The Importance of Not Being Busy

time busy

The year before Lydia was born, I worked at a small publishing press which ran out of my boss’ home.

It was, without question, the worst year of my life.

I won’t go into everything here, but I came out of that experience having learned one important thing: I never, ever wanted to live like that man.

The word “ogre” doesn’t do justice to how absolutely miserably my boss was. His presence was toxic, shriveling, vitriolic.

He lived in the wealthiest suburban neighbourhood I’d ever seen: during lunch, I’d take walks along street after street of sprawling brick mansions on postage-stamp-sized lawns, polished by professional landscapers to utter perfection.

But my boss was a mess. His life was crammed full of responsibilities and activities. I came to the conclusion that his life was simply WAY WAY too full. He was too busy. There was no way he could keep up with everything he needed to do. He slept three hours a night, worked while eating lunch. His office was literally toppling over with stuff that needed his attention.

I didn’t want that life for myself.

I decided that I needed to make a commitment to not being busy.

I decided that I was willing to make all kinds of sacrifices to ensure I never became overly busy. I was willing to sacrifice dreams, goals, ambitions, money, status, and material possessions for the cause.

It’s the reason I currently only post twice a week on this blog, realizing that I’ll never become a “successful” blogger at this rate, though I’ve always dreamed of being a professional writer. I don’t care. I don’t want to be overly busy. My health and sanity are too important to me.

Since my time at the publishing press, I’ve continued to give more thought to the issue of busyness. I’ve watched people with packed schedules, and reflected on the lives of busy people I’ve seen throughout my life.

I’ve become more and more convinced of the importance of being not busy.

Here are just a few reasons I am committed to not being busy.

Busy people are less likely to give their time to people in need.

I once read about an experiment done at a seminary where two groups of students were instructed to give presentations. One group was given the topic of the Good Samaritan while the other was given some other topic unrelated to helping others. All of them were made to wait in one building before walking to a second building to give their presentations.

Before they made their way to the second building, half of the students were told they had plenty of time before presenting while the other half was told they needed to hurry or they  would be late. Along the path, an actor lay on the ground, looking ill and in need of help. The experimenters predicted that the students who were given the topic of the Good Samaritan would be more likely to help.

Interestingly, there was no correlation between the presentation topic and the likelihood of stopping to help. The real determinant of who helped and who didn’t was how much time they were given: of those who were told they had plenty of time, most offered some kind of help, while almost none of those who were told they needed to hurry stopped to help.

In other words, the people who were in a hurry were much less likely to help the man in need.

(I learned similar things in Psych 101 in university: busy people are less likely to offer help than people who aren’t in a hurry).

The conclusion I drew from this experiment? We need to be less busy if we want to foster compassion and generosity. We need to have the space and time to be able to actually notice the people who need our help, and the flexibility in our schedules to be able to accommodate them.

Hurried people get into more accidents.

When you’re rushing around madly from one thing to the next, you’re not able to concentrate fully on each task. Busy people tend to feel the need to multi-task, resulting in divided attention. (Eating breakfast while driving, anyone?). Being in a rush is dangerous.

Busy people tend not to sleep enough or eat well.

In Western culture, when there are too many things to do, one of the first things to get cut from the to-do list is getting enough sleep. We just don’t value sleep as much as we value accomplishments. As a result, our health and our ability to concentrate suffer.

I’ve made a personal commitment to always get at least six hours of sleep every night (though I strive for around eight); if I ever get less than that in any given night, I’ve committed myself to taking a nap during the day. Sleep is too important to my overall health and well-being. Accomplishments can wait.

Another thing that often gets the axe when people are busy is the time to sit down to a home-cooked meal. We all know the consequences of this omission: westerners are overweight and suffer from heart disease, diabetes, and ADD. So again, I’ve made regular, home-cooked meals a priority over getting other stuff done.

Hurried people yell more.

I’ve seen this too much. When parents are in a hurry, they snap at their kids. When employers are under pressure, they holler at their employees.

I don’t want to be a yelling parent. So I’m keeping my schedule as empty as possible.

Busy people are no fun to be around.

Basically, for all of the reasons above: they tend to be anxious, sleep-deprived, and irritable. Busy people have no time for relaxation and play, so they don’t understand why you should.

I don’t want to be an ogre. So I avoid over-scheduling.

Busy children have a hard time identifying their true loves and passions.

I want my children to have time to be bored — to explore, invent, imagine, and play. And they won’t be able to do those things if I fill their lives with lessons, activities, and extracurriculars. So I want to encourage a slower pace for everyone. I might enroll Lydia in one or two things as she gets older — voice lessons, maybe, or a swimming or dance, depending on her interests — but I won’t hesitate to cut back if they put a strain on our daily rhythms.

