The Trap of Busyness

It is 9am on a Tuesday and I am in an elevator headed to my office. The elevator holds 14 people, all breathing heavy, the cold air and the fast walk from the train. The elevator is quiet, most eyes fixed on the ever-present screens that dictate – and distract – from so much of life. The only talking is from two men in the back corner of the elevator. “Derek, how are things?” one man asks. “Busy, really busy” – is the reply.” “That’s good, better than the alternative.”

The elevator stops – the 12th floor, my floor – I get out to start my day, already sequencing the replies to the emails that came in over the night. I, too, feel busy. My kids are sick and we need to schedule a doctor’s appointment. My wife is traveling for the second time in a month and I have to grade papers from the final exam I gave last week. Our screen door, which we have long known to be a problem, broke during the last storm and the handy-man gave us a narrow window – all during work hours – for his visit. To top it off, my dog’s shots aren’t up to date and we plan to board her for the holidays. I am busy. I am reactive. Worse, I am stressed. Is it better than the alternative? What is the alternative?

We try to manage our time. We make lists, prioritize, shuffle, cancel, raincheck. We turn our phones to silent, limit screen time, we prioritize and commit to doing things different. And, yet, we feel stuck in an endless loop of answering to inboxes and invoices. We respond. We react. We just can’t get ahead. We know there must be a better way – that the endless quest to achieve ‘balance’ will soon bear fruit. We hope that our lists will get shorter and that a peaceful freedom will emerge – liberating us from ‘have-to’s’ and allowing us to spend our time focused on ‘things that matter.’ Maybe we will even make progress on that long dormant goal – the one thing we know we are supposed to be doing, but can’t seem to start or find time to indulge. We surrender, feeling that fate is not of our making, and simply wait for a day when things will calm down.

It does not have to be this way. (Source: OnBeing, 7 minutes) We have another road to choose, another path that we can travel. M. Scott Peck wrote “Until you value yourself, you will not value your time. Until you value your time, you will not do anything with it.” Could this be a starting point – a legend that helps us move from a life of purposeless busyness and into a life where our time reflects our deepest hungers and motivations? I think so.

Peck suggests we must learn to value ourselves before we can begin traveling this new road. Ugh. “No shit, Mr. M. S. Peck – I wish it were that easy! Can you give me a bit more to work with?”

Before Peck’s command becomes yet another task you have to accomplish before you feel in control of your time, let me offer a bit of a roadmap:

  • Make a list of the hats you wear in your life: Parent, child, friend, sibling, spouse, employee, individual (hobbies, interests, goals), homeowner, etc.
  • Create a rough hierarchy of the hats you wear – which roles are in the top tier, which are on the second tier, third tier?
  • Calculate what percentage of your time you dedicate to each role.
  • Analyze whether your time allocation is consistent with the values you hold. (Source: Behavioral Scientist, 6 minutes)
  • List out three things that give you energy – exercise, mediation, reading, concerts, sports, friendships. Are these present in your life?

This simple roadmap is a good starting point to understanding both where you are putting your time and whether your time is reflective of your values. Like all starting points it is not a panacea – the work of aligning your time with your values is a forever-project, a perpetual journey that is fraught with rocky terrain. It is because of this challenge – because it is so hard – that we must have a framework for matching our values with our time commitments. (Source: Inc., 5 minutes) We must have a North Star to aim for when the inevitable bumps feel like giant boulders, when our time feels anything but our own.

So let us begin by defining our values and assessing our time. And let us to commit to believing that there is something better than busy. Because the alternative to busy does not have to be boredom. The alternative to a mindless busyness can be a purposeful engagement – a freedom found only when our time and our values are working together.


OnBeing Podcast – @onbeing

Behavioral Scientist – @behscientist

Omid Safi – @ostadjaan

Ashley Whillans – @ashleywhillans