If there’s one thing that we can all agree on in the 21st century, it’s that we’re all busy. Busyness has become a standard state of being for the vast majority of the population; some have even argued that being busy has become a status symbol. There are endless articles online such as “how to make time to see your friends when everyone is busy!”, and advice on things you can do – such as bullet journalling – to manage your time more effectively. Busyness is the way we are; the story and the rhythm of modern life.
The benefits of busyness
It’s important to tell two sides of a story, and when it comes to being busy, there are undeniable benefits. For many, busyness gives us a sense of purpose: we like feeling that there’s things we should be doing, people we should be assisting – it gives us a role in life, something that helps to connect us to the world around us.
In addition, being busy doesn’t necessarily mean endless unpleasant experiences. If you’re busy because you’re working in a job you love, socializing with a cherished friend, and spending your weekends on your favorite hobbies or collecting exciting experiences, then it’s difficult to see “busy” as anything but beneficial. You’re living, to borrow a very modern phrase, your best life, so being busy can’t be so bad, can it?
While there may be perceived benefits to being busy and keeping an active schedule, in terms of health and well-being, the issue is rather more complex, and can result in you experiencing what is referred to as chronic stress. When your body is in a constant state of stress, there can be a significant impact on your physical, emotional, and mental well-being.
Worryingly, chronic stress can often be hidden or unnoticed; it just becomes your “usual” state of being – and, given the emphasis on the importance of being busy in our culture, it’s unlikely that you will have outside indicators to help you identify the issue either.
The warning signs of chronic stress
As we touched on above, chronic stress can sometimes be very difficult to actually notice, especially if you have been focusing on being “busy” for a number of years. There are, however, a few signs that can indicate you are experiencing the issue.
- Frustration and irritability. Frustration and irritability are normal emotions that we all feel from time-to-time, but when chronic stress is present, these reactions may become disproportionate, and every minor hindrance feels like a serious setback.
- Tiredness. Chronic stress is exhausting in and of itself, even when otherwise sleeping well.
- Physical symptoms. A number of physical health issues have been associated with chronic stress, ranging from digestive issues, headaches, muscle pain, and even a higher likelihood of developing illnesses and infections.
- Self-medicating. It is not unusual for people with chronic stress to self-medicate, usually with alcohol, substances, or “comfort foods” that are high in salt or sugar.
- Appetite reduction. While some people eat more as a result of chronic stress, for others, their appetite may go in the other direction: they eat less, and their overall enjoyment of eating is reduced as well.
- Memory issues. Stress can cause memory issues, which may manifest itself literally – for example, going to a store and forgetting what was meant to be bought – or by frequently misplacing objects and needing to search for them.
- Panic responses to non-worrying situations. Many people with chronic stress will find themselves panicking when asked to do things that they would otherwise enjoy, or at least not find problematic – for example, a group of friends asking to go on a day trip would create a sense of panic and worry, even though it is a fundamentally positive request.
Managing busyness and chronic stress
If you recognize any of the symptoms above, then seeking professional help could well be the right step for you. Talking with your GP, a therapist, or visiting a substance abuse treatment center if self-medicating can help to address the underlying stress you may be experiencing, and also help you to feel like you do not have to tackle the issue alone.
In addition, lifestyle changes that focus on reducing your busyness should also be beneficial. Here are a few suggestions to keep in mind:
- Use a “10 minute rule”. One of the reasons many people begin to feel as if they are constantly busy is a need to attend to the basics of life: admin, errands, chores, and so on and so forth can begin to pile up, and it feels like your to-do list is never-ending as a result. To prevent this, instil a “do it now” rule: if you become aware of something that you need to do, and it can be done in less than 10 minutes, then do it immediately. If you anticipate it will take longer, then set it aside for a later point, but if it can be done in the moment, then do so.
- Teach yourself to say “no”. Saying “no” is one of the most positive things you can do to keep your schedule manageable and ensure that you do not become overloaded or stressed. However, saying “no” is not something that comes easy to most of us – we want to be able to help that colleague out or grab dinner with a friend, so refusing seems out of the question. Nevertheless, it has to happen in order to control busyness, so you can build the habit by deferring rather than refusing (i.e. “I can’t do that today, but how about sometime next week?”) and then as you become more comfortable with that, you should feel more confident to refuse outright.
- See self-care as something you have to make time for. Self-care is an undeniably important part of, particularly, managing chronic stress, but if you’re constantly busy, then finding the time for self-care can be very difficult – so the issue perpetuates itself. Instead, see self-care as a non-negotiable, something that is just as important as any other thing you have to do – because, ultimately, it is.
- Give yourself complete days off. Every once in awhile, give yourself a day where you have absolutely nothing to do. Buy food in advance, get all of your household chores out of the way, make absolutely no plans to socialize, and don’t even actively see the day as being dedicated to self-care – it should be 24 hours that are a complete blank canvas. When the day arrives, you can then go with your instincts, and do whatever you want to do, rather than what you have to do.
- Be cautious with “schedule management”. You may have been expecting to see tips here regarding schedule management, such as keeping a journal, using apps, and so on and so forth. However, while these measures can sometimes be beneficial, for others, they’re a problem: schedule management becomes just another thing to do, another item on the to-do list, and therefore entirely defeats the point. By all means experiment with a more rigorous approach to managing your time if you feel it is useful, but if you reach a point where it feels like you’re worrying about your schedule management, it’s gone too far. Instead, focus on reducing the amount of things you have to manage – by using some of the methods we have mentioned above – than giving yourself yet another task to deal with.
While busyness has become incredibly common, the impacts of living in a state of chronic stress can be significant. Challenging the issue head-on and finding a solution that works for you is sure to be the best choice for your long-term well-being.