Busy families are wasteful.

When everyone is dashing from one activity to the next, no one has time to wash piles of dishes or launder loads of cloth diapers or fold stacks of cloth napkins. Disposable consumer products become essential to the busy household: paper towels, disposable baby wipes (in disposable containers), individual-sized yogurt cups, styrofoam takeout dishes . . . the list goes on.

A commitment to sustainability, then, requires a commitment to keeping an emptier schedule, where there’s room to wash, scrub, fold, and reuse.

* * *
So those are just a few reasons I’m committed to a more relaxed schedule.

Am I missing anything?

Photo by Helga Weber.

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  1. Kathleen, so much of this resonates with me. We live in a culture which encourages us to do otherwise, urging us to take on ever more in the pursuit of success, promising us that our children will suffer if they’re not kept constantly busy. In the end, those intentionally created pockets of time offer so much opportunity for their vagueness: as you said, leaving a gap for all sorts of creativity. Thanks for reminding me to be mindful of how I schedule!
    Lenae recently posted..when you surprise yourself.My Profile

  2. WE ARE SO BUSY. You have no idea. But the thing is, we are busy serving. So then what? We probably devote at least three full days a week between serving in church and outside to others. I am coming to a point where I am starting to realize that even though it’s a good thing, it may not be a good thing for us, or a good thing this week, year, etc. I love it, because our children our learning to serve, and it’s just a part of our lifestyle. I guess it’s always finding the balance. It will be interesting to see how we change when we start our schooling for the kids, and start thinking about other “kid programs” (sports, etc.) I hope we never become busy and only involved for ourselves.

  3. Oops, I forgot to mention something. I think this is the reason that while we are SO BUSY, I do not feel stressed, burned out or tired. I believe in the Sabbath. I think it is the greatest part of being a Christian. We do not shop, cook, or do anything that makes my head tired a little bit. I freeze meals to reheat. I get ready the day before, and I say “no” to any invitation I don’t really want to do. Thank you Lord for the third commandment. I can count on the fact that after church on Sunday, the whole day is free and clear to do whatever gives me rest!

    • Sandra: thanks for mentioning the Sabbath thing. I agree that it’s essential to living a healthy, whole life. God knew we’d need it! I love how seriously you take it.

  4. Adrenal fatigue is a very real consequence of a busy and stressful life. Adrenal fatigue is also one of many causes of infertility. Another consequence to having too busy a life.

    Great post by the way!

    I feel like I have as busy a life as I’ve had, but not as stressful as the past. The big difference is that now my days are busy with caring for a baby, cooking home-cooked meals, gardening produce for our table, sewing things for our home, etc. In other words, the busyness is in taking care of my family, without a lot of extras thrown in (other than church things, but I’m careful not to over-commit there)
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  5. Great post Kathleen! Speaking from someone who seems to have an addiction to busyness I think being overly committed, even to serving, can sometimes distract us from what really matters. I heard once, ‘the greatest competitor to being close with God is doing work for Him.’ Powerful words and so much truth to it. When I think of my life and what busyness has done, it has hindered me in discovering spiritual disciplines. I am an extrovert and by making myself busy for years I could never enjoy solitude, silence, etc. Now that I get to stay at home, I’ve gotten to learn these disciplines and learned to enjoy them.
    I really appreciated what you said about children not discovering their loves and passions. Its so true! How can we discover what we’re good at if we spread ourselves so thin being involved in so much?
    However, I also agree with Sandra, while my family’s life is busy – with raising two girls, being pregnant, youth pastoring at our church, big families, making steps to go organic and even more homemade – the Sabbath has been such a blessing. We covet our family time and recharge that day. And likewise, I think it helps to try to detach from work/responsibility once in a while. I appreciate so much that when my husband is home, he is home. We try not to answer the phone or texts, etc. when we’re eating dinner. We spend time as a family. Its like a mini-Sabbath those few hours we have together before bed.
    But all in all, I still need to hear this Kathleen. Lately, I wake up in the morning and think to myself, what could I do today? How can I make this day fun for my girls? What can I accomplish? While all those things are good, for me it has been making life so busy that my girls some mornings don’t want to be home anymore. And that’s my wake-up call. Thanks.

  6. Really interesting post as always. As someone who dislikes being too busy and treasures my free time, I agree with you!

    Your post made me think of two things though. The first is that people frequently make themselves busy on purpose either as an escape from something (the way people often become workaholics in response to an unhappy home life), or as a way to give themselves meaning (the martyr SAHM who insists on burdensome but ultimately unnecessary chores, because she fears otherwise no one would need her). The busyness is serving a valuable function (as a coping strategy) for them. I don’t think it’s enough to say that one shouldn’t be too busy as a result, because it doesn’t address the underlying drives which cause that choice.

