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Last updated March 22, 2017

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of work with people stuck in the ‘busy trap’. You know the one. The one where you’re so busy, so tired and so stressed. The one where nobody understands just how busy you are and they make stupid suggestions like you should take a break, have a rest or slow down.

Don’t they know that if you take a break you will fall behind and never ever catch up? Don’t they know that if you have a rest people’s lives will be irrevocably impacted and it will be all your fault? Surely they realise that you’re only this busy because you’re so successful and important. Why aren’t they congratulating you for being amazing like everyone else?

Now I’m not trying to be flippant and I’m certainly not trying to belittle anyone who is stuck in the trap, but I do want to publicly challenge the glorification of busy. Too often people measure their worth, or the worth of others, against a sliding scale of busy. And it just doesn’t add up.

While we might not do it consciously, there is a common assumption that if you’re busy, tired and stressed you must be kind, selfless, clever and successful. Conversely, if you have plenty of time for yourself, you must be selfish and lazy by default. It has to be one of the craziest notions we humans have ever thought up, but for some reason people keep buying into the premise.

So how do we stop it?
First up we need to stop using, and accepting, being busy as an excuse for not getting things done. When we say things like ‘I think I did pretty well considering how busy I am’, we’re implying that our level of busyness is something out of our control. Something that has been thrust upon us by outside forces and we just have to do our best given the circumstances. When we use phrases like ‘considering how much I’ve got to do’, what we’re trying to say is ‘it’s not my fault’.

Now I know we all have times when our commitments collide and things get a little frantic, but if we want any chance of busting out of the busy trap, we need to acknowledge that we are each responsible for creating our own levels of busyness. We have complete control over what we choose to commit to and if we’re busy, tired and stressed on a regular basis, then chances are we’re consistently taking on more than we should. We’re stuck in a trap and its no-ones fault but our own.

Sound simplistic? Maybe so. But the reality is we all have the power to say No. We don’t have to take on tasks just because someone asks us to. And we certainly don’t have to take on tasks simply because no-one else will. If you cut away all the fluff, there are very few things that are genuinely life or death responsibilities. Everything else is a choice.

So why do we keep saying yes to things, even though we’re already stretched to our limit? Chances are it’s for one or more of these reasons:

We were raised to believe that we need to put everyone’s needs before our own, and if we don’t, that makes us selfish. The problem with this belief is that over time we’ve moved from meeting other people’s needs before our own, to meeting other people’s needs instead of our own.

We think that as long as people are asking, we need to give and give and give.

I like to think of my time and energy as a pot of soup on school camp. I’m happy to let others line up before me, but as I dish out my time and energy, I make sure to save enough soup at the end for me. Putting other people’s needs first is commendable, but you don’t have to let them come back for seconds before you’ve had a chance to feed yourself!

We may understand the importance of taking time for ourselves, but what if other people don’t understand? What if other people think we’re selfish and lazy? For some people, fear of what other people might think is a massive stumbling block to saying No, but it doesn’t have to be.

In my experience, having the courage to say No is usually met with a positive response (especially if you’re typically the first person to say Yes). When I first started saying No to extra commitments, I was overwhelmed by the amount of people who said things like ‘I completely understand, you’re always so busy’, or ‘No problem, it’s about time you took some time for yourself’.

People see more than you realise and the truth is, they know how busy you are. But as long as you keep saying yes, they’re going to keep asking you to do more.

On a logical level we understand that people can only handle so many commitments, but we constantly point out exceptions to the rule. We can all list people who seem to be able to ‘do it all’, and if they can, we definitely can too. After all, we’re every bit as good as they are, if not better. Right?!

I hate to burst your bubble, but I don’t know a single person who truly ‘does it all’. Even Jesus himself took time out to re-charge his batteries. Sure, we all have varying degrees of capacity, but if you’re constantly busy, tired and stressed, it’s a sure sign that you’re over stretching yours.

We all like to feel needed, but when we make ourselves indispensable, we’re actually hindering the growth of the people or organisations we support. We don’t have to do everything in order to be useful, needed or important. In fact, we can only provide lasting value if we empower others to step-up and take part.

There’s an old adage that goes ‘People will forget what you said and they will forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel.’ If you want people to recognise your worth, stop focusing on what you do and start celebrating who you are.

Being busy is an easy way to rationalise why we’re not spending time on the important, but sometimes difficult parts of life. How often have you said ‘Yeah I know I need to exercise more, but I’m just so busy’? Or ‘I know I need to spend more time on my relationship, but I’m just so busy’?

It’s no secret that we make time for the things we value and we sub-consciously weigh up the effort required vs. the potential reward. If you’re not spending time exercising or working on your relationship, it’s because at some level you think there are more important things to worry about. That in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, but acknowledge it for what it is and stop using ‘busy’ as the excuse.

When you’re stuck in the busy trap it’s easy to acknowledge that these points make sense, but it’s even easier to explain why they don’t relate to you. It might feel like your level of busy is justified or unavoidable, but I challenge you to take another look. You don’t need to be busy, tired and stressed to prove you’re making a difference.

Kerri Tilby-Price
Kerri is a Facilitator / Trainer with Exult and has over 20 years experience working in and for the community sector.

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