E12: Turn the busy life into the simple life
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Americans are obsessed with being busy. We wear our busyness like a badge of honor - as an outward sign of productivity and self-worth. To what end, though? If busyness is preventing you from being the kind of person you want to be, how can you put an end to it and start living more intentionally?
In this episode:
American obsession with busyness
We are busy but not always productive
How I overcame my busyness
Why simplicity is the solution
Log your time - where does it go?
How to be more intentional with your time
End the addiction to your phone
Today we are going to talk about busyness. We are all super busy, right? We never have any time for anything. There aren’t enough hours in the day. I get it.
I have lived through a lot of busyness. Though I usually felt like a victim to it, in hindsight, I can see that it was often self-inflicted. I had made a series of small choices that altered my life. We tend to think that life consists of a few key moments. But in reality, we are where we are due to the cumulative effect of every tiny choice we’ve made. So I made a lot of choices that led to years of busyness, exhaustion, and stress. I thought life would always be that way. But now, with a child, my life is actually less stressful than ever because I’ve altered the way I make choices.
When I was younger and unmarried, I always worked two jobs. When I married and only worked one job, I must have suddenly felt idle and felt the need to fill my life with more things. Add to that my former inability to set boundaries and say “no” and suddenly I was completely busy at work, with volunteering, social obligations, and training to fight. Of course there was also mindless scrolling of news feeds, social media, and watching TV, and I never seemed to have time for the things that I said mattered to me. Years passed by in an instant as I pushed back other hobbies and house projects. I didn’t invest in my marriage as much as I should have. And a lot of friendships sat on the sidelines unless they fit in with my crazy schedule. I wore busyness like a badge of honor, like I imagine many other Americans do.
Today we are going to talk about the sickness of busyness. We are constantly busy, especially in western, developed societies. Busyness is basically a religion here - we act like it’s a sign of productivity, value, and meaning. But it’s actually weighing us down, causing stress, and making us delay focusing on our priorities.
We are busier than ever. And there is evidence of our worship of busyness. Just look at the average person’s output. Between emails, social media, and real work output, we are highly active these days. For example, in 1986 the average American worker produced the equivalent of 2.5 newspaper pages of content each day. In 2011 it was estimated that this amount had risen to six complete newspapers each and every day. That’s a 200-fold increase in output...10 years ago. Imagine what it would be now. Our input has risen even more dramatically now thanks to phones with news feeds, social media, audio books, and constant TV streaming. It is easy to keep your mind completely occupied at all times.
How often do you do nothing? You aren’t looking at screens or listening to something. Just do nothing except maybe walk or sit in a bath. Your brain needs these moments of respite to be creative and thoughtful.
The challenge is that idleness has never been praised. Humans were meant to be productive. Prior to industrialization, most people, with the exception of upper classes, spent all waking hours working to survive. Working the land, sewing clothes, and churning butter. They were busy but all activities were productive and necessary. With modern inventions like dishwashers, refrigerators, and washers and dryers, we have saved hours per day and yet, we still feel like we are running out of time. Nowadays we still don’t praise idleness so we fill our free time and stay busy. The problem is that our busyness is not as productive as it once was. And where it is productive, it is not as reflective of our priorities as we’d like.
This is why people often seem harried and stressed, like they are running out of time and can’t focus on what they really care about. How often do you say “I don’t have enough time” or “I want to, but I just can’t right now”? What priorities are you not making time for? If you wrote down a list of your top priorities and then compared it to how you spent your time, you are likely to find that your priorities aren’t truly prioritized.
If you suffer from busyness and feel like you don’t have time for what matters to you, then it might be time to do the hard thing and get really intentional about your time.
First, it might be helpful to consider why you are so busy now. Here are a few common reasons.
Often people stay busy because it’s actually the easier option. It’s easy to not set boundaries, to say “yes” when people invite you places or offer you more work. It’s easier to pick up your phone or watch TV than it is to intentionally do something restful or more productive. It’s hard to say no, to get intentional with your time, and to jump out of the rat race when everyone else is jumping in. It’s hard to do the unconventional thing and not put your kids in 10 different activities or volunteer for PTA.