    The second is that NOT being busy can be very bad for you indeed. People who retire early die younger (regardless of their state of health to start with): the longest lived are the hardest working. (see this link: Having time “for yourself” is overrated and doesn’t make people happy (a practical reason for altruism perhaps?).
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    • Thanks for the article and the interesting counter-points, Grace! I think I realized, while writing this, that my vague use of the word “busy” might cause some confusion. What I’m referring to is having so much to do that you don’t have time to eat, sleep, or nurture relationships. The article you link to, by contrast, talks about being “hard-working,” which I think is a slightly different thing. I can see how remaining engaged in meaningful work and projects as you age would be good for your health, and how prolonged boredom could be just as harmful as (or more harmful than?) prolonged and excessive busyness.

      I’d be interested to hear more about your claim that having “time for yourself” doesn’t make you happy. Again, I’m wondering if this is something slightly different from plain old “having time to sleep and eat and spend time with your family”?

      • Oh, I just mean that people are happiest when their focus is primarily on something else besides themselves (whether that is a cause or other people isn’t really material). Spending a lot of time focused exclusively on oneself tends to lead to neurosis and depression. Maybe this is why people tend to recommend “keeping busy” as a cure for heartbreak or other life disappointments?

        The happiest people in general are the altruistic (one reason perhaps that religious people tend to be happier?).
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  7. Every once-in-a while you come across someone asking you to close your eyes and picture yourself sitting at your favorite spot in the whole world. It could be your backyard, a cafe, a beach, a cozy chair in your sunroom. Usually it will be a place where you feel at peace and at rest.

    For me, this place is my in-laws cottage in the Whiteshell of Manitoba. Every time I’m there (usually a few times a year) I feel so recharged. I’m sure that it’s partially due to the natural landscape, God’s beautiful creation, but I think that it’s mainly because at the cottage everything is slow. There’s no rush, there’s no pressing timetable. Dinner can be at 5 or 6 or 7. Dishes can be washed at a slow pace, with someone washing, a few people drying and everyone talking. Fishing can take all afternoon. You can sit in the sun and read for hours and drift off to sleep when your eyes feel heavy. It’s perfect. I look forward to my time out there with much anticipation. I look forward to focusing on relationships and conversations over bon fires and hot chocolate and being “unplugged”. I need to try a bit harder to practice some ‘cottage living’ here at home.
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  8. I, too, have seen people “too busy” and long ago pledged to try to be different. It’s a struggle in a culture that prizes busy-ness, but it’s worth being counter-cultural. And as an introvert, my “busy” probably looks a whole lot less busy than someone else’s. I need my time to think and reflect and just “be” so much! Great post. I’m relatively new to reading your blog, and following you on Pinterest, and there is so much in what you post that I can relate to. Thank you!

  9. “Busy” I’ve found is a subjective term. Some people consider themselves overworked and too busy working a 20-hr a week job with little else to do, while others working full time, while raising five children, manage to juggle their time skillfully enough to carve out free quality time. The true key to avoiding being too busy, is to know your limits. Balance takes a long time to achieve (and a huge capacity for being organized). So I say to anyone who thinks they’re too busy, especially when it’s something as simple as picking up the phone to lend a kind word to a friend in need, re-assess how you manage your time. Nobody is too busy when it comes to what’s truly important in life.

    • You’re so right, Diana — “busy” is a subjective term. Other people can accomplish ten times what I can in the same amount of time and not feel winded. I’ve discovered that my limits are pretty small, but at least I know them!

  10. Lovely post….This is so counter-cultural, but something I truly want to learn to apply. I homeschool, so this is hard for me in this area, as well as life in general, because I feel like I sometimes succumb to the pressure that I only have so much time to teach them what they need to know.

  11. Hi Kathleen. I wanted to say hi and congratulate you on your blog – it is really terrific. I am happily married, my life is a living experiment of my faith, I am a CEO, have no kids and three dogs. A lot of what you write about deeply resonates with me. As a CEO I am building a company that eschews the addiction of busyness and the appearance of busyness. I wonder if we have come to equate busy with important, when in reality we are important regardless of how busy we are. I am a peculiar CEO to say the least and you often inspire me to keep going on this not-very-well-trod path. So I thought I would say hi.
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  1. […] of things I’ve read recently, the most recent of which was a blog post by Kathleen Quiring on “The Importance of Not Being Busy.”  She makes many good cases for striving to be less busy, including the fact that busy people […]

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