work takes place in the morning and I feel good, feasting on the drug of busyness. But by the afternoon I am often feeling more lost, floundering, directionless and more ready to self-criticise for not being busy. A second peak in energy arises in the late afternoon / early evening. This is my natural rhythm. It isn’t unusual, but with less to keep me busy, it is revealed more starkly. Noticing this pattern offers me a chance to be more conscious of how I structure my days when busyness resumes.

Somewhere in between is about right

In normal (whatever they are) circumstances I sometimes feel so busy, I can’t breathe. I can engineer my days so if everything just about happens on time, then I can make it through. On those days, my need for meaning and purpose devours my ability to live and be present. Experiencing a more stripped back version of work in lockdown has been a real gift. With a couple of meetings a day, a dog walk, some exercise and maybe a cake to bake, I have more space in my day and my work quality has improved! In the new normal I would hate to resort back to previous levels of busyness and instead preserve some of this space that comes from lockdown.

So if lockdown presents you with a chance to be less busy, it may be that rather than replacing the loss with different ‘busyness’ you can use it as a unique opportunity to observe your hopes, fears, beliefs, behaviours and habits - and from this, engineer a more satisfying life. So I am curious. What are you noticing?

Beware though – you may be getting busy just with noticing!



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