Reaching for the easiness of busyness is also a way that we avoid tackling bigger, more complex problems. If we let ourselves get too busy with small things or constantly check email instead of focusing, we can avoid working harder. I know that I certainly felt too overwhelmed by some of the hairy projects around my house. So I used my busyness, which was real, as a reason not to tackle them. It was easier to stay busy than to figure out how to do the hard work. I’m not saying that people make this choice consciously. It’s not like you’re thinking “How can I avoid working hard?” But your brain is wired to find the easiest pathway and, unless you’re super disciplined, you might get outsmarted sometimes.
Busyness can also be addictive, especially when it comes to our phones and digital media. Think about how hard it would be to ignore your phone for an entire day. Don’t grab it when you wake up. Go a whole day without the dopamine rush of constant notifications. We are addicted to the idle busyness of constantly being on our phones and it prevents us from doing what actually matters to us.
So, what is driving the need to fill your days and fill your schedule? I’m sure there are many reasons. Are you filling your time because you fear missing out? Are you doing it to avoid idleness? Are you very busy because it’s an outward sign of productivity? For some of you, it might be by necessity. You might need to work two jobs, for example. But this isn’t the norm for most of us. The rest of you might think you “need” to do what you’re doing or might not be thinking deeply enough about what you’re doing with your time. After all, it’s hard to be super intentional about your time when your mind is constantly occupied.
A few years ago, I was too busy because I felt compelled to be busy. I thought it was just a part of life. I didn’t really question if or how it would end. Since then, I’ve realized that busyness never ends on its own unless you make some really intentional choices to change your mindset and your habits.
I was regularly working 70 hour work weeks and thought I had to overwork at my job in order to be successful. I had made a big volunteer commitment and thought that it was the right thing to stay committed. A few times a week I had social obligations that I felt I couldn’t say “no” to. I loved to exercise and did it more than I needed to because I was interested in fighting. Everything else took a backseat. At the end of the day, I was so tired that I wasted time watching TV. I always thought I would get to the things I wanted to prioritize...later. But later turned into years later.
A couple of years ago, I was burned out, tired, sick, and miserable. I was tired of being busy. I felt stuck. Even if I stopped exercising so much and cut back on my social life, I was still working too much and had a big volunteer commitment. I wished I hadn’t ever gotten myself into the situation I was in in the first place. Guilt is the reason I never said “no” and didn’t streamline my commitments. I felt guilty leaving work, the volunteer organization, or any friends hanging. I felt guilty leaving a community of people at my fighting gym. But, at the end of the day, I wasn’t taking care of myself and my top priorities.
After months of letting the guilt eat away at me and letting my schedule suffocate me, I realized I had to let it all go. My guilt wasn’t productive guilt. Productive guilt points to something you’ve actually done wrong. Unproductive guilt, which is what I was experiencing, is based in lies and expectations.
I let go of the guilt that was weighing me down. This took a lot of self-talk. Then, one by one, I tackled each thing that was making me too busy and simplified my life. The big scheduled commitments are the easiest way to clear your schedule so you can see above the weeds and make progress. I have a blog post about getting your head above the weeds on my website, youruncommonlife.com.
First, I quit the volunteer commitment. I felt guilty leaving it but it was for the best. I was working with kids and it required a lot of emotional investment. But I definitely couldn’t help them if I was mentally and emotionally checked out. Additionally, and this is kind of a hard truth, I believe that good things aren’t good things if they prevent you from fulfilling your primary duties. So a volunteer or church commitment could feel really important and minister to a lot of people. But if it is taking you away from your primary thing - from your personal relationship with God, from your relationship with your spouse and children, and from caring for your own health, then it is not a good thing for you right now. These kinds of commitments should add to your life, not subtract from it. And it just wasn’t good for me at the time. So I quit. Suddenly, I had several hours free each week and I picked up steam, tackling other busy parts of my life.
