Escaping the Cult of Busyness

“Hiiiiiiiiii! How are you?” “Oh, you know, I’m just so busy.” Sigh. “Right? Me too!”

Busyness has become a competitive sport, though one with few winners. Busyness, of course, communicates status and importance; chronic busyness represents a form of cultural capital and denotes status. Important people are busy. Who doesn’t want to feel important?

Busyness has a lot of causes. Some people don’t know what to do with themselves if they aren’t permanently busy. Other people  work in jobs that encourage poor life/work boundaries and a culture of overwork. Still others may engage in busyness because they believe that there are literally not enough hours in the day to accomplish everything they want to do.


I recently listened to an episode of Hidden Brain that explored the psychology of the scarcity mentality. I found myself nodding along, but the part about feeling that time itself represented a scarce commodity hit home. As an academic, I never felt like I had enough time to read everything, teach classes, and work on my dissertation. As a recovering academic and entrepreneur, I still often don’t feel like I’ve got enough time to accomplish everything I want to do. My to-do list is miles long. Everything takes twice as long as I assume it should.

Feeling like time is scarce triggers the same mental alarms as food or other scarcities. Once activated, those alarms cause us to make emergency short-term decisions that sometimes sabotage us in the long term. When we feel like time is a scarce commodity, the brain seems to only be able to focus on the scarcity: I don’t have enough time. Panic ensues. Our decisions become reactive rather than thoughtful responses to unfolding situations. Priorities become skewed as we cram more and more things into our lives to try to shut off the scarcity alarm. We all knew those people in graduate school who came to class with huge black circles under their eyes because they’d stayed up all night to binge write before class. Some of them were quite proud of their exhaustion and made sure that everyone else knew that they were warriors, while the rest of us were weaklings who needed sleep.

But here’s some truth: you absolutely can’t do intensive, creative work without adequate rest. Sure, you think you can. In case you’re one of those people who need actual evidence that sleep deprivation is harmful, check out this study on why getting six hours of sleep is as bad as going without any sleep. [For the science people, here’s the PubMed version.]

Most academics I know are dealing with massive overwork as a result of trying to do more with less, the exploitative nature of adjuncting, performing excessive emotional labor, unreasonable research/teaching/service requirements, and/or poor personal boundaries.  As an academic, you’re probably a high functioning person and might reason that you can handle it. In reality, you’re not fooling anyone, including your colleagues, students, family, or friends. Exhaustion isn’t just a risk to your personal physical health. Chronic exhaustion and stress also leads to burnout, which sucks the joy out of people’s jobs, lives, relationships, and creative work. If you’re burned out, you’re not thriving in life; you’re just coping, and sometimes not even doing that very well. You can read about one professor’s story of collapsing on the job because of sheer exhaustion. (And yet this is somehow the job we’re all supposed to aspire to. Thanks but no thanks.)

What if other people found out that you weren’t managing your insane 60 hour workweek flawlessly? That you’re human and need to take a break? Or, heaven forbid, need to rest? If you’re a person who struggles with relaxing and the time scarcity mentality, you (I) probably feel a lot of guilt at the idea of doing nothing and shame that you’re not able to handle everything with ease. After all, if everyone around us is so unendingly busy, we probably should be too. Sometimes even just trying to relax creates even more stress. (You know this feeling if you’re an insomniac and you’re tossing and turning in bed because you’re so angry that you can’t sleep.)


So how do we get out of the scarcity mentality with time? As the Hidden Brain episode suggests, we consciously create time to do nothing. Literally. Schedule some down time.

I’ve been writing a lot lately about why the writing retreat model works. Part of it is the magic of having someone else create structured blocks of time for productivity. Having designated time to work also creates designated times to NOT work. When you’re not working, you get to rest. In the retreat I’m planning, I’m scheduling some dedicated writing time, but also leaving some unstructured time for people to do whatever they want, including nap. (Lunch in much of Mexico is from between 2-4pm and leaves plenty of time for a nap.) I’m fully expecting that people who come on my retreat are going to need to nap. For reals, if you just need to rest, you can still come on my retreat. It would be great to support you in your writing too, but if you just need some downtime and time to rest, I’m okay with that too.

How are you scheduling your downtime this week? What kinds of feelings come up for you when you think about scheduling breaks and rest into your schedule? How are you managing those feelings?

Photo by Alexander Possingham on Unsplash