One of our deepest desires as humans is to matter. We want to have a purpose, make a difference in the world, and have our lives mean something.
There’s nothing wrong with this desire in itself—it’s what helps drive us to actually do things that matter. But it can also lead us down some exhausting paths if we’re not careful.
One way our desire to matter can be draining is when we combine it with the social narrative that important = busy.
Where do we get the idea that important means busy? We look around at the people society says matter—the “important people”—and we see that they’re often very busy. And, if we fail to notice that they’re busy, they’ll be sure to tell us.
And what do we do with successful people? We try to copy them. We want to be special and needed, too. But it’s hard to figure out how to be special, so sometimes we settle for at least looking like we’re special and feeling like we’re needed. And how does our society tell us we can look special and feel needed? By being busy.
So, we try to convince ourselves and others that we must be important and needed—look how busy we are! We wear our busyness as a badge. We might even worry about not being busy because we’re afraid of what that says about how much—or how little—we matter. Pretty soon, we’ve turned busyness itself into a goal.
But what happens when we value busyness for the sake of busyness?
Busyness can lead us to do a lot of things that don’t really matter
If busyness becomes a goal in itself, then almost anything we could add to our schedule would help us get there. But there are an infinite number of things you could be doing, and many of them aren’t all that valuable. So simply doing “more” doesn’t guarantee that you will do more things that are worthwhile.
Even worse, doing more unimportant things takes time, energy, and attention away from doing important things. So, by doing more, we could actually be accomplishing less of what really matters.
Here’s how Oliver Burkeman describes the tradeoff in his book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals: “[B]ecause in reality your time is finite, doing anything requires sacrifice—the sacrifice of all the other things you could have been doing with that stretch of time. If you never stop to ask yourself if the sacrifice is worth it, your days will automatically begin to fill not just with more things, but with more trivial or tedious things, because they’ve never had to clear the hurdle of being judged more important than something else. Commonly, these will be things that other people want you to do, to make their lives easier, and which you didn’t think to try to resist.”
When we add things to our lives just to add them, we don’t always add them wisely.
Busyness can lead to burnout
Our culture’s obsession with busyness can make us exhausted, stressed, and burned out. If we continually lead lives that are too busy for us to cope with, we’ll eventually outstrip our capacity to manage it all.
Of course, sometimes we can’t help being busy. If you’re caring for young children or you have a really demanding job or you lack a safety net to help you when you’re underwater, it can be hard to escape from external demands.
But, if we’re honest, we also sometimes contribute to the problem. At least some of our busyness is self-imposed because it makes us feel better about ourselves. Until it doesn’t.
Busyness can make it harder to be there for others
Busyness for the sake of busyness doesn’t just hurt us; it can also hurt our relationships. If we are overscheduling ourselves, we might not have enough quality time with others, and we might miss out on being there for them when they need us.
Being unavailable might make us feel important, but it can also make us feel lonely if it gets in the way of relationships. Even important people can feel lonely if they don’t prioritize relationships. It can be lonely at the top.
So, if we often find ourselves thinking, “I wish I could help, but I’m too busy,” then we might be too busy. We want lives that are not just full, but full of the right things.