I realized something had to give at work. I was very busy managing an excessive workload, working 70 hour weeks, and I was partly to blame for the mess I was in. I hadn’t established strong boundaries, which I talked about in last week’s episode titled “protect yourself and don’t apologize.” I had let the scope of my job increase without ever pushing back or saying “no” and suddenly the scope was unmanageable and there was no end in sight. I was a good employee, I got good reviews, and worked hard. So I relied on that when I went to my boss and proposed a role change for me. I went in with a plan to propose developing a new role that the company needed, that would leverage my core skill set, and that would limit the scope of my job. That first conversation didn’t work out like I had hoped. They were receptive to what I proposed but it wouldn’t be possible at that time. But I’m glad I brought it up because that conversation led to others and, eventually, they made much more drastic changes that did make my job a little more manageable. After that, I promised to be more clear about what I needed and what was NOT working for me at my job. I pushed back when they tried to increase my workload without increasing my resources. I stopped suffering in silence, and I felt empowered to raise concerns, knowing they would fall on receptive ears.
Just a quick aside here...If you’ve never tried to push back at work, you might fear consequences or feel uncertain about how your superiors will respond. But if you are a good employee who has earned the ear of people above you, then you might be surprised at what your superiors will do to keep you around. Don’t be afraid to stick up for yourself because your work might be one of the biggest areas you can cut back on busyness. We all have to work at some point in our lives but that doesn’t mean it has to suck your life out of you. The next time someone tries to get you to do more than is in your job description, it’s ok to ask a few questions, take time to consider it, and ask if something could be taken off of your plate to make room for the new workload. This isn’t always possible, but it is ok to ask. Don’t just assume you have to always say “yes.” I always tried to consider the requests of good employees who worked for me. If they were clear about what they wanted for their career, I would try to give that to them when possible. Sometimes it just wasn’t possible but I never faulted them for communicating their needs.
Back to my job. So, my job became more streamlined. I wasn’t working early mornings and late nights any more. I still quit this job a few months later to better focus on my mental health after my miscarriage. But, until then, the small reprieve from the excess busyness I was experiencing was really helpful.
After this, I was on a warpath to simplify my life. This was my way of living uncommonly. I didn’t do things just because I thought they were expected of me or because they were what everyone else did. I got really intentional about commitments and how I spent my time.
From that point forward, I didn’t just say “yes” to things, even good things, without thinking deeply about what that commitment meant. If I commit to something, am I displacing another priority? I decided that I couldn’t commit to any more volunteer or church activities until I was in the right place with myself again.
Social obligations were drastically deprioritized. I’m pretty introverted so I need to meter how I interact with people or else I become really drained. Once I got more intentional about saying “yes,” I realized that any time I had a social commitment, I never wanted to do anything else that same day. And social obligations 2 days back to back were too much for me. So I decided that I would only have a maximum of 1 social commitment per weekend and I would never schedule things back to back on the same day.
Finally, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. I decided I would only go to the gym 3 days a week. Mind you, I still went on runs during my lunch break at work most other days. But I couldn’t justify the immense amount of time spent away from home any longer. My gym was 25 minutes from my house and I often would be gone until 8:30pm. I needed to reinvest in my marriage more than I needed to be in great shape. My athletic goals weren’t more important than my marriage but, by investing in them so heavily, I was demonstrating that they were. A few months after the decision to cut down to 3 days a week, I quit that gym and moved to one a block from my house. Suddenly I could easily fit exercise into my daily routine without sacrificing time with my husband. Now, I workout entirely at home. If you all are interested in my home gym set up, let me know! You can email me at email@example.com. I’m thinking of doing a video of it.
Those were all of the things that filled my schedule. But how about the random things that filled my days? Well, I also quit social media for two years. It wasn’t fulfilling and I didn’t require social media to connect with the people I really needed to connect with. Now I’m back on social media but my use is heavily edited. Though I have a Facebook group for this podcast - called Your Uncommon Life Community - and an Instagram page, I don’t have the apps installed on my phone and don’t get notifications. So I only see things when I intentionally go and check my pages. I can’t let social media fill my brain.
A quick google search will reveal that a lot of people seem to think that time management is the solution to busyness. But busyness isn’t a time problem - you have always had 24 hours in a day. And, as I said earlier, with modern conveniences, those 24 hours should be less busy than ever. Busyness is a problem of, well, busyness. You’re doing too much stuff and not all of it is necessary. You need to streamline your life.
