Mind Your Busy-ness

1st January 2016

Clare Finney explores why ‘busy is the new normal’…

“Hi love, I’m so sorry for the late reply, I’ve been absolutely manic this week. I can’t do next weekend or the weekend after, or the weekend after and then it’s Christmas... maybe we could get a date some time in Jan? Sooo sorry, you know the festive season! Crazy!”

Does this text look familiar at all? Maybe you received it last month. Maybe you wrote it. I’ve been each side of this chat and hated both, but I continue to live like this: filling my diary up desperately, panicking over each blank spot and – if I’m honest – aspiring to the busy life with as much zeal as folk used to aspire to the leisurely lives of the upper classes. Oh, the irony.

No matter how idle I’ve been, if somebody asks me about work or my weekend, I often say, “oh, so busy”. I’m not consciously lying: it’s just become the new norm, like saying “fine” to “how are you?”, even if your dog’s died and you’ve a terrible disease and you’ve just lost all your money. Yet whereas in that instance the reality emerges later, the myth of ‘busy’ sticks around. It breeds. It perpetuates itself on Facebook, mobile phones and the media: making those who don’t – or can’t – juggle 12 hour working days with gigs, pop ups, yoga and a herb garden feel like they are wasting their lives away.

“Trying to juggle a lot of things at the same time can make us feel important, showing others just how time pressured we are and also in creating a drama of activity we can prove to ourselves and/or others we are somehow coping,” explains Dr Michael Sinclair, consultant psychologist and author of Mindfulness for Busy People. “In this modern world of incessant, 24 hour communication, many of us can feel a little insignificant, unable to keep up, and out of control. So being and appearing busy can give a boost to our sense of self-worth.”

Dr Sinclair is at the sharp end of this trend – or the most lucrative, depending on which way you look at it. As Clinical Director at City Psychology Group in London, he says he is “inundated with requests from busy professionals, as well as organisations who are keen to offer mindfulness training to their employees.” The new buzzword and, according to health professionals, the antidote to the ‘so busy’ mindset, is ‘mindfulness’, which describes living in the present moment and being more aware of your thoughts, feelings, and sensations so you can manage them better. Dr Sinclair’s doing well out of our busy-ness – most mental health professionals are – but they are nevertheless damning of the toll it takes on society: damaging relationships, heightening anxiety and depression, and in the process bringing the NHS ever closer to its beleaguered knees.

According to Dr Sinclair, our brains “evolved to scan our environment, take in data and process it. In our modern information-overloaded world we are bombarded with data we’re hardwired to respond to.” Theories as to why ‘busy’ is the new norm range from his evolution idea, to economic, environmental and technological.
From her new home in a small coastal town in Oz, my friend Tash writes that she is “nothing short of baffled by the behaviours and habits I accrued over nearly ten years in London.”

“In being so busy, I feel I didn’t put the right kind of energy into anything,” she continues. Back here Tash juggled two jobs plus an MSc, charity work and a band – and seemed to me like she was nailing it, even making time for a social life. Looking back up from Down Under, though, she says it’s “questionable how well we really can multi-task, even if we’ve been seemingly coping this way for ages... I was aware of not letting my busy-ness negatively affect family or friends, but I think it definitely had a negative effect on me.”

Tash is relieved at having the balance restored, and at “not having to partake in that way of life anymore.” She adds that “people value relationships and nature over ‘achievements’ here, and have a deeper appreciation for whatever it is they are doing, whether it’s their job or buying sushi.” Zen-like and idyllic as her life now sounds, however, she’s the other side of the world. If every one of us who felt overwhelmed by the ‘busy life’ went to Oz… well, they’d probably have room for us, but it’s not an ideal solution. As Maria Adamson, a sociologist specialising in employment and economic life points out, describing busy-ness as a modern ‘cult’ means that “the conditions that create this mess do not get questioned.”

Maria Adamson blames the economy and the rise in zero-hour or contractual employment, which “makes workers feel that leaving on time (their employment right!) will produce an impression that they are slacking or not doing enough. This mantra combined with fear of insecurity drives people to spend hours on the job to the detriment of everything else.” Friends who moan about another late night in the office are genuinely moaning, of course – but there is a humble brag buried in there too occasionally. “In the contemporary workplace, being busy is often associated with responsibility, which is in turn associated with importance,” says Laura Hyman, a lecturer in sociology at Portsmouth University. “People want to feel important at work, as it strengthens their sense of identity.”

