In my world of high achievers living in the fast-pace life of New York City, in a culture of doers and deal-makers, where many people equate self-worth with net-worth, there is one thing above all else that seems to drive people: the pursuit of busy.
Busy manages to be both a badge of honor and an excuse. It is a metric by which people judge each other, a litmus test for success and status.
How’s business? Are you busy?
Busy is an identity. People use it to signify their own importance or how much they are valued.
I can’t make plans next week. I’m so busy.
When they really want to show their importance, busy gets upleveled to crazy busy.
When people ask me whether I’m busy, I cringe. I do not want to be busy. I want to be effective. Productive. Intentional. Busy, in my mind, is overwhelm. Busy robs me of the presence I want to bring to my work, the attention I want to devote to my clients, and the energy I need to focus on doing my best work.
They explain that Action Addiction is a “deep-rooted human condition” caused by imbalances in brain chemicals. Action triggers the dopamine reward system. Dopamine is a naturally-produced chemical that provides a short-term sense of enjoyment, relaxation, and gratification. When you do something that releases dopamine, it sends a feel-good message to the brain. This creates a cycle of craving, so we keep doing the thing that gives us the dopamine hit.
This is the same reward system that creates our addiction to checking email, social media, drugs, alcohol, and other feel-good activities.
Just like alcohol and drugs can give you a false sense of courage, action addiction creates an illusion of progress. We equate busy with productive. So we continue on the treadmill of life, never stopping to consider where we are headed and if we actually want to go there.
As Hougaard and Carter note,
Our activity makes us believe we are closer to something bigger. We don’t know what it is, but we keep working at it. … But what’s the point of reaching the top of the ladder only to realize it’s leaning against the wrong wall?
Wayne Muller, in his book Sabbath (affiliate link), makes a similar point:
Our culture invariably supposes that action and accomplishment are better than rest, that doing something—anything—is better than doing nothing. Because of our desire to succeed, to meet these ever-growing expectations, we do not rest. Because we do not rest, we lose our way.
The Danger of Busy
Thomas Merton wrote about how our busyness is a form of violence that we commit against ourselves:
“There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence … [and that is] activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence.
To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence.”
Muller echoes these thoughts:
A “successful” life has become a violent enterprise. We make war on our own bodies, pushing them beyond their limits; war on our children, because we cannot find enough time to be with them when they are hurt and afraid, and need our company; war on our spirit, because we are too preoccupied to listen to the quiet voices that seek to nourish and refresh us; war on our communities, because we are fearfully protecting what we have, and do not feel safe enough to be kind and generous; war on the earth, because we cannot take the time to place our feet on the ground and allow it to feed us, to taste its blessings and give thanks.
When we move at increasing speeds without rest, every little thing is magnified. Small details suddenly feel important and urgent. We live in fight-or-flight mode. We react rather than respond. Mueller compares it to driving a motorcycle at high speed, where even a small stone in the road can be a deadly threat.
Busy = Death of Heart
In the Chinese language, “busy” is comprised of two characters. One means heart. The other means death. Busy literally means “death of heart.”
The Japanese also have a word for this. Karoshi means “death by overwork.” The major causes of Karoshi are heart attack and stroke.
Hougaard and Carter explain that when we are busy energy flows to the head instead of the heart. As a result, we distance ourselves from others and their emotions, and we become removed from our purpose, meaning and love.
To be removed from our meaning is not just death of heart, but death of spirit. It is this disconnection from purpose, rather than mere stress or fatigue, that defines burnout.
It does not matter that the work you are busy with is in service to others. In fact, people who work — or overwork — in service to others are typically most at risk of succumbing to burnout.
The Cause of Action Addiction
Nobody is saying that we should just “do nothing” all the time. Of course we have responsibilities and things to do. But the non-stop action and doing is putting our lives at risk.
Muller advocates for rest as the antidote to the ills of busyness and action addiction. Likewise, Hougaard and Carter reaffirm that the key to staving off action addiction is to create space in our schedules.
Of course, busy people often complain (or brag) that they are too busy to rest. They don’t have time to create space. Everyone needs things from them all the time. They are just too important.
It’s easy to believe that busy is the problem.
But busy is not the problem; it’s the effect of a deeper cause.
The root cause is a fear of rest. This fear of rest causes the action addiction and the subsequent problems that flow from it: illness, burnout, even death.
Escape From The Emptiness
Rest opens us to the empty space, the dormancy period, the Winter season of our days and weeks. It creates the space that we crave. But that space is also what we seek to avoid when we overload our calendars with commitments and projects. Because in that space arise the emotions and thoughts that aren’t always pleasant.
We escape this empty space in many ways, including food, alcohol, drugs, news, internet, and social media. It’s easier to be busy than it is to feel pain, anger, resentment, doubt, and fear.
When we are busy, we can avoid the hard questions such as
What am I doing with my life? Is this what I want to be doing? Am I in the right place? Is there more for me to give? Should I move on to another career? Am I living my most meaningful life? What will my legacy be?
We prefer to keep safe distances from the issues that are hard to look at. So we create things to do to avoid this empty space.
For this reason, Hougaard and Carter describe action addiction as a form of “existential laziness:”
Action addiction is an advanced sort of laziness. It keeps us busily occupied with tasks. The busier we keep ourselves the more we avoid being confronted with questions of life and death.
Busy is Culturally-Sanctioned Suicide
Busy is simply a culturally-sanctioned form of escape. And because we know that busyness can lead to illness and even death, busy is on track to become a culturally-sanctioned form of suicide.
We must set a new standard in our culture that shifts the reward from busyness and overwork, to mindfulness and presence.
Busy is a Choice
The people I know who are important, who have a lot going on, who run several businesses and have many commitments, always seem to find time and presence when it matters. They are not busy.
Busy is a mindset, not a circumstance; it is not a result of having a lot of activities or many things to do. We make a choice to be busy, regardless of what’s on our to-do list.
The alternative is having many activities, and being highly effective and productive. Maintaining mental clarity and calm. Presence. Not giving into action addiction.
The ability to make that choice comes from developing a clear mind, free of action addiction.
Clarity comes in the stillness, not in the short breaks between meetings and appointments.
Of course, to develop this clear mind requires that we create space for it. It requires a willingness to get comfortable in the discomfort of the empty space.
Are You Addicted to Busy?
Check in with yourself. Are you addicted to busy? How long can you sit still and do nothing? What are the other ways that you escape the empty space?
Join me in The Ritual Revolution, a movement that takes a stand against action addiction and busyness. Learn systems and processes to bring the meaning and purpose back to your life.