Simplification is the antidote to business. But simplification doesn’t just happen. You have to be intentional. If you feel like there is something you wish you could fit into your life - maybe it’s self-care, exercise, date nights, or reading - but you’re too busy, it’s time to consider where your time really goes. Does the way you spend your time reflect your priorities?
I recently embarked on a week of writing down everything I did so that I could see where my time was going. I figured that, if I wanted to make sure I was spending my time well, I needed to establish a baseline and understand how I was currently spending my time. The data would give me the truth.
I highly recommend doing this.
I thought I would find that I was wasting a ton of time on my phone. And while I could spend much less time on my phone, I rarely spent more than 20 minutes a day doing things that weren’t inherently productive or relationship-building. I was surprised to find that my main issue was self care, or lack thereof. I was spending next to no time taking care of myself beyond basic hygiene. I was always preparing meals, cleaning, writing, or doing childcare. I was very busy all day long but neglecting myself. This was something I wanted to change because, as my children age, I want them to see a mom who is healthy and who feels good.
I also learned that my average time spent on any activity was only 12 minutes but, as a mom, I don’t imagine that will change anytime soon so I’ve just accepted that as a fact of my life!
You might learn something surprising about where your time goes. What are you busy doing? There are things we fill our schedules with and then there are things we fill our days with. Schedules are things written down and planned in advance. These are things like work, doctor’s appointments, volunteer commitments, play dates, social gatherings, and church. We fill our days with everything else. Playing with the kids, hanging out with your spouse, mindless scrolling on your phone, unplanned trips to the store, and other random activities. It’s easiest to tackle the scheduled things first because you can cancel one thing and free up potential hours each week.
This is where you might have to make tough editing choices. Have you made commitments that are preventing you from focusing on your real priorities and purpose? Start now by assessing how you spend your time, compare it to your priorities, and find one thing you can cut out or scale back.
These are tough decisions that you have to make for yourself and change may come slowly. You might end up quitting or scaling back things that you consider to be good things. But if you’re too busy doing good things, then you need a break.
A controversial but real example is children’s activities. This likely happens less now because of Covid. But life will return to normal eventually and you’ll have to get really intentional about what you commit your children to. Can you be the peaceful person you need to be and focus on your priorities if you are driving children to different activities everyday? Again, you have to make this choice for yourself but it’s my understanding that children can live full lives and become successful people without going to preschool 30 minutes away, playing trumpet, swimming, and participating in 4H. I only have one small child now but I’ve already decided for the future that each child can only have one regularly scheduled commitment at a time - whether that’s music, sports, volunteer, or other. I believe I can prioritize my children without letting their various activities rule my days. Check in with me in 5 years though!
If, when you track what you do each week, you find that you have a surprising amount of time sunk into your phone or computer that can’t be called productive, then you have to find a way to replace those habits with better habits. I want to do a whole podcast on the topic of freeing your mind from digital media. But for now I’ll give a few quick tips. This will be hard because phones are surprisingly addictive. Earlier I mentioned that hit of endorphins you get when you see a new notification. So, try to break that addictive response. First, do not look at your phone when you first wake up. My friend told me she only gets to look at her phone after she reads her bible, which sounds like a great idea. Then, do not hold your phone unless you’re using it. It’s even addictive to hold your phone. It’s not your security blanket - it doesn’t have to go with you everywhere. Just set it down or put it in your purse. Next, intentionally limit your time on your phone. I went through an exercise recently where I was only allowed to check my phone for 5 minutes every hour each day. The rest of the hour, the phone was put away so I couldn’t see it and be tempted. This was really, really hard and I wasn’t entirely successful. But I’m going to try to do it again. Regularly practicing new habits to replace the old bad habits will keep your mind free of the distractions that seem to make you very busy.
Once you remove things from your plate and remove the busyness from your mind, your head will be above the weeds and you will see how you can further simplify your life. You’ll be looking for ways to do it. Then, you can consider how to really make your time reflect your priorities. Can you add in date nights with your spouse? Can you finally start tackling that big project you’ve been avoiding?
This is how you live an uncommon life. When everyone else is running around, working until they’re sick, remember that you aren’t doing anything wrong by being different. You have chosen to simplify. You are living intentionally. This is your uncommon life. Start living it.
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