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The Dreaded "B" Word: Busyness


04Dec 2009

OK, first things first.  I am a busy person. Currently, too busy.  (I am writing this as I sit on a plane flying to Chicago for a business meeting.)  So this is one of those entries where I call on the “psychologist’s privilege” of being able to expound on principles that I do not have implemented in my life yet.  The principles are true.  I’m just not consistently applying them. (Ask my wife)

Busyness and the holidays seem to go hand-in-hand.  There is the “normal” busyness of life – work, family, home responsibilities, extended family, friends, leisure activities, and community involvement. Then we add another layer of activities for the six weeks or so from Thanksgiving thru the New Year’s.

What is “busyness”, really?  How does it differ from just being active or doing things?

Lets look at some of the characteristics that seem to accompany a sense of being busy, and I think that will give us some insight.

Busyness seems to go with:

  • Feeling Rushed
  • Having a lot to do in a short period of time.
  • A general sense of pressure, even compression.
  • Tenseness.
  • Irritability (more for some than others).
  • Things to do.
  • Places to go.
  • People to meet (to finish the phrase).
  • Short time frames. Activities scheduled in close succession.
  • Being late (or worrying about being late).

Sounds like a fun way to live, doesn’t it?  So why do we do it ourselves? Why (and how) do we let ourselves become so busy, even frantic, during this time of year?

I think there are 3 basic factors that lead to our busyness.

  1. Opportunities. Lots of them.  There are a lot of extra things going on during the Christmas season.  School Christmas concerts.  Work-related Christmas parties.  Christmas shopping.  Kids’ basketball, volleyball, hockey, and indoor practices and games.  Extra choir practices.  Christmas pageants at church.  Ski trips and Christmas vacations.  Watching traditional Christmas movies.  Visiting relatives (both sides).  So, bottom line, there are more activities to do.
  2. Expectations.  There are two primary sets of expectations: a) our own (for ourselves), and b) others’ (for us).  Both sets seem to crank up during this time of year.  As I have stated in the past, the easiest way to track expectations is through the “should’s” we hear (either in our head, or out of the mouths of others.) “I really should go to…” or “You can’t miss…” Expectations, generally speaking, are neither good nor bad; right nor wrong.  But some of them really are not reality-bsed – you really can’t do everything.  So you have to make choices. The problem is: some choices lead to not meeting someone’s expectations.
  3. The Experience(s) of Not Meeting Expectations.  When we don’t meet the expectations of others’, there is the risk of them having a negative reaction: hurt, disappointment, frustration, anger. [Note: they don’t have to react in those ways.  They have a choice.  They could also respond with graciousness, understanding and acceptance.]  When we don’t meet our own expectations, we tend to feel guilty, worry about “what others will think”, and sometimes beat ourselves up mentally.

Since most of us don’t like either of these experiences (others reacting negatively to us not meeting their expectations, and being hard on ourselves), we make the other choice – we try to do as much as we can to meet everyone’s (at least perceived) expectations.  The result?  Busyness.

The Antidotes to Busyness.

So, is there any solution?  Or are we doomed to live frantic lives for the last six weeks of every calendar year?

I don’t think we are going to seriously reduce the number of possible activities available during this time of year, so give that option up.

One option comes from the disciple of management.  When a person or organization has limited resources, they have to prioritize. Anyone who has been in “tight” financial circumstances knows that difficult choices have to be made.  You can’t buy or do this. We will pay this bill first and this other bill next week.  The same is true for our time and energy – when there is more to do than we have time or energy, we have to prioritize.  We pick those activities (hopefully) which are most important to us (based on our values), and decide we can’t do others.

The concept of margin also seems applicable.  Our busyness transforms into frantic and blood-pressure raising stress when we leave no margin for errror in our scheduling and planning.  When we plan to go to three Christmas parties on one Friday night, from 7 to 8:15 p.m. (30 minutes travel); 8:45 to 10 p.m. (30 minutes travel) and then 10:30 to midnight (this is obviously the schedule of a younger person!), most likely we are setting ourselves up for a stressful evening, if we really expect to keep that timeframe.  Most of us need to leave more room in our schedules for unexpected traffic, not being able to find the presents at the store as quickly as we thought, etc.

The idea of giving up comes to mind.  (I bet that phrase caught some of your attention.)  Not “giving up” in totality.  but giving up some of our expectations.  For some of us who are really social, the thought of missing a party is close to the pain of a kidney stone.  But, at some point, we need to say: “It’s not worth it.”  The busyness, the stress, the resulting irritability, the tension in my relationship with my family outweighs the fun I may have at going to three Christmas parties this weekend.  We may also need to give up some of our expectations for others – it is okay if they can’t make it to Susie’s Christmas concert (even though she has a one line solo in one song); our friendship won’t end if they can’t make it to my party; the world won’t come to an end if we open Christmas presents with the grandchildren the week after Christmas.

Finally,  pause and enjoy the moment. Instead of rushing from store to store in panic, take a minute and enjoy the cool winter sunshine, listen to the high school choir singing in the mall, stop and enjoy a glass of hot cider.  One of my biggest challenges is the tendency to be thinking ahead to the next event or activity and not fully enjoy the one I am currently attending.  When you are at a party, stop looking around to see who is there, and focus on the person you are talking to right now.  Enjoy them.  Listen to their story and laugh together.

Ok, so I have now lectured myself in addition to writing this to you.  I promise to work on these antidotes in the coming weeks (I have to start now by saying no to some of the opportunities I have before me). How about you?

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