In fact, writing this article was partly inspired by recent conversations with high-powered women whose careers had been ripped away from them, for reasons beyond their control. The ensuing period of unemployment, while horrific, opened their eyes to what a status symbol busy had become. Going to dinner parties no longer able to talk about how ‘manic’ their lives were left them marvelling at just how much their friends talked about it. “It would take a great deal of courage to say ‘’I’m not busy at all – in fact I have time on my hands and string things out so I at least look busy’ one said of the ‘dreaded’ dinner party chat. First she was envious; now, she feels, “it is a sad irony that bragging about having so little time to do what we enjoy and to spend time with those we love, has become the rod that we measure people by.”

Of course, the pressure to look busy doesn’t just apply to professional life. For many people, particularly urban twenty-somethings, it’s the pressure outside of work that is the squeeze. Don’t get me wrong: I love a pop-up yoga and crossword-themed brunch. I live for Time Out Tuesday and Friday Feeling, and Thursday work drinks are a high point in my calendar. But when Joanna Carson from the Mental Health Foundation (MHF) described “having an almost romantic relationship with my calendar: I’m always checking it, worried how full it is, worried it’s not full enough” it definitely struck a chord in me.

As Emma astutely observes, “we’re a generation of guilters. We feel guilty about everything: not going to the gym enough, going out too much, not seeing our friends enough, eating junk food, spending too much money in Wholefoods etc.” Tash agrees. “There are just so many opportunities in London that there’s a sense of guilt if you’re not seeing every new play that opens, learning how to have a permaculture garden and doing a course to improve this or that about yourself.”

Social media is part of this, naturally. The dreaded FOMO [fear of missing out] would not be half so virulent were we not bombarded daily with evidence that everyone else is making more of these opportunities than you are, via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. “The busier we are, the more we are doing and ultimately the more we can share (and brag) about,” Emma continues. “It’s almost as though we are investing in experiences for other people rather than ourselves.”

There’s a sociological reason for this too, of course. “A busy social life outside work is usually a sign that a person has a lot of friends, or strong relationships with friends and family,” says Laura Hyman. “This is a sign of confidence, extroversion and sociability – in a contemporary western society all dominant and desirable character traits.” Go back to Dr Sinclair’s point about our brain’s impulse to “take in data and process it” and you see how social media fuels this drive to fever pitch, adding hourly to our mind’s ‘never-ending to do list’. “Passively viewing the busy and exciting lives of others exacerbates feelings of unworthiness, and so getting busy ourselves can be a way to redress those unwanted feelings,” he explains.

Joanna Carson, the leader of Be Mindful, a MHF campaign to help tackle this, puts it best when she describes mobiles as “things constantly telling you how much more you can do and be. Get that app, you’ll manage money better; that one you’ll be fitter; that one, you’ll know which bar’s cool.” Mindfulness matters, she says, not as a new trend but as a discovery for health as big as exercise was in the 1960s, prior to which its fundamental value to physical health was not understood widely. “Now it’s non-negotiable for most people. That’s how mindfulness exercises should be.”

As with all mass social observations, the cult of busy-ness is not straightforward. Clearly, at the same time as I and others have been naively aligning ‘busy’ with the good life, there has been a movement toward meditation, self-help and being present as a means of achieving that too. “This stands in direct opposition with being constantly ‘busy’, as it encourages peacefulness and calm as routes to happiness [just as] responsibility and fulfilment in the workplace and social life are regarded by many people as vital for happiness,” Laura Hyman says. Some find theirs in Oz, others on a mindfulness course, others still in a self-help book, a sporting challenge or a new job – but in the end, I think that the most sensible solution is Emma’s. “Being busy is not the problem. It’s how you feel when you are and the reason you’re filling your time with the things that you do that’s the issue. It’s all about being really bloody honest with yourself… or at least surrounding yourself with beautiful souls that will call you out on it” – especially if you continue to send texts like the aforementioned. Sorry.

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